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 letters patent, and investing in projects, which really demonstrates the stakes of having useful knowledge, even in this period. Harkness discusses it as “big science”, which I find a little misleading since what is really at play is natural knowledge in the service of large works rather than vice versa, but, nevertheless, the whole discussion rings true to a historian of the 20th century such as myself.
Equally nice is the flow of chapters into each other. By now, we understand very well the relationship between medical knowledge and the development of herb gardens, and the development of collections (such as gardens) and the generation of prestige, but Harkness also nicely illustrates the relationship between medical knowledge, astrology, numerological magic, astronomy, and mathematics, which flows into mechanics, and how mechanical knowledge, of course, flows into the development of delicate instrumentation, practical navigation, and the large works discussed above. Then, we see how one failed mining investor, Clement Draper, found himself in prison for his debts where he dedicated himself to compiling useful information into a notebook, which segues into a final discussion of lawyer Hugh Plat’s systematic work to do much the same, which in turn leads to a discussion of lawyer (and William Cecil nephew!) Francis Bacon’s desire to reform natural philosophy.
Harkness says that she resisted suggestions to study a particular group—people in court, for example—in favor of what turned out to be a massive prosopographical study of some 1800 Londoners, which she kept in a relational database, many of whom appear, even if briefly, in the text. I think the payoff of abandoning the case study method is obvious, because it gave her crucial insight on how an entire community worked and how the world made sense to them. The study, effectively, became its own context, which meant that it is not burdened by attempts to connect the specifics to the presupposed characteristics of its context. It also discusses change over time. Interest in mathematics, for example, has a clear rise and fall in Elizabethan London. Similarly, sophisticated instrumentation arrives on the scene at a certain point in time. Paracelsian medicine becomes a fad at a very specific point.
The result of all this is a wonderfully coherent picture that admirably lays down a gauntlet to even the mass of people who study the crucial 1650-1700 period. The only book from that period I know that comes close is Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits, but that book is not nearly so systematic. In the tradition of James Burke, that book says “look at this wonderful spaghetti of interconnected knowledge and activities”. This book untangles the knot, charts it—and throws in lists of proper names of a lot of the people involved to boot!
I would urge Harkness to get a grant and hire some people to convert her relational database to xml and get it online. She does such a great job of conveying her expertise rather than simply using her expertise to write a “nice book”, but there’s a lot of it that simply cannot fit in a book context, and I believe it is part of the future of historical scholarship to make this stuff available in the most convenient way possible (see the online prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England).
OK, enough gushing, and on to the reservations, which relate primarily to a point I mentioned when I initially picked the book up: its wholly unnecessary defensiveness. Harkness is right: historians’ emphasis on high science and philosophy has hidden a valuable world of unsystematized knowledge and practical expertise. The book isn’t simply putting Bacon in context—Bacon, instead, rightly becomes a marginal character in a very large story. To understand this new story is to add substantially to the understanding of the history of people and nations. Harkness’ work sets the standard for creating a good, synthetic history of this story over long time frames. It fills in a lot of spaces on my chart of the world of knowledge and practice circa 1600, and leaves me with a nice basis on which to compare developments in other nations in the same period—it would be very nice if historians could work together to produce a map of these kinds of communities through the world.
However, Harkness is so intent on defending the sophistication of this knowledge community that she tends to collapse the boundaries between it and the kinds of things historians more usually study, which leads her, especially toward the end of her book, into what I view as a rather unnecessarily harsh criticism of Francis Bacon and later scientific culture. Unsystematized knowledge is important, but the historiography of science’s recent preoccupation with cultures of “the fact” has jettisoned an understanding of the once-overvalued importance of “the system”, leading authors like Harkness and Hal Cook to equate fact gathering and verification with the production of “scientific knowledge”.
Harkness seems to feel that her London community has been cheated by history simply because they did not promote and print their work. Her big hero, therefore, is Hugh Plat, who actually did write it all down in a 1594 book called Jewell house of art and nature, which was very popular in its day, but was ultimately eclipsed by Francis Bacon’s works. Bacon’s philosophical reform program thus becomes an elitist enterprise, denigrating the mundane compiling of useful information by Plat and the rest of her London community by failing to acknowledge it. She nicely deploys a letter from Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library and Plat supporter, to Bacon, criticizing his assessment of the sciences in his own period, a point with which she agrees.
Harkness appreciates Bacon’s perception of himself as a reformer of Peripatetic natural philosophy, but I think she equates his proposed solution with the sort of compilation of useful knowledge practiced by Plat. It is true, as Harkness points out, that compilation was a central part of Bacon’s “Salomon’s House” vision, but Bacon, and later members of the Royal Society, appreciated the systematizing characteristics of Peripatetic philosophy, while denigrating its method and practice. This philosophical systematization is something the London knowledge economy didn’t really aspire to (limited cases such as mathematics aside). Thus Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (posthumous, 1627) becomes a second-rate natural history, rather than a dry run at trying to organize knowledge and to derive abstract principles from particulars. So Bacon comes off as an unappreciative elitist, possibly jealous over Plat’s easier political career (Bacon had a notoriously hard time maintaining his political position and livelihood, which made his natural philosophical interests a decidedly secondary pursuit for him).
The Royal Society’s later reverence for Bacon, and its own gentlemanly elitism—a description Harkness pulls directly from Shapin’s Social History of Truth—become a stand-in for later scientific practice in place of the non-elitist knowledge economy of the Elizabethan period. But I would hesitate to accept the portrayal, since other studies show that the Royal Society was far from the be all and end all of London’s knowledge economy in the latter half of the 17th century. The literature on coffee houses, for example, gives a good glimpse of the informal economy of unsystematized knowledge bubbling beneath the surface of the pomp of formal Royal Society meetings.
Harkness’ book conveys the impression of her community as a limited and ephemeral occurrence, but this, I think, is not right. It is only the absence of such concerted research and masterful synthesis on other periods and places that allows us to think that such knowledge economies are not to be widely found.