- Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain by Elizabeth Yale
Unfortunately the title of Elizabeth Yale's book will not attract the attention of most scholars who would find its contents illuminating. It is a specialist work that provides little background for newcomers to the field of scientific development in the late seventeenth century but is full of valuable insights into how the contemporary publications that scholars now take for granted came into being, what their philosophical background was, and what are the limitations of their discoveries. Her focus is on the ways in which a topographical concept of Britain was created and in what ways those whose interests in nature were moving beyond the local both relied on, and at the same time disassociated themselves from, the studies of precise localities.
Yale's sources derive from a group of men who would one way or another have described themselves as naturalists, loosely connected by their very different associations with Oxford University and in particular the Ashmolean. Men of rather different social origins and standing (that Yale does not discuss), they were drawn together by a common interest in the nature of the world and of the kingdom they belonged to. Vital to her study are Elias Ashmole and Anthony Wood, John Aubrey, Joshua Childrey, Samuel Hartlib, John Ray, and Edward Lhuyd. Yale draws on their letters to claim that the purpose which drove them to research the nature and basis of the land and how it informed the people who called themselves Britons or who were committed to their more local origins was often moved by religious aspirations.
Yale has studied the marginalia in their manuscripts and letters to demonstrate how a composite view that added together the different perspectives of these men, produced by various methods of 'correspondence', resulted in published descriptions of Britain available to all who could access books. In doing so, she perhaps underplays the work of their predecessors. The only sixteenth-century author she quotes is Leland, whose survey of England, made at Henry VIII's request, was well known. Lambarde is referred to in passing and William Camden's work on the topic seen only as his model. Christopher Sexton's maps, the tapestry maps Ralph Sheldon produced, and the reports to Burghley that were critical to government, and others, are ignored. The work of those such as the apothecaries who were, like John Ray but with a rather more practical purpose, seeking to establish a clear identification and distinctions between the plants sold to them by a common name, is not included.
Yale's investigation makes clear aspects of the subject that have been largely assumed and not carefully demonstrated. Preserving the relevant [End Page 269] material — physical as well as written — collected by researchers, in institutions where they could be available to later workers in the field, was a serious problem. Such a problem was addressed especially by those who established the Ashmolean, where the managers worked on the best methods of making archives clear and accessible to those permitted to use them. As Yale shows, a structure to effect this by the particular means of cataloguing adopted had long term implications.
She also discusses how the costs of publishing elaborate books with complex images — which was very expensive — were met. The ways in which subscriptions were employed to ensure that such volumes could be produced involved considerable time, care, and the exploitation of social relations. And the prestige of inclusion of the monarch and the titled on subscription lists is illustrated.
In conclusion, she reflects on the extent to which the objective of establishing and maintaining a unified vision of Britain was achieved and suggests that each book was in fact a different edition of the nation. The correspondence within which the naturalists worked, which drew in many local individuals in the assembling of the knowledge on which each was based, however, was...