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Reviewed by:
  • Making Mathematical Culture: University and Print in the Circle of Lefèvre d’Étaples by Richard J. Oosterhoff
  • Scott Francis
Making Mathematical Culture: University and Print in the Circle of Lefèvre d’Étaples. By Richard J. Oosterhoff. (Oxford–Warburg Studies.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xiv + 276 pp., ill.

In this book Richard J. Oosterhoff traces the emergence of mathematical culture, including such lasting contributions as the transmission of Euclid and sustained arguments for the utility of mathematics, to the Parisian university milieu and the circle of the eminent humanist, Aristotelian, and reformer, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. He traces how Lefèvre and such members of his circle as Josse Clichtove and Beatus Rhenanus saw in mathematics a useful tool for ecclesiastical reform, took advantage of the advent of print to revamp university textbooks in a collaborative effort, broke down the barrier placed by the quadrivium between geometry and music, and proposed friendly yet agonistic dialogue as an alternative to scholastic disputation. Oosterhoff’s volume is impressively researched and documented, and it deserves high praise for challenging traditional boundaries of periodization by showing how not only Renaissance humanists such as Lefèvre, but even the likes of Galileo or Descartes owed a great deal to the development of mathematics and mathematical textbooks in the late medieval unitversity. Yet, in this reviewer’s assessment, the greatest virtue of Oosterhoff’s book is its accessibility to non-specialists and the valuable insights it affords into the background of one of the key figures of the Reformation in France. I am not an expert in the history of science and mathematics, and as such, I cannot in good faith speak to Oosterhoff’s contributions to that field. Rather, I approached his book as a scholar of Marguerite de Navarre and the Circle of Meaux, one much more familiar with Lefèvre’s commentaries on Paul and French New Testament than with the editions of Aristotle or George of Trebizond that occupied the greater part of his scholarly career, and I was pleasantly surprised at how valuable a read this proved to be for me. While it is not a biography of Lefèvre per se, the book does an excellent job of tracing the intellectual trajectory of the humanist from Picardy and of stressing the continuities between the Lefèvre of Cardinal Lemoine and the Lefèvre of the Circle of Meaux. In particular, I benefited greatly from Oosterhoff’s situation of Lefèvre’s interest in mathematics in the context of late medieval ecclesiastical reform, his account of Lefèvre’s enthusiasm for the thirteenth-century Catalan polymath Ramon Llull as a ‘Pauline fool’ (p. 40), and his description of Lefèvre’s Dialogus difficilium physicalium introductorius (Introductory Dialogue on More Difficult Physics) as a vehicle for applying Aristotelian friendship to scholarly discussion. This last point, according to which Lefèvre strives to [End Page 624] replace scholastic disputation with conversation between friends ‘whose mutual goodwill is buoyed up by shared love for intellectual goods’ (p. 189), is not without similarities to the supreme importance placed on charity and accommodation in Lefèvre’s Pauline commentaries and in other texts of the Circle of Meaux. In short, while historians of science and mathematics cannot afford to miss Oosterhoff’s study, scholars of the late medieval and sixteenth-century Reformation and of evangelical humanism will also find it a highly useful read.

Scott Francis
University of Pennsylvania


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pp. 624-625
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