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POPULAR superstitions may be ranked among Vulgar Errors, and might have been included under that head ; but, for greater distinction, I shall class those mistaken notions which either do now, or did formerly, circulate among the common people, under a separate article. •
The wonderful discoveries of science in the last century have greatly augmented the list of Vulgar Errors, by proving many facts, which even the learned of a former age believed true, entirely unfounded. In the Works of Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1686, there is an Inquiry into Common and Vulgar Errors, in which the writer displays great learning and ingenuity; yet, so partial is the enlightenment of the author, that be entertains the popular notion that lights burn blue in the presence of apparitions, and gravely attempts to explain the fact on philosophical principles! What a host of learned errors bave been put to flight, almost in the memory of the present age, in the two sciences of chemistry and political economy? It was formerly believed that crystals were only ice or snow strongly congealed ; that the flesh of the peacock never putrefied; that water was an elementary fluid, and rose in the common pump from the horror Nature had of a vacuum. The truths of political economy are still too much contested for us to be able to determine the facts we ought to include among the errors of that science ; but I think we may reckon as such all that relate to the bounties and prohibitions of the commercial system, the influence of rent, tithe, and wages on the prices of commodities; and the effect of taxation on public happiness. In politics, too, one might enumerate a long list of errors which were formerly current, but which are now struggling for existence--such as, that the poor-rate originated in the 43rd of Elizabeth ; that the land-tax and funding system commenced at the Revolution in 1688; that Mr. Pitt was the author of the sinking fund; that the miraculous powers of borrowed money and compound interest would liquidate the national debt; and that the French Revolution was caused by the extravagant writings of Rousseau, Helvetius, and a few other theorists. It is not, however, intended in this place to give an account of the “ follies of the wise," but of the ignorant, so as to complete the picture of the intelligence and manners of an antecedent state of society.
LEGAL ERRORS. The Hon. DaInes BARRINGTON, in his Observations on the Statutes, observes, that there is a general vulgar error that it is not lawful to go about with a dark lantern; all popular, errors, he adds, have some foundation, and the regulation in the reign of Edward, that no one should appear in the streets without a light, was probably the occasion of this.
It is an error that a surgeon or butcher may be challenged as jurors, from the supposed cruelty of their business.
It is erroneously supposed to be penal to open a coal-mine, or to kill a crow within five miles of London: this last proba. bly took its rise from a statute of Henry VII. probibiting the use of a cross-bow.
It is an error that the body of a debtor may be taken in execution after his death; which, however, was practised in Prussia before Frederic the Second abolished' it by the Code Frederique.
It is an error that the king signs the death-warrant, as it is called, for the execution of a criminal; as also, that there is a statute which obliges the owners of asses to crop their ears, lest the length of them should frighten the horses they meet on the road.
It is a mistaken notion that a woman's marrying a man under the gallows will save him from execution. This, probably, arose from the wife having brought an appeal against the murderer of her husband; who, afterwards repenting the prosecution of her lorer, not only forgave the offence, bat was willing to marry the appellee.
It is a common error that those born at sea belong to Stepney parish. It is an error too, that when a man desires to marry a woman who is in debt, if he take her from the hands of the minister, clothed only in her chemise, that he will not be liable to ber engagements.
* For a person to disinherit his son, it is not necessary he should leave him a shilling in his will.
Lastly, it is an error that any one inay be put into the Crown Office for no cause whatever, or the most trilling injury.
ERRORS IN NATURAL HISTORY. The stories that there is but one phenix in the world, which after many hundred years burns herself, and from her ashes rises another; that the pelican pierces her breast with her beak, to draw blood for her young; that the cameleon lives only upon air ; of the bird of paradise, and of the unicorn ; are all fabulous.
It is an error, that the scorpion stings itself when surrounded by fire, and that music has power over persons bitten by it; that the mole has no eyes, nor elephant knees ; that the hedge-hog is a mischievous animal, particularly that he sucks cows when they are asleep, and causes their teats to be sore.
It is said the porcupine shoots out its quills for annoying its enemy, whereas it only sheds them annually, as other feathered animals do. The jackall is commonly called the lion's provider, but it has no connexion with the lion. The bite of the spider is not venomous-it is found too in Ireland plentifully -has no dislike to fixing its web on Irish oak, and has no particular aversion to a toad.
