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Books! (Books, Science, and Money Edition)

Measured Words: Computation and Writing in Renaissance Italy (Arielle Saiber, 2019/#31): On the interaction and intersection of mathematics (in all senses) and writing (in all aspects) during the Renaissance, in the lives of four very interesting people, all of them ridiculously talented and often extremely well-connected polymaths, as per the age's pattern:

  • Leon Battista Alberti: Papal Secretary (among a thousand other things), wrote and worked on architecture, painting, theater, languages (wrote the first Italian grammar; note that this was a period were the language question — Latin or vernacular? — was an important one), and a long cetera. This book focuses on his De componendis cifris, a cryptographic method very sophisticated for the period, which he wrote exclusively for use inside the Vatican, but of course reached a much wider audience. By the way, for another, even more impressive look at Alberti's mind, I recommend The Alphabet and the Algorithm (Mario Carpo), which postulates that Alberti came up the concept of buildings being exact copies of the architect's design, which, to the degree to which this is true, is pretty much a conceptual foundation not just of the practice of architecture as currently conceived, but of technology in general (and I know Yates can be... overenthusiastic, but this kind of idea, given the philosophical and mathematical interests of people like Alberti, cannot but have at least some Hermetic resonances — at the very least, it was a very Neo-Platonism-meets-linguistics-meets-hydraulics-meets-bookmaking sort of Zeitgeist).

  • Luca Pacioli: At the intersection of architecture, geometry, and philosophy, we find... typography. He wrote detailed geometrical instructions for the construction of CAPITAL LETTERS (copying inscriptions at the top of classical Roman buildings, and also not unrelated to the proportions of the human head, Hermetic pun fully intended). I hadn't realized, but I'm not surprised by, how some Renaissance people went around measuring the proportions of Roman inscriptions. Times New Roman derives indirectly from Pacioli.

  • Niccolò Tartaglia: This one is better known among mathematicians. Figured out a way to solve general cubic polynomials. Gave it to a colleague who asked about it, but in the form of a poem, and after he had said he wouldn't publish it before Tartaglia did. He published it before Tartaglia did.

  • Giambattista Della Porta: I got a very John Dee-ish vibe from this one. Wrote a lot of comedies, dabbled in (natural, he said) magic (but who didn't?), studied languages and what we'd call physics and everything else, and wrote a book on the geometry of curves that's full of bad proofs and hyperbolic mysticism and not a lot of interesting mathematics, but he was all about the theatrical effect. You know the type, they are still writing.


This is a very bad summary, as the book is less about a specific thesis than a short survey of four specific works in a very interesting if by definition ill-defined intellectual area of the Italian Renaissance. Recommended.


Honorable Merchants: Commerce and Self-Cultivation in Late Imperial China (Richard John Lufrano, 2019/#32):A look at what "merchant manuals" in late imperial China (say, late Ming to the Republic, and even a bit during) say about the ideals and tactics of mid-level merchants, those above the growing mass of peddlers and vagabonds, but below the wealthy and politically connected large ones. Usually merchants "moving up" in life or scholars that didn't make the cut, they lived in an environment with poor (for our standards) government oversight, a booming economy, and a fast-growing population, and one where the standard hierarchy of scholar-farmer-artisan-merchant still held, if not so much in practice, definitely ideologically.

Their strategy was to adapt basic Confucian tenets, switching emphasis rather than attacking them, so (with shades by author and area, of course) being a gentleman was something that anybody (well, men) could aim at based on self-cultivation regardless of profession (and which was also necessary to differentiate oneself from lower-status competitors, both in the market and socially), ideals of behavioral and emotional self-control were necessary to prevent swindles and bankruptcy, a certain amount of wealth was attainable through effort (although lots of wealth was in the hands of Heaven), benevolent relationships were necessary in a low-trust environment, etc. Generally speaking, these manuals (which, by the way, originated in the older tradition of travel manuals, and part of a wider mass of what we'd call self-help texts) gave advice that wasn't opposed to normative ethics as much as selected from it, and argued for, with utilitarian ends.

Some quotes and assorted comments:

  • The authors of these merchant manuals were not themselves the original interpreters of or mediators between the values of the dominant classes and the merchants. In other words, they did not one day sit down with their writing brushes and decide to adapt Confucianism to the needs of tradesmen. Instead, they were enterprising members of society who saw opportunity in the recording, systemizing, legitimizing, defending, and perhaps even sanitizing of a culture that had gradually emerged and evolved over time. They may have also taken the authoritative “ancient sayings” spouted by elder merchants and expanded upon them. Although the manual authors were better educated than some of their readers, both occupied the niche in late imperial society that David Johnson has referred to as “literate/self-sufficient.” This category includes people who were “at least functionally literate and perhaps quite well read, but not classically educated.” Some, such as Wu Zhongfu, may have received the beginnings of a classical education. Although the members of this group did not have any legal privileges, except for those poor Confucians holding degrees, they were economically self-sufficient and independent. The poor Confucians were better educated than most in this category, but even their level of education should not be exaggerated.

