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
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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ABSTRACT: What distinguished the true alchemist from the fraud? This question animated the lives and labors of the common menâand occasionally womenâwho made a living as alchemists in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire. As purveyors of practical techniques, inventions, and cures, these entrepreneurs were prized by princely patrons, who relied upon alchemists to bolster their political fortunes. At the same time, satirists, artists, and other commentators used the figure of the alchemist as a symbol for Europeâs social and economic ills. Drawing on criminal trial records, contracts, laboratory inventories, satires, and vernacular alchemical treatises, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire situates the everyday alchemists, largely invisible to modern scholars until now, at the center of the development of early modern science and commerce. Reconstructing the workaday world of entrepreneurial alchemists, Tara Nummedal shows how allegations of fraud shaped their practices and prospects. These debates not only reveal enormously diverse understandings of what the ârealâ alchemy was and who could practice it; they also connect a set of little-known practitioners to the largest questions about commerce, trust, and intellectual authority in early modern Europe.
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