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!

On the Road: In Royal Prussia

It’s been quite a while since the last time I posted anything to this blog. This does not mean, however, that I quit my research, abandoned the idea, or decided to change profession. The last few months, apart from a two-week summer break dedicated solely to charging my mental and physical batteries, were actually quite intense and productive. I won’t annoy the readers with details as most of this intensity and productivity means simply sitting, reading, discussing, writing, revising and copy-editing – an endless loop known pretty well to those who are trying to make some sense out of the material they have gathered, find some new sources and publish essays on their findings in a place that would guarantee some level of readership to their work. Hopefully, some of the results of these efforts will see soon the printing press and the future posts published here will reveal some behind-the-scenes details related to other currents of my research.

Right after the summer holidays, at the turn of August and September, I rushed to Ermland, a region in the far North of Poland and visited two libraries. One of them, the Cyprian Kamil Norwid City Library in Elbląg (Elbing), was once a library of the Lutheran gymnasium, member of the famous Protestant triad consisting of educational institutions established in the 16th century in Elbląg, Toruń (Thorn) and Gdańsk (Danzig) and radiating on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea and beyond. For those of you who have visited this blog earlier, the reason for this visit will be quite predictable: I was chasing for marginalia. There are many reasons why one should expect finding some libri annotati in a library like the one in Elbląg: such historical institutions usually hold not some random old prints but volumes that were actually used in local school(s) or read by local intellectuals and then were bequeathed to or purchased by the library.

This picturesque series of buildings, starting with the 14th-century former Holy Spirit church, is the house of the Elbląg Library (although its special collections are located across the street in a 19th-century building)

This picturesque sequence of buildings, starting with the 14th-century former Holy Spirit church, is the house of the Elbląg Library (although its special collections are located across the street, in a 19th-century building)

There is always a chance that looking through a pile of volumes will bring some new materials that will shed some light on the topics one is working on – that’s what I do in every collection I visit, apart from consulting some unique prints and manuscripts that can be consulted only in this particular place. This kind of research requires time. My list of names worth checking is constantly growing and sometimes I feel as if I was creating an alternative version of the library catalogues: the catalogues of the libraries I visit, both the ones available online and the old-fashioned card catalogues that can be consulted on-site are extremely laconic and they very rarely provide information on the ownership marks and absence/presence of annotations. The provenance catalogue is usually a mythical box hidden in the restricted area and provided only upon special request. Should I add that such thing as a catalogue dedicated explicitly of libri annotati is only an object of wishful thinking? This always end up in massive orders, semi-automatic filling of order slips, great confusion about the shelfmarks in the end (“Have I seen this volume?”). On the last day of such a weekly visit I am usually totally confused (and so are the librarians).

Yet, with this method comes also a risk, a risk that the volumes one is hoping to see – those filled with marginalia with ownership annotations that can be easily tracked back to particular scholars – are not always those one eventually gets. And my visit to Elbląg gave me a lesson: do not expect too much, even if the catalogue seems to be rich and promising. This is not to say that I found nothing, in fact I digged up a lot of new materials which I would like to refer to in my future studies (some of them related to chronological debates, and some of them representing the ‘Ramist’ branch of my studies), but it simply did not bring any sources that could play a leading role in a yet another chronology-and-calendars narrative. Again, the hope to find some revelatory materials right behind the corner, in every library one pays a visit to can be deceptive so one needs to nourish it carefully, just in order to avoid grave disappointment that can paralyse further work. My visit to Elbląg was one of these hunting trips the results of which are, so to say, less spectacular but at the same time have broadened my knowledge about the specificity of local collections in the region I am particularly interested in, so despite this lack of fireworks I must say that I already have some plans where to use material the material I have seen there and this could not have happened without the help of helpful, friendly and patient staff (they are also blogging!).

