Sir Hugh Plat. The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London

Sir Hugh Plat. The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London

ISBN-13 978-1-903018-65-1
Published Aug 2010
432 pages; 246×174 mm; hardback; 10 b&w illustrations
Price £30

Malcolm Thick

Sir Hugh Plat. The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London

• The first biography of an important Tudor scientist •The scientific and proto-scientific community of Elizabethan and Jacobean London has lately attracted much scholarly attention. This book advances the subject by means of an investigation of the life and work of Sir Hugh Plat (1552–1611), an author, alchemist, speculator and inventor whose career touched on the fields of alchemy, general scientific curiosity, cookery and sugar work, cosmetics, gardening and agriculture, food manufacture, victualling, supplies and marketing. Unike many of his colleagues and correspondents, much manuscript material, in the form of notebooks and workings, has survived.

Plat has such a wide range of interests that modern scholars have tended to concentrate on that aspect of his work which most affects their own research. By devoting a whole book to his multifarious interests Thick can show him in the round, as a gentlemen of varied interests, as a man of his time and place,  with chapters on military inventions, famine relief, medicines which he developed a cosmetics. Thick highlights two important aspects of his research, alchemy and enquiries about the current technology of various trades. Whilst his alchemical writings are the most esoteric and complex of his surviving manuscripts, much had a practical end in view – to develop powerful, effective medicines. His work on the technology of trades was by no means disinterested – in more than one instance he developed better ways of carrying out industrial processes than were then practised and tried, by patents or other means, to make money.

Malcom Thick is an historian of agriculture and gardening. He contributed a chapter on market gardening to the relevant volume of The Agrarian History of England, and his book on market gardening in early-modern London, The Neat House Gardens, is published by Prospect Books. The Country Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis (1750), William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1618) are two early gardening and agricultural texts that Malcolm Thick has edited for Prospect Books.

A PDF of Sir Hugh Plat. The Search for Useful Knowledge in Early Modern London including the preliminary pages and introduction and the opening pages from each of the chapters, as well as the complete index

Review of Sir Hugh Plat by Bee Wilson in The Times Literary Supplement (12/10)

Review of Sir Hugh Plat in The Tablet by Brian Morton (15/01/11)

Review of Sir Hugh Plat by Michael Hunter in History Today (17/01/11)

Review from Amazon.com by E.N. Anderson


Review of Sir Hugh Plat by Bee Wilson in The Times Literary Supplement (Dec 2010)

In 1596, Sir Hugh Plat, an alchemist, courtier and all-round inventor, set out a grand idea to solve the provisioning problems of the Royal Navy: pasta. This was the fourth of five years of poor harvests, when there were riots in Britain and patches of famine across Europe. It was, moreover, a time when longer voyages made victualling British ships more difficult than in the past. The men on Francis Drake’s last voyage to the West Indies in 1595–6 suffered severe hunger. Perhaps it was time to rethink the traditional sea rations of beef, cheese, liquor and salt fish.

Up stepped Plat with his great solution. He laid out the virtues of pasta – or “macaroni”, as he usually called it – in a series of points.

1. First, it is durable, for I have kept the same both sweet and sound, by the space of 3 yeares …

2. It is exceedingly light …

3. It is speedily dressed, for in one halfe houre, it is sufficiently sodden …

4. It is fresh, and thereby very pleasing unto the Mariner in the midst of his salt Meat …

5. It is cheape …

6. It serveth both in stead of bread and meate, whereby it performs a double service.

7. Not being spent it may be laide up in store for a second voyage.

8. It may be made as delicate as you please, by the addition of oyle, butter, sugar and such like.

9. There is sufficient matter to bee hadde al the yeare long, for the composition thereof.

This pasta proposal gives a good flavour of Plat who, as Malcolm Thick acknowledges, “is quite an obscure figure”, but one who offers a fascinating window on to Elizabethan inventiveness. Plat was an authentic man of many parts who dabbled in diverse fields – from agriculture to medicine, from food preservation and winemaking to cosmetics, from science to vegetable gardening, without quite leaving a truly distinguished mark on any of them. Plat launched himself on many schemes, and this pasta one was typical in many ways. There is the appeal to Plat’s own hands-on experience – the boast about having kept macaroni “sweet and sound” for three years; the indication that he is actually familiar with cooking the stuff, or at least with making it “sodden”. There is the mixture of good thinking – pasta is indeed durable, light and cheap – with nonsense: as a pure starch food, it can hardly take the place of both bread and meat. Finally, there is the coy turn to profit at the end. What Plat means when he says that there is “sufficient” pasta to be had all year long is that he himself can supply sufficient – at a price. Plat was the proud owner of perhaps the first macaroni press to reach London – a kind of extrusion machine, an illustration of which appears in one of his books. Plat’s whole scheme for alleviating military hunger is really a drumming up of custom for his own pasta supply business. It seems to have worked insofar as Francis Drake did commission Plat’s pasta for at least one of his voyages.

Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Plat was born in 1552, the oldest surviving son of a wealthy Hertfordshire businessman who had made his money in brewing. Hugh seems to have had a fairly charmed upbringing, typical of the sons of well-to-do-tradesmen. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, followed by Lincoln’s Inn (the Inns at this time being, as Thick writes, rather like “finishing schools” for trade). After Cambridge, aged twenty, in 1572, he published his first book, a mediocre collection of poems and Senecan moralizing, The Floures of Philosophie, with the Pleasures of Poetrie Annexed to them, aswel pleasant to be read as profitable to be followed of all men. He married twice, both times the daughters of city men. His first wife, Margaret Young, bore him three children and then died; his second wife, Judith Albany, bore him three more children and outlived him. Meanwhile, Plat hurled himself into the melee of London and courtly life with an endless stream of books, schemes, experiments and inventions, at the same time as practising as an unlicensed physician.

Malcolm Thick modestly warns us that he “must disappoint those looking for a book-length biography” of Plat, arguing that the sources do not warrant such a thing. Almost all of Plat’s “personal papers have disappeared, bar a couple of letters”. Therefore, most of what is known of his life derives from his works, both published and unpublished, which Thick has mined more thoroughly than anyone before. Though it may not be a “book-length biography”, this 432-page volume, beautifully produced by Prospect Books, will undoubtedly be the definitive work on Plat for the foreseeable future. One consequence of Plat’s dilettantism is that when he has been studied in the past, it has been through one lens or another. Gardening historians have claimed him as a gardener, thanks to his two works, the Floraes Paradise (1608) and the posthumous collection The Second Part of the Garden of Eden (1660). Culinary historians, conversely, have viewed him primarily as a confectioner, the author of the tiny Delights for Ladies, to Adorne their Persons, Tables, Closets and Distilleries (1600 or 1602). Historians of science have treated him as a proto-Baconian dabbler, an “English virtuoso” in the words of Walter E. Houghton. Thick’s mission is to unite these various Plats – along with Plat the doctor, Plat the moneymaker, Plat the inventor of military food, Plat the alchemist and Plat the agriculturalist – in a single picture: “to show him in the round”.

It is an enviably energetic life that emerges, teeming with “secrets”, one of Plat’s favourite words, which in this period could apply just as well to a recipe for pastry, the key to the philosopher’s stone (something Plat dedicated much time searching for) or a formula for cheating at cards (in The Jewell House of Art and Nature, 1594, Plat divulged a trick involving a ring with a glass or crystal stone set in it like a mirror, in which to view the cards of your companions). His inventions, which he only rarely capitalized on as fully as he would have liked, spanned a new and improved type of gunpowder; fuel- saving coalballs; a rainproof fabric; a parsnip cake to cure famine; a copper press for moulding small objects; a cupboard for drying herbs; a papier mâché for making interesting carved faces; cinnamon water; a new and cheap lantern; and a series of special dice for teaching children their ABCs.

Plat’s world is one in which the magic and the mundane collide. He sought his secrets from many sources. His informants at court included “the Queen’s trumpeter, her rat catcher, purveyor of wine, ale brewer, and a member of her Privy Kitchen”. There were secrets even between the members of Plat’s own household. In The Jewell House, Plat mentions a “tricke” for making cheese by subjecting it to a more gentle pressing than normal, expelling less whey “and so your cheese will bee much bigger, and better than it would otherwise be”. He notes that the secret belongs to “a Gentlewoman”. Then, in a later book of 1600, he admits that the gentlewoman whose secret he has plundered is his own wife, Judith. “I have robbed my wives Dairy of this secret, who hath hitherto refused all recompenses that have been offered her by a gentlewoman for the same.” There was a strong mercenary element in Plat’s secrets. Thick has unearthed notes in which Plat offers a secret recipe for rosewater and other waters, priced at £500 (around £60,000 in today’s money). A formula for processing seawater cost £400.

