Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture 
by William Eamon.
Princeton, 490 pp., £38.50, July 1994, 0 691 03402 8
Show More
The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire 
by Pamela Smith.
Princeton, 308 pp., £30, July 1994, 0 691 05691 9
Show More
Show More

Like some garrulous character in a story by Italo Calvino, an Italian physician tells of his meeting at a 16th-century siege with a Spaniard who had just lost his nose in a barrack-room brawl. ‘The nose fell in the sand, and I saw it because we were together. So holding it in my hand, all full of sand, I pissed on it, and having washed it with urine I attached it to him and sewed it on very firmly.’ After eight days, the nose remained firmly in place, the Spaniard ‘healthy and free, and all Naples marvelled at it’, as well they might. Such stories might seem far away from modern science, but according to William Eamon they hold vital clues to the course and meaning of the Scientific Revolution. The quick-witted medical improviser was Leonardo Fioravanti, an eminent ‘professor of secrets’, one of a number of Renaissance writers who traded on their reputation as masters of tricks, clues and recipes long lost to, or hidden from, common knowledge and now at last revealed to an amazed public. They foresaw laboratories and workshops, gardens and libraries, where old lore and new skills could be pursued in common.

While Machiavelli had regaled and scandalised his readers with the tricks of princely politics, other writers, of whom the most notable was the mystical Neapolitan aristocrat Giambattista della Porta, produced scores of texts in which useful secrets were spelt out for practical consumption. Della Porta earned huge sums from patrons seeking advice. ‘The 16th century was an age of how to,’ Eamon tells us. Books of secrets, a mixture of self-help manuals and learned philosophical treatises, combined advice on how to harden steel with goat’s blood and how to tenderise beef with fig stalks, methods for seeing faraway objects by combining curved glasses and for preventing lightning strikes by hanging a crocodile skin from the door. Renaissance printers sold handbooks for the dispossessed or upwardly-mobile in search of esoteric skills.

Manuals such as the algebra text by the great French mathematician François Viète in 1591 similarly announced the recovery of ‘incomparable gold’ long buried in earlier discussions of ‘the great art’, while Copernicus himself debated whether he should keep his new astronomy secret lest it be corrupted by the ignorant and the mercenary. In Elizabethan London, English versions of the books of secrets could be picked up from dealers like the pharmacist John Hester, whose shop acted as an important centre of recipes and useful lore, while on stage Marlowe had Faustus, an avid reader of these books, abandon law and divinity for the science which gave him the secret of universal mastery. Works on ‘conceits’ and natural magic were an enormously popular part of the Early Modern book trade and seem to have provided a good resource for those European philosophers and artisans who argued for new ways of testing and knowing nature.

The hunt for the origins of modern science has long been a favourite occupation of historians. They differ widely about the key moment which saw science’s birth, tracing it to the philosophers of Classical Greece, or celebrating the canonical achievements of 17th-century heroes such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Boyle and Newton, or insisting with great plausibility that until at least the early 19th century, the typical institutions and techniques of the natural sciences simply didn’t exist. These different stories depend on widely divergent versions of what distinguishes the scientific enterprise, whether method, personnel, hardware or expertise. One of the virtues of Eamon’s book is its judicious attitude to these puzzles. He picks out a crucial feature of knowledge’s place in culture: experts can gain authority if they can convince their society that they have access to esoteric matters only to be reached through their specialised skills and yet of general potential utility.

