Sociable Knowledge reconstructs the collaborations of seventeenth-century naturalists who, dispersed across city and country, worked through writing, conversation, and print to convert fragmented knowledge of the hyper-local and curious into an understanding and representation of Britain as a unified historical and geographical space.
2016 | 360 pages | Cloth $75.00
Literature / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
Note on Sources
List of Abbreviations
Introduction. "A Whole and Perfect Bodie and Book": Constructing the Human and Natural History of Britain
Chapter 1. "This Book Doth Not Shew You a Telescope, but a Mirror": The Topographical Britain in Print
Chapter 2. Putting Texts, Things, and People in Motion: Learned Correspondence in Action
Chapter 3. Natural History "Hardly Can Bee Done by Letters": Conversation, Writing, and the Making of Natural Knowledge
Chapter 4. John Aubrey's Naturall Historie of Wiltshire: A Case Study in Scribal Collaboration
Chapter 5. Publics of Letters: Printing for (and Through) Correspondence
Chapter 6. "The Manuscripts Flew About like Butterflies": Self-Archiving and the Pressures of History
Conclusion. Paper Britannias
"A Whole and Perfect Bodie and Book": Constructing the Human and Natural History of Britain
In early modern Britain, the study of natural history and antiquities was founded on writing. Writing was naturalists' and antiquaries' primary means for creating, assembling, and sharing knowledge. Working with the technologies of pen and paper (and occasionally scissors and glue), naturalists wrote, revised, and recombined their words, sometimes for many years, before fixing them in "final" printed forms. They further built up their stocks of "papers"—and bodies of knowledge—by sharing this material through postal and carrier networks. Their papers, which included letters, loose notes, drawings and plans, commonplace books, and lengthy treatises, were ever-expanding repositories of knowledge about nature and history as it accumulated through reading, observation, correspondence, and conversation. These textual collections accreted alongside cabinets of naturalia, antiquarian objects, and other curiosities—for example, insects pinned in boxes, leaves and flowers pressed in books, rocks and fossils, dried bird skins, ancient coins, fragments of Roman mosaics and urns, and shards chipped from ancient stone monuments. The end result of all this writing and collecting was, to echo the Elizabethan antiquary William Lambarde, to "compact a whole and perfect bodie and Booke" of the natural and human history of Britain.
In their writing and collecting, especially their correspondence, naturalists and antiquaries collaboratively constructed their visions of a "topographical Britain," and through their printed works, they communicated these visions to a wider public. The seventeenth-century British press was flooded with topographical, chorographical, antiquarian, and natural historical works, many with "Britain" or "Britannia" in the title. These studies combined a fine-grained attention to the material descriptions of localities with a wide-angle vision of a national whole in which these localities were embedded. William Camden's Britannia, first published in Latin in 1586 and reprinted in English translation through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (it was serialized in a British newspaper as late as 1733), was the genre's ur-text. Camden and those who followed him sought to frame a land-based vision of Britain that could serve as a foundation for political and cultural unity. They did so amid the intense political upheaval that marked British history in the century before England's formal political union with Scotland in 1707. From the mid-sixteenth century they found ready support for their project among Tudor and later Stuart royalty and nobility. Creating Britain as a topographical object was a way of forging it as a political object.
Natural history and antiquarian studies as produced by joining local studies together under a national vision offered an image of nation and nature as one. To paraphrase the naturalist Joshua Childrey, writing in Britannia Baconica (1660), topographical studies were mirrors that showed Britons themselves. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholars thus promoted new ways of thinking about localities and local identities as enmeshed within the nation and national identities. In effect they recast the national as the local.
Yet although many naturalists, antiquaries, and topographers agreed that "Britain" was their proper object of study, no two works defined "Britain" in the same way. There was much disagreement about where to set the topographical boundaries of the nation. Some books included within the orbit of Britannia only England and Wales; others included England, Scotland, and Wales; some included Ireland; and still others excluded England. Within these books further divisions were drawn, and it was made clearer on what terms constituents of the topographical Britain might be included as members of the political and cultural Britain. In the English translation of his Britannia, for example, published during the reign of James I, Camden adopted a position of equal fellowship with the Scots and deference to their knowledge about their land, surely more detailed and correct than his own. At the same time he held up Ireland as fit only for English colonization and domination. As Camden's treatment of Ireland implies, the significance of the landscape was hotly contested along religious lines. Of course some authors were entirely unconcerned with putting the topographical pieces together into a British whole, each preferring to focus on his individual kingdom or some little corner of it. If an image of "Britain" emerged from topographical writing, it was a fractured and fragmented one, as riven by conflict as the British people themselves.
