Samuel Hartlib


Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600–62) was of mercantile stock: his father was a German merchant, and his maternal grandfather was the head of the English trading company in Elbing on the southern shores of the Baltic. After the Swedish invasion undermined Elbing’s commercial position in the late 1620s, Hartlib fled war-torn central Europe to England, where he became one of the most active reformers of the late 1630s and the ensuing civil war and republican period.


Experimental heat map of Hartlib’s correspondents by Scott Weingart.

Not known in his own day for his published writings, Hartlib was virtually forgotten by posterity until the rediscovery of an archive of his personal papers. This discovery, which you can find out more about in this podcast, revealed his correspondence to have been enormous. The 20,000 folios of his archive contain over 4,250 letters written to or (mostly) from some 400 correspondents, or exchanged between third parties. Currently containing some 4,592 records, the Hartlib catalogue is by far the largest fresh research dataset generated during our first phase, and also the most complex, prosopographically, geographically, and chronologically.

Prosopographically, Hartlib’s papers embrace a widely dispersed group of displaced intellectuals, whose movements must be tracked in order to understand the shape and genesis of the circle. Unlike the classic exemplars of the Republic of Letters, Hartlib’s circle is not organized around a small number of great scholars, philosophers, scientists, or literati, communicating with one another from fixed institutional positions in major seats of learning. On the contrary, many of his correspondents are comparatively obscure, relatively few are mentioned in national biographical dictionaries, and a great many do not even feature in the local and regional references works which proliferated in central Europe from the eighteenth century onward. This obscurity is partly due to the fact that the great majority of Hartlib’s continental correspondents — between two thirds and three quarters — are itinerant: merchants, diplomats, tutors, students, projectors, exiles, and refugees, who often disappear without a trace from one national historiography as they move across national boundaries, and appear simultaneously in another national scholarly tradition as if from out of a void. The ability to track their movements is essential to reconstructing the underlying shape of Hartlib’s circle and identifying the forces that set it in motion.

Geographically, these movements take place across a huge, diverse, and linguistically challenging area, ranging eastward as far as Transylvania (in modern Romania), Hungary, the Czech lands, and Poland; northward into Sweden and Denmark; westward via Germany, the Swiss Confederation, France, the Low Countries, England, Scotland, and Ireland; and across the Atlantic to the English colonies in the New World. Moreover, at the centre of this world is the most fragmented major political entity in early modern Europe — the Holy Roman Empire — offering daunting challenges and unique opportunities to the determined intellectual geographer. Only by pooling information accessible to many different experts, with ready access to many different scholarly tools in many and often very difficult languages, can anything like a collective portrait of this radically heterogeneous group be assembled. Potential collaborators in most of these areas have been identified already through the three workshops and major conference on Universal Reformation during the first phase of Cultures of Knowledge.

Chronologically, the movement of these figures and the conditions of these regions were dictated in large part by the series of conflicts which raged across northern Europe in this period: the Northern Wars in the Baltic, the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe, and the civil wars in the British Isles. Understanding the origin and structure of various components of Hartlib’s circle requires, therefore, understanding the impact of these events on initially disparate intellectual and confessional communities. One cluster of correspondents, for instance, studied together in Reformed universities like Heidelberg and Herborn in the years before their destruction in the early 1620s, from which they were transplanted to the universities and stranger churches of the Dutch Republic and England. Another group comprised Comenius’s confessional community, the Bohemian Brethren, who were uprooted en masse after the failure of the Bohemian Revolt which touched off the Thirty Years’ War and gravitated to exile communities in Saxony, Great Poland, and eventually Polish Prussia, where they mixed and mingled with the intelligentsia of Hartlib’s native Elbing and the neighbouring entrepôt of Danzig. In order to understand the formation and dispersal of groupings such as these, ‘event streams’ chronicling the impact of war on individual localities may also need to be logged into the system and mapped visually. This research project will thus generate a demanding agenda for sequencing and animating visual representations ideally suited to stimulating and shaping further systems development.