November 15th, 2013
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets became an important vehicle for disseminating information and reporting on contemporary issues, especially during periods of crisis and instability. Unsurprisingly, tales of witchcraft and demonic possession turned up in these pamphlets. I spent some time today surveying witchcraft and possession pamphlets published in England. Here are a few tidbits from what I found.
A little background. I restricted my search to short pamphlets, ca. 48 pages or shorter. I made some on-the-fly decisions about whether or not a pamphlet was primarily about witchcraft with possession added or primarily about possession with witchcraft added. While not exhaustive, I think this is a reasonably complete survey.
Between 1566 and 1704 there were 81 different pamphlets on witchcraft and another 39 on possession. Of those pamphlets, a few treated the same event and one or two were reprinted. Joan Butts appeared in a couple pamphlets and Joan Peterson figured in three. The Witch of the Woodlands tells the story Robin, a womanizing the cobbler who is sexually abused by various female witches before ending up in what seems to have been a homosexual relationship with a beggar in London. Robin’s unfortunate tale must have been a good seller for it was reprinted four times between 1655 and 1680. Most pamphlets, however, treat a discrete set of events.
Although there are a couple bumps, the 120 pamphlets were distributed fairly consistently across the 140 years. The numbers seem pretty modest, usually one or two a year.
It is hard to correlate pamphlets with either legal or political events. The first pamphlet appears in 1566, three years after the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act. The ascension of King James I and the passage of yet another and stricter Witchcraft Act, in 1603 and 1604, seemed to have little impact on the publication of pamphlets. Peaks in 1682, and 1698 don’t seem to map onto significant political or social events (or at least none that spring immediately to mind). It’s tempting to see the uptick in witchcraft pamphlets in 1645 as part of Matthew Hopkins’s crusade to cleanse England of witches—Hopkins embarked on his witch-finding spree in 1644. Whatever the cause, the increase in pamphlets lasted only a year.
Just for giggles, I created a word cloud for the titles of these pamphlets. For what it’s worth, the most common word was “true” followed closely by “relations,” “witches,” and “strange.” Many of these words are unsurprising—“executed,” “witch,” and “witchcraft,” and “devil”—however, the proper names Thomas, John, and Mary seem less obvious. Another way to look at these titles would be to analyze them by decade, perhaps seeing changing patterns and practices.
Other questions that come to mind:
- What was the geographic distribution?
- Were there local issues, perhaps agrarian crises, that correlate to the peaks in publication?
- What is the distribution between men and women victims and witches?
- Does the popular press simply not reflect the standard assumption about witchcraft and societal crises?
With some luck a future post will look at some of these and related issues.
I chose England because I have recently compiled a resource for my students on pamphlets in early modern England, students who for the most part can read only English. ↩
These numbers do not reflect the numbers of each pamphlet printed but do reflect multiple editions if a pamphlet was reprinted either in the same year or at a later date. ↩
The Witchcraft Act of 1604 both defined witchcraft more broadly and made the penalty more severe. Witchcraft must have remained a real threat. ↩
The number of different titles is suggestive, but needs to be paired with other information. In particular, the number of different titles does not give us immediate access to the number of pamphlets circulating. To be sure, the uptick in titles in 1645 could have been accompanied by an increase in the numbers of each title printed. Likewise, the two titles in 1647 and 1650 could have been printed in large numbers. Nonetheless, the brief increase in the variety of titles seems to have been short-lived. ↩
August 30th, 2013
The OED defines Godwin’s Law:
A facetious aphorism maintaining that as an online debate increases in length, it becomes inevitable that someone will eventually compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.
See the Wikipedia entry on Godwin’s Law for interesting variations, details, and links to further discussion. For a smart adaptation of Godwin’s Law for science communication, see Peter Broks’s “Wrong Kind of Snwow.”
A version of Godwin’s Law seems to apply to online discussions about the nature of science:
Another version of this would substitute “climate change denial or [fill in your favorite climate-change-denying politician]” for “vaccine denial or Jenny McCarthy.” But it’s so hard to pick just one climate-change-denying politician, whereas Jenny McCarthy seems to have become the face of vaccine denial.
