John Locke’s Copy of The Secret Miracles of Nature and the NYAM Library

By Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

In a 1581 copy that The New York Academy of Medicine Library holds of Levinus Lemnius’s De Miraculis Occultis Naturae (or The Secret Miracles of Nature), one can find a tiny signature. Inscribed on the top right corner of the inside cover, in small but unmistakable handwriting is “John Locke.”[1] The famous philosopher and physician himself, who passed away sitting in his library in 1704, owned—and maybe read— this fascinating book of “secret miracles”; over three hundred years later, the book made its way to NYAM. Locke’s De Miraculis presents an exciting opportunity to examine how some of the Library’s most interesting possessions find their way here, but also gives us a way to learn what De Miraculis in particular can tell us about Locke.

Lemnius_DeMiraculis_1581_JohnLockesignature_watermark

John Locke’s signature can be seen at the very top right corner of our 1581 De Miraculis. NYAM Collection.

John Locke collected many books. By the end of his life, his collection was large in size and diverse in its subjects, consisting of over three thousand books on hundreds of topics.[2] There is a relative wealth of scholarship on Locke’s library, but perhaps the most extensive work is The Library of John Locke by John Harrison and Peter Laslett.[3] This particular copy of De Miraculis is catalogued in the 1971 edition of their work.[4]

Locke’s De Miraculis was a first edition copy, published in Latin in 1581 in Antwerp.[5] It is one of 35 of Locke’s books published in that city, and one of over one thousand published in Latin. It is one of 101 books which Harrison and Laslett list as focusing on “bibliography”; topics range from medicine and magic to hygiene and geography.[6]

De Miraculis is an important book in its own right, but is also known as one of the works from which the incredibly popular seventeenth-century sex manual Aristotle’s Masterpiece pulled much of its content.[7] Aristotle’s Masterpiece co-opted sections of De Miraculis which dealt with the mechanisms of pregnancy, maternal imagination, and monstrous births, among other topics. The Masterpiece is not listed in the catalog of Locke’s books (though this does not necessarily mean he never owned a copy); as an English physician in possession of many books on medicine, midwifery, and anatomy, it is plausible to assume that he could have come across the Masterpiece, first published in 1684.[8] Regardless, Locke’s ownership—and likely readership—of the Masterpiece’s source material certainly adds layers to our understanding of the famous philosopher.

Though it would be nearly impossible to know the entirety of this book’s journey—who owned it, whether and how it was read—from Locke’s library to ours, we do know some of its more notable stops along the way. The signature on the inside front cover is common among books owned by Locke, who did not frequently make other annotations in books he owned.[9] It is likely that De Miraculis was a later acquisition of Locke’s, and could have been over one hundred years old when he acquired it.[10] Nothing is known of where or how Locke got the book. It is probably a part of the “Masham moiety” of Locke’s library, the section of the library that was left in the possession of the Masham family at the manor house at Otes, which housed Locke’s library for much of his life. The Masham moiety accounts for most of the works which exist outside of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.[11]

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Edward Dowden’s inscription in the 1581 version of De Miraculis. NYAM Collection.

It is likely that the book remained at Otes at least until “[the] Masham line became extinct” in 1776. At some point during the end of the 18th century, it would have been moved to Holme Park by the Palmer family. It could have remained there until around 1890, when Locke scholar A. C. Fraser deemed the Locke collection at Holme Park “dispersed.”[12] Around the early 20th century, Locke’s De Miraculis was acquired by Irish poet Edward Dowden, who died in 1913 and left an inscription confirming Locke’s ownership of the book inside the front cover. It was acquisitioned by the NYAM Library in May 1929, and has remained here ever since.

Examining Locke’s ownership of this copy of De Miraculis can provide us with quite a bit of insight into how he may have viewed his world. This book can show us what kinds of books Locke felt were worth owning, what kind of information he had at his disposal, and how he may have interpreted that information. Perhaps more fascinating, however, is how Locke’s signature has allowed us to trace much more of this book’s journey than we might have been able to otherwise. As one of only “a score or two” of the books from the Masham moiety which are extant and whose locations are known, a tiny signature makes this copy of De Miraculis rather remarkable. [13]

Special thanks go to Dr. Hannah Marcus for recognizing John Locke’s signature, and to Dr. Felix Waldmann for his wealth of knowledge on the library and life of John Locke.

References

[1] Levinus Lemnius, De miraculis occultis naturae, libri IIII. Item De vita cum animi et corporis incolumitate recte instituenda, liber unus. Illi quidem jam postremùm emendati, & aliquot capitibus aucti: hic verò nunquam antehac editus…. (Antwerp, Belgium: Ex Officina Christophori Plantini, 1581), New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY.

[2] John Harrison and Peter Laslett, The Library of John Locke (Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1971).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 171.

[5] Lemnius.

[6] Harrison and Laslett 18–20.

[7] Mary Fissell, “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece,’” The William and Mary Quarterly 60 No 1, “Sexuality in Early America,” Jan 2003, 43–74.

[8] Harrison and Laslett 11.

[9] Harrison and Laslett 39.

[10] Ibid. 35–36, 171. Harrison and Laslett speculate that alphabetical suffixes indicate later acquisitions in their examination of Locke’s pressmark system.

[11] Ibid. 57.

[12] Ibid. 55–61.

[13] Ibid. 61.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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