This week’s blog is about a volume that I stumbled across whilst working in the storerooms last week. I was initially going to write about Micrographia which is one of my favourite books in the Early and Fine Printing Collections. Micrographia was written by Robert Hooke in 1665 and was the first book published by the recently formed Royal Society. It revealed a mysterious microscopic world unseen by human eye with its incredibly detailed etchings of plants, insects and mineral and is a wonderful example of the work from the Scientific Revolution when experiments and empirical data began to be seen as essential to understand the world.
When I went to retrieve Micrographia a volume called Natural Magick stored a couple of shelves down caught my eye and intrigued, I took it down to the office to have a look. Natural Magick was originally written in Latin by John Baptist Porta (Giambattista Della Porta) from Naples. Porta was born in about 1535 and was a polymath who wrote on subjects as wide-ranging as cryptography, military engineering, distillation and agriculture as well as writing seventeen plays.
Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) is his most famous work. We have a copy of the expanded edition written in 1559 and first published in English in 1659. Our volume was printed for John Wright next to the sign of the Globe in
Little-Britain [London] in 1669.
Inside the contents describe and offer advice on a wide range of subjects. The volume contains information relating to chemistry including changing metals, distillation, counterfeiting gold and precious stones which includes a lot of information about enamelling. Physics is also covered in topics such as load-stones, ‘strange glasses’ and pneumatic experiments. The book goes beyond this to other topics, the two which most struck me were the sections on invisible writing and beautifying women.
The invisible writing section includes ways to make ink which will disappear after a certain amount of time or be revealed with specific circumstances and how to use codes to hide messages in plain sight. It also contains a section on how to open letters and shut them again without arousing suspicion by faking seals and counterfeiting handwriting .
The advice given on how to beautify women is quite alarming with suggestions to dye grey hair black through the application of leeches ‘that have lain corrupt in the blackest wine sixty daies’ or if you would have long black hair to ‘take a green Lizard, and cutting off the head and tail, boyl it in common oil and anoint your Head with it.’ He also advises on how to correct the ill scent of the arm-pitts as ‘the stink of the arm-holes makes some women very hateful’. The last chapter of this book is how to have sport against women by turning their face green or making their hair fall out.
Porta’s writing is a fascinating combination of knowledge from ancient and classical texts such as Pliny the Elder with more contemporary experimental observations. In contrast to Hooke who only included observations he had made himself. Porta who was writing 100 years earlier appears to have attempted to survey as much knowledge as possible through a variety of disciplines including literature, philosophy and folklore. Porta often comments on old theories which have been disproved but to our modern understanding much of the advice which remains still seems incredibly unscientific and strange. Because of this curious mixture Natural Magick is a fascinating insight into this period of change as well as into the concerns of people living at the time.
If this has piqued your curiosity you can view a scanned edition which is very similar to our own online here. You are also very welcome to book an appointment for this or any of the other early and fine printing books in our collection through the Wolfson Centre. We are currently working on making the indexes for these collections available online through the website, until this is achieved please email any queries about these collections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
References to our copies
Robert Hooke, Micrographia 2nd ed (1667) AQ 094/1667/6
John Baptista Porta, Natural Magick (1669), AQ 094/1669/3
Senior Assistant, Archives and Collections