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I'm trying to get a handle on a metaphor used by Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning, when expounding on the usefulness of Alchemy as a study. He writes:

And yet surely to alchemy this right is due, that it may be compared to the husbandman whereof Æsop makes the fable; that, when he died, told his sons that he had left unto them gold buried underground in his vineyard; and they digged over all the ground, and gold they found none; but by reason of their stirring and digging the mould about the roots of their vines, they had a great vintage the year following: so assuredly the search and stir to make gold hath brought to light a great number of good and fruitful inventions and experiments, as well for the disclosing of nature as for the use of man’s life.

Francis Bacon (1605). Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human. Wikisource. Spelling modernized.

I understand one part of this comparison: by chasing the goal of finding a magic elixir for turning lead into gold, alchemists inadvertently discovered the foundations of the science of chemistry. I don't quite understand the other part, in the fable. It seems like he's saying by digging in a vineyard, the roots of vines are made healthy, allowing the vineyard to produce healthy grapes and therefore plentiful wine. Is my read on this correct?

I'm particularly confused by the word "mould", since it appears to be an old-fashioned spelling of "mold", according to dictionaries. I'm not sure if he intends to mean a fungus or something of that sort, or the more common modern meaning of "mould" in some vein.

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  • Correction: "mould" is not an old-fashioned spelling of "mold"; it's the correct spelling of that word in most forms of English today (British, Australian, Canadian, etc.).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 28 at 11:45

2 Answers 2

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The word mould could also mean earth, dirt, soil, and that's what it means here.

From the OED:

mould | mold: In singular and (later) plural: earth, esp. loose, broken, or friable earth; surface soil. Also in plural: lumps or clods of earth (now rare).

This meaning seems to be obsolete now, except in a few dialects of English; the OED's latest citation which isn't clearly dialect (or in a historical novel) is from 1827. But Francis Bacon wrote this in the early 17th century, when this meaning was current.

So what Francis Bacon means is that by digging in the vineyard, the treasure-seekers turn over the soil, which makes the vines grow better. I don't know how agriculturally correct this metaphor is, but it certainly seems plausible.

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    I don't know about grapevines, but most plants don't like the soil to be too compacted found their roots, as it might well have been after many years of people walking among the vines to pick the grapes. Mar 25 at 9:48
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    @Chris It’s much more than plausible. The original Greek text has “all the soil in the vineyard”: πᾶσαν τὴν τῆς ἀμπέλου γῆν (rendered, in a widely circulated Latin translation used since at least the 17th century, as universum vineae solum).
    – Segorian
    Mar 25 at 11:59
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    Interestingly, that fairly obscure meaning of ‘mold’ is the only meaning listed in Wiktionary as not being an American spelling.  (In all other meanings, the British/Commonwealth English spelling is ‘mould’.)
    – gidds
    Mar 25 at 12:07
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    @gidds: I think that's simply an error on Wiktionary's part.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 25 at 12:08
  • Where is the comparison, if this is a metaphor? Yes, mold is AmE and mould is BrE.
    – Lambie
    Mar 25 at 18:13
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Francis Bacon in the OP's excerpt is just giving his own version of the well-known Aesop fable known as The Farmer and His Sons.

Here is it is (Library of Congress version):

A rich old farmer, who felt that he had not many more days to live, called his sons to his bedside.

"My sons," he said, "heed what I have to say to you. Do not on any account part with the estate that has belonged to our family for so many generations. Somewhere on it is hidden a rich treasure. I do not know the exact spot, but it is there, and you will surely find it. Spare no energy and leave no spot unturned in your search."

The father died, and no sooner was he in his grave than the sons set to work digging with all their might, turning up every foot of ground with their spades, and going over the whole farm two or three times.

No hidden gold did they find; but at harvest time when they had settled their accounts and had pocketed a rich profit far greater than that of any of their neighbors, they understood that the treasure their father had told them about was the wealth of a bountiful crop, and that in their industry had they found the treasure.

Industry is itself a treasure.

Here is the Wikipedia page recounting this fable referenced by Bacon:

The Farmer and His Sons

Bacon is saying that an endeavour like engaging in alchemy can lead to positive and unexpected results. He is merely retelling or recounting the fable to show his readers that some endeavours (like alchemy) may have outcomes that are not expected. None of this is metaphorical at all. It is rather a tale with a moral.

The Farmer and His Sons_Library of Congress version

Fable: Fable is a literary genre defined as a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse,1 that features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a "moral"), which may at the end be added explicitly as a concise maxim or saying.

Wikipedia_ fable

Because the sons tilled the soil with such alacrity, they had a great crop and there was a positive outcome even though initially they were looking for treasure. This tilling helped the grapes and so their vintage was good the next year. "stirring and digging the mould" suggest they broke it up so it no longer negatively affected the roots of the vines...

The moral here is that sometimes good things can come in unexpected way. Work (industry) can bring its own rewards.

The other answer does a good job with the word mould, the clumped earth around the roots.

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  • This answer seems to mostly consist of explaining that it's a reference to Aesop - which is mentioned in the quotation itself - and explaining the relevance to the field of alchemy (that it can have useful, unexpected results). However, the question focuses on the literal application of digging and the specific meaning of the word "mould".
    – Mithical
    Mar 31 at 4:51
  • @Mithical Yes, because I believe the OP simply didn't realize the wider context. There are tons of versions of this Aesop's fable and Bacon is just making up his own. Other versions of the story don't even mention mold. He just make that up. And I did explain the relevance of "stirring and digging the mold" and even praised the other answer in that sense. And I still believe there is no metaphor here really as the original OP seemed to think...
    – Lambie
    Apr 14 at 19:40

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