Francis Bacon: Sylva Sylvarum, or a natural history in ten centuries, 1627

The purpose of the seminar this semester is to clarify some of the puzzles and mysteries of Bacon’s most widely read and most puzzling work: the posthumous Sylva  Sylvarum.

Sylva Sylvarum or a natural history in ten centuries was published posthumously (but very soon after Bacon’s death in April 1626) by William Rawley. It was by far  the most widely read of Bacon’s writings, at least in seventeenth century England. It went through 10 editions until 1670 and there were subsequent editions up to the end of the century[1]. There seemed to be 17th editions altogether, plus two Latin editions[2] and a French translation[3]. They not always contain the same texts. The first couple of editions contained unpublished fragments and drafts of Bacon’s natural histories, the subsequent editions contained various other material including, from 1660s on, an abridged English version of Novum Organum. All editions contained New Atlantis. However, in the first editions, this is not explicitly stated on the title page (why?).

As the name indicates, Sylva Sylvarum tended to be seen/read as a collection of materials for building the new science (Bacon is slightly modifying the ancient/Renaissance meaning of Silva, creating a new genre, see De Bruyn, 2001. Traditionally, sylva was used to designate the materials necessary for the construction of a discourse/speech. Bacon is not the first one to move the term in the field of natural history/natural philosophy, however). It contains 1000 “experiments” grouped in 10 groups of 100 (centuries). There are two ‘units’ of SS: solitary experiments and experiments in consort. It is not straightforward what is the meaning of ‘experimetns’ in either of the unit: observation, hearsay, travel reports, questions, suggestions, causal explanations and philosophical questions are mixed both in solitary experiments and in the experiments in consort.

A number of manuscripts relating to Sylva are extant. At least one of them indicates, as Graham Rees has shown (Rees 1981), that the text of Sylva was edited and prepared for publication by Bacon himself. In other words, we don’t have a mere heap of remaining experiments and observations that didn’t find their way into Bacon’s late histories, but a book/project of its own, planned to carry forward the third part of the Instauratio (see also Rawley’s claim). Such an interpretation is substantiated by the historical and contextual paper on the publication of Sylva Sylvarum written recently by Colclough (Colclough 2010).

All this is even more intriguing in view of the fact that Sylva is not only very eclectic but also highly unoriginal (at least “locally”); more than half of the “experiments” are second hand reports following ancient of Renaissance authors, some of them obviously untried by Bacon himself and accepted on dubious testimony.

According to Spedding: “a considerable part of it is copied from the most celebrated book of the kind, Porta’s Natural Magic” (II. 326). However, Spedding himself does not identify all the experiments taken by Bacon from Della Porta. A thorough study of the relation between Sylva Sylvarum and Natural Magic awaits to be written.

Moreover, the experiments Bacon ‘borrows’ from Della Porta, Aristotle, Pliny, Cardano, Sandys, Scaliger etc. are substantially rewritten. They are most of the times more ‘general’ and ‘theoretical’ than the punctual observations and experiments of the sources quoted above. Moreover, Bacon integrate such experiments into a larger scale program: they are the kind of experimental activity that would build up a community of experimental scientists (and in this way, they serve as illustration of the activities of Solomon’s House, see Colclough 2010). They are also a storehouse (or program?) for the future experimental philosophy.

.Questions and puzzles:

1. What is Sylva Sylvarum? (Bacon’s experimental notebook, a treatise of natural history, a plan for another kind of natural history than the Latin natural histories, an illustration of the scientific activities of the Salomon’s House…)

2. What is the relation between the materials assembled in this book and other Baconian writings (esp. natural histories)?

3. Is there a secret order of Sylva? (as Rawley claims in the preface?). Is there any order in Sylva whatsoever and if yes, whose plan/order is it? (Is this volume Rawley’s creation?).


[1] Title pages of the subsequent editions don’t agree on their number or on the content, there are various editions claiming to contain “for the first time” materials published in the previous years etc.

[2] Elzevir 1648, 1661, according to Sarah Hutton, 2001 (to check!)

[3] Pierre Amboise, 1631.

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  1. Pingback: SYLVA SYLVARUM, Francis BACON | jamesgray2

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