This blog post was written by Kella Lawrinson and Simone Monti, Graduate Library Trainees at the Warburg Institute as part of a series of posts on the theme of ‘Human Discovery: Experiencing Science’ for History Day 2022.
Nowadays, we tend to think of science as something distant and difficult, the realm of a group of experts debating over things that are too far away from our common understanding. And yet, science is all around us, not only as the rational explanation of natural laws and events, but also, more directly, in terms of the scientific discourse, which, in our contemporary hyperconnected, digital societies is both accessible and omnipresent. But has it always been like this? How did people get in contact – experience – science before the modern telecommunication systems? ‘Books’ is a relatively safe answer (at the risk of sounding biased!). Within this broad category, however, some books, for their specific format and nature, are particularly close to the reader’s everyday life and experience: handbooks. The Oxford English Dictionary describes handbooks as ‘a book small enough to be easily portable and intended to be kept close to hand, typically one containing a collection of passages important for reference or a compendium of information on a particular subject’. They were books carried in one’s pocket and read again and again: their portability, as well as their reference character (another name they go by is ‘pocket reference’), make them the bridge between different sciences and people’s everyday life experience. This is why we decided to focus on this type of book, examining some interesting and peculiar examples from our library.
Experiencing science within the collections of the Warburg library inevitably sends us to one of its most famous sections, Magic and Science (Classmark F, see Fig. 1). In Medieval and Renaissance times, the two categories were hardly the opposites that they are today, but instead intersected in many ways. The most emblematic case, and one of fundamental importance within the Library’s collections, is that of astronomy and astrology, two disciplines that contrary to their modern definitions were intrinsically connected and their mentions essentially interchangeable. Their success and popularity in Medieval and Renaissance times (but also before) derived from their claim over predicting the future: the scientiae divinatoriae, a series of disciplines that used the astrological knowledge (star signs, planet alignments, etc) to divinare (‘foretell’) the future, were not only a very popular practice but were also given a veritable meaning.
One of these divinatory sciences widely represented in our collection is Chiromancy (the Renaissance name for modern palmistry), as we can see in our first example, a handbook edition of Jean Belot’s treatise Familieres Instructions pour apprendre les sciences de Chiromance et Physiognomie (1619). We know very little about this French author – he was the parish priest of Milmonts and (maybe self-defined?) ‘professeur aux sciences divines et celestes’ (‘professor of divine and celestial sciences’) –, but his works were very popular and went through many editions: from the first one of the Familieres Instructions alone in 1619, to his complete work, Les oeuvres de M. Iean Belot, in 1640, and then 1647, 1662, 1669, 1688 and 1704. In his Familieres Instructions, Belot connected the science of Chiromancy to that of Astrology: in the introduction, he declares that the latter is necessary to theoretically ground and understand the former, so he will refer to it in his treatise so that the reader could be introduced to the main principles of this science.
In our library, we hold the 1669 edition of Belot’s Les oeuvres (classmark FMH 240): part of Warburg’s original collection, the copy appears to have had a previous owner in eighteenth-century French historian Charles Henneguier, whose ex-libris appears on the titlepage (Fig. 2).
The book opens with a portrait of the author and a dedication to Monseigneur de Lomenie (probably Henri-Auguste de Loménie de Brienne, 1594-1666, as the dedication was already present in the 1640 edition), but the highlights of this edition are the marvellous, at times eerie, illustrations to the text on Chiromancy, from the one illustrating the figures of the Zodiac (Fig. 3) to the full-page depiction of a skeleton illustrating the connection between the seven planets and the body (Fig. 4). The protagonist, however, is the foldable representation of the hand with the Zodiacal signs (Fig. 5): the strange symbols represent the planets and indicate the areas of the hand where to find the answers to the major questions of life (health, love, way of dying, etc).
Another branch of divinatory sciences found its focus in people’s names, the so-called Onomancy. In our collection, we hold a handbook on this divinatory science by Veronese mathematician, astrologist and physician Annibale Raimondo, the Opera dell’antica e honorata scienzia di Nomandia (1649). We hold the second edition of the work (classmark FMH 175), published in 1651 by Venetian publisher Giovita Rapirio. The tone of the work, as well as its function, however, appear radically different, in a way that focusses more on the experience of science rather than science itself. The ‘piacevole operetta’ (‘pleasant little work’) is essentially a book for playing on social occasions, telling the fortune or answering questions of the participants. This light-hearted fruition of the work is somehow suggested by the author himself. In the introduction, Raimondo states that he does not want to ‘rimbrogliare il cervello’ (‘tangle the brain’) of the reader, but rather to give them a way to ‘passare il tempo’ (‘pass the time’). In the following pages, he gives some information about astrology and the divinatory principle behind it, but only in order not to look like a ‘muzza fatica’, a ‘lazybones’. This section in fact is not essential for the fruition of the book, which can be appreciated also at a more superficial level, through the tables and captions (Fig. 6 and 7) that guide the reader through their investigation of the occult, foretelling meanings behind their names.
