3. Gunpowder

3. Gunpowder

Image. Gunpowder.  Caption in translation: ‘Thunder and lightning are wielded by hand, a gift it seems from hateful inhabitants of the underworld.’

Commentary. Gunpowder, printing and the mariner’s compass, Francis Bacon wrote in 1620, ‘were unknown to the ancients’: hence their presence in the Nova reperta published two decades earlier.  Unaware of their invention in China centuries earlier, Bacon added that their ‘origins, though recent, are dark and inglorious’ (Novum Organum, preface, OFB, vi. 195). The notion that gunpowder was invented relatively recently and in Europe is reflected in the image embedded in the third of three arches in this engraving, which depicts a monkish figure concocting gunpowder in an alchemical laboratory.  This may be Roger Bacon, the Franciscan friar in Oxford and Paris (see image 2), whose Opus Maius (1267) is generally regarded as the oldest extant recipe for gunpowder recorded in the West. Bacon's period is Oxford in particularly associated with 'Friar Bacon's Study', which formerly stood on the Folly Bridge.

The effects of this new weaponry are depicted to the right: cannon fire topples a medieval tower while making little impression on a modern artillery bastion.  In the central archway, a labourer recycles the shards of broken weapons, producing the molten metal streaming from the furnace to the right.  The treadmill to the left may power the polishing of cast weapons: water-powered polishing machinery is depicted elsewhere in the Nova reperta.  In the foreground, one man engraves a large bombard, while another works on a lighter piece of field artillery.

Credits: Howard Hotson (March 2017).