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6. West and East European Contexts

The demise of the feudal system in Europe: technical development and international trade

Printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass have long been cited as hallmarks of the cultural and technical superiority of medieval China. This has been the case ever since Francis Bacon pinpointed them as the three discoveries, unknown to the ancients, that

have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes, insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.1

Rupert Hall, writing some 350 years later, confirms Bacon’s opinion on the marked effects of the discoveries of gunpowder and printing on European society:

We might well choose to date the beginning of modern European history from the introduction of gunpowder. By 1325 primitive cannon were in action, and from 1370 mechanical artillery (on the lever principle) was falling into abeyance. By 1450 the hand gun had appeared, beginning the obsolescence of crossbow and longbow. Powder-making became an important industry, along with cannon-founding and gun-making. By 1500 heavy guns, mortars, and explosive mines had made the medieval castle almost untenable …

Only the wealthiest and most powerful rulers could afford the new gunpowder weapons and the more expensive and larger armies. The rebellious feudal nobility in their isolated castle fortresses could no longer withstand the power of the monarch’s more powerful gunpowder weapons. Thus the changes in the technology of warfare brought about through the introduction of gunpowder aided in that process of administrative and territorial consolidation which was to give rise to monarchical states and to the nation-state system of Europe as one knows it today … Just as the invention of gunpowder served to batter down the political positions of feudalism, so did the invention of printing help to remove the barriers of communication between men. And, like gunpowder, the invention has had incalculable significance to human history, far beyond its immediate technological effect.2

For the historian the problem is that the use of gunpowder and printing in the wake of technological improvements (incendiary properties of mixtures of nitre, sulphur and charcoal; papermaking; printing with movable type) became widespread in Europe but not in China before 1600. How and why this came about has been the subject of continuous examination, with pride of place rightfully assigned to Arabic-Islamic mediation.

In this context Hall’s periodisation of the beginning of modern European history is noteworthy. He associates it with the demise of the feudal system in Europe – in which the spread of gunpowder and movable type printing played a significant part. Without spelling it out, Hall clearly implies that a societal transformation was at play, conceptualised by Marxist historians as a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism. Though doubtless Hall, a stern critic of the Marxist approach to history, would have been horrified to be aligned with it.

Be that as it may, research bears out the historical role of merchant capital (discussed earlier) in undermining feudalism in Europe through international trade. Moreover, research has found it relevant to the understanding of the genesis of the Scientific Revolution. Thus, in the concluding chapter of a penetrating study of commerce, medicine and science in the Dutch Golden Age (c. 1550-1700), Harold J. Cook has this to say:

It was no accident, then, that the so-called Scientific Revolution occurred at the same time as the development of the first global economy. That world linked the silver mines of Peru to China as well as Europe, the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the nutmeg-growing regions of Southeast Asia to slave labor as well as to luxury consumer goods, and a wealth of new information circulating in coffeehouses and lecture halls to books and the natural objects available in European gardens, cabinets of curiosity, and anatomy theaters.3

Pursuits of natural knowledge: The Court of Rudolf II in Prague

Among European gardens and cabinets, the ones created by Emperor Rudolf II in Prague acquired particular fame. As the knowledgeable Paula Findlen puts it:

Rudolf assembled a rich array of flora and fauna and an extensive collection of specialized instruments that might help him pursue knowledge of nature. At the height of his reign, a deer park surrounded Hradčany Castle, complemented by an aviary (in which one might glimpse the Emperor’s birds of paradise and, after 1598, a dodo) and a botanical garden where distinguished naturalists such as Rembert Dodoens and Carolus Clusius tended exotic plants. From the 1580s onwards, a steady stream of visitors such as the English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley, the Italian mystic and Neoplatonist Giordano Bruno, and the physicians and occultists Oswald Croll and Michael Maier enjoyed audiences with Rudolf, bearing gifts of magic talismans, their own writings and promises to unlock the secrets of nature.4

These persons do not exhaust the circle of prominent pursuers of magic, mysticism, alchemy and knowledge of nature who were connected with Rudolf’s court. Under Rudolf’s auspices and at the behest of Hagecius (mentioned earlier), the collaboration of Brahe and Kepler came about. Eventually, this partnership was to transform Copernican astronomy into genuine heliocentrism. Equipped with mathematical and astronomical skills, the excellent instrument makers Jo(o)st Bürgi and Erasmus Habermehl were at hand to help.5 The Imperial mathematician Nicholas Reymarus (Raymers) Baer (Ursus) developed a kind of heliocentric system, one that famously prompted Brahe to charge him with plagiarism. As North pointed out: ‘Baer’s system differed from Tycho’s in one important respect: he gave the earth a daily rotation on its own axis, half-loosening it from its old bonds, so to speak’.6