This was the role of the tradition of secrets. Eamon reckons that this tradition always served the crudest interests of its various purveyors. Hellenistic and Islamic sources, often couched in occult terms to save their authors from clerical persecution, were distributed as a kind of Latinate samizdat among medieval scholars and helped their learning to seem significant. Court philosophers touted their role as purveyors of secret skills invaluable to the management of church and state, becoming what the medievalist Jacques Le Goff calls ‘an intellectual technocracy’. In the 13th century, the Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon explained to the Pope that his astrological and technical skills promised big military and political pay-offs: ‘the Church should consider the employment of these inventions against unbelievers and rebels to spare Christian blood.’ Improvements in clockwork and instrumentation were then almost exclusively discussed by medical astrologers in search of better ways of casting patients’ horoscopes. Once again, Calvino is a helpful guide: in a superb essay on Pliny’s Natural History, a prime source for the secrets tradition, he describes the History’s vision of nature as eternal and harmonious, but one in which ‘inexplicable prodigious phenomena’ were always likely to emerge. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Eamon explains, older models which supposed that the learned should merely demonstrate the causes of what was already reliably known, were challenged by a powerful image of the hunt for the unknown.

Hunting was court culture par excellence, and parvenu intellectuals represented their inquiry into matters lost since the foundation of the world as a hunt for these arcana and rare wonders. In this picture, nature was an inexhaustible source of jokes, sports and strangeness, a treasure chest from which court philosophers might be expected to garner riches fit for princely show, lenses and clocks, exotic beasts and new stars, objects and techniques to be displayed in the libraries and museums of Baroque Europe. The populations of the new worlds opened up for exploitation by European adventurers were violently turned into an indispensable resource for this massive exercise in search and pillage. The Faustian image of a diabolical bargain for secular power started here. ‘Faustus,’ exclaims his colleague, ‘thy wit and our experience/shall make all nations to canonise us,/as Indian moors obey their Spanish lords.’ What Eamon calls ‘the newfangled approach’ of the natural philosophers of the 17th century got dangerous prestige from their success in this ferocious hunt.

On this account, modern science drew on the secrets tradition, using its apparently skilful access to the singular facts of nature as a means to legitimate its power. Fifteen years ago, Carlo Ginzburg offered a radical interpretation of this motif of the clue, arguing that techniques for reading the signs were primordial, as old as hunting itself. Divination, common to medical diagnostics and astrology, artistic connoisseurship and detection, matched the stratagems touted by the professors of secrets. In mid-16th-century Venice, just as these professors were beginning their work, there appeared in print a brief Oriental story about three sons of the King of Serendip, who could tell the identity of a lost animal simply by reading its tracks. Tried as wizards, the three brothers successfully demonstrated the method they used and escaped punishment. The same story was told in the 18th century, prompting Horace Walpole to coin the word ‘serendipity’ and Voltaire to produce his tale of Zadig. Ginzburg’s Bologna colleague Umberto Eco uses the story at the start of his Name of the Rose, where the monkish detective William of Baskerville, a follower of Roger Bacon and a medieval version of Sherlock Holmes, gives a complete description of a lost horse by reading its prints in the snow. For Ginzburg and for Eamon, the techniques of conjecture and divination are an important and underestimated strategy for gaining knowledge, one that bears a complex relationship to the dominant image of mathematical and abstract knowledge which is too often taken for granted by historians of the emergence of the natural sciences.

Ginzburg drew a straightforward contrast between techniques of divination and those he associated with Galilean physics. In a fateful parting of the ways at the start of the 17th century, he argued, the natural sciences banned all reference to the world of smells, tastes and sounds, and portrayed themselves as the prerogative of ascetic mathematicians. It was above all the human sciences which pursued methods of interpretation, sign-reading and cunning scrutiny. After Husserl’s influential diagnosis of the ‘crisis of the European sciences’ half a century ago, this allegedly fatal divide between Galilean physics and everyday life has often been used to organise pictures of science and modernity. These days, after all, we are told by best-selling scientists that their method is not that of common sense. Eamon seems to accept that Galileo’s career was a decisive episode, for the ingenious astronomer’s admission to the significantly-named Society of the Lynxes effectively displaced the older enterprise of the trade in secrets associated with della Porta, Fioravanti and their ilk. Galileo offered his prince the newfangled telescope and new stars in heaven, while della Porta wrote of telepathic communication through marks on the skin. His kind of work, says Eamon, ‘became irrelevant to the world of science’.

