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Unicorns and the Northwest Passage

In 1576, Humphry Gilbert published A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia to drum up the political and economic support he needed to raise a venture from England to China via the yet-to-be-discovered Northwest Passage.

A portion of Gilbert’s book explored an argument about which was the best way to get to China – by the Northeast Passage over Russia, or the Northwest Passage over America. Gilbert recounts a debate he had on the subject with a man he refused to name – which was probably Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the Muscovy Company and a proponent of the Northeast Passage.

Gilbert Portrait
Portrait of Humphrey Gilbert

According to Gilbert, the argument made by the unnamed proponent (Jenkinson) for the Northeast Passage rested on three points. The second of these points involved a unicorn horn.

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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:

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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 Clariodus

Unicorn at Hampton Court Palace
Unicorn at Hampton Court Palace

Clariodus: A Metrical Romance is a peculiar poem. The author is unknown and the poem was probably based on the French work entitled Cleriadus et Meliadice from c. 1440. The poem is Scottish but written in English. It is full of medieval themes but written after the medieval period sometime in the early sixteenth century. The poem is full of medieval motifs including courtly love, tournaments, fulfilling vows, magical woods, righting wrongs, and fighting pagans.

A unicorn made an appearance in the poem:

Foure syndrie liquoris ran with royaltie, 
From foure beistis in foure nuiks of the hall, 
Whilke was ane sight richt fair and triumphall: 
Ane was ane lyoun, right awfull and terribill, 
At quhois gaiping mouth, full horibill, 
Rane myghtie wyne, right plesant, cleir, and cauld; 
It was ane gude sight him for to behald: 
The uther was ane lustie unicorne, 
Eyne Ipocras did ryn out at his horne: 
The thride ane tyger was, felloun and stout, 
Rose water fearcelie at his nose ran out: 
The fourte ane marmaide was, with traces bright, 
At both her papis mylke ran out on height.