Locke, Species, and Money

Sunday, October 21st, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | 2 Comments

Dan Carey (Galway) writes…

The early modern debate over species – whether they exist in nature or merely represent a convenience imposed by language – featured an important intervention by John Locke. Locke famously attributed the designation of species to so-called nominal essences defined by observable qualities and properties of things. Natural philosophy was tasked with enhancing observation and thereby creating a better match between ideas and the words applied to them. One of the questions raised in recent criticism has been whether Locke believed in the real existence of species in nature despite his conventionalism about classifying them, and if so, how their existence might serve to constrain our nominal essences.

The widespread use of the word ‘species’ was not confined to natural history in the early modern period. Another area in which it arose was in the context of disputes over money which proliferated in the 1690s in England during the recoinage crisis. Locke also intervened in this debate. Faced with currency radically depleted of silver by clipping (on average by 50%) the choice was whether to opt for a devaluation or to ‘revalue’ it at the existing legal standard – recalling all the coin in circulation and reminting it at full weight. Locke favoured this solution and a plan largely supported by his principles prevailed in Parliament.

In Locke’s philosophy, money constituted a ‘mixed mode’ – basically a concept formed from what he called ‘voluntary combinations’ of ideas, known by definition rather than ostensive reference. In the case of mixed modes, ‘the essence of each species’ was made ‘by men alone’ (Essay, II.xxxii.12) and therefore no distinction existed between their real and nominal essences.

The scope for introducing new species – allowed by money’s status as a mixed mode – appears in several innovative proposals made during the monetary crisis of the 1690s. Three of the main advocates of a land bank to generate funds, John Asgill, John Briscoe, and Hugh Chamberlen, all referred to their schemes as creating a new species of money. Asgill made this explicit in the title of his book Several Assertions Proved, in Order to Create another Species of Money than Gold and Silver (1696). Not everyone was so cheerful at the prospect of such innovation. One of Locke’s economic supporters complained that, in the case of the Bank of England, its failure to honour the promise to exchange bank notes on demand for hard currency led to decline in the value of paper, which merited describing it as ‘perfectly a new Species of Clip’d Money’.

We can gain an insight into Locke’s attitude to species, I would argue, by attending to his position on money. Rather than endorsing changes of meaning at will (like the kind proposed by advocates of devaluation) he sought to anchor the definition of money in something outside of personal fancy or expediency. For him, the value of coin was set by the amount of silver it contained by weight – not by any stamp or arbitrary denomination given to it. Furthermore, the standard had been set at the Mint at 5s. 2d. per ounce and it should not, like other systems of measurement, be tampered with. Many arguments compelled this conclusion, but one of the most telling was that international exchange dictated that the value of money rested on ‘intrinsic’ silver quantity.

On his own analysis of mixed modes, Locke could have arrived at a different assessment. He could have seen devaluation as merely a new definition of money, agreed by common consent. What he searched for, evidently, was a secure criterion of meaning that was external and invariable – in other words something to constrain the freedom associated with mixed modes. We cannot, of course, conclude directly from this that Locke was similarly committed to the idea that nature constrains our species terminology, but there is at least a pattern worth observing in which a radical nominalism held no appeal for him. In nature, the standard might come from observable properties rather than discernable ‘real essences’ but here too he sought a more regulated system, governed by intersubjective criteria.

Discussions of Taste in Scottish societies

Monday, October 1st, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Juan Gomez writes…

The Royal Society of London (RSL) is perhaps the most known academic society of the early modern period. Some of the most famous scientists of all time were members of this society, among them Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton, just to name a few.  The society had such an impact that it inspired intellectuals all across Europe to establish academic societies modelled on the RSL. Scotland was no exception, and arguably its philosophical societies were the birthplaces and testing grounds for some of the most influential ideas of the time. For example, Adam Smith presented at the Aberdeen Philosophical Society drafts of his work to be discussed among the members (Thomas Reid, George Campbell, and Alexander Gerard among them). This is just an example of one of the many philosophical societies established in Scotland during the eighteenth-century. In this post I wish to draw attention to one of the topics with which the enlightened members of these societies were preoccupied: the matter of taste.

