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The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400–1800
by Daniel Jütte

Reviewed by Raphael Magarik


Published:

Published by Yale University Press, 2015   |   448 pages

Intellectual histories of early modern Europe have traditionally emphasized freedom, openness, and accessibility. Thinkers in the benighted middle ages may have mystified and hid their ideas and theories – whether they were alchemists hiding secrets, guilds jealously guarding craft knowledge, or the Catholic Church suppressing vernacular translations of the Bible – but that has since come to seem an intellectually defensive posture, designed to protect bad theories from critical analysis. Modern science, on this account, elevated transparency to a cardinal virtue. Researchers like Descartes, Pascal, and, after some reluctance, Newton – confident in the methodological importance of the free flow of knowledge – published their hypotheses to open scrutiny. They cooperatively proffered their theories for others either to develop or, more often, to falsify. Recent scholarship has questioned the triumphalist positivist narrative epitomized in books like Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. But scholars have been slow to challenge the claim that early modernity witnessed a radical transformation from an earlier, more furtive intellectual world to a more open, accessible one. Secrets and the arcane have retained their stigma, and honesty and intellectual forthrightness remain central intellectual values, often taken to define not only good science, but also, more broadly, intellectual modernity, itself.

Daniel Jütte’s The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800 is a vast reappraisal of the role of secrecy in the European early modern period, as well as an even broader investigation as to the nature, and function, of secrecy in the history of ideas. Jütte argues that secrecy was integral to early modern science, economics, and politics. Far from impeding the flow of knowledge, secrecy spurred intellectual creativity and built new pathways for ideas and technology. Secrecy also opened doors for societal outsiders (Jütte focuses on Jews). Provocatively, Jutte emphasizes secrecy’s “advantages” and argues that we moderns might “benefit from (re)discovering secrecy as an opportunity for social interaction.”

Jütte’s book, recently translated from German, starts from the premise that “in early modern Europe, the secret was a sweeping concept encompassing all facets of people’s lives.” Early moderns understood the “Book of Nature” to be a collection of secrets. That term did not imply that nature was totally mysterious, but rather that its workings were concealed and required specialized, elite skills to access. They did not, for example, clearly divide science from superstition and magic: they did not clearly distinguish from chemistry or astrology from astronomy. This lack of demarcation does not indicate that early modern science was ineffective; in fact, it provided materials for war craft and commerce (large-scale gunpowder production being a key example), methods for navigation and espionage (for instance, newly sophisticated cryptography), and more. These technological successes, Jütte highlights, were connected to realms that today we would label as arcane and magical.

Jütte examines the role secrecy played – and continues to play – in market based capitalistic systems. Veils of secrecy protected—and increased the allure of—not only supernatural lore but also proprietary technologies, which were intermixed in the early modern mind. Concealed knowledge played a key role in statecraft, espionage, burgeoning mercantile economies, and the development of politically sensitive technologies like metallurgy and cryptography. Secrecy was thus not a “deficient variant of open forms of knowledge,” but the basis of lucrative, elite markets for ideas and technology.

These secret markets functioned quite differently than their official, public corollaries, and in particular, Jütte argues, they facilitated communication between unlikely parties and offered opportunities to the otherwise oppressed. As an example, Jütte studies the relation between early modern Christians and Jews. Early modern Jews were socially  marginalized, physically consigned to ghettos, the first of which, in Venice, was established in 1516. They often paid special taxes and were barred from participating in public social and economic life, forbidden from owning land, working in critical professions, or holding political offices.

But Jews also played a central role in the economy of secrets that Jutte is studying. Persecution produced particular niches and competencies: Jewish mobility and trade networks, for instance, helped them learn and communicate hidden information, rendering them useful as messengers and knowledge merchants. Partially, if not entirely, as a result of this, Christians came to believe that ” there was something fundamentally ‘secretive’ about the Jews.” Prejudiced it was, but not without its consequences. By the early modern period Jews were widely credited with arcane knowledge in early modern Europe. They were supposed to be skilled in alchemy, magic, and transmitting information secretly, and even to have expert knowledge of unicorns. Earlier studies have largely reduced this situation to a casualty of ignorance and anti-Semitic prejudice, but Jütte explores the ways in which these beliefs could, counter-intuitively, benefit particular Jews. They gave Jews a key role in guarding and circulating esoteric, prized knowledge.

Claiming that moderns undervalue “secrecy as an opportunity for social interaction,” Jütte argues that secrecy engendered new social roles and organizations. Associations with magic, for example, allowed otherwise marginalized Jews improbable connections to rulers. For instance, because of his reputation for mastery of the arcana, the famous rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, enjoyed an audience with Emperor Rudolf II “to exchange secrets,” speaking, one contemporary asserted, “on equal terms.” Unofficial paths to power like this one were especially useful to Jews, barred from many public pursuits. Venetian Jews, for instance, were confined to a ghetto but were often sought out for their abilities to manufacture gold or escape from prisons mysteriously. The post-Enlightenment era has tended to associate open, forthright social structures with meritocracy and concealment with favoritism. Jütte furnishes numerous counterexamples, in which secrecy “gives people room to maneuver and creates zones of interaction” more fluid than open spaces.

In the book’s longest chapter, Jütte provides a novella-length bibliography of Abramo Colorni, an Italian Jewish professore de’ secreti. The “professore de’ secreti” was a shadowy figure who wrote books, advised princes, and traded in esoteric, arcane, and proprietary knowledge. Identifying this profession helps explain the careers of many itinerant and secretive early modern intellectuals like Colorni. He was born in Mantua and studied medicine, engineering, and botany at the university of Ferrara. He had a long, colorful career, which included, for instance, performing magic for Emperor Rudolf II, writing a book about cryptography, and manufacturing saltpeter (a key ingredient in gunpowder). While Colorni’s life’s story makes for entertaining reading, Jütte intends to rewrite older accounts of the Italian Jew as either a crackpot magician or an enlightened Renaissance man. Rather, by combining the context described in the first half of The Age of Secrecy with new archival research into the courts in which Colorni served, Jütte shows how Colorni fit into the broader economy of secrets, one in which Jews, Christians, chemistry, alchemy, court politics, and international trade all intermingled.

Jütte’s book convincingly demonstrates that our notions of secrecy and indirection can be simplistic, and he offers many nontrivial examples in which they both produce and cultivate vibrant intellectual economies. That said, I have two small reservations. First,  Jütte seems to imply that the economy of secrets was an early modern invention, as when he speaks of the “arcanization” of early modern life. Perhaps because he is more concerned with the contrast between early modern privileging and contemporary derogation of secrecy, however, he does not offer a compelling account of why and how early modern thinkers would have become more secretive than their medieval predecessors. He does trace strands of this history, particularly the decline in relative importance of the university system and the rise of the court and state, which “had to create secret structures, acquire secret knowledge, and supply secret measures in order to ensure its capacity to act.” But surely the medieval Church, to pick one example, supported radically secretive, esoteric hierarchies of knowledge. Is Jütte telling a story unique to early modernity, or is he simply unearthing one more chapter in pre-Enlightenment history of esotericism? The Age of Secrecy, while it destabilizes our present-day assumptions about forthrightness, would have benefited from more explicit framing against a pre-modern background.

Second, Jütte seem largely unable to determine whether the economy of secretsproduced major new theories and technologies, or whether it was primarily a conduit for engineers and functionaries implementing the work of others. For example, what contribution did professori de’ secreti like Colorni make scientifically? Although Jutte mentions some speculative possibilities, we really do not know how he made or gathered saltpeter. Nor do we know what alchemists claiming to produce gold were actually doing: were they refining trace deposits in other metals? running covert metallurgical businesses? producing fake gold? Recent, revisionist histories of science are most powerful when they document the discoveries of forgotten, marginalized people, whether they are lower-class technicians or non-European scientists. Without ascertaining what Colorni and his peers contributed, we cannot correctly assess their importance.

These are, however, as much suggestions for future research as they are critiques. On the whole, this panoramic view of the European economy of secrets is a remarkable achievement. Jütte has collected countless remarkable anecdotes and observations, opening a vista onto an otherwise obscure world.

As I was reading The Age of Secrecy, news broke of the National Security Agency’s longstanding, deep collaboration with the telecommunications giant AT&T. The NSA installs surveillance equipment in the company’s hubs and routinely solicits customers’ private information, sometimes on a voluntary basis. For privacy advocates, this partnership is both shocking and also a distinctly postmodern, digital nightmare. But as Jütte’s book shows, these type of murky, public-private deals helped birth the early modern state and capitalism. In our day, even as secretive states spy on unsuspecting citizens, they also generated information markets. Even the open digital commons itself owes much to secret channels. The Internet Protocol, for instance, derives from programs funded by the Department of Defense. Confronted by markets like these, I am not sure I share Jütte’s fondness for secrecy. Nonetheless, by showing how secrecy helped constituted basic social and intellectual structures in early modern Europe, he pushes us to rethink basic assumptions about how societies produce and distribute knowledge.


Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English and Jewish studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Atlantic online, and NewRepublic.com. More of his writing can be found on his blog.

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