Bodleian New History eBooks: April 2020 – Science and the Occult

Bodleian New History eBooks: April 2020 – Science and the Occult

Iam patet horrificis quae sit via flexa Cometis;

Iam non miramur barbati Phaenomena Astri.

Now we know what curved path the frightful comets have;

No longer do we marvel at the appearances of a bearded star.

Edmund Halley, “Ode on This Splendid Ornament of Our Time and Our Nation, the Mathematico-Physical Treatise by the Eminent Isaac Newton.”

The “Scientific Revolution” is understood to consist of a series of events during the early modern period that marked the emergence of modern sciences through revolutionary developments in such areas as mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, human anatomy and chemistry. Its starting point is usually taken to coincide with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, while its end point is the publication of another revolutionary study, Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. It would be quite easy to imagine the Scientific Revolution as the great divide between the occult and the scientific – with magic, alchemy, astrology, and  any other “practical arts held to involve agencies of a secret or mysterious nature” (as the OED defines the term “occult sciences”) on the one side, and modern sciences like chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, and astronomy on the other. But the divide, if it even exists, is nowhere near as neat.

For one, esotericism, occultism and mysticism are very much alive and flourishing, and making headlines even in the 21st century: last year US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ birth horoscope, drawn up by self-described psychic and astrologer Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, made “Astrology Twitter” go wild, while a coven of Brooklyn witches publicly hexed then-Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh. Alternative medicines from acupuncture to homeopathy, and from Ayurveda and therapeutic magnets to faith healing are also experiencing a considerable revival – “healing crystals”, for example, endorsed and commercialised by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Adele and Kim Kardashian, have  become a (often shady) billion-dollar industry.

For another, evidence keeps mounting that the so-called occult sciences, especially alchemy, lie at the heart of much of the emerging modern science, and that even canonical figures of the Scientific Revolution pursued chrysopoeia seriously. Newton is a case in point – the Indiana University website Chymistry of Isaac Newton provides online access of his impressive collection of alchemical manuscripts, and even the The Cambridge Companion to Newton concedes that “[a]lthough his long engagement with alchemy did not lead Newton to his fundamental discovery of universal gravitation, it had highly significant impacts on other aspects of his science, particularly in the realms of optics and in the study of the Earth’s internal processes.” (p. 455) The “Father of Modern Chemistry”, Robert Boyle, is a similar case – surviving papers show clearly that his work on transmutational processes was integrated into his chemical research, and “document unambiguously Boyle’s lifelong chrysopoetic activities, his search for the philosophers’ stone, and his attempts to contact adepti.” (Principe, 2011, p. 308). This relationship of science with the occult does not even start and end with the Scientific Revolution – some of the outstanding figures of the very early history of medicine in Islam in the 9th and 10th century have an equal importance as alchemists, and the New Cambridge History of Islam, in its chapter on “Occult Sciences and Medicine”, labels the Islamic tradition of alchemy as “most important for the history of science”. On the other side, Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory argues convincingly that as modern nuclear physics was born, the trajectories of science and occultism briefly converged: in their joint 1902 papers on “The Radioactivity of Thorium Compounds”, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy demonstrated how radioactive elements disintegrate, releasing radioactivity and transforming into other elements in the process, a process now known widely under the same name as the supposed change of base metals into gold in alchemy – “transmutation”.

In the spirit of such relationships, this selection of History eBooks newly purchased by the Bodleian on the wider topic of “Science and the Occult” includes studies from classic occult subjects such as demononolgy and witchcraft, discussions of the occult sciences and their relationship with modern science, and books on the Scientific Revolution itself.

The Occult

We are starting off with one of the “classics” of the history of witchcraft, Demonolatry: An Account of the Historical Practice of Witchcraft, a new 2008 edition of Ashwin’s English translation of Nicolas Remy’s 1595 Daemonolatreiae, an amplification and update of the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, and the leading witchcraft handbook of its day. In addition to defining the black arts and their practitioners, making it possible to “recognize” witches, it offers civil and religious authorities directives for persecution of the accused and punishment of the condemned – and if you need any more incentive to read, Remy’s collection of notes, opinions, and court records features lurid details of satanic pacts and sexual perversity as well as the particulars of numerous trials. Lynda Roper’s Witch Craze (2004) then illustrates how handbooks like these were put into practice, offering a gripping account of the pursuit, interrogation, torture, and burning of witches during the 16th and 17th centuries in Southern Germany. Drawing on hundreds of original trial transcripts, Roper examines the lives, families, and tribulations of the condemned witches, analysing the psychology of witch-hunting, and discussing how the depiction of witches in art and literature has influenced the characterization of elderly women in our own culture.

