Popular Science

Magnus, Albertus (attributed) | De Secretis Mulierum

  • The 1643 Amsterdam edition of the “misogynist masterpiece” The Secrets of Women, an influential and widely-disseminated work of natural philosophy that laid the intellectual foundations for early modern witch persecutions (Cabre, review of Women’s Secrets in ISIS volume 85, no 3, 1994). The publisher of this edition was Johannes Janssonius (1588-1664), Willem Blaeu’s main rival in map publishing, and it includes an engraved title depicting the mythological figure Callisto, in labour and appealing to the goddess Artemis.

    This copy has a distinguished provenance, having been in the library of the poet and angling bibliographer Thomas Westwood (1814-1888), who added a manuscript note on Izaak Walton’s second-hand quotation of De Secretis. It was later owned by the medievalist and economic historian Louis Francis Salzmann (1878-1971), and was most recently in the library of noted barrister and bibliophile Sir George Engle (1926-2016).

    Long attributed to Albertus Magnus, De Secretis was probably composed by one of his followers during the late 13th or early 14th century, and survives in around 83 manuscript copies, of which 50 were printed in the 15th century and over 70 in the 16th (Lemay, Women’s Secrets. A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, p. 1). Though the contents cover what we would now consider obstetrics and gynaecology, including menstruation, spermatogenesis, conception, fetal development, and infertility, the text is not a practical medical manual but a philosophical exploration of the human body and its relation to the cosmos.

    As a follower of Albertus Magnus, the treatises’s author “believed that the study of nature as perceived through sense experience and then analyzed in a rational manner forms a single discipline through which we come to comprehend the universe in its corporeal aspects. Human reproduction, a main subject of this treatise, is one of these aspects, that nevertheless has repercussions for our understanding of the entire cosmos. This becomes particularly evident in the treatment given to astrological influences on the developing fetus. Pseudo-Albert begins his discussion by outlining how the sphere of the fixed stars confers upon the fetus various virtues, and moves back and forth from particular celestial effects to a general treatment of prime matter and the intelligences” (Lemay, p. 3).

    De Secretis was most likely “designed to be used within a religious community as a vehicle for instructing priests in natural philosophy, particularly as it pertains to human generation... A strong subtext of the Secrets, however, is the evil nature of women and the harm they can cause to their innocent victims: young children and their male consorts. Clearly then, another purpose of this treatise is to malign the female sex, a tradition that extends back in Christianity to second-century misogynist writings” (Lemay, p. 16).

    Among the concepts that the text popularised were the idea that women’s menstrual blood was poisonous, that post-menopausal women (especially those who were poor) were more “venomous” because they could no longer expel the toxins, and that women were inherently lascivious beings with a physiological need to absorb the heat and life force of men. “It is these misogynistic ideas about women’s sexuality that seeded their demonization in the years that followed, as the Secrets served as a direct source for the Malleus maleficarum. Indeed, the most famous statement from the Malleus explicitly connects witchery with ideas about women’s sexuality rooted in the medieval period: ‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable’” (McLemore, “Medieval Sexuality, Medical Misogyny, and the Makings of the Modern Witch”, blog of the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Studies Institute, October 30, 2020).

  • ...Item de Virtutibus Herbarum Lapidum et Animalium. Amsterdam: Johannes Janssonius, 1643.

    Duodecimo. 19th-century olive calf, spine gilt in compartments with fleur-de-lis tools, red morocco label, double gilt fillets, marbled endpapers, gilt turn-ins, green silk bookmark detached. Engraved architectural title depicting a woman in labour, decorative initials. 19th-century armorial bookplate and label of Thomas Westwood, and his manuscript note in ink to the verso of the front free endpaper, “Izaak Walton is supposed to have quoted this work at second-hand, through Topsel’s ‘History of Four-Footed Beasts & Serpents’ p. 421 (edit of 1607)”. Bookplate of L. F. Salzmann dated 1899. The covers which were previously detached have been professionally reattached with tissue at the hinges by Bainbridge Conservation. Old repairs to cracks and chips in the spine, calf rubbed and a little worn at the edges, occasional faint dampstain in the margins. Very good condition.