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Reviewed by:
  • Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder by David Cressy
  • Brenda J. Buchanan (bio)
Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder. By David Cressy. New York: Oxford University Press. 2013. Pp. xii+ 237. $29.95.

The subject announced by the title is broad, but this book is narrowly focused. It is a well-researched social history of the aggressive search for, and collection by saltpetermen of, the excrement-rich black earth which formed the basis of their production of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in the England of the early sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. It is not, except fleet-ingly, a history of the science or technology of saltpeter, nor can it be, as the author claims, an exploration of “the lost history of saltpeter,” for this subject is one of ongoing lively interest and robust controversy.

The current search for an understanding of saltpeter, the main ingredient of gunpowder in terms of proportion and significance, was signaled by Joseph Needham’s study of this subject in his major series Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, pt. 7, Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic (1986), and by Bert S. Hall’s critical introduction to J. R. Partington’s A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (1960) in the subsequent American edition [End Page 1000] (1999). Both individual and collaborative work has been undertaken by members of the Gunpowder Group of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC), with collections of studies published in 1996 (reprinted in 2006) and in 2006, both reviewed in past issues of Technology and Culture, and by articles in journals, especially ICOHTEC’s ICON. The ongoing challenges faced by the Medieval Gunpowder Research Group with their experimental saltpeter beds reflect nicely the historical problems of practice and understanding described in the introductory chapter of David Cressy’s book.

Cressy has caught the tide of interest in this subject, trawling through the archives for examples of the work of the saltpetermen and finding them digging destructively on private property and in public buildings, sequestering carts to carry their spoils, and failing to make good their depredations. To this may be added Cressy’s insight into the political underpinnings of this hated activity, and the response of the state as it battled to procure the saltpeter required by the munitions industry if it was to supply the powder needed to engage in civil conflict or face a foreign enemy. There was intermittent trade through European ports but it was saltpeter from India that was to alleviate this problem, permitting Britain’s emergence as an international power. But this commodity was not always available at the time and in the quantities required, especially when the British East India Company proved itself a “fickle partner” (p. 148). This uncertainty draws attention to the situation in France where, following its own loss of influence in India, supplies of home-produced saltpeter were secured by the French state using more science-based procedures, allowing them to strike a blow at their old enemy by aiding the American colonists in their fight for independence. The judgment of Sir Edward Coke in 1606 that “the house of every one is to him as his castle” (p. 81) may help explain the strong opposition to the scavengers, though the failure to learn how to operate niter beds efficiently remains as “mysterious” as saltpeter itself.

Cressy has produced a neat monograph of 180 pages of text with twenty illustrations and two diagrammatic appendixes. Space is limited, but the author writes to his strengths by dealing primarily with the documentary evidence of these times relating to the securing of domestic supplies of saltpeter and the social tensions arising from this. Two concluding chapters deal more briefly with Britain’s later global successes and the procurement of saltpeter and gunpowder in “The New World and the Ancien Régime.” Here the touch is less sure and the text is overloaded with too many details (some repetitive) as names and tonnages come pell-mell onto the pages (ten sets of untabulated tonnages on nine lines, p. 147). The growing academic interest in this subject requires a close attention to sources and attributions, and although Cressy is manifestly thorough on the former...