The library of secrets

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A 14th-century copy of Secretum Secretorum, including a portrait of a modern-looking Aristotle, to whom the text was attributed, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.83.2 (14th century)

Who doesn’t like a medieval secret? One of the enduring features of the medieval period is that of an age of secrecy. There’s a secret in every corner, the dark centuries are replete with mystery, teeming with hidden treasures, shrouded, cloaked, clouded – with secrecy. Not really.

If the medieval age of secrecy is more a legacy of Romanticism than historical fact, the interaction between concealment and disclosure was a very familiar dynamic in medieval thought. The secret of sacred knowledge disclosed itself through exegesis. The invisible is made visible through upward reasoning, also known as anagoge, which is also the mystical approach to understanding.

By the 14th century, the secret (secretum) had become a literary commonplace. Petrarch wrote a strange little book in which he investigated his own conscience in dialogue with St Augustine. The book is widely known as ‘The Secret’, but the original Latin title translates ‘About the secret conflict of my troubles’. The book was kept secret from readers until after Petrarch’s death, but it’s not clear whether the author had intended it. In the book, Petrarch lays open the secrets of his heart for self-probing, confessing to weaknesses and asking for advice. If Boethius, writing in the 6th century, was seeking consolation from Lady Philosophy while on death row, Petrarch, in the 14th century, was seeking consolation from Augustine and ‘Lady Truth’. Unlike Boethius, Petrarch was not waiting for his execution, but his conscience – to believe him –, found itself equally under an axe, if only an existential one.

‘The Secret of Secrets’ (Secretum Secretorum) was a different kind of book. Attributed to Aristotle and claiming to be the Greek philosopher’s letter to Alexander the Great (there’s no better pedigree for a book), it was actually written in Arabic around the 10th century, though its authorship remains clouded in mystery. Written in the style of a Hellenistic philosophical letter, the book treats of ethics, law, medicine, politics but also hygiene and divination. It is a hotchpotch of texts characteristic of the late Middle Ages. That it proved to be one of the most popular books of that period is not surprising. Secrets die hard, not to mention the secret of secrets, and to hold several in your hand must have been formidable.

The medieval library was full of secrets, but they were not likely to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. Instead, the books of secrets showed the power of disclosed knowledge and self-knowledge, even if the former was sometimes questionable.


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