One of the features of eighteenth-century British ‘aesthetics’ is the focus on the concept of taste. Perhaps the most famous discussion is found in David Hume’s essay Of the standard of taste. Hume was not the only one discussing the topic. The Scottish literati in general found this topics worthy of discussion in their learned societies.

If we examine the extant question lists of four of the most important Scottish philosophical societies (the Belles Lettres of Edinburgh (BLE), the Select Society of Edinburgh (SSE), the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (APS) and the Glasgow Literary Society (GLS)), we come up with 138 total questions regarding issues that we would now call ‘aesthetic.’ The contents of the discussions cover a wide range of issues: beauty, pleasure, and taste, as well as the characteristics of the particular arts, on particular artists, on genius, on criticism, and on the connections amongst ‘aesthetics’, morals, and society. This wide variety of topics is by itself evidence of the importance enlightened Scotsmen placed on discussing ‘aesthetic’ issues. Let’s look at some of these questions in more detail.


Eighteenth-century thinkers investigated of the origin of the pleasure that we experience from objects of art and how this process occurs. For example, Hutcheson focused on uniformity amidst variety, and Hume talked about qualities in the objects disposed to cause pleasure. The topic was also discussed in the learned societies:

  • In the BLE they asked “From what principle in human nature can the pleasure arising from inhuman spectacles be accounted for?”
  • In the LSG Dr. Robert Trail, Professor of Divinity at University of Glasgow read some reflections on theories concerning the sublime and beautiful.
  • In the APS George Campbell proposed to discuss a question, namely “What is the cause of that pleasure we have from representations or objects which excite pity or other painful feelings?”
  • In the SSE they considered the pleasure from the artists’ perspective asking “Whether doth one author feel more pleasure or pain.”


Taste, probably the element most commonly associated with eighteenth-century aesthetic theories, was also a topic of discussion in the meetings of the societies:

  • In the BLE, Mr. James Rose gave a discourse “on the connection of taste and judgment”
  • In Glasgow, Dr, Robert Trail read some “reflections on taste”, and Dr. William Wight, Professor of Church History, considered the following question:  “Are there any certain principles upon which we can judge of the production of poetry and the finer arts, or is there any criterion of taste?”
  • In the SSE they debated two questions regarding taste, namely, “whether a fine taste is the gift of nature or the product of experience and may be acquired?” and “whether is there any such thing as taste?”
  • The Aberdeen intellectuals also discussed the issue, proposed by James Beattie who presented two discourses on the “principles which determine our approbation in the fine arts.” They also discussed the question “Is there a standard of taste in fine arts and polite writing? And how is that standard to be ascertained?”


A closely related topic to taste, one characteristic of the eighteenth-century, was the concept of genius. This was a very popular topic and was brought up with certain frequency in the debates of each of the societies.

  • In the BLE they discussed a question, namely “What are the chief concurring circumstances that contribute most to the polishing the genius or natural parts of mankind?”
  • In Glasgow Mr. Robert Foulis, university printer gave a discourse on “the discovery and culture of genius,” and later on Mr. George Muirhead, professor of Humanity focused on one particular genius, Homer, and proposed two questions to be debated: “What is the reason we have seen no such poet as Homer arise in a savage country?” and “What were the chief causes which account for the excellences of Homer as a poet?”
  • In the SSE they also discussed the genius in particular with this historical focus, when they proposed the question “Whether are the greatest efforts of genius made at the revival of letters after an age of barbarism?”
  • The members of the APS discussed a number of questions on the topic: “In the perfection of what faculty does genius consist? Or if in a combination of faculties, what are they?”; “Whether there is any degeneracy of genius in the moderns?”; “Whether music or poetry gives the greatest scope to genius?” and “Whether any account can be given of the causes, why great geniuses have arisen at the periods which have been most remarkable for them, and why they have frequently arisen in clusters?” Alexander Gerard presented drafts of what was later to become his Essay on genius.

