The History of Pre-Modern Knowledge: Oxford and Beyond

I. Introduction

The history of knowledge is emerging as a distinct pursuit or scholarly episteme, with its own internal discussions about disciplinary identity and methodology, its own journal(s) and societies, and other markers of intellectual self-awareness and demarcation.[1] At the same time, it is not associated with any particular institution or ‘school’; nor does it claim to be fundamentally different from the longstanding sub-disciplines from which it is composed, most notably the numerous different approaches to the histories of science, philosophy, and the humanities; and of the circulation and dissemination of knowledge. As in several other branches of intellectual history, early modernists have perhaps been at the forefront of the self-reflective discussion; as a historian of early modern Europe and its encounters with the non-European myself, I shall largely focus on that sphere.

That being said, there is certainly nothing necessarily early modern nor European about the field. Indeed, if we were to look for the most spectacular historiographical novelties, we would find them elsewhere. Byzantine intellectual history, for example, has been created almost from scratch in the last few decades.[2] Historians, archaeologists, and scientists from Oxford and beyond have collaborated to measure historic levels of ice core pollution, in the process transforming our understanding of the history of mining.[3] The history of Islamic knowledge – like all early Islamic history – has been one of the most flourishing areas of study, including at Oxford.[4] Very serious challenges have been posed to the age-old idea of an irreversible stagnation to Islamic intellectual life after Al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophy in the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa, and the negative comparison with early modern Europe that that idea entailed.[5] On an even grander scale, comparative work that asks about the most fundamental structures of intellectual activity – often but not always focussed on Europe and China – has increasingly been undertaken, although the linguistic challenges here are even more formidable than usual.[6]

Closer to home, historians of medieval theology and philosophy in the Latin West continue to perform small miracles of manuscript discovery and exegesis, many of which have completely overturned older notions about the nature of ‘scholasticism’ and its place in society. We now know that not only did the legacies of scholastic theology extend well beyond the Reformation, but also that the scholastic approach to the composition of the material world – sticks, stones, human and animal bodies, etc. – was far more sophisticated and influential than its later critics implied. We early modernists are gradually realising that we need to keep up with this literature if we are not to repeat tired stereotypes about the period before our own.[7] From this perspective, Anneliese Maier (1905–71) is (re-)emerging as perhaps the most significant intellectual historian of the twentieth century; it is regrettable that her work remains all too unknown to Anglophone scholars.[8]

All that being said, I promised that I would focus on early modernity. For narrative convenience I shall divide the discussion into sections on ‘Knowledge of the natural’ and ‘Knowledge of the human’; I shall attempt some integrative comments at the end.


II. Knowledge of the natural

There is little point attempting a full historiographical account of the massive literature on early modern ideas about the natural world; I shall only offer a few brief comments. The ‘social-historical turn’ of the 1980s-90s, which produced so much important work, was also accompanied by a degree of historiographical myth-making, especially by the idea that everyone writing previously was a blinkered internalist uninterested in the social, material, and other contexts in which knowledge about nature was pursued. Looking back more soberly, we can recognise that this was not always fair. Plenty of historians writing in the 1960s–70s, not least in Oxford, integrated externalist approaches with meticulous analysis of texts and ideas.[9] Today, the field seems to be returning to something like this happy integration, moving away from the excesses of the sociological reductionism that read natural philosophy as political metaphor. We have come to accept that just because someone like Newton was deeply involved in alchemy, theology, or politics, it does not mean that any of those offer magic keys to unlocking others aspects of his thought; early modern thinkers were quite capable of compartmentalising their minds.[10]

This re-integration of intellectualist and social-historical approaches can be attributed to several separate developments. One is a renewed interest in early modern natural philosophy from philosophers, who have come to recognise that their canonical heroes – not least Descartes – were not primarily epistemologists or metaphysicians in the modern sense, but rather natural philosophers whose main aim was to build post-scholastic explanations of the natural world. This recognition has forced the philosophers into a high degree of historical sophistication, to the extent that they are now offering some of the most instructive historical readings of early modern naturalism.[11] Another very welcome consequence of this trend has been the re-discovery of some hugely important female philosophers, such as Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and – above all – Émilie du Châtelet. The last of these is now finally being recognised as probably the most important systematic philosopher of physics of the mid-eighteenth century, as well as a major thinker in several other spheres.[12] Unfortunately, British institutions have somewhat missed out on this historiographical development, despite the fact that many of its most succulent fruits have been served up by the Philosophy section of Oxford University Press.[13] The presence of leading visiting scholars will hopefully spark more interest in the near future.[14]


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Seth Ward’s marginal notes on Galileo's Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo: Bodleian Library, Savile BB.13


