Natural-born charlatans and their pursuit offortune by fakery

Science and the Secrets of Nature
June 30, 1995

In 1948, when the people of Britain were suffering the deprivations of postwar austerity, a London publishing house re-issued "one of the earliest, if not the first, cookery and household recipe book", Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies, which had originally been published in 1602. Plat's concoction of "the arte of preseruing", "secrets in distillation" and "cookerie and huswiferie" must have been of largely antiquarian interest to a generation reared on Mrs Beeton and her imitators. Acknowledging this, the editors nevertheless observed that "austerity has driven the housewife to do many things in the home that were commonly done by our ancestors but from which she had been relieved by the development of mass production".

The editors do not record what the women of the 1940s made of recipes like one "to take away the freckles in the face: Wash your face in the wane of the moone with a spunge, morninge and euening with the distilled water of Elder Leaues, letting the same drie into the skinne. Your water must be distilled in Maie. This is of a Trauailer, who hath cured himself therby." No doubt they chuckled over the recipes for oysters, salmon, or widgeon as they (or their servants) queued up for horsemeat, and nodded in agreement with Plat's advice on how to boil sparrows. Through this republication, Plat's Delightes for Ladies helped to create the myth of Merry England and of the golden age of Elizabeth, which would peak at the time of Elizabeth II's coronation, and which reassured people about the nature and the greatness of the country which they had been struggling to preserve.

Thanks to William Eamon's excellent Science and the Secrets of Nature, we can now appreciate the work of Hugh Plat and of other authors like him in a different, and less anachronistic or nostalgic way.

Delightes for Ladies was one of several works which Plat published in the genre of how-to books, or books of secrets, which Eamon describes. Far from being a pioneer, Plat was merely one of the more genteel exponents of a trade which had flourished for more than a century, and whose usual practitioners were known as mountebanks or charlatans. Plat, and other English writers like the apothecary John Hester, profited from the popularity of books which offered the reader mastery over the hidden processes of nature, and which revealed practical (and not so practical) recipes and techniques, especially for the treatment or cure of common ailments.

Their books were part of a general European vogue for works of natural magic and rare secrets which was particularly developed in the towns and cities of Italy. There, quacks and healers regularly plied the crowds with their wares, notably the famous "Orvietan", and both buyer and seller cheated the city's medical establishment, and sometimes outwitted the grim reaper.

Adept at self-publicity, the most famous of these ciarlatani leapt the gap between the market place and the printed book. More frequently, eager natural philosophers like Leonardo Fioravanti, Giambattista Della Porta or Girolamo Ruscelli (who was probably the author of the hugely successful Secreti of "Alessio Piemontese") gathered together recipes and secrets which they had begged, bought, borrowed or stolen and published them in the twin hopes of making their fortune and of attracting the secure patronage of one of the local lords or princes.

The tradition of keeping books of secrets, of practical and arcane recipes, which Eamon describes, dates back to antiquity, and was strong during the Middle Ages. The revolution in communications which was brought about by the advent of printing created new opportunities and new demands for the authors of such books.

As they reached out for audiences and profits, the professors of secrets entered a new world, between the literate and the illiterate, the popular and the elite, the licit and the illicit. Eamon explains how the veil came to be drawn back from the secrets of nature in their work, and how their enquiries after ever stranger and more effective recipes and cures helped to establish the cult of curiosity at the courts of some of their aristocratic patrons.

The fashion for investigation and for secrets drew in gentlemen virtuosi like Sir Hugh Plat, who experimented for themselves with both rare and everyday substances in order to torture nature into revealing fresh secrets to them. The most influential of those virtuosi was Francis Bacon, Viscount Verulam, who wished to restore to his patron, James VI and I, the dominion over the whole of the natural world which Adam had lost through his sin in Eden.

Eamon convincingly charts the development of the books of secrets tradition, and highlights the debt which experimental science owes to it.

He evokes with skill the shady world in which early modern scientists moved, between the market place and the court, the printing shop and the alchemist's forge. He shows how both commerce and patronage were important in creating a market for books about science, and an environment in which experiment could be practised.

Eamon succeeds in reuniting the apparently separate tales of the development of esoteric study and the growth of experimental philosophy in early modern Europe. He has also shown that the beginnings of the single story which he tells lie in older divisions between practical and "scientific" (that is, logically demonstrable) knowledge, and in the ancient and medieval cultures which produced them.

Eamon relies, at times slavishly, on the work of others, but his synthesis is original, although perhaps too obviously of the moment to last in all its details.

Unfortunately, this useful book has an unconvincing finale. Eamon's account of the end of the tradition of the secrets of nature, in what he sees as the open science of the Royal Society, is disappointing.

Open science has always been far more arcane than Eamon allows, and it is not too far-fetched to say that a modern scientist like Linus Pauling might have found much to discuss with a 16th-century charlatan like Girolamo di Ferrante, inventor of that universal remedy, the Orvietan.

Scott Mandelbrote is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

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

Author - William Eamon
ISBN - 0 691 03402 8
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £38.50
Pages - 490

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