“SORCERY, n. The ancient prototype and forerunner of political influence. It was, however, deemed less respectable and sometimes was punished by torture and death. Augustine Nicholas relates that a poor peasant who had been accused of sorcery was put to the torture to compel a confession. After enduring a few gentle agonies the suffering simpleton admitted his guilt, but naively asked his tormentors if it were not possible to be a sorcerer without knowing it.” – Ambrose Bierce
Let’s get ready to rumble! Tonight’s 13th Century “Dance in France” cage match before the Kings of England and France to determine who takes home the all-time heavyweight title for sorcerous skill is a battle of titans. In this corner, wearing the brown Franciscan habit is the monk with the junk, the scholar who’ll make you holler’, the spastic Scholastic, Somerset native son, and Doctor Mirabilis, Friar Roger Bacon. In the opposing corner is the thamaturge with the urge, the Teutonic Tonic, the pride of German prestidigitation, Vandermast. May the best warlock win!
I figure the introduction went something like that when polymath, scientist, and reputed wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1292 A.D.) and the continental conjurer Vandermast faced off for the amusement of aristocrats during peace negotiations. As usual, France and England were at war. Which war is not entirely clear, but we can narrow it down to the 1242 Saintonge War or the Second Barons’ War (1264–1267), which probably means Henry III was King of England and in all likelihood since the conflict was taking place on French soil, it was probably the Saintonge War, a little tussle over the accession of King Louis IX’s brother Alphonse as Count of Poitou. Henry III arrived to support Count of La Marche, Hugh de Lusignan and a few other rebellious French nobles, and was already a little miffed that Louis IX had not chosen Henry’s brother the Earl of Cornwall for the countship.
At the time, Roger Bacon was a big name in alchemy, astrology, math, linguistics, Aristotelian philosophy, and optics, not to mention the “street cred” he had as a master of the occult sciences. Bacon had impressed Henry III with a few party tricks, but kings are generally more impressed by people who can knock down castle walls, so as he went about burning and pillaging a few towns in France, he enlisted Bacon’s aid during a particularly thorny siege and it is said, “The king soon wanted friar Bacon’s services, and the latter enabled him, by his perspective and burning glasses, to take a town which he was besieging. In consequence of this success, the kings of England and France made peace, and a grand court was held, at which the German conjurer Vandermast was brought to try his skill against Bacon” (Wright, 1851, p131-132).
We’re a little sketchy on the biographical details of Vandermast, identified only as a “German conjurer” in the service of the French King’s brother. It is said Henry III treated the inhabitants of the town he had just taken with such clemency, that he earned the respect of the King’s brother, who merely called in Vandermast to perform some magic purely for Henry’s post-banquet amusement. Henry III, understanding what the nature of the entertainment was to be, quietly requested that Friar Bacon (and his colleague and student , a certain wizardly prodigy named Friar Bungay), quietly observe the demonstration.
When the banquet was over, Vandermast asked the king of England if it was so that he would choose to see the spirit of any man that had formerly lived. The king said, “Yea; above all I would see Pompey, who could brook no equal.” And Vandermast made him appear as he was attired at the battle of Pharsalia, whereat all were mightily contented (Hazlitt, 1892, p88).
Everyone was contented, that is, except for Friar Bacon. He was unimpressed. Plying his sorcerous trade, but as of yet remaining anonymous, “Bacon responded by opposing to it the shade of Julius Caesar. The apparitions fought, and Pompey was vanquished” (Frost, 1876, p45). With this little bit of magical one-upsmanship, Bacon revealed himself, and everyone agreed that Friar Bacon was the superior wizard, having put Vandermast’s apparition to shame. Vandermast demanded a rematch, and in all fairness Bacon had bushwacked him from the crowd, but Bacon had seen all he needed to see of Vandermast’s inferior wizardry, and tagged out. He turned matters over to his slightly less talented colleague Friar Bungay. That’s just cold. And he talked some trash too, saying “it is a little thing will serve to resist thee in this kind. I have here one that is my inferior (showing him Friar Bungay) try thy art with him; and if thou do put him to the worst, then will I deal with thee; but not till then.”
Friar Bungay then began to show his art; and after some turning and looking in his book, he brought up among them the Hysperian tree, which did bear golden apples; these apples were kept by a waking dragon, that lay under the tree. He, having done this, bade Vandermast find one that durst gather the fruit. Then Vandermast did raise the ghost of Hercules, in his habit that he wore when he was living; and with his club on his shoulder. “Here is one,” said Vandermast,” that shall gather fruit from this tree: this is Hercules, that in his life time gathered of this fruit, and made the dragon crouch; and now again shall he gather it in spite of opposition.” As Hercules was going to pluck the fruit, Friar Bacon held up his wand; at which Hercules stayed, and seemed fearful. Vandermast bade him for to gather of the fruit, or else he would torment him. Hercules was more fearful, and said, “I cannot, nor I dare not; for great Bacon stands, whose charms are far more powerful than thine; I must obey him, Vandermast.” Hereat, Vandermast cursed Hercules, and threatened him: but Friar Bacon laughed; and bade him not to chafe himself, ere that his journey was ended. “For seeing,” said he, “that Hercules will do nothing at your command; I will have him do you some service, at mine.” With that, he bade Hercules carry him home into Germany. The spirit obeyed him, and took Vandermast on his back, and went away with him in all their sights. “Hold, Friar,” cried the ambassador, “I will not lose Vandermast for half my land!” “Content yourself, my Lord,” answered Friar Bacon, “I have but sent him home to see his wife; and ere long he may return.” The King of England thanked Friar Bacon, and forced some gifts on him for his services that he had done for him: for Friar Bacon did so little respect money, that he never would take any of the King (Thoms, 1846, p106-107).
Vandermast, having been soundly bested, later contracted a hitman to go after Bacon, who avoided the assassination attempt handily, but a later magical duel between Friar Bungay and Vandermast would sadly result in both of their deaths. This so saddened Bacon that it is said “he became melancholy, and at length he burnt his books of magic, distributed his wealth among poor scholars and others, and became an anchorite” (Spence, 1920, p62). The whole episode would be immortalized in the most significant Elizabethan comedy written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Robert Greene (1558-1592) called The Honorable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
Wizarding is a competitive gig. It’s a pretty small fraternity of those who successfully consort with dark forces and live to tell about it, thus one hopes to see all that necromancy and conjuration at least result in the respect of one’s peers and some worldly prestige. Sadly, there is always somebody better out there waiting to steal the spotlight. We’ll never know whether Vandermast was actually a skilled sorcerer. All we know is that Bacon opened up a can of “whoop ass” on him. As poet William C. Bryant said, “Winning isn’t everything, but it beats anything in second place”.
Adams, W. H. Davenport 1828-1891. Witch, Warlock, And Magician: Historical Sketches of Magic And Witchcraft In England And Scotland. New York: J. W. Bouton, 1889.
Frost, Thomas, 1821-1908. The Lives of the Conjurors. London: Tinsley, 1876.
Hazlitt, William Carew, 1834-1913. Tales And Legends of National Origin Or Widely Current In England From Early Times.. London: S. Sonninschein, 1892.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. An Encyclopædia of Occultism: a Compendium of Information On the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism And Mysticism. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1920.
Thoms, William John, 1803-1885. Gammer Gurton’s Famous Histories: of Sir Guy of Warwick, Sir Bevis of Hampton, Tom Hickathrift, Friar Bacon, Robin Hood, And the King And the Cobbler. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 161 Broadway, 1846.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery And Magic; From the Most Authentic Sources. London: R. Bentley, 1851.