  • Between 1700 and 1850, the population of China rose from approximately 150 million to roughly 430 million, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. The introduction of New World foodcrops, such as the sweet and Irish potato, the peanut, and maize in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the long years of peace ushered in by the Manchus after 1683 undoubtedly contributed significantly to this great demographic change. The new crops, for example, could be grown in sandy soil or on hillsides, and as a result the area under cultivation doubled from 1600 to 1850. Population growth meant more customers for mid-level businesses, but it also meant rising levels of crime and new sources of competition as people surged into towns and cities.

  • One of the "weapons of the weak" against merchants (and, I assume, other groups) was suicide. Killing yourself in a shop would, reasonably, harm its reputation.

  • Although the manuals mention them without entering into details, late imperial mid-level merchants did use accounting methods (I don't know how they compare to contemporary methods in, say, Italy or Northern Europe; and in fact I don't know anything about accounting methods for the largest Chinese traders, which would be the appropriate ones to compare).




The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, 2019/#33): There are few topics I like more, not many places and times more interesting from the point of view of that topic, and not many people as knowledgeable as Pettegree about those, so pretty much all I can do is quote profusely from it (caveat reader — it's not a short book, so this won't be a short non-summary). A one-sentence summary, perhaps: Golden Age Dutch society was (for its era) very wealthy, very literate, very if very heterogeneously religious, and the Dutch printing industry became huge mostly by selling cheap books (mostly religious ones of every persuasion, length, and complexity, in vernacular languages) and ephemera, with the more prestigious and more famous high-end books either marketing coups (the Atlas Maior, Galileo) or re-exports (except for the small cheapish but well-done Latin books they flooded external markets with), leveraging an incredibly strong internal market, great logistics, and well-oiled capital markets and sale mechanisms.

  • In the seventeenth century, the Dutch published more books, per capita, than any other book-producing nation. True to form, they invented some of the most advanced techniques of the era for selling and marketing print. This was a land where books and reading were integral to the way society functioned, and how people thought of themselves. So it is all the more surprising that books have somehow been written out of the narrative of the Dutch Golden Age. Dazzled by the great Dutch painters, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, the elegant poise of Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, the grandeur of the landscapes of Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael, we seem to have overlooked the quiet revolution going on in the bourgeois home. This was the way in which books were moulding and reshaping Dutch society. It is said that Dutch homes found space for 3 million pictures on their walls. Maybe, but they produced many more books, perhaps as many as 300 million. They traded at least 4 million books at auction. [...] The products of the Dutch book industry also constituted one of the Republic’s major exports, which could scarcely be said of its paintings. We admire Dutch painting much more than did seventeenth-century Europe’s leading connoisseurs.
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  • So pervasive was this market that a typical Dutch home was far more likely to decorate its walls with a map or engraving of a recent battle scene than a still life or landscape – as, indeed, a careful study of the many Dutch paintings of Dutch interiors will reveal. These news prints were a habitual presence on the shelves or tables of the nation’s many bookshops: a further profitable aspect of a diverse and well-rounded trade.

  • Two hundred years before, Rembrandt’s bookshelf, with its meagre twenty-two titles [at his bankrupcy auction], would have represented a not discreditable collection for someone outside the upper echelons of the European aristocracy or church hierarchy. In the sixteenth century, a doctor or lawyer might own two or three hundred books, though this was a considerable collection. Yet in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic a hundred years later, even a country pastor could aspire to build a library of this size. A serious scholarly collection was numbered in the thousands – many of the professors of the five Dutch universities assembled collections many times larger than that of their local university library. The collection of an Amsterdam brewer, auctioned in the 1680s, numbered more than a thousand titles; the library of a soldier, Joachim Elias Otto, sold in 1690, contained 1,500 books. Where did they find room to store all these books? Why, indeed, did the Dutch become so bookish? They did so because books mattered. The Dutch produced some wonderful books, masterpieces of craftsmanship and scholarship, like the famous Blaeu atlases. But a book like this might cost the equivalent of a year’s salary for all but the most affluent citizens. What fuelled the market was a steady recurring trade in the sort of books that might be the careful, considered purchases of an artisan or bourgeois household. Families like this might buy three, five or ten books a year. These were books they bought for use: a book of medical recipes to ensure the health of the household, a book on accounting to help their son to a better job, or, most of all, as part of their devotional life.

