John Ferguson.

Books of secrets. A paper read before the Bibliographical Society, April 21, 1913 online

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Ferguson, John,
Book of secrets.










APRIL 21, 1913.










APRIL 21, 1913.









By professor FERGUSON.
Read April 21st, igi3.

•F this theme had not, in a manner, been prescribed to
me by our Secretary, I myself should hardly have
selected it for presentation to the Society. It is true
that I have been rummaging among these books for a
good many years past, from time to time have printed
some results, and ought to be able to say something about them, but I
am so far from having exhausted the material which has gathered, that
I am hardly prepared as yet to pass a judgment on this branch — historical,
I may remind you — of scientific, or rather technological, literature. I
repeat technological, for the aim of the greater part of it is not to speculate,
or discuss, or describe, but to give directions how to do something, how
to produce something tangible, a practical result for human use or con-
venience. Hence " secrets," as they are called, have, from this point of
view, no reference to religious, or philosophical, or masonic, or other
mysteries, but simply denote "receipts," which are used even now for
effecting certain purposes.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the name. We may, however, deduce
from it, that, at one time or other, the artist or craftsman had special
knowledge gained by practice and experience which was personal and
which he, intentionally or unintentionally, kept to himself. This accu-
mulated skill constituted the "secrets" of his art or craft, and whoever


wished to acquire these "secrets" had to serve an apprenticeship to the
master, and be initiated by him. That it was personal one can com-
prehend, for when the productions of different men, with the same
material and with the same processes for the same ends are compared, the
difference in the results is sufficiently marked. The work of Peter Vischer,
for example, or of Benvenuto Cellini, or of Bernard Palissy, stands out
conspicuously among that of their contemporaries, to go no farther,
through their " secret," or personal skill and knowledge.

Even after the processes had been published and the "secrets"
divulged, it did not follow by any means that anyone, still less everyone,
could carry out the directions accurately, not to speak of the results
achieved by their authors. Something more is wanted than the written
or spoken word, for as Opie showed long ago the brains and conscience
of the artist are not negligible components of success.

By degrees, presumably, the "secrets" oozed out and were disseminated
among the craftsmen and were finally collected and published. They
retained their distinctive name, however, for though now displayed to
common view, they had been " secrets " once and might bear that title still.

My acquaintance with these books began when I was engaged with a
different subject, and I was disposed at first to resent their intrusion, but
as their numbers increased and the use made of them in the past became
more obvious by the variety of topics dealt with and the number of
editions, they acquired a practical importance and a bibliographical
interest, not to say significance, and I drifted into the examination of
them, without anticipating in what it might uhimately involve me. That,
however, is the usual course of research and one of its charms, and I have
yielded to it. So starting witii a score or two of treatises and editions,
I have been led on to an examination and recording of books of which
previously I had no knowledge, and which, so far as I know, have never
been brought together and catalogued before. After all, the number of
them which have passed through my hands is but a small one, a couple


of thousand at the outside, and even that number would have been
reduced, had I adhered to my original intention. I certainly began the
survey, over thirty years ago, with an attempted restriction of the lists to
books specifically labelled "secrets." But it was almost immediately
apparent that the limitation was artificial and impossible to enforce, that
consideration of the mere title must be discarded and the inquiry based
on the broader foundation of the theme. So from the very first were
included books of receipts in general, even though not designated

From these, however, have been deliberately omitted books on
gardening, cookery, occult science, and old chemistry.' These truly are
all books of receipts and are replete with secrets, but they have been often
dealt with and I have had no desire to compete with the lists already
published, when there are extensive subjects for investigation to which no
attention has been paid.

