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‘Fiery Mountains’: volcanoes in Sir Thomas Pope Blount’s ‘Natural History’, 1693 17 January 2008

Posted by admin in history of volcanology, volcano culture, volcanological works, volcanology.
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The English author and essayist Thomas Pope Blount (1649-97) published A Natural History: Containing Many not Common Observations: Extracted out of the best Modern Writers, in 1693. As its subtitles suggest, this was a work of synthesis rather than direct and original observation. Blount was a tireless reader and accumulator of other writers’ wisdom – his most notable work, Censura celebrorum authorum (1690), was a collection of things famous authors had said about each other – and in this work he brings together observations from a wide range of contemporary authorities, accommodating them in an overall argument which reflects a belief in the divine authorship of the universe. As he writes in his preface, ‘Every Flower of the Field, every Fibre of a Plant, every Particle of an Insect, carries with it the Impress of its Maker, and can (if duly consider’d) read us Lectures of Ethicks or Divinity’. Among the aspects of natural history that Blount considers are ‘VULCANO’s, or SUBTERRANEAN FIRES’ (pp. 388-402; further page references appear in brackets below).

Blount reflects the common view of his era, prominent in discussion of volcanoes from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth, that volcanism is produced by the combustion of minerals beneath the surface of the earth.

There are Subterraneous Cavities, which they call VOLCANO’s, or Fiery Mountains; that belch out Flames, Smoke and Ashes, and sometimes great Stones and broken Rocks, and Lumps of Earth, or some Metallick mixture; and throw them to an incredible distance by the force of the Eruption. These argue great vacuities in the Bowels of the Earth, and Magazines of Combustible Matter treasur’d up in them. And as the Exhalations within these places must be copious, so they must lie in long Mines or Trains to do such great Execution, and to last so long. (388-9)

He draws on the writings of Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), whose Telluris Theoria Sacra (The Sacred History of the Earth) was published in 1681 and depicted the earth pierced and hollowed out by inner cavities, many of which were at times filled with fire. The effects of these ‘Magazines of Fire’ can be seen across the globe:

… throughout all Regions and Countries, in the West-Indies and in the East, in the Northern and Southern parts of the Earth, there are some of these VOLCANO’s, which are sensible evidences that the Earth is incompact and full of Caverns; besides, the roarings and bellowings that use to be heard before an Eruption of these VOLCANO’s, argue some dreadful hollowness in the belly or under the Roots of the Mountain, where the Exhalations struggle before they can break their Prison. (393-4)

Burnet, a clergyman, saw the wrinkled, uneven surface of the earth as evidence of the Fall of humanity from the pristine innocence of the Garden of Eden, and the presence of volcanoes as a sign that the world was filled with fires which would eventually destroy the entire planet. Blount argued from the evidence of Vesuvius and Etna that the power of volcanic action was declining over time, observing that the ‘Eruptions of VESUVIUS seem to be more frequent and less violent of late’ (388), and that in Etna’s case ‘these Eruptions of Fire are not now so ordinary as formerly; the matter which gave Fuel to it, being wasted by continual Burnings’ (397), which would not support Burnet’s view. Indeed, Blount does not pursue Burnet’s cosmogeny to its catastrophic conclusion: he is more concerned with the practical questions of why volcanoes are there and how they work, and in particular ‘what can be the Fuel of so lasting a Burning, that hath calcin’d so much matter, and spew’d out such prodigious quantities’ (395). Along with many of his contemporaries, influenced by the heritage of alchemical experimentation, he believed that sulphur played a vital role in feeding the fires of volcanic activity:

It is plain there are vast Veins of SULPHUR all along in this Soil, and it seems in this Mountain they run along through some Mines and Rocks, and as their slow Consumption, produceth a perpetual Smoke, so when the Air within is so much ratified that it must open it self, it throws up those Masses of Mettle [i.e. metal] and Rock that shut it in; but how this Fire draws in Air to nourish its Flame, is not so easily apprehended; unless there is either a Conveyance of Air under Ground, by some undiscover’d Vacuity; or a more insensible transmission of Air, through the Pores of the Earth. (395)

Such vast subterranean fires would demand a great supply of air, and Blount again reflects the wisdom of his time (and draws on theories that had their origin in Ancient Greece) in suggesting that powerful winds blow constantly through cavities and vacancies in the earth. These imprisoned winds sustain the processes of underground combustion and, by forcing openings in the rock itself, producing vents through which the fires gain access to the surface: ‘the Subterranean Winds kindle and eject these Fires, and open the mass of Earth, under which they are shut up’ (399).

Blount dismisses the notion that these underground fires are ignited by chance events such as lightning strikes and sparks from ‘one Stone striking another’ (399), favouring instead the argument of Dr Martin Lyster, put forward in a paper on ‘Of the Nature of Earth-quakes’ in the Philosophical Transactions (1683), that combustion is innate to the substances concerned:

That Learned Physician, and most Sagacious Inquirer into Nature, Dr. Martin Lyster, saith, That amongst Minerals, the Pyrites, both in Gross and in Vapour, is actually of one accord fired. He instances the VULCANO’s all the World over for a proof of it; for, saith he, we with great probability believe them to be Mountains made up in great part of Pyrites (the Breath whereof is SULPHUR Ex tota Substantia,) by the qualities of SULPHUR thence Sublimed, and the Application of the Load-Stone to the Ejected Cinder. (400-1).

Taking up Lyster’s argument that ‘these VULCANO’s were naturally kindled of themselves, at or near the Creation’, Blount conveys the notion that volcanoes are not inharmonious intrusions into the world but are a natural expression of the combination of elements brought together in a divinely-ordered universe: ‘it seems to me, saith the Doctor [Lyster], as natural to have actual Fire in the Terrestrial World from the Creation, as to have Sea and Water‘ (401-2).