  • Yet these are the books that have become almost invisible in the story of the Dutch Republic. They were not, like the jolly moralising poems of Jacob Cats, or the plays of Vondel, destined for posterity. They were intended to be used every day, and then worn out. Few have made it through the centuries to take their place on the shelves of a library. Those that have are almost inevitably the single survivor of an edition of 500 or 1,000. So this book is partly an exercise in reversing this historical invisibility, an attempt to reconstruct the lost world of cheap print.

  • When all of these under-documented categories of print were taken into account, the Dutch book trade takes on massive proportions: we have now documented over 350,000 separate printings, around 300 million copies. The sheer quantity of print is impressive, but it is also the case that the recovery of this lost world of news publishing, government administration and popular bestsellers completely changes our view of the preferences of Dutch readers in the age of Rembrandt. To put this delicately, some of the books in our great libraries survive so well precisely because they were not much read. Sometimes you can order up a magnificent tome published almost four hundred years ago and it is obvious from the clean pages and stiff binding that virtually no-one has touched it from the moment the proud collector first brought it home from the binder. Dutch publishers were pretty canny about this. They were very happy to source the large, expensive books which their customers wanted, but rather than bear the heavy investment costs and risk of publishing these books themselves, they often chose to import books of this sort from abroad. The large judicial tomes that lined the shelves of the nation’s legal fraternity were generally printed in Lyon, Frankfurt or Paris, rather than Amsterdam or The Hague. For Dutch publishers the books that offered the most certain profits were texts that appealed to a wide public: these are the books that we will meet again and again in the chapters that follow. These were the books that readers carried around on their travels, that accompanied them to church on Sunday, and that they consulted every day; and they often read them to death. It is a strange paradox of this study that the books that were most valued by their owners at the time have often survived least well today.

  • All of these sorts of print find their place in this book, whether they are large tomes of several hundred pages, or single sheets, printed on one side only, to be posted up or offered to a tax payer as a receipt for payment.25 There are very good reasons why this should be the case. The first can be summed up in a simple proposition: [...] big books made reputations, but small books and broadsheets made money. Printers lived from this sort of jobbing work, paid for and delivered to a single customer, which posed none of the complex problems of recovering the investment cost from sales. Sometimes this sort of work generated the cash flow necessary to undertake bigger projects. And of course, for citizens of the Dutch Republic, this was exactly the sort of printed material that they would have access to every day, glued up on the city gates or passed out on the town square. It was often these sorts of print items that had most impact on their daily lives, informed them of an increase in the tax on beer or gave them the first intimation of a looming political crisis.

  • This mass immigration would totally reshape the character of the new Dutch state. By the time that the Dutch and Spanish concluded a first grudging ceasefire, the Twelve Years’ Truce of 1609, the character of the north had been completely transformed. Between 1580 and 1620 it is estimated that approximately 100,000 Southern Netherlanders moved to the north. All of the major Holland towns registered a phenomenal increase in their population and in their economic activity. In 1622, a third of Amsterdam’s population was born in the Southern Netherlands or had Southern Netherlandish parents. Only 44 per cent of men marrying in Leiden in the 1640s were born in the Republic. All of this had a profound influence on the character and social make-up of the new state; and nowhere was this transformation more complete than in the printing industry.

  • The development of the Dutch book trade is also the story of the Elzeviers [sadly, no relationship to the current ones, except in their habit of exploiting students and academics]. The Elzeviers are remarkable partly for their success in associating themselves with some of the most creative innovations of the Dutch seventeenth century: the auction market; the literary duodecimos of Abraham and Bonaventura Elzevier; Daniel Elzevier’s exceptional 1674 stock catalogue. They gained international acclaim as the publishers of Galileo and Descartes. But, as so often in the world of Dutch books, it was the unglamorous part of the market that earned the real money, rather than the prestige projects that have so impressed posterity. Publishing dissertation theses for reluctant students became the cornerstone of the Leiden business, a monopoly greedily defended for the best part of a century. And the critical book trade development was not a particular project, but a change in the nature of selling: the birth of the book auction.

  • About a third of the books published in Europe before 1700 survive in only a single copy today.

  • Theological debates about predestination, amplified by the public, printed (and vernacular!) nature of the debate, spiraled into forceful political conflict, as the more heterodox (i.e., less inclined to predestination) of divines cannily put themselves under state protection.

