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1468~1503: Knight’s Death by Fire Breathing

In 1654 Thomas Bartholin [1616-1680], Danish physician, mathematician, and theologian, wrote that during the reign of Queen Bona Sforza (from 1468 to 1503), a Polish knight who had drunk two glasses of brandy died after flames erupted from his mouth. Bartholin was told this story by Aldolphus Vorstius, a noted physician and botanist of the time, who in turn said he got the story from his father who may have had a parchment about the incident.

Variations on a Theme

        I've been amazed at how often this story is repeated, and in how many different forms -- sometimes the knight is described as a soldier, Sforza is not always mentioned, differing alcohols are blamed -- but each variant story is the same enough to obviously all be from one ultimate source. Having found Bartholin's Latin original, it's now easy to see that the differences all mainly come down to how the account was translated. And it does all start with Bartholin's account, even if the translation proved to be bad enough to almost create a whole new story... which it was, just once.

Polonus Vorstius' Death

        According to Larry Arnold in his book Ablaze! [1995], Bartholin's story is:

Sometimes during the reign of Queen Bona Sforza in Milan, Italy, a knight by the name of Polonus Vorstius consumed "two ladles of strong wine," vomited fire and was then consumed by flames. This is according to a report made by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Eberhard Vorstius.

        Unfortunately, his translation of Bartholin's Latin features two notable mistakes. First, whereas Arnold thought the Latin word 'Polonus' was the name of the knight, it's actually Latin for 'Poland'... which describes the knight as Polish, which is reinforced by the fact that Queen Bona Sforza was ruler of Poland, even though the house of Sforza was based in Milan, Italy. Secondly, Arnold thought the last line of the translation named the knight's family, when in fact it names the person who supplied Bartholin with the story -- Adolphus Vorstius -- and where he in turn got the story -- from his father, by the name of Everhard. So ends the brief tale of "Polonus Vorstius," yet I'm sure his non-existant name will continue to appear in future spontaneous combustion literature!