Tag Archives: history of science

Things Verbal and Things Herbal: Leah Knight’s Reading Green in Early Modern England receives the 2014 BSLS Book Prize

Posted by Beth Whalley, Marketing Executive

Reading GreenCongratulations to Leah Knight, whose book Reading Green in Early Modern England has been announced as the winner of the 2014 British Society for Literature and Science book prize.

Ranging across contexts from early modern optics and olfaction to horticulture and herbal health care, Knight’s study explores a host of human encounters with the green world: both the impressions we make upon it and those it leaves with us. Reading Green explores the physical and figurative potentials of ‘green’ as they were understood in Renaissance England, including some that foreshadow our paradoxical dependence on and sacrifice of the green world.

The BSLS prize panel was highly impressed by the style, method, adventure and innovation of the study. Knight, whose first monograph (Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England) won the prize in 2009, said:

I am of course delighted that Reading Green won the BSLS book prize. The support of my colleagues working at the nexus of literature and science means a great deal.

As to my motivation for Reading GreenAfter Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England, I had the nagging feeling of unfinished business in my exploration of the interrelations of plants and books. New angles and new evidence for their historical interplay just kept cropping up, even when I wasn’t looking.

Then again, some of my motivation in returning to the topic might be owing to my unsettled sense about the relations between the intellectual to the natural world. There’s something utopian about the paired settings of the library and the garden, but the predatory dependence of books on plants seems to stand for an insidious conflict. The chapters in Reading Green let me work through some of these complexities as they played out in early modern England, a time and place when the material and mental cultures of things verbal and things herbal were in tremendous flux. 

Ann C. Colley on Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain


Ann C ColleyPosted by Ann Donahue, Publisher

Ann C. Colley (pictured) talks to Ann Donahue about her new book, Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

I had just finished my Victorians in the Mountains: Sinking the Sublime, which had not only appealed to my love of landscape and admiration for climbers, but had also taken me to libraries and clubs on both sides of the Atlantic. It was when I entered the Wellcome Institute on Euston Road that something clicked. The Institute had launched a special exhibit on “Skin” that I found absolutely fascinating. I recall seeing pieces of tattooed skin taken from sailors in the nineteenth century and wondering about the role of skin and identity. Knowing that the role of skin in human portraiture during the Victorian era has been well rehearsed, I turned my thinking to animal skins and portraiture. Before I knew it, I was launched.

Wild animal skins in Victorian BritainYour book connects to so many areas of current interest in the humanities, including animal studies, museums, collecting, sensory studies, and the history of science. Were you surprised at the multiple directions in which your research led you?

No. Indeed I was drawn to the subject because it would do just that. Cultural studies are appealing because they engage so many intersecting disciplines and take one into unusual archives and libraries not open to the general public. Once I began accumulating materials, I immediately saw that the project would fit into the current interest in animal studies, museum studies, theories of portraiture, British colonialism, collecting, theories of touch and skin, as well as in history of science.

You came upon some fascinating characters in the course of your research, including the Earl of Derby. Can you say a few words about him as a collector and his association with Edward Lear?

For several years I have been buying Lear’s watercolor sketches as well as lithographs of his natural history paintings. Through this interest, of course, I knew that between 1831 and 1837, he was employed by the 12th Earl of Derby and later by the Earl’s son to sketch and paint portraits of the wild animals and exotic birds kept on the estate, which was the site of England’s largest private menagerie. To amass their amazing collection, the 12th and the 13th Earls commissioned collectors and agents from all over the world. The resulting correspondence between the 13th Earl of Derby and these agents makes for incredible reading. Lear was privy to this world and to those who worked for and were related to the Earl of Derby.

I was fascinated to learn that collecting animal skins was not just the prerogative of the privileged classes as I would have thought that collecting these specimens would be extremely costly. How common was this form of collecting among working- and middle-class individuals?

There are several studies of the working class and their interest in science, particularly those that discuss the fact that mill owners and manufacturers often encouraged their employees to learn as much as they could about the sciences so as to create a more knowledgeable workforce. Jane Camerini, John M. MaKenzie, E.P. Thompson, and Katie Whitaker, among others, have all written on the topic. For me, the most convincing and vivid evidence came from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton in which she makes a point of mentioning that the working-class men of Manchester were “warm and devoted followers” of the “more popularly interesting branches of natural history.” They “knew the name and habitat of every plant within a day’s walk from their dwelling.” Her character Job Legh, a self-educated spinner, who has access to the Liverpool docks where sailors would return with exotic specimens, is one of these “warm and devoted followers.”

In some ways, the interest in animal skins strikes me as analogous to the Victorians’ passion for travel writing. What was it about these specimens that was so appealing?

I, myself, travel to exotic places and write accounts of my sometimes disastrous adventures and have found that the wild life of a place is what defines the experience for me. When I was working on Wild Animal Skins, I discovered a similar impulse was at work among the Victorian public, who were fascinated by exotic birds and animals in faraway lands and would go to great lengths to see exhibits of these, to collect them (though I hasten to add I do not own any taxidermy specimens!), and to learn as much as it could about them. As I say in the introduction to my book “skin was not only a basic ingredient of portraiture but also the site of encounter with the exotic world.”