Rudolf’s patronage of Brahe and Kepler has long been known. What historians of astronomy seemed not to have noticed, before the Czech scholar Josef Smolka spotted it, is a remarkable passage in Kepler’s letter to Galileo on 8 April 1610 (Julian calendar). It records that Rudolf carried out his own astronomical observations:

It is three months that the Emperor put to me various questions regarding the constitution of moonspots and thought the images of lands and continents shine brightly on the Moon or in the telescope. He asserted to have probably seen the image of Italy with two nearby islands. In the next days he also placed the telescope at disposal for the same kind of observations but no use was made of it. At the same time, Galileo … through your beloved observations the Monarch of the Christian world is surpassed.7

Rudolf II was also a patron of artists, such as the Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), whose portraits of human heads and paintings of elements and seasons effectively bridge art and natural history. They encompass detailed observations of flowers, fruit, vegetables and trees in the style identified as ‘scientific naturalism’. One of its forerunners, if not founders, was Leonardo da Vinci, the other interdisciplinary Milanese artist whom Arcimboldo repeatedly wished to equal. As a recent commentator put it, Arcimboldo’s paintings grow out of ‘the mysterious interweaving of art, science and the occult in Renaissance Europe’.8

An early form of institutionalised science?

The pursuits of natural knowledge associated with the Prague court were by no means unique. Contemporarily, there were greater and lesser aristocratic courts in Europe suffused with astrological, alchemical and cabalistic thinking. Since the late 1950s, these activities have been discussed as an early form of the institutionalised pursuit of natural knowledge.

The idea was taken up and debated by a group of six historians of science, collaborating on a history of exact sciences in Bohemia (up to the end of the nineteenth century). In the published volume, the late and well-informed Zdeněk Horský refers to the ‘Rudolfinian centre of scientific work’ which ‘was not a mere accidental result of the activity of foreign scientists temporarily staying at Prague but evolved with the direct participation of Thaddeus Hagecius in an environment in which astronomical research had been continually growing and deepening since the middle of the sixteenth century’.9 Horský reiterates this same position more than a quarter of a century later, albeit now referring to a ‘scholarly centre’ (Gelehrtenzentrum).10

Another knowledgeable member of the group, Josef Smolka, more than thirty years after their joint publication, voices justifiable scepticism about applying the term ‘centre’ to the circle of inquirers into natural phenomena supported by Rudolf II. It implies an organised and programmed activity, whereas ‘we do not encounter anything of the sort with the exception of the short time Tycho’s group was at large’.11

This has something to do with Rudolf’s II apparent dislike of extreme Catholic confessionalism in spite of the Council of Trent’s clarion call to Counter-Reformation (1545-1563). Not only were the Protestants Brahe and Kepler offered the opportunity to co-operate, but the Jew David Gans was able to strike up a relationship with both. A German Jew, educated in Poland and settled in Prague, Gans authored a variety of books on astronomy, mathematics, geometry, history and other topics. ‘He did it in part’, writes Noah J. Efron, ‘because he was persuaded that these subjects might provide common language for Jews and Christians.’12

Fig. 14 David Gans, Ptolemaic cosmological diagram (planetary circles surrounded by Zodiac constellations) in Hebrew, from his Nechmad V’Naim (1743).

Conspicuously, the list of persons associated with Rudolf’s court contains hardly any prominent local figures, apart from Hagecius. One was the astronomer Martin Bachacius (Bacháček) (1539/1541-1612), who collaborated with Kepler without apparently understanding the latter’s heliocentrism. Bachacius is remembered less as an astronomer than as an organiser of higher education – he occupied the post of Rector of Protestant Prague University (Collegium Caroli, Karolinum) between 1598-1600 and 1603-1612.

