Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2014
Instruments and Arts of Inquiry: Natural History, Natural Magic and the Production of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe
Merchants of Light and Mystery Men: Bacon’s Last Projects in Natural History
This essay explores the natural history project that Bacon undertakes in the last part of his life. After setting aside the Novum organum and the attempt to set out a method of interpreting nature in detail, Bacon turned to the project of outlining what a natural history should look like. Part of this project involved the composition of some natural histories to serve as models of what a natural history should look like. He published two of six exemplary histories he planned, the Historia vitae et mortis and the Historia ventorum. Both of these are very carefully organized works in learned Latin. However, shortly after his death, William Rawley, his literary executor, published Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, presented as “a natural history in ten centuries.” The style of this work is altogether different from the Latin natural histories: it is in English, not Latin, and, as Rawley put it in his letter to the reader, “it may seeme an Indigested Heap of Particulars.” In this essay, I discuss the relations between the formal Latin natural histories and the Sylva. Appealing to the structure of Salomon’s House in the New Atlantis, published in the same volume as the Sylva, I argue that the Sylva Sylvarum represents the very first stages of constructing a natural history, while the Latin natural histories represent later stages in the process, where the observations, experiments, and other materials collected from various sources are arrayed in a more orderly and systematic fashion.