Science and the Secrets of Nature:
Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the History Book Award, American Publishers Association
This book offers a new interpretation of the origins of experimental science. In the book, argue that the ‘new science’ of the seventeenth century has its roots in the practical activities of artisans, alchemists, and common healers. Through a detailed analysis of the ‘books of secrets’ tradition from antiquity until the end of the seventeenth century, I argue that the advent of printing was a critical moment in the development of modern science. By publishing the ‘secrets’ of craftsmen and experimenters, early modern printers created a body of empirical knowledge that became the basis for the ‘Baconian sciences’ of the seventeenth centuries.
Science and the Secrets of Nature also offers a new interpretation of the role of popular culture in the origins of science. The book gives describes the rise upon the scene of a new community of experimenters whom contemporaries called the ‘professors of secrets’. In contrast to the traditional scientific community, the university professors, this group included alchemists, natural magicians, pharmacists, distillers, glassmakers, lens grinders, friars, and empirical doctors. They conceived of science not as the explanation of things known, but as a great hunt after unknown secrets of nature. The metaphor of the ‘secrets of nature’ takes on a new meaning under this interpretation, signifying a fundamental shift in the ethos governing natural philosophy. The books of secrets are witnesses to that change.