Book Review: London Calling

Detail of fonrtispiece from The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, by John Gerard. Printed in London, 1633.

Detail of fonrtispiece from The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, by John Gerard. Printed in London, 1633.

Deborah E. Harkness.The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2007. xxii + 349 pp. $32.50.

Deborah Harkness’s new book, The Jewel House, may at first seem like a very different offering from her exceptionally well-received work, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels. Much like that earlier book, however, this one makes an art form of using the histories of individuals to reflect on larger intellectual and social currents in Elizabethan England. In this case she produces clear and interesting histories of several knowledge communities working in different disciplines, including botany, medicine, and mathematics, and the interactions among print and oral communication and government recognition in creating and supporting the production of knowledge in 16th-century England. Her emphasis is on the people who actively pursued natural knowledge, and she does an exceptionally good job of uncovering the personal and institutional relationships that supported the various rivalries and friendships that defined academic communities as neatly in 1587 as they do in 2007.

In reading this book the tremendous research that has gone into it is obvious, and yet the book’s style is clear and readable. Harkness apparently did not waste a second of the time she spent in the archives, and she brings to light details, even at the household level, of individuals whose names and contributions to natural knowledge have been lost since their deaths. Her effort is not wasted either, as these people, their peers, and the ways in which they pursued and maintained communities fill in gaps that have long bothered historians of early modern science who knew that the “great men” of the 17th century could not have sprung fully formed out of a divine head. She makes a strong case for the existence of experimental thought, critical analysis of the natural world, and peer review in noninstitutionalized and previously unrecognized groups long before the advent of the Scientific Revolution. Her argument, that these people were practicing science, is entirely believable, though not as radical as one might think given the plethora of works on vernacular natural knowledge in early modern Europe that have been produced in the last decade. She does something especially useful, however, in tying Francis Bacon’s oft-assigned New Atlantis to the context that produced it, and in relocating Solomon’s House, Bacon’s idealized place for knowledge production and protection, from the utopian imagination back to the streets of London.

Harkness also does a great deal to justify London as an important center for natural knowledge communities during this period. Rather than arguing that records from this period demand an urban focus or joining the long tradition of abandoning England for better-established European intellectual groups, she shows that London offered an outstanding place for people to pursue the mysteries of nature. Harkness makes a very strong argument for the reason London proved such a rich ground for natural knowledge communities: London’s intellectualism and urban sensibility encouraged its inhabitants to study and evaluate each other’s work, to value each other’s expertise, and to collaborate for the greater benefit to the community.

Harkness’s writing is impressively accessible, making for one of the most readable books in the history of science and a rare treat for specialists and amateurs alike. Readers with an interest in the subject will easily find their feet in the rich terrain that The Jewel House brings to life, and enthusiasts of Elizabethan London will appreciate the beautiful maps and illustrations that appear throughout the book. One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was the curiosity and enthusiasm that motivated its author, and her evident desire to make early modern London come alive for readers through the lens of natural knowledge communities. In her attempt to provide readers with a guide to this London, she dispensed with academic tradition and exiled her theoretical and historiographic claims to a coda at the back of the book. This does a great service to the book’s readability and does not detract from the quality of her evidence or argument.

Readers, especially those with backgrounds in academic science and medicine, will also find common ground with the frustrations and anxieties of the early modern practitioners Harkness describes, who struggled to establish themselves amid xenophobia, professional protectionism, competing claims for authority, and the tradition of keeping natural knowledge secret. Anyone whose own original ideas have appeared in a close colleague’s published work or had editing suggestions ignored will have great sympathy for James Garrett’s fate at the hands of “the father of English botany,” John Gerard, who ignored Garrett’s earlier work and absolutely correct suggestions. Those who have worked in big science, especially as grant readers, will find a lot in common with William Cecil, who labored on behalf of the queen to expand England’s investment in and returns from investigations of the natural world. This is an inviting and enjoyable book that provides an eye-opening introduction to the narrow streets and broad minds of Elizabethan London and encourages us to think about the pursuit of natural knowledge as a long-term, social activity that binds rather than divides the early modern and the modern worlds.

Allison Kavey is assistant professor of the history of science in the history department at CUNY John Jay College.