Again, while there are many books of receipts which are not styled
"secrets," there are also books of "secrets" which contain no receipts.
These have been included in virtue of their name rather than of their
contents, it may be thought unduly. They profess to reveal some obscure
or unknown matter which does not necessarily entail any practical
application or result. The term is especially applied to natural phenomena.
Natural History as it might be called now, but then, the secrets, wonders
or marvels of Nature. The contemplation of these marvels was very like
what it is with the ordinary man now. The daily routine of Nature passes
without remark ; no one, for instance, is conscious of what Father Beccaria
called "the mild and slow electricity which prevails in the atmosphere
during serene weather," but when anything out of the common happens,
a tempest, a flood, a snowstorm, an earthquake, thunder and lightning,

(l) Nevertheless circumstances have again been too strong for me, and have com-
pelled me to admit some books on these topics, because they were in the company of
others which fell within my prescribed area, or were written by authors of whose works
it w;is an object of mine to make as complete an enumeration as possible.

B 2


that is at once talked about. So in the earlier times the unusual events
were noticed, but defective observation and partial ignorance of their
causes coupled with superstitious fears, led to their being credited with
sinister significance, and being assigned to malign agencies.

Books of Secrets, therefore, are of diverse sorts, and I have not
hesitated about including all the varieties attainable. But just on that
account the theme is so extensive and can be contemplated from so many
points of view that it is impossible to include them all within a single
paper. Attention, consequently, may be restricted to one or two aspects.
One, for example, which concerns the Society more particularly, deals with
the characteristics of the books themselves ; another with their contents,
but I shall not attempt to keep these separate. As books they are in all
languages, they are of all dates, sizes, and qualities of paper, printing and
binding, and they are in every kind of condition, good, bad and indifferent.
There are the books which were in everybody's hands, and those which
can never have been used at all. In such cases it is not always easy to
see what was the merit which carried a book through many editions, when
others, seemingly as good, if not better, were quite unsuccessful. That,
however, is not now a topic for discussion.

Prior to the sixteenth century there is little in printed form that can
be brought into the category of Books of Secrets. The encyclopaedias
which remain, notably those of Isidorus, of Bartholomaeus de Glanvilla
and Vincentius Bellovacensis, even though they glance at practical matters,
are too comprehensive to be included under such a limited designation.
But that collections of technical receipts were in use is shown by the work
of Theophilus, which was known only in manuscript till it was printed
in French in 1843, ^"d afterwards in English in 1847. This work contains
receipts for colours, glass, enamel and metal work. Other manuscripts on
colours, painting, glass and other arts of the Middle Ages were published
by Mrs. Merrifield in 1849, and the work on colours by Heraclius was edited
in 1873 by Albert Ilg, who also began an edition of Theophilus the next


But the outstanding book of Secrets of the earlier time is that ascribed
to Albertus Magnus and, curiously enough, it was the first book of the
kind which came into my possession. That copy is a quaint little
volume, printed at Lyons in 1566, and it contains the three tracts,
Secreta Mulierum, Liber Aggregationis, and De Mirabilibus Mundi. The
popularity of these tracts down to the eighteenth century is extraordinary.
Hain enumerates forty-six editions before 1500, and there are some
which have escaped his notice, such as those printed in London by
Machlinia, and an Italian translation of the Liber Aggregationis at Milan
in 1495. Many followed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so
that as dealing with the secrets of generation, the properties of stones,
plants and animals, and the marvels of the universe, no book had such a
circulation in Europe. Whoever has given any attention to medieval
literature must have encountered it at some time or other.

Intimately connected with it by subject, and often by publication, was
the analogous work De Physiognomia of the senior contemporary of
Albertus, Michael Scotus, round whom so much romance has been woven,
but a consideration of that book would involve a monograph so as to do
it and its author justice.

After 1500 books on the present subject made their appearance
in greater abundance. Notable rarities are among them and many
printed in the earlier part of the sixteenth century are not devoid
of bibliographical attractions. Among those in English are many on
medicine, such as the editions of "The Treasure of pore men," "The
Myrrour or Glasse of helth," " The treasury of healthe," written by Petrus
Hispanus, afterwards Pope John XXI, and translated by Humfre Lloyde.
There were the works edited or translated by John Hester, "The JoyfuU
Jewell," "Secrets of Chirurgery," "The Excellence of Physick and
Chirurgery," "Three curious Pieces of Secrets," "The Order to distill
oyles," " The Key of Philosophic " ; Baker's " The Newe Jewell of
Health " ; Vicary's " Englishman's Treasure " ; " An Hospital for the
Diseased " ; "A Rich Store-house or Treasury for the Diseased " ;


" Prcepositas his Practice " by Leonard Mascall, and others. There was
no lack of guides to health, if it could be attained or preserved by secrets
and receipts.

