Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain, by Elizabeth Yale

James Delbourgo on a study of how scientists shared information and how through it they constructed the nation as an object of study

April 21, 2016
Statue of Sir Hans Sloane, Duke of York Square, London

Can you cut and paste a nation? In the Restoration, Britain became a science project, Elizabeth Yale argues, as scholars intensified efforts to assemble the nation’s natural history by documenting its natural productions, physical geography and antiquarian past. But what was the nation?

Britain was often a synonym for England that subordinated the rest of the British Isles as peripheries – or simply ignored them. In response, naturalists from Wales, Scotland and Ireland sought to carve out a more integrated and inclusive national vision. They worked together on new editions of William Camden’s landmark 1586 work Britannia, and published essays in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London under the editorship of the Ulsterman Hans Sloane (pictured). The Welshman Edward Lhuyd went furthest of all: he identified the roots of Britishness outside England in the language of the Celts.

Yale shows that the construction of early modern Britain as an object of study emerged from an intensely collaborative scribal culture of collecting, editing, annotating, corresponding and debating what to include or exclude from the nation’s natural history. New public repositories for scholarly papers promised institutional stabilisation too: the creation of the Ashmolean Museum gave hope to polymaths such as John Aubrey that their manuscripts might be preserved and consulted by others rather than gather dust in aristocratic cabinets, or be used to clean guns or stop up kegs of beer, as they commonly were.

But while naturalists came together, Yale concludes, Britain did not. The nation may have been consolidated by the subjection of Ireland in the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Union between England and Scotland, but when it came to scientific study, no two natural histories agreed on its contours. Some writers left out Ireland altogether, while others included material on continental Europe. The nation never became a naturalised object of study: like a loose folder of manuscripts, it was constantly rewritten by different hands and never cohered into a finished book. Public institutions such as the Ashmolean did not foster national sensibilities to the exclusion of local ones. Although Lhuyd’s papers related to different parts of the British Isles, they still were divided into separate collections in England and Wales after his death.

Yale’s achievement is to link British nationalism with the practice of natural history, and her contribution is skilful and important. But British nation-building – like British natural history – was bound up with larger processes of empire-building. After the Restoration, naturalist networks hummed with reports and collections made in the Caribbean, America and Asia, as well as Britain and Europe. Was there a British natural history independent of this wider world? Not if one examines pivotal figures in those networks such as the Irish-born Sloane, president of the Royal Society and founder of the British Museum as a repository for collections global in scope. British naturalists weren’t building only a nation but an empire that promised universal knowledge of nature as a whole.

Fast-forwarding to today, we can see how little has in fact changed. People still don’t agree on what Britain or Britishness is; they probably never will. You can cut and paste a nation, but it can still come unstuck.

James Delbourgo is associate professor of history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain
By Elizabeth Yale
University of Pennsylvania Press, 384pp, £45.50
ISBN 9780812247817 and 292251 (e-book)
Published 5 March 2016

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