Thick depicts Plat as an inveterate experimenter. Though versed in the classics, he argued in Baconian fashion that knowledge should be sought not from “Grecian and heathen authors” but “from the wellspring of life” or else “from nature”. Thick’s careful readings of Plat’s manuscripts show that he returned to some subjects over and over again, trying to perfect his practical wisdom. His great gardening book, Floraes Paradise, was advertised as “2 hundred experiments”. For example, Plat was extremely preoccupied by the question of soil fertility and conducted experiments to discover which composts and treatments worked best for which crops. He claimed that sheep’s dung soaked in water was good for artichokes and strawberries (particular favourites of his); pigeon’s dung was best for pumpkins; and rotted horse dung mixed with fine earth and wine lees for apricot trees; for old vines, the best remedy was blood. Another line of enquiry was the question of how warmth affected plant growth. Plat drew on Roman ideas about growing cucumbers in warmed soil to envisage a greenhouse with a stove attached for keeping such plants as lemon and orange trees “fresh during winter”.

Alongside these practical ideas were more fanciful ones. Plat showed himself to be a true courtier in his taste for ornate sugarwork, quince pastes, marchpanes and many- coloured comfits (though Thick convincingly demonstrates that most of the recipes for sweetmeats in Plat’s Delightes for Ladies were borrowed wholesale from another writer called T. T., probably Thomas Thurland, “a priest but also a mining entrepreneur, foreign traveller and embezzler” as well as, perhaps, maker of sweets). His tastes in garden design were ornate. He wrote of such conceits as an “artificiall tree; made of a hollow log filled with diverse herbs and flowers which appeared to grow out of crevices”, and he loved the idea of gardens filled with “trellises, knots, mazes, fountains … emblems, mounts, pyramids” and beasts such as “lions, dogs, beares bulles”.

Informing much of Plat’s work was his belief in the alchemical or “spagirical”: “the great and hidden groundes of Nature” (Thick’s chapter on alchemy is particularly richly researched). Plat believed he had perfected a technique for drawing the “oil” out of any gum, seed or flower. He described a “philosophical” garden, a kind of brick-lined vessel filled with alchemically treated soil in which, he insisted, “any Indian plant” would grow and prosper (by this he means any plant from a warm climate) and its vegetables would bear fruit “in Englande as naturally as they doe in Spaine, Italie or elsewhere”. He also claimed that an aqua vitae could give fertility to any soil. There was practical alchemy, too, in Plat’s interest in transmuting the base waste products of city life into fertilizers for farmers. In Diverse new sortes of soyle, he considered as soil improvers such substances as ashes, malt dust (from breweries), soap ashes and hair (tanners always had leftover hair, combed out of animal hides); other waste products he considered were beer dregs, waste from saltpetre, butcher’s blood, woollen rags, and spent woad from dyer’s vats. Plat was perhaps at his best when writing on agriculture, showing a far-reaching sensitivity to the question of how the problem of urban waste disposal could be transformed into a cure for poor soil quality.

By contrast, Plat was at his worst when working as a physician. He was, writes Thick, an “irregular practitioner” and one with a deep faith in “mummia”: mummified remains imported by apothecaries from Africa. Plat confidently wrote that the common mummia was “good for an inward bruse” while “the powder of a mans skull that is sound and killed in wars is most excellent of all others, taken in half a dram in a little drincke for a tertian or quodidian”. A child with a “wen upon the eye lid” could be cured, he wrote, “by often stroking of the dead hand of a child upon it”. In 1593, Plat set up a plague practice, dispensing Plat’s own pills which he claimed were “defensatives”. These consisted of powerful purgatives mixed with honey, quince jam and ginger. Though he gave some away to the poor, there is evidence that selling these pills to city merchants and tradesmen and widows provided Plat with much of his income.

Thick seems bafflingly positive about Plat’s role as physician, remarking that “Plat was fully engaged in combating the plague of 1593” when clearly his pill-selling activities did nothing to combat the disease. Thick does acknowledge that Plat’s main interest in medicine was in earning money rather than helping his patients but adds that “this was a wise strategy when disease was rife, and most medicines so obviously inadequate”. This ignores the fact that Plat’s own medicine was also entirely useless. Admittedly, Plat was probably no worse than most other doctors of the time; as David Wootton has written, until modern times, almost all medicine did more harm than good. But Plat’s plague pills certainly cannot enhance his record as a seeker after “useful knowledge”.