Printed topographical writing, with its mix of natural and antiquarian particulars and national visions, required collaborations carried out over long distances. Although they could not agree on a single vision of Britain as a topographical and political object, naturalists and antiquaries increasingly joined together to construct and share their visions in a community distributed across the landscape and connected by correspondence. Correspondence was central to natural history and antiquarian studies, so much so that investigators often referred to the community in which they conducted their work as their "correspondence," sometimes with the definite or indefinite article. "The correspondence"—the sum of personal contacts between those engaged in scientific activity—was the foundation for the construction of natural historical and antiquarian knowledge. Through their correspondence, scholars scattered across Britain poured their stocks of local knowledge into a shared pot. The contacts that naturalists formed allowed them access to a perspective in which their own localities could be enmeshed with, and partially submerged in, an image of "Britain," however fractured or in dispute that image might be.
As intellectual fields, natural history and antiquarian studies were deeply and materially shaped by the possibilities (and constraints) of long-distance collaboration. Correspondence-based exchange encouraged scholars to think of their work as never fixed and never finished. Instability and incompleteness came to mark the production and consumption of natural knowledge in both print and manuscript. In their published works, naturalists and antiquaries sought to communicate to a broader audience the habits of thought and association that they had learned through working together in the medium of correspondence. Yet they were often speaking first and foremost to each other: when they entered into print, naturalists and antiquaries often did so through their correspondence, relying on their contacts to provide content and fund publication via subscription. Print also participated in the cycle of expanding and perpetuating their correspondence, with authors using the publication process as an opportunity to collect more correspondents. At the other end of the communications spectrum, naturalists and antiquaries increasingly sought to incorporate conversation into the written stream of knowledge. Whole systems of record keeping and paperwork, such as those of the early Royal Society, were established to impress permanence upon conversation and expand its reach through written channels. In integrating writing and conversation, these systems eased naturalists' anxieties about conversation as a source of credible knowledge. They also grafted the social and intellectual functions of face-to-face meetings, which were key for establishing the authority and credibility of natural knowledge, onto those of writing and correspondence, which allowed for individual investigators to be distributed across the landscape, a key requirement for topographical study.
The habits and forms of correspondence were even inscribed into the early modern archive. As they faced death, the Restoration-era generation of naturalists and antiquaries envisioned the papers they had amassed over the course of their lives as potential resources for those who continued their projects into the future. They established archives housing their papers and collections as means of fostering their preservation and continued use. These institutions instantiated a view of knowledge-making as an ongoing collaborative writing process.
Local Particulars, National Visions
Early modern naturalists and antiquaries united a boundless enthusiasm for local particularities—a hyperlocalism—with a desire to understand and represent Britain as a unified historical and geographical space, though they disagreed on the boundaries and configuration of that space. Topographical studies were often organized around counties or regions and were sometimes constructed narratively as journeys through the land. These studies set the scope of natural historical investigation by the political and cultural boundaries of counties, political administrative units hovering between local village society and the institutions of king, courts, and Parliament. Such studies included Robert Plot's Natural History of Oxford-shire (1677) and John Aubrey's Naturall Historie of Wiltshire. There were also county-based studies of antiquities, such as William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656). These books were conceived of as components within an ideal "whole body and book" of British natural history and antiquities. Some books attempted to sum the components, aspiring to contain the entire field of counties in a single volume: these were the Britannias. Childrey's Britannia Baconica was one such, as was Aubrey's Monumenta Britannica, a survey of ancient British monuments. Over the decades the "whole body and book" grew, as many scholars working over decades read, copied (sometimes with and sometimes without citations), and added to each other's work.
County and regional studies collected local particulars in more or less depth, depending on the patience and knowledge of their authors. Studies focused on single counties were often the most detailed, offering information on winds and water courses, plant and animal species, farming practices, local industries and inventions, antiquities, and noteworthy residents, such as those who had lived to extraordinarily great ages. Scholars writing in this tradition modeled their work on a number of different antecedents; one source was classical works in descriptive and mathematical geography and natural history, including those by Ptolemy, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder. Pliny's Natural History, known through the Middle Ages but available in a relatively complete version again only in the early modern period (it was printed in an English translation by Philemon Holland, who was also responsible for the 1610 translation of Camden's Britannia), was an encyclopedic review of nature, arts, and inventions. Though it had a broader scope than many seventeenth-century county natural histories, it shared with them a particular focus on human uses of plants, animals, minerals, and other natural resources. County and regional studies were also modeled on late medieval and Renaissance exemplars, such as Flavio Biondo's Italia Illustrata (1482), a humanist topographical survey of Italy. As these examples make clear, early modern topographers working in these traditions did not share divisions that moderns make between the study of nature and that of culture. Rather, everything—human, animal, mineral, and plant—that was of, on, or involving the land was of interest to them, though some were more interested in some of these categories at the expense of others. Though some authors focused more on antiquities and others more on nature, they participated in a common scholarly community, as will be evident throughout this book.
