2023 HSS Talk.

Disseminating Knowledge with Commerce: the Banking Model of Knowledge at the Royal Society of London during the Late Seventeenth Century

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Slides in PDF, 11.5 MB

Accessibility Outline of talk

[Title slide:]

The Royal Society of London in the late seventeenth century maintained correspondence with the curious globally. Managed by one of their earliest Secretaries, Henry Oldenburg, the incoming and outgoing letters disseminated knowledge across the European experience of the world.

That these letters were used to print both a journal and many books is well-known. What is comparatively less studied is the paperwork history involved in managing these materials.

My talk presents some of my preliminary work into understanding the paperwork history of Oldenburg’s office, one of the largest European offices of the seventeenth century. In particular, I argue that Oldenburg’s model of docketing, copying, checking, printing, selling, and accounting for discrete contributions developed by combining established models for banking and those used by a working intelligencer.

I’m grateful to the Linda Hall Library, the Bibliographical Society of London, the Bibliographical Society of America, and the Lisa Jardine Grant Scheme of the Royal Society for supporting this research. Like the Society did in the seventeenth century, these farsighted scholarly organizations have generously given me and many others the time to work through some difficult problems.

[Next slide:]

This letter from Johannes Hevelius to Henry Oldenburg discusses some Kepler manuscripts, some innovations in astronomy, and a new book by Matthias Wasmuth. By 1674, Oldenburg had become fairly established as a correspondent for such kinds of news, so Hevelius would not have been surprised that some of his letter was published in the Transactions and sold.

[PT slide:]

It’s worth noting we already have text as sort of commodity here: Hevelius reports on texts whose value is attested to–at least in part–as currency “by Kepler” and the currency of the Wasmuth book relates directly to whether or not someone might buy a copy, or print another edition.

But the Philosophical Transactions here is also a commodity selling up-to-date philosophical news from London. It reprints extracts from his letter, describing the Kepler manuscripts and the astronomy. This issued number itself was sold and informed the growing interest in knowledge circulating as a commodity.

[Extract slide:]

The letter has a number of features showing us how it was transformed into this printed and sold book. At the head is a brief outline of its argument written by Oldenburg that mirrors the same argument at the head of the printed version. The text itself is taken from the letter, but edited down.

[More features slide:]

This letter was copied rather than printed directly. But even with that, it contains a number of marks documenting the process.

Beyond the argument at the head written by Oldenburg, we have this note that it was entered into the seventh volume of the letter books starting on page 77 and we have a little cross in the lower corner from a later reconciliation of the letters owned in the archive and listed in their accounts.

The orange lines are folds from when this was mailed in a letter.

[File folded slide:]

However, we have a second set of folds from when this letter was filed.

[Close up file folded slide:]

You can see that the docketed argument comes from the era of filing because it fits within this particular folding scheme. Similarly, the note about entry in the letter books comes from this filing era.

[Next letter slide:]

Other letters bear some of the same marks since they were accounted for similarly. This letter has a few more kinds of marks.

[Zoom in of letter:]

Here we have Oldenburg’s argument at the foot of the letter, docketing the accounting for both being entered and read, and crochets in the text marking out certain passages.

[Picture of letter with printed page:]

These crochets and the argument facilitate the printing in the Transactions and thus the sale of the contents and intelligence in the letter. But I want to emphasize that these marks also deal with the internal management and accounting of correspondence. This next letter has even more.

[Letter with twice filed:]

This is another letter from Hevelius. At this point, you can see the crochet on the left and the argument on the right, along with some of the folds.

[Highlighted folds:]

But this letter was never printed and the folds and their accompanying docketing indicate different archival regimes. The top docketing involves the letter being folded in half while postal folded and accounts for Oldenburg’s response. He must have had a box of incoming letters to which he needed to respond and he marked the response on the letter itself.

The other marking is Oldenburg’s argument, still on the letter folded form, but now in a location away from the response. It must have been the result of a filing system where Oldenburg kept track of the various facts and ideas. Since this was never printed, this argument must have been part of his internal system of accounting for the ideas that he had received.

Additionally, we can see the quarter folds on this too, which indicate a third filing regime for this, but which don’t have any new docketing.

[Wallis letter:]

This hardly exhausts the kinds of marks that indicate both internal use and printing, but I think demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: Oldenburg manages the incoming and outgoing correspondence as a sort of resource that he can account for and draw material from. Far from a series of letters, these are more akin to the goods kept by a grocer or a merchant. He accounts for their arrival, their transformation, and their dissemination in various forms.


The work of the Society aims to improve knowledge and they record these letters alongside their finances. The journal books account just as much for dues, fees, and donations as new ideas submitted in documents.

This I think is the key innovation.

This chart outlines the document paths and the evidence they produce. What I want you to notice here is that we have a series of journals, registers, and minutes accounting for the transformation of one kind of intelligence to another. Each archival shift happens in the process of reconciling some account with another and the Society treats these letters as bearers of valuable knowledge.

I color the lines to indicate the kind of evidence each step of the process leaves. The dotted lines mark the paths recording takes: that is, an account in a Journal book or register, or some such collection of business minutes.

Within the “Filed” category are a variety of activities I don’t have time to get into today, but which show the archive being adjusted, moved, and managed by different people and groups toward different aims.

[Council minutes:]

Indeed, after Oldenburg dies, the Council writes up formal procedures that reproduce his paperwork methods. I think this strongly suggests that this is where the office innovation lies: as a former intelligencer tasked with managing one of the first learned Societies, Oldenburg adapts techniques from banking to build a more complete office than early-modern England had imagined possible for mere knowledge.

This knowledge was adapted into a commercial-like object so that it could be accounted for and in this accounting it was able to be disseminated in new channels that previously excluded written knowledge.

[Talk about the minutes a little bit, if you have time, and show the chart again.]