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

In this ambitious and wide-ranging book, William Eamon places the tradition of books of secrets in the context of major themes in the history of science and of ideas, tracking attitudes toward experience, the occult, secrecy and intellectual curiosity, as they shifted from antiquity to the seventeenth century. He argues that books of secrets, with their collection of practical recipes for domestic use, form a "missing link" in the transition from a medieval notion of experience as private and fortuitous to the Baconian vision of experience based on collaborative experimentation. In particular, the explosion of printed books of secrets in the sixteenth century, from the cheapest 8- or 16-page pamphlets to the lengthy tomes of della Porta's Magia naturalis (1559), spread widely a new conception of science as a venatio, or a hunt in hitherto uncharted territory, which was crucial to the investigative program of the "new science." Thus he argues that the scientific revolution has a broader and more popular base than historians of science have generally acknowledged.

This central claim is embedded in lucid presentations of a number of large-scale developments. Eamon describes the shift from an anti-rationalist (originally Hellenistic) notion of a "secret" as divinely revealed, to the Renaissance notion of "secrets" as technical recipes that exploit the occult forces of nature without understanding them, to the seventeenth-century experimenters' program of actively and systematically uncovering the hidden workings of nature and their laws. Traditional religious strictures against excessive intellectual curiosity and the investigation of the occult were eroded, in part by the practical difficulties in enforcing limits on inquiry, particularly after the spread of printing, but also by a new set of cultural ideals and social structures. Eamon describes how princely courts and the "academies" founded by various Italian professors of secrets, then the circles of English virtuosi, valued a curiosity distinct from both scholastic-style pedantry and the curiosity of the "vulgar sort." In tracing the demise of a role for secrecy as an epistemological component of science, Eamon is careful to distinguish a sociological level of secrecy in science, which continued to exist (and indeed persists to the present day). Early members of the Royal Society wrestled with the tension between exclusiveness and openness in deciding on their membership and the diffusion of their results.

Eamon's great strength lies in his synthesis of a vast and diverse secondary literature: he has read broadly and well and links his argument to a remarkable number of recent developments in the field. But this synthetic approach also has its drawbacks. By adopting wholesale arguments that have been criticized as overdrawn (from Elizabeth Eisenstein on printing, to Keith Hutchinson on occult qualities during the scientific revolution, or Lawrence Stone on the decline of the aristocracy), his picture of the transition from medieval to modern is sharp and clear rather than complicated and fine-grained. By fitting his research into the historiography of the scientific revolution, he has emphasized the contribution of books of secrets to the "high road" of science and under-plays the internal developments and contrasts within the genre (e.g., variations in content, presentation and reception). But to ask for more extended analysis of the primary texts and of the late popular survival of the genre would be to ask for a different book from the one we are fortunate to have. Accessible and intellectually engaging, clearly written and well researched, it deserves the attention of readers from a wide variety of specialties.

ANN BLAIR University of California, Irvine
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Blair, Ann
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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