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Reviewed by:
  • Power, Knowledge, and Expertise in Elizabethan England
  • Pamela O. Long
Power, Knowledge, and Expertise in Elizabethan England. By Eric H. Ash (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) 265 pp. $45.00

This fine study focuses on several Elizabethan activities that required extensive technological capabilities—copper mining, harbor construction, and navigation. Ash's investigation of these endeavors provides the basis for his thesis that "expert mediators" became an important tool in the growth of Elizabethan England's centralized government and that the notion of "expertise" changed from experientially based know-how to knowledge grounded in more theoretical (that is, mathematical) foundations. Hence, he investigates the relationship of technological enterprise to political power and the changes in status resulting from a new notion of competence. The final chapter underscores Francis Bacon's essential grounding in the late sixteenth-century Elizabethan culture of expertise.

Two case studies provide fascinating accounts of large-scale technological operations in which a central authority attempted administrative control. The first involves the new copper mines in the county of Cumberland. Since the English were novices in copper mining, the English shareholders of the private joint-stock Company of Mines Royal entered into a partnership with German investors in Augsburg who sent their own miners and mine managers to Cumberland. Believing that the Germans would take advantage of them, the English sent their own "expert," Thomas Thurland, to oversee the operation. The problem for the shareholders, and for Ash's model as well, is that Thurland was not an [End Page 270] "expert" in any sense of the word, nor did he himself or the shareholders believe him to be. Ash fully documents the ongoing mistrust between the Germans and the English, including the refusal of the English investors to provide the funds needed for the (expected) high cost of starting up a large-scale mine operation. Nevertheless, the Germans successfully excavated and refined the copper ore. The mine failed to turn a profit, not because of the operation itself but because of the failure to find sufficient commercial manufacturing outlets for copper in England.

In contrast to the copper mine, Ash's study of the construction of Dover harbor fits his model of "expert mediation" beautifully. It also provides a detailed study of a large-scale Elizabethan technological operation. The expert mediator in this case, Thomas Digges, really did possess the requisite knowledge of harbor construction, gained in the Lowlands. He also had surveyed the Dover harbor and was a local resident of sufficient social standing to mediate between Dover's administrators and the Privy Council in London.

Ash treats Elizabethan navigation in two chapters. The first concerns the transformation of English navigation from a localized, experience-based craft to a mathematical art. The second focuses on the navigational manuals that proliferated in late sixteenth-century England. Together, the chapters provide a concise synthesis of the development of English mathematical navigation and its growing dominance over traditional piloting, the latter based on local knowledge and firsthand experience. Yet Ash argues against the prevalent view that mathematical practitioners developed into a community, stressing the highly diverse and often conflicting interests of English mathematical practitioners.

This book represents an important contribution to ongoing discussions concerning the early modern emergence of experimental philosophy and the role of artisans and skilled practitioners in that development. A thoroughly researched and elegantly written study, its model of changing notions of expertise within the context of a centralizing political authority is an important one that is sure to be considered in other early modern milieus.

Pamela O. Long
Washington, D.C.


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pp. 270-271
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