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Response to Review of Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science

Philippa Hellawell gives a cogent and balanced account of most of the main themes of my book, including the central one about the relationships between notebooks, memory (and recollection), and other external repositories of information. At the end of her review she rightly says that I analyze personal (though sometimes shared) note-taking more so than ‘collaborative or institutional practices’. I think this latter topic should be a desideratum for on-going study of early modern information habits and procedures, including those applying to the pursuit of natural (including medical) knowledge. As I indicate, especially in chapter eight, the transition from personal note-taking to the kind likely to be useful for groups of people, and for future generations, was a difficult one. Some of my English virtuosi thought about this and, as fellows of the Royal Society of London, took some took steps in this direction: for example, Robert Boyle’s advice about how to record weather observations; Robert Hooke’s schema or table synthesizing such records; and Martin Lister’s version of a histogram to display changes in barometric pressure over time.

The challenge was to secure the acceptance and use of conventions among many observers. We might ask whether any contemporary examples of collective notes, made and registered according to protocol, were interesting or helpful to the Royal Society. Prior to the 18th century, I doubt that there were many such examples to choose from, but two which approached ‘institutional’ status were the London mortality bills (used by John Graunt), and ships’ log books, as prescribed by the naval authorities of both Britain and France (see Margaret Sankey’s article, which I cite on p. 270, n. 70 and in the bibliography). In the Hippocratic tradition, medical case histories and collections of observationes were, in principle, able to be shared, but to my knowledge this did not begin to happen on an institutional basis until the late 18th century. For the first point, see Gianna Pomata, ‘Observation Rising: birth of an epistemic genre, 1500-1650’; for the latter, J. Andrew Mendelsohn, ‘The World on a Page: making general observation in the eighteenth century’.(1a)

At the same time, we should not forget that notes taken and kept by individuals are, and were, able to be shared and lodged in institutional archives. One case (see my chapter seven) is the set of weather records John Locke sent to Hans Sloane, the Secretary of the Royal Society. Of course, as Locke said, these were of limited use unless joined with other observations made according to agreed conventions.

No doubt there will be much to learn from the database of casebooks kept by the astrologer, Richard Napier (1559–1634). This is an example of how one individual can amass notes on an almost ‘institutional’ scale. Lauren Kassell, Pembroke College, Cambridge, one of the prime movers of this project, reports that transcriptions of volumes 12–17 of Napier's casebooks have just been released, documenting nearly 7,200 cases from October 1606 to November 1610. Now more than 30,000 of the astrologers’ cases are accessible on The Casebooks Project website.


  1. Gianna Pomata, ‘Observation Rising: birth of an epistemic genre, 1500-1650’; J. Andrew Mendelsohn, ‘The world on a page: making general observation in the eighteenth century’, Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. by Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (Chicago, IL, 2011), pp. 45–80; 396–420.Back to (1a)