Trading in Secrets Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge

Harvard University, 78 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.
Isis (Impact Factor: 1.05). 12/2012; 103(4):668-86. DOI: 10.1086/668962
Source: PubMed


This essay explores the significance and function of secrecy and secret sciences in Jewish-Christian relations and in Jewish culture in the early modern period. It shows how the trade in clandestine knowledge and the practice of secret sciences became a complex, sometimes hazardous space for contact between Jews and Christians. By examining this trade, the essay clarifies the role of secrecy in the early modern marketplace of knowledge. The attribution of secretiveness to Jews was a widespread topos in early modern European thought. However, relatively little is known about the implications of such beliefs in science or in daily life. The essay pays special attention to the fact that trade in secret knowledge frequently offered Jews a path to the center of power, especially at court. Furthermore, it becomes clear that the practice of secret sciences, the trade in clandestine knowledge, and a mercantile agenda were often inextricably interwoven. Special attention is paid to the Italian-Jewish alchemist, engineer, and entrepreneur Abramo Colorni (ca. 1544-1599), whose career illustrates the opportunities provided by the marketplace of secrets at that time. Much scholarly (and less scholarly) attention has been devoted to whether and what Jews "contributed" to what is commonly called the "Scientific Revolution." This essay argues that the question is misdirected and that, instead, we should pay more attention to the distinctive opportunities offered by the early modern economy of secrecy.

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