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Reading the Natural World: ‘Natural Magic’

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Alchemy, astrology and other similarly ‘occult’ preoccupations that featured in the library of Smith would in Tudor times have been perceived in terms of natural magic. Long before the emergence of modern science, such preoccupations appeared to offer the ability to unlock the secrets of the natural world. Humanist scholars like Smith sought to deflect the religious censure that could ensue from these interests by arguing that their operation could be attributable, not to the supernatural, but to observable phenomena such as the motions of the heavens. The widespread currency of such beliefs supported the popularity of astrology, symbols of which can sometimes be found entered by Smith in the margins of his books. It was in 1549, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London (following the fall of the first Duke of Somerset in whose administration he had served), that Smith first turned to horoscopes. What Smith had once described as ‘the most ingenious art of lying’ became a source of comfort to which he returned, at times of stress, during the remainder of his life. So too were the medicinal distillations which he called his ‘waters’. Recipes from his notebooks reveal that these draughts of aqua vitae, given a second distillation with herbs and flowers from his garden, were remarkably close to modern-day gin.

Smith’s enthusiasm for chemistry left him vulnerable. In 1571 he was taken in by a scheme to transmute iron into copper, through which he hoped to achieve wealth and influence. In addition to the Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, Smith drew other powerful statesmen into his alchemical venture, and obtained a patent from Queen Elizabeth. Before finally relinquishing his dream, Smith had lost over a thousand pounds, together with considerable prestige.

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