August 30th, 2013
In his response, Dr. Rundvist restates his original claim and enlists me in the project: history of science ([deleted because I over stated the case]) must show how past scientific debates have been resolved the in present, thereby contributing to an overall increase in human knowledge.
Dr. Rundkvist characterizes knowledge in a way that I reject. He asserts an “Enlightenment project” characterized by progress—we are gaining not only more knowledge but better and more accurate knowledge. In such a project, only those activities that contribute to this progress are worthwhile. The way to assess progress, quality, and accuracy of knowledge is to assume that the relevant categories of any scientific debate, the evidence used to evaluate and assess those categories, the arguments used to justify those assessments, and the motivations for engaging in the debate, are timeless and unproblematic. Importantly, those categories, the evidence, assessment, arguments, and motivations are defined by scientists in the present who are engaged in the activity they think is a continuation of the historical debates. History, insofar as it plays any role in this model, merely lists the names of dead people who, present scientists think, contributed to the current debate.
But this is precisely what I don’t accept. The categories, the evidence, the criteria, the arguments, and the motivations are not transcendent. To use Dr. Rundkvist’s example: What Newton was doing in the 1680s, how he divided up the world, what he considered relevant evidence, how he judged that evidence, why he bothered investigating the natural world (how he even identified the “natural world”) share little with what scientists were doing in the 1930s. As Andrew Cunningham has argued convincingly, Newton was engaged in a project called “natural philosophy,” which included a wide range of activities that we might call, inter alia, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, Biblical exegesis, chronology, history, mathematics, optics, and theology. The goal of this project was to understand God by investigating of His creation. Newton signaled his intentions in the title of his most famous work: Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. However modern and familiar this text might look to scientists today (though I suspect many have not even read it), it answered the questions Newton was asking in the late 17th century. God was at the center of those questions. I doubt many scientists in the 1930s were investigating God’s creation.
To excise God from Newton’s work requires ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary. The resulting account misunderstands and misrepresents what Newton was doing, and what his work meant to him and to his contemporaries. In other words, to sanitize Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable bits is to stop doing history.
For scholars who search through the archives, lauding those who got it “right” and condemning those who got it “wrong”—Butterfield’s Whig historians—the historical record becomes fodder for their teleological narratives. Evidence that doesn’t serve their goals is ignored or explained away. Kepler’s interest in astrology, for example, is dismissed as “how he paid the bills.”
Such an approach is antithetical to what I am trying to do with my own research. Consequently, I feel like sending a telegram, paraphrasing Groucho: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any Enlightenment Project club that will accept people like me as a member.”
I cannot see how the princes and astrologers I study have any relevance to today’s scientific debates. Scientists are no longer engaged in debates about astrology. Today’s astronomers no longer consider the astrological implications of their work. And while Ronald Reagan (who as early as the 1960s relied on the astrologer Ralph Kraum) and François Mitterrand purportedly consulted astrologers, most rulers today rely on other systems of knowledge.
Far from trying to illustrate how scientific knowledge is timeless, I hope to show how knowledge is inextricably tangled up with the context that calls that knowledge into existence. I neither praise historical actors for getting it right nor rebuke them for getting it wrong. Finally, while I would like people to read and learn from my research, I am unwilling to violate the standards and norms that guide my work and make it identifiable as history just to attract and perhaps appease a wider audience.
Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia got its name; or, taking natural philosophy seriously,” History of Science 24 (1991): 377–392. Cunningham’s earlier article is also relevant here: Andrew Cunningham, “Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (1988): 365–89. ↩
August 26th, 2013
The following is essentially a guest post by Martin Rundkvist. He is responding to my comments a few days ago about “Scientific Progress and the History of Science,” which was a response to his “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science.” Dr. Rundkvist was polite and invited me to respond to his comments. Although I have not yet had time to think through his comments and to respond, I did not want to delay any longer posting his reply. In the next day or so I will collect and post my thoughts (I have now posted my thoughts. See “Resigning from the Enlightenment Project”).
I am a participant in the Enlightenment project. Based on the evidence I see around me, I believe that science (in the wider German sense of Wissenschaft) adds cumulatively to our knowledge about the world, past and present.
For instance, I believe that Darin Hayton’s work to date on Renaissance astrology means that we have better, more extensive, more detailed, more accurate knowledge about Renaissance astrology than if he had not performed that work. Dr. Hayton has not just produced more text or additional contingent perspectives on his subject. He has investigated it in a scholarly rigorous manner, illuminating a part of the world that we might want to know about. He has made certain interpretations of the subject impossible in the future by showing them to be factually incorrect. Willingly or not, he too participates in Enlightenment.
In fact (and I know that many scholars in aesthetic disciplines wouldn’t agree here) it is my opinion that a scholar or discipline that doesn’t add to cumulative knowledge like Dr. Hayton does should not be funded.
I agree with Dr. Hayton that his discipline should investigate scientific debates of the past in a fair and historically contextualised manner. That is the central part of the job. But in my field (prehistoric archaeology) we still routinely enter into dialogue with the writings of 19th century colleagues. I see the debates that Dr. Hayton studies as a still on-going concern. Therefore I think there is a second important part of his job: to put the investigated debates into the context of how they were later resolved – or not. It needn’t take more than a sentence or two:
- “By the 1930s, this debate had been resolved in Newton’s favour thanks to the discovery of XXX (Smith 1938, pp. 123–124)”, or
- “Though the terminology has changed, this issue has still not been settled, over 300 years later (Smith 2013, pp. 123–124)”, or
- “The discovery in the 1960s of XXX laid this debate to rest as scientists abandoned the assumptions that propelled it (Smith 1975, pp. 123–124)”.
My field of study is abstruse and is followed by few outside academe, and I trust that Dr. Hayton would agree that his field is similar to mine in this sense. I submit that neither of us can afford to alienate large groups of potential interested readers. In Dr. Hayton’s case, I’m thinking of scientists such as myself, working in a cumulative Enlightenment framework today. I care a lot about the history of science. But I do not enjoy the suggestion that my generation of scholars knows as little about our part of the world as our predecessors did in 1750. And I would also object strongly to anyone who said that historians of science know as little today as they did in 1750.
UPDATE: See Resigning from the Enlightenment Project for my response.
August 23rd, 2013
In “Historians of Science Need to Know Current Science” Martin Rundkvist rants about those annoying “knowledge relativist historian[s] of science.” Those degenerates are ignorant and lazy, and mock the hard intellectual work and real accomplishments of science. They are also hypocritical. They don’t really believe all that relativist claptrap.
Rundkvist wants, instead, a history of science that begins and ends in today’s scientific concerns. He wants histories that trace issues scientists are still debating, and he wants those histories to judge people in the past by the criteria, evidence, and standards scientists know today to be true, “because we have learned so much since then.” Rundkvist doesn’t want history. He wants triumphalist genealogy.
Rundkvist has every right to prefer one genre over another, but let’s be clear that what he is asking for is not history in any rigorous sense. Like other disciplines, history is grounded in evidence, a subset of possibly relevant phenomena. Possibly relevant phenomena include artifacts of all sorts from the past, inter alia: letters, diaries and notebooks, texts (published or not), paintings and drawings, instruments, buildings, gardens, fountains. Historians need to be able to justify why they have privileged some artifacts and dismissed others. Historians also need to be able to justify the meaning they ascribe to that evidence.
Here is where Rundkvist (and like-minded consumers of history of science) and historians part ways. Rundkvist assumes that “scientific debates” exist outside of time. Or rather, whatever scientific debates mean today is what they have always meant. Such an assumption can only be justified by ignoring numerous artifacts that don’t fit neatly into our current worldview. It takes very little effort to show that most historical actors were not (and could not have been) concerned in the least with our worldview. It takes only marginally more effort to show that today’s science differs in profound ways from natural philosophy, that historical activity we often call “science” (the same holds true for most specific activities: astronomy today is not the same as astronomy in 1500 because the people involved understood their activity in different terms and intended it to answer different questions — the research program has changed).