Another Rector of Prague University, linked to the court, was born into a burgher family in Breslau/Wrócław. At Brahe’s bidding, Jan (Johannes) Jessenius (1566-1620), a medical man with astronomical interests and diplomatic skills, came to Prague after performing a celebrated autopsy in 1600. He was among the 27 notables executed in the Prague Old Town Square (21 June 1621) for their leading role in the anti-Habsburg uprising of the Bohemian estates in 1618. Aristocrats by and large, their concern was to defend their power against the mounting centralisation of the Habsburg rulers. The ‘Bohemian War’, set in motion by the defenestration of the two highest state officials (and their secretary) from a window of the Prague Castle, is looked upon as the first phase of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

Robert Evans observes that there was a close connection between Rudolf II and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. In 1609 he was forced to sign a famed ‘Letter of Majesty’, endorsing Czech Protestantism (the ‘Czech Confession’). Accordingly, religious freedom was granted not only to nobles and knights, including their feudal subjects, but also to royal towns. But the then most liberal religious document in Europe did little to reduce tensions between the Catholic and Protestant creeds. However, there is more to the ‘Bohemian War’ and to the Thirty Years War than unresolved religious and political polarity.13

The Thirty Years War and the Scientific Revolution

Epitomised by the social and cultural life of the courts of Emperor Rudolf II and Queen Elizabeth I, Prague and London were cities of the same rank around 1600. During the next hundred years, however, the situation changed radically in the wake of interstate rivalry for a piece of the opening world market. It is in this context that the Thirty Years War and the Scientific Revolution became both products of and factors in the uneven transformation of late medieval (feudal) Europe to early modern (capitalist) Europe. And yet, remarkably, in traditional accounts of this period, we would be hard pressed to find explanations or even discussions of a link between two of its defining events. Hal Cook’s exploration of the rise of medicine and science in the context of Dutch sea-bound commerce is a rare attempt to connect the scientific and the social dimension.

True, here and there, we read that in 1618 Descartes, an iconic figure in the story of the Scientific Revolution, joined the army of Maurice Nassau, the Protestant captain-general of the Dutch Republic, and later that of Count Tilly, the commander of the Catholic League. Stationed in the later part of 1619 at Ulm on the river Danube in Southern Germany, Descartes famously experienced a moment of revelation. According to his retrospective narrative, Descartes spent ‘the whole day shut up in a stove-heated room’ and ‘at full liberty to discourse with myself about my own thoughts’, when he began to develop his means of distinguishing truth from falsehood, a solution enshrined in the Discourse on the Method (1637). One wonders whether Descartes’s longing to establish a criterion for truth had something to do with his service in the two opposed armies, each upholding the sole – Protestant/Catholic – religious truth. It should be noted that Descartes’s service in the armies of both faiths became less exceptional as the war continued. Recruitment became a problem frequently solved by forcing prisoners of war to change sides.

The inclination to regard the Thirty Years War primarily in terms of German religious and political history has not declined. It connects with the fact that, geographically, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation became the arena of military operations. The limitation of this viewpoint becomes apparent when we consider the incursions of Danish and Swedish armies, the participation of France and Spain with money and soldiers, and the resistance of the Dutch Republic (at war with Spain) to the deployment of Spanish troops.

While the religious and political agenda cannot be passed over, it is not the limit of the Thirty Years War’s place in history. This was a European war played out on over half the Continent, though not all parts were in action at the same time. It was also, in a sense, a global war: behind it lurked the rivalry of European states seeking a share in, if not domination of, the expanding world trade and world market. It outstripped previous military conflicts in material and financial costs, size of deployed armies, military and civil casualties and, last but not least, savagery.14

The need for money and credit provided the setting for intensified private and public money-lending activities, including money-changing. Such activities underpinned monetary circulation, a crucial feature of financial business in the pre-industrial phase of capitalism. But monetary transactions suffered from chaotic currency exchanges until some order was established in 1609, with the founding of the municipal Amsterdam Exchange Bank. Apart from fostering the trade of the northern Netherlands with the Baltic, the Levant and the Far East, the aim of the bank

was the establishment of a clearing system based on transfers from one client’s account to another’s in bank guilders of account representing a constant silver content. These Amsterdam clearing transactions required a special dimension because of the city’s dominant position in world trade at that time. The obligation imposed by the municipality to clear all bills of exchange of an amount above 600 guilders through the bank induced all-important Amsterdam merchants and in fact all important firms involved in world trade to open an account at the Amsterdam Exchange Bank, which thus grew in the course of the seventeenth century into a bank of world stature – indeed, into the great clearing house for international trade, with the stable bank guilder serving as the world’s convertible key currency.15

Amsterdam’s financial dominance was part and parcel of the long-drawn-out shift of commercial gravity from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic (c. 1200-1600). We can now see it as a phase in the history of world economic integration, one in which merchants from the northern and southern Low Countries were pre-eminently involved. A societal transformation was set in motion whereby merchant burgers not only metamorphosed into the capitalist bourgeoisie, but the Dutch also experienced the Scientific Revolution as examined by Cook in Matters of Exchange.

