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The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution Paperback – October 28, 2008
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"Through a deft navigation of printed book and manuscript records . . . Harkness’s book succeeds in evoking a city alive with the pursuit of the natural world, a pursuit infused with objects, ideas and people from foreign lands . . . she listened to the archives, established rapport with these sources, traced the connections between practitioners, and mapped the concepts of science and community in Elizabethan London."—Lauren Kassell, Times Educational Supplement
"This is a wonderful book, full of fascinating detail and stories from a lost world. It will have wide circulation among historians of science and technology, historians of England, and cultural historians in general."―Pamela Smith, Columbia University
"The Jewel House of Art and Nature is by far the finest exploration ever undertaken of scientific culture in an early modern metropolis. Vivid, compelling, and panoramic, this revelatory work will force us to revise everything we thought we knew about Renaissance science."—Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book
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It is striking to compare London with China at approximately the same time; Benjamin Elman, William Rowe, and others have shown a similar and equally little-known ferment there, but even their best efforts don't seem to show as much sheer originality, inventiveness, and wild-eyed experimentation in Chinese cities as London had. China never quite made the breakthrough to modern science until the 20th century. London--and, Ogilvie reminds us, the whole "republic of letters" all over Europe--had a culture of scientific advance rooted in trades, crafts, mining, brewing, fish trapping, bird snaring, everything. People were trying every new scheme to produce more.
Alchemy and astrology receive due respect here. In those days, everyone knew that metallurgy could make amazing transformations; no one knew that gold, silver, etc. were primary elements that simply could not be easily transformed into each other. (People were just beginning to realize that "earth, air, fire, water" wasn't a fully adequate list of elements.) Similarly, everyone knew the sun influenced every living thing, and the moon ruled the tides; logic and common sense brought everyone to the inescapable conclusion that the other heavenly bodies must be influencing us too. The failure of alchemy and astrology was not the failure of "pseudoscience" but the triumph of reality over logic and reason--a triumph we see today, every day, as the most reasonable economic and political predictions go down in flames, ruined by human cussedness. It would be decades before Boyle could be a successfully "skeptical chemist" building on experimental proof of alchemy's failure.
Early modern science was a wonderful, exciting world. I came to it after a lifetime of ethnographic research on traditional knowledge of plants and animals--in China, indigenous North America, and elsewhere. How wonderful to see an ethnography of Elizabethan London's science.
For the future, one recommendation to ethnographers of early science: Look at Charles Frake's LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL DESCRIPTION as well as Latour, Marcus, et al. Frake still does the best job of explaining how to study nonwestern and traditional scientific/technical knowledge.