The Saline Chymistry of Color in Seventeenth-Century English Natural History


In: Early Science and Medicine
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  • 1 University of Lincoln


Before Newton’s seminal work on the spectrum, seventeenth-century English natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Nehemiah Grew and Robert Plot attributed the phenomenon of color in the natural world to salts and saline chymistry. They rejected Aristotelian ideas that color was related to the object’s hot and cold qualities, positing instead that saline principles governed color and color changes in flora, fauna and minerals. In our study, we also characterize to what extent chymistry was a basic analytical tool for seventeenth-century English natural historians.


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  • 4

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  • 5

     Anna Marie Roos, “Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712) and the Saline Chymistry of Plants,” Ambix, 54 (2007), 51–68; Anna Marie Roos, The Salt of the Earth: Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England, 1650–1750 (Leiden, 2007), 98. In the present essay, I am significantly broadening and deepening my analysis of early modern chymical analysis of color beyond that of Grew’s work to consider other natural historians.

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  • 13

     Todd Stuart Ganson, “What’s Wrong with the Aristotelian Theory of Sensible Qualities?,” Phronesis, 42 (1997), 263–82, on 264.

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     Roos, The Salt of the Earth, 12.

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     Jon Ecklund, “Salt,” in The Incompleat Chymist (Washington D.C., 1975).

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     William Eamon, “New Light on Robert Boyle and the Discovery of Colour Indicators,” Ambix, 27 (1980), 204–209, on 205.

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     Julian Hoppit, ed., “Nehemiah Grew and England’s Economic Development: The means of a most ample increase of the wealth and strength of England 1706–7,” Records of Social and Economic History. New Series, 47 (Oxford, 2012), 1–180, on 39. Cochineal was a red dye derived from alum.

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  • 32

     Eamon, “New Light,” 205–6. For analyses of early modern recipe books, see Elaine Leong and Sara Pennell, “Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern ‘Medical Marketplace’,” in The Medical Marketplace and Its Colonies c. 1450–c. 1850, eds. M. Jenner and P. Wallis (New York, 2007), 133–52.

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  • 33

     Boyle, Colours, 260. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis noted in their edition of Boyle’s works that Boyle referred to Paracelsus’s De mineralibus liber, published in volume 2 of his Opera omnia medico-chemico-chirurgica (1658): “though Boyle uses a different edition.” See “Colours and Cold, 1664–5,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, Electronic Edition, eds. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (London, 2003), 4: 130n1. My thanks to Tom Holland for his assistance with the Latin translation.

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  • 36

     J.J. MacIntosh and Peter Anstey, “Robert Boyle,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall ed.(2014), last modified August 18, 2014, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/boyle/>. Boyle did not go so far as to call these particles atoms in the sense of Gassendi or the Greek Epicureans.

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  • 37

     Domenico Bertoloni Meli, “The Colour of Blood: Between Sensory Experience and Epistemic Significance,” in Histories of Scientific Observation, eds. Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago, 2011), 121. Newman, Atoms and Alchemy, 184–5, also mentions Boyle’s attribution of color to corpuscular texture, as does Tawrin Baker’s essay in this volume.

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  • 38

     Bertoloni Meli, “Colour of Blood,” 121.

  • 39

     Boyle, Colours, 60. On pages 60–1, Boyle continues, “And that also such Liquors, as we have been speaking of, may greatly Discompose the Textures of many Bodies, and thereby alter the Disposition of their Superficial parts, the great Commotion made in Metalls, and several other Bodies by Aqua-fortis, Oyl of Vitiol, and other Saline Menstruums, may easily perswade us, and what such Vary’d Situations of Parts may do towards the Diversifying of the manner of their Reflecting the light, may be Gues’d in some Measure by […] the Experiments […] as the Producing and Destroying Colours by the means of subtil Saline Liquors, by whose Affusion the Parts of other Liquors are manifestly both Agitated, and likewise Dispos’d after another manner than they were before such Affusion.”

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  • 40

     Boyle, Colours, 54.

  • 41

     Boyle, Colours, 261.

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     Eamon, “New Light,” 206.

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     Eamon, “New Light,” 206.

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     Boyle, Colours, 264–5.

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     Boyle, Colours, 264–5.

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     Boyle, Colours, 269–70.

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     Robert Boyle, “An Essay about the Origine and Virtues of Gems (Facsimile of the 1672 edition),” in Contributions to the History of Geology (New York, 1972), 7: 7–8. As I do not have consistent access to the Davis/Hunter edition of Boyle’s Works, I will use this edition throughout the paper.

