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A ‘Hasty Blotted Scribble’: New Boyle Original Discovered

While ferreting around in the archives of Trinity College, Oxford finalizing annotations for Volume IV of The Correspondence of John Wallis, I came across a letter from Robert Boyle, the eminent natural philosopher, to the theologian and physician Ralph Bathurst, whose papers I was exploring. This manuscript was previously missing; while the letter is included in the monumental 2001 edition of Boyle’s complete correspondence (and can be consulted in Electronic Enlightenment), the editors had to base their text on a version of the letter in a 1761 print edition of Bathurst’s papers, rather than on this autograph original. Here’s the letter:

Trinity College Oxford Archive, Fellows 2/1/1: A new Boyle original. Images reproduced courtesy of Trinity College.

The missive – described by Boyle as a ‘hasty blotted scribble’ – is an intriguing one, shedding fascinating light on a failed publishing project. It was sent in April 1656, one of those Oxford months when lots of things were happening (even Henry Oldenburg was in town, inter alia, to sample the rich scientific culture developing in and around the university). Unfortunately for Oldenburg, two giants of the local philosophical scene were absent when he arrived. His friend Robert Boyle, who had moved to Oxford around the beginning of the year (and would stay on and off until 1668) had gone to London. Likewise in the metropolis was John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, who had gathered around him an illustrious circle of like-minded practitioners, including Seth Ward, Thomas Willis, and Wallis.

Sender Robert Boyle

Recipient Ralph Bathurst

One of Boyle’s main tasks while in London was evidently to see through the press a promising book by Ralph Bathurst, one of the members of this glittering cadre of experimentalists. A fellow of Trinity College, who would go on to be College president and later vice-chancellor of the University, Bathurst had written three lectures on respiration as part of his examination as doctor medicinae in 1654; during the following two years, these texts were circulated scribally among the Wilkins circle, which evidently suggested revisions and emendations. Bathurst added numerous marginal notes to the manuscript of the Praescriptiones tres de respiratione and – notoriously reluctant to publish his work – was probably encouraged to do so by his celebrated friends. Boyle headed to the capital with the manuscript to spearhead the enterprise.

Bathurst’s letter book

Objects and Letter-Objects

In the absence of Boyle and Wilkins (the two men who had promoted the venture most strongly), however, Bathurst began to get cold feet. Probably around the end of March, in a letter that is now lost he wrote to Boyle in London to inform him of his change of heart and to request that the manuscript be returned. Boyle did not receive the letter immediately, for he had been invited by Wilkins to inspect some peculiar natural phenomena elsewhere. Writing back to Bathurst in the April letter, Boyle expressed his disappointment at the ‘unwelcome orders you send me, concerning your excellent Lectures’, which presumably placed him in an awkward position. Indeed, Wilkins was evidently hoping to get plans back on track, and instructed Boyle not to follow Bathurst’s wish ‘to have those Jewells sent backe to Oxford’.

The efforts of Wilkins and Boyle to save the book were to no avail; Bathurst’s Praescriptiones tres de respiratione first saw light of day when it was published posthumously – alongside this letter – in Warton’s The Life and Literary Remains of Ralph Bathurst (London, 1761). The collapse of the project to publish Bathurst’s Praescriptiones illustrates the close relations between knowledge-makers in Oxford and London at this time. The incident even came to the attention of Samuel Hartlib, who recorded in his Ephemerides ‘Mr Boyle knows one that hath an excellent Ms. De Respiratione which hee will not publish’.

We are extremely grateful to Professor Michael Hunter for confirming the originality of this manuscript and for additional help and advice on its background.

Death in the Privy (or, Strange Things Done in Sleep)

As I finalise annotations for Volume IV of The Correspondence of John Wallis (OUP), I encountered afresh one of the more curious letters in the corpus (pdf). In characteristic fashion for Wallis, the missive – written to Henry Oldenburg in April 1674 and read aloud at the Royal Society – concerns lofty topics, including Robert Hooke’s efforts to measure stellar parallax and thus to provide incontrovertible proof of the motion of the Earth. However, at the end of the letter, we find a rather more tragic story on a very human scale.

Wallis relates the tale of two young Danish scholars, the brothers Peter and Martin Rosenstand, who had resided in Oxford since late 1672 in the lodging house of a Mrs Mumford near the Sheldonian Theatre (Peter, incidentally, was the letter’s bearer). The pair rapidly gained a reputation throughout the city for combining impeccable scholarship, good manners, and sparkling wit; they were ‘civil persons, studious and good scholars’, according to Wallis, whose ‘commendable and ingenuous conversation’ had won them ‘acquaintance with persons of the best quality’. However, these halcyon days were not to last, for Wallis reports an ‘astonishing accident’ which took place the previous Candlemas Day (2 February). Martin, the elder brother at age twenty, ‘was found in the House of office, some distance from the house… he lay in, dead’, with severe contusions to the neck. Although his injuries were consistent with hanging, Wallis could not believe that such a dazzling young man could commit such a heinous act as ending his own life – suicide was a serious crime in early modern England – and so floated the theory to Oldenburg that Martin had ‘in his sleep, or dream, hanged himself… it is not accountable how it should be otherwise’. This consoling explanation was apparently widely shared by seventeenth-century Oxford’s great and good as news of the ignoble death of a rising star sent shockwaves through the quads: ‘It hath occasioned many discourses… and many stories of strange things done in sleep’.

The Sheldonian Theatre, in the vicinity of which the Rosenstands lodged

The yard of St Mary Magdalen parish church in St Giles

This ‘favourable’ view (in Wallis’s terms) was not, however, subscribed to by the Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood, who provided a graphic account of the incident in his memoirs, the Life and Times (Volume II, pp. 280-1). While confirming Wallis’s claim that the siblings were ‘both the civilest men that ever came into that house [Mrs Mumford’s]’ (adding that Martin Rosenstand was ‘apt to blush’), for Wood the latter’s untimely passing was not a tragic misadventure but a willful act of self-destruction: ‘He rose up about four, struck fier, put off his shirt, went down naked (with his cote, loynings, hose and shoes in his armes), and so with the candle in his hand to the privy house, where (though I myself can just stand up in it) [he] hanged himself with his cravet, which came across his neck twice, upon a little rafter that went cross the house’. Moreover, in Wood’s version of events, Peter Rosenstand meddled with the scene in order to conceal his older brother’s actions: ‘His brother rising… went down to the privy house, and found him [Martin] stark naked hanging, tooke him downe and covered his privities with his coat, strived to conceal his death viz reporting that he died at his business’. This intervention notwithstanding, a surgeon ‘found that by his neck he had hanged himself’.

Whether Martin Rosenstand’s self-inflicted demise in a lavatory on a cold February morning in 1674 was deliberate or not, University coroner William Hopkins and his attending jury agreed with Wallis and the rest of Oxford’s learned community: the young Scandinavian had ‘hanged himself in his sleep… he dreamed of it, and so hanged himself’ (a verdict Wood deemed ‘doubtfull’). With the accidental nature of the death officially confirmed, Martin’s corpse was interred in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalen parish church at the southern end of St Giles at ten o’clock the following night, ‘close under the wall next to the stile or passage’ (church burials were denied to victims of suicide). Perhaps tellingly, ‘nobody [was] present but the carriers and clerk of the parish’…

Workshop: Anglo-French Correspondence in the 1600s

Update: Podcasts now available!

We are excited to be collaborating with the Maison Française d’Oxford on a small afternoon workshop entitled Lettres Françaises: Correspondence between England and France in the Seventeenth-Century, which will take place on Wednesday 27 June 2012.

Convened by Philip Beeley and Martine Pécharman, the workshop is a letter-specific installment of the MFO’s ongoing series Across the Channel: Intellectual Relations between England and France in the Early Modern Period, and will feature epistolary talks from Antony McKenna (on Pierre Bayle), Anna Marie Roos (on Martin Lister), and Ann Thomson and Sébastien Drouin (on Pierre des Maizeaux). The workshop will be held at the Maison, and there’s no need to register; for further details, please visit the workshop webpage.

The Correspondence of John Wallis: Introducing Volume III


We are pleased to report that Volume III of The Correspondence of John Wallis (1616-1703) one of a number of epistolary editions the Project is supporting, and the latest installment of the prestigious multi-volume edition of the mathematician’s letters  is now available for pre-order from Oxford University Press, pending publication in May. Painstakingly crafted by our Research Fellow Philip Beeley in conjunction with Christoph J. Scriba, work on the third volume began in the context of the AHRC-funded Wallis Project, and has been completed under the auspices of Cultures of Knowledge.

Consisting of 254 letters in total, the volume covers the exciting period 1668 to 1671, during which England was at peace with itself and its neighbours, publication techniques were becoming ever-more sophisticated (especially with the emergence of academic journals), and scientific activity thrived across the continent. It finds Wallis embroiled in fascinating debates on techniques for determining areas contained by curves (quadratures) and figures (cubatures), as well as on theories of motion and the nature of tides. Other volume highlights include Wallis’s celebrated disputes with Thomas Hobbes and French mathematician François Dulaurens, and ceremonial visits to Oxford by the Crown Prince of Tuscany and William of Orange, during which – in telling evidence of rapid disciplinary consolidation – Wallis presented the visiting dignitaries with examples of state-of-the-art geometrical thinking. Below, Philip discusses the latest installment and looks ahead to Volume IV, which will be delivered in the summer.

For further publication details and to pre-order your copy, please visit the OUP website. For background information about Wallis and other outputs emerging from this sub-project (including podcasts, video, and a complete catalogue of Wallis’s extensive correspondence within Early Modern Letters Online), head along to the Wallis webpage.

Workshop: Across the Channel 2

Following on from November’s workshop, a second installment of Across the Channel: Intellectual Relations between England and France in the Early Modern Period will take place at the Maison Française D’Oxford on Tuesday 28 February 2012. Organised by Martine Pécharman and our very own Philip Beeley, this boutique event will allow five invited scholars to explore Anglo-French exchanges from a variety of perspectives in the context of rich case studies. For the full programme, see the workshop webpage; all are welcome.

Cultures of Knowledge hopes to collaborate on and co-produce a third Across the Channel workshop later in 2012. Watch this space!

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.

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