Doubting Unicorns and their Horns

Thomas Browne was an English physician and author. In 1646, he wrote a book entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica which he subtitled Inquiries in Vulgar and Common Errors where he tackled topics ranging from nature, geography, and the universe. These topics were discussed over the course of six books within the larger Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Book Three titled “Of divers popular and received Tenets concerning Animals, which examined prove either false or dubious” had a chapter called “Of Vnicornes hornes.” Using both ancient and contemporary texts, common sense, and empirical evidence, Browne laid out a seven-point argument against the medical efficacy of unicorn horn and the existence of unicorns.

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A surgeon’s advice for what to do when you have a patient to treat but you’re fresh out of unicorn horn.

John Woodall was a surgeon who held a variety of jobs including stocking the medical chests of the ships bound in the service of the East India Company, the army, and the navy. In addition to these jobs, he also was the Surgeon General of the East India

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The Surgeon’s Mate title page

Company, a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and master of the Barber-Surgeons Company. Woodall is best remembered for publishing a description and treatment for scurvy in a book entitled The Surgeon’s Mate in 1617. The book was reprinted in 1635 and 1655.

It was also in The Surgeon’s Mate that Woodall described an alternative to use if unicorn horn (alicorn) was not available. In the section entitled “Of the vertues and vses of sundry Cordiall Waters,” the entry for Cornu cervi or harts horn read: Read more

Of the Unicorns of the Temple of Mecca


Pomet Histoire genderal des drouges 1694 unicorn licorne

This account arrived to me through a circuitous route –  and it may be best to trace to the path of the account’s publication to contextualize the relation of how unicorns were held at Mecca in 1503.

Ludovico di Varthema (1470-1517) was an Italian who claimed to have traveled across parts of Africa and Asia including Somalia, Egypt, Yemen, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. He wrote about his travels and published them in 1510 in a book called The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna (Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema Bolognese). The book was reprinted several times and eventually translated into other languages.

A Spaniard named Peter Martyr d’Anghiera aka Peter Martyr collected travel narratives and accounts and published them over the course of several years. Eventually all of them were collected together and published as one large edition entitled De orbe novo decades. In 1555, Richard Eden translated and published Peter Martyr in a book entitled The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India. In 1577, Richard Willes reprinted Eden’s version of Decades and added some supplementary travel narratives and called the work The history of trauayle in the VVest and East Indies, and other countreys lying eyther way. It was in Willes’ 1577 book that I found the account of the unicorns of the Temple of Mecca.
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The Unicorn in Laurence Andrew’s The Noble Lyfe / Hortus Sanitatis

Cover of Laurence Andrew The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes serpentys fowles and fishes that be most knoweu

Laurence Andrew (fl. 1510-1537) was a printer and translator active in Antwerp. Not much is known about him and many of the works he translated and/or printed have not survived into present day.

However, one book that did survive was The noble lyfe a[nd] natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles a[nd] fishes [that] be moste knoweu published in Antwerp. The date of publication is unknown, but historians of the book regularly date the book to 1527. The noble lyfe is a translation of portions of the Hortus Sanitatis, a natural history published in Germany in 1485.

The entry for the unicorn read:
“Monocheron yt is a vnicorne for it hath but one horne standinge in his forhede & it is so sharp yt what so euer it touchet wt his horn it tereth it a sonder or rõneth it thrugh / & it is a beste wt iiij. fete feringe nothere yron nor stele / & it feghteth oftentymes agaynst ye oliphant & thursteth hym in ye beli wt his sharpe horne & so ouercõmeth hym.”

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