The Scientific Revolution: Bohemia and the Netherlands

The Thirty Years War enhanced the historically momentous partition of Europe into the unevenly developing, geographically ill-designated and differently fated West and East. This division profoundly affected not only the political, social and economic spheres, but also the pursuit of natural knowledge.

Before 1618 Bohemia, located in middle Europe, was the richest Habsburg dominion. It housed some of the great European mining centres: Jáchymov (Joachimsthal) and Kutná Hora (Kuttenberg). It was not a coincidence that the authors of the two classical texts on mining and metallurgy (reprinted for nearly 150 years) were active in those towns. Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer) (1494-1550), who authored De re metallica (1556), was a physician in Jáchymov; Lazarus Ercker (?-1593), the author of Beschreibung Allerfürnemisten Mineralischen Ertzt/vnnd Berckwercksarten etc. (1574), was Warden and eventually Master of the Kutná Hora mint. He ultimately occupied the post of Chief Mining Officer of the Kingdom of Bohemia (Oberster Bergmeister).

As previously mentioned, the growth of the large-scale manorial economy, encompassing brewing, sheep-raising and carp-farming in purpose-built ponds made the ‘Bohemian lords rich’. It was this milieu that inspired Hagecius to acquaint himself with brewing practice, which he describes in the pioneering booklet De cerevisia etc. (1585).

Deep mining and the construction of fish ponds depended on adequate surveying. Horský interestingly points to the basically identical methodologies and instruments employed in mines and fishpond surveying, on the one hand, and astronomy, on the other.16

On the eve of the Prague Castle defenestration, economic and intellectual omens in Bohemia appeared to augur well for a body politic, and for pursuits of natural knowledge, moving in the Dutch direction.

The clue as to why this development never came about lies in the difference between what the uprising/rebellion in Bohemia and the revolt in the Netherlands were about. Ostensibly Bohemia and the Netherlands faced a common foe: that is, the Catholic Habsburgs aspiring to dynastic dominance in Europe, albeit in two branches, the Austrian and the Spanish. Other intertwined factors – politics, economics and social structures – played their part in generating distinct outcomes, results which also affected the scientific sphere. The time lag in the development of the Scientific Revolution in Bohemia, as compared with the Netherlands, is unambiguous.

For one thing, there was a difference in the role and interests of the nobility and the burghers in the two countries. Whereas, as a class, the nobility in Bohemia was strong and the burghers weak, in the Netherlands the situation was reversed. In Bohemia nothing like a Dutch-style defeudalisation/bourgeoisification had taken shape, nor did a noble-burgher inter-class alliance, which had characterised the Dutch fight against Spain, materialise.

When the Bohemian nobles, the elite social strata, raised the banner of rebellion, they were primarily concerned with their own socio-political interests. The dispute was over the nature of the monarchy, and Bohemia ‘became one of the focal points of the conflict where a program of freedom of religion and the maintenance of liberties of the estates represented a defence against centralization’.17 This is not to say, as Victor Kiernan seems to suggest, that Bohemia was virtually turning itself into a republic, but that its leaders shrank from the final step. As he himself points out:

To set up a republic was an enterprise which only the most advanced and most revolutionary nations had courage for; the Dutch only half succeeded, the English only momentarily. Its time would come in the end far away from Europe, beyond the Atlantic.18

Indeed it would, but not at the same time, and under very different socio-political economic and cultural circumstances. Contrast Cook’s appraisal with Smolka’s analysis of scientific evolution in Bohemia from the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century, by which time Newton and Linnaeus had arrived there.19 Smolka’s analysis specifically draws attention to the long-term negative impact that putting down the 1618 uprising had on the evolution of the Scientific Revolution in the Czech Lands. The Revolution was stifled

in a quite decisive manner by the social situation which developed in the Czech area: re-catholization and the near-absolute ideological hegemony of the Jesuit Order, intellectual oppression and lack of freedom which went hand in hand with complete isolation from modern European scientific trends. And it is in a way paradoxical that whereas the historical conditions for scientific development at the beginning of the period involved were relatively favourable, at its end, when the Enlightenment and rationalism were beginning in Europe, Bohemia and Moravia were as it were starting from scratch, from the very beginning, but only slowly, hesitatingly and uneasily …20

As it happened, there was a Dutch dimension to this eventual reform in the person of Gerard van Swieten, Empress Maria Theresa’s physician. On his advice, medical instruction was restructured along the lines developed in Leiden by his influential teacher Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). Moreover, and no less crucially, it was due to van Swieten that the Jesuit hold on education and censorship was broken.