From a different perspective, a major breakthrough has resulted from the large increase in importance ascribed to aspects of natural knowledge that had previously been excluded from standard accounts of the period, most importantly alchemy, astrology, mechanics, and medicine. In all these cases, it has been shown that the material sites of knowledge-production – chymical laboratories, anatomy theatres, apothecary shops, and botanical gardens – were often the key locales in which the study of nature underwent its experiential and then experimental turns. Increasingly, the best work does not take this finding as a reason for Marxisant valorisation of ‘non-elite practitioners’, but rather charts both the tensions and mutual interaction between practical and learned forms of knowledge formation, often finding important areas of influence or continuity between the earlier Renaissance and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[15] Simultaneously, some of the most forward-thinking philosophical or ‘intellectualist’ historians of science have realised that the problems of life, generation, animal thought and motion, etc., were not secondary to the more classic problems of physics, but central to all the natural philosophising done between 1500 and 1800.[16] On this score, one can only hope for even more dialogue between philosophers, historians of science, and historians of medicine. Tentatively, I can say that the future looks bright, with conversations that might have seemed very unlikely a few decades ago now starting to occur. The fact that Oxford has a closer institutional relationship between History of Science, Medicine & Technology and Intellectual History than many other universities should hopefully help it lead the way on this score.


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The base of the human brain from Thomas Willis's Cerebri anatome (1664), the drawing is possibly by Christopher Wren. Willis was Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford. His ideas have been repeatedly discussed at the History of Medical Sciences Project:


III. Knowledge of the human

Here, a particularly significant development has been the recognition of the long-term vitality and importance of humanist erudition, a development that owes its greatest debt to the work of Anthony Grafton. As Perry Anderson put it in the LRB, Grafton has taught us ‘that Renaissance humanism, long dismissed as something of a dead end—a maze of textual manias, chronological speculations and astrological obsessions—in intellectual progress towards modern science and historical scholarship, was on the contrary a highly productive condition of these’.[17] Subsequent scholarship has reinforced that Europeans did not suddenly stop being humanists once Descartes open their eyes; even the most ‘scientifically’ minded continued to engage fully in ‘bookish’ practices of intense reading, commonplacing, and historical-genealogical reflection on their activities.[18] Oxford-based scholars – many of them working from the English faculty – have been central to the rediscovery of this wide-ranging ‘late humanism’.[19] Neo-Latin has been another source of happy collaboration; here again Oxford doctorates have been pioneering, whether in the history of sexual scholarship and censorship, or the comparative history of institutionalised philology.[20] More generally, cooperation between historians and classicists working in ‘Reception Studies’ promises to be a particularly fruitful area of research in the near future, not least via the medium of Oxford University Press’s ‘Classical Presences’ series, as well as the Oxford-Warburg Studies series that has published many of the seminal texts in this field.[21]

Perhaps the most exciting element of this scholarly mini-revolution has been the recognition that early modern Europe was profoundly pre-Philhellenic. Men and women of letters did not operate with an implicit genealogy of knowledge identifying them as inheritors of a Graeco-Roman civilization that was culturally and intellectually unique. When it came to intellectual self-conception, they were as likely to be concerned about North Africa, the Near East, India, or – increasingly – China and Japan.[22] An obvious reason for this was the immense energy and resources that a confessionalised Europe devoted to biblical criticism, Hebraism, patristic scholarship, and histories of religion, all of which have been the subjects of transformative studies, several of them produced in Oxford.[23] In the last decades, our understanding of the whole ecology of early modern Arabic studies has been equally revolutionised, whether that be at the level of ideas, the human interaction between Europeans and Muslims, or institutionalised pedagogy – which turns out to have been remarkably widespread.[24] The ‘orientalism’ paradigm has been nuanced to the point of transformation, as we have attained a much better understanding of the interaction between theological, political, scholarly and other factors in the production of knowledge about Islam and about the non-European more generally. A similar revisionism has gone into reconceptualising the nature of the Republic of Letters, which is now appearing less and less as a Habermasian idyll of proto-liberalism, and more as a specifically early modern space of elite, confessionalised scholarly interaction.[25]

None of these historiographical developments should lead to a complacent triumphalism – far much more work remains to be done. We have come to acknowledge that challenges to Christianity were as likely to come from erudition as from philosophy; but while the ‘religious turn’ is well-established, only very recently have we started to see a ‘theological turn’. That is to say, intellectual historians are slowly recognising the importance of understanding the intricate and abstruse contents of early modern theology if we want a proper grasp of early modern intellectual change (however much our secular minds may recoil from the task).[26] Similarly, connections between intellectual and legal history remain far too few, and offer an immense opportunity for enterprising students. At the most basic – but also most exciting! –level, anyone who has worked in the Bodleian will be aware how many hugely important texts remain to be discovered and published; we simply cannot know what transformative impact they will have.[27]

