Author(s) Besson, Jacques
Title L’art et science de trouver les eaux et fontaines...
Imprint Orléans, P. Trepperel, 1569
Localisation Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, 248115
Subject Hydrology


     L’art et science de trouver les eaux et fontaines cachées soubs terre autrement que par les moyens vulgaires des Agriculteurs & Architectes, par Jaques Besson Dauphinois, Mathematicien was published in Orléans in 1569. There were two editions, one in the name of the printer, Éloi Gibier, the other in the name of the bookseller, Pierre Trepperel, with his press mark engraved on metal and his motto, In silentio fortitudo. They were both Protestants and published works by other Protestants, sometimes anonymously. Pierre Trapperel was a victim of the Saint Bartholemew massacre; Éloi Gibier was not. In spite of its success, this little work was not printed again until the edition which came out to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of its publication with a preface by Joseph Alfred Aurèle La Roque (a geologist and paleontologist).
We find the first mention of it in a work that Besson published in Paris in 1567, at the shop of Philippe de Roville, Le cosmolabe ou instrument universel... In the foreword, Besson lists a "catalogue des meilleures, plus subtiles et plus-necessaires" of his inventions. The nineteenth indicates L’art et science de trouver les eaux…: "a trouvé l’art de connoistre où il y ha des fontaines, sous terre, et ce presque aussy facillement la nuit que le jour, l’hyver que le chault-temps, et ce sans aucun signe fallace, des plantes, ou des vapeurs de la Terre mais seulement se servira de la face et constitution des lieux". In 1567 the draft of the book was far enough along for Besson to give a description of it.
The first question one might ask is the following: how competent was Besson in the subject? He was well known as a distiller, a mathematician and an engineer. His first work, published in Zurich in 1554 in Latin, was included in the volume published by Conrad Gesner, the celebrated De secretis remediis liber aut potius thesaurus, Evonymo Gesnero Philiatro authore... accedit iam recens Jacobi Bessoni galli, De absoluta ratione olea et aquas e medicamentis simplicibus extrahendi Liber doctissimus, nunquam ante hac inlucem aeditus. The success of the Thesaurus probably worked to the advantage of Besson's little book, as several other publications, translations and enlargements followed. This little practical treatise on extracting medicinal oils was recognized by posterity as one of the first examples of the putting into practice of iatrochemistry. And we must also point out here that from the very beginning, Besson worked steadfastly to have recourse to mathematical models, with a goal of efficiency and practical "pertinence". In fact, Besson was above all a mathematician – he presents himself thus in the titles of his various works. As "ingénieux", he strove to accomplish expert appraisals or create actual machines during the 1550s and until 1562 in Lausanne, Berne, then Geneva. In the minutes of a town council meeting in Lausanne, held August 13, 1557, one sees that "à M. Jaques Besson lingenieux deux escus tant pour l’engein de leaue par luy delivré aulxd. Seigneurs comme pour commencement de don pour l’invention des fontainnes" were issued.
Thus one might think that Besson's knowledge of hydrology was based on the practical experience of the "invention", that is, the discovery of springs. This is certainly what he confirms at the end of the dedication of the work to François d'Entrague de Balzac, asserting concerning this science that he has "des longtemps pratiquee & experimentee en divers pays". It is also very probable that honed his skills when he was at le Pradel with Olivier de Serres. For, when he was a citizen of Geneva (1561), Protestant ministers were so scarce in France that Huguenot refugees in that city were called upon. Olivier de Serres insisted that the town council send Jacques Besson as pastor to Villeneuve de Berg. In spite of Besson's reticence – he felt he had little aptitude for the function of pastor ("importuné par le moyen dudict Olivier tant vous que les autres pères de Genève pour m’avoir leur Ministre ", he wrote)- he had to give in, and from March 1562 to March 1564 he and his family lived in Villeneuve de Berg. Three years later, his book on hydrology was completed.
The work is characterized by its theoretical ambition. In the preface, Besson writes that he intends to begin "par les causes premières, plus que par les seuls effects ou signes, qui sont fallaces". He then follows with a list of those misleading signs that farmers and architects usually depend on, clues of rushes and other plants, of certain kinds of stones, or else swarms of gnats, haze at sunrise and certain experiments commonly made with ponds, lamps or wool, to detect underground water. But "infailliblement tout cela est fallace le plus souvent : car l’on trouve maintes fois par telles indications, qu’eau qui est decoulee des pluyes…" (preface, n. p.). The manifest errors that are created by taking into account such signs, tend, as Besson proposes, to "y proceder autrement & plus asseurement, assavoir par les causes premieres, ensemble les signes, & non seulement par signes, entendu que les deux rendent l’art plus demonstratif qu’un chacun tout seul" (ibid.).
