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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.

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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