Knowledge circulation in the 17th century

The scientific revolution of the 17th century was driven by countless discoveries in the observatory, at sea, in the workshop, in society at large and in the library. There was a dramatic increase in the amount of information, giving rise to new knowledge, theories and world views. But how did the 17th-century scientific information system actually work? How were new elements of knowledge picked up, processed, disseminated and – ultimately – accepted in broad circles of the educated community? In short: how did knowledge circulate? 


The role of the Dutch republic



The Dutch Republic played a key role in this “information society” avant la lettre. Its global trade network, prosperity and relative tolerance made the Republic a refuge for intellectuals from around Europe. Not only did the book trade in the territory of the Republic account for more than half of Europe’s production of scientific works, but the Republic was also the cradle of the modern scientific journal. The basis of this information system lay in the correspondence between intellectuals.


Long tradition of studying scientific revolution

There is a long tradition in the Netherlands of studying the scientific revolution, starting with E.J. Dijksterhuis in the 1940s and 1950s and continuing today (e.g. K. van Berkel and H.F. Cohen). In recent decades, historians of science and scholarship have become increasingly aware of the pivotal role the 17th-century Dutch Republic played in the international network of humanists and scholars before and during the “scientific revolution”. Important developments in disciplines such as philology, natural philosophy and natural history were fostered in or nurtured by the dynamic intellectual atmosphere of the Dutch Golden Age. Institutions such as universities and publishing houses were instrumental in the production and dissemination of knowledge. Intellectuals from all over Europe visited the Netherlands, which was then considered “the storehouse of the intellectual world” and which is now increasingly studied as such.


Why study letters

The 17th-century Republic offers an ideal case for exploring the answers to the above-mentioned question, and correspondence between scholars is the ideal research subject. Until the publication of the first scientific journals in the 1660s, scholarly letters were by far the most direct and important means of communication between intellectuals abroad and at home.

Historians are highly aware of the importance of these letters, and as a result, many collections have been edited and published in print in the past century (e.g. Mersenne’s correspondence; the letters published in the Oeuvres Complètes de Christiaan Huygens; Henry Oldenburg’s correspondence). The new opportunities offered by ICT resulted in various initiatives to digitize the correspondences of major 17th- and 18th-century scholars and to make them available online. It enables us to locate, reproduce, collect, describe, catalogue, transcribe, edit, analyze, and visualize the texts themselves, and to extract geographical and chronological metadata for the networks constituted by them. Moreover, it allows for linking with the (meta-)data of other projects such as Mapping the Republic of Letters of Stanford of the Cultures of Knowledge project of the University of Oxford. This allows researchers to address questions and to test hypotheses they could not possibly deal with before, but that are of central importance for understanding the spread and nature of scholarly communication in the Republic of Letters.