‘But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare’: the letters of Baruch Spinoza

Of all the letters written by and to Baruch Spinoza, less that one hundred are known to scholars today. When the philosopher died in The Hague in 1677, he was living alone; his friends moved quickly to spirit away his manuscripts, delivering them post-haste to the printer Jan Rieuwertsz. in Amsterdam. This is how works including the Tractatus de intellectus emendation, the Ethica, Spinoza’s Hebrew Grammar, and his unfinished Tractatus politicus, together with seventy-four of his philosophical letters, appeared in print that very same year, under the title B. D. S. Opera Posthuma. With the exception of just a handful, the manuscripts of the letters that passed through the offices of Rieuwertsz. have not been traced.

Metadata for the surviving letters, however, may be found in Spinoza’s catalogue in EMLO. This publication situates the philosopher’s correspondence alongside that of the Royal Society’s secretary Henry Oldenburg, who was one of Spinoza’s main correspondents, and that of the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens, who was an admirer of — in particular — Spinoza’s skill as a lens-grinder and of his contribution to the design and construction of telescopes. Each letter record in EMLO’s calendar has been linked to its corresponding entry in the Spinoza’s Web project (based in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht) where images of the manuscripts that have been located, of known manuscript copies (for example, those in the hand of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), and of the printed texts of these letters may be consulted.

Spinoza’s Web project. (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Utrecht)

The Spinoza Web project was established with funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research [NWO] and its database and ‘The Timeline Experience’ were released in their current beta format in 2016. The ambition of this project is to assemble all primary source documentation and to provide ‘a source-based contextual approach pertaining to this philosopher who, revered and reviled, has had countless rumours and myths attached to his name over the course of the centuries’.1

Spinoza’s work continues to be of relevance. ‘I took great pains not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them or curse them,’ he wrote, ‘but only to understand them. So I’ve contemplated human affects — like love, hate, anger, envy, love of esteem, compassion, and the other emotions — not as vices of human nature, but as properties which pertain to it in the same way heat, cold, storms, thunder, etc., pertain to the nature of the air.’2 In the introduction to his English edition of the letters, A. Wolf noted that Goethe considered Spinoza’s correspondence to be ‘the most interesting book one can read in the world of uprightness and of humanity’.3 It is to be hoped that everyone consulting EMLO will join Spinoza’s already considerable following to take advantage of these links in EMLO and explore what is to be found in Spinoza’s Web.

  1. See Spinoza’s Web, < https://spinozaweb.org/ >, accessed 15 December 2017.
  2. See B. de Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and tr. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), vol. II, p. 505.
  3. See Goethe’s Gespräche, ed. Woldemar Frhr. von Biedermann (1909), vol. 1, p. 35 and The Correspondence of Spinoza, ed. and tr. A. Wolf (London, 1928), p. 24.

On ashes and archives: the account of John Worthington

In the main it is for his association with key members of the circle known as the Cambridge Platonists that John Worthington (1618–1671) is remembered today. However, a sub-set of letters contained within EMLO’s catalogue of Worthington’s correspondence charts the friendship between the German-born Samuel Hartlib and this English clergyman, translator, and editor. These letters tell also of the latter’s involvement in Hartlib’s legacy. The erstwhile Cultures of Knowledge post-doctoral researcher Dr Leigh Penman has pieced together in meticulous detail the fate of the intelligencer’s papers between 1662 and their ‘re-discovery’ in a solicitor’s office in 1933; it turns out that a journey north from London to Cheshire which Worthington undertook in the autumn of 1666 and his subsequent residency at Brereton Hall the following winter helps to plug what had been previously a crucial gap in the afterlife of this archive.1

In conjunction with the entries in his diary, Worthington’s letters tell of the series of misfortunes that befell him in the unsettled years following the end of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the Stuarts. Six years into the reign of Charles II and just four and a half years after Samuel Hartlib’s death at his home in Axe Yard, Westminster, Worthington found himself in the autumn of 1666 with access to the papers that made up the remnants of his old friend’s archive. ‘I met with two trunks full of Mr. Hartlib’s papers, which my Lord Brereton purchased’, he recalled later on 10 June 1667 to Nathaniel Ingelo. ‘I thought they had been put in order, but finding it otherwise, I took them out, bestrewed a great chamber with them, put them into order in several bundles, and some papers I met with not unworthy of your sight.’2

Brereton Hall, Cheshire, before 1829. Engraving. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Worthington had accepted an invitation from William Brereton, third Baron Brereton of Leighlin (1631–1681), and moved to Cheshire as preacher at Holmes Green and household chaplain. Fellow guests at Brereton Hall included the mathematician (and former tutor of Brereton) John Pell (1611–1685); Hartlib’s son-in-law Frederick Clodius (1629–1702) and his wife Mary (Hartlib’s daughter, d. c. 1668); Daniel Hartlib (the intelligencer’s Danzig-born nephew, fl. 1657–1677), and Francis Cholmondeley (1636–1713). Robert Boyle (1627–1691) had been invited also, but had declined.3 Dr Penman has deduced that Brereton bought Hartlib’s archive from the intelligencer’s son, young Samuel (1631–after 1690), sometime in 1664.4 The convergence of Hartlibian figures at Brereton Hall appears to have been part of an attempt to further a scheme wholly in keeping with the ideals of the deceased reformer, namely one that would result in the education and relief of the poor of Cheshire, assisting with the provision of education and optimal husbandry, whilst working more generally for universal reform. Despite having family in Manchester (where he had been born), Worthington explained in a letter some years later to Elizabeth Foxcroft: ‘Nothing did or could more induce me to that northern journey I took in the year 1666 but that I was told by one that he did exceedingly affect and would begin such a design of Christian societies if I would remove thither. And if I would take pains there and preach sometimes abroad, he would allow me a competency a year . . .’5 Brereton was not able to fulfill promises to the assembled company, however, and the circle crumpled, together with its aspirations, as members disbanded and drifted elsewhere.

Prior to his departure in April 1667, the letters Worthington wrote from Cheshire offer a sequence of fascinating glimpses into his time spent with Hartlib’s papers. Clearly he must have suggested to Seth Ward (1617–1689), for example, that the latter’s letters be removed, for the then bishop of Exeter wrote on 15 March 1666/7: ‘I am very glad that the papers of Mr. Hartlib are preserved, and that they are fallen into your hands, who are able and disposed to make the best of them . . . those letters of mine own which concerned either Hevelius or Mercator, which although I have forgotten, yet so much I am sure of that they were carelessly and perfunctorily written (or else, indeed, they had not been mine), so that it will be to my advantage to suppress them. However, sir, I leave them wholly to your disposal, either to bring them to me, when I may have the happiness to see you, or to burn them, or leave them among the rest.’ 6 Ward’s letters are not to be found today in the Hartlib Papers in the Hartlib Papers at Sheffield University Library.

The reason Worthington had accepted Brereton’s invitation in the first place, however, was not to sift through Hartlib’s papers. Rather, from September of 1666, he was no longer in a position to refuse. St Benet Fink in Threadneedle Street, where he had been rector since May 1665 and where he had worked throughout the course of the plague took hold that year across the city, had been destroyed in the fire of London. Worthington’s own house had been razed, many of his possessions were lost, his church and his parish lay in ruins.

Map showing the extent in London of the Great Fire of 1666, by Wenceslas Hollar. Engraving [with a red circle added to indicate the location of St Benet Fink]. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, on 11 September, Worthington wrote to Dr George Evans (1630-1702): ‘By reason of this late dreadful fire, the church, the house, and the whole parish hath been consumed, and the people scattered (every one shifting for himself) . . . Next to the danger of the fire was the confusion in the street (in ours especially, being a great thoroughfare) so that to me it was a wonder that many were not crowded to death, or trampled and crushed in pieces by carts and horses . . .’ He continued: ‘Many are quite undone, others almost. Bee hath lost £6,000, some say £10,000; other booksellers £4,000 or £2,000. Dr. Bates hath lost £200 in books. Dr. Tuckney’s library in Scrivener’s Hall was burnt. Sion College destroyed, and many of the books. Gresham College was preserved by the activity and bounty of some in it, and the fire was stopped in Broad Street, the Dutch minister’s houses and Dr. Bolton’s house being burnt, but the Dutch church not burnt, and but a little of Dr. Bolton’s at the Soho end . . . Of ninety-seven parish churches there are but twelve remaining. Of the rest only the walls, or some pieces, and the steeples. If it were not for these, it could not be known where the streets were. Blackfriars church (that had no steeple) is so buried in the heaps that the old clerk who hath been there forty years could not discern where the church had stood.’7

Fire, and the ever-present fear of it, dogged both Worthington and his old friend’s archive. Indeed, the entire society assembled in Cheshire almost fell victim to it, along with Brereton’s rump of Hartlib’s papers. On Saturday, 12 January 1666/7, Worthington wrote in his diary, ‘at about twelve o’clock, was a fire in Mr. F. C.’s bed. His cap (a napkin about his head) was in part burnt; and his pillow, bolster, and sheet in part. He was fast asleep. Our maid being up then (which was unusual) and sister Hephzibah Whichcote smelt the fire, found our hall full of smoke, looked into one part of the house, but could find no fire. At last they knocked on Mr. F. C.’s door and awakened him, who was near to be burnt in his bed, and so might we all have been burnt. God be praised for his preservation.’8

Nor was this the first escape from fire for Hartlib’s archive. On 6 February 1661/2, Hartlib wrote to Worthington that it ‘pleased God to visit my chamber with a very sad and fearful accident of fire.’ An iron stove in his chamber, stoked by his own son, Sam, had overheated; ‘many of my things were spoiled’, Hartlib wrote.9 Although the papers are not mentioned here as having fallen victim in any way, Worthington had remarked previously on the ‘many bundles of paper’ in Hartlib’s study.10 Worthington’s words of consolation, ‘I was sorry to hear of your late danger by the fire in your study, which might have been more devouring and terrible had it been in the night. I hope that the violence was prevented from destroying many of your papers‘, did little to console his friend, who died the following month on 10 March 1662.11 Although the threads that weave in and out of these surviving texts tell sad tales of dreams shattered and aspirations unachieved, the connections between the individuals involved are complex. How and why this group converged upon Brereton Hall is itself a story that cries out to be explored, and where better place to start than with John Worthington.