However, Eamon also traces the ways in which other innovative philosophers of the 17th century found rich resources in the secrets tradition. Novel philosophical projects, notably those pursued in England around the Royal Society, shared the sensibility of the hunt, argued strenuously for the use of artificial instruments to force nature to yield its rare facts, and tried to win backing for this new way of experimenting on the motion of the blood, the pressure of the air, or the behaviour of ingenious machines. The early Royal Society spent a lot of time debating monstrosities and marvels. What made these experimenters different from their predecessors was their equally strong commitment to publicity and discipline. Della Porta had once explained that ‘if you would have your works appear more wonderful, you must not let the cause be known.’ The 17th-century masters of new kinds of laboratories had to steer a path between the cultivation of wonder and the publication of nature’s true causes. This perverse contrast between publicity and secrecy, Eamon concludes, still characterises modern science, whether in the university laboratory or the industrial research station, open to all in principle yet strangely exclusive in fact.

The contrast between secrecy and publicity is often identified with that between artisans and scholars, even between technology and science. In this version, it was never in the interest of craftsmen to make their skills accessible, while it was always necessary for scientists to do so. We need to get away from this facile polarity and illuminate the connections between artisan culture and the work of natural philosophers. The status of experimental philosophy was never secure in 17th-century Europe, and it certainly had no obvious home. It is an intriguing lesson for our attitude to scientific institutions that this period of major intellectual change corresponded to a rare interval when the authoritative production of natural knowledge was not the monopoly of academics. Instead, new facts about magnetic attraction or phosphorescent minerals, rainbows or dyes, might emerge from craftsmen’s shops or distant voyages, from priests, courtiers, soldiers or merchants. This is presumably why Eamon devotes a chapter to the colourful world of the charlatans and street-performers, whose shows so often exploited and subverted the ways to knowledge of the medical faculties and the chapter-houses. This is also why he explores the ways in which genteel scholars worked hard to distinguish themselves from those they reckoned to be social inferiors. While physicians and gown men penned long books on the errors of the superstitious plebs, Protestant scholars damned Catholic priests for conning their flocks with such absurdities as the transformation of wafers into Christ’s body, or demonic possession, or the efficacy of holy relics. Meanwhile, self-styled adepts sought to persuade their patrons to back schemes for alchemical transmutation, perpetual motion machines, astronomical devices and other strange new artifices, promising huge returns and immense repute among their fellows.

This is the world Pamela Smith describes in her fine study of the relation between alchemy and commerce in the German-speaking lands of the later 17th century. While Eamon takes a broad, if not long-winded, view of the history of recipes and advice manuals from ancient times to the early 18th century, Smith focuses on the scintillating career of one man, Johann Becher, a physician, alchemist and administrator whose life was led amid the vagaries of Central European courts, treasuries and museums in an ultimately vain search for power and wealth. She has modelled her book on the Baroque style, with its prologues and interludes, dramatis personae and amusing parables.

Just as Eamon righteously tries to save an entire tradition of learning from the condescension of the present, so Smith explains the cultural meaning of a figure hitherto confined to the margins of the history of chemistry and of economics, placing him in a mannered and courtly milieu increasingly beloved of historians of rhetoric, science and patronage. Becher was a traveller whose fugitive lifestyle meant that all his techniques and equipment – chemical ovens and large-scale papers on government reform among them – needed to be as portable as possible. He was the archetype of a new kind of expert, a counsellor on matters of state and religion, of commerce and philosophy. There were many like him, some pre-eminent, such as the courtier and polymath Gottfried Leibniz, some obscure, such as the bizarre Dutch medic William Yworth, whose visionary alchemical projects launched from a London pharmacy drew the fascinated attention of the elderly Isaac Newton. These careers are genuinely important for our picture of the culture of Early Modern knowledge.

