The Dart of Harkness April 5, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: Deborah Harkness, Francis Bacon, Harold Cook, Hugh Plat, Lisa Jardine, Steven Shapin, Thomas Bodley, William Cecil
Having finished up Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, I must say that I am wowed—it’s really a superb book that should be read by anyone working in the history of science, any period or location.
The thing that really makes this book work so well is its economical pacing and the presence of the author throughout. The subject matter—the knowledge economy of Elizabethan London as it pertains to the natural sciences—is necessarily diffuse. There are a few big names who enter and leave the story, but for the most part one is dealing with a wide pastiche of authors, medical practitioners, and so forth. The object is to characterize what these people did, how their communities worked, and how these communities intertwined. This is what Harkness accomplishes very nicely. Her expertise is constantly on hand to guide readers through the ins and outs of Elizabethan regulatory systems, investment schemes, and, of course, the London market place, and to leave readers with not only an argument, but a usefully organized knowledge about the subject matter. She conveys her point, produces the pertinent information, and moves on, dwelling on details only so long as to demonstrate how they relate to the larger picture.
Harkness’ economical style allows her to cover a lot of ground. She starts off with a discussion of the community of naturalists on Lime Street, but then goes on to chart the anatomy of London’s diverse medical market, the instrumentation market and the market for practical and theoretical mathematical education, the development of large-scale projects (mining, exploration, water works, etc., fueled by often suspect knowledge), and the compilation of practical knowledge in manuscript notebooks and printed books.
It’s all very well done, but my favorite bit has to be the discussion of one of Queen Elizabeth’s top administrators, William Cecil, and his efforts to come to grips with various issues relating to maintaining the value of currency, granting (more…)