The ass was vulgarly thought to have had a cross on its back ever since Cbrist rode on one of those animals. It was also believed the haddock had the mark of St. Peter's thumb, ever since St. Peter took the tribute penny out of a fish of that species.
It was anciently believed, says Brand, that the barnacle, a common shell-fish, which is found sticking on the bottom of ships, would, when broken off, become a species of goose. Nor is it less an error that bears form their cubs by licking them into shape; or that slorks will only live in republics and free states.
'" The Rose of Jericho," which was feigned to flourish every year about Christmas Eve, is famous in the annals of credulity: but, like the no less celebrated “ Glastonbury Thorn," is only a monkish imposture.
It is commonly believed, and even proverbial, that puppies see in nine days, but the fact is, they do not see till the twelfth or fourteenth.
PICTORIAL ERRORS. The common practice of exhibiting St. George killing a dragon, with a king's daughter standing by, is a vulgar error for which there is no authority: it is eveu doubtful whether such a personage ever existed.
That the forbidden fruit, mentioned in Genesis, was an apple, is generally believed, confirmed by tradition, perpetuated by writing, verses, and pictures, but without authority.
The umbilical cord is known to appertain only to the fætus; and as Adam and Eve never were in that state, Sir Thomas Browne notices the vulgar error of exhibiting them in pictures with navels.
The same writer also remarks, the common practice of picturing Moses with horns on his head, for which there is no authority-and it does not appear he was ever married.
ERRORS ON MAN. It was formerly believed, (Browne's Works, folio, p. 66,) that Jews stink naturally ; but this is a prejudice on a par with Mr. Cobbett's notion, that Negroes do not smell like other. men. It is also an error, with respect to the latter, that they are not a part of the human race, which Fovargue calls a “Creolian error;" and that they are the descendants of Cain, bearing his mark.
It is commonly believed, that men float on the ninth day, after submersion in the water; but the time is uncertain, and depends on the habit of body: fat men undergo a chemical change much sooner than lean men, and consequently float sooner. The analogy does not hold, that men naturally swim like other animals; the motion of animals in the water is the same as on land; but men do not swim as they walk. It is more correct that women, when drowned, lay prostrate in the water, and men supine ; it arises from the different conformation of the two sexes.
That a man has one rib less than a woman is a vulgar error; both men and women have twenty-four ribs.
It was an opinion formerly, that it was conducive to a man's health to be drunk once a month.
The age of 63 was called the “ great climacteric,” and considered peculiarly dangerous, because it was the product of the two odd numbers 7 and 9.
That a man weighs more fasting than full; that he was anciently larger in stature ; that love and lust are the same thing; that he is better or worse for being of a particular profession; have been classed by writers among vulgar errors.
HISTORICAL ERRORS. Sir Thomas Browne says, it is an error, that Tamerlane, the Tartar, was a shepherd; he was of noble birth. The popular story, that Belisarius was blind, and begged publicly in the streets, is without foundation : he suffered much from the envy of the court, but contemporary writers do not mention his mendicity nor blindness. The stories of Scævola, of Curtius, of the Amazons, and of Archimedes burning the ships of Marcellus, are, doubtless, historical lies, or monstrous exaggerations.
It is related that Crassus, the grandfather of Marcus, the wealthy Roman, never laughed but once, and that was at an ass eating thistles. That Jesus Christ never laughed, because it is only mentioned he wept; though, as Brown observes, it is hard to conceive how he passed his childhood without mirth.
Many vulgar errors prevail respecting Gypsies, and counterfeit Moors. They are said to have come originally from Egypt, and their present state to be a judgment of God upon them, for refusing to entertain the Virgin Mary and Jesus, on their flight into Egypt. They existed in Egypt long before this occurrence, where they were considered strangers. They were called Bohemians in France, where they first appeared from Germany, and spoke the Sclavonian language. They were at one time countenanced by the Turks ; suffered to keep stews in the suburbs of Constantinople, and employed by them as spies among other nations, for which they were banished by the Emperor Charles the Fifth,