Last Friday, I gave a paper at the 106th Annual Meeting of the Polish Philological Society. A couple months ago, I was very happy to learn that this year’s session’s major theme would be the history of Latin and Greek letter as I have been hoarding a considerable pile of materials for quite a long time and I needed a decent stimulus to get back and start to try making sense out of them. The reason why these notes, transcriptions and scans were so neglected on my hard drive was the fact that they have actually very little to do with the calendrical debates I have been dealing with for the past two years. I gathered these materials back in January 2013 when I was in a kind of doctoral limbo, between the moment of submitting my dissertation for review and the ritual of public defense. I went for a couple of days to Zurich since I wanted to consult in person a particular copy of Nicolaus Hussovianus’s Carmen de bisonte, one of very few that survived and, luckily for me, annotated by Conrad Gessner. I had this tempting idea that by studying one book, or treating it as a kind of lense, or center of possible network of connections I will be able to work my way through at least some part of rich corpus of Gessneriana. The idea of having a look at an early modern polymath and naturalist dealing with information about an exotic, Eastern European animal excerpted from a poetical work and trying to include it into his body of work seemed quite promising and my former faculty was kind enough to support my research for the last time. In Zurich, I examined this and few other volumes annotated by Gessner and had a look at his rich Nachlass – a large collection of loose manuscripts of various kinds, which, taken together, make one of the best physical proofs that the experience of information overload in the sixteenth century was a fact and not only a projection of our contemporary concerns onto the distant past.
Two pieces of Gessner’s Nachlass puzzled me in a particular way. These were two clumsy drafts of letters, written by Gessner and, from what I could read, addressed to Johannes Boner, a descendant of German family, nobleman and courtier of king Sigismund I the Old. Boner’s role in the whole history is much bigger than the few remarks I am going to include below but since I am in the middle of reorganizing my Zurich material and still would like to publish a study about my findings, I will jump to the part I am actually sure of and which puzzled and amazed me for the past few months, every time I got back to the ‘Gessner & Hussovianus’ file.
I still have some doubts related to the reading of certain fragments and Gessner’s inclusions and additions do not make it easy to stabilize the texts of these letters (an these two pieces of papers are the only copies known to me – originals on the Polish end apparently did not survive and there is no clean copy of Gessner’s letters in his Zurich papers). Despite these technical difficulties, it is quite clear from the legible fragments that they were conceived as letters of recommendation. The reason why the Swiss polymath wrote these two letters to Boner are quite clear: since they both belonged to the same correspondence network established between Bullinger in Zurich and the followers of Calvinism in Lesser Poland (Polonia Minor), it was quite natural for them not only to exchange views but also to develop their network even further. And here enter two characters: Anton Schneeberger and Georg Joachim Rheticus. Both were disciples of Gessner’s at some point of their education and, quite surprisingly, both ended up in Cracow in the same period: Schneeberger settled there in 1543 and Rheticus arrived only a year later. In this context letters of Gessner, addressed to a prominent Cracow figure, can and should be read as an attempt to clear the way for his two disciples. Although Gessner’s recommendations may seem quite conventional (we encounter praises of learnedness formulated in superlative so many times that we become callous to them), it is important that they apparently brought desired effects: Schneeberger settled in Cracow for good, got married, prospered quite well as a city physician and occasional collector of books, authored a handbook of military medicine, and eventually died there in 1581.
In case of Rheticus, the story is a bit more complicated as Cracow was not his final stop. From the point of view of Gessner’s letters, however, it is extremely important that these two scholars found a safe harbour in Cracow and entered the local intellectual elite. A couple of years ago, at the 2011 “Cultures of Knowledge” conference I listened to a great talk by Tamson Pietsch about the process of establishing the networks of trust among the Australian and UK-based physicists. And while late 19th– early 20th-century exchange between two distant milieus might seemed too modern for an early modernist, Pietsch in her paper provided a highly important point of view and introduced a crucial category of trust as a foundation for collaboration between the centres she studied. Now, after these few years, I believe that the idea of trust was also at play in the epistolary exchange between Gessner and Boner and should be considered as one of the key factors in the process of its development.
It is not the trust, however, which has been making me wonder for the past months, ever since I submitted my abstract. These were the quite unexpected developments within my ongoing project, which made me realize with great force how closely linked are the early modern figures that I study, starting with the Cracow reception of Ramism, through my Gessnerian episode, and up to some chapters in my ongoing research on Central European chronological debates. It was another correspondent of Gessner, a Polish nobleman Jan Łasicki (Joannes Lasicius) who served Peter Ramus as an emissary to Cracow and brought to the university a copy of his Scholarum physicarum libri VIII in 1566 (now, in the collections of Jagiellonian Library there is also a copy of Ramus’s Proemium mathematicum which the author gave to Łasicki a year later). Łasicki was important for the Ramist network as he helped Ramus to establish contact with another highly prominent figure on the early modern intellectual arena, i.e. John Dee. Next, we have the Polish-Swiss network, consisting of numerous names on both sides, with the Gessner’s sub-network as an object of my own study, hopefully to be concluded within a couple of months – this is another network. But the process of unfolding does not end here. When one takes a look for instance at a figure such as Rheticus s/he will realize immediately in how many fascinating directions this may lead him or her, starting with the great figure of Andreas Dudithius, a Catholic bishop and diplomat and later on a Socinian intellectual, through some minor characters that can lead one to another, equally or even more fascinating, corners of respublica litteraria of the 16th and 17th centuries. And what is amazing here is the fact that one can make this transition in few jumps!
Although I was well aware of this fact for quite a while, it struck me with a great force when I started putting together pieces of puzzle I encountered while creating a commentary to Johannes’s Latosinus astrological Warning which I mentioned at the beginning of this year. This idea will be developed in another post which, I think, will be a good occasion to get back and continue ‘the Warning cycle’ (which right now consists of one post, was originally conceived as a diptych but will be developed soon into a trilogy). Right now, I would like to just pin point the fact that we live in truly magnificent times when we can jump from one correspondence network to another. And this would be impossible without the efforts of such excellent teams as those gathered around such projects as the “Cultures of Knowledge” project in Oxford, the Dutch ePistolarium or the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” at Stanford, just to name the few. These projects make visible things that could escape one’s attention without the tools they provide, i.e. the fact of overlapping of certain networks and the very basic yet crucial fact that the center of one epistolary network is an element or branch of another, and the center of the second web of correspondents may be (and surely was) an element of epistolary circle of the third, fourth, nth corresponding intellectual or public figure of other kind. This, indeed, gives us a powerful tool for the study of early modern intellectual history and for understanding it as a cluster of dynamic systems and subsystems of personal and intellectual relations.
At this point, my confessions about the importance of networks may sound banal and I am sure I am basically preaching to the already converted but if you want to find out how did this work in case of Rheticus, stay tuned as the continuation of ‘the Warning cycle’ is coming!