Category Archives: Letters in Focus

Kaspar Schotts Netzwerk: publication announcement and project profile.

Caspar Schott S.J. (1608-1666) is a remarkable representative of the passion for scientific knowledge that, in the first two thirds of the seventeenth century, possessed enough educated people across Europe as to create a new social entity – the Republic of Letters – the service of which became their primary loyalty. They did not know exactly where they were headed, nor did they particularly foresee the magnitude of their impact; what they did know with blazing conviction was that the long tradition of philosophical theorising without the support of quantitative experiment was bankrupt. As Schott’s mentor and hero Athanasius Kircher says: ‘All philosophy unless grounded in experiment is empty fallacious and useless…Experiment alone is the arbiter of disputed questions, the reconciler of difficulties and the one teacher of the truth’1. This common conviction bonded scholars of disparate religious and philosophical outlooks to the citizenship of a republic of learning.

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Letters in Focus: Nativity Scenes

Christmas is just around the corner and for those with young children this may well entail – as well as wrapping late and waking early – obligatory attendance at the traditional school plays that re-enact a particularly famous birth. The Nativity may be unique, but whether for celebration, ritual or act of witness, the account of a birth has a real potency, and rarely more so than in the context of dynastic royalty.

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Tangents and Taverns: John Wallis and The Case of the Vintners in Oxford, 1674

John Wallis (1616–1703) is best known to early modern intellectual historians and fans of Cultures of Knowledge as an archetypal Republic of Letters polymath; Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Geometry, a gifted cryptographer, and keeper of the University Archives who corresponded extensively with the leading continental luminaries of the age. The letters reproduced in Volume IV of The Correspondence of John Wallis (OUP), to which our Research Fellow Philip Beeley is putting the finishing touches, largely reinforce this impression. The missives find the mathematician embroiled in abstruse conversations with Francis Jessop, Christiaan Huygens, Rasmus Bartholin, and Leibniz about methods of tangents, the rectification of the cycloid, and the reinvigoration of scientific meetings at the Royal Society. However, I was intrigued when Philip told me that many of the letters in this volume reveal that in early 1674 Wallis was sucked into an epistolary controversy of an altogether more worldly kind: a bitter dispute over an Oxford tavern.

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Letters in Focus: Crowning Around

Sixty years on from the coronation of Elizabeth II could be a moment to consider the coronation of another British queen for whom this time-honoured ceremony ran neither seamlessly nor to plan. Not only did the bishops apparently forget the communion bread and wine but it seems the crown was put on askew by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen herself was obliged to readjust it. Subsequently, as the Scottish Episcopal bishop Archibald Campbell relates in his letter to the non-juroring bishop Thomas Brett, the crown fell off entirely.

Given the date of 17 October, and the reference to Henry Gandy’s age and susceptibility, we may deduce that the letter was written in 1727 and that the monarch in question was none other than Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II and the first queen consort to have been crowned since Anne of Denmark. This dual coronation, conducted by the then-ailing Archbishop William Wake, took place on 11 October 1727 and was the ceremony for which Handel composed his four renowned anthems (‘Let thy hand be Strengthened’, ‘Zadok the Priest’, ‘The King Shall Rejoice’, and ‘My Heart is Inditing’ – there is some confusion regarding what was played when during the service, once again resulting from the hand of the hapless Wake) which have been used in every coronation service since. As to Campbell’s somewhat uncharitable commentary, we are left wondering if the crown itself really did fall to the Abbey floor or whether we’re witnessing a characteristic instance of epistolary exaggeration. If anyone is able to supply us with further details of the ceremony, we would like very much to hear…

Detail from Street scene with heavy wind and rain, by Jan Luyken. 1698-1700, pen and brown ink (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Letters in Focus: A January in May

To all who are far from these wet and windswept coastal lands of western Europe, we extend an apology for the choice of this record from Early Modern Letters Online and would point out the great good fortune of those of you for whom spring has sprung and who do not long for this rain and unseasonable chill to end. For all those whose thoughts of shorts and sandals are – for the present – thwarted, we’d like to offer reassurance that the May we have experienced this year is not unique. In May 1684, a twenty-three year old William Digby was travelling with his tutor through France. He wrote from Blois to Thomas Smith (Smith was, at this point, vice-president of Magdalen College, Oxford, Digby’s alma mater) that he had nothing to report but the unseasonable inclemency of the weather – it was, indeed, a January in May – and it had become so cold that he and his travelling companions had been forced to don winter clothes. Plus ça change.

Ghosts in the Machine: (Re)Constructing the Bodleian’s Index of Literary Correspondence, 1927-1963

With the first phase of our Project at an end and our second phase now well underway, it seems an appropriate moment to look back at our work thus far on EMLO and to return to the dataset that lies at its core: the ‘Index of Literary Correspondence’ in the Bodleian Library, a card catalogue which occupies an imposing set of wooden filing drawers at the ‘Selden End’ of the Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room.

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