Smith’s insight is that alchemical transmutation, the secret of secrets, fitted well with the economic and political predicament of the rulers of the German states. In desperate search of new finance, yet constitutionally and culturally hostile to the world of merchant capital, these princes needed ways to figure out the place of trade and finance in their polity. Becher offered them recipes: direct state control of the urban workshops, the establishment of lucrative slave colonies in the New World, systems of credit to guarantee mercantile enterprise. And he also had a language in which to speak of these newfangled projects: the vocabulary and techniques of alchemy, which ingeniously displayed the riches to be got by investment and the benefits promised by artisan skill. Like some real-life Mephistopheles, he offered them what he called a ‘politician’s stone’ to match that of the philosophers. He tried to persuade his masters to back amazingly ambitious schemes for national workshops and research institutions, then explained to them the true cosmological and commercial meaning of gold, sugar, salt or iron, substances from which they might win funds and learn the true philosophy of nature.

In many ways, Smith’s Becher is a modern: emphasising in all their horrible familiarity the virtues of division of labour and of the slave trade, explaining how credit linked trustworthiness and financial standing, full of admiration for Dutch enterprise and republicanism, and insisting on the productivity both of the money market and of the skilled artisans. It is a mark of Smith’s success that she lucidly conveys the radical implications of Becher’s projects in the face of existing scholarship, which sees him merely as one of the crowd of secretive alchemists and transient con-men who stalked the corridors of every major Baroque palace and talked up their prospects in every metropolitan coffee-house. She does not entirely dispel the miasma of charlatanism which surrounds Becher’s career. His perpetually-moving clock and his scheme for extracting gold from Dutch beaches never quite materialised. He died in obscurity in London in 1682, soon after publishing a typically complex work entitled Foolish Wisdom and Wise Folly, a collection of 100 successful – and unsuccessful – projects. But in many ways this mixture of extraordinary promise and grinding futility, of calculating rationality and enthusiastic nonsense, represents a familiar relationship between natural knowledge and the enterprise culture.

One of Smith’s many startling anecdotes captures this rather well. Some time in the late 1660s, newly set up at the Bavarian court, Becher took part in a dinner-table competition with a French orator who boasted of his conversational skills. Offered the topic of salt on which to exercise his wit, the Frenchman held forth for fifteen minutes on its true meaning. The jealous Becher then riposted with an hour’s lecture about the significance of the salt-cellar, drawing in metallurgy, economics, finance and craftsmanship along the way. The audience, bored if impressed, pleaded with him to stop and then gave him the prize. In this battle of two cultures, the cunning of reason just beat the entertainments of rhetoric. Smith rightly sees this as a parable of a novel alliance between the values of commerce and court society. The scene is perhaps still familiar: a tedious expert tries to convince the chattering classes that he has a recipe to solve all their woes. Such moments certainly fit into a general story of modernisation, in which the intellectual is fated to become ever more closely involved with power and exploitation.

These books also remind us of another history, however, in which the trust vested in the intelligentsia relies on their retreat from vulgar concerns. This is the account Le Goff gives of the medieval intellectuals, urban scholars preoccupied by extramural arts and government, yet later, from the 15th century, to become erudite humanists, aristocrats of learning whose virtue lay precisely in their withdrawal to the courtly academy. Renaissance authors debated the rival virtues of the ‘urbane’ scholar as opposed to the new ‘courteous’ humanist. For Le Goff, this was a trahison des clercs which has since sustained the mixture of political impotence and co-option with which the erudite sometimes seem so content. According to the recent historians of this process, Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, Early Modern humanism perfectly fitted the needs of the new system of court bureaucracy and helped ‘the constriction of society and polity’. The accounts of Eamon and Smith show some of the ways in which natural philosophers of this period collaborated closely with the established social order while forging for themselves the apparently independent position from which alone true knowledge could be attained. They help us to see how the sciences then became intimate with power yet insistent that they are not so, and why Doctor Faustus, that cursed scholar once admired for ‘wondrous knowledge’, remains such a splendidly intriguing figure in these sciences’ history.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences