The alchemists and artisans on whose shoulders we climbed

The Cambridge History of Science, Volume Three
January 12, 2007

Howard Hotson delights in the melting pot in which natural knowledge was pursued by physicians and astronomers as well as apothecaries and artists.

Since the term "science" assumed its current meaning only in the mid-19th century, writing a general history of "early modern science"

is fraught with methodological difficulties. Insufficiently aware of these difficulties, the postwar pioneers of the history of science selected from the 16th and 17th centuries those intellectual innovations that most closely approximated modern science and canonised them as "the scientific revolution", in the process greatly distorting both the figures included and those excluded from this privileged category.

Acutely conscious of this distortion, the editors and authors of this book follow a different course. They begin - as if in homage to Francis Bacon - by taking all (early modern) knowledge (of nature) as their province, irrespective of whether it seems modern or revolutionary. They divide that knowledge into more or less contemporary clusters of disciplines, familiar and otherwise. They then situate the practice of those disciplines in a variety of settings that bring together highly diverse practitioners. A few of these early modern sites and practitioners seem immediately familiar, none more so than the professor lecturing in the university. Yet the professor in question was not a scientist, nor even a natural philosopher but, typically, a physician. It was the student of medicine who required the deepest grounding in natural philosophy; and, in pursuit of it, Europe's leading medical faculties undertook an increasing range of relevant investigations: reinvigorating scholastic doctrine through a fresh look at its ancient sources; performing public anatomical dissections in winter; tending botanical gardens in summer; collecting, cataloguing, describing and publishing natural histories throughout the year; and occasionally attempting to concoct more powerful medicines alchemically.

Yet most of these activities - and a host of equally important ones - were also pursued outside the university. In the marketplace, the apothecary and herbwoman sold medicinal plant products harvested at home and purchased abroad. The latter linked them to merchant adventurers whose voyages to the farthest corners of the globe flooded Europe with a huge range of exotic new species, provoking a surge of interest in natural history.

The commercial and nautical worlds also produced many of the "mechanical mathematicians" - to use John Dee's term - who employed their geometrical expertise to solve and to simplify technical problems of navigation and calculation, fortification and gunnery, surveying and cartography, architecture, perspective and the visual arts. Rulers needed these technical services as well, just as they proudly displayed the most extraordinary natural curiosities in their Wunderkammern , gardens and menageries. Courts and noble households also played other roles in this diffuse enterprise: supporting astronomers at work transforming their discipline, housing the greatest of alchemical "laboratoria", which lent dignity to hands-on investigation, and employing skilled artisans whose instruments aided observation and experimentation and whose increasingly complex clocks and automata provide the central metaphor of the new "mechanical philosophy" itself.

Meanwhile, printing presses in all these settings assembled, juxtaposed and disseminated doctrines and information gleaned from the most diverse sources in a rapidly expanding variety of literary genres.

Only towards the end of this period - and standing on the shoulders of these others - do we encounter another familiar figure in a seemingly modern setting: not the professional scientist, to be sure, but the gentleman virtuoso, pursuing a course of experimentation and discussing the results within a formally constituted scientific academy, and publishing his findings in its new medium: the earliest scientific journals.

Even within this mêlée of approaches, the classic story of the revolutions in physics and astronomy is far too compelling to be lost from sight.

Emphasised in discussions of relevant disciplines, it is also central to substantial opening chapters on the foundations of physics, explanation, experience and proof.

Yet this account of "early modern science" differs strikingly from traditional narratives of "the scientific revolution". Within this book, even the canon's greatest are not prematurely modernised; modern conceptions are not deployed to distinguish "science" from "pseudoscience"; and the importance of these strategies for gaining knowledge of nature is not measured solely by their contribution to the construction of Newtonian mechanics. The result is an enormous enrichment and a pronounced democratisation of an enterprise with deep roots in many aspects of contemporary life and wide-ranging implications for religion, literature, art, gender and European expansion, as well as self-definition - to mention only those treated extensively in the final section. Moreover, as "science"

is woven far more fully into the fabric of early modern life, the history of science itself is transformed from an esoteric subdiscipline into a rapidly expanding field of knowledge relevant and accessible to non-specialists in disciplines across the whole range of early modern studies and beyond.

This splendid book - a brilliantly edited collection of summaries of recent research by 34 top international experts - is much the most comprehensive one-volume survey ever published on the rich world of early modern science and a landmark in the continuing development of a field that, through all its transformations, retains its capacity to astonish, excite, bewilder and fascinate.

Howard Hotson is fellow and tutor in history, St Anne's College, Oxford University.

The Cambridge History of Science, Volume Three: Early Modern Science

Editor - Katharine Park, Lorraine Daston, David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 895
Price - £90.00
ISBN - 0 521 57244 4

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