Working space for visitors to the Library's Special Collections Department

Working space for visitors to the Library’s Special Collections Department

In the middle of my visit to Elbląg I took a one-day trip to Frombork (Frauenburg), one of the key cities in the intellectual and public biography of Copernicus. For quite a while I knew that the Library of the Nicholaus Copernicus Museum has in its collection of old prints a copy of the 3rd edition of De revolutionibus, the one published in Amsterdam in 1617 and known under the title of Astronomia instaurata, which belonged to Peter Crüger, whom I mentioned in my penultimate post. There is only one, three pages long article dedicated to Crüger’s annotations in this volume and it seemed to me so confusing that I decided to combine these two research trips into one in order to examine the Copernicus volume in person. I am still digesting marginalia I transcribed there thanks to the hospitality of the Museum staff, trying to link them with other annotations left by this Danzig-based astronomer in volumes preserved in other libraries and, what is most important, I finally have a feeling that I am quite close to writing a large study on Crüger’s astronomical library, reading and writing habits, the way he worked with particular books, how he digested them in relation to particular scholarly plan and about his views on technical chronology. I had the occasion to discuss the preliminary ideas of this article with an excellent group of historians concerned with medieval and early modern writing practices during the “Loca scribendi” conference organized in Warsaw this June and I think that I have found a way to write about Crüger’s annotations which will take me at least a little beyond what I wrote about the first annotator I have studied, Joannes Broscius. Writing about Crüger is really important for the internal logic of my project, as it allows me to link various levels of my research, but it is also of great importance on the, so to say, personal level as I am seeking a way that would help me to avoid becoming a one trick historian.

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A really nice plaque on the door to the Museum Library, used also as a bookplate

Leaving the methodological concerns aside, at least for now, I cannot start writing this essay, which will be probably a long one, without having another look at the books preserved in Gdańsk. So I decided to take another trip there, in order to verify my transcriptions (some of them were made in haste, 10 minutes before the closing of the library and few hours before my departure back home so I simply do not trust my memory and intuition). But the careful analysis of Crüger’s notes gave me a bundle of hints and leads I would like to verify, again, in hope that I will find at least one or two volumes he might owned and annotated or just annotated while working at the city library (back in the 17th century leaving one’s annotations in the book belonging to a public institution was not considered a crime or violation of the regulations). I have printed out a set of transcriptions I have made so far and updated a list of volumes that I would like to consult next week – I guess it’s not a bad starting point for the execution of the plan described above.

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Statue of Copernicus sitting reflectively by the heliocentric fountain at the market square in Frombork

After my return from Gdańsk, I am will be attending the 106th Annual Meeting of the Polish Philological Society organized in Toruń. And once the session is ended, I will be rushing towards another point on my map and yet another set of (this time confirmed) annotations, left by a first-class superstar early modern astronomer. Stay tuned for more news!

A Ramist Postscript

As I mentioned some time ago, part of my scholarly soul still belongs to Ramism. Although I have moved into a slightly different field, I wouldn’t be here  without my research on the reception of Ramism in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – it was then when I started to study Broscius’s marginalia and realized that he was involved in the calendrical debates and these two facts made me to think about carrying out a larger project that could embrace not only Broscius but also a number of other fascinating early modern figuers who got involved into these debates. After I completed my PhD I had to take a kind of intellectual leave from all these logical distinctions, branching schemes, anti-Aristotelian polemics and rather dry textbooks and the Ramist virus remained dormant for a while. It was thanks to my faculty colleague, Simon Burton, that we started to think about organizing a seminar on broadly understood theories of knowledge and arts in late medieval and early modern, mostly Central, Europe which allowed us to join our forces.

The seminar, scheduled to take place in less than four weeks, on the 28th and 29th of May, was actually one of the reasons I visited Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences two weeks ago. I wish I had more time to study Peter Crüger’s microscopic, erudite and highly critical marginalia related to chronology (although, in the long run, this might lead to a serious deterioration of my sight), the agenda of my visit was twofold and I spent at least half of my time in Gdańsk consulting manuscripts and books that have very little to do with chronology but will help me to shape the first version of my argument on the reception of Ramism in early modern Gdańsk/Danzig. This does not necessarily mean that I have to abandon Crüger – as a disciple of Danzig omnivorous logician and encyclopaedic polymath, Bartholomaeus Keckermann, he remains on the horizon as one of the elements of the picture I would like to include in my May paper, yet this time not as an active reader, but as an author of texts. (As an annotator, he will reappear in mid-June, at another exciting conference organized by Warsaw historians and dedicated to the manucript and handwriting cultures.)

Having said this, I am happy to officially announce the schedule of the Tree of Knowledge seminar and I really look forward to meeting all fabulous speakers and listening to their fascinating papers in Warsaw in a couple of weeks.