The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, By Deborah Harkness

How did ordinary people shape scientific innovation in Elizabethan London?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Everybody knows two things about Britain's scientific revolution. First, it happened in the 17th century. Second, it was the product of a few great men, such as Sir Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and (above all) Sir Isaac Newton. Deborah Harkness, a professor in the University of Southern California, denies neither of these assertions, but she feels that there is another story that has not been told.

She provides it here for the first time: an account of how Elizabethan Londoners, between them, accumulated the interests and information that provided the indispensable infrastructure for the famous names and achievements that followed.

As such, it is an extensive study in networking in the late 16th-century English capital, using municipal, guild and parish records, and the publications of alchemists, medics, apothecaries, mathematicians and naturalists. The result is a significant contribution to the history of science, but also to that of London, and an exciting portrait of life in the swarming, spreading city during the reign of the first Elizabeth.

The book is divided into a number of case studies, which fan out across different decades, personalities and districts of the city. One concerns the famous bunch of naturalists who chattered and squabbled their way around Lime Street, comparing collections of plants, insects and fossils. Another deals with competition among the capital's doctors, which focused on tensions between what would now be called orthodox and alternative remedies, and the quest for a cure for syphilis, the HIV of its day.

A third portrays how London's mathematicians and makers of scientific instruments fought to have maths included as a routine part of school education. In an inversion of modern concerns over educational curricula, they had to argue strenuously that any sort of scientific training should have a place in a syllabus based firmly on the humanities.

A fourth discussion is of the manner in which the central government sponsored research: not by direct patronage but by giving inventors monopolies of industrial processes. Competition for these, the equivalent of research grants, was fierce, and it is valuable to be afforded this perspective on a system of patents which has normally been regarded as a means of raising extra money for the state.

One of the less likely settings for a research institute was the King's Bench prison, but one was certainly maintained there by a merchant called Clement Draper, who was cooped up in it for 13 years because of debt. His passion for experiment, especially in metallurgy, was one reason for his financial misfortune, and he continued it in jail, filling notebooks with all the information that he could gather from friends and other inmates. He kept these in homemade ink, and if some materials were in short supply in his surroundings, others – such as urine – were plentiful.

From this, the least reputable setting for the cases under consideration, we move to the most prestigious, the genteel quadrangles of the Inns of Court where lawyers were trained: the part of the city which has changed least. Here at last we encounter one of the famous names of early modern science, Francis Bacon. He has taken a hiding from American historians in recent years, being made to carry the can for all the consequences of technological and industrial development that the contemporary world most deplores. Now he gets another, for being elitist, in contrast to a fellow lawyer, Hugh Plat, who saw scientific discovery as more of a collective enterprise open to all classes.

This is a study that adds real depth to a familiar picture, without changing its essentials. If we lacked an understanding of 15th-century attitudes to Atlantic navigation, we could not put Christopher Columbus into his true context. That context, however, does nothing to diminish the scale of his individual achievement. The same effect is true of Professor Harkness's treatment of the scientific revolution: without her little people, the giants of early modern science could never have accomplished what they did, and yet it is the discoveries of those giants that marked the truly heroic strides towards modernity.