Benedykt Chmielowski’s Nowe Ateny (The New Athens) is one of the stranger books I’ve stumbled across in my research. Printed in four volumes between 1745 and 1746 in Lwów, Poland, it resembles medieval bestiaries and other compendia of natural philosophy from the likes of Isidore of Seville than it does any of the vernacular encyclopaedias coming out of England and France at around the same time. Organized in scattershot fashion, more of a compilation of various anecdotes rather than a cohesive set of descriptions, The New Athens freely mixed together current scientific knowledge with folklore and the occult, offering us a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual atmosphere in the Polish popular audience before the dawn of the Enlightenment. If it reads like a work three centuries too late for Europe’s elite, who were busy applying a systematically more rational approach to the world, it also speaks to a continuing desire for marvels among readers and a keen curiosity on the part of the author, who seemed reluctant to rule out anything. The same human-like creatures who populate The Travels of Sir John Mandeville get their own entries here, and medieval fascination with the cynocephali, the dog-headed humans, remained alive and well in at least one encyclopaedist from the eighteenth century.
Chmielowski, a Jesuit teacher at a seminary, wrote to entertain and inspire, and his work is invaluable as it records many popular beliefs among the Polish middle class and peasantry that would otherwise be lost. The New Athens gives us some insight into witchcraft beliefs outside of demonological treatises and courtrooms, for instance. But the free mixture of citations from an impressive list of classical, medieval and early modern sources equally with legends and folklore produces something with a strange sense of its own: a complete magical universe filled with wondrous things. The New Athens was a collection of curiosities, and we should be weary of using Chmielowski’s often-humorous glosses as a blanket indication of backwardness in scientific and natural knowledge in Eastern Europe during the late Baroque.
This brings me, of course, to dragons, which Chmielowski describes at length in the entry immediately following Basilisks. Dragons are of serpent stock, and hide themselves as snakes would until they reach sufficient size, upon which time they grow wings—not of feathers, but of skin, like a bat. A catalogue of just about every mention of dragons in classical and medieval sources takes up the majority of the entry, ending with a 1588 sighting. We learn that the largest dragons come from the area around the Jordan River (so large, in fact, that they could devour a horse and rider in one gulp!), though in Africa “there hatched a dragon so big that King Attila and his entire army fought with it…and put the beast to rest; its skin, sent to Rome, was 120 feet in height.” However, such actions were not always necessary, since “one can appease a dragon, so that it will not harm men.” The legend of the Wawel dragon from Kraków receives some attention, particularly how it was dispatched—by stuffing a lamb full of sulphur and leaving it outside the dragon’s cave. Upon eating the lamb, the dragon became so incredibly thirsty it drank from the Vistula river until, naturally, its stomach exploded. Lest we show some scepticism towards such stories, Chmielowski tells us in another section of The New Athens, “surely dragons exist; when I visited Radziwiłł’s castle I myself held a dragon’s rib that was bigger than a sabre.” The most delightful aspect of this entry, however, are the illustrations, and even non-Polish speakers will likely enjoy the engravings accompanying the text as much as I have:
Diderot this is certainly not. Chmielowski’s work would not look out of place beside, say, Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis, a bizarre treatise on the mechanical arts dating from the fifteenth century. For the eighteenth century, however, The New Athens is rather unique, and a whole lot of fun for historians reading it today.
The entirety of The New Athens is available online. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any English translations.