In the Know

Simon Schaffer

  • 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, ISBN 0 691 03402 8
  • The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire by Pamela Smith
    Princeton, 308 pp, £30.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 691 05691 9

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.

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