Finally, a great deal of work remains to be done in connecting sixteenth- and seventeenth-century developments to their eighteenth-century successors, especially the burgeoning ‘science of man’. Here again Oxford scholars – both faculty and graduate students – have been showing us the way.[28] Only once that has been done will we be in position to answer the Kuhnian question of how the early modern system of knowledge morphed into the ‘modern’ humanities and social sciences in the nineteenth century (recent work is finding more and more non-Kuhnian continuities between the two).[29]


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A Zoroastrian Priest from Thomas Hyde’s Historia religionis veterum Persarum (1700), the first history of Persian religion to be based on Persian sources. Hyde was Head Librarian of the Bodleian; he was also perhaps the first English scholar to meet a Chinese person, Shen Fo-tsung, who visited the library in 1685, helping Hyde catalogue its Chinese holdings (and explaining to him which way up to hold the books).


IV. Integration?

Would it be possible – or even desirable – to harmonise the themes discussed here into a grand history of early modern knowledge? How would one go about it? One possible avenue would be to attempt more ‘deep’ histories of the interaction between natural and human sciences, albeit with an unrelenting vigilance as to disciplinary boundaries as they existed for our pre-modern subjects (with the soul as pre-eminent boundary object).[30] Another would be to focus on institutions, and to ask what the expected ‘baseline’ of knowledge was throughout our period. The reason that this may be a fruitful approach is because early modernity was a golden age for higher education, with levels of age-group participation and social mobility that went unmatched until the twentieth century.[31] Accordingly, much of the written knowledge that was produced was only the tip of a pedagogical-institutional iceberg. Intellectual historians have perhaps been slow to realise this fact, but the bravest students are facing up to the challenge of investigating its consequences.[32]

Of course, the majority remained excluded from higher education – especially women. Here a second avenue presents itself: the history of the dissemination of knowledge, and its mutation during the process. Intellectual historians are almost by definition inclined to believe that ‘ideas matter’, even when both the origin and the reception of those ideas remained among elites. No doubt we have sometimes been guilty of taking the force of that shibboleth for granted – some of the most exciting future work surely lies in justifying it.[33] No single approach or method will offer a magic bullet for this task. That being said, the recent words of Khaled El-Rouayheb, the leading specialist in early modern Ottoman intellectual history, are surely pertinent: ‘The mo[st] pressing danger... is the tendency to think that the study of social, political, and institutional context somehow makes the close study of scholarly works superfluous – that intellectual history can simply be read off social and institutional history’. It remains for intellectual historians – in Oxford and beyond – to prove him right.


Dmitri Levitin is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. Students who would like to discuss these issues further should feel free to contact him at


[1] For attempts to define the field, see J. Vogel, ‘Von der Wissenschafts- zur Wissengeschichte: Für eine Historisierung der Wissensgesellschaft’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 30 (2004), 639–60; and the discussion between Martin Mulsow and Lorraine Daston in Debating New Approaches to History, ed. M. Tamm and P. Burke (London, 2018), 159–88. The open-access Journal for the History of Knowledge was launched in 2020 (; the first issue contains a forum on the nature of the enterprise. It is organised by the Gewina Society ( Two other important, recently launched journals are Erudition and the Republic of Letters (2016–) and History of Humanities (2016–).

[2] See the spectacular Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium, ed. Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou (Cambridge, 2017).

[3] Andrew Wilson et al., ‘Pervasive Arctic lead pollution suggests substantial growth in medieval silver production modulated by plague, climate and conflict’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116 (2019). Some of Wilson’s other research has shown how even the most textual forms of intellectual history can benefit from hard-nosed study of material history: ‘The walls of Carthage and the date of Augustine’s De Trinitate’, Journal of Theological Studies, 70 (2019)

[4]  For the latest scholarship from Oxford, see Fitzroy Morrissey, Sufism and the Scriptures: Metaphysics and Sacred History in the Thought of ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (London, 2021); id., Sufism and the Perfect Human: From Ibn ‘Arabī to al-Jīlī (New York, 2020); id., A Short History of Islamic Thought (London, forthcoming, 2021). The fast-expanding Library of Arabic Literature series of translations published by NYU Press ( has made the teaching of Arabic thought far easier. Julia Bray (Laudian Professor of Arabic) is a member of the editorial board.

[5] Among many important studies, see the revisionist account of Ottoman intellectual life by Khaled El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb (Cambridge, 2017).

[6] E.g. Ancient Greece and China Compared, ed. G.E.R. Lloyd and Jingyi Jenny Zhao (Cambridge, 2018); Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500–1800, ed. Peter N. Miller and François Louis (Ann Arbor, 2012). At Oxford, such comparative work is being pioneered at the Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures:; some doctoral students are being co-supervised by specialists on Greek and Chinese philosophy.

