Then a key turns in the lock. Slowly the massive door creaks open, and in the blinding light is the silhouette of the consul of the city.
“All right, men,” he says. “There’s a basilisk in an old cellar, and it needs to come out. In exchange for a full pardon, who wants to put on the mirror suit and go down after it?”
One of the men volunteers.
The basilisk or cockatrice (the two terms had become synonymous by the 1600s) was a known fact of natural history, and now you can be well informed on all matters to do with basilisks, because Dr. Boli has taken the trouble to transcribe a learned treatise on the subject by George Caspard Kirchmayer, one of those wonderful old naturalists who studied all of nature without setting foot in the grubby outdoors. “To deny the existence of the basilisk is to carp at the evidence of men’s eyes and their experiences in many different places,” says Kirchmayer. However, he is not such a fool as to believe in those old wives’ tales about its killing men with a glance. No silly mirror suits for him. They wouldn’t do him a bit of good: the basilisk could kill him with its breath.
This translation of Kirchmeyer’s learned treatise is by Edmund Goldsmid, a Scottish bibliophile who published a number of translations of old Latin treatises in very limited editions. Unfortunately he died young; otherwise he might have left us English versions of much more of that “lost continent of literature,” as James Hankins called the neo-Latin world. Mr. Goldsmid’s notes are worth reading in themselves: they introduce us to many of the other characters in the scholarship of the 1500s and 1600s. It is remarkable how many of them died of stubbornness. “Having convinced himself that one could not catch the plague at 60 years of age, he took no precautions, and died of that disease in 1596.” “Cardanus…starved himself to death in 1576, to accomplish his own prophecy that he would not live beyond the age of seventy-five.”
You can read Kirchmayer on Basilisks at the Argosy of Pure Delight, where we present it in mobile-friendly and Web-friendly form. You can also see the original page images of Edmund Gosmid’s translation in the Internet Archive; you may notice that, in his transcription, Dr. Boli has silently corrected a number of printing errors in Goldsmid’s edition—and doubtless introduced some new ones, because that always happens.