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Editing the Correspondence of Johannes Hevelius

On 26 September 1679, while the astronomer Johannes Hevelius and his wife Elizabetha were spending a relaxing evening in gardens outside the gates of their home city of Danzig (Gdańsk), fire consumed their house in the old town. A large part of their possessions, books, personal manuscripts, and instruments, was destroyed; by the following morning the observatory which Hevelius had carefully erected on the roof of the house lay in ruins.

Much was irretrievably lost, but remarkably the letters he had exchanged with the learned men and women of Europe, including Kepler, Boulliau, Gassendi, Christiaan Huygens, Oldenburg, Wallis, and Kircher, together with his treasured collection of Kepler manuscripts, survived. At that time comprising thirteen volumes, the correspondence of Hevelius constitutes one of the great resources for the study and appreciation of early modern scientific networks.


Hevelius’s 45m focal-length telescope.


Johannes Hevelius.

Making this extraordinarily rich corpus available to the wider scholarly community is the task of a major collaborative editorial project currently underway in France, Germany, and Poland, of which I am pleased to be serving on the advisory committee. With most of the over 2,700 surviving letters now housed in collections at the BNF and the Bibliothèque de l’Observatoire in Paris, it was particularly fitting that the director of the French team Professor Chantal Grell (University of Versailles) – accompanied by Professor Robert Halleux (University of Liège) – should inform our third seminar series of the background and methodologies of this ambitious enterprise on Thursday 10 May. In a talk entitled ‘Editing the Correspondence of Johannes Hevelius: Networks, Themes, and Methodological Challenges’, Chantal first provided an overview of Hevelius’s life and letters, before giving a lively account of the complex archival afterlives of the astronomer’s epistolary collection following his death in 1687, including details of the letters famously purloined by Guillaume Libri in the mid-nineteenth century. Following a conspectus of Hevelius’s many correspondents, Chantal concluded with an analysis of the exemplary seventeenth-century scientific exchange between Hevelius and Pierre de Noyers, the secretary to the Queen of Poland. Following an interesting question and answer session – which included, inter alia, discussion of the benefits and challenges of balancing hard copy and digital outputs within large-scale correspondence projects – the evening came to fitting conclusion with a visit to the opening of the Renaissance in Astronomy exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science.

Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future talks in the series, please see the seminar webpage. All are welcome!

CofK Participates in Hevelius Conference in Gdańsk


Philip consults the Cometographia.


Kim introduces the union catalogue.

CofK Research Fellow, Philip Beeley, and Editor, Kim McLean-Fiander, have recently returned from Poland after participating in a conference on Johannes Hevelius: The Burgher of Gdańsk and his Work. Hosted by the Gdańsk Scientific Society on 24-25 November, and taking place in the splendid historic setting of the Main Town Hall, the conference was organised to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of one of the city’s most famous sons, the astronomer, instrument maker, inventor, brewer, printing-house owner, and town councillor, Johannes Hevelius (1611-87).

The conference opened with a special viewing of some of the Hevelian treasures of the Polish Academy of Sciences Library, including the Cometographia. His life and works were then examined from a wide range of perspectives by speakers from Poland, France, Italy, and the UK on topics such as the correlations between Hevelius’s astronomical observations in Gdańsk and those taken by Jean Picard on the same day in Paris; the controversy which arose between Hevelius and Adrien Auzout over systems for tracking comet paths; Hevelius’s work as an inventor of scientific instruments and the pendulum clock; his curriculum whilst attending the Gdańsk Academic Gymnasium; and his vocational experiences as city councillor, brewer, and printing-house owner. After a private viewing of the Main Town Hall’s excellent exhibition Johannes Hevelius and Gdańsk of his Times, Philip opened Friday afternoon’s session with a paper on ‘Hevelius, Hartlib, and Wallis: Early Modern Ideals of Scientific Collaboration’, which argued that this tripartite correspondence between Oxford, London, and Danzig exemplified, as no other, the ideals of the Republic of Letters: intellectual collaboration and exchange as a means to promote the growth of knowledge. Drawing on examples from these and other correspondents within Hevelius’s circle, Kim then demonstrated our forthcoming digital union catalogue of intellectual correspondence, revealing how it allows researchers not only to locate often elusive and dispersed early modern letters, but also to interrogate them in new and exciting ways.

Kim and Philip would like to thank their Polish hosts, in particular Professor Marian Turek and his wife Liz, for their warm hospitality and the invitation to attend the conference in this beautiful Pomeranian city.

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.

podcast_icon2Podcast now available on the seminar page!

Seminar 1: De-Centring the Big Picture


Professor Hatch during his talk.


Discussions continue over wine.

In the opening paper of our second seminar series on Thursday 5 May, Professor Robert A. Hatch (University of Florida) got us off to a rousing start with a paper entitled ‘De-Centring the Big Picture: The Scientific Revolution and the Republic of Letters’. In a wide-ranging and suggestive analysis, Hatch argued that correspondence networks were the foremost facilitators of the new science in the early modern period (and vice versa), and for the creation and of vibrant intellectual communities around emergent fields such as astronomy. Compared to printed texts, suggested Hatch, letters were immediate and inclusive, situated the discussion of intellectual themes within the minutia of daily life, and were the primary medium for the gestation and discussion as well as the ultimate dissemination of scientific ideas in this period. The importance of scribal publication as an end in itself throughout the seventeenth century was further emphasized during discussion. Hatch illustrated his talk with a dazzling series of maps and graphs generated from his impressive personal database of scientific correspondences (which includes metadata on the letters of Peiresc, Gassendi, Bouilliau, and many other luminaries), although the necessity of combining quantitative exercises with qualitiative assessments of the formation of epistolary archives was underlined during a lively question and answer session. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future talks in the series, please see the seminar webpage.

Seminar 1: Scholarly Correspondence from the Jesuits

Dr Noël Golvers answers questions following his talk.

In the opening paper of the Project’s seminar series on Thursday 29 April, Dr Noël Golvers (Catholic University of Leuven) provided a large audience with a fascinating overview of the contours, chronology, and thematic preoccupations of ‘Scholarly Correspondence from the Jesuits in China with Europe (17th–18th Centuries)’. In a wide-ranging analysis, Golvers argued for the strategic importance of a large, well-regulated correspondence network to this administratively complex and geographically distributed community, a network which frequently and increasingly sustained communication on scientific matters alongside confessional and organizational subjects (previously used by Golvers to shed light on Jesuit contributions to astronomy and mathematics). He provided an overview of the characteristics of the correspondence generated by the China mission, information on transfer routes (both overseas and overland), and a synopsis of the broad range of learned topics they covered, especially from the 1680s (including mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and cartography). He also considered the impact of the letters on contemporary European readers, as well as their descent to and organisation within modern archives and collections. Overall, the paper provided fresh insights into both a particular epistolary culture of knowledge, and a neglected source for seventeenth-century European and world history more generally. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future seminars in the series, please see here.

podcast_icon2Podcast now available on the seminar page!