Fig. 15 Emperor Franz Stephan (sitting) together with his natural science advisors. From left to right: Gerard van Swieten, Johann Ritter von Baillou (naturalist), Valentin Jamerai Duval (numismatist) and Abbé Johann Marcy (Director of the Physical Mathematical Cabinet).

Context and content of science

In a notable collection investigating the historical relationship between Instruments, Travel and Science, the editors go out of their way to point out that their historiographical approach is ‘contextual’. Over the last two decades, they state

historians of science engaged in writing contextually have argued against a view of the development of knowledge, and particularly of scientific knowledge, as a unilinear process, and against the notion that the universality of science progressively imposes itself by the sheer force of the uniformity of the laws of nature. Conversely, these historians have described through multiple case studies how the universal dimension of science, was, in fact, predicated upon the context of its making and deeply grounded in locality.21

These observations should not obscure the fact that the contextual approach to the history of science has a past stretching beyond 1980. To all intents and purposes, it goes back to Hessen’s seminal analysis (1931) of Principia against the background of the period in which Newton worked and lived. To ignore Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China (1954- ) as a work of contextual history is to fly in the face of the evidence. Written under Marxist influence, these and such-like studies were suspect ab ovo. Even scholars who acknowledge the relevance of the social context for the historiography of science feel that novel forays, such as Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump, have not delivered. That is, the authors ‘place the history of science within a social context, but they did not discuss the possible influence of the content of science’.22 As it happens, Schaffer’s contribution to the volume on Instruments, Travel and Science illustrates that the relationship between the social context and the content of science is not reducible to a point-to-point relationship, but is mediated. Understanding it requires a more nuanced discussion based, for example, on the interdisciplinary approach exemplified below.

The subject matter of Schaffer’s piece is the English gold trade in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the metrological concerns of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, protagonists of the gold system. This system crucially depended on gold, as a commodity, to be ‘true gold, perfect metal’ (in the words of John Locke).23 Gold must have first attracted the attention of humans in prehistoric times. The use of sheep skins in the washing of gold-bearing sands to return gold particles may have given rise to the myth of the Golden Fleece. The notion of gold’s superiority to other metals, be it in economy or medicine, is alchemical.

It is well established that Boyle’s, Locke’s and Newton’s alchemical interests did not prevent them from looking for and obtaining ‘hard’ knowledge of nature. What Schaffer shows is that state-sponsored and commercial natural history mattered to them too. That is, the development of precision methods to distinguish between counterfeits and true gold, shipped from the Gold Coast of Guinea to the Royal Mint in London where Warden Newton ruled supremely:

Newton constructed a ferocious regime of governance within the institutions of natural philosophy and the walls of the Tower. In Mint work he insisted on accurate weighings and corrected what he judged an unacceptably large tolerance of error in the average weight of coins, called ‘the remedy’. The Newtonian mint became an emblematic site of administrative metrology.24

Ever since Hessen’s paper was published, it has been criticised, by non-Marxist historians as well as a number of Marxist ones, for its socio-economic ‘determinism’, ‘reductionism’ and suchlike. This points to an appreciable misreading of Hessen’s aim, which was ‘to determine the basic tendency [MT] of the interests of physics during the period immediately preceding Newton and contemporary with him’.25

Turning to Schaffer’s article, one has the impression that he owes a good deal to Hessen, if not to Marx. Newtonian projects, he states,

were not, of course, limited to fiscal standardisation. Between 1709 and 1713, ably assisted by the young Cambridge mathematician Roger Cotes, Newton prepared a revised edition of his Principia mathematica. Some ‘hypotheses’ which had prefaced its third book in 1687 now became reworked as ‘regulae philosophandi’. The second rule stated that ‘the causes assigned to natural effects of the same kind must be, so far as possible, the same. Examples are … the falling of stones in Europe or America’. The Principia, in this sense, was a handbook for travellers. Newton described the celebrated marvels of tidal ebb and flow in the East Indies, the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific. Keen to show the universal grip of his gravitational model of lunar pull, Newton here faced characteristic troubles of trust in travellers’ tales. Against Leibnizian rivals, Newton and Cotes now sought massively to reinforce the apparent precision of their measures. They discussed whether to omit or include tide data from variably reliable mariners using assumptions about such parameters as the earth’s destiny. The link between trust in persons and in creation’s constancy was even clearer in their work on the length of isochronic pendulums in Europe, American and in Africa too. In the 1680s Newton had hoped that ‘the excess of gravity in these Northern places over the gravity at the Equator’ would be ‘determined exactly by experiments conducted with greater diligence’. Cotes now ‘considered to make the Scholium appear to the best advantage as to the numbers’. They would make a table of the variations in the length of a seconds pendulum at different points on earth, visibly accurate over very small length differences of fractions of an inch. Cotes held ‘that the generality of Your Readers must be gratified with such trifles, upon which the commonly lay ye greatest stress’.26