Although this book focuses largely on county and regional studies, it also considers the adjacent, related genre of natural histories organized around natural kinds rather than political boundaries. In the latter third of the seventeenth century, John Ray, working from his own notes and those he inherited from his friend Francis Willughby, produced a series of studies cataloging plant and animal life. In these works nature was increasingly, though not totally, abstracted from the land; Willughby's and Ray's catalogs were not organized as travelogues, though Ray was also known for his books of travels. Nature too was shorn of the classical and humanist literary framework in which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century naturalists had embedded it. Rather than list all previous references to a particular animal in earlier literature, as had continental scholars such as Conrad Gesner, Ray preferred to provide descriptions (and when finances allowed, images) of species based on his observations of them. Whereas the overriding focus of county and regional natural histories was the human presence in and human use of the natural world, these descriptions were less obviously linked to human needs. Despite these differences, however, the two genres of natural history were deeply related. Ray, for one, still corresponded widely with naturalists engaged in both kinds of studies, and he participated in joint projects organized around geographical principles.
Both kinds of studies, those organized around political and cultural topography and those organized around natural categories, required intimate, detailed knowledge of human and natural landscapes and natural kinds, which was gained through travel and intercourse with others, whether in conversation, correspondence, or reading printed books. Scholars necessarily drew on each other's knowledge about particular places and particular subjects in order to build up British natural history and antiquities in both depth and breadth. Late seventeenth-century naturalists often credited Francis Bacon with inspiring and encouraging such collaboration. In his Great Instauration, Bacon called upon men to "join in consultation for the common good; and being now freed and guarded by the securities and helps which I offer from the errors and impediments of the way, to come forward themselves and take part in that which remains to be done." Restoring and expanding natural knowledge were massive tasks and would certainly take more than one generation, but investigators believed that if they worked together, these could be accomplished. Early in his career, for example, the botanist John Ray began to assemble a complete list of plants observed in counties across Britain, a project that resulted in his Catalogue of English Plants (1670), his Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum (1690), and the county-by-county lists of plants in Edmund Gibson's 1695 revised edition of William Camden's Britannia. As a young man, Ray traveled widely to collect plants. But even in his younger days, before illness restricted his movements, he also worked collaboratively through his correspondence, engaging "friends and acquaintance[s] who are skilful in Herbary . . . to search diligently his country for plants, and to send me a catalogue of such as they find, together with the places where they grow." In the prefaces to the second edition of the Synopsis, Ray acknowledged fifteen named contributors, among them Hans Sloane, Jacob Bobart, Robert Plot, and Edward Lhwyd.
Bacon's writings were not the only origin point for collaboration, the use of which stretched back into the sixteenth century. Collaboration as well as observation, experiment, and fact gathering were long evident in the practices and writings of surveyors, antiquaries, artisans, natural historians, alchemists, physicians, humanists, gentlewomen, gardeners, and many others in England and abroad. Although William Camden, writing at the turn of the seventeenth century, acknowledged few contributors to his popular Britannia by name, we know that he drew upon the works of many topographers and antiquaries, including William Lambarde, Sampson Erdeswicke, John Dee, George Owen, John Stow, and Richard Carew. Likewise the absorption of the older topographical tradition into writing that was self-consciously "Baconian" indicates a fundamental sympathy between the two. In his Britannia Baconica, Joshua Childrey drew many of his remarks from earlier writers such as Camden and Carew.
Though this study focuses on the topographical disciplines, the formation of a widely dispersed correspondence was not unique to them; Bacon's injunctions were widely influential, as attested by the early history of the Royal Society and the correspondences developed by such figures as Samuel Hartlib and Henry Oldenburg, which touched on many scientific fields. There were also many similarities between the topographical correspondence and the sixteenth-century astronomical community visible in the letters of Tycho Brahe. More broadly, topography and astronomy required geographically dispersed observers to collaborate with each other. Investigators distributed across different cities and countries cultivated connections with each other through travel and correspondence because developing knowledge in these fields required contributions from a wide geographical area. In the case of astronomy, this meant dispersal around the globe, as, for example, with the eighteenth-century effort to observe the transit of Venus. The more widespread observers were, the more accurately they could calculate the distance from the earth to the sun from transit data.
