- The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution
London in the late Elizabethan period produced most famously, in the history of science, Francis Bacon. Bacon’s stress on utility, and the potential role of a form of natural philosophy in promoting the practical interests of the state, provides a constant backdrop to Deborah Harkness’s wide-ranging examination of knowledge enterprises already occurring in London at just this time. Such enterprises range from alchemy and medicine to harbor- dredging and mathematical-instrument making. But the star of this book is the city of London—by 1600, as Harkness notes, the second largest in Europe.
The archival digging and reconstruction that have gone into Harkness’s six case studies are impressive and result in the presentation of detailed accounts of various groups and individuals who inhabited the warren of narrow and crowded streets constituting the cultural microcosm of the great city. One of her most successful chapters concerns the Flemish immigrant James Cole and the group of naturalists of which he was a part, all gathered in close proximity on Lime Street. It provides a picture of a community, closely linked to the Continent and engaged in shared pursuits, and it seems to encapsulate Harkness’s ambitions for the book as a whole.
In a somewhat different way, the chapter on medical groups such as the guild of barber-surgeons, and focused on Paracelsian medicine and unlicensed medical practitioners, is tight and convincing, showing some of the practical realities of London life and claims to expertise. Other chapters, also the results of indefatigable archival work, are differently directed: that on William Cecil’s role as the Crown’s agent, concerned not just with the issuing of letters-patent to various enterprises and inventors but also for a time with direct financial investment in such endeavors, has much less to do with the tracing of social networks and more to do with Elizabethan state involvement in matters of potential economic interest. Here the implicit relationship to Bacon’s subsequent ambitions for the state seems to be the chief raison d’être.
Harkness justifies the multiplicity of her areas of interest by reference to a supposed unifying concept, designated by the word “science.” Throughout the book, a wide variety of people do a wide variety of things, but all are routinely described as being centrally concerned with “nature” or “natural knowledge.” Accordingly, some pages at the beginning are devoted to “A Note about Science,” in which Harkness explains her use of that termin connection with this sixteenth-century material. While acknowledging possible anachronism, she justifies placing all the diverse issues and activities with which the book deals under the umbrella term “science” with various arguments. [End Page 793] The most sustainable is that the historian need not be restricted to the usages of the historical actors. If one sees people in the past “doing science” (an expression that Harkness employs quite often), then that is what one calls it.
Such an approach would require evidence that the variety of things placed under that single label did indeed constitute, in some sense, a common endeavor. Some readers might question whether Harkness’s account provides such evidence—emerging from the sources, as she characterizes it (p. 256). Rather, a common endeavor is assumed from the outset, as with the frequent characterization of individuals as “practitioners” with, usually, no specification of what it is that they practice (once, indeed, there are “science practitioners” [p. 221]).Why, for example, is the subject of chapter 5, Clement Draper, whose clearly fascinating notebooks concern alchemy, characterized as “doing science” in the chapter’s title? Why is he not simply an “alchemist”?
Readers of this journal will not likely see the issue as a quibble over empty words. Chapter 4, on Cecil and Crown involvement in improvement and economic projects, is called “‘Big Science’ in Elizabethan London”; Harkness leaves aside monopolies granted for such things as the manufacture of vinegar (p. 179) in favor of ones for techniques...