At various moments, Thick gestures towards a comparison between Plat and Francis Bacon (though he cautiously refuses to comment directly on their “relative merits”, knowing “much less about Bacon than I do of Plat”). Some early modernists have lamented the fact that Plat’s contribution to knowledge has been so comprehensively buried by the triumph of Baconian method from the late seventeenth century. In his interest in scientific progress and his commitment to observation and experiment, Plat could be argued to prefigure Bacon (Bacon shared Plat’s interest in food preservation, too). However, as Thick himself concludes, the eclipse of Plat by Bacon is no great mystery: “Plat muses on progress in various scattered passages, and the need to experiment rather than rely on the precedent of past writers, but he did not concern himself much with theories of research. He left no blueprints for others to follow, only a body of useful information on many subjects.”

Malcolm Thick is too kind to his subject. Many of Plat’s “secrets”, though of considerable historical interest, were of no use; some were plagiarized; none has lasted in its original form. Thick’s attempt to depict Plat “in the round” must fall flat insofar as Plat himself, or the Plat that survives from the work, was less than rounded. While Bacon’s Novum Organum presented a joined-up approach to scientific method, Plat left only a sea of enthusiastic dots.


Review of Sir Hugh Plat in The Tablet by Brian Morton (15 Jan 2011)

T.S. Eliot was a fine phrase-maker, and some of the associated ideas have settled in the culture. One of the boldest was the notion of a “dissociation of sensibility” that Eliot believed had overcome English thought in the eighteenth century. Switching off the sensory immediacy and aesthetic glamour that ideas had previously enjoyed, it rendered them prosy, abstract and specialised, marking the moment when the Elizabethans’ golden age began its march into the waste land.

“Waste land” was, of course, another of Eliot’s most powerful metaphors and not just a literary one. The Elizabethans were obsessed with the nourishment of a growing and ever more urban population. The idea of rus in urbe wasn’t just a poetic ideal but a serious practical fix in crowded London and its surrounding villages. Agricultural and horticultural improvement were obsessions of the time, with an urgency heightened by a run of bad harvests in the 1590s and, more positively, encouraged by the possibility of new food crops, potatoes most obviously, from the New World.

Sir Hugh Plat is only occasionally cited by gardening writers now, partly because his contributions were, as gardening lore almost always is, second-hand, culled from ancient and more recent sources and from conversation with other practitioners. Plat did, however, make his contribution in The Jewell House of Art and Nature finished 14 years before his death in 1608; the posthumous The Garden of Eden; essays on manuring, like Diverse New Sorts of Soyle; and the mass of unpublished notes and marginalia which Malcolm Thick has spent years examining.

Content himself to itemise Plat’s eclectic interests, Thick leaves the broader cultural and scientific context to others. In the early 1970s, George Fussell in his The Classical Tradition in Western European Farming suggested that Plat began the breakaway from that tradition “and the small beginning of independent and scientific, or pseudo-scientific, thinking”. The qualification is important, because at least some of Plat’s recommendations involve mysterious virtues and astrologically influenced salts. It’s no longer a surprise to find that a seventeenth-century “scientist” is also interested in alchemy, although that branch of (pseudo-)science was always more broadly based and socially useful than the pursuit of gold or the “philosopher’s stone”.

Alongside his references to “philosophicall earth” and wishful prescriptions for planetary influence on growth, Plat is estimably practical. His instructions for T-budding fruit trees can still be followed to the letter – and they include the word “overthwartewise”, which is as delicious on the tongue as a pippin – and he shows similar straightforwardness in his other inventions: a military cart, a new kind of pump, medical techniques and materials, a primitive light box and bolting hutch, “cole-balls” for domestic fuel. A sour rival, Sir John Harington, put it about that these were made from dung, which Plat angrily denied, but not without humour.

What kind of man was he? Thick’s biographical chapter takes up no more than 40 pages. Plat was a “virtuoso” in the seventeenth-century sense: a man, in Walter E. Houghton’s words, “for whom learning is the means to dispose of wealth and leisure in the happiest fashion – and with the comforting assurance that he may also be serving the desiderants of philosophy, history or art”. A member of a new upper middle class with some entrée to court, his cast of mind valued busyness more than business (where his money came from is the least clear part of Thick’s narrative). He would not allow servants to do his digging and pruning for him.