Correspondence and collaboration in natural history and antiquarian studies were shaped, however, by the particular priorities and demands of these fields. In the topographical disciplines, because investigators were dispersed across the landscape and the goal was to build up a complete understanding of that landscape, each one had a unique store of knowledge to contribute (even more so, perhaps, than in astronomy). This meant that priority—being scooped—was less of a concern. Though concerns related to priority and plagiarism were by no means unheard of in the topographical fields, they seem to have been more of a concern in the mathematical disciplines, natural philosophy, and mechanical philosophy, where practitioners' stores of knowledge were not unique and they were more often in competition to deliver scientific results. To take one example, Robert Hooke's career was peppered with priority feuds with Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens, and others. Furthermore the topographical disciplines were also differentiated by their political resonances. The production of knowledge through correspondence was intimately connected to the national visions promoted in topographical works. Other scientific pursuits gained presence on the political and cultural stage; Newton's preeminence in the eighteenth century was such a source of national pride for the British, for example, that his name became a byword for British science and he was accorded a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. However, no other disciplines took on as their object the formation of the "whole body and book" of the nation.
This was a distinction with a difference. There was a particularly tight connection between the construction of Britain as a scientific object and the medium of correspondence. The naturalists' Britain reflected the medium in which it was constructed. This is evident in Childrey's assertion that readers of his Britannia Baconica gained knowledge that made them neighbors to one another, though they might live at opposite ends of the island. It can be seen as well in naturalists' interest (even obsession) with the mechanics of travel and communication, especially the prominent places they accorded in their books to roads and waterways, the physical pathways that knit the country together. It is also visible in the divisions and inequalities that cut through these books, the social and intellectual hierarchies that they created between England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
The medium of writing and the exchange of writing through correspondence defined the intellectual, political, and social contours of the topographical Britain. Collaboration was accomplished through the constant, ever-renewing circulation of written material. "Papers" accumulated relentlessly as scholars collected and exchanged information. One could turn to the next empty page of a notebook and scribble another observation or copy a quotation. If a notebook was full, another sheet could be folded in or a new notebook started. Those who preferred to store their notes on slips in cabinets or closets could always hook in another piece of paper. Letters piled up, gathered in bundles, bound in books, and stacked in presses, organized according to idiosyncratic personal filing systems. Papers could be continuously multiplied to accommodate the seemingly endless flow of new knowledge about nature and human history pouring through seventeenth-century Britain.
Not so with print. Print seemed to impose a finality that did not always accord with the abundance flowing from nature and human history. In the summer of 1676, John Ray wrote to his young contemporary Martin Lister, "Your Notes and Observations in Natural History do very well deserve to be made publick . . . I have only this to object to you, and my self, against their speedy Publication, that the longer they lie by you, if still you prosecute the same Studies and Enquiries, the more perfect and full they will be, every day almost adding or correcting, or illustrating somewhat; but if you have quite given over those Researches, defer not to put them out." Ray's words illustrate the common paradox of all naturalists and antiquaries, indeed all collectors, in this period: they felt an imperative to make knowledge public, and yet any making public via printing was necessarily also a cutting off, an end to one's researches that invariably left some knowledge behind. According to Ray's letter to Lister, having already given up on the project was the only justification for publishing it as it was. Concerns about representing natural and human history fully and accurately ran so deep that they could even retard the progress of correspondence. In a letter to Edward Lhuyd containing some observations on fossils discovered in the cliffs of Harwich, just south of Ipswich on the North Sea, the apothecary Samuel Dale, a close associate of John Ray, apologized for taking so long to transmit his account. His excuse was that he was "desirous of making another Tour to Harwich
Although "papers" were the primary medium in which natural historical and antiquarian knowledge was constructed, and print fell short in that any given printed book was an incomplete representation of the natural and human history, transferring knowledge to print was a priority for most active investigators. They regarded printing with appreciation as one of the primary tools for prosecuting and disseminating natural history, though their esteem for it could be qualified under particular circumstances. John Evelyn, in a phrase typical of the age, highlighted the "happy invention of that noble Art" in a treatise on collecting and interpreting ancient and medieval manuscripts (he was commenting on the ways in which scholars could use printed texts as aids in interpreting medieval manuscripts). Properly managed, printing made an author's words visible to the learned world, entering them into the historical record as copies found their way into private and public libraries. Naturalists particularly valued printing as a guardian against plagiarism—a handwritten text shared with one or two people was more easily dissociated from its author than was a text made available to hundreds via the press. Printed texts also fed back into the production of scientific knowledge. By the eighteenth century printed botanical catalogs were the foundation for a globalized natural history. Far-flung investigators compared the images and textual descriptions in standardized texts with specimens discovered in the field, allowing them to determine with more accuracy whether a species had been previously identified. It was just these kinds of catalogs, of plants, insects, fish, and birds, that John Ray spent his life compiling and publishing.
