Making and Knowing
A minimal edition of BnF Ms Fr 640 in English Translation

About the MS

A Book of Secrets?

BnF Ms. Fr. 640 resembles a “book of secrets.” Texts under this title began circulating in the Middle Ages and then were printed in large numbers from the last decades of the fifteenth century. Although “secrets” sound esoteric, they were, in effect, collections of “recipes” for making a variety of things, include medicaments, cosmetics, cast metal objects, useful household tools and products, and many other quotidian and artistic objects. While the aim of such books was practical and utilitarian, their title hints at the tacit dimension and initiation components of much craft knowledge. Lacking a clear title and author, Ms. Fr. 640 was bound in the seventeenth century with the title of Choses Diverses, and subtitle Recueil de recettes et secrets concernant l’art du mouleur, de l’artificier et du peintre by the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).

Ms. Fr. 640 differs significantly, however, from other such collections of techniques in its apparent lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observations on animal behavior, and its sketched illustrations of technical points. The margins of the instructions are filled with the author-practitioner’s comments on his experiments with different materials and procedures, an indication that the manuscript was most likely a set of working notes (although the manuscript itself does not show the stains and wear of workshop use). The anonymous author-practitioner is a vocal and self-reflective witness to his culture, and his text offers insight into how natural materials and art objects were collected, appreciated, and circulated in a period of burgeoning production and consumption of material goods. Ms. Fr. 640 provides a rare view into the experience and significance of experimenting with and improving artistic techniques, as well as into attitudes to natural materials and processes.

This intriguing manuscript was set down sometime after 1579, probably in Toulouse, France. It was rebound into a new binding bearing the coat of arms of Philippe, Duke de Béthune (1566-1649), and in 1662, the manuscript was given to the King’s Library (which became the BnF) by Philippe’s son, Hippolyte (1603-1665). The composition of the manuscript after 1579 is a puzzle, as the headings in the manuscript’s entries seem to have been set down first, with the text under the headings sometimes spilling over into the margins. The marginal notes seem often to be the result of further thinking about, or experimentation on the process in the text. Both main text and marginal additions are, however, mostly in the same hand with similar ink, as if the entire manuscript, including marginal overruns, had been copied over at some point (although the entries that seem to have been squeezed in wherever they fit–such as that for molding turtles which continues through eight different locations in the text–belie such a hypothesis). The entries–even the few “alchemical” ones–evince a thoroughly practical character, and several of them make reference to places in and around Toulouse. The author-practitioner seems to have been expert in metal working and the materials he chooses for various processes are those which would appear typically in a foundry. He is educated, obviously fully literate, and he copies phrases and whole recipes in Latin, but sometimes interprets them incorrectly, as if he were an ambitious artisan, with some years of grammar school. Perhaps he was commissioned by a rich Toulouse merchant or landholder, or even by Philippe de Béthune, to collect “recipes” from practitioners for objects that would typically appear in the collection of a wealthy and curious individual of the late sixteenth century. The processes collected in Fr. 640 are those that would have been employed to make objects for a Kunstkammer, or “chamber of art,” a type of collection common in early modern Europe, in which the relationship between the artifice of nature and the artifice of the human hand was displayed, celebrated, and made the subject both of sociable conversation and epistemic theorizing.

Recipe Books and How-To Manuals

Art historians, as well as historians of science and of material culture have recently become interested in the genre of early modern recipes, books of secrets, and how-to manuals because they shed light on a remarkable transition in European society, when previously illiterate craftspeople began writing down their working procedures. These technical books, printed in large numbers and through many editions from the 1490s into the 1800s, are now seen to have great significance in early modern Europe. Recent scholarship on recipes and technical writing has drawn attention, for example, to the importance of “makers’ knowledge,” and has illuminated the broader epistemological significance of art in early modern culture. Moreover, these technical manuals are now viewed as having fostered new attitudes to the creative process and to technical ability.

Ms. Fr. 640 seems to be unique among such technical writings. Other such manuals lack the immediacy, self-reflexivity, and process-oriented character of Ms. Fr. 640. This unusual document thus gives a remarkable view into the sixteenth-century artist’s workshop, allowing scholars glimpses of the methodical experimentation undertaken in the production of art, the obviously laborious process of translating workshop procedures into words on paper, and the author-practitioner’s taken-for-granted stance that his art-making functioned as a tool for the investigation of nature.

The procedures in this craft text seem not to be meant to be reproduced solely through the act of reading, but rather to be an invitation to imitate and experiment. By taking up this invitation and reconstructing the techniques contained within it, the critical edition we are creating will make accessible an exceptionally intriguing and important source that will significantly enhance the corpus of early modern recipe collections, and also allow readers to understand and analyze the act of making art as the creation of knowledge.