  • In 1621 Grotius would make a dramatic escape in a book chest from his imprisonment in Castle Loevestein, an embarrassment to the authorities which would only strengthen the personality cult of Oldenbarnevelt’s former ally. Grotius’s fantastical escape would become a mainstay of Dutch folklore[...]

  • Here the Dutch were true innovators – the first advertisements appear in Dutch papers within years of their establishment, and by mid-century most issues carried two or three, always located at the end of the text on the reverse side. It would be another fifty years before advertisements became a common feature of papers in England, and later still in Germany and elsewhere. In the first years, the advertisements in Dutch newspapers were generally orientated towards the requirements of the book industry. It was the ingenious Abraham Verhoeven who pointed the way, with a notice in the Nieuwe Tijdinghen of January 1620 advertising the contents of the next issue. Later in the month he published the first book advertisement, again for one of his own publications. The following year Broer Jansz’s Tijdingen uyt verscheyde Quartieren contained the first advertisement in the northern papers, for a pamphlet discussing contemporary events in Switzerland, and a news map of the Palatinate, one of the chief theatres in the German wars; at this point, the subjects of the books advertised were very close to the newspapers’ own news agenda. It did not take long, however, for publishers in Amsterdam and elsewhere to recognise the value of advertising their new and forthcoming books in the weekly newspapers.

  • What then are newspapers? Part recreation, part contemporary history, part an essential manual of instruction for those who would be well equipped for the conversation of polite society; but certainly insufficient in themselves as a news service for those involved at almost any level in public affairs, whether members of the Amsterdam city council or a long-suffering Vlissingen brewer searching for a firearm. It may seem perverse to conclude with the reflection that newspapers played a subsidiary role in purveying real news in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. But one should see this rather as an indication that the existing mechanisms and conduits for news functioned very efficiently, in cities like Groningen with no newspaper, as well as the great newspaper hubs in Holland. Newspapers were not irrelevant to news culture – by providing a miscellany of news from around the continent they helped build a wider circle of informed citizens than in any part of Europe. And with the advertisements, newspapers began to embrace a wider cultural role, and began the transition to the all-round purveyors of stimulation and entertainment that they would progressively become from the eighteenth century onwards.

  • Most importantly, this [travel] literature stretched the cultural imagination of the Dutch Republic. This was a small country of fishermen and artisans, hitherto a people with few ambitions beyond the North and Baltic seas. Only from 1570 did the Dutch have a permanent commercial presence in the Mediterranean; never mind the crossing of oceans and circumnavigation. The Portuguese and Spanish had already divided the world in the early sixteenth century; Iberian, Italian, English and French ships had made distant voyages long before the Dutch. Now Dutch explorers were heralded as the great champions of discovery, raised on a pedestal equal to Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake. While many nations looked to historic tales of knights, saints and emperors for reflections of their own importance, the Dutch had their swashbuckling, god-fearing captains, most of whom were once boys from humble backgrounds growing up in the ports of Holland and Zeeland. The sea could make anyone a hero.

  • But if the Elzeviers drove a hard bargain with the local scholars, they also had a good eye for a reputation-enhancing opportunity. Discovering in 1638 that Galileo was unable to publish his work in Italy, they secured the manuscript for Leiden. Galileo’s masterwork, the Discorsi, would be published in a neat quarto with a preface from the author thanking the Elzeviers for rescuing his work in this way. It was a milestone for the international renown of the Elzeviers, and it reinforced the stature of Leiden and the Republic as international centres of scholarly letters and tolerant intellectual enquiry. After the scrappy decades of the Remonstrant controversy, this was the face the Dutch wanted to show to the world; and it is certainly the narrative that has been most attractive to modern observers.

  • The English Bibles and French-language Elzeviers were a parable of Dutch success, but made up only a small proportion of the books the Dutch now sold into these markets. Only a very small proportion of the books published in the Netherlands were destined for export, and domestic production was very far from satisfying all the needs of Dutch buyers. Dutch collectors, as we will see, continued to look abroad for most of their requirements in many of the scholarly disciplines: serious works of jurisprudence, science, philosophy and medicine, for instance. The Dutch took such a commanding role in the international trade not through taking over the role of Basel in the production of medical texts, or Lyon’s role in publishing standard works of jurisprudence, but by inventing a re-export trade.

