Discours admirables, de la nature des eaux et fonteines, tant naturelles qu'artificielles, des métaux, des sels & salines, des pierres, des terres, du feu & des emaux.

Paris: chez Martin le Jeune, 1580.

First edition, and a very fine copy, of this famous rarity. “A book of great importance in the history of chemistry, hydrology, geology, and agriculture. Palissy, who is best known for his discovery of the secret of enamelling pottery, was far in advance of his time in scientific ideas. ‘Palissy shines as a close and accurate observer of natural objects, a man of eminent common sense, and an original and laborious experimenter’ (Partington). Toward the end of his life he described his work in the present book, which probably incorporates the lectures he gave in Paris about 1575. It is written in dialogue form between ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’, and it is always Practice that instructs Theory. Divided into eleven chapters, the book covers metals, alchemy, medicine, salts, precious stones, glass, pottery and ceramics, agriculture, fertilisers, etc. The first edition is an extremely rare book. Ferguson acquired his copy, now in Glasgow University, after many years of search, and wrote on the flyleaf: ‘At last, after long, long waiting and watching.’ It is one of the very few books in Duveen’s collection of which he reproduced the title page in his Bibliotheca alchemica et chemical” (Neville). Palissy’s sections on hydrology and paleontology are of special interest, for “he was one of the few men of his century to have a correct notion of the origins of rivers and streams” (DSB). An early advocate of the infiltration theory, he described artesian wells and recommended forestation to prevent soil erosion. Through Cardano’s De subtilitate, Palissy was familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on paleontology in the notebooks; he noted the similarity of fossils to living species and was “one of the first to hold a reasonably correct view of the process of petrification” (DSB). In his eighth section, Palissy investigated the hardness and properties of gems and precious stones. Palissy “was lauded by later geologists and palaeontologists, particularly in France, for his early identification of several important principles. Buffon and Huxley both cited Palissy as a pioneer in the study of fossil organisms … he asserted that wood, beasts, and even people could be transformed into stone, that manure was a good fertiliser because of the ‘salts’ it contained, and that fossils represented the remains of animals that had died where they had lived” (Halliday). ABPC/RBH lists four copies since the Norman-Freilich copy, all in later or restored bindings. The Norman copy, in modern binding, realised $40,250 in 1998.

“Palissy (ca. 1510-1590) was first trained in the manufacture and decoration of stained glass windows. As his profession became less in demand, however, he took up land surveying in order to support his wife and children (of whom there were at least six). Some time around 1539 he became interested in enameled pottery and, after sixteen years of tireless experimentation (during which, by his own account, he burned his furniture and floorboards to fuel his kiln), perfected a technique for making a ‘rustic’ enameled earthenware that brought him fame and a modest fortune … The governor of Saintes, where Palissy settled, was the constable Anne, Duc de Montmorency, who had a keen interest in the fine arts and became Palissy’s patron. Palissy converted to Protestantism in about 1546. He was one of the first Huguenots in Saintes, and was much persecuted for his religion. He was imprisoned in Bordeaux around 1559 and, had it not been for Anne de Montmorency, who took his case directly to the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, he would almost certainly have been executed. The queen mother appointed him inventeur des rustiques figulines du roy, and commissioned him to decorate the new Tuileries palace. Palissy thus became established in Paris, where in 1575 he began to give public lectures on natural history. Despite his lack of formal education Palissy’s lectures, according to Désiré Leroux, attracted the most learned men in the capital …

Discours admirables probably incorporates Palissy’s Paris lectures. It, like the earlier work, deals with an impressive array of subjects: agriculture, alchemy, botany, ceramics, embalming, engineering, geology, hydrology, medicine, metallurgy, meteorology, mineralogy, paleontology, philosophy, physics, toxicology, and zoology. The book is divided into several chapters, the first and longest of which is concerned with water. The others take up metals and their nature and generation; drugs; ice; different types of salts and their nature, effects, and methods of generation; characteristics of common and precious stones; clay and marl; and the potter’s art.

“Palissy’s views on hydrology and paleontology, as expressed in the Discours, are of particular interest. He was one of the few men of his century to have a correct notion of the origin of rivers and streams, and he stated it forcefully, denying categorically that rivers can have any source other than rainfall. An early advocate of the infiltration theory, he refuted, with great skill and logic, the old theories that streams came from seawater or from air that had condensed into water. He also wrote on the principles of artesian wells, the recharging of wells from nearby rivers, and forestation for the prevention of soil erosion, and presented plans for constructing ‘fountains’ for domestic water supply.

