Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) was from a British Catholic family and his father was convicted of treason for being linked to the Gunpowder plot of 1605. He was consequently sentenced to death, and was hung, drawn and quartered in January 1606. This undoubtedly shaped Digby’s life and made him suspicious of authority and willing to take risks. An example of this was when he embarked on a privateering expedition to the Mediterranean with the purpose of attacking and plundering ships that came within sight of his position. After returning from this adventure, his life took another dark turn when his wife, Venetia Stanley, died unexpectedly. He reacted to this event, by immersing himself in scientific and quasi-scientific experiments.
Digby was a polymath, and had a thirst for knowledge that few other people of his time could match. His areas of expertise included philosophy, science, alchemy and cookery. The books featured in this blog encompass his interests in cooking recipes and chemistry. Science at the time was not recorded in any disciplined way, and though Digby was one of the founders of the Royal Society, his research ranged from chemistry and medicine on the one hand, to alchemy and astrology on the other.
There is strong evidence that the Library’s copy of The Great Bible (1539) comes from Sir Kenelm Digby’s library. The Bible is referred to in a number of volumes that were among the manuscripts of William Watkin Edward Wynne of Peniarth. There is evidence that these manuscripts were in Digby’s possession, including Digby’s diary in his own handwriting of his trip to the Mediterranean (see B. Schofield’s article in the National Library of Wales Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2, 1939). The Library recently bought two books of his works.
- The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digbie focuses on the recipes that he had discovered on his travels to Europe. It is a valuable historical document of the food and recipes of the 17th Century. As an extensive traveller, he was able to write about the exotic foods that he encountered and was enthusiastic in writing the recipes in great detail to his friends in Europe. They include how to make cider, metheglin and cherry-wine. It is interesting to note that Digby invented the modern wine bottle by manufacturing it from super strong, coloured glass in around 1633. Before this, wine bottles were thin and weak. This was fine for short term storage, but it meant that the wine would be oxidised much quicker. Therefore, the invention of the wine bottle meant that fine wine, champagne and vintage port could be used and marketed.
- A Choice Collection of rare Chymical secrets and Experiments in Philosophy by George Hartman. This book outlines Digby’s credentials as a Chemist. It also shows how he believed the products of his experiments could be used as medicines to cure ailments and chronic illnesses such as gout, Dropsie, Palsy, French-Pox, Plague, Leprosie, Small-pox and Measles. The methodology and technique of the experiments are shown through scientific diagrams which were typical of early scientific writings. Though one of Digby’s main aims was to show the power of mechanistic science, much of the book alludes to alchemy and astrology.
The Library has a copy of A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby by Joe Moshenska (Heinemann 2016). Moshenska noted that his hero, Sir Kenelm Digby, lived between the Renaissance world of Shakespeare, and the modern world of Milton and Newton. He studies Digby’s adventures, strong character and wide interests – a truly remarkable man.
Schofield, B. (1939). ‘Manuscripts of Sir Kenelm Digby’. National Library of Wales Journal 1 (2), 89-90. Available at: https://journals.library.wales/view/1277425/1277504/50#?xywh=-1848%2C-101%2C6796%2C4471
Moshenska, J. (2016), ‘The adventures of Sir Kenelm Digby: 17th-century pirate, philosopher and foodie’. Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/the-adventures-of-sir-kenelm-digby-17th-century-pirate-philosopher-and-foodie (Accessed: 18 August 2022)
Moshenska, J. (2016), A stain in the blood: The remarkable voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby, Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Foster, M. (2009). ‘Digby, Sir Kenelm’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available at: https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-7629?rskey=JFHNJq&result=2 (Accessed: 18 August 2022)
Digby, K. (1669) The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. opened whereby is discovered several ways for making metheglin, sider, chery-wine, &c. : together with excellent directions for cookery, as also for preserving, conserving, candying, &c., London: Printed for H. Brome, at the Star in Little Britain.
Hartman, G. (1682) A Choice Collection of rare Chymical Secrets and experiments in Philosophy as also rare and unheard-of Medicines, Menmstruums and Alkahests; with the true secret of Volatilizing the fixt salt of Tartar Collected and experimented by the Honourable and truly Learned Sir Kenelm Digby, Kt. Chancellour to Her Majesty the Queen-Mother. Hitherto kept secret since his decease, but now published for the good and benefit of the Publick. London : Printed for the Publisher, and are to be sold by the book-sellers of London, and his own house in Hewes Court in Black-Fryers.
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