Many people would find a home adorned with animal skins from so-called exotic locales shocking and collecting such specimens is often illegal. Was the collecting of wild animal skins controversial during the Victorian era?

No. Unlike many, perhaps most, people today, the Victorians experienced little sense of guilt in looking at, owning, arranging, and admiring stuffed birds and animals. They rarely, if at all, thought about extinction. Even Darwin shot the last fox on the Galapagos Island. For them the distant world was full of plenty. That is not to say the Victorians were insensitive to the pain inflicted on animals. One has to remember that it is in the Victorian period that the antivivisectionists were active. I am not sure why, but taxidermy is coming back in style. One can go to a booth at a market in London to learn how to remove the skin of a bird or a mouse and stuff it. At a wedding recently I met a person from Brooklyn who practices taxidermy in her apartment. Skin will always elicit pleasure, disgust, and curiosity.

About the Author: Ann C. Colley is a SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University College of New York at Buffalo. She has published numerous articles and books, including Victorians in the Mountains, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture, The Search for Synthesis in Literature and Art: The Paradox of Space, Edward Lear and the Critics, and Tennyson and Madness.

Another good review for British University Observatories 1772–1939

British University Observatories 1772–1939

We’re very pleased to see another good review for Roger Hutchins’ book British University Observatories 1772–1939, this time in the British Journal for the History of Science

…impressive in many respects. The product of many years of painstaking research…incorporates existing literature while providing a phenomenal amount of new information…the equally impressive bibliography, index and synthetic tables help the reader navigate this enyclopedic volume, as does the author’s clear, factual prose and his sure-footed guidance…Altogether meticulously written, well illustrated and carefully produced…

Victoria Sparey reviews “Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England”

Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare's England

Victoria Sparey, from the University of Exeter, reviews Kaara L Peterson’s book Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England on the BSLS website:

Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England provides an important contribution to understandings of early modern medical knowledge… Peterson offers insightful new readings of familiar scenes from plays by Shakespeare, Webster, Ford, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Chapman.

You can read the full review on the BSLS website

British University Observatories – “a thorough and scholarly work, full of fascinating anecdotes”

We’re really pleased to see another very positive review, this time in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society (September 2010) for Roger Hutchins’ book British University Observatories, 1772-1939.

…this is a thorough and scholarly work, full of fascinating anecdotes.

British University Observatories fills a gap in the historiography of British astronomy by offering the histories of observatories identified as a group by their shared characteristics. The first full histories of the Oxford and Cambridge observatories are here central to an explanatory history of each of the six that undertook research before World War II – Oxford, Dunsink, Cambridge, Durham, Glasgow and London. Each struggled to evolve in the middle ground between the royal observatories and those of the ‘Grand Amateurs’ in the nineteenth century.

Fundamental issues are how and why astronomy came into the universities, how research was reconciled with teaching, lack of endowment, and response to the challenge of astrophysics. One organizing theme is the central importance of the individual professor-directors in determining the fortunes of these observatories, the community of assistants, and their role in institutional politics sometimes of the murkiest kind, patronage networks and discipline shaping coteries. The use of many primary sources illustrates personal motivations and experience.

About the Author: Roger Hutchins, FRAS, as a member of Magdalen College received his B.A. in Modern History from the University of Oxford in 1992, and his D.Phil. in 1999. He was also a Research Associate with and contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Other reviews:

‘The development of research and teaching astronomy in British Universities hinged on the foundation, equipping, and staffing of observatories. This book provides the first detailed study of these institutions across a century and a half. (It) is both a social and a scientific history… a major contribution to our knowledge of the development of scientific institutions in Great Britain… It is a masterpiece of rigorous scholarship, and its style and lack of jargon will make it accessible to a wide range of readers.’    Allan Chapman, Wadham College, Oxford, UK

‘An encyclopaedic work … it includes material which is extremely difficult to find anywhere else and subjects it to a penetrating analysis … an invaluable resource.’    Derek Jones, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, UK

‘This book is a primary source for the history of these observatories. The account of the Neptune incident is splendid; it is historical, and avoids the polemic that has muddled the subject.’    David Dewhirst, Cambridge Observatories, UK

‘This book lays down a new baseline in the field, much as Allan Chapman’s The Victorian Amateur Astronomer did.’    Peter Hingley, Librarian, Royal Astronomical Society

‘‘This encyclopedic work based on extensive scholarship is accessible to the general reader and will be valuable for historians of science…Highly recommended.’    Choice

… a masterly piece of work … an absorbing read, dealing not just with astronomy but also with the politics and finance of the science, the social place of the professional astronomer, and his, and occasionally her, relation to the changing amateur establishment. It is hard to see how anyone in the forseeable future will supersede British University Observatories for it is authoritative, well illustrated and readable.’    Astronomy Now