“Palissy discussed fossils extensively. Like Xenophanes of Colophon, he believed them to be remnants of animals and plants. He firmly rejected the idea that they were detritus of the biblical flood, suggesting that inland fossils are found on site as the result of the congelation of a lake. He recognized the relation between these fossils and living species and, in some cases, extinct ones. He was one of the first to hold a reasonably correct view of the process of petrification. (Duhem, in Études sur Léonard de Vinci, has pointed out that all these ideas may well be derived from Cardano’s De subtilitate, with which Palissy was familiar, and hence from the thought of Leonardo da Vinci.)

“Palissy held other advanced views. From experimentation he concluded that all minerals with geometric crystal forms must have crystallized in water; his classification of salts was nearly correct; and he suggested the concept of superposition for the development of sedimentary rocks. In his writings on medicine he demonstrated that potable gold was neither potable nor beneficial, and he showed that mithridate, a remedy composed of some 300 ingredients, was useless and probably harmful. He presented observations in support of his scientific ideas, and scathingly denounced established authorities if their findings did not agree with his own data. While there is some question concerning his originality—La Rocque discussed his dependence on thirty-one other writers on earth sciences whose works were available in the sixteenth century, and Thornidke charged him with plagiarizing Jacques Besson’s L’art et la science de trouver les eaux of 1567—there is little doubt that Palissy was probably one of the first men in France to teach natural sciences from facts, specimens, and demonstrations rather than hypotheses.

“Although he was well known as a potter, Palissy’s scientific work was not widely recognized in his lifetime. In 1588, soon after religious warfare once more broke out in France, Palissy was again imprisoned. He was taken to the Conciergerie, then transferred to the Bastille, where he died” (DSB).

“Palissy’s ‘Treatise on Metals and Alchemy’ in Discours admirables describes a world defined by a finite amount of material resources: “You must be sure that all the waters in the world, which have been and are, were all created in one and the same day, and if that is true of the waters, I say to you that the seeds of metals and all minerals and all stones were also created in one day” [translation from Palissy, 1957]. But how to account for the evidence that nature perpetually continues to produce material? How to account for the geological records nature left which allude to the transformation and movement of material at a temporal scale imperceptible to the human eye? Palissy seeks to explain ‘nature’s work’ after the initial creation of the earth by suggesting that while God had ‘left nothing imperfect,’ he had also set into motion conditions of perpetual change: ‘The sovereign Creator has left nothing void … [But] he has commanded nature to work, produce and conceive, consume and dissipate’.

“Of particular importance to Palissy is the issue of how metals come into being in nature and the inaccuracy of the various alchemical claims to create gold. In contrast to the alchemists, he proposes an observation-based, natural philosophical explanation that quite literally grounds the presence of metal in existing material resources. Minerals and metals respond to a ‘supreme substance which attracts others of its nature to form itself’. Unlike vegetative matter, which, for Palissy, draws ‘material for growth’ from the earth, minerals and metals do the same from water ‘intermixed and hidden … in the womb of the earth.’ The presence of metal in a quarry is a record of a past ‘congelative’ process in which metals had already ‘exert[ed] themselves to produce seeds to generate others’. Minerals and metals, like seeds, are able to will themselves out of their preexisting, dissolved state and into material existence in the uterine space of the earth’s womb: ‘It is also certain that women in milk, when away from sleeping children, feel in their breasts when they wake up and cry … Such movements exist not only in the human and brute creatures, but also in vegetable and metallic ones’.

“Palissy designates the water carrying these dissolved metals and minerals as a fifth element—a second, ‘congelative’ and ‘generative’ water intermingled with the normal ‘exhalative’ one. In a later essay in Discours admirables, he takes this line of inquiry further in order to examine the formation of rocks: ‘rocks cannot grow by vegetative action, but by a congelative increase [augmentation congelative] … [as] if one were to throw molten wax on a mass of wax already congealed’. Rain seeping down into ‘deep and hidden places in the interior of the earth’ carries with it salts and minerals that dissolve in its downward flows. Yet unlike the sentient formation of minerals and metals, rocks form by means of a natural mold in confined areas. Quarries and mines are interpreted as spatially distinct containers in which liquid stagnates and ‘these matters . . . begin to congeal and harden and make one body and mass with the other rock’. Thus the preconscious attraction of mineral formation in rocks substitutes a similar action accomplished by the establishment of a rigid spatial boundary.

