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A Centaur in London

Reading and Observation in Early Modern Science

A nuanced reframing of the dual importance of reading and observation for early modern naturalists.

Historians traditionally argue that the sciences were born in early modern Europe during the so-called Scientific Revolution. At the heart of this narrative lies a supposed shift from the knowledge of books to the knowledge of things. The attitude of the new-style intellectual broke with the text-based practices of erudition and instead cultivated an emerging empiricism of observation and experiment. Rather than blindly trusting the authority of ancient sources such as Pliny and Aristotle, practitioners of this experimental philosophy insisted upon experiential proof.

In A Centaur in London, Fabian Kraemer calls a key tenet of this master narrative into question—that the rise of empiricism entailed a decrease in the importance of reading practices. Kraemer shows instead that the early practices of textual erudition and observational empiricism were by no means so remote from one another as the traditional narrative would suggest. He argues that reading books and reading the book of nature had a great deal in common—indeed, that reading texts was its own kind of observation. Especially in the case of rare and unusual phenomena like monsters, naturalists were dependent on the written reports of others who had experienced the good luck to be at the right place at the right time. The connections between compiling examples from texts and from observation were especially close in such cases.

A Centaur in London combines the history of scholarly reading with the history of scientific observation to argue for the sustained importance of both throughout the Renaissance and provides a nuanced, textured portrait of early modern naturalists at work.

About the Author

Fabian Kraemer is an assistant professor of the history of science at LMU Munich. He is the author of Ein Zentaur in London.

Endorsements

"A Centaur in London presents a series of careful and rich case studies of the scholarly treatment of 'monsters' from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, in locales ranging from Switzerland and Italy to Germany and England, and with examples ranging from headless people and dragons to the London centaur of the title. With its impeccable scholarship and breadth of vision, enhanced by Kraemer's command of the numerous languages from which he has drawn his material, this book will make its mark, introducing important new developments in both European and Anglo-American scholarship."

- Alix Cooper, Stony Brook University, author of Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe

"Fabian Kraemer's sharp-eyed study offers a new answer to an old problem in the history of science: why did European naturalists in the space of less than fifty years go from collecting reports of monsters to denying the possibility of centaurs, dragons, and other monstrous species? His careful attention to how text factoids circulated in the first media of print is rich in potential lessons for our digital age."

- Lorraine Daston, Director Emerita, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, coauthor of Objectivity

"Deftly weaves through two centuries of pan-European scholarship, tracking monsters as they circulated in textual and visual formats. Kraemer's real quarry is the changing relation between observation and reading and what it tells us about large-scale periodizations of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment."

- Vera Keller, University of Oregon, author of The Interlopers: Early Stuart Projects and the Undisciplining of Knowledge

"An illuminating account of changing intellectual practices in early modern natural history. From Aldrovandi to Haller, this book shows how new ways of observing combined with new ways of reading to create a powerful form of learned empiricism. Challenging conventional stereotypes on the divide between scholarship and empirical observation, the human and the natural sciences, Kraemer offers an important contribution to the history of epistemic cultures."

- Gianna Pomata, Professor Emerita, Johns Hopkins University, editor of The True Medicine

"What happens when you follow the centaur and the textual itineraries of other monstrous and fabulous creatures? This book takes seriously the intellectual goals of the Renaissance naturalists, seventeenth-century academicians, and enlightened physicians and philosophers. Kraemer explores the dialectic between reading and observation, news and rumor, factoids and facts in early modern Europe, showing us why monsters represented an Archimedean inflexion point for defining knowledge in the age of the Scientific Revolution."

- Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University, editor of Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500–1800

"In this sweeping, erudite, and deeply absorbing book, Kraemer offers the definitive account of how early modern scholars integrated encounters with rare monstrous creatures into their philosophical systems, radically revising our understanding of the role of bookish learning in the emergence of modern science."

- Dániel Margócsy, University of Cambridge, coauthor of The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions
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