Volcanoes posed a problem to those who saw the universe as the harmonious and beautiful creation of a beneficent deity: they appeared ugly, destructive, violent and purposeless. Blount ends his discussion of volcanoes by suggesting that they can be accommodated as an aspect of an overall balance of fundamental elements. They are a part of the divinely-created fabric of the universe.

Sir Thomas Pope Blount, Bt., A Natural History: Containing Many not Common Observations: Extracted out of the best Modern Writers (London: R. Bentley, 1693).

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James Little: a rector writes on volcanoes, 1820 5 December 2007

Posted by admin in history of volcanology, Tambora, volcanological works, volcanology.
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In 1820 the Rev James Little, rector of the Irish parish of Lackan, published Conjectures on the Physical Causes of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, in which it is proposed to explain these Phœnomena on a New Hypothesis, of the Structure of the Earth, and of the Existence of an Internal Atmosphere communicating with ours (references to the pages of this work are given in brackets below). As is so often the case with works of this period, the subtitle gives away the main argument: Little was an advocate of theory of the hollow Earth, and believed that fire constantly rushed through vast empty spaces beneath the Earth’s surface, undermining it (leading to earthquakes) and occasionally breaking through to the atmosphere above (producing volcanoes).

Little was convinced that his era was characterized by an ‘unusual frequency of Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions’ (4), an unusual perception at a time when most geologists held that these phenomena had been more marked in the past than in the present. He refers to ‘the more rainy and inclement seasons, especially of the present (1817) subsequent to them’ (4), suggesting that he may have been thinking in particular of the recent cataclysmic eruption of Tambora in 1815 and its marked effects upon global climate; and indeed he describes the eruption of ‘Tamboro’ in some detail (23-5).

Little’s theory of the interior structure of the Earth does not depend upon the entire globe being hollow, but envisages a highly complex system of interconnected cavities. He writes that ‘a considerable part, if not almost the whole of the surface of this globe, both land and water, is undermined with cavities, set on fire, scattered irregularly underneath its surface’ (53). His conception of this network of cavities is almost architectural, and echoes contemporary notions of the sublime:

… this surface resting on the solid parts variously posited; like a tract of Bridges ramified in every direction, and formed of irregular arches, varying in span, in breadth, and in order of position; resting on their abutments; and some of them of the fearful dimensions of a thousand miles square, sometimes violently shaken throughout their whole extent, and (as we might from any thing except our confidence in the Architect, justly apprehend,) in danger from this construction, of one day falling down, far beneath the ocean, into a warmer bed than appertains to it. (53)

As the mention of the beneficent ‘Architect’ above underlines, Little was a clergyman, and his discussion of volcanic activity is naturally informed by his Christian standpoint. He is concerned, as were many of his contemporaries, to find an interpretation of such destructive phenomena consistent with the idea of a loving God, arguing that the earth tremors that always accompany volcanic eruptions serve as a warning mechanism:

I recite chiefly the accounts of the eruptions of volcanoes, because these are always attended by the shocks of Earthquakes, more or less violent … both arise from the same cause, and that the former are the preservative appointed by the author of nature, against the destructive effects of the latter. (5)

His attempts to argue through this conviction lead him to a recognition that the apparently unstable structure of the Earth’s surface hardly seems to possess the harmonious and enduring character of divine creation: ‘I confess I deem more reverendly of the beauty and solidity of the architecture of the Deity, than to suppose that such a structure came from his Hands’ (53). Yet his conviction that God has built warning mechanisms into His creation, and that it is the duty of humanity to understand and heed those warnings, reconciles the apparent contradiction and enables Little to point a moral with wider application: ‘However, He may contrive to warn us mortals, that we rest only on His unknown foundations, which will fail partially or totally when He pleases, but not from their own instability’ (53).

As for the ‘fires’ of volcanism, Little rejects the theory that they are ‘produced by combustible minerals existing in veins and caverns in the bowels of the earth and spontaneously igniting and exploding’ (39), but does not really make any attempt to put forward a theory of his own, taking refuge in a theological explanation of the presence of fire beneath the earth’s surface:

… we must suppose the existence of subterraneous fire, which so often and in so many places makes its terrific appearance; and it must either be casually kindled in separate vaults … or permanently undispersed and lining the concave surface of the shell of the globe. I confess the latter to be my opinion, and that the more just and philosophical description of it is that given by the sublime prophet Isaiah; ‘that Tophet is ordained of old, yea for the King is it prepared; he hath made it deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone doth kindle it.’ Isaiah 33.33. (61)

Little’s work is a mixture of scientific observation and religious explanation. He had an interest in scientific matters, having published A Description of a Reflecting Level or an Artificial Horizon for taking Altitudes of the Celestial Bodies, &c. in 1800, and was well-read in accounts of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, noting that earth tremors always precede the latter (5), and that the eruptions of volcanoes such as Vesuvius tend to follow settled sequences of events (18). He also notes ‘the elevation of the surface of that region where the shock is to be’ in the case of many earthquakes (93). In interpreting the ‘fires’ of volcanism as a form of combustion he was representative of the scientific orthodoxy of his era. When he comes to explain these phenomena, however, he writes as a Christian minister, seeking messages of divine benevolence even in the destruction of earthquakes and volcanoes, and finding hellfire rushing through the caverns of the underworld.

The Rev. James Little, Conjectures on the Physical Causes of Earthquakes and Volcanoes, in which it is proposed to explain these Phœnomena on a New Hypothesis, of the Structure of the Earth, and of the Existence of an Internal Atmosphere communicating with ours (Dublin: James Byrn, 1820).

The Volcanism Blog


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