Interdisciplinarity in Becher’s thought

Boyle, Locke and Newton shared their fascination with the historically linked fields of mining, metallurgy, alchemy, chemistry and coinage with continental contemporaries such as Johann Joachim Becher (1635-?).27 In general histories dealing with the rise of modern chemistry, he usually has a place in the discussion of the origins of the doctrine of phlogiston. In works surveying the evolution of economic thought, Becher is mentioned as the leading representative of German (Austrian) mercantilism.

Among the most striking features of Becher’s life is his continuous fascination with alchemy. Becher emerges as someone who unquestionably believed that transmutation was possible though he had little regard for the pursuit of an elixir of life. However, scepticism regarding this or that aspect of alchemy did not hinder Becher from re-iterating that without alchemy, metallurgy cannot be fully understood. Indeed, he goes on, anyone who is opposed to alchemy should realise that he either does not comprehend or does not fully appreciate that metallurgy and coinage form the foremost part of his prince’s income.

Becher’s reference to the sphere of coinage touches on an element of German political and economic history which should not be lost sight of. That is, the non-uniformity of the German system of coinage, being partly the product of the political and economic division of Germany but also contributing to it, long before and after the Thirty Years War.

One of the problems arising out of these coinage conditions in Germany was the exchange of currencies between the independent territories within the framework of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as well as between these territories and the non-German states. Discussing money-exchange in the section on coinage in Politische Discurs, Becher proposes to control it institutionally by establishing a discount-house (Wexel-Banck).28

Underlying this proposal was Becher’s preoccupation with the movement of money and commodities and their relation to each other. The interest of this lies in the fact that Becher ascribes to money the function of a commodity. Becher may be among the first writers to espouse such an idea. Here is what he says: ‘… thus in respect of a country there is no commodity as expensive and necessary as money; and no commodity going out of the country should be charged with more duty than money because money is equally the nerve and the soul of the country’.29

This proposition ties in with the impact of merchant capital felt at the centre of Europe as part of the transformation from feudal to capitalist economy, made while Becher was composing his substantive work. An inherent feature of this process was the growing production of commodities to be sold, that is exchanged for money, on the market at home and abroad. Becher was concerned precisely with such questions in the context of Germany’s political and economic ruin after the Thirty Years War. That is, he was galvanised by with the ascendancy of merchant capital in the economic life of this geographical area, a process characterised by the interlocking circulation of commodities and money. There is first-hand evidence for Becher spelling out the idea of the circuit of merchant capital. It is contained in his appraisal of merchant-manufacturers as the mainstay of the community:

Now finally regarding the point about consumption, I wish to add in praise and honour of the Verlaeger [merchant-manufacturers] the following. Namely that they are solely to be regarded as the pillars of the three estates because the artisan lives from them, from him the nobleman, from him the Prince, and from all these again the merchant. These are the hands which have to join.30

Becher’s thought reveals ‘cycle-mindedness’ as permeating his natural philosophy just as much as his economic thinking. For Becher, unaffected by growing specialisation, it became the concept through which the natural and economic worlds interrelated. Cycle-mindedness and circulation-mindedness were terms employed by Joseph Needham when he called attention to the Taoist appreciation of cyclical change. At the same time he highlighted the eminent role of the notions of ‘circle’ and ‘circulation’ in the intellectual life of the Renaissance, when the foundations of what is called modern science were laid. The scholar to whose stimulating work we owe the most insight is Walter Pagel, but in these matters he appears not to have become as influential as he did in others.31 Cycle-mindedness is bound up with the ideas of ‘recurrence’ and ‘continuity’. In fact, it constitutes one of the most enduring visions of being from prehistoric times to the present, emerging in the belief in life after death or in the pursuit of perpetual motion machines. Such things, we know, were of concern to Becher. They should be viewed in the context of his belief in circulation – grounded in his reading and literal interpretation of the Bible – as the underlying principle of the natural and economic order of things.

