- Books of Secrets: Natural Philosophy in England, 1550-1600
In an entry on the lodestone in his chapbook Cornucopiae, or Divers Secrets (1596), the London apothecary Thomas Johnson writes that, just as the lodestone imparts its magnetic force to iron that is rubbed on it, "in like manner the smock or other apparel of a strumpet being worn of others, giveth a certain impudencie and shameless boldness to those parties." For the same reason, women are warned against looking into a whore's mirror, lest it make them "not only impudent bold but also the more prompt to further offending."
Such were the sort of "natural secrets" that were served up in abundance to sixteenth-century English and European readers by printers and compilers of the hugely popular "books of secrets." Although Johnson's Cornucopiae appeared in only two editions (1596 and 1599), because of its format and price it may have reached a more popular audience than its more famous rival, Alexis of Piedmont's Secrets, which went through more than a dozen sixteenth-century English editions and more than a hundred in several other languages. Allison Kavey's subject, in Books of Secrets: Natural Philosophy in England, 1550-1600, is not the better-known and more often cited works such as that of Alexis, evidently written for middle and upper class readers, but rather, the printing and dissemination of these smaller, cheaper, and presumably more popular chapbook-sized books of secrets.
As Thomas Johnson's warning against looking into a whore's mirror suggests, the natural philosophy that these books disseminated among readers was based on the idea that the universe was an intricate web of occult correspondences, and every object in it was linked to others by ties of sympathy and antipathy. The Jesuit natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher, in his Magneticum naturae regnum (Rome, 1667), proclaimed, in the cryptic manner in which only he could express it, "The world is bound with secret knots." Metaphysically, there was little distance between Kircher's dense Latin tome and Johnson's humble chapbook. Astrology, alchemy, and the doctrine of signatures were as compelling to intellectuals as to popular readers. According to Kavey, it was in "books of secrets" such as the Cornucopiae and the even more popular work, The Secrets of Albertus Magnus, that common readers learned their natural philosophy.
Kavey maintains that these little compendia of natural knowledge "made the inner workings of the natural world accessible to people who lacked access to academic natural philosophy." By imparting an understanding of the relationships among objects and by instructing readers in how to manipulate those natural relationships, the books of secrets gave readers a sense of confidence that they could control nature. That secrets usually took the form of recipes is, for Kavey, highly significant: in utilizing this format, she contends, the books of secrets constructed "an image of the natural world as predictable and subject to manipulation" (3).
In arguing for this thesis, Kavey gives a detailed analysis of the structure and print history of several sixteenth-century English books of secrets. By limiting her [End Page 1357] analysis to a few judiciously chosen texts, Kavey is able to provide the kind of close reading that has been lacking in scholarship on books of secrets. She is also able to closely analyze how printers structured secrets for sale to a popular audience. In two particularly illuminating chapters focusing on books of secrets intended for women and for gentlemen —John Partridge's Treasurie of commodious Conceits and Gervase Markham's horse care manual —Kavey makes insightful comments on how considerations of gender framed the construction of books of secrets. Thanks to this kind of careful analysis, we learn much about the meaning of secret in the early modern period.
However, there are limitations to this kind of analysis that leave important questions unanswered. How did people actually engage with books of secrets? Who read them, and what did they get out of them? Were they...