Mascall wrote other books on practical affairs such as the planting and
grafting of trees, "The Booke of Cattell" concerning the management
of live stock, horses, oxen, sheep, goats, hogs, " The Governmente of
Poultrie," probably the earliest treatise on the subject in English, "A
profitable Boke to take out spottes and staines," which is one of a set of
books to which reference is made below. To these may be added the
works on gardening by Thomas Hill, his " Parfite orderinge of Bees,"
his " Physiognomy," and other works. Another little tract similar to some
of these is "The Booke of Thrift, containing a perfite order, ... to profite
lands, and other things belonging to Husbandry," printed at London by
John Wolfe, in 1589.

In the seventeenth century the output of these books was greater than
ever. Occasionally they were respectable small quarto volumes, while
those in small octavo were for the most part chap-books. But though
cheaply got up they were sometimes decorated, if one may say so, with
a woodcut portrait or title-page, or frontispiece. Among the quartos may
be mentioned the late reprints of Hill's and Mascall's books on gardening,
on cattle and arboriculture, and Gervase Markham's works on farming, and
household economy. In this century too appeared Hill's " Legerdemain,"
which ran through so many editions that one might suppose the art of
conjuring was a much cultivated profession. Works on the secrets of
medicine were not wanting ; Brugis' " Marrow of Physic," Levens' " Path-
way to Health," Bonham's " Chyrurgian's Closet," the " Dispensatory " of
the two quacks, Salvator Winter and Francisco Dickinson, and reprints
of earlier treatises may serve as examples.

Of the little octavos and duodecimos which flowed from the press in a
copious stream, mention can be made of only a few that are more or less
typical. There were tlie works of John White, " lover of artificial


conclusions," as he styled himself, "Arts Masterpiece," "Arts Treasury
of Rarities and curious Inventions," which went through six editions at
least, "A rich Cabinet with variety of Inventions," which was in vogue
from 1651 to 1689, and " Hocus-Pocus," another book of tricks. There
were : "A choice Manual of rare and select Secrets in Physick and
Chyrurgery" by Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Kent, which, between
1653 and 1708 went through twenty-one editions; the parallel collection
of Queen Henrietta Maria, entitled "The Queen's Closet opened," with
about sixteen editions between 1655 and 17 13, and a certain T. P. who
compiled "The Accomplished Lady's Delight in Preserving, Physick,
Beautifying and Cookery" which ran from 1672 or 1673 to 1719, and had
ten editions. Salmon's " Polygraphice," a collection of receipts for a
number of Arts, was issued eight times between 1672 and 1701. Besides
these, reference may be made to Mrs. Hannah Wolley, or Woolley,
an entertaining person, and an adept in all feminine accomplishments,
who was the authoress of "The Cooks Guide," "The Gentlewomans
Companion," "The Ladies Delight, or a Rich Closet of Choice Experi-
ments and Curiosities," "The Ladies Directory," "The Queen-like
Closet," of which there were certainly five editions, all these books
appearing between 1664 and 1684. Nor should Sir Kenelm Digby be
forgotten, and his operator George Hartman, who between them published
"Chymical Secrets," "The Closet opened," "Choice and experimented
Receipts in Physick and Chyrurgery." There was also the revelation of
a thorough-going secret in his famous " Discourse on the Powder of
Sympathy," delivered at Montpellier and first printed in Enghsh in 1658,
a book said to be of the greatest rarity. The second edition appeared in
the same year, others came later and, with other books of Digby's, it was
translated into Dutch, French and German. Hartman compiled "A
Choice Collection of rare Secrets and Experiments," " The true Preserver
and Restorer of Health," " The Family Physitian, . . . containing some
hundreds of considerable Receipts and Secrets of great Value " which was
printed by Henry Hills in 1696, and from which we gather that the author


lived at Rotherhithe. There was Owen Wood's "An Alphabetical Book
of Physicall Secrets," of which five editions appeared between 1632 and
1656, when it was issued under the name of the Duchess of Lenox. This
book has caused me trouble, for Owen Wood has never got credit for his
labour, such as it was.

