Steven led the way for new scientific thought


Steven Shapin’s
book, A Social History of Truth (1994),
came under criticism from many different historians. Margaret Jacob argued that
Shapin’s work continued to widen the gap that was evident in the “conventional
narrative” of English history of all aspects, such as politics and religion,
and more specifically the history of English science. She claimed that
historians had become ignorant regarding the widely known chronology that
surrounded their expertise.1
More recent works on the Restoration years in England, such as Keeble’s The Restoration: England in the 1660s,
have a more detailed account of the intellectual developments that coincided
with the religious and political unrest of the era, expanding into more areas
than previous single-minded works, and therefore showing a more contextualised
understanding of new English science in the seventeenth century.


The link between
English science in the seventeenth century and religion is explored in Hall’s A Revolution in Science 1500-1750. He
argues that the progression of religion and science were often considered
“inseparable objectives”, which is partially due to most scientists up until
the mid-seventeenth century being profoundly religious men.2  A well-known example of this is Robert Boyle,
a Catholic, and Samuel Hartlib, a Puritan reformer who was influenced by
Francis Bacon’s work in the first quarter of the century, seeing it to be
articulating many of the Puritan beliefs; 
Boyle went on to be a founder the Royal Society, which essentially led
the way for new scientific thought following the Interregnum, and Hartlib is
recognised as a key influencer in its establishment due to his networking of
intellectuals.3 Hall’s
claim supports the idea that the religious unrest in the country, that only
intensified following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 with constantly
switching between Protestant and Catholic leaders and a plethora of dissenting
groups from the mainstream beliefs, led to a need for new knowledge and
information. In this period, science as we now know it was generalised as
‘natural philosophy’ alongside mathematics and many other philosophical
In knowing this, Hall’s statement that in this period, there was “no general
conflict between science and religion”5
can be seen as credible as they were not opposing disciplines like they are
today. Instead, it can be understood from Hall’s writing that research and study
into nature derived from a deep love and awe for God, and a need to discover
the world He created. In other words, Hall has chronicled the ideological
connection that was present between science and religion in the
seventeenth-century. Despite religious uncertainty, belief became a catalyst
for developed research and new thinking and in some ways, science acted as a
way for religious intellectuals to increase their relationship with God through
understanding the world. 

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In contrast to
this, science has also been presented as a way for the Church of England to create peace in the rift
that had developed among the population due to the ever-changing state religion.
In his articles from 2009, John Morgan describes Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society,
commissioned by the Royal Society in 1663 to demonstrate the immediate public
value of their experiments and research into English expansion6,
as “appropriating the… benefits of the Royal Society as support for a
re-established, anti-Calvinist Church of England”.7
Sprat used this platform to produce an “Anglican-royalist” view on the “omni-competence”
of the restored monarchy and state church, and uses links to the adoption of
Israelite history used by Royalists during the civil war to reformulate the
convention of God making England a “radically reconfigured Israel” through the reformation.8


The relationship
between travel, trade and England’s colonial expansion and their contributions
to natural philosophy became a key study point for the Royal Society and its
scientists in the late seventeenth-century. 
This is evident in that many members of the “Royal Adventurers into
Africa” charter (granted by King Charles II, and would be replaced by the Royal
African Company in 1672) were, or would go on to be, fellows of the Royal
Society; the most notable of these was Sir Joseph Williamson, who became
President of the society in 1677.9
The Society put a lot of emphasis into the promotion of overseas trade, with
Sprat referring to it as the “twin sister” to the Royal Adventurers into Africa
company in his History,  saying that “new science and improved trade go
hand in hand”.10
Keeble’s account of the Royal Society in The
Restoration (2002) shows that what Jacob had argued in her review of
Shapin’s work was no longer relevant in some works of the new millennium. He
develops his research past the singular narrative displayed by Shapin to
include events such as the expansion of overseas trade, and also Sprat and John
Evelyn’s concern to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire to become the
“most advantageous Seat of all Europe, for
and create a city that would coincide with developing technologies of the time.
Keeble’s work provides an authentic outlook by using contemporary sources, such
as the diaries of Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, to form his argument.


In the first
part of his Foreign Bodies paper,
Robert Illiffe truly highlights the significance of English travellers and
their contribution to the new science, mainly through fellowship of the Royal
Society. He reiterates in both his abstract and introduction of the lack of
historical literature that gives attention to the importance of this,
immediately showing that Jacob’s claim in 1994 was accurate, yet no longer
relevant only four year later. Illiffe asserts that the large numbers of young,
English gentleman initially travelling overseas during the reign of Elizabeth I
came from a “need to acquire social accomplishments”12,
yet considerably transformed over the seventeenth-century as the interests and
purpose of travelling changed, especially over the Interregnum. Travel had come
to replace university for many young men in the 1660s, creating the ‘gentleman’
and ‘scholar’ simultaneously through the accomplishments and experience
acquired by travelling13
rather than in education and social hereditary like had previously been. This
was a vital part of the Royal Society’s values, which can be seen in many of
the journeys that Illiffe recounts belonging to future members of the Society,
including Boyle, Evelyn and Robert Southwell. Many travellers took residency in
France and Italy despite the xenophobic, cultural and social issues that the
young gentleman held; the experiences served to draw these young men away from
the initial prejudices that they held about the European, as seen in Edward
Browne’s letters to his father in the early 1660s.14
Illiffe uses the changing attitudes of the restored nation to understand how the
progression of the new science was a revolution in the way of intellectual thinking;
travelling had become a successful part of a genteel upbringing, which the
Royal Society respected,  because the
travellers had shared a part of the new culture they were experiencing,
overcoming the arrogance that is partnered with English Protestant
characteristics and learning from encounters with a variety of cultures and
“histrionic” lecturers.15 


