Science in 16th-century London
The Jewel House, a new book by historical researcher and author Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness devotes her elegant and erudite new book, The Jewel House, to the scientific community in 16th-century London. She (rightly) argues that it is thanks to the imaginative collective efforts of the urban scientists that London became the melting pot in which a new mathematical and experimental culture crystallized.
Harkness is known for her ingenuity as a researcher and her historical empathy. In The Jewel House, Harkness turns her skills on the city of London as a whole with surprising and fascinating results. She began her research by asking herself a new question: not what caused scientific revolution but what the names science and scientist meant in 16th-century London. Then she collected a vast range of sources, from printed books to scientific instruments and notebooks, and recorded, in a relational database, information on the men and women who produced them.
Every chapter of The Jewel House charts the activities of a particular community. Harkness leads us through the streets of London, showing us, neighborhood by neighborhood, where the major forms of natural knowledge found homes. For example, apothecaries settled in Lime Street, in what is now the City, where they created a dense network of shops and gardens. Clockmakers, both native craftsmen and many from overseas, clustered in several parishes near St Paul’s Cathedral. The once wealthy merchant, Clement Draper, even managed to transform the King’s Bench prison in Southwark, where he served time as a debtor, into a center of research and discussion. By the end of the book Harkness has mapped London’s scientific communities with astonishing precision.
Moreover, when Harkness reconstructs these groups, she provides not traditional, static accounts of their theories, but dynamic analyses of their practices as these developed over time. In many cases, she makes clear, the alchemists of Elizabethan London already understood that knowledge of nature had to rest not on authority but on familiarity through practice.
In one crucial respect, Harkness argues, many of the 16th-century London scientists differed from the later ones of the 17th century. They saw themselves less as individuals out to gain fame, than as members of larger textual communities bent on exchanging and compiling information. The passages in which Harkness analyzes the 16thcentury practices of note-taking and communication are among the most novel and informative in this fine book. She shows that they adopted the textual information processing methods of humanist scholarship to radically new ends.
In this book, Harkness has charted the local and cosmopolitan worlds of science in Elizabethan London with a learning, precision and intelligence that compel admiration. Moreover, she has crafted a complex and effective new analytical mechanism which may transform the practices of historians of early modern science.