  • These catalogues make clear that even in the 1630s, the greatest Dutch publishers were well embarked on the penetration of the European book market that would be such a significant feature of the Dutch book industry in the seventeenth century. To the Dutch this was just good business sense, taking advantage of the low prices they obtained in Germany to supply customers around the growing markets elsewhere in northern Europe. But to the hard-pressed local booksellers in these places, this trade began to take on a darker hue. To them this was a glaring example of the sort of predatory capitalism that would increasingly poison relations with traders abroad and turn former partners and friends into bitter foes.

  • It was frustrating but revealing that of the eight editions of Francis Bacon’s milestone De Augmentis Scientiarum (The Advancement of Science) published in the seventeenth century, only the first was published in England, in 1623. Four further editions were issued in the Dutch Republic

  • With this we are coming close to understanding the secret of Dutch success. It is often thought that the Dutch flourished by elbowing their way into markets where they did not belong: publishing Molière in French, or English Bibles. But the real key to their prosperity lay in what they chose not to publish. The libraries of the great collectors in the Netherlands, assembled when the Dutch book trade was at its most buoyant, contain remarkably few books published locally. Serious books of scholarship, theological commentary, jurisprudence or medicine were still largely imported from the traditional centres of quality publishing around Europe. The Dutch established their domination of the international market by buying these books at source, often at highly advantageous prices, and selling them on. Dutch domination of the Frankfurt market was now so complete that in 1669 the Dutch traders threatened to boycott the fair altogether if the council would not relax regulations they found oppressive.28 This access to cheap imports allowed Dutch publishers to steer clear of large projects where the risk outweighed the potential benefit. Instead, they concentrated their energies on areas of the trade where they enjoyed a natural domination: books for domestic consumption and the small-format Latin texts that were their hallmark contribution to the international trade. The Elzevier French editions have become a symbol of Dutch enterprise, but they were not in any way typical even of the Elzevier business model; and indeed, in the long run they may have done more harm than good by stirring up the protectionist instincts of the Parisian booksellers. The engine of the Dutch miracle was the stealthy appropriation of the market in everyone else’s books, reinforced by massive production of reliable bestsellers: the Latin books in small formats, welcomed in every library and necessary in every schoolroom all over Europe.

  • Catalogus van Boecken inde Byblioteque van Mr. Jan de Wit (Catalogue of Books in the Library of Johan de Witt), published in 1672. De Witt led the Republic as Grand Pensionary of Holland for twenty years, between 1653 and 1672; he was also a cultivated and thoughtful man, who might in other circumstances have been an eminent mathematician. [...] This extraordinary act [the murder and defilement of de Witt's body] made the judicial murder of Oldenbarnevelt in 1619 seem almost decorous; one might have expected, from the Dutch, at least a period of sober reflection. Instead, the satirical Catalogus danced on the dead man’s grave. Each fictional title in his purported library was a savage stab at his already desecrated corpse, recalling the accusations made against him, of corruption, collusion with the Republic’s enemies, betrayal of the state which he ruled in the interests of his own narrow clique. The catalogue opened with a title purportedly written by Jan’s father, Jacob de Witt: Genealogy of Methuselah the old Nero, or arch-traitor of Loevestein, by Mr Jacob de Witt, treasurer of Holland, together with his genealogy, coat of arms, and device, which portrays the heroic forefathers of that scum. The Catalogus from 1672 was not just a grotesque and bitter work penned by a fanatical Orangist or a grudge-bearing personal enemy. It was wildly popular, a true bestseller: according to what we know from surviving copies, it went through at least eight editions in the space of a single year: there were also spin-offs, a ‘continuation’ and an ‘appendix’. It no doubt found its way into many elegant bourgeois drawing rooms whose owners had flourished in the True Freedom, but now calmly accommodated themselves to the new realities of power. The pamphlet tells us much about this pious, decorous but steel-edged society; it also tells us much about the book industry, that its stock-in-trade, the printed catalogue, could itself have become a vehicle for satire.

  • In theory, censorship in the Dutch Republic was not much more lenient than that in other countries. In practice, however, things could not be more different.The decentralised political structure of the Republic militated against effective censorship. A book might be banned in Utrecht, but not in the rest of the country; a printer could be banished from one province, and re-establish himself in the next. Books moved efficiently from city to city through the sophisticated network of canals and barge routes. The absence of preventive censorship, which required publishers in other countries to present a copy of their work to a local censor for approval, allowed printers to take greater risks. And even if a book was prohibited, printers could use false imprints, hiding their workmanship by using real or imagined places of publication to throw the authorities off their trail.

  • Trading in the shares of the VOC was so frantic because this was the only opportunity for speculation beyond the commodity trade. By the end of 1695, there were at least 150 joint stock companies in England – facilitated, rather ironically, by the influx of Dutch financiers who came with William of Orange after 1688. This did not catch on in the Republic itself, and the result was a conspicuous absence of suitable vehicles for investing surplus capital in the second half of the century.

  • But Rembrandt was certainly capable of dodgy dealings on his own account. We see this when in 1656 Rembrandt, preparing for his declaration of bankruptcy, tried to protect his house and his remaining property by transferring ownership to his son Titus. This was an extraordinarily devious manoeuvre. At the same time he had Titus, at this point aged 13, make a will leaving everything to his father, with nothing for the family of Rembrandt’s deceased wife. Saskia’s will had in fact made complex provision to protect Titus’s interests against his spendthrift father. Within a few years, the projected part of Titus’s inheritance far exceeded Rembrandt’s net worth. So when Rembrandt emerged from bankruptcy protection in 1660, he forced his son and Hendrickje Stoffels, now described in official documentation as his wife, to form a company that took responsibility for his financial affairs, and from which Rembrandt would draw a salary. The legal documents specifically required Titus, now 18, to sink all of his capital into the company, in effect a vehicle to protect Rembrandt from his creditors. Titus and the long-suffering Hendrickje gained no discernible benefit from an instrument created to give Rembrandt an income (1,500 gulden a year) on which his creditors could make no claim. [...] But the elections of 1659 brought in new men, a shift in personnel that stripped away the protection so carefully erected around Titus’s inheritance: for the simple reason that one of those elected was Rembrandt’s principal creditor.

  • [This reminds me of the Late Imperial merchant manuals, as per Honorable Merchants above; there's more than one parallel, although also deep differences. M.] We see the importance of print to those who aspired to a better future in the blossoming of a buoyant market of self-improvement: cheap books offering instruction in mathematics, bookkeeping and letter-writing. These are, of all books, the least likely to survive: they were bought, often for no more than a few stuivers, pored over and consulted, and literally used to death. But we know from booksellers’ stock catalogues just how important this literature was. We have met Willem Bartjens and his Cijfferinghe because it was a text much used in school, but this work and others like it also had an important secondary market outside the schoolroom, for consultation in the craftsman’s workshop, or for the son of the household after his formal schooling had been cut short by the need to contribute to the family income. Authors cannily stoked the market with refreshed editions, intended to induce owners to replace old copies with up-to-date versions. Not all these revisions were quite what they claimed.

  • Here we should be aware of two great underlying strengths of the Dutch book industry. The first was the phenomenal infrastructure developed during the rapid expansion of the first half of the seventeenth century; and the second, the strength of the domestic market. All of this was still largely in place for much of the eighteenth century. In terms of infrastructure, most important was the excellent system of internal communications, especially the canal network, which allowed books to be moved around Holland and service the wider market in the Republic; and the system of sales, especially by auction, which continued to function as a mechanism for reducing risk. Other countries adopted the auction remarkably late, with only England and Denmark developing a fully fledged system of auctions before the end of the seventeenth century. To these infrastructure foundations should be added one further development that essentially post-dated the great age of Dutch innovation before 1672: the development of a world-class paper industry. [...] In the years of expansion before 1672, most printing paper used in the Dutch publishing industry was imported. Traditionally, the making of paper required access to both a large quantity of rags (the raw material of paper-making until the nineteenth century) and abundant fast-flowing water to power the watermills that operated the giant hammers that crushed the rags to pulp. Heavily urbanised Holland could provide the rags, but the Dutch lowlands could offer little in the way of water power: before 1672, almost all of the domestically produced paper came from Gelderland, and most printing paper was imported from France. The critical development, in fact the most crucial technological innovation in the whole printing industry, was the adaptation of wind-power (the windmill) to power a new generation of paper mills. Most of these were located in the Zaan, the industrial district that sprang up north of Amsterdam. Visitors regarded this industrial complex as one of the wonders of the modern world. The number of paper mills grew exponentially, along with production: from 20,000 reams in the 1630s to six times this volume by the end of the century.

  • The technological revolution that spurred the production of domestic paper was, in truth, not characteristic of the Dutch book industry as a whole. In technological terms, the Dutch book world was one of the most conservative of the major Dutch industries: its contribution to the Dutch miracle was essentially in the refinement of business practice, following here the example of other high-volume industries. This complacent conservatism would prove dangerous in the long run in other parts of the book world such as France, where in the years before the Revolution many Parisian publishers were still turning out hardy bestsellers over a hundred years old. But the Dutch book trade could afford a certain complacency because virtually all the parts of the book world that had fuelled the huge growth of the seventeenth century were still performing well.