  1. Leigh T. I. Penman, ‘Omnium Exposita Rapinæ: The Afterlives of the Papers of Samuel Hartlib’, Book History, 19 (2016), pp. 1–65.
  2. Letter of 10 June 1667, Worthington to Ingelo; James Crossley and Richard Christie, eds, The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington, 2 vols in 3 (Manchester, 1847–86), vol. II, part I, pp. 229–33.
  3. For the life of Frederick Clodius, see Vera Keller and Leigh T. I. Penman, ‘From the Archives of Scientific Diplomacy: Science and the Shared Interests of Samuel Hartlib’s London and Frederick Clodius’s Gottorf’, ISIS, 106, no. 1 (2015), pp. 17–42; and for an account of this gathering at Brereton Hall, and the aspirations of William in drawing this circle together, see Penman (2016).
  4. Penman (2016), p. 14.
  5. Letter from Worthington to Elizabeth Foxcroft, c. 1670–1671; Crossley and Christie, vol. II, part I, p. 228.
  6. Letter of 15 March 1667 from Ward to Worthington; Crossley and Christie, vol. II, part I, p. 226–7.
  7. Letter of 11 September 1669, Worthington to Evans; Crossley and Christie, vol. II, part I, pp. 209–13.
  8. See Crossley and Christie, vol. II, part 1, pp. 223–4. ‘Mr. F. C.’ is identified in a note as Francis Cholmondeley. It’s possible, however, that ‘Mr F. C.’ could refer to Frederick Clodius. Hephzibah Whichcote was the sister of John Worthington’s wife Mary, and both women were nieces of Benjamin Whichcote.
  9. Letter of 6 February 1662, Hartlib to Worthington; Crossley and Christie, vol. II, part 1, pp. 106–7.
  10. Letter of 26 October 1661, Worthington to Hartlib; Crossley and Christie, vol. II, pt. 1, p. 67.
  11. Letter of 24 February 1662, Worthington to Hartlib; Crossley and Christie, vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 110.

Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered: the postal treasure at COMM

Celebrations are afoot in The Hague following the reopening last weekend of the city’s Museum voor Communicatie [COMM]. This museum, which has been undergoing renovation for the past eighteen months, was established in 1929 around the collections of the philatelist Pieter Wilhelm Waller (1869–1938) and is dedicated to the history of post and telecommunications.1 As COMM throws open its doors on a range of new vibrant and engaging exhibits, at EMLO we would like to draw attention to the catalogue of the remarkable corpus of letters known as the Brienne Collection which resides in its care.

This veritable treasure trove is made up of approximately 2,600 letters, although the precise number is still to be determined. Over the course of the seventeen years between 1689 and 1706, not one of these letters, for a myriad of evocative and mundane reasons, reached the hands of its intended recipient. Rather, each undelivered (or ‘dead’) letter was retained in The Hague as property of the Postmaster and (until her death in 1703) Postmistress. Simon and Marie Brienne were responsible for mail both to and from ‘the city of Antwerp and all surrounding places and cities in Brabant, France, Flanders, Mons in Hainaut, and Spain’.2 The undelivered letters (which have been the subject of a couple of previous posts on this blog) are being examined and catalogued at present in meticulous and methodical detail by our partners the Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered project.3 To coincide with the reopening of COMM, we are delighted to release into EMLO metadata for the first batch of letters from the Collection and to inform you that further ‘installments’ will be uploaded over the coming months.

New metadata fields in EMLO include letterlocking details and date of receipt.

We hope EMLO’s users will seize the opportunity to explore these pioneering records both with respect to content (each letter has been photographed and images made available for consultation) as well as for the richness of details collated. Over the past year, EMLO has worked particularly closely with the SSU team. A week-long workshop dedicated to scrutiny of the metadata that could and should be captured for these remarkable letters was held in Oxford last March and provided the ideal opportunity for the two projects to discuss a number of fields which had not been considered in the epistolary data model when construction of EMLO-Edit took place back in 2010. As Cultures of Knowledge set out to create its pilot union catalogue of scholarly correspondence, the assumption was that (almost always) the manuscript letters under consideration — whether draft, letter sent, copy, or extract — would be conserved flat, as is usual in all the libraries with which we work. Not in our wildest (epistolary) dreams did we anticipate the inclusion of thousands of letters that had been sealed and sent, but not received and opened. Yet the Brienne Collection — with approximately six hundred letters that have managed to evade earlier curatorial ‘intervention’ and as a result have remained locked and sealed for more than three centuries (and will continue thus in perpetuity, thanks to the considered ethos of the SSU project and to enlightened curation at the museum, their contents revealed to us instead by use of ‘non-invasive’ scanning procedures) and more than two thousand with broken seals that are stored still today as folded originally — has opened up a compelling new field of study.

A wrapper (DB-2124) from the Brienne Collection. (Museum voor Communicatie [COMM])

The dedicated and pioneering SSU letterlocking team, headed by Jana Dambrogio and Daniel Starza Smith, has developed an entirely new vocabulary (details of which are explained on their Letterlocking website and will be available in print in their forthcoming publication, A Dictionary of Letterlocking). Of course such metadata requires designated fields for storage and display. Whilst we have always known we would work at EMLO with scholars who wish to focus on postage marks and routing notes, we did not imagine as we built our database that so many wrappers would become available for study, nor that metadata from this fascinating and invaluable Brienne Collection would stream in such profusion into EMLO. It’s rare to encounter an early modern wrapper in an archive: in the Brienne Collection, these have survived in abundance.

The discussions held between the two projects resulted in the rolling up of sleeves (in particular by Oxford’s developer Mat Wilcoxson) and we are exceptionally pleased to report that EMLO is able now to capture and store a range of new fields, including those for the folding, wrapping, and letterlocking metadata; the postal route a letter is recorded to have taken; date(s) of receipt (which have been set out in other EMLO catalogues hitherto as a ‘general note’ rather than in a dedicated field — as you will find with, for example, the calendars of correspondence compiled by Alexandre J. Tessier for both John Doddington and Francis Vernon); and the reason for non-delivery (many of which are heart-breaking when considered alongside the content of the letter). With fitting serendipity, the Brienne Collection — described so beautifully as an ‘accidental archive’ by Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden — has provided the ideal opportunity to expand EMLO’s data model, whilst what is written in the letters contained therein present for historians a plethora of insights into early modern lives and events that otherwise would have been lost entirely.4 In Ahrendt and van der Linden’s words, these letters represent ‘the thoughts, cares, and dreams of a cross section of society: ambassadors, dukes and duchesses, merchants, publishers, spies, actors, musicians, lovers, parents, expatriates, refugees, women as well as men. Here is an archive that will let the voices of the past speak again.’5

  1. Waller was the author of De eerste postzegels van Nederland: uitgifte 1852 (Haarlem: Enschedé, 1934).
  2. Simon took office in 1676 and retained the position until his death in 1707. See the Charter appointing Simon de Brienne as postmaster, The Hague, 13 January 1676, Gemeentearchief, Delft, Weeskamer nr. 11851, and Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden, ‘The Postmasters’ Piggy Bank. Experiencing the Accidental Archive’, in French Historical Studies, 40, 2 (2017), p. 200, and note 21.
  3. See Hadriaan Beverland, routes to and from the Dutch Republic, and the postmasters Brienne and Reading the folds: students of letter-locking.
  4. See Rebekah Ahrendt and David van der Linden, ‘The Postmasters’ Piggy Bank. Experiencing the Accidental Archive’, in French Historical Studies, 40, 2 (2017), pp. 189–213.
  5. Ibid., p. 190.

In celebration of early modern women, their letters, and the scholars who work with them — WEMLO

In the midst of the season of awards and new appointments to recognise and reward scholarly achievement, we have been truly thrilled to receive news of significant successes for a treasured group of talented partners and contributors. We could not be more delighted to announce that Women’s Early Modern Letters Online [WEMLO] has won the ‘Best Digital Scholarship, New Media, and/or Art of 2016’ Award from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women [SSEMW]. As many of EMLO’s and WEMLO’s users and followers will be aware, WEMLO was created in 2013 — initially with British Academy/Leverhulme funding and with support from the Cultures of Knowledge research project — as a scholarly resource for the early modern women’s correspondence held within the EMLO union catalogue and as a discussion forum and meeting place for scholars of early modern women letter writers.

Woman reading a letter, by Johannes Vermeer. c. 1663. Oil on canvas, 46.5 by 39 cm. (Source of image: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; obj. no. SK-C-251)

Co-directed by Professor James Daybell of Plymouth University, and Dr Kim McLean-Fiander of the University of Victoria, B.C. [UVic], WEMLO set out with a mission to ensure that the epistolary voices and trails of early modern women became more easily discoverable. On the back of a series of workshops convened around scholars who work on women’s correspondence (during which the views of participants were solicited and discussed), WEMLO’s dynamic duo concluded that a distinct scholarly meeting space was required to meet the needs of researchers of early modern women. However, they recognized also that, while the unanimous wish was for female letter writers to be more discoverable in the historical record, it would do early modern women no favours and be of little help to today’s scholars were they to be confined to a female-only resource. What these scholars wanted was to have the means to search for female writers of letters alone as well as to search for them alongside their fellow male letter writers. In response to WEMLO’s findings, EMLO worked with James and Kim to made a number of key changes in the union catalogue’s discovery interface. And thanks to this inspiring trans-Atlantic collaboration, we’re particularly proud that W/EMLO’s users are able now to browse in the union catalogue by gender (in any combination of sender, recipient, and person mentioned), to search for specific women’s correspondence, and to pull up just the rapidly expanding list of women’s catalogues. We’re also extremely glad to witness WEMLO’s accomplishments being recognized and honoured with this award. The Society for the Study of Early Modern Women is a network of scholars who meet annually, sponsor sessions at conferences, maintain a listserv and a website, give awards for outstanding scholarship, and support one another’s work in the field. Both EMLO and Cultures of Knowledge extend hearty congratulations to James and Kim for their vision and foresight, and collectively we’d all like to thank W/EMLO’s developer Mat Wilcoxson for his hard work to bring into being the technical solutions that meet so well the needs of WEMLO’s scholarly community and make the initial vision a reality.

On a related note, we’re equally delighted to be drawing to the attention of W/EMLO’s users the cluster of correspondence catalogues for the six Dutch seventeenth-century Stadholders’ Wives, and in particular that of Albertine Agnes van Oranje-Nassau. Albertine Agnes was the wife of Willem Frederik van Nassau-Dietz (1634–1696) and she has the distinction of being the first female ruler to assume the stadtholdership as Regent. Her catalogue has expanded this week by an additional 357 letters and you will find now a current total of 781 letters (many of which are linked to images of the manuscripts hosted at the Royal Collections [Koninklijke Verzamelingen] in The Hague). Collated by Dr Ineke Huysman of the Huygens ING, and assisted ably by Bettina Heyder, who has recently completed an internship at the Frsyke Akademy under the direction of Dr Hans Cools as part of her work with these letters, this catalogue contains a correspondence that diplays the diplomatic skills of Albertine Agnes and is characteristic of the qualities of many of the extraordinary letters to be found in WEMLO. Dr Huysman has just taken up an appointment to the Committee of the Society of Court History in richly deserved recognition of her achievements and proof (if proof were needed, which of course it is not!) of the relevance of the work of today’s scholars who focus on the lesser-known yet rewarding voices of early modern women.

Congratulations to all!

An Englishman’s home may not be his castle: Cheney Culpeper

The letters showcased in EMLO this week drop us deep into the circles that lie at the heart of the Cultures of Knowledge research project. EMLO took shape as a union catalogue back in 2010 when it was constructed around the calendars of correspondence of four members of the fledgling Royal Society (John Aubrey, Edward Lhwyd [Lhuyd], Martin Lister, and John Wallis) and of two ‘foreigners’ (to adopt Hugh Trevor-Roper’s descriptor) with extensive European connections: the itinerant pansophist Jan Amos Comenius who traversed the face of Europe in response to the political upheavals of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Elbląg-born intelligencer Samuel Hartlib who settled in England from 1628.1 The focus of EMLO’s latest catalogue is the surviving correspondence of one of Hartlib’s many and various English correspondents Cheney Culpeper. In tandem with the critical edition published by M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, it makes for a fascinating read both from the perspective of the intellectual interests involved and with respect to the beliefs and aspirations that emerge from the domestic events of a financially troubled life played out against a backdrop of civil war and political turmoil.2

Cheney Culpeper was born into the Kentish gentry. His father Thomas, who was educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, and at Middle Temple, had been elected Member of Parliament initially for Rye in 1597 and then for Winchelsea in 1601, the year of Cheney’s birth. From his family seat of Greenway Court, Hollingbourne, Sir Thomas (who was knighted by Charles I in 1619) began to expand the family’s cluster of properties. The prize acquisition of Leeds Castle, Kent, came with its purchase from the executors of Sir John Smythe (d. 1632).3 Yet it was with this addition that the Culpepers’ domestic and financial problems began to take hold.

Leeds Castle, Kent. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

With Cheney’s marriage to Elizabeth Stede on 24 October 1632, Sir Thomas settled the castle and its estates upon his elder surviving son (who had himself been knighted by Charles I in 1628). In two letters written twelve years later, Cheney Culpeper informed Hartlib he had been in receipt of £500 per annum and was the beneficiary of £3,000 at the time of his marriage.4 In 1641, however, he had fallen seriously ill and, in the expectation he would not survive, had ceded his properties — including Leeds Castle — and their management back to his father. Against all odds Sir Cheney recovered but by the time he regained full health the political situation had worsened and in consequence the family was divided: father took the side of the King, son that of Parliament. Sir Thomas refused to restore control of the Leeds Castle estate. Severe financial difficulties ensued for both men, political events took further turns for the worse, and the rift between father and son deepened.

As the events of the civil war unfolded, Sir Thomas’s properties became subject to sequestration and he appeared before the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding on 30 April 1646. Whilst attempting to regain his own estates, Cheney Culpeper had to deal with creditors both for his own debts and for those of his father. He wrote to Hartlib on 29 October 1646 of his ‘vnhappy condition in a Father whose actions driue wholy to my prejudice, it takes away that contente & joy which I myght take in the Fortunes which God & nature had caste vpon me’,5 and on 4 November of the same year that his ‘domestique affaires doe howerly rise into such a storme as (I feare) my anchor, & cable will hardly holde’.6 The situation did not improve, even though Leeds Castle (which had been used as a munitions’ store during the civil war) was returned to Cheney Culpeper on 21 October 1651. Yet some three years after this, Hartlib mentioned to Robert Boyle that ‘Sir Cheney complains more than ever, that his father hath utterly undone him’.7 Cheney Culpeper died a debtor in London following the Restoration of Charles II and just fourteen months after the death of his own father Thomas. He was buried in Middle Temple on 2 April 1663.

As Braddick and Greengrass observe, Culpeper has been interpreted as the voice of the ‘voiceless’. He can be seen as representative of ‘men who, more often than not, never raised their voices to speak publicly across the centuries, who did not publish theories, or make set speeches in Parliament, but who were nevertheless the angry men in Parliament and behind Parliament, the men who, from behind, struck down their lukewarm, politic, legalistic, aristocratic and clerical leaders and pushed on, over their bodies, to destruction.’8 Trevor-Roper’s description may be over extreme when applied to Culpeper, who is to be found in these letters engaging with Hartlib on a plethora of levels and a wide range of altruistic subjects of shared interest, and Braddick and Greengrass point out that the exchange between the two men provides an ‘important example of the slow, empirical fashion by which agricultural improvement took root in the English countryside in the seventeenth century’. They observe also how Culpeper’s commitments ‘grew out of, and around, his social networks’. These networks included the people he met at the Middle Temple; people with whom he shared his Kentish roots; and the circle around Elizabeth Stuart and her fellow exiles from the Palatinate — and, of course, amongst those in London sympathetic to the Palatine plight was Samuel Hartlib.

Culpeper wrote to Hartlib of their friendship: ‘I can truly say that I often rejoyce in that hower in which (by a meere occasionall readinge of Dr Gaudens sermon) Gods prouidence brought me to your acquaintance, & hath synce & dothe still by it bringe me to the acquaintance of others.’9 Hartlib records their first meeting in his Ephemerides: ‘The 13. of April acquainted with Sir Cheney Culpeper at one Dr Smith’s house a Dr of Phyisick in Shoe Lane at that part of the lane towards Holborne’, upon which occasion Culpeper committed the sum of £5 to Hartlib (probably into the fund for Comenius’s visit to London). Through the epistolary conversation that took place over the course of a decade, it is possible to chart Hartlib’s endeavours and aspirations: education, politics, news, plans for Hartlib’s ‘Office of Addresse’, and innovative technical developments, including ‘Felton’s engine’ — all were discussed.10 This correspondence makes for a fascinating read and it is well worth taking the time to follow the links out from the records in EMLO to the invaluable edition published by Braddick and Greengrass, as well as those to the Hartlib Papers on the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, where you will find both the manuscript image and a transcription for each letter. Savour these letters. They are both rich and rewarding.

