Secrets Unbowelled

Odoardo Fialetti, Anatomy, 1616, in Giulio Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae, Venice 1627

The title of the Countess’ collection matches ideas of exploration of nature as a hunt. Since the early 16th century natural philosophy has been regularly described as such a venatio. At the end of the century, the concept of disembowelment or evisceration, originating in the context of the hunt, first appears. Johann Valentin Andreae demands in his Reipublicae Christianopolitanae Descriptio, published in 1619, in the chapter on the laboratory: “Quicquid antiquitatis industria e naturae puteo effossum, extractumque est, hic examinatur, ut sciamus, si quid recte illa & fideliter nobis patefecit”- what through the industriousness of the ancients has been dug up for us from the bowels of nature and brought to light, is put under the test here so that one knows whether it has been discovered to us honestly.

Johann Valentin Andreae, Map of the Ideal City Christianopolis, 1619

This understanding of the knowledge of nature as prey and the natural philosopher as the hunter on her trail coincides with the voyages of discovery all over the world, in whose exotic nature nature seemed to reveal herself in ever new aspects (William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature 1994). The evisceration of nature refers to the practice of preserving, of conservation. Eviscerating bodies was an important technique used primarily in the Middle Ages and early modern times to delay the rotting of corpses and to make meat more durable (Estella Weiss-Krejci, Heart Burial in Medieval and Early Post-medieval Central Europe 2010).

Thomas Cross after Crispin van de Passe, Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1653, Engraving, 118x70mm, London, British Museum

The preservation of meat was an important subject of research in the early modern period. An influential narrative in John Aubrey’s Lives attributes the death of Francis Bacon (1561–1626) to pneumonia, which he is said to have contracted on a trip to Arundel House during spontaneous experiments in the snow in order to preserve a chicken. According to the narrative, Bacon died shortly afterwards at Arundel House:

“Mr. Hobbs told me that the cause of his lordship’s death was trying an experiment: viz. as he was taking the aire in a coach with Dr. Witherborne (…) towards High-gate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord’s thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach and went into a poore woman’s howse at the bottome of Highgate hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the bodie with snoe, and my lord did help to doe it himselfe. The snow so chilled him, that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not returne to his lodgings (…), but went to the earle of Arundell’s house at High-gate where they putt him into a good bed warmed with a breakdown (…). “

Giambattista della Porta, Magia Naturalis, Frontispiece of the 1644 Edition

The rhetoric of secrets hidden in the bowels found its way into the Magia Naturalis of Giambattista della Porta in a rather peculiar way. Della Porta lists ways to convey secret messages. One of the ways to pass on a secret without unwanted readers is to hide the message in the bowels of a living animal:

“Epistolas animbalibus includere. Harpagus, ut Herodotus ait, literas in exenterato lepore inclusas, simulato pastoris venatu ad Cyrum missit. Idem fere esset (…) Animalium visceribus epistolas occultare. Nempe aliquo esculento involutas, cani, vel alteri animal glutiendas prebemus, ut ex eis postmodum interfecti visceribus nuncius exigatur, nec quicquam demum praeteritur, quod eam cautionem facere possit. Huiusmodi itaque Harpagi factum occurrit, is, Herodoto authore, Cyro occultum animi consilium proditurus, quum hoc omeditis itineribus aliter non posset, fidissimo domestico, venatoris habitum mentiti, & leporem habenti, in quo exenterato tabellae tradebantur ”( Porta, Magiae Naturalis Libro IV 1597). The English translation of 1658 reads: “Herodotus says, that Harpagus sent letters to Cyrus, put into the belly of a Hart whose entrails were taken out, by one that counterfeited a shepherd hunting (…) For we wrapt them in some meat, and give them to a dog, or some other creature to swallow. That when he is killed, the letters may be found in his belly. And there is nothing neglected to make this way certain. The like was done by Harpagus. He, as Herodotus says, being to discover to Cyrus some secrets, when the ways were stopped, that he could do it by no other means, he delivered the letters to a faithful servant, who went like a hunter, that had caught a Hare. And in her belly were the letters put. When the guts were taken forth, and so they were brought to Persis.”

This suggestion puts a strange spin on discovering secrets naturally. The sender of the secret message takes it quite literally and the addressee has to work like a veritable researcher in order to tear the message from the bowels of the poor animal. This reconceptualization in one of the most successful books of the time testifies to the popularity of disembowelment as a means to discover secrets.

Frontispiece of Natura Exentera, London 1655

The title Natura Exenterata promised instructions for deciphering the secrets of nature and thus stopping illness and decay, keeping your own body in balance and beautifying it. In the popular libri dei segreti or Books of Secrets, a tradition coming from Italian noblewomen of the early 16th century, these were the main goals and a valid subject of natural philosophy.

This immediately applicable form of philosophy, which is situated somewhere between medicine, the culinary arts, cosmetics and confectionery, can be understood as a popular subdiscipline of alchemy or chemistry and a rather important driving force for research into nature and natural processes. The recipes in Lady Arundel’s book promise deep insights into nature, aiming, however, less at a comprehensive understanding of natural principles and rather singular secrets or rather tricks, recipes, obtained through experience despite a general and irredeemable incomprehensibility of the workings of nature.


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