(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler”*…

A New Chart of History. English: A color version of Joseph Priestly’s A New Chart of History. To Benjamin Franklin LLD. FRS. This Chart In Testimony of Esteem & Friendship. Inscribed By his most obliged Humble Serv. Joseph Priestley. . 1769.

Timelines are now a commonplace. But as Emily Thomas explains, Joseph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” revolutionized how we view history…

… Priestley (1733-1804) is best known for his scientific work, especially the co-discovery of oxygen. Yet he was also a teacher and a philosopher. As a teacher, Priestley sought to better communicate history to his students. He was fascinated by chronologies, texts ordering events. Since ancient Greece and Rome, chronologers used ‘time tables’ or grids to depict the order of events in time. An obvious problem with these chronologies, though, is that only so many events can fit on each page.

The mid-18th century saw many experiments in representing history, including Thomas Jefferys’ 1753 A Chart of Universal History. Jefferys was a mapmaker and his chart depicts empires almost as though they are countries on a map, allowing you to scan them all at once. Impressed, Priestley determined to create a chart of his own that readers could scan ‘at one view’. He made several innovations but one proved key: lines, inspired by his philosophy of time.

For this, Priestley drew on a seemingly unconnected topic: John Locke’s 1690 account of abstract ideas. For Locke, abstract ideas include ‘redness’, ‘triangle’, or ‘animal’. They are general ideas, produced when our minds consider particular things. Take a pint of milk, a stick of chalk and a lump of snow. I can consider these things while leaving out their particular features, ‘abstracting’ what is common to them: their whiteness. Many philosophers accepted some version of Locke’s account of abstraction, but puzzled over how to mentally visualise them. Locke writes that our abstract idea of a triangle ‘must be neither Oblique, nor Rectangle, neither Equilateral, Equicrural, nor Scalenon; but all and none of these at once’. Clearly we cannot picture such a thing. Priestley makes an alternative suggestion: represent abstract ideas using a variable particular. A child, he writes, has an idea of ‘what a triangle in general is’, even though all the ideas of triangles he ‘contemplates’ are ‘particular’. In other words, our picture of the abstract idea of a triangle can change: from equilateral to, say, scalene. In the same essay, Priestley argued that time is an abstract idea. And this view feeds into his timeline…

How Joesph Priestley’s “A New Chart of History” used the ideas of John Locke to revolutionize our undertstanding of history: “The Invention of Time,” from @emilytwrites in @HistoryToday.

Pair with “Putting Time in Perspective,” from @waitbutwhy.

Henry Glassie


As we ponder the past, we might send evocative birthday greetings to Jules Michelet; he was born on this date in 1798. Considered one of the founders of modern historiography, he is best known for his multivolume work Histoire de France (History of France).

Influenced by Giambattista Vico, Michelet emphasized on the role of people and their customs in shaping history, a major departure from the then-current emphasis on political and military leaders.  He coined the term “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth” in French) as a period in Europe’s cultural history that represented a break from the Middle Ages, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world. (The term “rebirth” and its association with the Renaissance can be traced to a work published in 1550 by the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the term to describe the advent of a new manner of painting that began with the work of Giotto, as the “rebirth (rinascita) of the arts.”)


“Mathematics has not a foot to stand on which is not purely metaphysical”*…

Battle of Maida 1806, part of the the invasion and occupation of Naples by Napoleon’s French Empire (source)

Lest we forget…

A forgotten episode in French-occupied Naples in the years around 1800—just after the French Revolution—illustrates why it makes sense to see mathematics and politics as entangled. The protagonists of this story were gravely concerned about how mainstream mathematical methods were transforming their world—somewhat akin to our current-day concerns about how digital algorithms are transforming ours. But a key difference was their straightforward moral and political reading of those mathematical methods. By contrast, in our own era we seem to think that mathematics offers entirely neutral tools for ordering and reordering the world—we have, in other words, forgotten something that was obvious to them.

In this essay, I’ll use the case of revolutionary Naples to argue that the rise of a new and allegedly neutral mathematics—characterized by rigor and voluntary restriction—was a mathematical response to pressing political problems. Specifically, it was a response to the question of how to stabilize social order after the turbulence of the French Revolution. Mathematics, I argue, provided the logical infrastructure for the return to order. This episode, then, shows how and why mathematical concepts and methods are anything but timeless or neutral; they define what “reason” is, and what it is not, and thus the concrete possibilities of political action. The technical and political are two sides of the same coin—and changes in notions like mathematical rigor, provability, and necessity simultaneously constitute changes in our political imagination…

Massimo Mazzotti with an adaptation from his new book, Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity: “Foundational Anxieties, Modern Mathematics, and the Political Imagination,” @maxmazzotti in @LAReviewofBooks.