“It seems likely that Palissy’s familiarity with the ceramist’s mold must have influenced his conception of congelative increase and the specification of water being ‘cast’ into rock within the crevices of the earth’s womb. By implication then, sources of rock … must once have been deep within the earth and submerged in water …

“In seeking to understand the process by which animal forms became recorded in rock, and the consequentially necessary presence of ancient water, Palissy makes the claim that fish behave ‘locally’ in the wild—proof that the biblical flood was not the cause of the numerous fossils scattered across the countryside, as it would not have caused fish to change their habitats. In Discours admirables, the personification of Theory presents the writings of the ‘famous physician’ Cardan as evidence that ‘the petrified shells scattered about the world came from the sea at the time of the Flood, when the waters rose above the highest mountains … and fishes roamed over the world, and that once the sea returned to its bed, it left the fishes behind’. But Practice refutes Theory with Palissy’s own observational evidence, stating that the Flood could not have scattered fish across the world because the Flood would not have caused aquatic creatures to significantly change their behavior, nor travel great distances: ‘And as for the shellfish, at the time of the storm they clung to the rocks in such a way that the wind could not tear them away, and many other fishes hid at the bottom of the sea, where the winds had no power to stir either the water or the fish’. Palissy thus views fossils of fish and other aquatic animals as evidence of the preponderance of a state of ‘congelative increase’ which is always local: ‘Therefore I maintain that shellfish, which are petrified in many quarries, have been born on the very spot while the rocks were but water and mud, which since have been petrified together with these fishes’. Fish were already present because they predated the Flood, which in any case would not have displaced them from their habitats. The Flood had simply added water to environments that were already underwater, and when most of the water drained away had left behind a transitional condition of rock formation that had enabled the impression of fish into the rock’s still malleable surfaces” (Andrews, pp. 283-5).

Halliday notes that, in the Discours, Palissy recognised the biological origins of at least one form of trace fossil, including the specific identification of the trace as being produced by pholad molluscs. “The earliest published example of a trace fossil being identified accurately is a description of the trace fossil Gastrochaenolites from the collection of Bernard Palissy, published as a supplement to his Discours admirables in 1580 … The publication of Palissy’s identification occurred 68 years before Aldrovandi’s was published, and 23 years before the manuscript on which that publication was based … Palissy’s is therefore the oldest example of an ichnological identification to be found in the published literature …

 “The work of Palissy was certainly influential, though it largely remained within the French intellectual sphere … It was in these more immediately practical topics, from fertilisers to fortress design to the provisioning of spring water, that Palissy held most initial influence. Indeed, Sir Hugh Plat, in his 1594 work The Jewell House of Art and Nature, translated verbatim into English the sections of the Discours concerning arable practices, salts, and marls. Francis Bacon, known for his support of empiricism, presented in 1608 the ‘discourse by an Unknown Stranger to a Parisian audience of men’, a speech in favour of direct observation of nature, which has been taken to be an account of a lecture by Palissy.

“Palissy’s work remained known but obscure in the decades following the publication of the Discours … The priest and mathematician, Marin Mersenne references ‘the excellent Discours by the said Palissy’. He recommends it, saying ‘Those who undertake to read it will easily believe that shells, herbs, animals, &c can be petrified and reduced to metal by the said eau congelative’ … By about 1720, Palissy was regularly brought up by natural scientists like Antoine de Jussieu, the Comte de Buffon, de Fontenelle, and de Réaumur in the context of his finding fossilised shells …

“Palissy’s works were reprinted repeatedly, indicating some degree of popularity. The 1777 reprinting [Oeuvres de Bernard Palissy] was dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, noting that Palissy had been ‘nearly forgotten for two centuries’, and hoping to spread his name further afield. This reprinting included a comprehensive list of texts that had made use of Palissy’s work in the intervening 200 years, and demonstrate that the Discours was highly respected, even if his contributions to palaeontology were largely only recognised later” (Halliday).

Not in Adams or BM/STC Italian; Duveen, Bibliotheca alchemica et chemica, p. 446 ('A book of great importance in the history of chemistry and science generally ... Extremely rare'); En français dans le texte, 1990, no. 72; Norman 1629; Neville, Historical chemical Library, 2006, p. 250; Rudbeck pp. 41-42; Thorndike V, pp. 596-599. Andrews, ‘The space of knowledge: Artisanal epistemology and Bernard Palissy,’ RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 65/66 (2014/2015), pp. 275-288. ‘Halliday, ‘The earliest-published recognition of a trace fossil and its producer,’ Ichnos, 2021 (DOI: 10.1080/10420940.2021.1930541). Palissy, Admirable Discourses [1580] (La Rocque, tr.), 1957.



8vo, (161 x 111 mm), pp. [xvi], 361, [23], Roman and italic types, woodcut ornaments and capitals. Contemporary limp vellum, front hinge loose, a very fine and entirely unsophisticated copy. Custom morrocco clamshell box.

Item #5380

Price: $37,500.00