  • What one does find in these inventories, as well as every other sort of book industry records, is the absolute, unshakeable preponderance of religious literature. This had been the cornerstone of the book industry from the beginning of print in the fifteenth century, and it would remain so until the end of the eighteenth century, at least. The rise of secularism, seen as a cornerstone of Enlightenment sensibility, made virtually no impact on the Dutch print industry: nor, indeed, on the reading habits of Dutch men and women. [...] It is a characteristic of the scholarly world that we like to study what is important to us today, rather than what contemporaries actually valued, and this is nowhere more the case than in the relative neglect of the huge quantities of religious literature published in the early modern period. And this was generally not the literature of controversy, which in terms of volume of output paled into insignificance set alongside the steady bestsellers, devotional tracts and church books, that is, editions of scripture and books of psalms and spiritual songs. On this, the surviving evidence is clear and unambiguous. Religious literature was the only class of book that appeared in all collections, from the largest libraries to the barest handful of texts in a relatively poor household.


The Cardinal's Hat: Money, Ambition, and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince (Mary Hollingsworth, 2019/#34): A look at a few (critical) years in the life of Ippolito d'Este, second son of Lucretia Borgia and Alfonso d'Este, and a very interesting minor Renaissance prince in part because he's a minor one — that makes it easier to focus on his daily life, despite the unavoidable entanglement of high politics, rather than to see him from the vantage point of his historical impact. The particular strength of this biography lies on its use of previously unpublished accounting ledgers of his household, which provide a literal day-by-day, well, account, of the movement of money, people, and things, from expensive gifts/bribes to people in Rome and Francis I's court, to firewood or bread for the day. The book makes a very good job of foregrounding similarities and differences in psychology and habits (the point about the role of luxury clothing is well made, and wouldn't be as strong without the framework of knowing the actual cost and provenance of everything), but I'm also struck by the vast resources — land, people, money — necessary to make possible for a wealthy Renaissance noble to have the lifestyle they did, specially the things we know find much easier. Yes, they had jewels, but to travel they had to make cases (no suitcases to be bought) and that involved both external artisans and people of the household, with most of the raw material coming from Ippolito's own estates, brought in carts he paid for and his manager had to track, etc, etc. With wealthy people (unfairly) over-represented in our historical awareness, I think a book like this one would be a very good preface to, say, a course on the Industrial Revolution. A Borgia palace becomes much less impressive (or perhaps impressive in a different way) when you know that they mixed the paint on the main bedroom's ceiling decorations with eggs from the owner's farms.

Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society (M. Norton Wise, 2019/#35): An attempt to map the origins of the Berlin Physical Society (1845) through the training, cultural atmosphere, and local resources of its founders. In the context of my almost complete ignorance of the place and time, it works best as an impressionistic accumulation of observations and minor facts. The author is very careful about describing, without necessarily endorsing, contemporary beliefs about the role, depth, and impact of military modernization, technical education, or trade agreements. In his words: It will be clear throughout that I have chosen as my subject the constitution of belief as motivation and expectation rather than empirical economic and political outcomes. This "belief as motivation and expectation" is a recognizable one about modernization/industry/etc, but with what looks to me distinctive institutional and cultural variations that are perhaps less different from contemporaneous European societies than distinctly inflected (the political and cultural role of the still rather aristocratic army, say). The usual random observations and quotes:

  • I had deeply underestimated the reach and influence of Alexander von Humboldt, explorer-scientist-advisor-et cetera.

  • In this we see the function of the museum itself in the minds of its progressive organizers, including here not only Schinkel but also Wilhelm von Humboldt, who headed the museum’s final installations commission (Einrich-tungscommission) appointed in 1829, which had responsibility for organizing the exhibition of 450 classical sculptures and nearly two thousand paintings. As an embodiment of the muses, including at least three sculptures of Apollo Musagetes and many of individual muses, these carefully selected collections would awaken, educate, and elevate public taste and judgment .But their purity of form and enduring beauty should direct attention not toward the antique past but toward a future guided by classical ideals. In this changing orientation, the museum participated in the so-called discovery of history as an ongoing process, or more generally in the discovery of time. From the late eighteenth century, that truly world-changing development began to occur across the entire spectrum of academic and cultural life. In the natural sciences it would culminate by midcentury in evolutionary theory and the second law of thermodynamics. But museums stood at its center. For the theme of the changing historical conception of the art museum, I have found particularly cogent Elsa van Wezel’s recent study of the Altes Museum and the Neues Museum as exemplifying a movement in the theory of art after 1800 “from imitation to inspiration.” Even after the conflict between the ancients and the moderns had long been settled, aesthetic theorists of the eighteenth century still conceived of beauty as an absolute ideal exemplified by classical sculpture and by paintings of the High Renaissance .But by the 1820s beauty had become historical. The classics, while still valued above all other works, provided not an ideal to be copied but a source of creative inspiration. Wilhelm von Humboldt put it succinctly in his long essay of 1796–1797 on “The Eighteenth Century”: “In the first period after the reestablishment of the sciences [the Renaissance], we grasped eagerly after the works of the ancients, in order to acquire from them instruction about particular objects. Later on, fortunately, we have abandoned this unrewarding path; we have felt that the ancients are not actually destined to act didactically but rather inspirationally.”