But beyond that, Becher probably owes the idea of circulation to his alchemical and chemical interests. Can one doubt that he was familiar with the alchemical symbol of the serpent with his tail in his mouth? The circular form of the Uroboros was taken by the alchemists to stand for the ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ of matter undergoing eternal chemical change. Moreover, since the sixteenth century at least, the terms ‘distillation’ and ‘circulation’ have come to be used analogically. There is direct evidence, in fact, for Becher making use of this analogy when he stresses that nature is in a state of perpetual motion, that this motion is circular and that it can therefore compared to distillation.32

1 F. Bacon, ‘Aphorisms – Book One’, in The New Organon and Related Writings, ed. by F. H. Anderson (New York and London: MacMillan, 1987), p. 118.

2 A. Rupert Hall, ‘Early Modern Technology to 1600’, in M. Kranzberg and C. W. Pursell, Jr. (eds.), Technology in Western Civilization, Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 98-100. There is, of course, also the question of the stagnation that affected Islamic civilisation. Here Michael Mitterauer’s discussion of Muslim hostility to the printing of the Qur’an is illuminating. Thus, the first printing-house in Istanbul to work with Arabic letters was opened in 1726 only to be shut down from 1730 to 1780 and again in 1800. See M. Mitterauer, Why Europe? The Medieval Origin of its Special Path (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 266.

3 H. J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 411. Intentionally or not this passage echoes Marx’s analysis of what he characterised as ‘primitive accumulation of capital’:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s anti-Jacobin war, and is still going on in the opium wars against China.

See K. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938), p. 775.

4 P. Findlen, ‘Cabinets, Collecting and Natural Philosophy’, in E. Fučíková et al., Rudolf II and Prague (Prague: Prague Castle Administration and London and Milan: Thames and Hudson, 1997), pp. 213-14. The volume provides a notable introduction in English to Rudolf II and his era. See also R. J. W. Evans, ‘Rudolf II: Prag und Europa um 1600’, in Prag um 1600 Kunst und Kultur am Hofe Kaiser Rudolf II, Vol. 1 (Freren: Luca Verlag, 1988), pp. 27-37. For Evans’s previous full-length treatment, see Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History, 1576-1612 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973). For a Czech historiographical perspective, see J. Válka, ‘Rudolfine Culture’, in M. Teich (ed.), Bohemia in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 117-42. Here I cannot but note the recent publication of the massive multi-authored survey of alchemical activities associated with Rudolf II’s court: see I. Purš and V. Karpenko (eds.), Alchymie a Rudolf II: Hledání tajemství přírody ve střední Evropě v 16. a 17. století [Alchemy and Rudolf II: Searching for Secrets of Nature in Central Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries] (Prague: Artefactum Ústav dějin umění AV ČR, 2011).

5 A. Švejda, ‘Prager Konstrukteure wissenschaftlicher Instrumente und ihre Werke’, in J. Folta (ed.), ‘Science and Technology in Rudolfinian Time’, Acta historiae rerum naturalium necnon technicarum. Prague Studies in the History of Science and Technology, Vol. 1 (1997), 90-4.

6 J. North, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 336. For an analysis of the Baer-Brahe controversy, see N. Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler’s ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on its Provenance and Significance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). For a scholarly, bilingual French-Latin collection of related documents, see N. Jardine and A.-Ph. Segonds, La Guerre des Astronomes: La Querelle au sujet de l’origine du système géo-héliocentrique à la fin du XVIe siècle. Vol. 1: Introduction (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2008); N. Jardine and A.-Ph. Segonds, La Guerre des Astronomes: La Querelle au sujet de l’origine du système géo-héliocentrique à la fin du XVIe siècle. Vol. 2/1: Le ‘Contra Ursum’ de Jean Kepler, Introduction et textes préparatoires and Vol. 2/2: Le ‘Contra Ursum’ de Jean Kepler, Édition critique, traduction et notes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2008). It has been suggested that Brahe’s furious reaction had something to do with the differing social provenances of the protagonists. Whereas Brahe was of noble parentage, Baer was of peasant stock and hence less trustworthy.

7 J. Smolka, ‘Böhmen und die Annahme der Galileischen astronomischen Entdeckungen’, Acta historiae ... Prague Studies in the History of Science and Technology, Vol. 1 (1997), 41-69 (p. 49).

