An Indigested Heap of Particulars – ‘Sylva Sylvarum’ by Francis Bacon (1639)

Worcester Cathedral Library has several copies of the works of Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount Alban, Lord Verulam, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. An advisor to three monarchs of England, Bacon was a courtier, lawyer, philosopher, scientist, poet, spy and possible author of Shakespeare’s plays!

 Sylva Sylvarum is his last published work.

The title page of ‘Sylva Sylvarum’ by Sir Francis Bacon, published in 1639. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Described on the title page as “A Natural History in Ten Centuries”, Sylva Sylvarum offers the readers ten chapters or “centuries” of 100 experiments each, a collection of 1000 observations and interventions with Bacon’s explanation and conclusions. For Bacon, natural history meant everything in the world around us. The cosmos, the earth, the weather, minerals, medicine, alchemy and witchcraft were all included in his experimental observations.

Sylva Sylvarum was published after Francis Bacon’s death by his chaplain, friend and secretary William Rawley. The book is written in English unlike Bacon’s “serious” works which were all published in Latin. It has been argued that he did not intend Sylva Sylvarum to be published as it was a personal notebook, and that Rawley published the work to raise money to pay Bacon’s debts.

Rawley includes a letter to the reader describing Bacon’s own remarks about Sylva Sylvarum

“I have heard his Lordship often say that if he should have served the glory of his own name, he had better not to have published the Natural History; for it may seem an undigested heap of particulars and cannot have that lustre which books cast into methods.”

A portrait of Sir Francis Bacon, frontispiece from ‘Sylva Sylvarum’. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Francis Bacon was an early advocate of empiricism saying, “our object is not to make up or invent what nature may do or allow, but to discover it.”

The reader of Sylva Sylvarum is offered no introduction to the text which opens with the first experiment. ‘Dig a pit upon the seashore, somewhat above the high-water mark, and sink it as deep as the low water mark; and as the tide cometh in it will fill with water, fresh and potable”. Bacon goes on to explain how the Roman army used this technique to survive whilst on campaign in North Africa. He observes that simply passing salt water through sand does not freshen it and speculates how fresh water arises on the beach.

This first “century” goes on to describe experiments with water and glass vessels, fluid motion, bubbles and making medicinal infusions. It meanders into measures to ensure that children grow up to be fine featured, discussion of how an onion, hanging in the air, can sprout and increase in weight and how a candle flame behaves in a sealed vessel or one with “spirit of wine”. He writes about “turning air into water” (condensation), the nature of heat and cold, the colours of birds’ feathers and a good deal about medicines. Eclectic stuff…and this is only the first chapter!

A portrait of Sir Francis Bacon, frontispiece from Francis Bacon’s ‘Opera Omnia’ (4 volumes), published in 1655. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The second and third “centuries” consider the nature of sound. Bacon asks “does sound need air” and concludes that it doesn’t because sound can travel through water. There is a section on the human voice and how the tongue, cheeks and lips form speech. Bacon compares “visibles” with “audibles” (sight and hearing), and then talks of how to prolong life, the nature of diseases such as rabies, syphilis and leprosy, ending with a consideration of the value of exercise and a prudent diet on health.

Century four covers fruit, fermentation, making gold, putrefaction, premature birth, some metallurgical experiments, preserving rose petals and the chameleon. There is more on disease as well as why some men have dark skin and how some animals continue to move after decapitation.

A portrait of Sir Francis Bacon , frontispiece from Bacon’s ‘Opera Omnia’. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Centuries five and six are about plants and horticulture and provide an insight into gardening practice in the seventeenth century, alongside observations of nature and more philosophical considerations about the nature of plants and human-plant interaction. Century seven considers the difference between plants, inanimate objects and animals.

In the eighth century we are back into a miscellany of subjects. Minerals, fossils, sponges, drinks made in Turkey, human sweat, the glow worm, human rage, drunkenness, caterpillars, animals that moult, more medicine…it is quite a gallop. He wonders why we value eating and drinking as much as did the Greeks and Romans, but we do not value bathing at all!

Century nine introduces the exhausted reader to thoughts on perception, the weather, seasons and migrating birds. There’s the smell of the rainbow and other smells (more on putrefaction) and on bodies hard and soft, more on metals. Remarks about honey and sugar, more on the colours of hair and feathers, differences between males and females, the use and value of tobacco, cooking, the salamander, fruit ripening and fermentation (again), also seawater, shellfish, right and left side differences, shadows…more about those pits by the sea edge which have fresh water, flying, the heat of the earth, the moon…. hibernation, generation by mating and by…yes! Putrefaction!!

A portrait of Sir Francis Bacon, frontispiece from ‘The Works of Francis Bacon’ (5 volumes), published in 1778. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

And so, hooray, on to century ten, the last. Here we have Pythagoras and Plato, the world as a living entity, transmission of spirits and the force of the imagination. There is a discussion of whether witches exist, the ability of noxious smells to cause disease and the lethal effect of breathing coal fumes in an enclosed room. He discusses spirits (ethereal) and spirits (human moods) and recommends ploughing to raise the spirits by breathing in wholesome air from the turned earth. Perhaps recognising the limitations of this remedy, he says “Gentle women may do themselves much good by kneeling upon a cushion and weeding”.

He observes how a melancholy man depresses his fellows and a jovial one cheers everybody up. He talks of love and belief … and how card tricks work. This leads on to a consideration of the relationship between imagination and magic.

We live now in a sceptical age. We regard the world of imagination as “made up” and not real but Bacon’s writings accept the reality of the imagined world and hence of magic and a whole host of other superstitions, quite fascinating albeit decidedly weird by 21st century standards. How many people today would wear the heart of an ape on their chest to improve their courage or on their neck to improve their wit?

Written in English, Sylva Sylvarum seems at first to be accessible, but it is so eclectic that the author’s intention remains obscure. It is nonetheless a treasure trove of seventeenth century thought, we are lucky to have it. And back in 1639, if you wanted to buy a copy, you should seek it in the local pub!

An extract from the title page of ‘Sylva Sylvarum’, “to be sould at the Great Turks Head next to the Mitre Taverne in Fleet Street”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Diana Westmoreland


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