We have a secret! Blog post on an item in the Books of Secrets exhibit, by student curator Nell Meosky
Levinus Lemnius (1505-1568) was a Dutch physician who served the community of Manhuissatraat for nearly fourty years, traveled throughout Western Europe, and was highly regarded for his work during epidemics in 1529, 1532, and 1537. Late in life and after his wife’s death, Lemnius went to seminary and became a priest, a transition which informs much of his most well-known book, De Occultis Naturae, which was first published in 1564. Nearly a century after Lemnius’s death, De Occultis Naturae (literally, “The Hidden Nature”) was translated into English by an unknown translator, and given the title The Secret Miracles of Nature. Later, the work would be combined with a German manual on midwifery to produce Aristotle’s Masterpieces.
Upon first glance, The Secret Miracles of Nature is an imposing book, much larger than other books of secrets of its day at approximately 11” by 7”. This is likely a sign that the printer was able to invest significantly in creating an impressive image for the book, supported by the robustness of the paper and binding that were used to construct it. Thanks to the reputation of Lemnius, who is described on the title page as “that great physician” and is acknowledged by scholars as well-respected, the printer was probably able to expect good sales of the book to higher class readers. The size of the book allows for more generous margins, which a reader could use to take notes on the recipes recorded within. The font of the text is somewhat larger than that of contemporary books of secrets, but not to scale with the size of the book, creating a formidable amount of reading to be done to reach the end of its 300-some pages. It does not appear, though, that the book was necessarily meant to be read from cover to cover in one setting, as it is made of up discrete recipes. The cover is worn and the edges of the pages, particularly at the very front and back of the book, appear almost charred, very brittle and dark. This suggests that the book was in fact used frequently, and the uneven staining of the pages hints that some of the sections may have been used more often than others. Although no readers’ names are recorded in the book, it seems to have been last owned by an individual around 1911, 250 years after its debut.
Lemnius (or the translator) organized the volume into four discrete books: the soul and its immortality; plants and living creatures; diseases, their symptoms and cures; and other rarities. There is also a “bonus book” at the end, containing rules for how a man should led his life. This book is particularly interesting because of Lemnius’s late-life career as a priest, and it begs the question of whether the four books were penned previously, with the fifth being added once Lemnius completed seminary. Within these books are many chapters, which are named quite descriptively and leave little room to imagine what is discussed on the pages indicated. This organization, and the abstract-like titles of chapters, makes it very easy to find the particular question that you are looking for an answer to – in fact, the titles could serve as something of an executive summary for those who do not wish to read the entire text. However, despite the clear organization of the books in their titles, their content overlaps. In book 1 (on the immortality of the soul), chapter V, Lemnius writes “of the strange longing of women with child, and their insatiable desire of things; And if they cannot get them they are in danger of life.” This chapter, while tangentially related to the soul because of the generation of a new soul through pregnancy, does not seem to quite fit the theme of the rest of the chapters of that book. However, after paging through the rest of the chapter, a logical flow begins to emerge: Lemnius begins with relationships between men and women, then to pregnancy and determination of gender (…the chapter on driving pests away from corn not withstanding).
In content, The Secret Miracles of Nature is highly comprehensive, blending natural knowledge with philosophy.The language of the forward is difficult and arcane, but the language of the chapters is often easy to follow and engaging, and Lemnius addresses the book to “those that practice physic, and all others that desire to search into the hidden secrets of NATURE for the increase of Knowledge.” Lemnius often makes references to Hippocrates when explaining his medical decisions, and in book 2 includes disease knowledge from the rare and mystical to the most mundane: on physical phenomena, unnatural vs. natural death, the virulence of epidemics, and drunkenness. These medical portions are interesting in their blending of observation and experience with belief and religious texts; for example, on pg. 108 in Book II Chapter X: Every filthy smell is not hurtfull to Man, Lemnius observes of smells that “for some of these will difusse contagions, and resist corrupt diseases. By the way, whence came the Proverb, that horns are burnt there.” Lemnius was an author of great medical and spiritual prowess, and does not shy away from sharing his wisdom of both kinds in this, his greatest work.
PC Molhysen and PJ Block,New Netherland biographical dictionary. Part 8. AW Sijthoff, Leiden 1930. Accessed Oct 27, 2013 https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/molh003nieu08_01/molh003nieu08_01_1789.php
2 Charlotte F. Otten, Hamlet and the Secret Miracles of Nature. Notes and Queries (1994) 41 (1):38-41.