My writing career did not begin with fiction. Before writing A Discovery of Witches I wrote non-fiction books and articles drawn from my research. These works included reflections on the history of books and readers, the history of alchemy and magic, how ordinary (well, not exactly ordinary) houses functioned as centers of scientific inquiry, and the history of scientific practice in the Elizabethan city of London.
Samples of my historical writing include:
John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Elizabethan England’s most famous natural philosopher John Dee recorded his reflections on the natural world, the practice of natural philosophy, and the apocalypse in a series of conversations with angels, which have long been an enigmatic facet of his life and work. This book makes extensive use of Dee’s library and annotations to clarify this mystery by providing a detailed analysis of these conversations. Available in hardcover and paperback. (A video discussing Damon Albarn’s new opera about John Dee is below if you are interested in hearing more about Dee’s life and times as well as the creation of the opera and its music).
“Managing an Experimental Household: the Dees of Mortlake and the Practice of Natural Philosophy,” Isis 88, no. 2 (June 1994), pp. 247-262. Winner of the History of Science Society’s Derek Price Prize for best article.
The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007). This book explores the streets, shops, back alleys, and gardens of Elizabethan London, where a boisterous and diverse group of men and women shared a keen interest in the study of nature. These assorted merchants, gardeners, barber-surgeons, midwives, instrument makers, mathematics teachers, engineers, alchemists, and other experimenters formed a patchwork scientific community whose practices set the stage for the Scientific Revolution. It was their collaborative, yet often contentious, ethos that helped to develop the ideals of modern scientific research.
The book examines six particularly fascinating episodes of scientific inquiry and dispute in sixteenth-century London, bringing to life the individuals involved and the challenges they faced. These men and women experimented and invented, argued and competed, waged wars in the press, and struggled to understand the complexities of the natural world. Together their stories illuminate the blind alleys and surprising twists and turns taken as medieval philosophy gave way to the empirical, experimental culture that became a hallmark of the Scientific Revolution. Available in hardcover and paperback.
Winner of the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference of British Studies and the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society. It was co-winner of the Pacific Coast Conference of British Studies book prize, and was Highly Commended by the Longman’s/History Today Book of the Year Award.