The same enumeration of such "signes fraduleux" is found in Book VII of the Théâtre d'agriculture by Olivier de Serres (1600). There he denounces "telles farfanteries, inventées pour confondre l’œuvre et se rendre admirables". Rather he recommends that one base one's opinion on "és choses asseurées, & sur lesquelles, comme presque les touchant au doigt, l’homme d’esprit asserra solide jugement" ( p. 757). In comparing the two, Olivier de Serre's words stand out immediately, pointing out that for him it is not opportune "de discourir de l’origine des fontaines, de leurs essors, de la propriété de leurs eaux, medecinales, malignes, voire miraculeuses", "telle curieuse philosophie surpassant l’entendement de l’homme des champs, qui a plustost besoin d’eau pour sa maison que de paroles pour repaistre son entendement" (ibid.). Now this is precisely Besson's intention in L’art et science de trouver les eaux... It is also Bernard Palissy's aim, in 1580, in his dialogue des Discours admirables between two characters, Théorique et Pratique. On the theory of the origin of springs, they both agree in rejecting the thesis, classic, that all water originates in the seas. Palissy is against "un si grand nombre de Philosophes, qui disent que toutes les eaux viennent de la mer, et qu’elles y retournent", and proposes an entirely new doctrine (Oeuvres complètes, Blanchard, 1961, p. 158). This doctrine is the one "que toutes les sources des fontaines et fleuves ne procedent d’autre chose que des eaux de pluyes, chose fort esloignée de toute opinion commune". To tell the truth, this doctrine was not entirely new, for we owe Jacques Besson for having defended it as early as 1569 in chapter VIII of his Livre premier: "comment et quand les eaux vives des fonteines, & des ruisseaux, & lacs, & rivieres qui s’ensuivent ont eu leur commencement, & vont continuellement en la mer, sans qu’elle croisse ou diminue, & en reviennent aussi, mais autrement que par soubs terre, à la façon qu’aucuns ont mal pensé" (p. 22). Thus, it was in this little book that the correct version of the hydrological cycle was defended.
The second interesting point concerns Besson's method and the arguments he used to justify it. He says that it is a mathematician's method, rather than a physicist's or a theologian's- even if it favors "the Eternal" as first cause of the hydrological cycle. Underlining the difficulty of making experiments which allow an appreciable verification of hypotheses, he relies on data coming from mechanics in order to attempt to produce a model whose validity is supported, according to him, both from the fact that he is the only one to explain the water cycle and to account for the places where water and springs are found. Thus he arrives at a kind of geomorphology of probable sites.
If he thus rejects the thesis prevailing since antiquity, i.e. that water coming from underground originates in the sea, his reasons are purely from mechanics, and he keeps the theoretical models he uses to conduct his arguments even if they do not claim truth, but effectiveness. As a base for this reasoning, he depends on other cases in which mathematics were used in that way, and quite particularly on that of Copernicus' model, which, whereas it is "du tout repugnant à nature", "ne laisse de parvenir à la mesme fin et compte" of the movement of the planets as Ptolemy's model, and "souvent plus exactement". Thus, "sauver les apparences" by "hypothèses plus probables que nécessaires" produces a "science très grande et utile", which is the goal one intends to reach. Even a false hypothesis, which might allow the construction of a model of a phenomenon isolating calculable data and the application of the principles of mechanics to determine a proportional calculus, can lead to the mastery of effects, the goal of the art. One cannot miss seeing in this conception of the probable and effective theoretical model the recourse to the "mécanique" method, i.e. at the same time mathematical and artificial, which precedes mechanical physics. Which precedes it in fact insofar as Besson asserts that he is speaking as a mathematician and not as a physicist or theologian, i.e. that he refuses to claim that he knows God's truth or natural truth. Nonetheless, his hypotheses and calculations procede in a constant coming and going among experiments, which are often examination of the effects, but also of the experimental installations and of mathematical rules and principles of reasoning And it is the same in his distilling work, since he is recognized as one of the pioneers of iatrochemistry understood as "médecine chimique qui n’a pour but que l’opération" (Nicolas Lefèvre, Cours de chimie, p. 23), a process regulated according to calculable sizes, in the same way as in this work on the search for underground water and springs, and finally, of course, in his books of instruments and machines.

Hélène Vérin (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris) – 2008

Critical bibliography

J. Besson, L’art et science de trovver les eaux et fontaines cachees sovbs terre, new issue of the 1569 text, taken from the copy at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA, preface by J. A. A. La Rocque, Columbus, Ohio, Coral, 1969.

A. G. Keller, "The Missing Years of Jacques Besson, Inventor of Machines, Teacher of Mathematics, Distiller of Oils, and Huguenot Pastor", Technology and Culture, 14, 1, january 1973, pp. 28-39.