Rundkvist’s position is analogous to contemporary scientists today ignoring uncomfortable evidence and other aberrant data that doesn’t support the conclusions they intend to demonstrate. Such a position is intellectually parochial and conservative. It is antithetical to the intellectual rigor and the habits of mind (that “scientific method” bantered about so casually) that scientists like to claim for themselves and on which they build their castles of intellectual and moral superiority (see, for example, Steven Pinker’s recent essay).
History of science should not be a tool to bolster today’s ideologies. Instead, it can give us the tools to examine those ideologies, cf. Peter Broks comments about science communication and Peter Dear’s argument about the purpose of the history of science (behind paywall). The history of science does not serve some triumphalist genealogy. If that makes some readers uncomfortable or annoys them, so be it.
August 11th, 2013
In an article in the ABA Banking Journal, Patrick Ward invokes Newton’s third law of motion to help ALCOs think about risk in their investments: Sir Isaac Newton, Laws of Motion, and Banking Capital. According to Ward:
Conceptually, Sir Isaac’s third law applies to the current Federal Reserve policies, interest rates, and banks’ investment portfolios–specifically, the unrealized gains or losses within an institution’s Available for Sale (AFS) portfolio.
Clearly invoking the scientific authority of “Sir Isaac” does some work for Ward and the ABA. Unfortunately, the example Ward (or perhaps an editor at the ABA Banking Journal) uses to illustrate Newton’s third law is a poor choice (a better illustration of Newton’s third law might be this sled video).
Although many readers of the ABA Banking Journal probably have a Newton’s Cradle somewhere in their office, that quintessential executive toy does not really demonstrate Newton’s third law by showing that “for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction.” Instead, a Newton’s Cradle comes closer to showing the conservation of momentum.
It is unclear how Newton’s third law, variously described as a theory and an analogy, or the conservation of momentum apply to banking investments. It probably doesn’t really matter, “Sir Isaac” confers social and cultural cachet.
August 2nd, 2013
In a conversation with Ann Finkbeiner Dan Vergano offers some interesting and provocative thoughts on the science ghetto. One of his points seems to be that science journalism has not made a case for its relevance to broader news stories. Unfortunately, he suggests, by concentrating on “gee-whiz stuff” science writers have contributed the marginalization of science journalism and the exclusion of science from broader societal debates. He is calling for science journalists to justify their work by making it relevant to non-science journalists. While the comments challenge various claims, too few engage with this issue. Simply repeating that science is important and affects all of us is clearly not sufficient. Nor is labeling other people too ignorant about science to appreciate its importance particularly useful—both these approaches have failed miserably for faculty in the humanities, as the most recent epidemic of handwringing demonstrates. What would genuine outreach look like for science journalism and science writing?
July 30th, 2013
As with any craft, writing improves with daily practice. Whether 3,500 words or 500 words or a page, stop making excuses and instead make time to write every day. Contrary to common assumptions, creativity increases with quantity. Research indicates that making writing a daily routine actually increases creativity. Carve out a few minutes every day to write inchoate ideas, sentences, and paragraphs. Write a lot. Revise what you write. Rinse and repeat. As the academic year approaches and promises to fragment the day, it is useful to recall that writing requires very little time.
July 25th, 2013
When I read the Institute for Creation Research’s call for Young Creation Scientists, I first thought: This sounds a lot like Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater’s justification for the Bridgewater Treatises. ICR’s call, however, lacks both the polish of Egerton’s style and the charm of his eccentricity.
My second thought was: Perhaps Virginia Heffernan can get a job as a science writer for ICR. Heffernan recently explained why she is a creationist. Critics of Heffernan’s post abound, e.g., Virginia Heffernan’s creationism: Why evolution matters and Yes Virginia, There Is a Darwin and Finding the narrative, as do her defenders. I suspect that Francis Egerton, if he had a blog, would be a critic.
Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link to ICR’s post.