A Moment of Wonder: Overlapping Networks

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.

An annotated page of Gesner's working copy of his Icones animalium of 1560 (Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, shelfmark NNN 44 | F)

An annotated page of Gesner’s working copy of his Icones animalium of 1560 (Zurich, Zentralbibliothek, shelfmark NNN 44 | F, source: e-rara.ch)

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!

Calendar and conversion

The debate between the Uniates, Orthodox Christians and Catholics over the superiority of the Gregorian calendar is quite well documented by a series of prints from the 1640’s. One of the authors and adversaries in this exchange of vernacular pamphlets, brochures, short treatises and short fictional dialogues was Kasjan Sakowicz (1578-1647), a polemical writer, theologian and Uniate priest.

His biography shows, however, that as much as the first two categories denote well his activity during his whole career, the term “Uniate priest” may be used only to a certain period of his life, which covered merely 16 years between 1625 and 1641. Sakowicz was born to an Orthodox family and as a teenager he entered the walls of the Zamojski Academy, where he received basic education in liberal arts, as well as the Academy of Cracow where he broadened his knowledge. In the early 1620’s, being still a member of the Orthodox Church, he was the principal of the school in Kiev. The school was ran by the local bratstvo, a secular association, or fraternity, of Orthodox citizens organized on the model of a guild. It was in 1625 when Sakowicz decided to change his confession and join the Uniates, that is the community of Eastern Christians who on the strength of the Union of Brest of 1596 acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome but kept the Orthodox liturgy with its language, symbols and calendar.

We do not know exactly what made Sakowicz to take such step. The reasons for conversions throughout the history, including the early modern period, were various (and quite often coincided with one another), starting from an actual strong religious, or even mystical, experience, through the necessity to secure one’s life in face of political threat, to pure opportunism having its origins in a belief that confessional affiliation can either facilitate or hinder economic enterprises in particular region of the world. To this list of reasons for conversion we can distil from dozens and hundreds of conversion narratives, one should add at least one more – the calendar.

Since at the moment of joining the Greek Catholic Church Sakowicz was already a public person and author of a commentary to Aristotle and few poetical works, he must have exposed himself to the fury of his former fellow believers. Unfortunately, he did not leave us any kind of a narrative that could broaden our knowledge about this act. This could be simply a matter of a political choice, but could also be an act of theologically grounded belief that the unity of the Christian communities is far more important than all the differences between them and a simple step that an Orthodox Christian can take in order to bring this unity closer is to acknowledge the act signed in Brest. The discussions over the consequences of the Union of Brest are still ongoing and from the point of view of political and social history it is still unclear whether this act brought more good or bad for Eastern Christianity, culture, and political life in the region. If one takes the Catholic point of view, it may seem that it contributed to the advent of the unity of the only true, i.e. Roman Catholic, Church, but from the Orthodox point of view, things are not (and probably never be) that obvious, and the document of 1596 became immediately a reason for yet another schism in the Eastern Christianity and a bone of contention between these two confessions.

Kalendarz staryLuckily, we know far more about Sakowicz’s second act of conversion, which took place in the early 1640’s. In 1641 he published in Vilnius, in the printing shop of the Basilian order a brochure entitled The Old Calendar (Kalendarz stary), in which he exposed the „blatant and self-evident error regarding the celebration of the Passover”, included a series of replies to the accusations formulated by men who stuck to the Julian calendar (he coined even a lovely compound to label them, starokalendarzanie, ‘the oldcalendrists’), and listed the possible benefits related to the acknowledgment of the new measure of time. Although the brochure received the imprimatur of the Uniate elders and came of the Uniate printing press, its publication ended up with a fervent controversy. This was caused by the fact that the rhythm of the liturgical year based on the Julian calendar was treated by the Uniates as a vehicle for their cultural, religious and ethnic identity, which, apart from their language and form of liturgy, allowed them to differ from the Roman Catholics. Sakowicz, reducing the role of calendar to a tool, neglected the symbolic role and power of the calendar.

Sakowicz’s position was built on two assumptions. The first one was that the measure of time is not an article of faith and it can be changed, corrected or reformed if necessary. For him, the fact that the Uniates referred to the 1st Nicean synod of 325 as a landmark for their calendrical computations was an example of their hypocrisy, stubbornness and blindness. The basic rule for determining the date of the Easter, established already in 325, was that the Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first spring full moon. The Julian calendar, however, as Sakowicz put it in an almost Shakespearean phrase, „fell of the track” (wypadł z kluby) and should no longer be used to determine the date of Easter. The second assumption was based on a conviction that the unity of Christians makes a greater value than sticking to one’s, sometimes wrongly understood, tradition. Hence the whole argumentative structure of his book, built of calculations, images, analogies, folk tales and geared up in order to convince his fellow believers to acknowledge the new calendar. For Sakowicz the change of the system of calendar calculation was not a matter of a deep intervention in the logical structure of the Uniate creed and was a rather cosmetic change which would allow the Roman Catholics and Uniates to breathe and celebrate in one rhythm.

Sakowicz’s belief in the idea of the unity of Christendom must have been really strong and the things around him must have been heating up after the publication of The Old Calendar as during the diocesan synod at Lutsk in 1641 he declared his obedience to the bishop of Rome, shortly after the synod applied for the pope’s consent to leave the Greek-Catholic Church, and after receiving the approval of Urban VIII become a full Catholic and joined the Augustinian order. As a catholic monk based in the Kraków convent of St Catherine, he continued to work on the problem of “many calendars” and in 1644 he decided to publish yet another book, Spectacles for the Old Calendar (Okulary kalendarzowi staremu), which he conceived as an augmented and expanded version of his 1641 brochure. Indeed, some arguments which appeared already in The Old Caledar have been substantially revised and their style is less hectic and more elaborated (although this still does not make this text an example of prose artistry). Yet the most interesting part of the Spectacles is not Sakowicz’s exposition of the errors of the old calendar and virtues of the new one, but his preface addressed to the “pious reader”. In it, he spares no bitter words to his former fellow believers, who, as he writes, claimed that he published The Old Calendar without the consent of the Church authorities, badmouthed him and even went as far as to try to convince the Vatican authorities to revoke the papal decree regarding Sakowicz’s transfer to the Catholic Church. Sakowicz used the publication of the Spectacles as an opportunity to speak from the podium and straighten the things out, showing his version of the facts and expressing his misery.


Sakowicz expressed his resentment not only in Polish but also in Latin and he did it in a rather frank, if not brutal, way, declaring that for him there was no way back to the Uniate Church as it would mean something even worse than ab equis transire ad asinos. Despite this move from the Uniate to the Catholic camp and despite the bitterness of phrasing used to describe this act, he did not change his general view and actually claimed that the unity of these two churches could be built through small things such as calendar and that there is no actual need for a mass conversion of Uniates. He was wise enough to avoid the strategy of an open proselytism which could actually make more harm to the whole cause. It seems, however, that one of the very few people who Sakowicz managed to convince to take the side of the new calendar was Sakowicz himself and that the consequences of his decision turned probably far more serious than he could have imagined.

Source of images: Jagiellonian Digital Library