This is only a sample of the aesthetic topics discussed in the learned societies. In a future post, I will show how these discussions informed and aided the development of the thought of some of the most influential thinkers of the period.

Editing De Doctrina Christiana

Monday, September 24th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

John Hale writes…

The narrative of the editing of De Doctrina Christiana for Oxford’s new The Complete Works of John Milton is like that of the Muppet Movie, a “narrative of very heavy duty proportions”. Our task began back in 1993, when I joined a group researching the authorship of De Doctrina. Because Milton’s authorship had been questioned, this multidisciplinary group tested it by diverse means – statistical, bibliographical, stylistic and so on. With the authorship upheld, my task shifted around 2000 to transcribing the manuscript, before editing and translating it, for the new Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Milton. In 2003 I was joined by Donald Cullington. Ten years later, we are free men again, and looking forward to holding the two thick volumes in our hands. Publication day was 13 September in the UK, though the authorial copies haven’t arrived yet.

We are the fourth such collaborative edition. The first edition was in 1825 by Charles, later Bishop, Sumner. Miraculously he completed the work in only two years. He had some help, whose nature and limits are not clearly defined, from William Walker; also from green tea and a wet bandage for the forehead  to enable him to “sit up night after night until three or four o’clock in the morning.” He saved some time, and introduced distortions of Milton’s Latin bible, by using the English King James version for the teeming citations which comprise half of the whole huge text. The next collaboration, that of James Holly Hanford and Waldo H. Dunn for the Columbia collected Milton (1930s), has left no record of how their work was done. It derived much from Sumner’s. Third came volume VI of the Yale Prose Works edition. Yale is unsurpassed in its annotations and scholarship, both historical and theological. But it offers no Latin text. Milton’s own words are not to be found. John Carey’s brilliant translation, which rightly included his own fresh rendering of the thousands of biblical citations, is widely used nowadays, as if its lucid and concise self-consistency might replace Milton’s diverse and uneven Latin, which ranges from high to low to confused register.

Our own edition seeks fidelity, the fidelity of transcribing the manuscript afresh, warts and all, and only emending when it becomes nonsense; and correspondingly of translating with literal accuracy, and completeness, as aims we place ahead of elegance. We did it like this in order that the English might show more of Milton’s real style, which is often otiose, excessively periodic, turgid or partisan; soaring and sinking by turns; in a word, idiosyncratic. Computer applications have helped, naturally, and retirement is another advantage we have enjoyed. Our routine has been the opposite of Sumner’s. Not late nights, but early mornings. As the work neared its eventual completion, 3 or 4 a.m. became for each of us the time of starting not finishing for the day. No green tea nor wet bandages in sight.

In the intervals of copy-editing, and of four stages of proof-reading (OUP are marvellously thorough!), we have been writing notes, essays, talks and blogs, on some of the trains of thought which the requirements of time and of the edition precluded. A joint essay is appearing in December in Milton Studies. These by-products are continuing, in the form of an address to the recent International Milton Symposium in Tokyo (August), to the forthcoming British Milton Symposium meeting (October), and in a talk in Washington DC on my way home (November). Publication in America is later than in the UK, so this talk should serve to keep the pot boiling, as do the various blogs written for OUP and for the Otago research theme.


John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington’s The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII De Doctrina Christiana

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments


We are very pleased to announce that John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington’s The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII De Doctrina Christiana has just appeared with Oxford University Press:

The second of eleven volumes of Milton’s Complete Works to be published contains his systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana. It is his longest work and was, Milton said, his dearest possession. In it, he works out his religious beliefs from Scripture; what Scripture does not mention, such as the Trinity, he energetically refutes. The work exists in manuscript and was written in Latin for European as well as home consumption. Its chapters are conceived and arranged according to the binarizing logic devised by the Protestant martyr Ramus.

