Sylva Sylvarum

1. What it is and how it is organised?

P5151082Sylva Sylvarum or a natural history in ten centuries is one of the most puzzling Baconian texts. 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 and a French translation[2]. They do 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 The first couple of editions contained unpublished fragments and drafts of Bacon’s natural histories, the subsequent editions contained various other material including, from 1660s on, an abridged English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 the editions contained New Atlantis. However, in the first editions, this is not explicitly stated on the title page.

As the name indicates, Sylva Sylvarum tended to be seen/read as a collection of materials for building the new science. As an ancient genre getting its second wind in the Renaissance, silva (literally “wood” or “forest”) was a miscellaneous literary form. Bacon is slightly modifying the ancient/Renaissance meaning of “silva”, in effect creating a new genre.[3] In a slightly different vein, “sylva” or “supellex”, as used by Cicero, designated the stock of phrases on which a rhetorician could draw. Bacon is not the first one to move the term in the field of natural history/natural philosophy.

Sylva 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 ‘experiments’ 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.

2. Rawley’s Sylva

Rawley’s epistle to the reader presents us with a first interpretation of Sylva (that Rawley says is faithful to Bacon’s own views). In his preface, Rawley claims that Bacon was deeply aware that Sylva might look like an undigested heap of particulars, but that:

He knew well that there was no other way open to unloose men’s minds, being bound and as it were, maleficiate by the charms of deceiving notions and theories, and thereby made impotent for generation of works, but only newhere to depart from the sense and clear experience; but to keep close to it, especially in the beginning: besides, this Natural History was a debt of his, being designed and set down for a third part of the Instauration” (II, 335)

Unlike other natural histories, Sylva is not for delight but for use – it is the basis of any future construction, essential for “the illumination of the understanding, the extracting of axioms and the producing of many noble works and effects” (336).

While it is mainly a storehouse of experiments, the work also contains “some glosses of the causes”, so that the readers “would not think themselves utterly lost in a vast wood of experience”. Besides, Rawley points out, there is a secret order of Sylva, that an attentive reader could find.

3. Conflicting interpretations

Sylva has been read in many ways, among which:

• As nothing more than scattered and unoriginal remainings/manuscript notes (Ellis).
• As scientific utopianism (Hutton, 2001, 56-57 ff): Sylva as an introduction into “science”: a piece of Baconian rhetoric advocating a program for the “new” science build upon the values of co-operation, openness, inclusiveness.
• As one of Bacon’s attempts to disclose his pneumatic matter-theory, a unifying theme of his natural philosophy (Rees).

Any interpretation should take into account the fact that at least one of the extant manuscripts of Sylva 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).

4. Sources

The deliberate aspect of Sylva is all the more intriguing in view of the fact that the work 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 integrated 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 perhaps a program) for the future experimental philosophy.

5. Interesting questions and research topics

  • 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 Solomon’s House…)
  • What is the relation between the materials assembled in this book and other Baconian writings (esp. natural histories)?
  • What techniques did Bacon (or Rawley?) use to assemble the book together? How did he work with his sources? Did he use a common-place book? Did he work with the books „on the table”, going along through Pliny, Natural history?
  • 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?)
  • What is the role of the composite SS plus New Atlantis? Why is NA following the Sylva (as opposed to preceding it?) Is there an evolution in the editions of Sylva corresponding to the establishment of the Royal Society’s kind of science?


[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] Pierre Amboise, 1631.

[3] See Frans De Bruyn, “The Classical Silva and the Generic Development of Scientific Writing in Seventeenth Century England”, New Literary History, 2001, 32, 347-373

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