Elizabeth Yale, Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain

Elizabeth Yale, Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2016) 384pp. Hb, PDF $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4781-7

Tracing the networks of correspondence, authorship, and print in early modern natural history, Elizabeth Yale describes the field’s project of delineating Britain topographically and thus as a political object. Sociable Knowledge forcefully articulates how early modern naturalists and antiquarians crafted images of the nation through scribal exchange. Yale’s contribution is to demonstrate convincingly how even print and manuscript texts were shaped by and for an extensive correspondence among the natural philosophical communities during the late seventeenth century. This process of creating representations of Britain, however, was not a simple or fluid one. As Yale argues, “[i]f an image of ‘Britain’ emerged from topographical writing, it was a fractured and fragmented one, as riven by conflict as the British people themselves” (3). By paying close attention to the works of naturalists such as Edward Lhuyd, John Aubrey, John Evelyn, among others, Yale reveals the centrality of scribal exchange in a scholarly network crafting and disseminating scientific knowledge.

Chapter One explicates the tensions of defining Britain as a topographical and political entity. Keying into Joshua Childrey’s claim in his Britannia Baconica that his natural historical survey “doth not shew you a Telescope, but a Mirror” (26), Yale considers the various classifications under which authors attempted to define and thus shape the nation. Did one, for example, enfold not only Wales and Scotland but also Ireland into an understanding of Britain? Yale consequently explicates the different categories by means of which definitions of the nation might be based, including Britain as a contiguous geographical unit, as a shared network of local and national trade, through language, and by means of collective history and shared genealogical descent. Throughout this discussion, Yale highlights the largely Anglo-centric perspectives of authors at the time: most were working from within England and thus emphasized Englishness as a central component of the image of the nation. Against these perspectives, however, authors from Wales, Scotland, and, less so, those traveling in Ireland implicitly challenged this view through their works, their subscriptions, and their emphases in correspondence.

The following chapter reconstructs the material practices constituting correspondence in the period. As Yale argues, “[i]n promoting new ways of thinking about national identity, topographers, naturalists, and antiquaries communicated habits of thought and being that they had learned by working together via correspondence” (55). Interleaving discussions of postal and carrier systems alongside the different means through which letters and samples might arrive at a specified designation, Chapter Two persuasively illustrates the difficulties of natural historical correspondence in the period and yet at the same time the persistence with which scholars worked through these material conditions to transmit information. Chapter Three moves from letters to conversation, highlighting the role of personal interaction and later correspondence in creating intricate relationships among scholars in the period. Interestingly, here too Yale uncovers how contingent interactive discussion was incorporated into both correspondence and print. Yale discusses, for example, the recording of verbal exchanges in the registers of the Royal Society and Henry Oldenburg’s role as secretary and editor of the Philosophical Transactions, which attempted to replicate and render more permanent the limitations of interactions among the fellows.

Chapter Four is a case study of John Aubrey’s Naturall Historie of Wiltshire, which was begun in the mid-1680s but expanded through contributions from his readers throughout the following two decades. Aubrey solicited the feedback of prominent scholars, who all, according to individual expertise and background, “tugged it in a different direction, with some of their annotations, for example, extending the book beyond English borders and into continental Europe” (117). Collectively, the annotations and responses of his readers illustrate how dependent Aubrey’s work and other natural historical texts were upon their built correspondence and maintenance of scribal relationships. Particularly engaging in this chapter is Yale’s discussion of the technologies of scribal methods for imparting knowledge, including cutting and pasting, deletions, pen and ink, and other forms of transmission throughout Aubrey’s manuscript pages.

From the case study of Aubrey, Yale moves in Chapter Five to considering subscription practices and the “social marketing” (169) strategies authors-undertakers used to ensure a proposed project of natural history received necessary support. By examining Lhuyd’s methods of garnering monetary resources for not only printing but also travel for two of his works, Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia (1699) and Archaeologia Britannica (1690s), Yale’s analyses bring to the surface the many means, primarily established through correspondence, that authors like Lhuyd had at hand to further their projects. And yet not only was the creation of knowledge important to naturalists; the perseveration of manuscripts, notes, and letters was also an increasing concern for authors in the period. Yale’s final chapter examines the imperative to preserve these material traces of their observations and work through establishing specific archives and relying on institutional support for the conservation of their projects. In a study of Samuel Hartlib, John Evelyn, and John Aubrey, Chapter Six exposes the tensions inherent in the development of the archive as a repository for natural history writing.

Weaving together narratives in the history of science, book history, and the construction of a specifically British landscape, Yale’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of how authors and compilers established the contours of their natural historical projects. Attuned to the idiosyncrasies of origin, language, culture, and other contingencies of perspective, Yale’s analyses uncover the many layers in trading news, knowledge, and relationships in the late seventeenth century. Central to this story is the role of the Royal Society, patronage, printers and booksellers, and the hosts to those who traversed the early modern British landscape seeking new discoveries in the flora and fauna of their nation, variously defined depending on the perspectives and correspondence of the authors.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill