Elizabeth Archibald considers secrets, be they the key to incredible weight loss (as peddled on the internet) or archaic advice found in dusty tomes. Turns out, we're always looking for the secrets to success...
In 1581, readers of a book called Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions were treated to the following instructions for walking on water:
'Take two little Timbrels and binde them vnder the soles of thy feete, and at a staues end fasten an other, and with these you maie safely walke on the water, vnto the wonder of all suche as shall see the same: if so be you often exercise the same with a certaine boldnesse and lightnesse of the bodie.'
And if you aren't convinced by the description, it is accompanied by a woodcut illustration of a very tall man striding confidently across the water with a seaside town receding into the background, inexplicably naked except for the plates on his feet. (In later editions he is updated with a jaunty outfit, including dapper hat.) The book promises that this is 'a proper secrete.'
What should we make of these directions? Whose proper secret was it? Did the rivers swarm with aspiring water-walkers on pleasant summer afternoons of the 1580s?
As an historian interested in books of instruction, I've spent many hours looking at advice like this, considering the beard growth balms of the 13th century, the amorous compliments of the 1660s, the winning dance moves of the 1530s. The advice offered in old books is both outdated (bloodletting! codpieces!) and timeless ('never fart when you are dancing'). But more than anything it is optimistic.
The advice offered in old books is both outdated (bloodletting! codpieces!) and timeless ('never fart when you are dancing'). But more than anything it is optimistic.
Books of advice promise that whatever you want is within reach: whoever you are, whatever shortcomings you face, success is yours provided you have the proper secret. This principle clearly motivates the so-called 'books of secrets' like Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions that proliferated in the Renaissance, but it is also at work in conduct manuals that promise to reveal the arcane secrets of nose-blowing to the uninitiated.
Codpieces aside, I don't think we've changed. Peddling of advice has largely migrated to the internet, but we still hold out hope that there is, in fact, a secret technique for effortless weight loss (drink hot buttered coffee for breakfast!), efficient dinner preparation (poach salmon in the dishwasher!), and improvement of complexion (snail slime - one improbable technique that the 17th century and the 21st agree about). In some ways, our search for proper secrets connects us with the past.
If you're skeptical that walking on water with little tambourines on your feet will work to your advantage, you're not the first. An early reader of that secret noted in the margin: 'if you do sink you shall be sure to doe soe upon the water.'
But I'm an optimist. If you need me, I'll be on (or in) the river with my timbrels.
Elizabeth's book Ask the Past: Pertinent and Impertinent Advice from Yesteryear is published by Square Peg and available from Amazon.