The Royal
Society was involved in the creation of instructions and guidelines for travellers,
which are believed to have been used by the East India Company during its first
century of operation; the focus of the East India Company at this time was
trade rather than the building of a global empire. Winterbottom argues that the
Royal Society had an ongoing collaboration with the East India Company, seen initially
through the production of Robert Knox’s
An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, in order to lay claim to the
wealth that knowledge of the Eastern hemisphere would yield by using these
guidelines.16  The expansion of knowledge of the East from increased
travelling make it possible to question their motives. The idea of knowledge
for the sake of knowledge versus knowledge for the sake of wealth is questioned
using evidence such as the Inquiries for
Suratte, where amongst honourable scientific questions are those regarding
the growth of precious metals17,
and also Knox’s remark on the East India Company bring ‘not only the Wealth but
the Knowledge of the Indies’.18
Yet the subscriptions from readers that financed the publication of Knox’s work19
show that the demand for new information was there. Winterbottom uses her
article to indicate the want for the new philosophical discoveries at the time,
understanding that the post-restoration era acted as a catalyst for new
intellectual thinking, like mentioned regarding religion. Bacon’s 1625 essay On Travel highlights that travel
accounts were designed to be used on journeys in order for comparisons and
corrections to be made, and were not just for entertainment purposes20;
the development of travel texts in the later years acted as aids for the new
wave of travellers seen during and after the 1660s. Furthermore, Winterbottom’s
account of the so-called “bio-prospecting” of islands that Knox visited, and
the similar instances from the Dutch and French East India Companies21,
show the beginnings of the rising British Empire, and the discernible race for
colonisation of new lands between many European countries, arguably fuelled by
new scientific theory based on Knox’s findings on plants and crops.22
The article clearly demonstrates the connection between the Royal Society’s
collaboration with the East India Company and the profound effect that new
scientific discoveries had on the colonial expansion and transportation of
goods that was vital to the chronology of the late-seventeenth –
early-eighteenth centuries.


In conclusion,
it is evident that historians writing since the mid-1990s use a deepened understanding
of the chronology of major events in the seventeenth century to contextualise
their knowledge on the history of science. 
More specific works that establish the connection of new English science
to related themes of religion, travel and colonialism, but also politics and
society, of the seventeenth-century provide a better understanding of the
history of science as a whole. This then proves a change in attitude of historians
to their writing than what Jacob accused Shapin of in her review of A Social History of Truth, decreasing
the “widening gap” that she claimed was present23
by recounting the conventional narrative of constitutional history coinciding
with the history of science.

1 Margaret
Jacob, “Review” review of A Social
History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, by
Steven Shapin, Albion: A Quarterly
Journal Concerned with British Studies: Vol. 27, No. 2 (1995) 300

2 Rupert
Hall, The Revolution in Science 1500-1750.
Longman, 1998 Eighth edition, 119

3G. H. Turnbull, “Samuel Hartlib’s Influence on
the Early History of the Royal Society.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 10, no. 2 (1953): 101-30.

4 Ruth
Watts. “Gender, science and modernity in seventeenth-century England.”  Paedagogica
Historica, 41: 1-2 (2005): 79-93, accessed January 11 2018 DOI:

5 Hall,
The Scientific Revolution, 120

6 John
Morgan, “Science, England’s “Interest” and Universal Monarchy: The Making of
Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society”, History of Science 47.1 (2009): 27

7 John
Morgan, “Religious Conventions and Science in the Early Restoration:
Reformation and ‘Israel’ in Thomas Sprat’s History
of the Royal Society (1667)”, British
Journal for the History of Science 42 (2009): 321

Ibid, 327, 344

9 “William
Allen, slavery, and the Royal Society” Accessed January 12 2018,

N.H. Keeble, The Restoration: England in
the 1660s. Oxford, UK: Blackwell (2002) 203


12 Robert
Illiffe. “Foreign Bodies: Travel, Empire and the Early Royal Society of London.
Part 1. Englishmen on Tour” Canadian
Journal of History 33.3 (1998) 360. DOI: 10.3138/cjh33.3.357

Ibid, 385

Ibid, 369

Illiffe, Foreign Bodies. 384

16 Anna
Winterbottom, “Producing and using the Historical
Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal
Society.” British Society for the History
of Science 42.4 (2009) 517 DOI: 10.1017/S0007087409002209

17 “Inquiries
for Suratte, and Other Parts of the East Indies” Accessed November 30 2017

18 Winterbottom,
“Producing the Relation.” 524.

19 Ibid,

20 Ibid,

21 Ibid,

22 Ibid.

23 Jacob,
“Review of A Social History”. 300.