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Reviewed by:
  • Lisa T. Sarasohn
The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. By Deborah E. Harkness (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007) 349 pp. $32.50

In Harkness’ The Jewel Box, the city of London becomes a main protagonist of Elizabethan science. London provided the resources for a diverse population of craftsmen, botanists, instrument makers, prisoners, and others, both native and foreign, to explore the possibilities and utility of the natural world. Harkness’ rich descriptive study of this seething community of practitioners and students of nature provides a vital and original picture of a community of scientists whose existence was obscured by later developments in the history and historiography of science. Harkness has broadened the well-trodden path of the social history of science in a way that will challenge and shape any future efforts to describe the emergence of the Scientific Revolution.

Many cultural historians have appropriated the methodology and theories of anthropologists and sociologists, but Harkness’ use of “thick description” in an ethnographical account of an interwoven and complex scientific community is unique. Most social historians of science are concerned with the institutions, such as the Royal Society or the monarchial court, which shaped science. Harkness shows that science in the Elizabethan age was located and constructed through an urban marketplace of ideas, practices, and goods. By using manuscripts and books, church budgets, royal correspondence, broadsides, and prison notebooks, Harkness manages to re-animate and describe a lost population. She traces the networks of human and textual ties that made London a vital component of an emerging experimental and utilitarian culture. Her book will fascinate a broad audience of readers—social and urban historians, anthropologists, students of literary history, and anyone interested in a vivid picture of a vibrant past society.

Ethnographers want to establish rapport with their subjects; Harkness clearly could share an ale with hers. She examines foreign naturalists who lived in the Lime Street neighborhood of London, and who traded information on insects, tulips, and fossils. She explores the competition between medical practitioners and barber-surgeons, who sought profit and status. She recounts Elizabethan “Big Science,” an endeavor directed by William Cecil, the Queen’s minister, to use science to produce answers for monetary, navigational, and military problems.

Science transcended class and gender in Elizabethan London. Harkness’ examination of the unpublished notebooks of Clement Draper (c. 1541–1620), a merchant imprisoned for debt, reveals that “doing” science included reading and annotating books, as well as finding the proper recipe for the philosopher’s stone. Her exploration of the private and public roles of a gentleman brewer reveals the eclectic curiosity of students of nature, and how printing could obscure the many sources of scientific knowledge.

Harkness’ book ends with Francis Bacon, who, she argues, posthumously [End Page 413] redirected science in England. Bacon, born outside London, was unwilling to explore the sites in the city that provided a hands-on, experimental approach to science. Ironically, he coopted the practices of the nascent experimenters and advocated the ideal of learned scientists rather than those artisans, merchants and gentlemen who had earlier studied nature. In her splendid book, Harkness locates the Scientific Revolution in a place that Bacon chose to ignore, but now has regained its spot on the map.

Lisa T. Sarasohn
Oregon State University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 413-414
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-02
Open Access
No
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