Crossroads of Knowledge: Early Modern Literature and Natural Philosophy

3 March 2017 - 4 March 2017

SG1, Alison Richard Building

Registration for this event has now closed. 

This conference explored the intersections between natural philosophy and literature and was part of the research project, Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature, a five-year ERC-funded project based at the Faculty of English and CRASSH, University of Cambridge. The programme for the event is available here and Rachel E. Holmes created a Storify about the colloquium which is available here.



Subha Mukherji, Rachel E. Holmes, Elizabeth L. Swann, Tim Stuart-Buttle, Rebecca Tomlin


Lorraine Daston (MPI History of Science), Mary Floyd-Wilson (UNC Chapel Hill), Cassie Gorman (ARU), Torrance Kirby (McGill University), Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge), Rhodri Lewis, (Oxford), Ayesha Mukherjee (Exeter), Kathryn Murphy (Oxford), Jane Partner (Cambridge), Richard Serjeantson (Cambridge), Felix Sprang (Siegen), Elizabeth L. Swann (Cambridge), Henry S.Turner (Rutgers University), Michael Witmore (Folger Library).



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation; however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance: Gaenor Moore

Friday 3 March


Coffee and Registration.


Welcome: Subha Mukherji (Prinicipal Investigator)


Chair: Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge)

  • Michael Witmore (Folger Library)  Spontaneity and Knowledge in Early Modern England
  • Lorraine Daston: (MPI History of Science) Premodern Rules: The History of an Epistemic Category



Chair: Sarah Howe (University College London)

  • Sachiko Kusukawa (University of Cambridge)  Uses of images in some early modern commentaries on Aristotle’s De anima



Chair: Jennifer Rampling (Princeton University)

  • Richard Serjeantson (University of Cambridge) Francis Bacon at the Crossroads of Knowledge: 'Our Philosophy' encounters a 'New Logic'
  • Rhodri Lewis (University of Oxford) More Things in Heaven and Earth? Hamlet as Natural Philosopher



Chair: Tim Stuart-Buttle (University of Cambridge)

  • Henry S. Turner (Rutgers University) Francis Bacon’s Art of Thinking; or, Let Us All Begin to Generalize
  • Felix Sprang (University of Siegen) The Plain Style, Great Circle Sailing and the Paradox of Disinterestedness

Drinks reception in the ARB Atrium

Saturday 4 March




Chair: Sietske Fransen (University of Cambridge)

  • Elizabeth L. Swann (University of Cambridge) ‘Vermiculate Questions’: Confronting Mortality in the Early Royal Society
  • Jane Partner (University of Cambridge) Reading the Early Modern Body



Chair: Rachel E. Holmes (University of Cambridge)

Kathryn Murphy (University of Oxford) Articulate Voices: The Speaking World in the Works of Francis Bacon




Chair:  David Parry (University of Cambridge)

  • Cassie Gorman (Anglia Ruskin University) Hester Pulter’s Atom Worlds
  • Torrance Kirby (McGill University) The ‘Cosmographic Mystery’: Johannes Kepler’s conversion of astronomy



 Chair:  Rebecca Tomlin (University of Cambridge)

  • Mary Floyd-Wilson (UNC Chapel Hill) 'Never hung poison on a fouler toad':  Contagious Evil in Early Modern England
  • Ayesha Mukherjee (University of Exeter) 'Manure thyself': Dearth, Knowledge-making, and the Biblical Poetics of Fertilisation in Early Modern England

 Roundtable: Chair: Richard Oosterhoff (University of Cambridge)

Premodern Rules: The History of an Epistemic Category - Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute)

Rules – in the form of everything from traffic regulations and government directives to etiquette manuals and parliamentary procedures − structure almost every human interaction. Increasing use of computers has intensified a trend that began in the eighteenth century of ever more, ever more stringent rules for ever more domains of public and private life. We moderns cannot live without rules. But we also cannot live with them, at least not comfortably. We chafe at their complexity, their inflexibility, their inefficiency, their sheer prolixity. Many of the fault lines that run through the landscape of modern thought oppose rules to some other elusive desideratum, such as interpretation, judgment, creativity, discretion, or simple common sense. These are characteristically modern oppositions. Premodern rules, for the over two millennia spanning Greco-Roman Antiquity through the European Enlightenment, built experience and discretion into rules; words for “rule” and “pattern” (or “paradigm”) were used as synonyms in several major European languages. Reconstructing the history of the premodern rule can help explain the paradoxes generated by modern rules.