De Doctrina Christiana first appeared in print nearly two hundred years ago but the previous editions are now overdue for replacement. For this ground-breaking edition, the manuscript has been freshly transcribed, with fuller textual apparatus and commentary than in any of its few predecessors. The edition aims above all at accuracy, clarity, and completeness, presenting Latin and English on facing pages, amplifying the Biblical citations where necessary, and adding extensive annotations not only on the text and its transcription but also on the content and context of Milton’s ideas. The provenance and history of the work are expertly narrated, enabling readers to get closer than ever before to its composition. Milton’s Latin is examined in unprecedented detail, and the translation aims to reproduce the nuances and changes of register which characterize his Latin in all its individuality – from the high-flown rhetoric of his arguments in favour of divorce and polygamy, and against tithing, to the plainer style of those sections where he states his main points more dispassionately but bolsters them with strong and wide-ranging Biblical support. The structure of this massive edifice is clarified by the addition of charts which show the Ramist scheme he followed, whereby the primary division between faith (Book One) and worship (Book Two) is mirrored by smaller and smaller subdivisions whose relationship to the whole can be seen at a glance.


Looking back: PATS workshop on Interdisciplinarity

Monday, September 17th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Juan Gomez writes…

A few weeks ago the Early Modern Thought Research Theme here at Otago hosted a colloquium on “Practical Knowledges and Skill in Early Modern England.” After two days of great talks, postgraduate students were able to take part in an ANZAMEMS sponsored workshop on “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Research.” I took part in the workshop and in today’s post I want to share my thoughts on what turned out to be an outstanding event.

The main purpose of the workshop was to give postgraduate students tools to enhance current and future research projects. With this in mind, the speakers shared how they had each in their own way been engaged with this interdisciplinary aspect of the Early Modern period. The talks were followed by practical sessions where we had the opportunity to think about and develop our research projects from an interdisciplinary perspective. The whole workshop was a huge success and I am sure I am not the only one that now has a better idea of how beneficial it is for research in the early modern period to look at/borrow from/collaborate with other disciplines.

Of special interest to me were the talks given by Peter Harrison on “Disciplinary boundaries in intellectual history: science, religion & philosophy” and Andrew Bradstock on “Religious language in early modern texts.” Harrison’s talk was a very clear example of the interdisciplinary nature of the Early Modern period. It highlighted how three disciplines–science, religion, and philosophy, disciplines that to our modern eyes seem very distinct–drew on each other constantly. As readers of this blog know, I have done some research on George Turnbull’s work on Jesus Christ and miracles that exemplify this interaction between science, religion, and philosophy in the eighteenth century.

Andrew Bradstock’s talk made me think about how my research on Turnbull can be tremendously enhanced by drawing on the religious context of the time. For example,Turnbull’s Principles of Christian Philosophy draws heavily on passages from the bible, some of them with which am not that familiar or might not know their significance at the time. By working with someone emersed the history of religion or acquiring knowledge of it, I can add another layer to my research that will enrich our understanding of Turnbull’s thought.

The workshop made it clear that crossing the boundaries of a particular discipline is not only fruitful, but even necessary when engaged in early modern research. Given that there is a natural characteristic of interdisciplinarity to the early modern period, we must leave the comfort zone of our own discipline if we want to carry out our research projects properly. Most of us have actually done this without noticing that we are engaged in interdisciplinary research. The workshop brought this to my attention, and I started thinking about the many ways in which my research would have been improved if I had consciously made an effort to enrich my understanding of any given topic by allowing myself to explore what other disciplines have to offer. And this enrichment of knowledge works both ways: there are projects stationed in other disciplines that would be enhanced by what I have to offer as a researcher from a specific discipline, with a specific skill set.

This is not to say that early modern research cannot be carried out other than in an interdisciplinary manner, but rather that through interdisciplinarity we can enhance tremendously the research projects we are all developing from our specific discipline.


Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Research Postgraduate Workshop Complete

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

The Otago Early Modern Thought Research Theme, in conjunction with ANZAMEMS, has successfully completed our first postgraduate workshop on “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Research.”  The workshop attracted eighteen postgraduates and early career researchers from across five disciplines (English, History, Music, Philosophy, and Religion) from twelve Australasian universities, all who came to work through practical issues faced in interdisciplinary research and to engage with scholars presently engaged in interdisciplinarity.  The two-day workshop had papers and sessions from the following facilitators:

Peter Marshall (Warwick) “Confessions of an accidental interdisciplinist”

Lyn Tribble (Otago) and John Sutton (Macquarie) “‘Mapping’ disciplines other than your own”

Peter Harrison (Queensland) “Disciplinary boundaries in intellectual history: science, religion & philosophy”

Andrew Bradstock (Otago) “Religious language in early modern texts”

Stephen Clucas (Birbeck) “Whose disciplines are we between? The case of John Dee’s Mathematicall Praeface (1570)”

Peter Anstey (Otago) “Theoretical reflections on interdisciplinary research”

Takashi Shogimen (Otago) “Metaphor and the reconstruction of context in intellectual history”

The workshop proved successful not only in gathering such diverse early and more-established researchers together, but also in exhibiting that the future of early modern and medieval research looks promising indeed.


Re-Examining Light on the Early Modern Stage

Monday, August 27th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Neil Vallelly writes…

Light was a prominent trope on the early modern stage. In fact, I challenge you to find any edition of an early modern play that does not use light conceptually in some shape or form. We can think of endless examples. Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost (ca.1595), for instance: “Light, seeking, light, doth light of light beguile” (1.1.77). Perhaps, Middleton in The Revenger’s Tragedy (ca.1607): “Yet still the maid like an unlighted taper / Was cold and chaste” (2.2.55-56). Or, John Marston in Antonio’s Revenge (ca.1599): “The bulk of man’s as dark as Erebus, / No branch of reason’s light hangs in his trunk” (1.4.25-26). All of these examples take light as a thing, something that we take to be real and that we experience in the world, and represent it through language.

Light was used in the early modern era to represent a broad range of concepts from divinity to race, from optics to chastity. I am interested less in the meanings of these tropes and more in the cognitive processes involved in how light came to represent such and such. Why and how did light come to represent such a broad range of concepts? What made light such an accessible material for conceptualization? Do modern representations of light differ from historical representations? If so, why?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their work on embodied cognition (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) suggest that “our categories of things in the world determine what we take to be real: trees, rocks, animals, people, buildings and so on” and they conclude that “our concepts must characterize the structure of our categories sufficiently well enough for us to function” (21). We can say that the ways in which we have come to conceptualize light in language characterize the ways in which we experience light in the world. That is not to say that this process is diagrammatic or lineal, but rather it is to suggest that the ways in which we represent “light” cannot be separated from the ways in which we categorize light. In effect, I am following Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s expression that “our effective involvement in the world is precisely what has to be understood and made amendable to conceptualisation” (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945: xvi).

So, what does this mean for the study of light on the early modern stage? Well, light was a radically different phenomenon in the early modern world. The stark contrast between day and night, the limited materials of artificial lighting, the lack of uniformed lighting in social spaces, and cosmological and ontological beliefs about light mean that the conditions of thought in the early modern world differ radically from the scientific and twenty-four hour world that we inhabit. Furthermore, the experience of early modern theatre was subjected to lighting conditions far removed from modern theatrical experiences. In modern theatre, light plays a directorial role by suggesting to us where our attention should be directed and has the ability to conveniently alter lighting states in order to indicate whether a scene takes place during the day or at night. In early modern theatre, however, light was less of a concern. Attention was directed more through sound and kinesics. Also, linguistic and material signifiers, such as an actor carrying a lantern, were used to denote the time of day that a scene took place.

