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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!

Seminar 3: Loss, Theft, and Forgery of Descartes’s Letters


Erik-Jan points out the stamp which, when viewed under UV light, alerted him to the stolen Libri letter.


The stolen letter on the 'Meditations', discovered by Erik-Jan at Haverford College in 2010.

In the third paper of our seminar series on Thursday 19 May, Dr Erik-Jan Bos (University of Utrecht) gave a talk entitled ‘To the Editor’s Delight: The Loss, Theft, and Forgery of Descartes’ Letters’. In a fascinating and playful analysis, Bos described some of the most outrageous examples of intellectual fraud and finagling he has encountered during his intensive work on the 750-letter corpus. These include the mysterious disappearance of the Stockholm chest in the early 1700s (one of two left to posterity by the French philosopher); omissions, elisions, and other dubious practices by Claude Clerselier, the first editor of the correspondence; the pilfering of around eighty letters by the voracious eighteenth-century manuscript collector Guglielmo Libri (one of which, previously unknown, was discovered by Erik-Jan in Haverford College in 2010); and some sensational and implausible nineteenth-century counterfeits created by forger Denis Vrain-Lucas and sold to the unwitting mathematician and collector Michel Chasles, who proclaimed their authenticity to the French Academy of Science. A lively discussion focused on attempts to reconstruct the contents of the Stockholm chest, the circumstances surrounding Erik-Jan’s discovery of the lost Libri letter in a Pennsylvania library, and the reasons for the surprisingly high percentage of out letters in the Cartesian corpus (570 surviving letters are from him, and only 180 to him). 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.