Printing one's writings was also one of the surest ways of preserving them for the future. In October 1691, after perusing the manuscript of John Aubrey's Naturall Historie of Wiltshire, John Ray wrote that he wished "that you would speed it to the Presse. It would be convenient to fill up the blanks, so far as you can; but I am afraid that will be a work of time, & retard this Edition." As he composed the text, Aubrey had left blanks when he lacked concrete information; many, but not all, of these had been filled in by the time Ray read the manuscript. Aubrey, an old man, had written much over the course of his life but published little—in such a case, Ray felt, getting the book into print was more important than filling in its last few lacunae. Aubrey regarded print as the surest fail-safe against misuse of his texts (including plagiarism) and the strongest platform on which to establish a scholarly reputation that would persist after his death.
Avoiding print was clearly neither possible nor desirable. But its perceived deficits could be at least partially remedied. Insofar as they could, naturalists and antiquaries sought to replicate the openness and endless expandability of scribal exchange in their printing projects. This contradicts often-assumed features (or effects) of early modern printing. Whereas Elizabeth Eisenstein has argued that the invention of the printing press allowed texts to be standardized, fixed, and widely disseminated, making the scientific revolution possible, Adrian Johns, in The Nature of the Book, argues that such features, rather than being properties inherent in printed texts by virtue of their being printed, were only painstakingly achieved over centuries as authors, printers, booksellers, and readers came to agree on a set of cultural and legal conventions governing the production and use of printed texts. Though not denying the important role that printing, or these values, played in the development of early modern science, I argue that the study of correspondence-based exchange reveals that fixity, standardization, and wide dissemination were not always naturalists' and antiquaries' primary textual or epistemic goals.
This is visible in projects that appeared in one or more substantially expanded or revised editions over the course of an author's lifetime. This phenomenon could be limited by booksellers' unwillingness to print second and third editions (they were reluctant to do so without the expectation of a ready market or some other source of financing) but not by writers' enthusiasm. However, when an initial edition of a book sold well, perhaps failing to meet the market's demand for it, the legal and economic incentives of the book market could coincide with the naturalists' ever-present desire to renew and expand their works. Consider the four editions of John Evelyn's Sylva that appeared during his lifetime. Each edition was revised to include new information as well as minor textual changes. Between the third edition in 1679 and the fourth edition in 1706, Evelyn was still rethinking word choices. More strikingly, he incorporated more material culled from both reading and experience. Evelyn communicated these changes to his printer by annotating a copy of the third edition with additions, changes, and deletions, usually identifying where they should be inserted into the text with asterisks or other symbols. The margins were marked with substantive additions every five to ten pages. Print did not in this case imply finality. In subjecting the text to further revision, Evelyn treated his printed text more like a scribal collection. The successive revisions instantiated in print the idea that the investigation of nature was never complete. Evelyn was in the lucky position to be able to put such an attitude into practice: Sylva was popular enough that his printer was willing to invest in second, third, and fourth editions.
Readers also participated in appropriating the properties of scribal texts—revisability and expandability—to printed books. As historians of early modern reading have observed, readers rarely maintained their books in the state in which they left the booksellers. At the very least they personalized them by binding them, but beyond that they added ownership marks, stray doodles, personal memorandums, and more focused marks of reading, including arrows, manicules, and stars labeling specific passages as well as more extensive reactions to the content. To that list could be added annotations and other manipulations, such as interleaving new pages for additions, that reimagined (and reengineered) the print book into a print manuscript hybrid that could be used to accumulate knowledge according to "scribal" methods. To take one example, the cleric William Turner, in A Compleat History of the most Remarkable Providences, Both of Judgment and Mercy, which have Hapned in this Present Age (a collection of stories and exempla demonstrating God's judgment and mercy in individual human lives, societies, and in nature), invited readers to treat his book as a framework for their own commonplace books. Turner instructed the skillful reader to transform the book into a print-manuscript hybrid, an endlessly expandable collection of providences, by interleaving blank pages and adding new headings. Although it is unlikely that most—or even many—readers turned A Compleat History of the most Remarkable Providences into a commonplace book, his suggestion indicates that readers would be familiar with this way of repurposing certain kinds of printed books, particularly reference compendia, as personalized notebooks. Readers also marked up printed books as part of collaborative intellectual projects. The Royal Society's copy of John Ray and Francis Willughby's De historia piscium, a catalog of fish species, includes annotations added in various hands through the eighteenth century. Readers treated the library copy as a collective commonplace book for piscine facts and observations. As these examples show, for readers, the print book could be a foundation for their own writing. Like its manuscript counterpart, it was understood as customizable, revisable, and reconfigurable.