What we come to realize is that the early modern individual conceptualized light against a vastly different world than we do. Thus, in order to truly understand what light represented on the stage we must firstly explore the ecologies and materials of light in the early modern world. Secondly, we must investigate how these ecologies and materials were experienced in everyday life. It is through this dynamic interaction of body and world that Shakespeare and his contemporaries conceptualized light.

A few thoughts on early modern skill

Monday, August 20th, 2012 | EVELYN TRIBBLE | No Comments

One of my favourite accounts of skill comes from Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus: or the Art of Shooting. Writing in 1545 to promote the ancient English art of shooting with the longbow, Ascham describes the tight connection between expert performance and the pleasures associated with watching skilled action.

For this I am sure, in learning all other matters, nothing is brought to the most profitable use, which is not handled after the most comely fashion. As masters of fence have no stroke fit either to hit another, or else to defend himself, which is not joined with a wonderful comeliness. A cook cannot chop his herbs neither quickly nor handsomely, except he keep such a measure with his chopping-knives as would delight a man both to see him and hear him. Every handcraftman that works best for his own profit, works most seemly to other men’s sight. Again, in building a house, in making a ship, every part, the more handsomely they be joined for profit and last, the more comely they be fashioned to every man’s sight and eye.

The key word for Ascham here is ‘comeliness,’ a word which conveys the union of beauty, grace, and utility. He seems to be reaching for the same concepts that Olympic commentators invoke when they say of  a pole vaulter, a diver, or a weightlifter that ‘she makes it look easy.’ Fluid rhythms, economy of movement, efficiency of technique –the actions that are the most pleasing to the eye are also those that produce the greatest utility. In archery, Ascham admires the almost seamless integration of the instrument with the skilled body of the archer (one wonders what he would have made of technology of modern bows).

Our colloquium next week on Practical Knowledge and Skill in Early Modern England will look at skill and practical knowledge in domains as diverse as science, natural philosophy, religion, and theatre. Will we find a common vocabulary for discussing skill across these fields?

The origins of ‘solar system’

Monday, August 13th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Peter Anstey writes…

The Cartesian vortex theory of planetary motions came under serious suspicion in England in the early 1680s. To be sure, many still spoke of ‘our vortex’ well into the 1680s and ’90s, such as Robert Boyle in his Notion of Nature of 1686 (Works, eds. Hunter and Davis, London, 1999–2000, 10, p. 508), but by the early 1690s the new Newtonian cosmology was coming to be widely accepted and many in England thought that the vortex theory had been disproved. By that time the vortex theory of planetary motions had come to be seen as the archetypal form of speculative natural philosophy. What was required then was a new descriptor for that cosmological structure in which the earth is located. And a new term was soon deployed, namely, ‘solar system’.

Some have claimed that it was John Locke who coined the term ‘solar system’. In fact, the OED lists Locke’s Elements of Natural Philosophy, which it dates at c.1704, as the earliest occurrence. However, the term first appears in his writings in Some Thoughts concerning Education of 1693 where speaking of Newton’s ‘admirable Book’ about ‘this our Planetary World’, he says,

his Book will deserve to be read, and give no small light and pleasure to those, who willing to understand the Motions, Properties, and Operations of the great Masses of Matter, in this our Solar System, will but carefully mind his Conclusions… (Clarendon edition, 1989, p. 249)

Interestingly, a quick word search of EEBO reveals that the term was also used by Richard Bentley in his seventh Boyle lecture of 7 November 1692, but published in 1693 in a volume that Locke owned (Folly & Unreasonableness of Atheism, London). Bentley uses the term in an argument for the existence of God on the basis of the claim that the fixed stars all have the power of gravity. It is God who prevents the whole system from collapsing into a common centre:

here’s an innumerable multitude of Fixt Starrs or Suns; all of which are demonstrated (and supposed also by our Adversaries) to have Mutual Attraction: or if they have not; even Not to have it is an equal Proof of a Divine Being, that hath so arbitrarily indued Matter with a Power of Gravity not essential to it, and hath confined its action to the Matter of its own Solar System: I say, all the Fixt Starrs have a principle of mutual Gravitation; and yet they are neither revolved about a common Center, nor have any Transverse Impulse nor any thing else to restrain them from approaching toward each other, as their Gravitating Powers incite them. Now what Natural Cause can overcome Nature it self? What is it that holds and keeps them in fixed Stations and Intervals against an incessant and inherent Tendency to desert them? (p. 37, underlining added)

