Dirk van Miert (ed.), Communicating Observations in Early Modern Letters (1500-1675): Epistolography and Epistemology in the Age of the Scientific Revolution

Dirk van Miert (ed.), Communicating Observations in Early Modern Letters (1500-1675): Epistolography and Epistemology in the Age of the Scientific Revolution, Warburg Institute Colloquia 23 (London and Turin: The Warburg Institute and Nino Aragno Editore, 2013), 289 pp. £50 pb. ISBN 9781908590466.


This volume—based on a colloquium held at the Warburg Institute, London, in 2007—explores the place of observations, descriptions, and reports in the emergence of experimental science in the early modern world. These nuggets of nascent knowledge were distributed and discussed, collated and corrected by scholars in the form of letters. This collection is evidence of the increasing scholarly interest in early modern correspondence in recent years, concurrent with the emergence of newly-digitized manuscripts and union catalogues that have greatly expanded the resources available to historians of scholarship, culture, and science.

Observation is a useful theme as it was a practice common to a number of fields of intellectual inquiry: from medicine, botany, and geography to philology, astronomy, and anthropology. It becomes clear reading through the collection that what constituted an observation, and even what constituted a letter, was by no means straightforward. The essays offer a range of interesting perspectives on the flexible, catchall nature of the early modern letter, and the notions bound up in the act of observation. They also offer insights into the purpose of these activities, the acquisition and exchange of knowledge, by examining how writers sought trustworthy observations from their own experiments and from others, and how they communicated and distributed this information.

In the first chapter Gerhard Holk looks at the letters of the Milanese humanist Petrus Martyr de Angleria (1457-1526) who, serving the Spanish court, collected and relayed information from explorers returning from America. Holk focusses on Angleria’s anthropological reports on indigenous civilizations and his records of natural phenomena. Angleria is a useful place to start, in part for his comments on the epistolary mode: “I have collected these things […] without embellishment […] because I never lifted my pen to write as a historian, but rather to satisfy, with rapidly-written letters, those whose orders I may not  ignore.” Like a number of writers in this collection, Angleria was dealing with a large number of sources presenting vast and varied information: ‘his aim was to give scholars who intended to write major works an enormous quantity of new material […] he characterized himself as a reporter on the New World.’ And, as a reporter, Angleria used the verb ‘to observe’ in the first person, even when relaying others’ information, understanding that first-hand observation lent weight to information. (pp. 11-12)

Candice Delisle’s contribution focusses on the medical notes and letters of the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner (1515-65), and offers another perspective on what it was ‘to observe’: Gessner didn’t consider his medical reports to be observations, but historia, following the Greek meaning that they were written-up accounts of his investigations, rather than bare data. The medical letters Gessner exchanged with his correspondents were manifold documents, incorporating recipes, case notes, and consilia (advice for patients). Gessner’s practice was to cut up his letters and organize the fragments of information thematically into a large working reference volume, his Thesaurus medicinae practicae. (p. 39) Delisle is interesting on this practical medical employment of the ‘polyphonic knowledge’ Gessner collected from his network of correspondents, and how he assembled useful fragments of information in order to formulate ‘generalizations’: ‘inferring, from the juxtaposition of stories, facts and experiments, a general course of action.’ (p. 42)

Florike Egmond’s chapter on the botanist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) provides another useful analysis of how scholars orchestrated and curated large correspondences. The scale of the epistolary networks throughout this volume, incidentally, is remarkable. Clusius’s had a wide geographical and linguistic range, being conducted in at least six languages, and a social range too; as Egmond comments, ‘the predominance of vernacular languages is directly connected with the great social and educational diversity of his 330 correspondents.’ (p. 48) In seeking information about plants his different sources around the world, Clusius, like many of the scholars in the volume, was concerned for autopsy (eyewitnessing) and corroboration, and was selective in using the information he received. Whilst Clusius didn’t cut up his letters as Gessner did, he extracted information similarly, using verbatim quotations to compile his botanical encyclopaedias. By carefully citing his epistolary sources, Clusius gave credibility to this printed material. (p. 64)

William Stenhouse stresses another reason that learned letters are of interest to the historian; in many cases they record scholarly activity which never made it into print. Stenhouse begins his chapter on the work of sixteenth-century antiquarians by commenting that because many antiquaries published little, their letters are the essential evidence for their undertakings and collaborations. Communities of antiquarians collecting ancient coins and Roman inscriptions were no different from other scholars in their concern that the observations they made and received were precise. Stenhouse quotes a letter sent by Johannes Choler to the editors of an inscription collection accompanying some of his transcriptions, in which he emphasizes their accuracy: “I send to you these inscriptions from antiquity copied with the same fides and diligentia with which they were taken from the original: it will be your task to print them with the same care and attention.” (pp. 79-80)

Transcriptions of inscriptions are also the focus of Dirk van Miert’s chapter, which looks at the correspondence of Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609). Care taken to define terms and concepts is a feature of many of the essays in this volume, and van Miert opens his with an exploration of the multiple meanings of the terms observatio and desriptio, giving useful examples from Scaliger’s letters. Equally valuable is van Miert’s attention to the significance of epistolography, particularly the use of appendices in early modern letters—commonly referred to as scheda—as a place for collecting various sorts of information and observations separate to the body of the letter. (pp. 109-111) Van Miert also engages with some of the issues of transmission and translation in Scaliger’s letters: giving the example of some notes sent to Scaliger as an Italian-language schedium; a translated insert would have both interrupted the narrative of the (Latin) letter, and presented a further distortion of second-hand information.

The transmission of information is a feature of Adam Mosley’s chapter dealing with letters on astronomical phenomena. Here, the example of a description in an anonymous letter making its way via the letters of three intermediary scholars to Galileo offers an interesting perspective on the public-private format of the early-modern letter. (p.119) Writers wrote their letters understanding that they would be cut up, extracted, quoted and disseminated in ways seen throughout the volume. Astronomy also presented its own particular obstacles to sharing diligent observations: not least, the need for instruments. For obvious reasons, imprecise instruments, and a lack of standardized tables and calculations long hampered the cause of scientific coöperation.

Peter N. Miller’s chapter looks at the geographical and astronomical activities of the French scholar Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc; as with Stenhouse’s antiquarians, his notes and letters are our only record of this work. In making astronomical observations, Miller characterizes Peiresc as a ‘great describer’, and opens his essay with an analysis of the terms (regularly occurring in this collection) historia and autopsia, and descriptus and transcriptus as they relate to Peiresc’s scholarly practice. In Peiresc’s writing, too, the part of collaboration is significant. Letters related to a coastal mapping project reveal how Peiresc solicited observations from others, and advised and instructed them in order to receive more accurate information.Here again, the epistemic process was significant: collecting and collating observations led to the improvement and stabilization of knowledge. (p. 237)

Observations and collaborations are not usually associated with René Descartes, but as Erik-Jan Bos and Theo Verbeek’s chapter shows, his correspondence is replete with the discussion of observations and experiments. The authors give the example of Descartes receiving and trusting the observations of Christoph Scheiner on parhelia (mock suns) and William Harvey on blood circulation. Where Descartes parted with other scholars is that he saw these not as contributions towards greater knowledge, but as ‘effects’ which required explanation — thus Descartes recognized Harvey’s observations, but disagreed with his theorem. (pp. 169-170) Bos and Verbeek also make the interesting case for Descartes’ approval of pragmatic scientific collaboration when he writes that by “building upon the work of our predecessors and in combining the lives and labours of many, one might make much greater progress working together than anyone could make on his own.” (p. 163)

Elizabethanne Boran’s chapter looks at the correspondence of the scholar-churchman James Usher (1581-1656). Again large and diverse, the subject matter of the letters sampled here includes apparitions, the topography of Dublin, the river Jordan, plague in England, and astronomy. Ussher was interested in observations which would confirm or refute ancient knowledge; his particular interest in the river Jordan for example was whether his Aleppo-based informant could confirm its flooding dates matched those in the Bible. (p. 183) Ussher’s interest in others’ astronomical observations was largely whether they could be put to work in service of his own theological studies. Though Ussher did not engage himself in acquiring experimental knowledge, his concern for the scientific accuracy and trustworthiness of the observations he received was key.

A number of the figures discussed in Communicating Observations acted as ‘information masters’, organizing and coördinating scientific inquiry through letter writing. This rôle reaches its zenith with Henry Oldenburg, the focus of Iordan Avramov’s chapter. Oldenburg’s enormous and meticulously managed network of correspondents didn’t only unite disparate scientific efforts, but also formed the basis for the institutional information nexus that was the early Royal Society (to which he acted as secretary). Oldenburg is an interesting example, as he both directed the observations of others, and was himself directed by the fellows of the Society and their interests. Oldenburg’s correspondence, furthermore, would provide the material for one of the first printed forums for scientific debate: his Philosophical Transactions magazine. (p. 201)

The essays in the collection demonstrate that exploring letters, and their accompanying materials—notes, tables, scheda, drawings—is essential to understanding the changing epistemic practices of early modern science. The letters also show the move to empirical science was a long process across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rather than a burst of rapid advancement at the end of the seventeenth. Despite the deliberate focus on manuscript letters, the inclusion of Oldenburg and the Philosophical Transactions is a reminder that letters communicating observations also played a significant part in early journals and scientific books, too; this printed afterlife still awaits a general study.

The volume has real strengths: the frequent attention to defining and exploring terminology; and the effort taken to tie together the separate contributions, particularly in the reflective concluding essay by the editor, ensure it will be valuable to scholars working in the many disciplines the early modern letter touches.

Niall Hodgson, University of Durham