This must have been the use that the reader of our copy made of Raimondo’s work. The text does not present any annotations, but one on the title page, which expresses the dear and amused bond with the book (Fig. 8): the owner wrote a line by Petrarch’s Canzoniere (poem number 71) which in the original context describes the pleasures felt by the lover in contemplating the beloved’s eyes, ‘mi è più caro il morir che viver senza’ (‘death is dearer to me than is life without’). The citation, not to be taken too seriously, perfectly embodies the delighted smiles and light-hearted entertainment that the book gave them in the convivial nights spent with friends and acquaintances.
This ludic dimension brings us to the last example of experiencing divinatory sciences that we will see today, François D’Hervé’s Le Pantheon et Temple des Oracles ou Preside Fortune (1625). The author was a knight of the order of Saint John of Jerusalem and spent years in captivity in a Turk prison, where he wrote his work. We can imagine him in his cell trying to guess his own uncertain future, and then once free transforming this practice according to his new condition, into a more cheerful occupation to enjoy at court. D’Hervé’s book would indeed address this audience: it is dedicated to none other than the King of France, Louis XIII, and, as the author mentions in his dedication, would sit in the King’s boudoir for four or five years before receiving a print edition. A handbook like the previous ones, D’Hervé’s work is characterised by an openly playful dimension, as made clear in the ‘Advertissement au Lecteur’ (‘Warning to the reader’), whose main aim is to explain how ‘iouïr du plaisir de ce Livre’ (‘to enjoy the pleasure of this Book’). The book is organised in sections and tables in order to direct the reader in a pleasant and amusing experience. It opens with the possible questions to ask about one’s own future. These are divided by gender, confirming traditional gender roles of the day (with men’s having a larger scope and women’s mostly focusing on love and family). Quite interestingly, the two series of questions do not follow one another, but run in parallel, the men’s on the left-hand side page and the women’s on the right-hand side page (see Fig. ): this suggests a specific fruition of the book, of a convivial occasion where male and female readers would alternate asking questions and read together the random answers, which are given in the following section, divided in numbered quatrains and organised by groups of Oracles (Fig. 10).
How does the book work then? We said ‘random answers’ because, as the author explains in his Warning, the reader would use dice, throwing three of them: the first would indicate which Oracle to consult, the second which page within the Oracle’s section, and the third the quatrain-answer on the page selected. Divinatory sciences have lost any apparent scientific ground and become a game to enjoy in good company. Notably, the copy of the book we hold has been annotated to make the playful activity even quicker and easier: the owner of the book has added indexes organised by name of the divinities and oracles and wrote the page number for each Oracle’s section (Fig. 11).
Another particularity of this copy is that it lacks a portrait of the king originally present in the edition: the lost illustration has left an imprint on the first page of the dedication, where we can recognise a tondo with the writing LVDOVICVS XIII, D. G. FRANCORVM ET NAVAR. REX INVICTVS CHRISTIANISSIM (Fig. 12). As the editor of the nineteenth-century edition of the book – a mysterious J.M. – informs us, many copies seem to have encountered the same destiny. Whilst telling us that our copy is not so special, this constitutes a very interesting case of systematic loss of a specific page within many copies of the same edition. We may ask who can have been so attentive and systematic in this operation of removal. The portrait has been in our copy long enough to leave a mark on the opposite page, but was probably already gone by 1858, when the nineteenth-century edition was prepared. Should we turn to the French revolutionaries to solve our mystery?
The human experience of astrology and astronomy are undoubtedly well covered in the ‘Magic and Science,’ category at the Warburg. However, this section also covers a wide range of other scientific fields including, but not limited to, alchemy, chemistry, zoology, botany and pharmacy, mathematics and the history of medicine. Each classmark contains further subdivisions exploring topics such as Mineralogy (FOH 2005), Anatomy (FEI 450), Ophthalmology (FEI 975) and Plague (FEI 1700).
Within the History of Medicine, the Gynaecology classmark (FEH 6180) holds Aristotle’s Compleat Masterpeice (1749), a manual that guides the reader through the experience of having children (see Fig. 13). Opening with an ‘anatomical description of the instruments of generation in both man and woman’, this guide explores the process of conception, pregnancy and childbirth. A detailed, anatomical description of the process is provided, alongside advice and tips for dealing with common problems. Advice included covers how to conceive, how to recognise, prevent and treat common diseases in pregnant women, illness in newborn children and what the manual describes as ‘unnatural labour’, where the baby’s head is in an inconvenient position, as well as what the midwife should do in the case of ‘monstrous birth’. In Chapter V, the guide offers advice for ‘how childbearing women ought to govern themselves during the time of pregnancy’, which includes guidance such as, ‘in general she avoids all meats which are too hot, or too cold and moist, such as sallads, spices and hot meats,’ as these ‘often cause the child to be born before its time.’