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  • 50

     Boyle, “Gems,” 166; 170.

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     Boyle, “Gems,” 170.

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     Boyle, Colours, 219–220; Alan Shapiro, “Artists’ Colors and Newton’s Colors,” Isis, 85 (1994), 600–630, on 614.

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     Boyle, Colours, 232.

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     Shapiro, “Artists’ Colors,” 606. Shapiro also discusses the contributions of François d’Aguilon to the discovery of the three primaries in 1613, stating the Jesuit natural philosopher formulated his color theory most clearly. See also John Gage, “Colour in History: Relative and Absolute,” Art History, 1 (1978), 104–30; and Gage, “A ‘Locus Classicus’ of Colour Theory: The Fortunes of Apelles,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 44 (1981), 1–26. Gage’s invaluable Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London, 1993) should also be consulted for early modern color theory. See also Charles Parkhurst, “Aguilonius’ Optics and Rubens’ Color,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 12 (1961), 35–49; Parkhurst, “A Color Theory from Prague: Anselm de Boodt, 1609,” Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, 29 (1971), 3–10.

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  • 58

     Jonathan Janson, “Vermeer’s Palette,” Essential Vermeer, last modified June 10, 2014, <http://www.essentialvermeer.com>.

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     Janson, “Vermeer’s Palette: Smalt,” Essential Vermeer, last modified June 10, 2014,<http://www.essentialvermeer.com/palette/palette_smalt.html>.

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  • 60

     Hooke, Micrographia, 71.

  • 61

     Hooke, Micrographia, 71.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 70.

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     Chapman, England’s Leonardo, 190.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 68.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     Hooke, Micrographia, 69.

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     John Ray, “Extract of a Letter […] Concerning Some Un-Common Observations and Experiments Made with an Acid Juyce to be Found in Ants,” Philosophical Transactions, 5 (1670), 2064.

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  • 77

     Martin Lister, “Some Observations, Touching Colours [...]” Philosophical Transactions, 6 (1671), 2132–33.

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     Lister, “Touching Colours,” 2133.

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     Peder Anker, “The Economy of Nature in the Botany of Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712),” Archives of Natural History, 31 (2004), 191–207, on 196.

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  • 80

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 1.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 150.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 157.

  • 83

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 158.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 158.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 158.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 158.

  • 87

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 159. Roos, “Nehemiah Grew and Saline Chymistry,” 54–5.

  • 88

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 159.

  • 90

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 160. The Greek is the infinitive, “to do geometry,” used with English “doth.” It refers to what geometer and land surveyors do, or indeed God (or nature), as for Plato, according to Plutarch. My thanks to Professor Richard Sharpe for his assistance with the Greek grammar.

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  • 91

     A. Rupert Hall, “Isaac Newton and the Aerial Nitre,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 52 (1) (January 1998), 51–61; Allen Debus, “The Paracelsian Aerial Niter,” Isis, 55 (1964), 43–61.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 158.

  • 94

     Bertoloni Meli, “Colour of Blood,” 121.

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     Boyle, Tracts, 27.

  • 99

     Boyle, Tracts, 59.

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     Boyle, Diamond, 406.

  • 102

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 238–54.

  • 103

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 271.

  • 104

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 271; Roos, “Nehemiah Grew and Saline Chymistry,” 61.

  • 105

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 276.

  • 106

     Roos, “Nehemiah Grew and Saline Chymistry,” 63.

  • 107

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 278. The reason for the striping is the tulip bulb becomes infected with Mosaic Virus. It is possible Grew wished to create the striped tulips so prized during the tulip mania in seventeenth-century Netherlands.

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  • 108

     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 278.

  • 109

    Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 278.

  • 110

     Nehemiah Grew, “Some Observations Touching the Nature of Snow,” Philosophical Transactions,8 (1673), 5196.

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     Grew, Anatomy of Plants, 247.

  • 116

     Plot, Natural History, 112. The literature on humoral medicine is vast, but for specific consideration of the evolution of ideas about humoral medicine and aging in the early modern era, see Cynthia Skenazi, Aging Gracefully in the Renaissance: Stories of Later Life from Petrarch to Montaigne (Leiden, 2013); Mary Ann Lund also explores connections between aging, melancholy and the cold and dry humoral complexion in: Melancholy, Medicine, and Religion in Early Modern England: Reading the Anatomy of Melancholy (Cambridge, 2010).

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