A representative book of Secrets is that by Thomas Lupton, "A
thousand notable things of sundry sorts," which was published in London
in 1596 and was often reprinted, the last issue I know of being dated
1815 ! What was the secret, or receipt, to which this book owed its
longevity, does not appear, but one would like to know it. It cannot
be owing to its intrinsic merit, for the book is a rifacimento of the
extravagancies of the old marvel-mongers.

Towards the close of the century a good many of the books of Secrets
were published by G. Conyers at the Ring in Little Britain, but with the
unpardonable omission of the date. Other publishers were John Starkey,
Edward Brewster, N. Boddington, T. Salusbury, T. Sowle, Andrew Sowle,
T. Passenger, W. Whitwood, N. Crouch, Gartrude Dawson, E. Tracy,
Charles Tyus, J. Blare, and many others. Among the chap-books were
"The way to save Wealth," attributed to Thomas Tryon, the author of
several curious essays, who in some of his ideas was far ahead of his time,
"The Complete Husbandman," "A New Book of Knowledge" full of
curious information and actually with a date, 1697. There were also more
receipt books for ladies, such as John Shirley's "AccompHshed Ladies
Rich Closet of Rarities," which enjoyed some popularity, "The Ladies
Companion, or Modern Secrets and Curiosities, never before made
Publick " concerned mainly with toilet secrets, " The Accomplished
Female Instructor," dated 1704, and "Arts Compleat Master-Piece,"
containing receipts for all sorts of purposes, and sold by James Hodges
at the Looking-glass on London Bridge.

On passing into the eighteenth century one encounters books different
in style and to some extent different in theme. Collections of medical


secrets almost disappear, but there are more on strictly practical subjects.
The term " secrets " is dropped, though it may occur in the course of a title.
But the titles now become of prodigious length and take the form of a table
of contents. They may have been handy for the readers of a hundred and
fifty or two hundred years ago, but they try the patience of the bibliographer
of the present time, who has to copy them. As might be expected too the
books are not attractive. There is a pretence at ornament which is not
only unnecessary, but is ugly.

There was a second flood of manuals of legerdemain, with the name of
H. Dean. At first the books were well enough, but as time went on the
issues became so bad that some were illegible.

Directions for the ladies and the good wives were supplied in such works
as "The whole Duty of a Woman," "The complete Housewife," which, more
by merit than looks, managed to reach the fifteenth edition, "The Com-
plete Family Piece," which, in a duodecimo of six hundred pages, with an
overwhelming title-page for length and detail, gives a history of the active
side of country life in England a hundred and seventy years ago, and "The
Lady's Companion, or an infallible Guide to the Female Sex." "The
Young Ladies School of Arts " dealt with the refinements rather than the
necessities of daily life and is the converse of " The Farmers Wife or the
complete Country Housewife." This last contains directions about poultry,
about the preparing of pork, bacon and sausages, making wine, cyder, perry,
mum, mead, and so on, directions for the dairy, etc., etc., and then the
author blossoms into rhyme, like Mascall in his book on cattle :

Instructions full and plain we give

To teach the Farmer's wife
With satisfaction how to live

The happy country life.

There were other books on the fine arts : " The Handmaid to the Arts"
is mostly about painting ; "Valuable Secrets concerning Arts and Trades" is
also largely about painting though other topics are included. There are at
least half a dozen editions of this book. "The School of Wisdom " contains
a survey of the arts in general. All these books have ponderous title-pages


and are disagreeable examples of typograi)hy. There are more of the same
kind. " The Fountain of Knowledge or Complete Family Guide," which
begins with the Indian way of marking silk, linen or woollen, tells how to
breed game-cocks and singing birds, to restore an apparently drowned
person to life, gives rules for nursing, a cure for the small pox and a receipt
to remove freckles. This pamphlet is by " Sarah vSaunders, Mother of
seventeen Children, and brought them through all Diseases incident to
Children '" ; an excellent mother but weak in syntax. I have seen the first
edition, besides the sixth, which is in the British Museum. Amongst other
things it contains a description of the "expeditious or fountain pen," which
is, therefore, an old invention.