  1. See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  2. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. See History of Parliament online, entry for Sir John Smythe (c. 1592–1632), footnote 12.
  4. See letter of 18 December 1644, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/57a-58b and letter from Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/314a-316b.
  5. See letter of 29 October 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/153a-154a.
  6. See letter of 4 November 1646, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/155a-156b.
  7. See letter of 28 February 1654 from Hartlib to Boyle.
  8. See M. J. Braddick and M. Greengrass, eds, ‘The Letters of Sir Cheney Culpeper (1641–1657)’, in Seventeenth Century Political and Financial Papers. Camden Miscellany XXXIII, Camden fifth series, volume 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 155 and Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change, and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1967), chapter 5: ‘Three Foreigners: the Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution’.
  9. See letter of December 1645, Culpeper to Hartlib, Hartlib Papers, 13/109–12.
  10. See Timothy Raylor, ‘Providence and technology in the English Civil War: Edmond Felton and his engine’, in Renaissance Studies, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1993), pp. 398–413.

Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: Pierre-Joseph Amoreux

We are delighted to pass on news of the first-ever publication of the autobiography of the eighteenth-century ‘man of science’ Pierre-Joseph Amoreux. From Montpellier, Amoreux was a Linnaean naturalist, an agronomist, and a bibliographer who played an active role in the scholarly community known as the république des lettres. Born in 1741, the earlier decades of Amoreux’s life spanned the extremes in France of the ancien regime and the Revolution, while his later years bore witness to Napoleon’s rise, rule, and fall, and the subsequent Restoration.

Edited by Laurence Brockliss, Amoreux’s autobiography is published this month by the Voltaire Foundation [Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment] under the title From Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: the recollections of Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741–1824). With his unique and sustained voice, Amoreux offers a fascinating insight into ‘the life of a provincial man of science during this tumultuous period of France’s history’. Brockliss’s substantial and indispensable introduction provides significant analysis of the context of Amoreux’s life and work, and is based on surviving letters, printed and manuscript books and articles, as well as on the autobiographical Souvenirs. Of the autobiography, which Amoreux began in 1800, Professor Brockliss writes: ‘No other account of early nineteenth-century Paris catches so fully the multi-faceted nature of the vibrant post-Revolutionary city, whose cast of characters ranges from bankers to barrow-boys. If Amoreux had had the literary talent, he could have left a work which would have stood comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses. Nobody interested in Napoleon’s Paris as the cultural centre of Europe should miss the opportunity to accompany the Montpellier naturalist on his travels.’

 

Update from Utrecht: Dirk van Miert on three funded doctoral positions

For those intrigued by the European Research Council [ERC] project Sharing Knowledge in Learned and Literary Networks (SKILLNET): the Republic of Letters as a pan-European Knowledge Society (the subject of my previous post and announced recently through the COST Reassembling the Republic of Letters Action), it may be of interest to read what the project’s principal investigator Dr Dirk van Miert has kindly shared with us — in the form of a series of compelling questions — about the three funded doctoral positions open at present for applications.

‘SKILLNET examines the extent to which the Republic of Letters was kept together by the ideal of knowledge exchange,’ Dirk explains. ‘It seeks answers in the social fabric of the network involved, in the discourse employed by this network’s members, and in the memorial culture through which these members celebrated the ideal. Each of these three approaches is the subject of an individual PhD project which will explore the following questions:

Networks
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could analyse the Republic of Letters as if it were some kind of blogosphere, a social network in which each letter serves as a “link” between two people? What would such a network look like over the course of hundreds of years? How many people were involved? Did this number increase or decrease in size? Was the network bound more tightly in certain regions rather than others? How did sub-networks or small worlds relate to the larger network? What were the sub-cultures of those small worlds? Did people build a communal identity through shared interests in, say, medical subjects or theological questions? Or did they share a language, a regional background, or were they perhaps of a similar age? And if some sub-networks have different structures (in terms of the level of connectedness), does that mean that knowledge was shared more or less easily? With entire ego-networks becoming available in accelerating numbers (witness the promising pool of metadata of letters that is being collected in EMLO), we can start moving beyond personal networks to study the structure of the Republic of Letters over time and space, allowing us to reach a more much precise history of the vicissitudes of the most resilient self-conscious international network of the early modern period: the Republic of Letters.

Discourses
In 1983 Benedict Anderson wrote that “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined”. So what about the Republic of Letters? This is indeed a returning topic in discussions of the Republic of Letters: did it really exist? Wasn’t it all a wishful phantasy of literati who retreated into their studies and looked away from the polemics and pamphlet wars that were a permanent, and perhaps even a structural, feature of the learned world in early modern Europe? The question is valid, but mal posée: the Republic of Letters was a palpable reality, because there was a social network of thousands of people who related to it. In other words, the Republic of Letters was an “experienced community”, and hence a very real one. The marvellous e-Pistolarium of the Huygens Institute in The Hague allows us to mine digitally a set of twenty thousand learned letters. It appears that in the vicinity of the phrase “Republic of Letters”, letter writers use most often the words “public”, “good”, “time”, “way”, “spirit”, “maximum”, and “profit”. But what more can we learn about this idealistic discourse for sharing knowledge? What other terms were used? When, where, and why were these employed? Did the ideal experience crises?

Identities
Every ideal needs to be nurtured, negotiated, and transmitted in order to survive. If the discursive space of the Republic of Letters was structured around the ideal of sharing knowledge, how was that ideal transmitted to new generations? The ability to read and write was not enough to enable membership, for the Republic of Letters was not merely a discursive space, but also became a palpable reality visible in performances which celebrated and strengthened communal identities. Every community — the imagined, the experienced, the real — needs examples, needs locations of memory, and needs celebrations to assert a common identity. Who were the exemplary figures of the Republic of Letters to which ordinary learned “citizens” related? How did the ideal of sharing knowledge take shape in life-writing, funeral orations, statues, material cultures, paper monuments, commemorative literature? What other, or related, ideals transpire in such material? Can we analyse how the discursive space was made tangible? Who were the heroes and who the villains within the Republic of Letters? In what settings did new generations come to appropriate its ideals? What was the interplay between a local, regional, patriotic, and cosmopolitan identity if we were to look at the material culture of the Republic of Letters that embodied the ideals to which members related?”

