The June issue of BJHS is a special issue, titled London 1600-1800: Communities of Natural Knowledge and Artificial Practice and edited by Jim Bennett and Rebekah Higgitt. An outcome of Higgitt’s Metropolitan Science research project and its opening workshop, it examines some of the collective practical and knowledge cultures that developed within early modern London’s corporate and government institutions and in relation to its broader practical and commercial concerns.
Bennett and Higgitt’s introduction sets the agenda for the issue and the project. It seeks to make sense of the rise of a learned and technical culture within a growing and changing city. They have encouraged the authors to be inclusive in terms of the activities, people and places considered, but have emphasised attention to collective activity, training, storage of information and identity. The premise of the introduction is that London’s knowledge culture was formed by the public, pragmatic and commercial spaces of the city rather than by the academy or the court.
The prototypical London corporation is the Livery Company. Two are considered here, alongside the institutions and individuals that they interacted and collaborated with. Anna Simmons focuses on one of the later guilds, the Society of Apothecaries, exploring its members’ activities following the foundation of their laboratory, in support of their trade and financial interests, as well as chemical and pharmaceutical knowledge. An older guild, the Goldsmiths’ Company, is in view in Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin’s article, where she considers the complex metropolitan knowledge culture and institutional spaces of expert assayers in here and at the Royal Mint.
Another recent innovation was the joint stock trading company, and Anna Winterbottom takes on perhaps the best known of these, the East India Company. She argues that not only did the Company and its exotic commodities have an enormous impact on London but also that the desire of its governors and employees to exploit natural products led to a range of collaborations and a form of ‘experimental community’. A key, though informal, repository of objects and knowledge for the EIC was the Royal Society, which Noah Moxham’s article explores as one amongst many London corporations. He shows that this already crowded field shaped the early Society, its foundational rhetoric and charter.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, is another well-known early modern foundation, though Rebekah Higgitt’s article shows how far from inevitable its early development and survival were. Its links to London institutions and individuals were key, including the former assistants who extended the Observatory’s links to mathematical practice and teaching in London. The later seventeenth-century communities and cultures of mathematical practice in which such individuals made their careers are the concern of Philip Beeley’s article. He shows that ‘the London mathematician’ formed a cohesive knowledge community, intersecting with instrument makers and booksellers and distinct from the academic communities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Inevitably, as the introduction acknowledges, there are many London groups and locations that might be explored further. Above all, however, the issue aims to introduce and take seriously the contemporary vision of London’s potential as a city of knowledge and practice, arising from its commercial and mercantile activity and fostered within its range of corporations, institutions and associations.
Image: ‘A view of Greenwich, Deptford, and London, taken from Flamsteads Hill in Greenwich Park’ (London: John Bowles: 1723-1724), Wellcome Collection CC:BY