Seminar 8: The Correspondence Networks of John Wallis


Kneller's 1699 portrait of Wallis in situ.


A telling epistolary detail.

In the eighth and final paper of our second seminar series on Thursday 23 June, our very own Dr Philip Beeley (University of Oxford) brought proceedings to a strong finish with a paper entitled ‘Oxford Science and the Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Networks of John Wallis’. Drawing on his intensive research on Wallis’s letters – two hard-copy editions of which he is preparing for publication with the support of the Project – Beeley argued that, in the absence of direct patronage, Wallis’s 246 individual correspondences enabled the mathematician, cryptographer, and (from 1649) Savilian Professor of Geometry to establish a name for himself within the broader European Republic of Letters. Indeed, the importance of epistolarity to Wallis is iconographically symbolised by the prominence of an opened letter in Kneller’s 1699 portrait of him (pictured), which now hangs in the University’s Examination Schools. Focussing on case studies, Philip used Wallis’s harmonious communications with the Danzig astronomer Johannes Hevelius to show how epistolary exchanges between distant friends could facilitate the kind of productive intellectual commerce and collaboration idealized by Comenius, Hartlib, and (in the context of the early Royal Society) Henry Oldenburg. However, switching his focus to Wallis’s more turbulent astronomical entanglements with the Dutch mathematicians Christiaan Huygens and Frans van Schooten, Beeley reminded us that the Republic of Letters was far from a gentleman’s club, and that interpersonal rivalries, methodological disuputes, accusations of plagiarism, and the quest for success and status remained powerful influences on scientific discussion throughout the second half of the seventeenth century. Questions focused on letters, mathematical pedagogy, and disciplinary formation; the importance of the patronage of Mary Vere during the first part of Wallis’s career; and unwritten codes of conduct and behaviour within the Republic of Letters. For past lectures in the series, please see the seminar webpage; details of the 2011 series will be available shortly.

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