"Never hung poison on a fouler toad”: Contagious Evil in Early Modern England - Mary Floyd-Wilson (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

In The Terrors of the Night (1594), Thomas Nashe compares “the slime and durt in a standing puddle, [which] engenders toads and frogs, and many other vnsightly creatures” to the slimie “melancholy humor still thickning as it stands still, [which] engendreth many mishapen obiects in our imaginations.” This analogy, and others like it, suggests a literal or physical correspondence between the human body and the environment much noted by scholars writing about affect and embodiment. But filthy puddles and their monstrous toads did more than mirror the ugly putrefaction of man’s imbalanced body: they were also thought to infect those humans most “apt” to receive their poisonous air. As early modern plague writers argued, internal corruption attracts external infections. But this understanding of sympathetic contagion also shapes, and is shaped by, English Protestant discourse on sin and temptation, which conceived of the devil as a subtle and invasive material spirit who planted thoughts, stirred emotions, and induced ailments. Not only did Protestant writers reminded their audiences that humans are “damned by nature, as a tode is a tode by nature,” but they also insisted that the corruption of man’s original sin is the same “matter within” that both the devil and diseases “work upon.” This essay will trace how natural philosophy and religious discourse invoke similar theories of contagion, miasma, poison, and spontaneous generation to suggest that early modern Protestant thinkers perceived evil to be both spiritually and physically contagious. In this context, I will consider Shakespeare’s Richard III’s material affinities with the “poisonous bunchback'd toad.”

Hester Pulter’s Atom Worlds - Cassie Gorman (Anglia Ruskin)

In the mid-1990s, a manuscript of more than 130 poems - including what is thought to be the first collection of original 'Emblems' written by an Englishwoman - was discovered to be by the obscure Royalist Hester Pulter (1605-78). There is no evidence to suggest that Pulter was known by any beyond her family as a writer in her time, or that she sought to make her compositions public. Strikingly, for a female writer who spent much of her life in rural isolation, Pulter's political and devotional writings - many of which were written during periods of childbirth and sickness - are characterised by strong, informed interests in alchemy and atomism. She finds positive spiritual worth in contemporary atomic theories, dwelling not on the associations between atomism and matter in chaos, but on the principle of atomic indivisibility. This paper addresses the ways in which Pulter explores atomic indivisibility as a means to trusting in the divine promise of resurrection. For Pulter, atomic dissolution liberates her poetic spaces: it is to the benefit of individuals - human beings, ideas and bodies - that they are fragmentary, imperfectly formed, or liable to change. In poetic forms that are analogous to these unfixed states of being, she discovers the liberty of faith, expression and creative potential in that which can be done and undone. Pulter was, moreover, no anomaly: this paper will conclude by drawing comparisons with other theological writers from the period with positive atomic interests, and will raise important questions about the prominent, spiritualised roles of 'atoms' - often distinct from 'atomism' - in seventeenth-century devotional writings.

The ‘Cosmographic Mystery’: Johannes Kepler’s conversion of astronomy  - Torrance Kirby (McGill)

In 1616 the Holy Congregation for the Index prohibited the printing and reading of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1542) on the grounds that helio-centrism contradicted the Holy Scriptures. According to Johannes Kepler, “To study the heavens is to know God as creator.” Moreover, “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above else, of the glory of God.” There is some precedent for such claims in John Calvin’s conception of the creation as a “Theatre of God’s glory” with its corollary of the so-called “two books”. Kepler’s defence of Copernican helio-centrism relies upon the distinction between the Book of Nature from the Book of Scripture. Building upon the soteriological foundations laid by Martin Luther, Kepler the astronomer-theologian also seeks to sharpen the distinction between a “visible” and an “invisible” heaven, with significant consequences for astronomical physics. The new astronomy is profoundly implicated in sixteenth-century theological controversies.

Uses of images in some early modern commentaries on Aristotle’s 'De anima' - Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge)

Early modern commentators regarded Aristotle’s De anima as one of the central texts of natural philosophy that intersected with both medical and theological literature. This paper focuses on the ways in which different kinds of images were used to show localization of functions of the sensitive soul as well as the human soul’s relation to the world and God. These were visualizations of invisible functions of the soul, which in turn highlight the various ways in which early modern commentators engaged with the Aristotelian tradition.