The Plan of the Book
In this book I argue that the scientific correspondence was the ground on which Britain was constructed as a topographical object. Though conversation, scribal treatises, and print were all vital to this process, in many ways they were channeled and refracted—even given body and substance—through their movement within naturalists' correspondence. The first chapter thus anchors the book with an exploration of what, precisely, is meant by the phrase "Britain as a topographical object." The printed topographical studies of Britain that appeared throughout the Stuart era form the basis of this exploration. I show that although these studies engaged in a common project of mapping and describing Britain's human and natural history, they reflected the political and cultural divisions of the age, with no two works defining Britain in the same way. This chapter explores in particular depth the push-pull relationships between the English (especially as concentrated in London and the university towns), on the one hand, and the Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish, on the other. Perhaps surprisingly, as an intellectual project the creation of a topographical Britain was by no means defined solely from the metropolitan center or even by the English; rather those on the "margins" played significant roles. Figures such as Edward Lhuyd, the Scottish physician Robert Sibbald, and the Anglo-Irish naturalist and political writer William Molyneux participated in projects that defined "Britain" from an English perspective, one that was conditioned by England's long history of pretensions to and possession of imperial power within Britain. However, they also worked to develop their own images of Britain as a topographical object and often prioritized gathering and disseminating topographical knowledge about their own regions of Britain, which they saw as a path toward the economic improvement and political empowerment of those regions. Edward Lhuyd's invention of a pan-Celtic Britain that excluded the English and England entirely was particularly significant in this regard. Digging deeper into projects such as Lhuyd's, Chapter 1 builds on a broad historical literature on early modern Britain and Britishness, showing that though individual visions of the "topographical Britain" were contested, they were created within a shared cultural context, making topography a significant avenue for the development of "Britain" and "Britishness" in the seventeenth century.
Chapter 2 dives more deeply into the social and material realities of the scientific correspondence that linked British naturalists and antiquaries. In this chapter I track the movement of letters, objects (including natural specimens, books, and antiquities), and people across Britain, from urban lodgings to college rooms to remote mountaintops. This movement was accomplished via the state-run mails, which carried letters; a network of private carriers who transported larger packages by horse-drawn cart and boat; and the personal travel of individual scholars and their associates, who transmitted all of the above and conveyed personal messages, greetings, and news in their conversations with each other.
The scholarly project of documenting the topography, antiquities, and natural history of Britain developed alongside these networks, which provided the only way to unite far-flung observers in common projects. The Royal Mail was gradually established over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; previously those wishing to correspond with others—both domestically and abroad—had depended on willing merchants or friends traveling in the same direction, or access to diplomatic mail bags. Though civil war disrupted the mails, by the Restoration transporting private and government letters via horseback was a lucrative business. Starting in the late seventeenth century the government started to devote more funds to improving roads and building canals, allowing for speedier, more regular internal communication, transportation, and travel via horseback, cart, carriage, and boat. The topographical disciplines' reliance on correspondence is illustrated by scholars' attention to the materiality of correspondence and transport in their writings and published works. Scholars' letters from throughout the period are dotted with references to the necessity of an "active and large correspondencie" and the mechanics of sending and receiving letters. In A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, a bimonthly newsletter published from 1692 to 1703, the apothecary John Houghton published informative essays on practical scientific developments alongside carrier and coaching timetables as well as lists comparing the prices of goods in various market towns. Scientific and technical advancement was tightly connected to the practicalities of long-distance communication across Britain.
Each subsequent chapter examines a different aspect of early modern British scientific communication, situating it in relation to the correspondence. Chapter 3 turns to conversation as a medium through which knowledge was created and scientific community sustained. Conversation, like correspondence, was a social activity, undertaken for pleasure as much as for information. Naturalists and antiquaries sought out conversation with each other whenever possible; both scientific travel and the establishment of scientific and antiquarian societies, including the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, were rationalized in terms of the opportunities they provided for conversation. London and the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge were the loci of scholarly conversation; many letters ring with happy remembrances of friendly meetings there and expressions of hope that such visits could be arranged again soon. When meeting face-to-face, scholars could also accomplish tasks that were difficult, if not impossible, to carry out through correspondence, such as cowitnessing of observations and experiments, studying the same specimen together, and delving into and resolving difficult questions that were too complicated or detailed to specify in writing.
Yet conversation also had its weaknesses: unless written down, it was quickly forgotten (or misremembered) and was necessarily confined to the people in the room or on the street corner where it occurred. Conversation made naturalists anxious: it was ephemeral, all too easily dissolving into empty talk, and it could persuade by rhetorical tricks rather than truth. They addressed these concerns by creating structures to capture conversation in writing and divert it into the stream of knowledge-making: the Royal Society was one such structure. At its inception, founding fellows instituted procedures for recording, archiving, and disseminating the fruits of conversations held at weekly meetings. As members of an exclusive society, they also controlled who could participate in those conversations. Though the criteria for participation were a subject of some controversy in the society's early years, in general they valorized gentlemanly, polite discussion that centered on "matters of fact" and that could, in principle, be witnessed by all (one might contrast here the more raucous, freewheeling conversations of the London coffeehouses). Conversation was thus more fully incorporated into the production of natural knowledge: it was converted into paperwork.
