Joining a long tradition, President Obama, in the final days of his presidency, granted pardons and commutations to hundreds of people currently serving prison sentences, most of them for non-violent drug offenses. However, among the people receiving clemency is Chelsea Manning: the army intelligence officer who was convicted of leaking hundreds of thousands of government documents to Wikileaks in 2010, many of them classified military reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.
The debates over Manning’s fate, as well as that of Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor whose dissemination of classified documents led to the revelation of various secret surveillance programs run by the US National Security Administration, get at the heart of the question of secrecy and its role in a democratic society. Is secrecy good or bad? Are transparency and openness always to be preferred? What about secrecy at the individual level, i.e. personal privacy? What about patents for inventions, medicines, gene sequences? Do we, or should we, have a right to secrecy/privacy?
These questions got me thinking about a fascinating book translated into English a couple years ago: Daniel Jütte’s The Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800 (Yale UP, 2015). Jütte’s premise is that the high esteem with which secret information, in the form of arcane knowledge, was held during the early modern period created space and opportunity for Jews and Christians to come together to practice, debate and share clandestine sciences and knowledge: the economy of secrets. Jütte sets out to prove that the negative connotations that we now associate with secrecy in the public sphere were actually born relatively recently in the nineteenth century, and that prior to then secrecy was seen as a marker of privilege, or, in the words of the seventeenth-century Jewish-Cretan physician and natural philosopher, Salomon Delmedigo, “only in deeds and inventions deserving secrecy ‘can a man take pride, because he has proved capable of achieving something great’” (257).
Jütte uses as his prime representative of the economy of secrets the self-professed professore de’ segreti: Abramo Colorni (c. 1544-1599), a Mantuan Jew whose extraordinary life brought him into the service of princes and kings as far afield as the court of Emperor Rudolph II at Prague. Colorni’s interests were unbounded, and he effortlessly crossed the disciplinary boundaries we take for granted today. He was “an engineer, mathematician, chiromancer [palm-reader], cryptographer, alchemist, inventor, magus, and merchant – to name just a few of his professions” (117). What all these fields had in common was the need for secrecy in the guarding of knowledge. “Secret knowledge was not necessarily hidden from the public; it differed from ‘open knowledge’ in that the person holding it claimed to protect its contents or restrict its accessibility” (17). Indeed, Colorni tried to publish much of his work, though succeeded in bringing to print only one book, his intriguingly entitled volume Scotographia [Greek for “dark writing”]: a treatise on encryption, decoding and code-breaking, which enjoyed a readership well into the 1700s.
As Manning and Snowden well know, dealing in secret knowledge is often dangerous: Colorni risked imprisonment, and other practitioners of arcana paid with their lives when they ran afoul of the Inquisition or other powerful interests. In some ways, not much has changed, but Jütte uncovers the subtle approach to secrecy and openness practiced in early modern Europe.
*Daniel Leisawitz is the Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.