It’s hard to know every book in the library’s special collections, the existence of key items (Newton’s Principia, Hooke’s Micrographia etc.) we know of, but other items we only learn about if we stumble across them while checking the catalogue or if they catch our eye while we’re in the store. Sometimes we learning about them through more unusual ways, say a trip to the pub with some academics and Ph.D students. This is how I learnt about Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer’s Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis (STORE 199:15).
Beringer (1667-1740), a “Doctor of Philosophy and medicine, Senior Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Wurzburg, Advisor and Chief Physician to the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg, and Chief Physician to the Julian Hospital”1was given some remarkable stones in 1725 by three teenage boys. The stones had various figures on them including birds, insects, fish, toads, spiders and flowers.
More intriguingly some had images of the sun, moon, stars and comets on them. Beringer decided to write a treatise on the stones to explain how he thought they were created and to advertise his great discovery. Now, if anyone looked at these stones today they would automatically think something wasn’t right. Beringer even discusses in the treatise whether they are manmade, and mentions rumours of a hoax. For example in chapter two he states “The figures expressed on these stones, especially those of insects, are so exactly fitting to the dimensions of the stones, that one would swear that they are the work of a very meticulous sculptor” and he goes on to point out that the stones aren’t broken and that the animals are perfectly posed. However, he dismisses these rumours and evidence thinking that there are too many stones for it to be a hoax, that other people have been given similar stones, and that a few years ago other similar stones were found.
Eventually Beringer realised he had been tricked, no one is sure exactly how he was finally convinced of this – either the Prince-Bishop had a word or he found a stone with his own name written on. A court case ensued in which two colleagues of Beringer, J. Ignatz Roderick a Professor of geography, algebra and analysis, and Georg von Eckart a privy councillor and librarian to the Court and University, were found guilty. Roderick was banished from Wurzburg (or maybe left voluntarily, depending on which version you read, but certainly he left in disgrace) and von Eckhart was forbidden access to the archives of the Duchy. One version of events then says that Beringer tried to buy all copies of the book back and was left ruined and soon died. However, it seems that it was von Eckhart who suffered the worst as he died four years later and left a large collection of unfinished work. Roderick wrote a grovelling letter to the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg asking permission to return so he could sort out his friends library and possibly continue his work. Beringer’s life continued and the episode of the lying stones doesn’t seem to have had any negative impact on his academic work.
The Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis is full of a plates illustrating some of the stones that Beringer was given. My favourites are the more strange creatures like the one below.
1. Jahn, M.E. Dr. Beringer and the Wurzburg “Lugensteine”, Journal of the society for the bibliography of natural history vol.4 (2) pp.138-152 (1963)
Jahn. M. E. & Woolfe, D. J. The lying stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer being his Lithographiae Wirceburgensis
(Thanks to Dr. Cunningham and Prof. Jardine for telling me about this book)