Loose morals and the institutionalisation of science

Since this blog is meant for a general audience I’m going to try to avoid confusing my readers with historians’ jargon. But I realise that my strapline ‘life and science in Restoration London’ is already possibly guilty of contravening that rule: does everyone know what Restoration London is? Sure, people who are interested in British history do. But I know (clever) people who need to think for a few seconds to remember whether the 17th century means the 1600s or the 1700s, so I’m going to err on the side of caution.

I like the phrase ‘Restoration period’ because it’s more evocative (for me!) than ‘1660s’ or ‘late 17th century’. So instead of expunging any references to the Restoration I will simply remind my readers that after having executed their king, Charles I, in 1649, the English invited his son, Charles II, to return to the throne in 1660, thus ‘restoring’ the Stuart monarchs to their rightful place at the head of the country.* It’s fairly safe to say that the Restoration period starts in 1660; if Wikipedia entries are anything to go by, it’s rather more debatable to say where it ends. Somewhere in the second half of the 1680s seems about right.

Charles II has gone down in history as a likeable but rather feckless chap who entertained himself with mistresses and small dogs – so what makes the Restoration period special? I could go on at some length here but I will stick to a couple of (for me) salient details. It is not a coincidence that the Royal Society was formally founded in 1660, just months after Charles II returned to London. He was not in any sense a driving force behind the institutionalisation of science in Britain, although he was interested in some scientific questions. But there was definitely a mood of optimism in London in 1660. Some of the founder Fellows had close links to the royal court, and it seemed a good opportunity to formalise their meetings, preferably with the support of Charles himself. He never actually gave them any cash, but he did give them an enormous gold mace as a symbol of royal approval (what more could a budding philosophical society want??).

Speaking of philosophers, since we’re talking about historians’ jargon I’ll add another piece (although this is not really jargon, it’s actually correct usage): ‘new philosophers’ and ‘experimental philosophers’ are the preferred 17th century terms for the chaps we would now think of as ‘scientists’. The word ‘science’ was used at this time in a very general sense to mean a body of knowledge, and the word ‘scientist’ wouldn’t be invented until the mid-19th century. Hooke and his associates were new philosophers, because they were creating a new way of thinking about the world (in contrast to the old philosophers, Aristotle and so forth). Now, I am less bothered about this distinction than some, so in my blog you may find me using ‘scientist’ and ‘new philosopher’ interchangeably, although I probably wouldn’t do this in a formal academic article.

In terms of Restoration social life, Charles’s courtiers and the major literary figures of the day took their lead from the king: Whitehall was the scene of scandal and intrigue, and it was all reflected in contemporary literature, particularly in comedies performed in the newly re-opened playhouses (with female actors!), and in the vicious, witty and extremely coarse satires circulated in print and manuscript. As a literary scholar by training I’m really interested in the connections between literature and science in the period. For me, the fact that so much writing has survived, and in so many different genres, from people in all (or most) walks of life, makes the Restoration a very rich period to work on.

Finally, another term historians like to use for this period is ‘early modern’. Depending on who you speak to, early modern can mean anything from 1450-ish to 1800. The people who make up these labels identified aspects of this period that seemed to them indicative of where the world was going (towards the modern, in fact). Obviously, like ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’, the term says more about historians than about the people who lived at those times – but they’re useful tags.

Now I’m not saying that the loose morals of the Restoration period and the institutionalisation of science are connected just because they happened at the same time. But the fact that they did happen at the same time means the Restoration period gives us a rich array of fascinating characters all bustling around the City of London and Whitehall, pursuing their various scientific, mercantile, political or literary ambitions and enjoying life (when they weren’t being stricken with the plague or having their houses burnt in the Great Fire). Hooke ran into a surprising number of them, one way or another, which gives me a great opportunity to introduce them in this blog!

* Many of them changed their minds again (about the Stuarts, at least) during the reign of Charles’s hapless brother James II. It’s a topsy-turvy old world.

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