While not written by Aristotle, the seventeenth-century author uses him as a pseudonym, likely due to Aristotle’s reputation as a scientific authority, specifically his writings on animal reproduction. Pseudo-Aristotle, as this author has come to be known, became an early-modern bestseller and features multiple times in the Warburg’s holdings – this edition dates from 1749, published as the twenty-third edition. Aristotle’s Masterpiece is not the only Pseudo-Aristotle title held at the library. The Warburg also holds a related book, dated 1796, that contains four of the books written by the Pseudo-Aristotle. The classmark ‘FEH 6290’ holds eight books by this author, published from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries. The longevity of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, first published in 1684 as part of a trend towards discussing the role of the midwife, and the newly popular ‘man-midwife’ (see also Nicholas Culpepper’s Directory for Midwives and Jane Sharpe’s The Midwives Companion), illustrates the text’s impact on the experience of gynaecological science through handbooks and manuals. Whether or not this genre was popular among women readers (a heavily debated subject, see Mary Fissell, 2003), the pervasive nature of midwifery guides indicates that, as Elaine Hobby argues, ‘these books were a significant source of information about the body to the wider reading public.’
This brings us to the end of the Warburg’s Magic and Science section. As explored here, the category contains a variety of handbooks (and other texts) that demonstrate experiencing science, through a plethora of scientific disciplines, from astrology to gynaecology. However, the Warburg also holds handbooks representing the everyday experiences of science in its less conventional classmarks. Below will take a quick look at some experiences of science found in handbooks from classmarks Banqueting (DCH 250) and Air Communications (DGI).
Gifted to the library as part of a bequest from Elizabeth David, twentieth-century British cookery author and book collector, The Accomplisht Cook (1685) is an early modern cookery book filled with food science and featuring health and medical guidance. The copy held in the Warburg is a 5th edition, indicating the popularity of this unique guide, one of few cookery books published under the commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Written by Catholic chef Robert May, this handbook is organised into twenty-four sections, organised by a range of categories including method of cooking, type of food cooked and food for specific purposes.
The penultimate chapter, titled ‘Diet for the sick’, is perhaps the most overtly scientific. This chapter provides the reader with guidance for their health. It holds recipes that remain popular for illness, such as ‘a Broth for a Sick Body’ and ‘to stew a Cock against a Consumption’ (Chicken soup), marked as an ‘approved medicine.’ As well as medical advice, culinary science features in almost every chapter of this handbook. The author focuses on providing recipes with many alternative options, including sixteen ways to make pottage and ten different methods of making cheesecake, including with almond milk (although still using butter), indicating the survival of some dairy substitutes, likely for lent. Alongside this handbook, the whole Elizabeth David bequest contains a variety of cookery books across early modern and modern centuries, each holding different aspects of historical culinary and health science. If you are interested in the bequest there is plenty more to read, including some Warburg students and staff trying out recipes from these cookery books, available at the Warburg Blog, linked below.
Finally, found in ‘Air Communications’, a division of the ‘Transport’ classmark (DG), Taschenbuch der Luftflotten forms part of the original Warburg collection; the book holds the bookplate personally commissioned by Warburg (shown in Fig. 14).
This pocket guide, published in Munich, consists of a series of photographs and diagrams with short descriptions, giving the reader a quick insight into the variety of military planes, balloons, and engines used across Europe (See example of a French plane from 1913 in Fig. 15). This engineering and aeronautical information, in a small handheld size, is why we have chosen it to feature here.
Written in 1914 for publication in early 1915, this edition held at the Warburg is a ‘War edition’ of the series. Published in Germany in the early years of the Great War, this edition chose to omit new information about Germany, Austria, Hungary and Türkiye, hoping to prevent the information falling into enemy hands. Therefore, the book contains some aeronautical plans from these regions, but only those that had previously been published. Primarily, the pocketbook shares information about English and French air-military vehicles, although this is also likely incomplete as a result of wartime discretion. Despite this secrecy, the series of the Taschenbuch der Luftflotten gives a handheld insight into contemporary aeronautics, with this edition exploring the European Air-militaries on the cusp of war.
Handbooks, despite their common size and reference nature, serve a variety of purposes. Some, such as midwifery guides, were designed for use at work, or as a supplementary material to the profession. Personal interest is the key behind many others, including the introductory work Familieres Instructions and Taschenbuch der Luftflotten. Improving home life is another purpose, demonstrated here with cookery books. Through this variety of roles, handbooks are a helpful source for understanding how the science of the day was transmitted to people.
Here we have focused on the dedicated Magic and Science section at the Warburg, however, this is only a small sample of the related books available. And outside of this dedicated category there is plenty of science to be sought out too! If you would like to explore some more of the Waburg’s unique classification system, perhaps discover what science you might find in Tournaments, Book Illustration or Applied Art, don’t hesitate to visit the collection.
Elaine Hobby, ‘“Secrets of the female sex”: jane sharpe, the reproductive female body, and early modern midwifery manuals’, Womens Writing 8:2 (2001) pp. 201-212.
Mary E. Fissell, “Making a Masterpiece: The Aristotle Texts in Vernacular Medical Culture,” in Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene, ed. Charles E. Rosenberg (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) pp. 59-87.