Secret Knowledge: Medieval Scientific Development / by Tyler Wood

A shift in the history of science narrative to an idea that secret knowledge had a much more dominant role to play is a positive shift in reasoning to better understand science in the medieval and early modern European history. Historians have overlooked the secret knowledge and passed it off as unimportant to the history that was to lead to modern science. Alchemy and mysticism, magic and even astrology are cultures that were overlooked at first by modern historians, and now rediscovered as major players in the history of science and technological development in our past, much like the 'secrets of nature' genre of books were. The way I define the statement 'secret knowledge' is this; The learned peoples secrets of the trade, such as, craftsman's secrets not being shared with the public for reasons of keeping demand for yourself high or scholars knowledge kept from the masses by way of keeping it written in Latin, so as to keep the illiterate from reading it and desecrating this traditional knowledge passed down through the generations. I will argue that science as secret knowledge is a justified narrative for the history of science based on its necessity of the 'secrets' books to have flourished in the age of the printing press causing a push for more practical science.

Secret knowledge was the tradition of science until the advent of the printing press and that is one explanation of why the "Secrets of Nature" books were so popular for the masses, they were finally being 'let in' on the secret held for so long. "The books of secrets were among sixteenth-century Italy's most popular scientific writings" (Eamon, 161). So why were people eating this stuff up? Relative deprivation is my answer.

Much like the translation phase of Islam and later in Europe, 'new-to-them' ancient knowledge (not to be confused with what they called new knowledge, which was suspect because it wasn't ancient) learned from the past philosophers was a well sought after enterprise and a generally true social dynamic historically speaking. This, in a modern phrase, is relative deprivation, the understanding that what one has is not enough in relation to others' wealth, or knowledge, in our case. Eamon points this idea out on page 29, "Medieval intellectuals were conscious that theirs was a borrowed culture. They had inherited the Roman consciousness of the inferiority of their own intellectual tradition in comparison to that of ancient Greece." They, because of this dynamic in known society, yearned for the knowledge left to them by the ancients. These were secrets to the medieval scholars receiving this 'new' ancient knowledge. This knowledge was translated into Latin, which most people couldn't read, and taught at Universities, which most people couldn't afford. This created a society of learned people that had knowledge the masses couldn't and shouldn't know. They were subject to their own rules and excluded from taxes so as to only strengthen the barrier from them to the common people.

This was the same for the reason of God's secret knowledge as well, "The medieval polemic contra vanum curiositatem was premised on the assertion that secrecy was an inherent aspect of the creation, an idea that followed from, and in turn reinforced, the doctrine of the omnipotence of the divine will. Classically formulated by Augustine…" this doctrine claims that god has the sole right to his secrets, and can only will them to the people by revelation, not experience like Bacon had stated (Eamon, 65). This only solidified the ability to hold knowledge for the right people helping to create the exclusion of knowledge from the masses, because they can't understand "they can only grasp by their senses" (Averroes).

Merchants, artisans, craftsman, and other trades people were also a part of this tradition of safeguarding information from the masses. They would set up guilds to keep trade secrets from the competition or the lower classes. This social role of secrets kept some people in the dark no matter where you were in the social hierarchy of the middle ages. Much like the Pythagoreans that were sought after for their secret knowledge; the outsiders sought after the learned of the middle ages and had a curiosity of their knowledge.

When the advent of the printing press hit, it "permanently altered the distribution of cultural materials in society and facilitated exchanges of information between groups formerly kept apart by social and cultural barriers" (Eamon, 94). This gave rise to the "secrets" texts. These texts were people publishing the ideas of a certain tradesmen, Like Agricula of mining in De Re Metallica, or from the classics of the scholarly elite in the claim that the author had the 'secrets of nature' (Hevly Lecture, Nov. 30, 2004). There were struggles between real authors and plagiarists, but the major idea was that people that didn't have access to certain information before did now. An infamous author of these secrets in German vernacular was Walther Hermann Ryff, who wrote more books in his decade authorial life than is possible unless you are plagiarizing, he gave vernacular speaking and reading people access to scientific ideas previously reserved for the learned scholars. His work on anatomy, borrowing from Vesalius and Dryander, among others, was a start to common people understanding their own anatomy, which was, apparently, not of anyone in the scholars' society's concern before (Eamon, 96-7).

This was new information to the readers of these 'secrets' books, which, much like the earlier translators' motivation, made peoples curiosity compel them to buy and learn from the books of secrets. In relation to the people who still can't afford books the new owners of these books were doing better, and for most readers it was the practical uses of these books, some of which gave recipes for medical treatments, that really helped these books move. This dynamic was picked up on by the printers, which had to make money, and then the authors, who would adapt the information to suit the readers, and thus created the supply and demand mentality. This demand developed into the printers seeking new ideas completely. Eamon points out these links from print to cultural revolution in this passage:

Economic prosparity and urban growth brought about sharp increases in literacy rates, especially in the cities. Changing technologies pressured craftsmen to acquire new skills, many of which they could gain or improve by reading books…The winds of intellectual change were also propitious. The spread of humanism furthered the growth of schools and furnished a growing supply of scholarly texts for the nascent industry…So the competition of the marketplace, rather than purely intellectual considerations, determined which titles went to press. AS the demand for books grew – especially new titles – so too did the need for new copy, and the industry could meet only a small portion of it by translating classical works or, as frequently happened, by pirating the editions of other printers. Hence there emerged onto the literary scene the professional author who produced copy on demand. (Eamon, 96)

These authors were, because of demand, looking for the latest information for their works, like Ryff's anatomy, and thus furthering the push for scientific works. This push into the scientific revolution was aided by the idea of secrets withheld of the masses by the scholars and tradesmen with the influx of printing and the demand of the excluded trying to buy these books about the secret information the scholars held, which were nudged by relative deprivation. The later physicians were enthralled by the hunt for these secrets that "lay hidden in the innermost recesses of nature" as well, helping the process of research in science (Eamon, 234).  The demand for new knowledge was happening out of the realm of theology scholars so there could be no condemnation, but the church didn't mind anyways because technically these texts were being used for practical uses (i.e. as a handmaiden to theology). This helped create a demand for technology, perhaps like Remelli's machines, that had practical uses and were not in the translated versions of Greek texts. This was new knowledge brought on, at least in part, by the 'secrets of nature' book genre and the previously secret scientific knowledge of the previous generations.

Science as secret knowledge is the new narrative for the history of medieval and early modern European science because it would not have flourished without the help of the public demand for practical technology. This demand would have never happened without the printing press and the popularity of the genre of 'secret' books and the 'hunt' for natures secrets. The popularity of the 'secret' books probably would not have happened without the deprivation of the masses by the learned scholars and tradesmen of the generations past. So to discuss the science of the time and its rapid growth after the printing press is to talk about the 'secrets'. Therefore, the narrative of science as secret knowledge is a justified narrative based on 'secrets' being intertwined with science and inseparable in historic context.


Eamon. Science and the Secrets of Nature

Hevly. Professor at U.Washington