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  • Abraham, Planter of Mathematics":Histories of Mathematics and Astrology in Early Modern Europe
  • Nicholas Popper

Francis Bacon's 1605 Advancement of Learning proposed to dedicatee James I a massive reorganization of the institutions, goals, and methods of generating and transmitting knowledge. The numerous defects crippling the contemporary educational regime, Bacon claimed, should be addressed by strengthening emphasis on philosophy and natural knowledge. To that end, university positions were to be created devoted to "Artes and Sciences at large," rather than to the professions. High salaries would render lecturers "able and sufficient," undistracted from their task. Most famously, he argued that teaching of the "operatiue studie of many Scyences" should involve sophisticated technical education. The study of natural philosophy demanded not only books, but globes, astrolabes, and other "instrumentals." Most significantly, yielding reliable and meaningful knowledge from experiential gleanings required a rigorous system of deductive reasoning.

The legacy of this colossal proposal has earned Bacon honored status as devisor of the scientific method.1 But Bacon's educational reform extended [End Page 87] beyond the methods of producing and transmitting knowledge. To facilitate more efficient "vse and administration" of the knowledge produced by his system, he also demanded a searching examination of the history of learning. This history would provide a mirror enabling his contemporaries to deploy the fruits of his method, by considering how learning in the past had been used successfully or ill-advisedly. Producing this history was the ambition of the Advancement, for he explained: "no man hath propounded to himselfe the generall state of learning to bee described and represented from age to age, as many have done the works of Nature, & the State civile and Ecclesiastical." He continued:

And yet I am not ignorant that in divers particular sciences, as of the Iurisconsults, the Mathematicians, the Rhetoricians, the Philosophers, there are set down some smal memorials of the Schooles, Authors, and Bookes: and so likewise some barren relations touching the Invention of Arts, or usages. But a iust story of learning, containing the Antiquities and Originalls of Knowledges, & their Sects; their Inventions, their Traditions; their diverse Administrations and Managings; their Flourishings, their Oppositions, Decayes, Depressions, Oblivions, Removes, with the causes, and occasions of them, and all other events concerning learning, throughout the ages of the world; I may truly affirme to be wanting.2

Bacon thus positioned himself not only as a Father of Modern Science, but also a Father of the History of Science.

Following Bacon's suggestion, I will examine the "small memorials" of the history of mathematics—and particularly the mathematical art of astrology—in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My conclusion, however, will not bear out Bacon's claims. Despite his frustration, Bacon was only one of many early modern scholars appraising the role of mathematics within history. And he devoted less energy than others to mapping its origins and tracing its transmissions between communities. In fact, Bacon's 1605 proposal for a history of mathematics was already out-of-date. Discussions [End Page 88] of the history of mathematics had been rife on the continent and in England throughout the previous century.3

The evidence that Renaissance scholars inherited was sprawling and inconclusive. Several genealogies for mathematics could be found within classical Greek, Latin, and patristic references. One lineage claimed mathematics began in ancient Assyria, where the priestly caste, the Chaldeans, practiced a form of mathematics that seemed a corrupt admixture of philosophy, medicine, and religion, and relied heavily on observation of the heavens. Other scholars traced the origins to Egypt, claiming that the field developed to survey lands frequently flooded by the Nile. The real problem for ancient, late antique, and medieval scholars had not been the origins of mathematics, but what exactly mathematics were. For some, the term strictly referred to the quadrivium: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. But for others, mathematics' origins amongst the Egyptians or Chaldeans inextricably linked it to forms of astrological divination, augury, and necromancy that were unsavory to both Latin and Christian traditions. Mathematici were included alongside ghastly lists of Magi, Brahmins, Aruspices, Genethliaci, and other diabolic practitioners of idolatrous magic. These might or might not be distinguished from mathematici such as Pythagoras...


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