Such are the manifold and complex questions emerging at the heart of this project. Should you find an alignment with your own intended research and wish to apply for any one of these positions, you have until 20 October 2017. Meanwhile, here in Oxford, we’re looking forward enormously to working with SKILLNET. Submit an application and you too could form a part of the dynamic and digitally equipped twenty-first century network as it sets out upon its ambitious and wide-ranging journey.

 

Sharing Knowledge: applications invited for three funded doctoral positions

At a time when financial backing for doctoral research seems as scarce and elusive as fairy dust, it’s welcome news indeed that three fully funded PhD vacancies are being advertised at the University of Utrecht. Each one of these four-year positions is available within the European Research Council [ERC] project Sharing Knowledge in Learned and Literary Networks (SKILLNET): the Republic of Letters as a pan-European Knowledge SocietyHeaded by Dirk van Miert, this project is just embarking upon a fascinating five-year mission to mine the content of large quantities of early modern epistolaries and to consider thereby how participants in the knowledge-based civil society that referred to itself as the ‘Respublica Literaria’ transcended political, confessional, and language boundaries to evolve into a pan-European ‘knowledge commons’. This intriguing project will study lines of communication over the four centuries between 1400 and 1800 and will follow the subtle shifts as the members within this society themselves related to their ideal of such exchange.

The three PhD positions will focus on: the structure of networks; the history of concepts and discourse analysis; and mining for learned identities. The successful candidates will be supervised by Dirk van Miert, who is assistant professor of Early Modern Cultural History in the Department of History and Art History at Utrecht. A longstanding colleague of and friend to EMLO, Dirk is a member of the COST-funded ‘Reassembling the Republic of Letters’ project (headed by Cultures of Knowledge’s Howard Hotson), and — together with another valued contributor Paul Botley of the University of Warwick —  he is co-editor of the exemplary eight-volume edition of Joseph Justus Scaliger’s letters (the metadata of which was published in EMLO in February 2015).1

Applications for any one of the three available positions should be submitted by 20 October (with a view to commencing on 1 January 2018). Further details of this remarkable Republic of Letters project and its exciting investigations may be found here. Despite the somewhat severe countenance in many of his surviving portraits, we assume Scaliger would approve of the exciting research that’s gathering momentum at present in Utrecht!

A doctrine of doctors: the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society

How fitting at the start of a new academic year that the first of a new batch of catalogues to be published in EMLO concerns a society dedicated to the circulation of knowledge. Established by a group of Irish virtuosi, the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society was founded in 1756 primarily to advance and promote learning and to harness practical knowledge. Its first recorded meeting was held on 8 April that same year and was attended by John Rutty, Charles Smith, Henry Downing, and the Reverend Nathaniel Caldwell. The Society proposed bi-monthly meetings with the intention of discussing papers and news on medical and related matters of interest. Papers read aloud to members at subsequent meetings emulated closely in style those of the London-based Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions and the underlying intention of the Medico-Philosophical Society was to create a forum in Dublin for intellectual and scientific exchange.

Naturally correspondence was central to the activities of the Society and was the primary means by which information from and to national and international contacts regarding medical and scientific practices, advances, and discoveries was conveyed, and the ensuing epistolary discourse ensured participation from Dublin in the far-reaching and wide-ranging debates and discussions of the mid-eighteenth century. It is clear from the surviving correspondence and minute books that the Society was built firmly upon Baconian principles. Charles Smith, in a ‘Preliminary Discourse’, set out that members would conduct ‘medical, natural and philosophical inquiries’ (in line with those that had been established already and were continuing to flourish the length and breadth of Europe). ‘Truth and a sound method of reasoning, first introduced by Lord Bacon’ would enable them to triumph ‘over the errors of former ages and the dark subtleties of the schoolmen’. Worthy ideals indeed for the improvement of medical practice in Ireland.

Metadata for the Society’s correspondence has been collected by Oxford doctoral student Rachael Scally, and it is clear from the calendar of letters she has assembled and the research she has conducted around these letters that the Society wished to ‘to furnish [their] quota to the Republic of Letters’.1 Open to all suitably qualified medical professionals, the Society nurtured exchanges with physicians, anatomists, surgeons, male midwives, apothecaries, and natural philosophers. Members were requested to scour newspapers and periodicals for relevant items pertaining to ‘natural history, natural philosophy, medicine, or anything curious or useful in nature or art’ to communicate to their fellow members. They were encouraged also to experiment and to discuss the results. As Rachel details in her article ‘Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters at the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society, 1756–1784’, John Rutty smelled and tasted his mineral and botanical specimens, in addition to samples of urine (both his own and that of a diabetic patient). Patients in Dublin’s hospitals under the care of the Society’s members participated in medical trials — hemlock, wort, and various unidentified powders sent in by eager correspondents were tested upon them — and underwent carefully documented operations involving different types of surgery. (I advise the squeamish not to follow this blog through to its conclusion as I have placed right at the end what some might find a number of less-than-palatable illustrations which were collected and filed by members of the Society!)

The Society’s members themselves, Scally reveals, had been educated at a number of key European institutions, including those in Leiden, London, Edinburgh, Paris, and Rheims. Rutty had studied under physician and botanist Herman Boerhaave; MacBride had been a pupil of anatomy in London with the Scottish physician William Hunter. Incoming letters read out at meetings were received from as far afield as New York and Montreal and, in addition, many of the members belonged to other illustrious societies (for example, Scally notes that James Span was a European member of the American Philosophical Society).

Sadly, the dream outlined by Smith in his ‘Preliminary Discourse’ never reached fruition. The Society disbanded on 7 October 1784. The reasons for this unexpected and sudden termination are not clear and for theories of shameless academic scheming and skulduggery you should read Scally’s article (details and a link to download the PDF from a subscribing institution may be found by clicking here). Thankfully the machinations involved nothing as toe-curling as the meticulously drafted images I’m attaching below, but the result was a merger of the Society’s members into the Irish Academy, which received a Royal Charter in 1785 and began to publish its own Transactions the following year. What is beyond doubt is that the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society was instrumental in furthering medical practice in Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century, and that it paved the way for continued organized discussion from that point forward. We hope you enjoy the Society’s catalogue of correspondence (and for those of a frail disposition this is the final warning to click away … perhaps to Rachael Scally’s blog for the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh about George Cleghorn, the surgeon-anatomist who became a member of the Dublin Medico-Philosophers Society in 1757 having accumulated thirteen-years’ worth of experience on the island of Minorca with the 22nd Regiment of Foot … ).

Three drawings from the ‘Medical and Philosophical Memoirs’. (Images courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Dublin)

  1. Scally, Rachael, ‘Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters at the Dublin Medico-Philosophical Society, 1756–1784’, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Journal of Postgraduate Research, 14, (2015), pp. 156–78.

Reaching for Atlantis: a VolkswagenStiftung-funded partner

It has long been the intention to develop EMLO into a collaborative, scholarly resource, populated by an international community of scholars, research projects, publishers, and repositories, many of whom work on — or curate material relevant to — the history of objects and material culture. If further proof were required that this dream has become reality, we are truly delighted to be announcing today that Dr Bernhard Schirg of the University of Erfurt has received funding from the VolkswagenStiftung to work at the Forschungszentrum Gotha der Universität Erfurt on his innovative project ‘Reaching for Atlantis. The cultural biographies of objects under the Swedish Empire and beyond’. The Fellowship is worth just under one million euros and will last for an initial five years, beginning this coming March when the Research Centre moves into its new premises in the heart of historic Gotha.

Illustration from ‘Atlantica’ [‘Atland eller Manheim’] showing Olof Rudbeck revealing the truth about Atlantis to his classical predecessors. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

It was twelve months ago that Dr Schirg was in touch with us first on the back of a most timely introduction from Dr Alexandra Franklin, the head of the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian Libraries, and supported by a strong recommendation on behalf of the University of Oxford from Dr William Poole, who — amongst his very many scholarly accomplishments — is editor of the correspondence of Robert Hooke and co-editor of the correspondence of John Aubrey, and who has worked and published extensively on antiquarianism in the early modern period and on the history of libraries. As Dr Schirg outlined his proposal, it became apparent that there were significant overlaps with the scholarly correspondence and many of the figures contained already within EMLO. The project will focus on the history of selected objects that were subject to the reinterpretation of material culture under the Swedish Empire. Influenced by the work of Olof Rudbeck (1630–1702) — most particularly the four-volume publication Atlantica (1679–1702) in which the scholar examined Plato’s Atlantis as well as the very origins of classicism itself — several generations of Swedish scholars set out to trace ‘Nordic roots’ in their studies of antiquities. These scholars scrutinized natural objects of particular interest and curiosities, including coins, gems, cameos, maps, plant specimens, and ethnic items. The resulting encyclopaedic interpretations were intended to make up for a lack of historiographic sources and to cite classical mythology as a source in early Swedish history.

Using primary sources as diverse as Latin dissertations, travel journals, and letters, Dr Schirg will create a digital archive to combine both contemporary and subsequent contextualization of individual objects, recording images as well as textual documentation for items that may no longer be extant. As a result of his collaboration with EMLO, he will have at his disposal the full range of epistolary and prosopographic collation tools developed here in Oxford, and will contribute a catalogue of related correspondence. Dr Schirg will spend a year of the grant period in Oxford, hosted by the Bodleian Libraries. In addition to his work with EMLO, we are in no doubt that these twelve months will provide a truly invaluable opportunity for Dr Schirg to work alongside members of the scholarly and curatorial community at the University’s Museums — including the Ashmolean, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the History of Science — as well as with the many individuals who are engaged at present in the research on the history of science and collecting in the second half of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Dr Bernhard Schirg in the anatomical theatre, Uppsala. (Source of image: Dr B. Schirg)

With such a focus on the cultural biographies of unique objects, texts are of crucial importance. Equipped with a PhD in neo-Latin philology, Dr Schirg will bring together early modern Latin source material with various forms of documentation in vernacular languages. In recent years, he has expanded his research across disciplines, encompassing art history and the history of science, and has extended his range of periods from the Italian Renaissance to the Scandinavian baroque (a particularly exciting field in the decades around 1680 when Sweden was a central player not only in European politics, but also in academia). Dr Schirg reports that he has found the support his proposal received from Oxford institutions and scholars to be ‘overwhelming’ and that ‘it was highly encouraging to witness the deep interest in my approach as well as the will to establish interdisciplinary collaborations’.

We are delighted at EMLO to be working with Dr Schirg and, together with the University’s libraries, museums, and scholarly community, we hope to help foster ‘a research project that will transcend conventional boundaries of disciplines, and sound out the impact which the national narratives and scientific paradigms of the Swedish Empire exerted on an international level’. If, as Dr Schirg intends, ‘classical and nordic mythology, Scandinavian philology, travelling objects and their various interpretations in early modern letters, dissertations and travel journals’ are highlighted and recombined in the course of this innovative work, then we are indeed in for an ‘inspirational year of vibrant exchange and new encounters’!