John Damian was (probably) an Italian at the court of James IV of Scotland. His attempts at medicine, alchemy, flying, and his advancement by the King encouraged a satirical attack by the poet William Dunbar.
John's Italian name appears to have been Giovanni Damiano de Falcucci. In the records of the Scottish exchequer he is called the 'French Leech' or 'Master John the French Leech.' He first appears in the records in January 1501. He directed the building of alchemical furnaces at Stirling Castle and Holyroodhouse to produce the 'quinta essentia', the fifth element. John was then made Abbot of Tongland. Between 1501 and 1508 he received a great deal of money and other items from the king, to make the quintessence. These included aqua vitae (i.e. spirits of wine), quicksilver, sal ammoniac, alum, litharge, orpiment, saltpetre, silver, sugar, sulphur, tin, verdigris, vinegar and white lead. These are all standard alchemical substances of the medieval period.
John took a hand in court entertainments, organizing the dances in Edinburgh at New Year 1504. In 1507, John tried to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle. He was unsuccessful luckily he didn't die but broke only his thigh. The records of Scottish exchequer list sums of money lost by the King playing cards with John and betting at shooting matches. John resigned as Abbot of Tongland in 1509, and James IV wrote to Pope Julius II asking that John's pension of 200 gold ducats should be paid. John Damian is still recorded at court a few months before the battle of Flodden.
William Dunbar and John Lesley
The contemporary poet William Dunbar described Damian's career in comic terms in his ballad, which was later given the title; Ane Ballat of the Fenyeit Frier of Tungland, How He Fell in the Myre Fleand to Turkiland. According to Dunbar, Damian came from the east and stole a priest's robes in Lombardy. In France he pretended to be a doctor to the detriment of his patients then came to Scotland where in 'leichecraft he was homecyd' (a killer in surgery). When he failed to make the quintessence by alchemy, he decided to fly to Turkey. But he was attacked by birds who plucked his wings and landed up to his eyes in a mire.
Another poem by Dunbar, the Antechrist, first line 'Lucina shynning in silence of the nicht', recalls a dream. Dame Fortune came to the poet and described her wheel and the genesis of the flying Abbot. She said Dunbar would not get clerical advancement until he saw a flying Abbot. Dunbar kept this dream to himself. But soon, turning the genre of the ballad of impossibilities on its head, Dunbar did see a flying Abbot.
A later writer, John Lesley, provided a complimentary account. Lesley mentioned the alchemy, and describes how the failure of the enterprise began to make Damian unpopular. To counter this he announced that he would fly from Stirling Castle, reaching France before the Scottish ambassadors. On the appointed day he put on a pair of wings made from feathers and leapt from the highest point of the castle. Lesley says his journey ended as soon as it began, with the bystanders uncertain whether to mourn his demise or marvel at his daftness. Damian had broken his thigh bone and alleged that he had hoped to use only eagle feathers, but some poultry feathers supplied had sabotaged his wings. In Lesley's text the event is placed immediately prior to his account death of Prince James in February 1508. There was a Scottish embassy to France in September 1507, so in the absence of other evidence, the attempt is usually assigned to that date.
The critic, Priscilla Bawcutt, sees Dunbar's Ballat and the Antechrist, as characterising Damian as a shape-shifter without fixed identity. There is no other evidence for the flying attempt apart from Dunbar's poems and Lesley's later account, and the episode of the failed flight has a number of traditional literary parallels as an example of foolish striving for superhuman attainment. The birds who attack the flier in the poem draw attention to his lack of identity; 'all fowill ferleit (wondered) quhat he sowld be.'
A late 17th century carpenter's bill for work at Stirling Castle refers to a now unknown location where 'the Devil flew out.'
- Small, John, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar; The Poems, vol. 2, Scottish Text Society (1893)
- Sweeney, Charlene, 'Was 16th-century Scots alchemist the first man to fly?', The Times, 7 September 2008
- Mario M Rossi, 'L'abate avitore', pp. 43-80, in Friendship's Garland, Essays presented to Mario Praz, vol. 1, Rome (1966)
- page 219-220 of 'Alchemy' by E. J. Holmyard, ISBN 0486262987
- Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 2, HM General Register House (1900), cxi, 414.
- Accounts of the Lord Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 4, HM General Register House (1902) 110 etc.
- Hannay, R. K., ed., Letters of James IV, SHS (1953), p.164-5, nos. 289, 290.
- Small, John, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar, vol. 2, Scottish Text Society (1893), 139-143.
- Small, John, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar, vol. 2, Scottish Text Society (1893), 149-150.
- Cody, E. G., ed., John Lesley's History of Scotland translated by Father Dalrymple, vol. 2, SHS (1895), 124-126.
- Small, John, ed., The Poems of William Dunbar, vol. 1, Scottish Text Society (1893), xlvii.
- Bawcutt, Priscilla, 'Elrich Fantaysis in Dunbar', in Spiller & McClure, ed., Bryght Lanternis, AUP (1989), 171-174.
- RCAHMS, Inventory of Ancient Monuments: Stirlingshire, vol. 1 (1963), 188