- The English Polydaedali:How Gabriel Harvey Read Late Tudor London
Harvey and Gaurico
In 1590 Gabriel Harvey read his copy of Luca Gaurico's 1552 Tractatus Astrologicus, a collection of genitures and commentaries for cities and individuals.1 Harvey had spent the previous twenty-five years at Oxford and Cambridge, mastering Greek and Latin, earning renown as a rhetorician, and promoting English letters. He was a well-known partisan of the French Calvinist Peter Ramus, whose works on curriculum reform had sparked vicious [End Page 351] controversies in the English universities. But Harvey read Gaurico far removed from the schools where he had acquired fame and notoriety as an orator and poet. He had recently relocated to London, where he daily faced a dense, active city unlike his native Saffron Walden and the university towns. Nevertheless he read as he always had, carefully recording his reactions in the margins of the printed text, filling blank spaces with his own commentaries on the subjects presented by Gaurico. The notes disclose an experience of reading that intervened in contemporary debates regarding technology, astrology and utility.2 They also place Harvey among a group of scholars in London in the 1590s, such as Francis Bacon and Hugh Plat, who were examining the benefits local artisans might offer the commonwealth and reconsidering the intellectual status of craft knowledge.
Harvey read and annotated Gaurico on several occasions, but the particular strain of notes that I will follow, united by a common ink and hand, engages the learning and erudition of Gaurico's subjects.3 Concentrated almost [End Page 352] exclusively in Book Four, which discussed learned men, these annotations evaluate the poets, philosophers, philologists, and others whom Gaurico had canonized as especially learned.
There are only spare annotations prior to Book Four. On the title page of Book Two, devoted to churchmen, Harvey observes the quality of the individuals Gaurico presented and details his own method of evaluation:
The most excellent Exemplars of this century [are] in Gaurico, and Cardano: Giovio, and Guiccardini. There are as many of the wisest men as of the greatest actors. Still others live, whether inferior, equal, or superior. And it is of interest to every skillful artificer, to know those most outstanding in their class, and the most celebrated professors of all. Certainly it is very profitable to observe exquisitely the most perfect artificers either of the world or of neighboring nations, or at least of your own people, and to consider with most cunning reason what it is, where it comes from, and what is most excellent. But seriously, and solidly, and always to the point, seeing that singular things are efficacious and are useful to polytechnoscopy. It is judicious to avoid all trivial detail, and to consider only the most pregnant theorists and practitioners of operating.4
The notion of a sophisticated form of active knowledge labeled "polytechnoscopy" is the most striking element of this passage. This term seems to have been Harvey's own invention, with no direct precedents; nor was it adopted or used by others after him.
Harvey repeatedly referred to polytechnoscopy in his notes. A carefully designed triptych annotation on the title page of Book Four clarifies it as a category uniting practice and knowledge. To the left Harvey wrote, "it is my task to observe the most excellent examples of this age which are useful for polytechnoscopy." On the right, "a polytechnic, polymechanic, polydaedalic, and almost panepistemic book; and likewise sufficiently polychristian. For philologists should be skimmed through; while polytechnics should be examined closely; as I did not only in the Lives of Giovio, but also in those of [End Page 353] Laertius, Eunapius, Philostratus, and others."5 The related Greek descriptors "polymechanic" and "polydaedalic" shed further light on polytechnoscopy. This constellation of terms refers to a method of garnering information by deploying technical knowledge. While not a systematic discipline, its practices—active applicability, craft expertise, observation of experience—constitute a significant realm of learning.
In the central panel of the triptych, Harvey notes:
[I] compared [this] to Giovio's Elegies of Learned Men. Give me the best man outdoors, and his image at home. For even true life is...