Nature and Knowledge c. 1500-c.1800

Course Material 2023/24

In the period that spans the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, nature became a decisive source of truth, trust and authority, and knowledge about nature came to serve a rapidly expanding world of trade and colonialism, and generated competing visions of terrestrial and celestial powers. This paper offers a unique opportunity to examine the fate and fortunes of natural knowledge across three centuries.

It considers how new information and experiences changed knowledge of nature, in the context of both terrestrial and celestial discovery, and how the application of specialist techniques, particularly those associated with mixed mathematics, helped to create opportunities for professionals and for a broader public. Improvement in communications assisted efforts to understand and exploit nature for new purposes, both public and private, in the period of the establishment of the first trans-oceanic empires. Travel and discovery promoted patterns of classification and collection that brought into being global forms of exchange focussed on natural products and their artificial cultivation. The reordering of natural knowledge entailed a reordering of attitudes to the human body and to what it meant to be human, whether understood in terms of theology, cosmology, or physiology.

Unfamiliar information represented a challenge to traditional authority and an opportunity to develop knowledge formed at new sites or through novel methods of investigation. The growing marketplace of global knowledge of nature was serviced by new kinds of practitioner, in whose hands nature became a source of wonder, spectacle, bounty, and, at times, fear. The pursuit of natural knowledge helped to define the terms by which Europeans judged themselves, as well as the ways in which they interacted with the material and intellectual cultures of non-European civilisations. Reflection on these changes has created a vibrant historiography which embraces all kinds of written, visual and material evidence and whose conclusions continue to generate debate both among historians and across disciplines.