More Things in Heaven and Earth? Hamlet as Natural Philosopher - Rhodri Lewis (Oxford)

For the early moderns, natural philosophy was the branch of speculative philosophy concerned with understanding the created world, including the place of humankind (and of the human soul) within it. It was, furthermore, a fundamentally textual rather than experimental enterprise. In the course of this paper, I use the figure of Hamlet to show that Shakespeare was dissatisfied with this state of affairs. Although Hamlet is widely taken to be Shakespeare's intellectual, in reading his natural philosophical speech alongside the discourses of early modern natural philosophy, I argue that he emerges — as he is supposed to — as a thinker of unrelenting superficiality and confusion. But given the world in which Hamlet is confined, this could not be other than it is: Shakespeare wants us not so much to judge Hamlet as to look beyond such judgments to the shortcomings of natural philosophy as the early moderns understood, taught, and occasionally sought to reform it. I begin with Hamlet's exchange with Horatio after his intitial encounter with the Ghost, and then move on to the lengthier discussion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act 2. I conclude by briefly tracing Hamlet's other struggles to understand himself and the world around him. "More things in heaven and earth"? Perhaps, but nobody in the play can describe or define what these "things" might be.

“Manure thyself”: Dearth, Knowledge-making, and the Biblical Poetics of Fertilisation in Early Modern England - Ayesha Mukherjee (Exeter)

When John Donne wrote, “Manure thyself then, to thyself be improved; / And with vain outward things be no more moved” (c.1597), he was ironically combining rural and biblical tropes which underlined contemporary anxieties about dearth and fertility. This paper will argue that, in the context of the notorious dearth years of the 1590s, there emerged an organic relationship between the poeticising, theorising, and practice of fertilisation in early modern English culture. This relationship was expressed through two fundamental lines of rhetorical strategy – that of rural poetics, and of biblical poetics and hermeneutics. Focussing on the second aspect, the paper will illustrate how the poetics of manure in sermons at the turn of the sixteenth century complicated the biblical language of dominion, and reoriented familiar providential arguments about God’s will and authority. The selected preachers Robert Abbot, Thomas Adams, and Peter Barker, used Calvinist doctrine with varying emphasis, but all three of them manipulated Calvin’s own use of tropes of fertilisation to comment on their times of dearth. I will link their rhetorical practice to pragmatic developments in the contemporary knowledge of fertilising, and draw attention to their socio-economic critique. The sermons utilised ideas of circulation, flow, and waste to articulate their vision of human labour and responsibility. Though Calvinist theology is often seen as reinforcing improvement, individualism, capitalism, and the rise of science in the early modern period, it is intriguing to find motifs within its determinist structure that rendered these impulses ambivalent.

Articulate Voices: The Speaking World in the Works of Francis Bacon - Kathryn Murphy (Oxford)

Experiment 236 of Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum considers ‘a Thing strange in Nature’: ‘How Children, and some Birds, learne to imitate Speech’. In experiment 200, he discusses ‘a Similitude, betweene the Sound that is made by Inanimate Bodies, or by Animate Bodies, that haue no Voice Articulate; and diuers Letters of Articulate Voices’. Among his examples are the ‘Trembling of Water [which] hath Resemblance with the Letter L’, while the ‘Voice of Cats’ corresponds to ‘the Dypthong Eu’. By working out the mechanisms at work, Bacon suggests, ‘a Man (for Curiosity, or Strange-nesse sake) [could] make a Puppet, or other Dead Body, to pronounce a Word’. Though these experiments are presented as wonders and curiosities, this paper argues that their assertion of an equivalence between human language and the motions of the natural world runs throughout Bacon’s works, from his natural philosophy to his essays and his historical writings. The identification of speech, letters, and imitatio beyond the human sphere extends language to a condition of nature, suggesting not only that Bacon was not the anti-rhetorician of cliché, nor that he relied on the common metaphor of world as text, but that his sense of the common literacy of man and nature broke down the boundaries between the disciplines of natural philosophy, literature, and history. 

Reading the Early Modern Body - Jane Partner (Cambridge)

This paper forms part of a larger project concerning the ways in which the early modern body was fashioned and interpreted as a text – a paradigm that was widely used in natural philosophical discourse, as well as in medicinal, legal and devotional practice, and in a diverse range of literary texts. In all these areas, the idea of the legibility (and sometimes stubborn illegibility) of the human form functioned as a means to articulate the quest for knowledge and the problems of interpretation, raising questions about the differentiation of appearance and reality, and reflecting upon the desire to use visible bodily surfaces to gain knowledge about the hidden or transcendent parts of man. In this paper, I explore the ways in which the conception of the created world as the divinely inscribed ‘Book of Nature’ underpinned the understanding of the body as a microcosmic book to be opened and read. Examining the doctrine of signatures and theories of the bodily manifestation of the passions, I consider the ways in which these textual models for understanding the body were played out in literature, and I make particular reference to the ways that dramatists like Marlowe and Jonson linked themes of corporeal textuality to formal ideas about the legibility of the body on the stage.