There were also "The New Handmaid to the Arts," "The School of
Arts," and " The Laboratory or School of Arts," this last adapted from the

In the first quarter or so of the last century books after the old fashion
still appeared, as, for example, "The Painters and Varnishers Guide," 1804,
from the French; the seventh edition in i8ioof"The Laboratory," just
mentioned ; " The Female Instructor," on manners, medicine, cookery and
domestic economy : " The Family Receipt-book," undated, a quarto of six
hundred pages in double columns, with an appalling title-page ; " 500
Useful and amusing Experiments in the Arts and Manufactures," by
George G. Cary. Books on fireworks, on conjuring, on the toilet, are
among the receipt books of the time.

All these and many more are of such a quality that interest in them falls
to a minimum, whether as regards their contents or their execution.

When, leaving chronology, we examine the contents of the books, they
appear to be about as varied as human wants and desires themselves, and to
be ready to provide efficient practical guidance for most of the contingencies
of every day life. A brief notice of a few of the subjects may be given.

The section of the literature which deals with the Secrets of Nature is a
remarkable one, for in it we see the method of descriptive Natural History


in its widest aspect, previous to the introduction of the more recent system
of observation and experiment. To the ordinary man the world is full of
marvels and secrets which he does not understand and of forces which he
cannot always control. These phenomena in the course of time were
observed, sometimes accurately, and interpreted in many ways, not always
conclusively. The familiar authorities from classical times are, of course,
Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny, Seneca and others. For the
medieval writers, Pliny was the chief guide, but all sources were drawn upon
by those who compiled, for popular delectation, narratives of strange appear-
ances and events. Such were the "Liber Aggregationis" of Albertus Magnus,
already alluded to, and in the sixteenth century the "Prodigies" of
Polydore Vergil and of JuHus Obsequens, the " Histoires Prodigieuses " of
Boaistuau, the "Occulta Naturae Miracula " of Levinus Lemnius of
Zierikzee, Johnson's " Cornucopise," and the "Secrets and Wonders of
the World abstracted out of Pliny" in English in 1587.

At the same time Arthur Golding translated Solinus and Pomponius
Mela, both of whose histories are storehouses of marvels. There were the
" Contemplation of Mysteries " compiled by Thomas Hill and printed by
Denham about 157 1, and the natural history of John Maplet of Cambridge,
called "A greene Forest," published in 1567. As early as 1563,
Dr. William Fulke, the controversialist and divine, wrote a book about
meteors. What is called the second edition appeared at London long after
in 1634 in a little black letter volume entitled " A most pleasant Prospect
into the Garden of Naturall Contemplation." It is divided- into five
sections and describes meteors, fiery meteors, ayry impressions, watry
impressions, such as clouds, rain, snow, springs, lakes, rivers, the sea, and
earthly meteors, such as metals and stones. Hill's book resembles Fulke's
sufficiendy to make it worth while comparing them.

A century later, about 1670, came the popular manuals with the initials
R.B., or the name R. Burton, published by Nath. Crouch and indeed
assigned to Crouch himself as the author.


The self-assigned task of all the writers was to record astonishing and
unusual events, signs and wonders in the heavens above and in the earth
and sea below, portents, the birth and prophesyings of monsters, and such
like. The writers did not seek to verify their reports, or, if they ran
counter to ordinary experience and observation, to criticize them, but set
them down for what they were worth, to be accepted or rejected. Such
collections, if we may judge by their number and variety, were popular and
must have supplied what was required, strange and startling narratives, true
or not did not matter, just as one accepts an impossible romance now for
the passive excitement it affords.

One of the most singular of these collections is in French and it
appeared in 1504, entitled " Le livre des Merveilles du Monde," the book

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Online LibraryJohn FergusonBooks of secrets. A paper read before the Bibliographical Society, April 21, 1913 → online text (page 1 of 3)