Writing and conversation had a complex, back-and-forth relationship. The Royal Society did not always originate conversation; rather the fellows frequently used writing as fodder for conversation by reading those letters and discussing them and then turned that conversation back into writing in the form of meeting minutes and further correspondence. This system reflected the reality that naturalists and antiquaries were distributed across Britain, and indeed around the world, as well as, in the case of topography, the field's intellectual requirement of geographical distribution. In integrating conversation into an ongoing system of written communication and record keeping, the fellows of the Royal Society instantiated their Baconian vision of the creation of natural knowledge as an iterative, open-ended process. But they did something surprising as well: they turned conversation into a source of credible knowledge, even to the point where it was the conversation itself that gave written and printed texts, including the articles that appeared in the early Philosophical Transactions, their credibility.
Chapters 4 and 5 take on manuscript and print as modes for creating, exchanging, recording, and disseminating natural historical and antiquarian knowledge. Chapter 4 looks in more detail at a particular episode of scribal exchange. I explore the connections between early modern natural history and the media in which it was disseminated through a fine-grained examination of John Aubrey's Naturall Historie of Wiltshire, which Aubrey assembled and circulated to readers between 1665 and his death in 1697. Aubrey produced two copies of the text: the original, a rough working copy, now in the Bodleian Library; and a fair copy, now in the Royal Society Library. The major claims of this book are illustrated by Aubrey's manuscript, particularly through the ways in which it was studied, annotated, and excerpted by its readers. A close analysis of the two copies, and the history of how Aubrey assembled, used, and shared them, reveals that early modern naturalists worked through scribal exchange because papers could more easily be repeatedly revised and expanded as well as shared only among limited coteries of readers for comments and additions. The history of Aubrey's writings shows that fixity and standardization were not necessarily naturalists' primary textual or epistemic goals. It also illustrates how the particular affordances of manuscript made possible the characteristic early modern approach to natural and human history, in which new knowledge was continuously accreted through correspondence, conversation, observation, and reading.
Yet Aubrey's story also illustrates the limits of manuscript and the importance that naturalists placed on print as a mode for distributing knowledge, albeit from within the context of correspondence. Aubrey's Naturall Historie was read in the seventeenth century only in its manuscript form; it was never printed. This was not Aubrey's choice but was a strategy forced on him by his circumstances. Aubrey, born a gentleman, was ruined financially at mid-life and forced to sell his estates. For a time he frequently changed addresses in order to evade debt collectors. All this to-ing and fro-ing impeded his abilities to complete projects; he wrote The Naturall Historie over decades. As he entered his seventh decade, completing this and others of his works took on greater and greater urgency, and he devoted increasing amounts of time to filling in the gaps in his manuscripts and sharing them with readers. Yet Aubrey was unable to convince a bookseller to take a risk on one of his works; nor could he assemble the capital to finance printing them himself, with the exception of Miscellanies (1696), a collection of notices of seemingly supernatural events. In the case of The Naturall Historie, Aubrey—and his contemporaries, including John Ray—thought that circulating the manuscript should have been preparatory to printing. Knowledge was constructed through scribal exchange rooted in correspondence, but print was increasingly regarded as the proper output of that construction process. Aubrey saw his failure to print primarily as a failure to make his scientific contributions visible to posterity; his friends and readers saw it as a failure to make his contributions available to his contemporaries. Their attitudes suggest a certain emphasis on print as an organ for the dissemination and preservation of knowledge.
With these insights in mind, in Chapter 5 I consider print as a product of correspondence-based exchange, looking at scholars' use of subscription to finance publication and build readerships for their books. With subscription, authors and booksellers financed printing by signing up readers who paid a portion of the purchase price of the book in advance, with the rest to come at delivery. They assembled these readerships through their correspondence. Naturalists and antiquaries initially turned to subscription because their books were expensive to produce (engravings, in particular, came at a high cost) and drew limited audiences. Booksellers could be reluctant to take on such projects unless they were guaranteed in advance of selling copies and turning a profit. However, in the hands of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century naturalists and antiquaries and their readers, subscription publication was about more than financial contracts. In successful subscription publications, authors worked through their correspondence, developing their audience by building on existing personal contacts and inviting reader-correspondents to participate in shaping the content and material form of the books.
In Chapter 5 I focus in particular on the Welsh naturalist Edward Lhuyd's use of subscription to fund two projects, a 1699 fossil catalog (Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia) and his Archaeologia Britannica, cut short by his death but planned as a multivolume survey of the antiquities, languages, and natural history of the Celtic regions of Britain. In the latter case, Lhuyd used subscription to accomplish what we might term eighteenth-century "crowd-sourcing" and "crowd-funding," with subscribers financing research and publication as well as producing some of the books' content. Lhuyd used printed tools to accomplish this, distributing subscription proposals through his correspondence as well as questionnaires that invited correspondents to contribute intellectual content according to a standardized form. Expanding his correspondence and creating a broad readership—that is, getting access to both information and financial support—were part and parcel of each other. His correspondence was his readership; his readership was his correspondence. Moreover printed books and readerships were constructed together, and the final publications, in their material, textual, and social aspects, were products of correspondence-based exchange. This chapter in particular illustrates the tight connections between the correspondence as a social formation and the "topographical Britain" that came out of that correspondence.
Chapter 6 examines naturalists' and antiquaries' attempts to ensure the survival of their papers, the products of lifetimes of scribal exchange, beyond their deaths. I return here to John Aubrey's story: his quest to ensure the survival of his papers by placing them in the Ashmolean Museum was all the more urgent because he had published very little. Many scholars regarded their papers as distinctly fragile, especially compared to printed books, because most of the materials they had amassed existed nowhere else but in the chests, presses, and cabinets where they were stored. Once the writers were dead, their papers were likely to be dispersed, destroyed, and recycled. Even if friends, relatives, and associates valued a dead man's papers for their intellectual content, these papers were unlikely to survive his death intact. Occasionally a collection of papers might be passed down through a family or to a friend who carried on the scholar's work. If a family was well established and possessed an estate, papers stashed in the library might also survive, whether through neglect or more active care and curation. More likely, though, a widow or a son, facing straitened financial circumstances, would recognize that a few pounds could be received for a collection, or a few treatises in it that were ready for the press, and sell it (or them) to a bookseller. Even if the bookseller purchased the whole collection, he was likely to break it up, auctioning off some pieces, publishing others, and junking the rest. In other cases former associates helped break up a collection, raiding it for materials that were either useful to them or potentially damaging to their reputations.
These were, from the dead man's perspective, the best-case scenarios. In fact, for many relatives and friends not engaged in scholarly activities (and even for some who were), the value of parchment and paper lay in the uses of the material itself, not the content. Used paper was recycled in any number of ways: sheets could be used to line pies during baking or be made into dress patterns, for example. Beyond these more mundane threats, scholars also had to consider Britain's recent history as an inhospitable home for books, manuscripts, and papers of all kinds. During the Reformation the monastic and university libraries had been destroyed or practically emptied of their books, and untold texts had been dispersed. Through the seventeenth century, numerous religious and civil disturbances, including a civil war, the Popish Plot, and the revolution of 1688-1689, continued to threaten the security of books and papers in both private and public hands.
British naturalists and antiquaries thus lived in a world profoundly hostile to the survival of their intellectual patrimony. To remedy this, they established and stocked with materials institutions that, as part of their mission of promoting experimental philosophy and natural knowledge, preserved books, manuscripts, and personal papers. In the seventeenth century these included the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Society. This movement continued in the eighteenth century with the physician Hans Sloane's collecting activities and the founding of the British Museum. Naturalists' and antiquaries' efforts to preserve their papers within these institutions tell us much about their understanding of science as a cultural enterprise and their own hopes and expectations regarding their place in history. In establishing these archives within institutions devoted to scientific research, they signaled their hope that future scholars would use their materials to continue building Baconian accounts of natural history and antiquities. They were determined to exert ongoing influence over future scientists by making it possible for them to appreciate and make use of their forbears' contributions as authors, collectors, and investigators. Their efforts also suggest a presumption that scientific activity would continue to be a cumulative endeavor and that they were future scholars' collaborators. In inventing the archive, naturalists and antiquaries attempted to build correspondence-based methods of scribal exchange into the foundations of the new science.
This book plaits together strands in the history of science, the history of the book, and the history of Britain. It deconstructs the interrelated systems of writing, print, and conversation that naturalists and antiquaries built as they sought to develop knowledge of natural and human history in Britain along Baconian lines. These chapters show how writing and correspondence, as open-ended, iterative modes of communication, drove those systems. Brought to the fore are the relationships between correspondence and the intellectual and political project in which naturalists and antiquaries were engaged. This shows how complicated and often vexed topographical images of Britain emerged out of naturalists' and antiquaries' correspondence, shedding light on their roles in the formation of a shared national culture within Britain as well as on the development of "Britain" as an idea. Ultimately, this book not only demonstrates new ways of reading the intertwined development of science and nation in early modern Britain but also serves as a model for grounding our understanding of the construction of scientific knowledge and the formation of scientific communities in the material and social realities of communication, which, taken together, constitute "sociable knowledge."