There is no evidence, however, that Bentley was using the term as an alternative to ‘our vortex’. In a letter to Newton of 18 February 1693 he speaks unabashedly of matter that ‘is found in our Suns Vortex’.

Who published the word first? Bentley’s seventh Boyle lecture was not published separately, but appeared in the 1693 volume, the last lecture of which was not given its imprimatur until 30 May that year. Locke’s book was advertised in the London Gazette #2886 for 6–10 July. I have not been able to establish exactly when Bentley’s volume appeared, but it’s not mentioned in the London Gazette before #2886.

Whatever the case, it is most likely that the term was already ‘in the air’ and history shows that it was soon widely used and, of course, it is a commonplace today.

(N.B. This post also appears on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog.)

The ‘Reliability’ of the Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Monday, August 6th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Tim Cooper writes…

The autobiography of the leading English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91) was edited by his close friend and fellow Nonconformist minister Matthew Sylvester, and published in 1691 under the title Reliquiae Baxterianae.  No wonder Sylvester began his Preface to the Reader with an apology for the five-year delay in publication: the whole work is around eight-hundred pages long or, to be precise, 644,149 words.  Sylvester has been generally criticized for his editorial efforts but he did his best with what was a near-impossible task.  In the memorable words of William Lamont, the autobiography ‘is a sprawling monster containing everything but Baxter’s laundry list’.


A new edition of this sprawling monster is now in the offing.  I am one of a team of editors that is working to produce a critical edition of the Reliquiae to be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.  My colleagues in the project are Professor Neil Keeble, Professor John Coffey and Dr Thomas Charlton.  So I am rapidly developing an interest in seventeenth-century life-writing.  In November I will be presenting a paper to the North American Conference on British Studies.  In this post I would like to signal my broad intentions and ask for some help.


I am interested in the ‘reliability’ of the Reliquiae.  Being aware of just how much the word deserves its inverted commas,  I am very sensitive to just how tricky the concept of reliability will prove to be, given its proximity to the concept of truth: is the story that Baxter tells a true one?  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable?  Or is it distorted, partial and incomplete?  There are clear perils in trying to talk in these terms.  Of course Baxter’s account was partial and distorted – it could not have been anything else.  Yet in practical terms, historians (and scholars in other disciplines) will be required to use the Reliquiae for scholarly purposes.   I would like to be able to say something about how it should be approached and with what sort of confidence or reservations.


My intention is to compare the Reliquiae with an earlier and much briefer biographical account.  In April 1659 Baxter wrote the last chapter of A Holy Commonwealth, in which he answered the question ‘By what Reasons was I moved to engage myself in the Parliaments Warre?’ (p. 456).  It is a remarkably candid and fulsome explanation, quite different in tone from the way in which Baxter faced the same question (though he did not seek to answer it explicitly) in the Reliquiae, which he began to write five years later in 1664.  Obviously, neither account is without bias: there is a clear audience and purpose in in mind 1659, just as there is in 1664.  But I think something can be said about what is going on in the Reliquiae when it is placed alongside A Holy Commonwealth.  If nothing else, the events of 1659 (and 1660) altered the story that Baxter was able to tell himself, and they certainly altered the story he wanted to tell us.

I am only at the beginning of serious reading on the subject.  Already some generous colleagues have supplied a few welcome pointers.  But I would like to know of any scholarly discussion of the related issues of truth and reliability in early modern life-writing.  Can anyone send me to some helpful conversation partners to get me started?