Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

by William Eamon
     
 

By explaining how to sire multicolored horses, produce nuts without shells, and create an egg the size of a human head, Giambattista Della Porta's Natural Magic (1559) conveys a fascination with tricks and illusions that makes it a work difficult for historians of science to take seriously. Yet, according to William Eamon, it is in the "how-to" books written by…  See more details below

Overview

By explaining how to sire multicolored horses, produce nuts without shells, and create an egg the size of a human head, Giambattista Della Porta's Natural Magic (1559) conveys a fascination with tricks and illusions that makes it a work difficult for historians of science to take seriously. Yet, according to William Eamon, it is in the "how-to" books written by medieval alchemists, magicians, and artisans that modern science has its roots. These compilations of recipes on everything from parlor tricks through medical remedies to wool-dyeing fascinated medieval intellectuals because they promised access to esoteric "secrets of nature." To popular readers of the early modern era, they offered a hands-on, experimental approach to nature that made scholastic natural philosophy seem abstract and sterile. In closely examining this rich but little-known source of literature, Eamon reveals that printing technology and popular culture had as great, if not stronger, an impact on early modern science as did the traditional academic disciplines. Medieval interest in the secrets of nature was spurred in part by ancient works such as Pliny's Natural History. As medieval experimenters adapted ancient knowledge to their changing needs, they created their own books of secrets, which expressed the uncritical, empiricist approach of popular culture rather than the subtle argumentation of scholastic science. The crude experimental methodology advanced by the "professors of secrets" became for the "new philosophers" of the seventeenth century a potent ideological weapon in the challenge of natural philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Eamon (history, New Mexico State Univ.) convincingly argues that the medieval books of secrets were an integral part of popular science and evolved into the new scientific philosophy of the Renaissance. In these books, natural philosophers began to compile and publish their recipes of natural magic. Their secrets ranged from stain removal formulas and iron-tempering techniques to love potions and plague cures. The books, coupled with the rise of printing, created a boom in ``popular'' or nonacademic science. Eamon also chronicles the work of a few magicians to illustrate the evolving nature of what constituted a secret. The philosophy behind the secrets shifted from traditionally believed, divinely revealed, and occult phenomena to experimentally discovered natural effects and causes. This is a significant contributon to the history of science and medicine. However, some background knowledge of 16th - and 17th - century Europe is helpful. Recommended for all history of science collections.-- Eric D. Albright, Northwestern Univ. Lib., Chicago
Nature
Eamon gives a rich and lively account of authors and writings that were always unacademic, unscrupulous, unprofessional, turbulent, and unsettled: that is to say, an account of the popular or seamy side of medicine and natural knowledge in medieval and early modern times.... A book of many unusual topics.... Eamon is very learned and writes eloquently.
— A. Rupert Hall
The New York Times Book Review
Eamon ... provide[s] plenty of material for thought in this multifaceted volume.
— Charles Burnett
The Times Literary Supplement
Unusually well crafted. . . . Eamon has many valuable things to say about science as a sacrament.
— John North
Nature - A. Rupert Hall
Eamon gives a rich and lively account of authors and writings that were always unacademic, unscrupulous, unprofessional, turbulent, and unsettled: that is to say, an account of the popular or seamy side of medicine and natural knowledge in medieval and early modern times.... A book of many unusual topics.... Eamon is very learned and writes eloquently.
The New York Times Book Review - Charles Burnett
Eamon ... provide[s] plenty of material for thought in this multifaceted volume.
The Times Literary Supplement - John North
Unusually well crafted. . . . Eamon has many valuable things to say about science as a sacrament.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 1994 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in History, Association of American Publishers

"Eamon gives a rich and lively account of authors and writings that were always unacademic, unscrupulous, unprofessional, turbulent, and unsettled: that is to say, an account of the popular or seamy side of medicine and natural knowledge in medieval and early modern times.... A book of many unusual topics.... Eamon is very learned and writes eloquently."—A. Rupert Hall,Nature

"Eamon ... provide[s] plenty of material for thought in this multifaceted volume."—Charles Burnett, The New York Times Book Review

"Unusually well crafted. . . . Eamon has many valuable things to say about science as a sacrament."—John North, The Times Literary Supplement

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691034027
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
04/04/1994
Pages:
512
Product dimensions:
6.52(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.51(d)

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