Medieval Paradigm Static Electricity?

So tonight while handling a blanket in a pitch black room I was treated to a shower of static electric sparks. It made me wonder, what is the nutty Aristotelian explanation for the sparks that happen when you handle dry fabric or scuff you feet and touch someones ear?

Thales of Miletus noticed this and his explanation was "Amber is weird, huh?" which was considered odd because he claimed it as a material property, not a spiritual or mystical one.

More generally, how many ancients were wearing nonconductive shoes?

Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia mentions the sparks, that can be generated by rubbing amber with the fingers. He also remarks, how that can attract dry straw. leaves and bark like a magnet attracts iron:

This book was available to well-connected scholars during all the middle ages.

Also Plutarch in his Quaestiones platonicae compares the effects of rubbing amber with emanations from a magnet, which form a vacuum in front of an object and drive the air to its rear, thereby attracting the object to the magnet.

So those with access to learning about natural philosophy considered static electricity and pyroelectricity connected to magnetism, which Plutarch explained as emanations from the magnet.


Aristotle wrote that magnetic attraction was due to a soul in the stone, and that static electricity was like magnetic emanations. Pliny noted that the Tuscans had 9 Gods who sent forth 11 types of lightning. Magnetism was one of the few areas of study which truly advanced during the middle ages, so it was less that they had an explanation for it than that they had a few competing models... many of which probably still contained an element of the spiritual and/or supernatural.

No. Aristotle in On the Soul credits Thales with that idea, but definitely does not embrace it himself.

Have a look at H.H. Ricker III: MAGNETISM OF THE GREEK ERA in, especially:


EDIT: H.H. Ricker III: Magnetism In The Roman Era in ... nload/3234 .
The author of all this appears to be an eclectic spirit benefiting from the specific publication policy of gsjournal, as his other publications in ... cker%20III show.

Not sure. There was lots of wool though. And when I'm running wood heat I collect sparks even with leather slippers on wood floors.

The boarder between natural phil and magic are pretty fuzzy in setting though. Astrology and many forms of "alchemy" are not considered magic in the least. So just because the soul is mentioned in the real world texts doesn't mean they are talking about the "supernatural" in game terms.

I used to have a pair of leather "slippers"(moccasins?) that were a modern exact copy of a historic model, and they were amazing at generating static, especially on some wooden floor.
To the point where if you dragged your feet enough while walking around with them on some floors, you could intentionally shock people by just putting your hand nearby them(5+cm was normal, IIRC my record was something like >15cm), and if the room was dark enough, it was extremely visible.

Much amusement was had with this at a ski resort, as a kid( some locals sold those slippers there ). :mrgreen:

Direwolf, I'll speculate that this was the (positive potential) human skin and leather pairing against whatever the wood sealant was. Wood is virtually neutral, but some sealants have a moderate to strong negative potential. Leather vs. PVC tube makes a great static wand. Also, the ski resort was probably dry, idealizing the air for static.

... Medievally, leather is available, but the best available negative material is probably gold or silver... hmmm.

Glass works with a lot of animal products (wool, silk, ...). CrTe a glass covenant...

Nah, that was the beuaty of those things, worked on untreated wood as well, and on most other type of floors, even stone floors. Don´t ask me why it worked though, i just had fun with them, and i haven´t seen the same happen with other shoes/slippers looking similar, so it seems to have been tied to however those were made locally.

Not something you want to wear in a fireworks shop. :smiley: