Mar 032014

“Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science” makes a profound claim about the need for cognitive restructuring in the face of information overload.

Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science by Richard Yeo, University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $45.00.

By Justin Grosslight

The cover of F Bacon

The frontispiece to Francis Bacon’s “Great Instauration.”

Perhaps the most salient image in early modern English science is the frontispiece of Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration (1620). In it, a ship triumphantly returns home to Europe through the metaphorical Pillars of Hercules as a second vessel follows in the distance; below, a Latin phrase reads “Multi pertransibunt & augebitur scientia” (“Many shall pass through and knowledge shall be increased”). Bacon’s essential message: to understand how nature works it is necessary to explore the world, return with its wondrous natural specimens, and record what you have seen.

Forty years after the Great Instauration was published, London’s Royal Society initiated its experimental program. Its members heralded philosopher, statesman, and author Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as the Society’s progenitor. Ironically, Bacon never made any experimental discoveries himself, but his writings established an ethos of cataloguing and inductive empiricism that persisted for decades. By applying this motif to note taking strategies among the English virtuosi – clever intellectuals who investigated nature – historian Richard Yeo shows how, during the seventeenth century, “there was a change in the function of notebooks: once repositories of the material that individuals sought to memorize, or recollect, they came to be seen as ways of securing information that could never be memorized.”

At first glance, devoting a volume to notebooks may seem to be a peculiar enterprise. Generally speaking, scholars have not found notebooks crucial for understanding how scientific ideas develop. Yet a growing academic interest in the development of intellectual curiosity led Yeo to examine notebooks carefully. His interpretation of scientific note taking is broad: observations, testimony, indexing, as well as experiments in books, diaries, and journals fall under his purview. As sketched in the opening chapter, traditional humanism called for notes to be recorded in commonplace books under fixed Heads, keywords whose themes (eg: ethics, œconomics, politics, etc.) were a vital part of a scholastic education. But as the seventeenth century progressed, anti-bookish attitudes and Bacon’s demand for empiricism instigated a gradual departure from tradition. The classical art of memory, used for storing pertinent points, faded.

As Yeo’s next two chapters show, English virtuosi sat between two poles on a spectrum of contemporary beliefs about remembrance. French thinkers René Descartes (1596-1650) and Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) soberly addressed the frail power of memory, while the Jesuit Francesco Sacchini (1570-1625), the Augsburg rhetoric teacher Jeremias Drexel (1581-1638), and the Cambridge undergraduate curriculum revered intensive memory training through writing and pedagogical practices. Situated midway between the factions, Bacon cut traditional oratorical dross from his notes. In order to better comprehend nature, Bacon advocated maintaining written storehouses of observations of customary, vulgar, childish, and frivolous objects. Notebook records of these items would not furnish a lucid understanding of the world quickly, but they could be studied and their contents recalled to aid in this process. Bacon relished Hippocrates’ dictum, “vita brevis, ars longa” (“Life is short, art is long”): if life cannot be lengthened and knowledge cannot be abbreviated, the only way to discover nature’s underlying principles is to compile enormous amounts of observed information for generations.

Bacon’s credo led virtuosi – in varying degrees – to develop new note taking templates and even in many cases to transcend Bacon’s own methods. For Samuel Hartlib (c.1600-62), amassing a battery of particulars for analysis proved superior to examining a priori knowledge. In his notes (Ephemerides), Hartlib aimed to collate testimonials and natural history reports under Heads with the hope that new ones could be created and further analyzed from culled material. These would be indexed in three ways: according to words, adages, or things. Though Baconian in structure, Hartlib aimed to share his notes with others; his hope was to recover a prelapsarian sense of nature, a perspective that would give man a superior understanding of how his environment operated. Hartlib’s friend Thomas Harrison (1595-1649) provided inspirational assistance in this project through his envisaged arca studiorum, a desk where slips of paper could be hung on hooks for pigeonholing, collaboration, and reference. Both Hartlib and his correspondent John Beale (c.1608-83) revered the contraption because it sorted items that could then be indexed in print and memorized mnemonically. But while such a machine was useful for information already transcribed, or for matters easily reducible to principles, questions about its efficacy for experimental or real time inspection remained.

John Locke Manuscript

John Locke Manuscript

On this front, Beale contrasted with Robert Boyle (1627-91). Arguably the most canonical virtuoso in experimental philosophy, Boyle remained deeply skeptical of prematurely developed theoretical frameworks used to analyze nature. Rebuffing lofty superstructures that claimed to catalogue nature’s representations, Boyle countered with a “conception of written data [that] was more extensive than Bacon’s.” Amassing textual and empirical evidence in Baconian fashion, Boyle did not make his general Heads isomorphic to those in Bacon’s natural histories. Rather, through an incisive analysis of Boyle’s work diaries, Yeo shows how Boyle preferred recording material chronologically – he organized his books by topic rather than by thematic Heads. Boyle often preferred loose notes, continually jotting tidbits of chemical or medicinal information on sheets of paper. Though subject to being lost or stolen, such notes inspired Boyle to activate his mental facilities. For him, ignoring overarching premises meant recollecting related topics without the traditional aid of memory. Boyle’s idiosyncratic and expansive note taking style, however, meant that others could not easily sort and memorize his archipelago of particulars.

Chapter seven shifts the discussion to indexing. Here Yeo highlights how the philosopher and physician John Locke (1632-1704) developed a “New Method” that allowed him to reference his notes skillfully. Rather than indexing items by traditional Heads, Locke’s “New Method” called for a mode of alphabetization whereby items could be searched according to the first letter of their name and the first vowel succeeding this letter. Though he initially recorded scholarly information, Locke quickly amended his notebooks to order financial transactions, expenses, and systematic weather observations (replete with barometric readings, wind direction, and qualitative discussions of the air). While residing in France from 1675-79, Locke kept dated diaries that investigated topics in culture, religion, natural history, and medicine; he later tried to apply his “New Method” to items in these journals.

The content in both Locke’s journals and his notebooks fits snugly within the Baconian paradigm. Locke’s journals reveal that he preferred skill and expertise to social status in his travel inquiries (even denoting questionable testimonials with a “Q”). Concerning the nature of notebooks, Locke assailed traditional commonplace books in his 1677 essay “Of Study.” In it, he observed that commonplace notes did not encourage students to comprehend the true nature of things, did not help people form their own judgments, and did not suggest how to make connections among different parts of knowledge. Yet Locke’s methods had their shortcomings as well. Eccentricities in note taking approaches created obstacles: Locke’s attempts to fit Boyle’s notes (from the posthumous publication of the latter’s 1692 General History of the Air) in with material from the Royal Society, as well as Locke’s aims to methodize his own weather records, fell short. Because Locke’s organizational methods differed from Boyle’s and because Locke’s weather records could not be reconciled with Royal Society formatting standards making use of notes proved to be far easier for their producers than for outsiders.


Yeo’s final topic takes up issues concerning collective documentation. As early members of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat (1635-1713) and Henry Oldenburg (1619-77) set out to standardize procedures for note taking in the Philosophical Transactions. Unfortunately, the goal proved to be difficult: not only were people loath to coordinate their observations, but quarrels also raged for years about where the documents should be stored. In contrast – though their method was only successful for small collaborations – virtuosi Martin Lister (1639-1712) and John Ray (1627-1705) shared a more personalized note taking system that amassed input on plants and animals.

Wary of the tribulations of assembling mass information, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) contemplated a program to isolate the properties of objects in order to understand their true nature. Disdaining preordained systems and Bacon’s call to order information conveniently, Hooke’s writings indicate that he envisioned an arrangement whereby clever individuals could deposit, distill, illustrate, and continually reorder knowledge (with glue and scraps of paper) under appropriate headings. Such a scheme provided the easiest possibility for recording nature’s axioms; knowing key ideas would lead to a rational understanding of the laws of nature. By focusing more on seeking crucial rules than on retaining particulars, the system’s design also demanded that the bond between memory and reason finally be decoupled.

Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science makes a profound claim about the need for cognitive restructuring in the face of information overload. In a certain sense, one can read this book as a narrow sequel to M. T. Clanchy’s landmark study, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066 – 1307. The latter work examines how the utilitarian need for recordkeeping in business and politics made not only scholars and clergy but also bureaucrats and laypeople depend increasingly on written information. For the sake of pragmatic ends, this resulted in a demand for limited literacy among the upper and middle classes. While Clanchy’s study traces a shift from memory to written record, Yeo’s book explores a later shift from written archives back to mental processes. As empirical information on particulars burgeoned in the seventeenth century, intellectuals urgently needed tools with which to catalogue the material that they had harvested. While clear classification standards did not fully congeal, attempts to make these methods accessible to a broad audience emerged as virtuosi realized that information management would span many generations or geographic loci.

In presenting a broad seventeenth-century narrative, Yeo does away with questionable demarcations that have created longstanding barriers to the study of intellectual history. Sandwiched between the late Renaissance on one end and the early Enlightenment on the other, the mid seventeenth century has — from the standpoint of book history – largely remained an orphaned child, neglected by scholars who have examined events through entrenched chronological categories (Harold Love and Roger Chartier being notable exceptions). Research in the history of science during this era has focused more on biographical matters than on thematic issues. But Yeo argues that consequential changes occurred during this era, a transformation in which English virtuosi gradually jettisoned Renaissance, humanist note taking standards in favor of surveying increasingly rational, innovative approaches for gleaning information en masse.

What is particularly impressive about Yeo’s revisionist history is that it effectively downplays larger institutional settings, such as London’s Royal Society, that have long dominated history of science scholarship. Especially engrossing is his chapter on Samuel Hartlib. Long seen as an intellectual precursor to English institutional science, Hartlib’s achievements have only recently been examined from a cultural perspective. By showing the thinker’s industrious efforts to amass and collate information, Yeo places Hartlib squarely in a chain of seventeenth century luminaries, both well known and obscure, who relished the Baconian quest for empirical knowledge. In a similar vein, Yeo’s chapter on John Locke’s note taking brings a figure marginalized by historians of science into the limelight. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science further suggests that discoveries of “matters of fact” in early modern science were not confined to institutional experimental practice. Recording myriad quotidian observations from beyond corporate walls forced early modern virtuosi to rethink the landscape in which to organize their musings. In making his argument, Yeo reveals that early modern scientific ideas did not develop as a consequence of fixed images or words in print; rather, understanding was a continually mutable and negotiable process.

Author Richard Yeo

Author Richard Yeo at the ‘Temple of British Worthies’ at Stowe, England. The Temple includes busts of virtuosi mentioned in his book, such as Francis Bacon and John Locke.

Some criticism, however, must be raised. The title of Yeo’s book is slightly misleading. Temporally speaking, Yeo’s text centers almost specifically on seventeenth century actors rather than having a broad early modern (c.1500-c.1800) focus as its title purports. Yeo’s use of the word science is also open to objection, given that the word scientist did not emerge until the 1830s (even if recent historiography has intimated a limited use of the word in seventeenth century England). Using their own terminology, most of Yeo’s virtuosi considered their pursuits to be a part of natural history (plants and animals), weather reports, or medicine. Nor are all of Yeo’s virtuosi English. Though they resided in England, Boyle had Irish roots, Oldenburg was a German émigré, and Hartlib was born in Poland.

Despite its many accomplishments, Yeo’s volume could have taken certain issues further. Most importantly, it would have been helpful to know why Yeo selected or emphasized the protagonists that he did from a larger pool of potential virtuosi (Isaac Newton (1643-1727), for example, is largely camouflaged). Had Yeo made different choices, his storyline may have been different. In particular, it would have been fascinating to learn more about how virtuosi copied notes and images. The book briefly mentions a ‘double writing machine’ contrived by William Petty (1623-87); it would have been intriguing to see a comparison of this contraption with the ‘pantograph’ that Christoph Scheiner (1573/5-1650) invented around 1603. It would also have been useful to learn what role manicules played in virtuosi writings. Yeo does an impressive job in juxtaposing individuals from England and continental Europe, but a more detailed and thematic comparison between the two regions would have been fruitful – especially given that Bacon’s impact beyond England was less direct. Nearly absent from Yeo’s cast of characters is the Swiss scholar Theodor Zwinger (1533-88), whose popular branching diagrams rivaled those of the French humanist and logician Petrus Ramus (1515-72), whom Yeo sees as a decisive taxonomic figure. The bottom line: while the book’s thesis is clear and its nuances profound, its vision does not roil the intellectual waters relative to what historians already know of this era.

Nevertheless, Yeo should be commended for his exquisite and meticulous scholarship. With a bibliography tallying over 650 items, instructive visuals, and penetrating primary source analyses, his book represents a substantial achievement. Its intellectual vision should be of interest not only to researchers of early modern Europe, but also to anyone curious about cognitive transformations, the social implications of recordkeeping, the evolution of reading practices, the enduring impact of Francis Bacon, or the effects of information overload in a historical context. Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science also helps reveal that that the history of science should be seen as a subset of a more holistic intellectual history that details how people from many walks of life dealt with organizing knowledge. Yeo’s volume brilliantly uncovers uncharted connections between writing and thinking that indelibly transformed seventeenth century life.

Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science and business. He is especially intrigued by how networks operate (quantitatively and qualitatively), both from historical and from contemporary perspectives. He holds degrees in history and mathematics from Stanford, a history of science degree from Harvard, and has published in all three fields. He currently is working in Vietnam, but also has lived in Italy and the United States.


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