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Book of the Month

November 2003

John Bate

The Mysteries of Nature and Art

  London: 1635   
Sp Coll Ferguson Ai-b.53

This month we feature a technical compendium from the seventeenth century. Describing mechanical contrivances that are a mix of the useful and bizarre, it is illustrated throughout with charming woodcuts. The work is divided into four books that tackle the subjects of water works, drawing and painting, miscellaneous experiments, and  - appropriately for the month of November - the creation of fireworks.


Although it is a commonplace to describe the Renaissance as a time of fundamental transition, it is undisputed that the period's spirit of initiative and invention lead to significant advances in mechanics, chemistry and metallurgy, astronomy and surveying, the art of navigation, and the measurement of time. Innovations and developments in these areas were to pave the way for the industrial revolution. Technical manuals were produced with increasing proliferation throughout the early modern period, reflecting the progress of this technological growth. Indeed, the efforts of inventors and technicians became more effective thanks to the dissemination of printed treatises, beginning in the sixteenth century. Empirical works such as Ramelli's Le diverse et artificiose machine (or, as translated into English, The various and ingenious machines of Agostino Ramelli), originally printed in 1588, were incredibly popular and influential in the development of European mechanics and engineering.

detail from page 46: water clock

Bate's encyclopaedic work was similarly practical in nature. First printed in 1634, according to the title-page of the first edition its 'treatises' were 'partly collected, and partly of the authors peculiar practice and invention'; in the preface Bate states that he 'gathered it, practised, or found it out by industry and experience'.

The book featured here is a copy of the expanded second edition, printed by Ralph Mabb in London a year after the first. The fact that the work went through two editions so rapidly is testament to its original popularity. A small, economical and easily portable book, its additional material is found mainly in the first section on water works. A further augmented edition was produced in 1654. While containing further illustrations, this last edition is poorly printed and is not nearly so attractive as its predecessors.


pages 116 - 117: fireworks (fire wheels and flying dragons)

detail from page 118: how to make fire drakes

The second part of the work deals with fireworks 'for tryumph and recreation'. Originally developed in China, fireworks have been used to mark celebrations and spectacles for hundreds of years. The tradition of lighting bonfires on the anniversary of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5 echoes the triumphant fires lit on that night in 1605 by those celebrating the fact that their monarch, James I, had been saved from death. Over the years, more elaborate elements were introduced into the commemorative celebrations, including the burning of effigies of the conspirator Guy Fawkes and displays of fireworks.

Bate's work begins with an introduction to the basic principles of the nature of elements and instructions in choosing ingredients (such as saltpetre, brimstone, coals and gunpowder). Detailed directions and guidance on the composition of various kinds of fireworks follow. It is surprising to see how many devices still in use were familiar to Bate, including crackers, rockets and 'fire wheels'. Some devices, however, can only be described as ambitious; even Bate admits that the flying dragon (shown above) is 'somewhat troublesome to compose'.

title-page of book 2

page 128: three sort of fire-lances

The beginning of the section on fireworks boasts its own title-page. This is illustrated with a woodcut depicting a 'green man' wielding a fire club. With obscure and mythical origins, 'green men' dressed in foliage and garlands traditionally led processions of fireworkers from medieval times. Their role was in part to maintain order; according to one scholar, 'strewing fire from large clubs, they cleared the way for certain festive processions. The "wild men", "very ugly to behold" are described as having black beards and black hair, with garlands on their heads, and wearing costumes of green ivy.' The customary greeting amongst the firework fraternity is still 'stay green'.

frontispiece portrait of John Bate

This book is from the Ferguson collection. Predominantly a collector of alchemical and chemical works, Ferguson (who was Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University from 1874 to 1915) was also interested in books relating to the history of inventions and books of secrets. As well as collecting many examples of the genre, he gave a series of lectures on such books to the Glasgow Archaeological Society between 1896 and 1915. In his introductory talk he defends his belief in their importance, explaining that 'the history of practical invention and of technical progress is one which might well engage the attention of students of anthropology and antiquities, as it throws light on many points connected with the growth of social life and civilization'. He also succinctly defines the arcane terminology for such works as books of 'secrets', saying: 'the arts must be acquired by practice, and they are extended and improved by practice. Every one who exercises them comes to have special power and certain ways of doing things, which may enable him to surpass others who are  similarly engaged. These are his "secrets", which very often he cannot, or will not, reveal to others'.

detail from page 104: receipt for fireworks that burn on water 

Nothing is known about the author who revealed his 'secrets' in this work. His portrait appears only in this second edition, although as Ferguson tartly remarks it 'represents Bate, who, doubtless, was a decent law-abiding citizen, as a person for whom no villainy would be too great to perpetrate'.

detail from page 21: an engine to force water unto the top of a hill

Ferguson recommends this text as a 'book of genuine receipts', the contents of this volume being 'quite sensible and practical'. Bate was seemingly realistic in describing receipts and apparatus that he had actually tried and found would work - unlike some of his contemporaries 'who often gathered nothing else but mere nonsense'.

page 58: the water mill near the north end of London bridge

In the section on water-works are descriptions of various ingenious machines that convey and force water. Depicted above, for example, is an engine 'whereby the water of any spring may be forced unto the top of a hill'; it consists of 'forcers' fastened to irons that are in turn attached to brass barrels in hollow posts set in water: these force water to be carried in lead pipes. Other devices detailed include weather glasses, water clocks, fountains, siphons, pumps, waterwheels, and watermills. Bate made a model of the water mill shown to the left after he saw it at London bridge  in 1633. He describes it as utilizing the ebb and flow of the River Thames, thereby conveying the water 'above two miles in compasse, for the use and service of that city' and praises it as 'seeming very good'. The London bridge waterworks were in fact well known; they were expanded from time to time and only demolished when the bridge was rebuilt in 1822.

detail from page 13: engine to draw water out of a deep well

But while many of the devices described are eminently practical, there are also several rather more outlandish machines included, designed expressly for 'recreation and delight'. Thus, we find 'experiments' for 'producing sounds by ayre and water'. Shown here are several such devices, such as that 'whereby severall voyces of birds cherping may be heard' as well as a construction 'whereby the figure of a man standing on a basis shall be made to sound a trumpet'. Another elaborate machine is a depiction of Hercules  'shooting at a dragon, who as soon as he hath shot, hisseth at him'. Many of these are designed expressly to decorate and enhance gardens, perhaps demonstrating that an obsession for complicated water features is not as modern a phenomenon as we think.

pages 24 -25: water works

title page of book three

The third part of the book is devoted to art. This treatise covers drawing in general, as well as discussing techniques for 'washing' maps and other pictures with water colour,  limning, painting in oil, painting on glass, and engraving. There is much interesting advice on choosing the correct equipment, with recipes for mixing and creating colours; to make a green colour, for example, Bate recommends the reader to 'take privet berry water, and change it with yellow berry water, and it giveth a perfect green for the ground, and it is much used'.

Although several pages are devoted to wood engraving, the artist responsible for the cuts throughout the work is not known. The only signed illustration is that of the frontispiece portrait, by G. Gifford, executed in a different style. Bate comments of wood engraving that 'the working is farre more tedious and difficult than the working in brasse'. In fact, at this period, there were very few skilful designers on wood in England and the whole art of wood engraving was at a low ebb; copper engravings were preferred for book illustrations, usually being of marginally better quality.

page 227: of graving

page 239: beginning of book four, extravagants

Book Four of Bate's work is a miscellany of recipes and 'secrets', both technical and medical. According to the preface found in the first edition, it incorporates 'severall Experiments, as well serviceable as delightfull: which because they are confusedly intermixed, I have entituled them Extravagants'. Thus is found a whole mixture of odd information. There are several methods of catching fish, including the technique described to the left of burning a light under water so that apparently 'all the fishes neere unto it will resort about it, as amazed at so glorious a sight, and so you may take them with a cast net or other'. Bizarre ways of catching birds are also described, amongst them one 'to make birds drunk, so that you may take them with your hands'. Additionally, there is instruction in how to lay gold on glass, how to melt metal, how to make ice that will melt in fire but not dissolve in water, how to make cement and marble, and how to make invisible ink. Finally, there are some recipes for treating a wide range of ailments, from balms for sciatica and ointments for burns and toothaches, to medicine for 'the biting of a mad dogge'. It is reassuring to note that Bate endorses his treatment 'for to heale a red face that hath many pimples' as being 'proved'.

While some of the knowledge imparted in Bate's Mysteries may seem to us crude, if not downright eccentric, it is important to remember that manuals such as these did play an important role in the dissemination of scientific and technical information throughout the Renaissance. While undoubtedly entertaining to read for their quaint ideas, they also deserve serious consideration and further study by students of the history of science.




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Julie Gardham November 2003