He comes through vividly in his writing, and Thick rightly dwells on it. The only thing I missed – given that dung and bad smells play such a large part – is any sense of whether the “Poem on a fart, let in the House of Commons”, recently discovered in a British Library index and credited to “Sir Hugh Platt”, is by our man. The American graduate student who first caught wind of it gets Plat’s death date wrong by three years but with an opening as bluntly direct as any of Eliot’s “voices” – “Reader, I was born, and cried: / I crack’d, I smelt, and so I died” – one really hopes so.


Review of Sir Hugh Plat by Michael Hunter in History Today (17 Jan 2011)

From pasta to coalballs and from papier mâché ornaments to fertilisers made from all kinds of waste products – these were typical of the novelties that Sir Hugh Plat advocated in the various books that he published between 1593 and his death in 1608.

Plat will already be familiar to some readers because of his prominent role in Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (2007), the title of which is actually borrowed from one of Plat’s best-known works, The Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594). Plat is there presented as a typical example of the vibrant, citizen science that Harkness discerns in late Tudor London and her treatment of him is juxtaposed with an account of Francis Bacon to illustrate the down to earth and inclusive nature of that tradition in comparison with what she sees as the increasing elitism of science in the following century.

Thick has been over much the same ground as Harkness and they both make use of Plat’s profuse extant manuscripts as well as his printed books. But, quite apart from the sheet scale of Thick’s account, which goes into each area of Plat’s activities in detail – often with lengthy passages quoted from manuscripts – this book gives a different, more nuanced view of the man. Thick illustrates a greater degree of contingency than Harkness allowed as to just which works by Plat did and did not get into print and which were most successful. He also illustrates that, for all the appeal to public-spiritedness that Plat made in his writings, he was always eager to profit from his discoveries, in his last years even composing a letter to the renowned German alchemist, Moritz Landgrave of Hessen-Kassell, in which he tried to sell him alchemical secrets for hundreds of pounds. Thick also illustrates Plat’s continuing influence in the century after his death, when the pursuit of secrets such as had preoccupied him continued to play a central role in intellectual life.

In addition to outlining Plat’s entrepreneurial and intellectual activities, Thick is also quite effective in filling in their background: he is at his strongest on economic and social affairs and, though he has done his best in relation to intellectual history, he is here somewhat weaker, depending to an excessive extent on general and popular works. Indeed, from this point of view one suspects that Thick has not said the last word on Plat. It would thus have been helpful to compare him to another self-taught alchemist living in London at the same time, Simon Forman (1552–1611), who has recently been the subject of telling analysis by Lauren Kassell, while his entrepreneurship might have been helpfully juxtaposed with that of his European peers as studied by Tara Nummedal and others. Nonetheless, there is much of interest in this book, which gives a good sense of the sheer richness of the material relating to Plat, using it to give a readable and informative account of his multifarious activities.


Review from Amazon.com by E.N. Anderson

This five-star review can be found on the Amazon.com website. Its author is Professor Emeritus E.N. Anderson, the historian and anthropologist from University of California Riverside. He has kindly permitted us to quote it here.

Someone should draw attention to this wonderful book, which may be missed because it is published by a press otherwise specializing in food books. This book has a lot about food, but is mainly a study of an Elizabethan polymath who wrote on food, alchemy, naval stores, mining, dyeing, and several other technical processes. A brewer’s son, he wished to make money in trade, and was bright enough and willing enough to try his hand at everything. He did eventually get knighted, and make a modest living from selling everything from medicine to soap.

More to the point, though, is the way Malcolm Thick uses his incredibly thorough and perceptive account of Sir Hugh Plat to show what London was like in Elizabeth I’s day, and what it was like to be a scientist-inventor-developer in that milieu. This book really should be read by anyone interested in the history of early modern science. I know no other work that gives such a comprehensive and thorough understanding of science in that period. Especially useful is the fact that one can read this book along with Deborah Harkness’ THE JEWEL HOUSE, another five-star winner that draws on Plat’s work (for the title, among other things). Harkness covers more ground in fewer pages, but gives a better tie to the whole modern science enterprise. The books are quite similar in both content and quality. As a student of Chinese science, I can only wish we had something so good for that end of Eurasia.

It is depressing to think that Malcolm Thick’s book languishes relatively unknown (to judge from Amazon’s sales figures), while certain worthless bits of pop trash that cover some of the same ground are best-sellers.

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