  • I hadn't been aware of Clausewitz posh captivity in France during 1807, nor of how he used this opportunity to learn mathematics and other subjects with an obvious impact on his development of strategy (and of course the development of the Prussian Army in general).

  • Part of the story told by the book could be described as how neoclassical ideals mixed with newly mathematical science as modulated by developments in industrial mechanics — both drawn from and in reaction to Frech and British developments —, reframed as part of an aesthetical-moral-intellectual Bildung of self-driven virtuous initiative in the context of State goals, were seen at first as part of a liberal military and economic renewal/founding of Prussian/German society, but were later reinscribed in a politically conservative framework without losing much of their intellectual and philosophical content.

  • More profoundly, the large-scale industries soon required by the Prussian Army were often the same as those of civil society, as is apparent in the cases of railroads and telegraphs, where civilian and military interests regularly competed. Siemens would enter the telegraph business in 1847 when the market in Prussia was exclusively military and when he served on the army’s telegraph commission. Not until 1849 were civilian lines allowed.

  • ”Burg’s students at the Artillerie und Ingenieurschule, like Hummel’s at the Akademie der Künste, could reach beyond mechanical reproduction to an authentic creative work only through extensive theoretical and practical exercise with the mathematical laws of projection until the discriminating use of these laws became an expression of the self, even in the depiction of a gun emplacement by Lieutenant Siemens. Here was an aesthetics for a particular time and place. What may look today like “mechanical drawing” was in the eyes of these drawing instructors a path toward attaining Bildung and an aesthetics for the modern world.

  • Equally as important as self-recording dynamometers in this respect were their close cousins the “indicators” used for measuring the work done by a steam engine over the course of a cycle. Incredibly, although developed by James Watt and his mechanic John Southern in the 1790s, the indicator remained a trade secret of the Boulton and Watt firm for about thirty years before it became known to others. But from the early 1820s its principle and its immense value to mechanics gradually became known. Subsequently, more sophisticated indicators developed rapidly and in close relation with self-recording dynamometers. Morin simply treated the indicator as a form of dynamometer. Figure 7.7 shows an early Watt indicator and its “indicator diagram.” When screwed into the top of an engine cylinder, the indicator registered the pressure inside the cylinder via the compression of a small spring, which moved a pen vertically over a sheet of paper affixed to a board. Since the board moved back and forth as the piston moved up and down, the pen traced essentially a pressure-volume curve on the paper. The area inside the curve was therefore proportional to the total work done during a cycle. Changing the settings of valves and timing produced a different curve. Thus, the indicator served two important functions: it measured the power of an engine in horsepower equivalents to determine its value to an owner —say one who wanted to drive two thousand spindles and reckoned on one horsepower per hundred spindles— and it could diagnose faults in the engine’s operation in order to maximize its efficiency. [...] As noted above, Clapeyron’s “Carnot diagram” was an idealized indicator diagram.Carnot himself likely knew of Watt’s indicator and conceived his theory of heat engines partly in relation to it.

  • I relate to this in (some aspects of) my job: Nevertheless, it was just because the shape of this curve was so highly reproducible that he could argue that the working process did not change from one measurement to another. Holmes and Olesko have stressed how important this visualizability was to Helmholtz’s ability to convince other physiologists of the finite propagation time of the nerve impulse. They capture this quality under the perspicuous term “qualitative precision,” arguing that Helmholtz’s use of the graphical method provided a separate and more immediately graspable means of convincing his physiological audience of the validity of his more esoteric and highly variable electromagnetic measurements (with their heavy dependence on the probability calculus).

  • Overall, I was surprised, but shouldn't have been, about the pervasive and explicit impact of Kantian epistemology and metaphysics on scientific activities, limiting both questions and answers.

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