We have a secret! Blog post on an item in the Books of Secrets exhibit, by student curator Jarrell Ng
Something that has both puzzled and fascinated me throughout this course is how the professors of secrets and their books became so authoritative even though many of their recipes were fantastical, and probably never worked. The charlatans especially - as depicted in Jan van de Velde’s print “The Quack: Populus vult decipi” (1603-1641) - were blatant in their fraudulence, performing songs, comedy and cheap carnival tricks to attract crowds, “appropria[ting] recipes from earlier books of secrets”, and of course fabricating secrets of their own. How could people have been so enthralled by such falsities, and why was such a market of lies so sustainable?
A common narrative advanced is that the theatricality of their displays - “the mountebanks put on a slapstick comedy, using the characters, devices and gigs of what would later be called the commedia dell’arte” - made the ciarlatania beloved source of entertainment for European publics. Sure, this may account for their popularity, but it fails to explain why people took the further step of actually spending moneyto purchase their phony remedies. Van de Velde’s print seems to acknowledge this; it de-emphasizes the theatricality of the charlatan’s display - he stands back with his arms on his waist, allowing his nostrums to speak for themselves - subtly hinting at the possibility that people were actually drawn to the mountebank’s secrets themselves, and not just beguiled by his diversions.
Perhaps then, those who purchased these false secrets were simply gullible; naive or desperate enough to be convinced of their authenticity. Yet, given the farcical methods that charlatans used to ‘prove’ their remedies, to merely conclude that all their customers were foolish seems unsatisfying. Even the professors of secrets, who made a more deliberate effort to establish legitimacy than the ciaralatani- and were therefore less obviously unreliable - should, conceivably, have lost their credibility once people tested out the recipes in their books and discovered that many were ineffective. Thus, unless one believes that European publics at the time were truly that half-witted, gullibility offers a painfully inadequate explanation for why commercialized secrets sustained such popularity; as we know, no less than 104 editions of Alessio Piemontese’s work were published from 1555 to 1699.
Van de Velde’s simple yet sophisticated proposition however, that people want to be deceived (populus vult decipi),is very compelling. As we know, the invention of print did not result in the universalspread of knowledge, or a complete shift away from esotericism. Many constituencies still jealously guarded their secrets from ‘vulgar’, common folk - the Church for instance fought to maintain control of occult forces, while alchemists used decknamenand allegory to obscure the truth of their ‘divine revelations’. Thus, when the professors of secrets published their discoveries in step-by-step recipes within inexpensive books, and the charlatans sold magical remedies in the piazza at affordable prices, they gave the masses a sense of empowerment that went above and beyond the actual utility of the secrets traded. The effectiveness of the recipes or potions was ultimately of little consequence, because what customers in the marketplace were searching for were perhaps not pharmaceutical, alchemical or agricultural recipes per se, but the delightful delusion that it was within their reach to manipulate Nature and control the world around them. The spread of cheap, tradable secrets took power away from traditional authorities such as the Church, and gave those deemed unworthy of such higher pursuits the opportunity to partake in the fashionable hunt for the secrets of nature - the ‘swines’ now had access to the ‘pearls’, and the powerful symbolism of this transition made the question of the pearls’ authenticity largely inconsequential.
There is something thoroughly romantic about this narrative - certainly much more romantic than the suggestion that people were simply too stupid to realize they were being deceived - and it is perhaps the same romanticism that drives our enduring obsession with the books of secrets today.
Eamon, W. (1994). Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton University Press. p.243.