Religion, the Occult, and Science

Another classic study of the subject, this one concentrating on the 16th and 17th centuries in England, is Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic, now also available as an eBook through SOLO. Thomas analyses the connections between magic and popular religion at a time the Protestant Reformation worked to take the magic out of religion, and science and rationalism also began to challenge the older systems of beliefs held by people on every level of English society. Staying with the topic of religion, but moving a bit further into the realm of science as well as into the 18th century is Rob Iliffe’s Priest of Nature, which focuses on an often-neglected side of Isaac Newton, his private religious convictions that set him at odds with established law and Anglican doctrine. Iliffe’s discussion of Newton’s long-suppressed writings on his theological positions sheds light on the relationship between faith and science at a formative moment in history and thought, and the theological discussions that dominated Newton’s age, giving an insightful picture of the spiritual views of a man who fundamentally changed how we look at the universe.

The Occult Sciences

Two of the books newly available as eBooks discuss some of the classic occult sciences – Secrets of Nature (2001) offers eight essays on various aspects of the disciplines of alchemy and astrology in early modern Europe, from the work of Renaissance astrologer Girolamo Cardano to the astrological thinking of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, the history of the Rosicrucians and the influence of John Dee, the work of medical alchemist Simon Forman, and the existing historiography of alchemy. Connecting the occult science of alchemy with the modern scientific area of chemistry, Bruce T. Moran’s 2005 Distilling Knowledge looks past contemporary assumptions and prejudices to determine what alchemists were actually doing in the context of early modern science between 1400 and 1700. His examination of the ways alchemy and chemistry were studied and practiced show a shared territory between their two disciplines in the way the respective practitioners thought about the natural world, and even exchanged ideas and methods – to a point where he argues for accepting alchemy, on its own terms, as a demonstrative science.

The Scientific Revolution

Finally there are two books which focus on the Scientific Revolution itself. John Henry’s 1997 seminal study The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science is a concise but wide-ranging account of all aspects of the Scientific Revolution from astronomy to zoology, and offers a guide to the most important aspects of the Scientific Revolution. Its 3rd revised and extended 2008 edition, which takes into account the latest scholarship and research and new developments in historiography, is now available as an eBook on SOLO. The 2000 volume Rethinking the Scientific Revolution, however, challenges some of the traditional historiography of the Scientific Revolution – the papers collected here reconsider canonical figures from Copernicus to Robert Boyle and especially Newton, moving from their ideas on alchemy and astrology to the influences, ideas and attitudes towards religion, theology and philosophy during this seminal period of European intellectual history.

You can find all books newly available as eBooks on our LibraryThing shelf, or check out the tag pages for “witchcraft“, “Scientific Revolution” or “alchemy” for more books on this topic!

One thought on “Bodleian New History eBooks: April 2020 – Science and the Occult

  1. Our reader Philip Hunt has this interesting and fun comment on the topic:

    Of course, today is WALPURGISNACHT: the second most occult night of the year after 31 October.

    British Intelligence ( Dennis Wheatley) were not averse to using the occult in various degrees in 1940-44 to defend Christian civilisation vs The Third Reich.
    1 1940 white which coven at Burley in New Forest : cast spell to create a magic occult force field in the English Channel vs Operation Sealion ( it failed to stop the German landing of a couple of dingies in 1943 vs the Iof W radar tower…the only landing in England admitted by HMG but that only recently)
    2 1944 last prosecution under Witchcraft Act of a lady black witch for allegedly leaking her powers to not help British ie Christian cause sufficiently well to satisfy Mr Churchill.

    Mr C always made clear that in upholding Christian civilisation vs the Third Reich, he was happy to accept any useful help: ranging from animals, ex Nazis, Nazis opposed to Hitler, atheists, Communists, Jewish people, white witches, black witches, Satanists …and so on. Even Monty….and Monty was difficult sometimes!

    His military Chief of Staff to him as Minister of Defence, Gen Ismay, said that he only insult Mr C didnt throw at him when Mr C felt his staff were not winning quickly enough for Mr C’s temper was

    ” A warlock…I dont know what one is, but it must be pretty bad ”

    Ismay to Mountbatten.


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