Strictly speaking, the full title is A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby by Joe Moshenska.
So who was this man, and when did he live? And what’s this stain?
Actually, I first came across him when reading Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, in which the hero, Roberto, encounters a travelling Englishman named d’Igby, who is the son of Everard Digby, who was hanged, drawn. and quartered for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. As part of the plot of the Eco book, Roberto encounters The Powder of Sympathy (of which more later), which is introduced to him by d’Igby. Eco makes a play on the powders that the family have been connected with: gunpowder, and this sympathetic powder.
I had always believed this d’Igby to be a fictional character, so I was quite surprised to find this book in the library and immediately borrowed it.
Most clearly, the “stain in the blood” refers to Kenelm’s ancestry – he was the son of a convicted and educated traitor, who had nonetheless elicited sympathy from the audience at his execution. He was a Catholic in an age when being Catholic was a career-limiting move,
(the following is a highly abbreviated account of his life as related in the book)
Falling in love with the slightly older daughter of a neighbour as a teenager, he determined to make his way in the world following his time at Oxford, and accordingly took himself off to Europe, while pining for his beloved Venetia. He spoke several languages fluently, was well versed in philosophy and science, and returned to marry his childhood sweetheart. Soon after the birth of their first two sons, he obtained a letter of marque from the King (Charles I, with whom he was personally acquiainted) to plunder the Mediterranean, which he did with considerable success, becoming the commodore of a small fleet that attacked and robbed several ships of their cargoes, while Digby explored and wondered at the rich variety of people and society that he encountered
He was opposed by the Duke of Buckingham, a favourite (lover?) of James I and a bosom companion of Charles I. Kenelm survived this opposition, largely through intelligent use of bribery, and even managed to convince the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, of his friendship.
He was also friends with some of the most contradictory figures of his age: Archbishop Laud, Ben Jonson, Thomas Hobbes, the painter Van Dyck, and other members of the Royal Society (he was also a member). All in all, a man who tried to be everything in order to wipe out the stain, and actually succeeded quite well at it.
The book is quite readable, but stops halfway through his life and then jumps to the plague year (1665) when he died. Apparently there is a wealth of other material on his later years that could be written, but this book concentrates on the early part of his life.
The Powder of Sympathy
In the 17th century, magnetism was being recognised as a force, and the idea of force at a distance was gaining momentum.
The Powder of Sympathy, whose properties were explained to Digby (according to his fantastical semi-autobiography Loose Fantasies) by an Indian Brahmin whom he met on a sea voyage. In fact, it may well have been an Italian Capuchin monk.
The idea was that rather than treating a wound, one treated the weapon which had caused the wound, or some object connected with the wound, and the sympathy that existed between the object and the wound would cause the sufferer to experience the changing properties of the Powder sprinkled on the wound. Here’s an account of how Digby used this powder.
He decided to try and make his mark upon the learned men of the nation, and further impress the King and Prince [of England], by concocting some of the sympathetic powder whose secret he had acquired in Florence. The opportunity arose in 1624 when his friend James Howell, who had made his own way back from Madrid not long after Kenelm, tried to intervene to stop a duel and had his hand badly sliced through ‘the Nerves, and Muscles, and Tendons’. Kenelm came to assist: he sent for the garter on which Howell’s hand had first bled, and, without his friend realising, he dipped it into a basin into which he had secretly dissolved his powder. As soon as he did so, Howell, ‘who stood talking with a Gentleman in a corner of my Chamber, not regarding at all what I was doing . . . started suddenly, as if he had found some strange alteration in himself’. When questioned, he announced, ‘I feel no more pain; methinks that a pleasing kind of freshnesse, as it were a wet cold Napkin, did spread over my hand.’ When Kenelm removed the garter from the water after dinner and dried it before the fire, though, ‘Mr Howells servant came running, and told me, that his Master felt as much burning as ever he had done, if not more, for the heat was such, as if his hand were ‘twixt coals and fire. Kenelm removed the garter, treated it again with the powder, and the wound was fully healed in six days.
Umberto Eco moves this incident to France, where his hero observes it, but it is essentially the same.