The Jewel House

The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Deborah E. Harkness

            In her quest to elucidate the complex foundations of the Scientific Revolution (a concept the author ironically does not entirely agree with), Deborah Harkness adopts an ethnographical approach to “science” being done in sixteenth century London. By telling the stories of several different hubs — individuals and communities — of technological, theoretical, and practical innovation or conversation, Harkness paints a picture of a society that was already doing the sort of scientific work that Francis Bacon suggests is imperative to advancement in New Atlantis. Elizabethan London provided an intellectual atmosphere of diversity, communication, and “urban sensibility” that led to a sort of utilitarian version of science not restricted to elite classes and based on and directed towards a practical understanding of the natural universe. This, Harkness argues, is where the basis of the Scientific Revolution is found — not in the critical works of Bacon, whose ideas only served to restrict the plurality of participation sixteenth century English science enjoyed.

The approach was microhistorical, similar to Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body. Both books focused on a few particular, seemingly unrelated episodes and traced underlying similarities and trends that linked them. Focusing on interactions between and among groups of people, both authors paid special attention to how cultural beliefs fostered particular brands of scientific endeavor. The two books differ in their focus on distinct parts of the scientific method; while Schiebinger looks at how gender and race became important in the formation of theories of difference, Harkness hones in on how culture, economics, and environment inform methods of doing science. Harkness is also unique in her focus on vernacular science, something I have read very little of in the past, probably because of the scant source base.

I was quite taken by the author’s approach, especially when I read her explanation of and purpose for it in the coda. Because historians tend to focus on people whose names and careers are easily analyzed due to their contemporary fame, we miss a vast majority of the populations’ experiences. I think that, especially in turbulent times of rapid change, it is important to get the full picture, even if this requires what sounds like quite a rigorous and organized method that embraces sources not normally given much thought. As Harkness has proven, these can provide a wealth of information about those people who, while quite impactful, simply did not make it into the print and other source mediums traditional historians have deemed the most significant.

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