One of the first things that struck me about the holograph notes kept by the seventeenth-century intelligencer Samuel Hartlib is how tweetable they are. Those of you who follow @flmaxwell and/or @RECIRC_ on Twitter have already been treated to several fine examples over the last two years. A blog post, unlike a tweet, allows for reflection and elaboration. This post digs deeper into what makes Hartlib’s Ephemerides such an accessible, amusing, and useful historical source.
Having said that, probably the least accessible thing about the Ephemerides is its title. According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, ‘ephemerides’ are ‘record[s] of daily occurrences; a diary, journal.’ The word, which entered English from Greek, via Latin, is long obsolete, with all examples in the OED dating from the seventeenth century.
True to the definition, Hartlib’s Ephemerides is organised chronologically, with the start of each year clearly indicated.
But the ‘daily occurrences’ that he records are of a peculiar kind and have nothing in common with the sorts of narratives we find in Pepys’s famous diary. Hartlib’s Ephemerides is a compilation of snippets of all the interesting or potentially useful information, opinions, experiments, and project ideas that came his way. Since Hartlib was at the very centre of a vast network of intellectuals, reformers, and (frankly) chancers scattered around several European countries and the New World, and since his self-appointed mission in life was to amass and circulate knowledge around this network for the good of society at large, his notes are… plentiful. Diverse. Sometimes controversial. And often delightfully quirky.
Take, for example, the following entries from 1648:
‘Mr Boyle is writing a Treatise of Publick Spiritednes And gotten a kinde of wicke that will burne 28. houres without wasting and always at an even light and without snuffing.’ (Sheffield University Library, Hartlib Papers 31/22/8B)
‘The true Materia Lapis Philosophorum is nothing else but the Mercurius or the Quicksilver, and not any Semen Auri.’ (Hartlib Papers 31/22/8B)
‘Mr Hamilton hath observed Ladys at Court to wind [vipers] about their wrist which is very cooling in Summer for their whole body after the sting is taken out… The Queen chased the Marquis of Hamilton with them in Greenwich Garden who hath a strong natural Anti-pathy against them. (Hartlib Papers 31/22/11A)
‘A Maine Way ad incrementum Civitatis is erecting a famous Vniversity with a Library.’ (Hartlib Papers 31/22/28A)
‘Von Callen is a meere simple Idiot and Chymical Sophister. Hee hath no solid Experiments at all. The Receipt against the stone is very noisome and of no effect. In a word, [Unmussig] counted him just nothing.’ (Hartlib Papers 31/22/24A)
By contrast, a successful experiment was performed by Dorothy Moore that year and tweeted by Evan Bourke earlier this week:
Hartlib seems to have jotted down pieces of information as he encountered them in letters, conversations, or the books he was reading. One of his Ephemerides entries states the value of this very practice:
‘The great Meanes to come insensibly to a vniversal insight knowledge and Experience is to keepe Diaries exactly of all whatever wee heare or see by way of converse out of Books…’ (Hartlib Papers 31/22/10A)
Although universal knowledge remains an elusive ideal, current quests for ever bigger data and the emphasis on interdisciplinary research collaborations are somewhat reminiscent of the seventeenth-century drive ‘to know everything’ (as André Rivet described Anna Maria van Schurman’s scholarly ambition).
The Hartlib circle has long been known for its members’ wide-ranging curiosity about the natural and spiritual worlds, emerging technologies, and potential improvements of all kinds. While existing studies provide excellent guided tours of certain regions in which Hartlib and his contacts were active, there is still much to explore. The Hartlib Papers preserved in Sheffield University Library includes approximately 10,000 documents. On this scale, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. While the letters and treatises in the collection discuss particular topics in detail, the Ephemerides present a microcosm of their collective intellectual world. Individual entries are quotably – even tweetably – short because they seem to have been compiled for quick reference. Skimming the Ephemerides is thus an effective (and entertaining!) way to orient oneself to the network’s highly varied interests and activities.
The Ephemerides are comparatively easy to navigate thanks to the keywords in the margins and – even better – the transcriptions and search function in the open access digitisation of the Hartlib Papers.
Hartlib also names the people who provided the information in each entry – a boon for anyone researching contributors or how particular pieces of information moved around the network. Hartlib seems to have compiled the Ephemerides for his own reference and may have used it to help him choose what to forward to whom, when circulating information and strengthening relationships between his far-flung contacts.
And this brings me back to Twitter. The brevity imposed by this platform, its ability to connect people with shared interests (and shared contacts) who may never meet in person, and users’ appreciation of factoids and quirky quotations make it, in a metatextual way, the perfect venue for disseminating snippets of Hartlibian text. And given their pursuit of the latest technology and expanding spheres of influence, I’m sure Hartlib and his contacts would approve.
Finally, the value of Hartlib’s Ephemerides as a source is that it touches on pretty much every aspect of seventeenth-century culture. Intellectual, religious, political, art, music, social and economic history, history of science, technology, medicine, agriculture, colonialism, reading… Whatever interests you about the seventeenth century probably interested Hartlib and his correspondents and made its way into the pages of the Ephemerides. There’s a search function in the digital version, and I’d encourage you to test it out.
Please tweet whatever you find!
Hartlib Papers, Sheffield University Library (Special Collections) and published online by HRI Online, Sheffield
Oxford English Dictionary [subscription required]
André Rivet to Constantijn Huygens, 26 September, 1639, University of Leiden, MS. HUG 37 (quoted in Carol Pal, Republic of Women (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 116)