8 J. Jones, ‘Natural Wonders’, Saturday Guardian, 26 April 2008. See also T. DaCosta Kaufmann, Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

9 J. Folta et al., Dějiny exaktních věd v českých zemích do konce 19. století [History of the Exact Sciences in the Czech Lands up to the End of the Nineteenth Century] (Prague: Nakladatelství Československé akademie věd, 1961), p. 47.

10 Z. Horský, ‘Die Wissenschaft am Hofe Rudolfs II’, in Prag um 1600, pp. 69-74.

11 J. Smolka, ‘Scientific Revolution in Bohemia’, in R. Porter and M. Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 220.

12 N. J. Efron, ‘Liberal Arts, Eirenism and Jews in Rudolfine Prague’, Acta historiae… Prague Studies, 24-35 (p. 24).

13 Evans, ‘Rudolf II’, p. 35.

14 Texts dealing with the Thirty Years War and the period are legion. I draw attention to the undervalued J. V. Polišenský with F. Snider, War and Society in Europe, 1618-1648 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) and V. G. Kiernan, State and Society in Europe, 1550-1650 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980). For a more recent examination in English, see P. H. Wilson, Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (London: Penguin, 2010).

15 H. Van der Wee, ‘The Influence of Banking on the Rise of Capitalism in North-West Europe, Fourteenth to Nineteenth Century’, in A. Teichova, G. Kurgan-van Hentenryk and D. Ziegler (eds.), Banking, Trade and Industry: Europe, America and Asia from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 180.

16 Horský in Prag um 1600, p. 70.

17 J. Petráň and L. Petráňová, ‘The White Mountain as a Symbol in Modern Czech History’, in Teich (ed.), Bohemia, p. 144.

18 Kiernan, State and Society in Europe, p. 195.

19 H. J. Cook, ‘The New Philosophy in the Low Countries’, in Porter and Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution, pp. 137-38.

20 Smolka, ‘Bohemia’, in Porter and Teich (eds.), The Scientific Revolution, pp. 234-35.

21 M.-N. Bourget, Ch. Licoppe and H. O. Sibum (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 3.

22 M. J. Osler, ‘The Canonical Imperative: Rethinking the Scientific Revolution’, in M. J. Osler (ed.), Rethinking the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 19.

23 S. Schaffer, ‘Golden Means: Assay Instruments and the Geography of Precision in the Guinea Trade’, in Bourget et al. (eds.), Instruments, p. 22.

24 Ibid., p. 39.

25 B. Hessen, ‘The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s “Principia”’, in Science at the Cross Roads, 2nd ed. (London: Cass, 1971), p. 165.

26 Schaffer, ‘Golden Means’, pp. 37-8.

27 See G. Frühsorge and G. F. Strasser (eds.), Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682) (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1993). This volume includes my ‘Interdisciplinarity in J. J. Becher’s Thought’ on which I draw here (pp. 23-40). It was previously published in History of European Ideas, 9 (1988), 145-60.

28 J. J. Becher, Politische Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Auff- und Abnehmens der Staedt, Laender und Republicken (Frankfurt am Main: Zunner, 1688), p. 269. This is the third edition of Becher’s arguably most renowned publication, apart from Physica Subterranea. The first edition, Politischer Discours, appeared in 1668 and the second edition in 1673. The original title of Physica Subterranea was Actorum Laboratorii Chymici Monacensis, Seu Physicae Subterraneae Libri Duo (Frankfurt am Main: J. D. Zunneri, 1669). Despite the title it was a one-volume book. A second edition with three previously published supplements (1671, 1675, 1680) appeared in 1681. It was Becher himself who translated his own opus into German and published it as Chymisches Laboratorium Oder Unter-erdische Naturkuendigung (Frankfurt am Main: J. Haass, 1680), along with the first and second supplements and another publication Ein Chymischer Raetseldeuter. A second edition appeared in 1690.

29 Becher, Politische Discurs, p. 269.

30 Ibid., p. 106.

31 J. Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), pp. 227-28; W. Pagel, William Harvey’s Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background (Basel and New York: Karger, 1967).

32 Becher, ‘Revera autem, perpetua haec circulatio destillationi Chymicae comparari potest’, Physica Subterranea, p. 50; idem, ‘Nun kam aber? in der That dieser staete Cirkelgang mit einer Chymischen distillation verglichen werden’, Chymisches Laboratorium, p. 131.