* Thomas De Quincey


As we count on it, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Regiomontanus (or Johannes Müller von Königsberg, as he was christened); he was born on this date in 1436. A mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer of the German Renaissance, he and his work were instrumental in the development of Copernican heliocentrism during his lifetime and in the decades following his death.


“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked at almanacs before (e.g., here and here), but never with an eye to their astrological underpinnings. Livia Gershon plugs that gap…

Some Christians today see astrology as a clear affront to their beliefs, and possibly a dangerous manifestation of the occult. And yet, as historian T.J. Tomlin writes, through the eighteenth century, it was a central aspect of the almanacs that were ubiquitous in Protestant American homes.

By 1800, Tomlin writes, U.S. printers produced enough almanacs to provide one to every household in the country. People turned to the books for a clear, simple idea of how the universe worked. Their astrological calculations helped readers gain practical know-how about agricultural management, weather, and personal health.

Like the study of the natural world in general in that time and place, almanacs were rooted in Protestantism. They presented simple, widely held religious ideas—God’s power, redemption through Christ, the promise of heaven—to an increasingly literate public. “This was the liturgy of early American popular culture,” Tomlin writes.

But there were debates about what sort of astrology was compatible with this religious belief. “Natural astrology,” using the movements of heavenly bodies to draw conclusions about agriculture, medicine, and the weather, was widely regarded as “a way to illuminate God’s creative impulse in the universe,” Tomlin writes. But “judicial astrology,” predicting the events of individual lives or political affairs, might be seen as blasphemous…

Wildly popular, almanacs helped people understand farming and health through the movement of the planets, in a way compatible with their faith: “The Protestant Astrology of Early American Almanacs,” from @LiviaGershon in @JSTOR_Daily.

* Arthur C. Clarke


As we study the stars, we might send multi-faceted birthday greetings to the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, physicist, chemist, anatomist, botanist, geologist, cartographer, and writer– the archetypical Renaissance Man– Leonardo da Vinci.  Quite possibly the greatest genius of the last Millennium, he was born on this date in 1452.

While Leonardo’s attention (and thus his notebooks) extended to astronomy, there’s no evidence that he believed in astrology. That said, his chart has been cast myriad times (e.g., here).

 Self-portrait in red chalk, circa 1512-15 [source]

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 15, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Comparisons are odious”*…

… but sometimes instructive in the very ways that they fail…

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Doug Jones, on what the remarkable story of the Song Dynasty can and can’t tell us about other periods…

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why…

On the ways in which history doesn’t repeat itself: “A cycle of Cathay,” from @logarithmic_h.

* Proverb


As we listen for the rhyme, we might recall that today is Schicksalstag (“Day of Fate”) in Germany. On this date five momentous events took place: Robert Blum, a leader in the Vienna revolts, was executed in 1848; Kaiser Wilhelm II resigned, marking the end of German monarchies in 1918; the Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch failed in 1923; Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and the Nazi antisemitic pogroms raged in 1938; and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

East and West Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 9, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable”*…

Tower Bridge in London, England, is one of the most famous structures in the Gothic Revival style. Its spires echo Islamic architecture’s minarets, pointing to the ancient exchange of cultural ideas between the West and the Middle East.

There’s more to Gothic architecture and Gothic style than we might imagine. Roger Luckhurst explains…

When fire devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in April 2019, the architectural historian Diana Darke noted in a Twitter post that of course everyone knew the famous twin tower and rose window of France’s finest Gothic cathedral were copied from a Syrian church in Qalb Loze, built in the fifth century. The post went viral: amplified or rebutted, triumphed or tossed.

Darke was surprised at the reaction to what historians have established as a well-known path of influence: the East-West trade in architectural ideas. It was argued centuries ago that key defining elements of the Gothic style were borrowed from the Islamic architecture of the Middle East. The soaring pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster in London, the pointed arches of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and the rose windows of Notre Dame all point to the influence of Islamic design.

But from early in the 19th century, these contributions were forgotten, and Gothic became celebrated as an intrinsically Northern European style. In Britain, it was only in the revival of this medieval style of architecture that it started to be called “Gothic.” The Revivalists no longer dismissed the Gothic as a crude or barbarous form, and instead repurposed it as a national, patriotic style.

By knowing this deeper history of some of Europe’s most iconic buildings, travelers can approach these well-known attractions with new eyes and can appreciate that the “East-West divide” isn’t as deep as we are often led to think…

Hidden in the architecture of some of the world’s most famous buildings is a cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East: “What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think,” from @TheProfRog in @NatGeo.

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge


As we esteem exchange, we might send well-designed birthday greetings to Arduino Cantafora; he was born on this date in 1945. An architect, painter, and writer, he became a postmodernist (in the mode of his teacher/mentor Aldo Rosi), creating designs and paintings that reached back to the Renaissance revival of Gothic themes.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 8, 2022 at 1:00 am

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