Francis Bacon at the Crossroads of Knowledge: “Our Philosophy” encounters a “New Logic” - Richard Serjeantson (Cambridge)

Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Bartholomaus Keckermann, published his various mature philosophical works at the same historical moment at which a Reformed neo-Aristotelian philosophy was gathering fresh impetus in the Universities and Gymnasia of Protestant northern Europe. These two intellectual cultures, of Baconianism and of Protestant scholasticism, are not often considered alongside each other. Yet they intersected fruitfully, and sometimes critically, in various places across the 1620s and 1630s, in England and elsewhere in Europe. The goal of this paper will be to explore a number of these encounters—some well known, others unsuspected—and to develop some of the implications of this particular crossroad of knowledge.

The Plain Style, Great Circle Sailing and the Paradox of Disinterestedness - Felix C. H. Sprang (Universitat Siegen)

A common understanding is that the plain style is a rhetorical and self-conscious technique employed in early modern natural philosophy in order to probe into the relation between language and matter. (Aughterson; Halloran and Whitburn) Hence, the religious underpinnings as well as the aesthetic and epistemic discourse pertaining to the plain style have been scrutinized carefully. I should like to focus on the implications of a gesture, identified by Mary Poovey among others as a strategy to "make writing transparent instead of performative," for an emerging concept of 'disinterestedness'. I will examine the use of the plain style in textbooks on navigation that teach "great circle sailing" in order to reflect on the connection between the plain style and "disinterested knowledge". My aim is to demonstrate how and explain why textbooks such as Hood's Marriners Guide (1592) or Davis's The Seaman's Secret (1595) propagated a concept of scientific knowledge that was plain in the sense of disinterested.

'Vermiculate Questions’: Confronting Mortality in the Early Royal Society - Elizabeth L. Swann (Cambridge)

Early modern ideas about and experiences of death have often been explored in literary, artistic, and spiritual contexts. Literature, the visual arts, and theology are taken as the proper spheres both for the elaboration of a philosophy of death, and for efforts to accommodate the stark fact of its inevitability. In contrast, in this paper, I ask what early experimental philosophy offered to replace the consolations of humanistic learning and religious piety for individuals struggling to accept their own mortality. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I argue, the prospect of death is not only an affective problem, managed (successfully or otherwise) by religion, philosophy, and the arts; it is also an epistemological provocation, fostering the development of new forms of knowledge. In particular, a desire to palliate the terrors of death is central to the development of the forms of observational, experimental, and inductive knowledge-production associated with the works of Francis Bacon and his champions in the fledgling Royal Society. Focusing on the works of Robert Boyle, I propose that early Royal Society research into the processes of death can be understood in ethical and affective terms, not as disinterested efforts to understand its physical reality, but rather as fervent and urgent attempts to come to terms with its appalling imminence. 

Francis Bacon’s Art of Thinking; or, Let Us All Begin to Generalize - Henry S. Turner (Rutgers University)

A paper about the notion of “art” in Bacon’s work, taking up the nature of pragmatism as a method for generating ideas and other modes of abstraction that are typical of literary and scientific thinking.  What kinds of knowledge are we able to obtain through “art,” understanding this term in its pre-modern, pre-aesthetic sense as a mode of practical operation and practical knowledge, a habit of thought about which we may give a provisionally reasonable account but which never rises to the level of theoretical statement?  What are the virtues of generalization as a species of creative thinking?  The paper uses examples from Bacon, Sidney, and others to explore a notion of “art” as a procedure of generalizing with forms and materials in ways that are sometimes opposed to the power of nature and sometimes compared to it. It concludes with some discussion of how Bacon’s “art of thinking” compares to more recent accounts of aesthetics as a philosophy of form and sensibility.

Spontaneity and Knowledge in Early Modern England - Michael Witmore (Folger Library)

We think of the seventeenth century as a period of deep thinking about method, particularly where knowledge claims are concerned. In this talk, Witmore will discuss early modern efforts to enroll chance or spontaneous events into the process of discovery, asking whether early moderns saw the creation of knowledge as a wholly deliberate process. The talk will touch on early modern lotteries and lottery books, Bacon's theory of experiment, and two lotteries conducted in Shakespeare's plays.