Book of the Month – January 2018

Sylva Sylvarum, by Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was born at York House in the Strand in London on 22 January 1561, the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Nicholas Bacon.

Francis Bacon portrait by Pourbus

Sir Francis Bacon in 1617
by Frans Pourbus the Younger

He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, then at Gray’s Inn in London, and became a member of Parliament in 1584, but failed to win the favour of Queen Elizabeth. He was knighted by James I shortly after the new king’s accession in 1603, and began a steady rise to political prominence, culminating in his appointment as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal (as his father had been) in 1617 and Lord Chancellor in 1618. On 27 January 1621, five days after celebrating his sixtieth birthday, he was created Viscount St Alban. But later that year he was found guilty of taking bribes, fined, and imprisoned (although released after three days), and also barred from holding office in the state. His attempts to return to public life were unsuccessful, and he retired to the house his father had built at Gorhambury, near St Albans.

Gorhambury House 1795

Old Gorhambury House, beginning to fall into ruin, in 1795, just after it had been replaced by a new Palladian-style house

He wrote on a range of subjects, but it was as a philosopher and scientist that he had the greatest impact. Much of the science of the period was based on the methodology put forward by Aristotle in his collection of works on logic known in Greek as the Organon, and the idea that all truth could be arrived at by simple logical deduction. Bacon, in his Novum Organum (‘new Organon‘) and other works, proposed what came to be known as the Baconian method: that knowledge can only be gained by systematic experiment, and conclusions must be tested against observations.

He died at Highgate on 9 April 1626, the traditional story being that there was snow that spring and Bacon, curious to know if it could be used to preserve meat, obtained a chicken and stuffed it with snow with his own hands, in the process catching a chill which killed him.

He bequeathed his papers to his personal chaplain, William Rawley, who edited several manuscripts for posthumous publication. Among them was the Sylva Sylvarum: or, A Naturall Historie, in Ten Centuries, which quickly became very popular, going through ten editions in fifty years. It consists of a thousand paragraphs divided into ten ‘centuries’, each paragraph stating some fact, the majority drawn from other authors, both ancient and modern. There is very little apparent order in their division and arrangement, and it is debatable whether it was something Bacon was preparing for publication as it stood (Rawley’s preface implies that it was, and defends it against criticism of its lack of discernible order), or notes which he was gathering together to work up into a book, or simply a commonplace book in which he jotted down anything which interested him.

Sylva sylvarum engraved tp

This is a copy of the fifth edition (1639) which came to Somerville from the library of Sarah Smithson, a benefactor of the college.
The two pillars, with the sea beyond, represent the Pillars of Hercules, two promontories flanking the Strait of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean. To the ancients, these represented the edge of the known world. Here, they represent the limits of what is known, and are an invitation to sail out beyond what has been handed down from the ancient world and explore new worlds and new ways of thinking.

The paragraphs are described as ‘experiments’, but quite what this means is unclear: they cover observations, hearsay, questions, suggestions, causal explanations and philosophical enquiries in a range of subjects including botany, medicine, travel, music and physics. At the very end is included Bacon’s own recipe for relieving an attack of gout:

Bacon cure for gout cropped 2