Oxford as a Window on Seventeenth-Century Science

Oxford as a Window on Seventeenth-Century Science

Oxford is an excellent laboratory for conducting such an experiment. Knowledge production and transmission were the core functions of the early modern university. Thanks to its largely uninterrupted history, Oxford possesses rich collections of resources in this field. The Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is amongst the greatest university libraries anywhere originating at the outset of this period. The Botanical Garden, established in 1621, was the first large-scale infrastructure for scientific teaching and research in the English-speaking world. The same period saw the foundation of lectureships in geometry and astronomy by Henry Savile (1619), of natural philosophy by Sir William Sedley (1621), of history by William Camden (1622), and of anatomy by Richard Tomlins (1623-4). The Ashmolean Museum (founded in 1683), was not only England’s first, purpose-built public museum: it was equally pioneering as a chemical laboratory. The History of Science Museum, which now occupies the Ashmolean’s original premises, houses one of the world's finest collections of early modern scientific instruments.

Alongside these unique collections and this built environment, Oxford’s history is packed with episodes illustrative of the history of science in the seventeenth century.  During the civil war, Oxford was made the headquarters of the royalist forces of Charles I. During the Commonwealth and Protectorate, debates on the reform of learning raged around the university. The Oxford Philosophical Club led in Wadham by John Wilkins was the main predecessor to the Royal Society of London.  Oxford men – Aubrey, Boyle, Halley, Hooke, Locke, Petty, Wallis, Willis, and Wren amongst many others – loomed large in the early Society.  Yet the university remained a primary site of opposition to the Society as well, expressed not least at the inauguration of Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre in 1669.  

The paper will assemble and exploit these rich materials for the first time. The objective is not, however, to engage in local history, antiquarianism, or institutional self-absorption, still less self aggrandizement .  Instead, Oxford materials are deployed as local lenses through which students can view broader European developments.  Rather than a tendentious search of instances of leadership, students must be equally attentive to elements of institutional conservatism, intellectual backwardness, and geographical isolation, and to aspects of Oxford’s history which are idiosyncratic or merely typical as well as exceptional.  

Commentary. Howard Hotson (October 2021)