‘The book is thoroughly researched and plentiful in detail, reflecting extensive background work with a range of primary sources. The abundance of factual information might discourage readers more interested in the general underlying questions and less concerned with the intricacies of British astronomical history. However, the absence of lofty jargon and the lively depictions of the actors’ personalities and idiosyncrasies offer the possibility of a pleasant reading. Furthermore, the book is efficiently arranged by theme and chronological period. This is a valuable work of reference that will be equally useful to students of the history of astronomy and astrophysics, and to those specialising in the institutional history of science. It is of particular import to those interested in the role of universities in the promotion of pure research.’    Nuncius

‘The high standards of scholarship are matched by high production standards – this is a tome that feels good in the hand and looks good to the eye. I’d expect to find it on the shelves wherever history of science is studied.’    The Observatory Magazine

‘Particularly impressive is the range of material covered as well as the depth of research. I recommend British University Observatories to everyone with a serious interest in the history of astronomy between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries.’    Journal of the British Astonomical Association

‘The overall impression of the book is a very well researched and thorough work with ample citations, bibliography and index. … The quality of the reproductions is impressive, as often this is an area compromised by publishers of small print runs. Likewise, the quality of the printing, paper and stitch binding is equally high. … I recommend it as a vital addition to any library of the history of astronomy, even in these times of economic retrenchment.’    SHA Bulletin

‘Not only is the book comprehensively footnoted, but its 32-page bibliography and 60-page (!) index are unusually useful and interesting. … a fascinating cultural and social history, an astronomical reference book, and a valuable comparative analysis of the research, instruments, and long-term contributions of a group of observatories sharing defining characteristics. Hutchins’s approach could provide a fruitful model for the analysis of observatories in other nations.’    Journal for the History of Astronomy

‘Un must per le biblioteche.’    Giornale di Astronomia

British University Observatories is a highly useful book whose factual content and thematic construction are a major contribution to the history of astronomy. Hopefully it will be a model for studies of observatories in other countries.’    Journal of the Antique Telescope Society

‘…what a marvellous, worthwhile and rewarding book it is. Not only does Hutchins write well, but he also carefully distinguishes between data and opinion.…Nearly every extant image of a university observatory, its instruments and its occupants has been beautifully reproduced. Each chapter is superbly referenced, and the bibliography is extensive.…Read this book. It will make you proud to be at the chalkface of tertiary astronomy education.’    Emeritus Professor David W. Hughes, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage

‘It is the great strength of this volume by Roger Hutchins that six British university observatories-ranging north to south from Glasgow, Durham, and Dunsink to Cambridge, Oxford, and London-not only receive an account of their history up to the beginning of World War II, but also for the first time are treated to a detailed comparison. While a few of these institutions have had their histories written … never before have they been compared with such rich and nuanced results.…Historians of technology will find here a tremendous amount of information on a variety of telescopes, spectroscopes, photographic equipment; and timepieces, among other accoutrements of astronomical research.…Hutchins has made ample use of primary and secondary sources, including manuscript and archival resources in the United Kingdom and the United States. His volume is rounded out by a lengthy bibliography and an extremely detailed, and therefore useful, index. He is to be congratulated for a well-written and pathbreaking book, and the publisher for a handsome and well-produced volume.’    Steven J. Dick, Technology and Culture

‘… a masterly, comprehensive, and well-illustrated institutional history.…Hutchins’s book is an essential contribution to the history of science, both when it delivers what it promises, but especially when it digresses to the history of instrumentation, practices, research agendas, and to geographies beyond Britain. A large section dedicated to the discovery of Neptune, to cite one example, illustrates new relationships between mathematical, amateur, practical, and university astronomy, but it is in fact most interesting when it departs from the institutional focus of the book.’    Victorian Studies

Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England shortlisted for HSS Davis prize

We’re very pleased to learn that the History of Science Society has shortlisted an Ashgate book for the Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize.

The book is Kevin Killeen‘s Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England: Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge.

Killeen’s work centres on a reassessment of the scope and importance of Browne’s most elaborate text, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, his vast encyclopaedia of error with its mazy series of investigations, encompassing biblical commentary, historiography, natural history, classical philology, artistic propriety and an encyclopaedic coverage of natural philosophy. The book traces the intellectual climate in which such disparate interests could cohere.

About the author: Kevin Killeen is a lecturer in Early Modern English Literature at the University of York, UK.


Leah Knight’s “Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England” wins the BSLS book prize

We are delighted to announce that Leah Knight has been awarded this year’s BSLS book prize for “Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England”. The award was announced at the 2010 British Society for Literature and Science conference, held at Northumbria University last week.

All the judges for this year’s BSLS book prize agreed wholeheartedly that Leah Knight’s ‘Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England’ was a very worthy winner. Knight’s book is a fascinating contribution to the study of literature and science in the early modern period. Elegantly written and meticulous in its scholarship, it opens up the field of botany in the sixteenth century for literary analysis and cultural history, drawing out too how central early modern thinking about plants was to print culture as a whole. As well as being an excellent contribution to the field in its own right, ‘Of Books and Botany’ is one of an important new series of books on Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity published by Ashgate. Ashgate has been leading the field in publishing books on literature and science, and it is extremely encouraging to see research into literature and science in the early modern period getting the same serious consideration and support as work in this same field in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’

John Holmes, Chair of the judges for this year’s prize