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Revealing Secrets: NMSU professor pioneers new field based on Medieval and Renaissance-era 'books of secrets'

Sometimes, great secrets can be hidden in plain sight.


Book Cover
William Eamon's 1994 publication of "Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture" created a new field of historical research.
Book Cover
William Eamon's pioneering work in historical research is acknowledged by historians in a recently released book of essays, "Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800."
Photo of William Eamon seated from the waist up
William Eamon is the dean of NMSU's Honors College, NMSU's Distinguished Achievement Professor and Regents Professor of History. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

However, those secrets can be found only if one is willing to look for them, as New Mexico State University's William Eamon discovered when he delved into the world of so-called "books of secrets." In the process he has created a new field of historical research that was heralded with his 1994 book, "Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture."

Today, almost 20 years later, Eamon's pioneering work is being acknowledged by a host of historians in a recently released book of essays, "Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800."

To begin to understand Eamon's work, one has to travel more than 500 years into the past to discover what makes a book of secrets. Although books of secrets can be traced to the first century A.D., they proliferated in Europe during the late-Medieval and Renaissance era.

"Essentially, books of secrets are recipe books," said Eamon, who is NMSU's Distinguished Achievement Professor, Regents Professor of History and dean of the Honor's College. "That is, they were compilations of recipes and 'experiments' in alchemy, metals, cosmetics and just about every craft imaginable. Hundreds of them were published in the Renaissance following the invention of printing, and they turn up in the libraries of all of the leading figures in science during that period."

Many of these books of secrets dealt with "natural magic," specifically with healing. The "recipes" in these books laid the groundwork for the empirical medical research that would prove so critical in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the contents of these books didn't fit into the prevailing model of scientific research that was on the rise between 1500-1700, so they gradually faded into the background.

"Secrets and experiments didn't fit the mathematical methods that were conventionally used in natural philosophy, which is what science was called then," Eamon said.

In the case of books of secrets devoted to the healing arts, doctors of the time largely ignored them. While huge advances were being made in mathematics, astronomy and physics, medical science up until the 19th century remained tied, for the most part, to the teachings of the ancient Roman physician Galen, who believed in bodily humors and popularized bloodletting to cure illnesses.

"There was a revolution in anatomy during the Renaissance, but curiously, it had little impact on the way doctors treated disease," Eamon said. "Books of secrets advanced a more active form of treatment, as opposed to conventional methods, which relied on dietary and behavioral adjustments to cure disease ? the idea of regimen. Books of secrets, on the other hand, offered recipes that supposedly cured symptoms and diseases directly and specifically. It entailed a radically new concept of disease. Physicians, being wedded to the Galenic model, saw 'secrets' and the implicit doctrine underlying drug therapeutics to be a threat."

In his studies, Eamon discovered that books of secrets concerning natural magic also were receiving scant attention from modern historians, and thus truly became overlooked, if not forgotten.

"Since they did not concern the 'big ideas' that historians were used to dealing with back then, they did not attract the attention of historians of later generations," Eamon said. "They simply rested on the shelves of academic libraries, dusty and untouched by historians for all these centuries. Historians of science were more interested in figures like Galileo and Newton, while my book dealt with alchemists and craftsmen and meager, seemingly insignificant recipes."

In his book, "Science and the Secrets of Nature," Eamon said that in rescuing "these humble works from complete obscurity, I showed that books of secrets were in fact very important to the development of science, for they were vehicles of an empirical tradition embodying the technique, results and ideas of artisans, surgeons, midwives and alchemists that transformed science from a discipline tied to ancient authority into a modern experimental science."

To his surprise, Eamon's work ignited a new field of interest not only among scientific historians, but also historians from other disciplines, artists and musicians. World Music singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt named a 1997 CD of her music "The Book of Secrets," and the liner notes acknowledged Eamon's book as an inspiration.

In 2008, Eamon's work was recognized in a two-day conference dedicated to books of secrets from the Renaissance held at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He gave the keynote address at the conference, which resulted in the new book of essays, "Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800." Eamon wrote the book's lead essay, "How to Read a Book of Secrets."

While Eamon is pleased about blazing a trail in a new historical field, he is more excited about the fresh scholarship being generated.

"A lot of research in this field has been done since the publication of my book," Eamon said. "The research represented in the book of essays is entirely new and pioneering. Most of it is being done by younger historians, such as Alisha Rankin of Tufts University, one of the book's editors. It is extremely gratifying to me that my work has inspired this new generation of historians of science. They are the torchbearers of a new interpretation of the Scientific Revolution, and I'm proud to have been able to contribute to this new direction in scholarship."