Dan Reviews The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, found himself in a difficult situation. Swedish forces had captured and imprisoned his brother, the Archduke Maximilian. His freedom must be obtained at any cost. What he needed was an agent – a man of intelligence and skill, a master of secrets and covert action, perhaps even one who dabbled in the arts of magic. The emperor knew exactly the man for the job.

At this point, my readership is probably assuming that he sent for John Dee. In fact, it was Abraham Colorni, a Jewish polymath from Mantua whose biography forms a crucial part of Harvard lecturer Daniel Jütte’s work The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800.

As some of you may recall, Dee spent a great deal of effort trying to get an audience with the emperor, only to harangue him about his need to repent. As for Colorni, the emperor invited him to travel from Italy to Prague and set up a special meeting with him after a few weeks. Colorni spent three hours talking to the emperor about topics ranging from arquebuses to gambling, and never got around to mentioning the rescue of his brother.  The ambassador from Ferrara was appalled – and Colorni ended up with the emperor as his patron for the next nine years, as the archduke’s return was negotiated through diplomatic channels.

The overall focus of Jütte’s work is on the role of Jews in the “economy of secrets.” Today secrecy is usually viewed negatively, but at the time the possession and judicious revelation of secrets could bring an individual fame and fortune. Christian prejudice often endangered local Jewish populations and barred them from entry into particular professions, training, and status. Yet this prejudice came with a respect for the Jewish people as masters of secrets in many different realms, ranging from the economic to the technological to the magical. Particular Jews who were knowledgeable and savvy could combine this with training and talent to maneuver themselves into positions of authority and influence in the broader society – although a high profile brought danger due to both intrigue and anti-Semitism.

The Age of Secrecy does not dwell on any particular topic of Jewish expertise in depth, but instead it touches on their activity in a wide variety of fields – technology, espionage, alchemy, magic, etc. – that shows wide-ranging and impressive accomplishments in a world in which the dominant culture treated them with hate and mistrust. All of these are illustrated with enjoyable anecdotes gleaned from the work of other scholars and archival research.  My favorite was learning about Isaac Sanguineti, who repeatedly had run-ins with the Inquisition, as summoning Lilith was said to be his personal specialty.

Half of the book is about Abraham Colorni. If that names seems familiar, it’s due to his commission from the Duke of Mantua to translate the Clavicula Salomonis, or Key of Solomon, into Italian. We don’t get too many specifics on how this came about, but apparently Colorni was able to turn this to his advantage. By attaching himself to the reputation of Solomon, he was able to expand his own reputation and influence. For example, Jütte thinks it likely that the Key‘s magic to free prisoners might have directly led to the Emperor’s initial audience with Colorni. I’m pressed for time here, so I need to cut this off – which, for those who read the book, is a serious injustice to all of Colorni’s skills, ranging from engineering to prestidigitation to arms manufacturing.

The book ends with an emphasis on two key points. First, when considering the advances of human learning, we should look to the economy of secrets as well as to the universities and societies that emphasized openness of information while excluding key groups of individuals from their membership. Second, that the importance of research into Jewish intellectuals and inventors in Europe should not cause us to set aside their frequent explorations into magic, alchemy, and other topics still considered less reputable that they pursued alongside other areas of expertise.

In short, this is a great book, and you can probably find it for 75% off the cover price. If you’re interested in the history of magic in early modern Europe, or just want to learn more about how the Key of Solomon came down to us, this is a must.

 

Published in: on February 12, 2019 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

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