[7] For major recent Oxford contributions, see e.g. Cecilia Trifogli, ed. and trans., Geoffrey of Aspall: Questions on Aristotle’s Physics (Oxford, 2017); Antonia Fitzpatrick, Thomas Aquinas on Bodily Identity (Oxford, 2017); Individuals and Institutions in Medieval Scholasticism, ed. Antonia Fitzpatrick and John Sabapthy (London, 2020); Lesley Smith, The Glossa Ordinaria: the Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary (Leiden, 2009); ead., The Ten Commandments: Interpreting the Bible in the Medieval World (Leiden, 2014). In the history of science, see C. Philipp. E. Nothaft, Scandalous Error: Calendar Reform and Calendrical Astronomy in Medieval Europe (Oxford, 2018). For a majestic synthesis from outside Oxford, see Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 1274–1671 (Oxford, 2011).

[8] The seminal works are Studien zur Naturphilosophie der Spätscholastik, 5 vols (Rome, 1949–58) and Ausgehendes Mittelalter, 3 vols (Rome, 1964–77). For an English-language appreciation and overview, see Dominik Perler, ‘Anneliese Maier and the Study of Medieval Philosophy Today’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 53 (2015), 173–84. Despite her remarkable achievements, Maier was never offered a professorial position in Germany or in Italy, where she lived from 1936.

[9]  E.g. Robert Fox, The Caloric Theory of Gasses: from Lavoisier to Regnault (Oxford, 1971); Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626-1660 (New York, 1976); Essays on the Life and Work of Thomas Linacre, c. 1460–1525, ed. Francis Maddison, Margaret Pelling, and Charles Webster (Oxford, 1977); Jim Bennett, The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren (Cambridge, 1982); Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World. Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800 (London, 1983); Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature 1700–1900, ed. John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth (Manchester, 1989); Robin Briggs, ‘The Académie Royale des Sciences and the pursuit of utility’, Past & Present, 131 (1991), 38–88. Robert Frank’s Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists (Berkeley, 1980), based on an unparalleled knowledge of Oxford archival materials, remains the best account of mid-seventeenth-century English science. Michael Hunter’s career began with an Oxford DPhil, ‘The place of John Aubrey in intellectual history’ (1975); as did Mordechai Feingold’s: ‘Science, universities and society in England, 1560–1640’ (1981). Nancy Siraisi, who has probably done more than anyone to transform our understanding of the place of learned medicine in various systems of knowledge between the medieval Arabic world and the seventeenth century, received her B.A. (1953) and M.A. (1958) from Oxford.

[10] For Oxford contributions to this theme, see esp. Rob Iliffe, ‘Abstract considerations: disciplines and the incoherence of Newton’s natural philosophy’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 35 (2003), 427–54, developed in id., Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 2017). Also Dmitri Levitin and Scott Mandelbrote, ‘Becoming Heterodox in Seventeenth-Century Cambridge: the Case of Isaac Newton’, in Confessionalisation and Erudition in Early Modern Europe: An Episode in the History of the Humanities (Oxford, 2019), 300–94; and, outside Oxford, William R. Newman, Newton the Alchemist (Princeton, 2018). The Newton Project, co-directed by Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote, remains the premier model of digital MS publication: See also The Chymistry of Isaac Newton, at

[11] The literature is now vast, and ever growing. The Cambridge History of the Philosophy of the Scientific Revolution, ed. Dana Jalobeanu and David Miller (Cambridge, 2021, forthcoming), will offer the most up-to-date synthesis.

[12] Most recently, see Katherine Brading, Émilie du Châtelet and the Foundations of Physical Science (New York, 2019). The Voltaire Foundation in Oxford has played a crucial role in the re-discovery of du Châtelet: see e.g. Emilie Du Châtelet Rewriting Enlightenment Philosophy and Science, ed. Judith Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes (Oxford, 2006).

[13] Important exceptions are Maria-Rosa Antognazza, Sarah Hutton, and Emily Thomas; see e.g. Early Modern Women on Metaphysics, ed. Emily Thomas (Cambridge, 2018).

[14] The Franco-American Graduate Workshop in the History of Early Modern Philosophy will be held in the UK for the first time in July 2021, at the Maison Française d’Oxford and All Souls College, largely due to the initiative and efforts of Mogens Lærke, Visiting Researcher at the MFO.

[15] For some Oxford contributions, see e.g. Stephen Johnston and Jim Bennett, The Geometry of War, 1500­–1750 (Oxford, 1996) (with a deliciously retro online version here); Stephen Johnston, Jim Bennett, and A.V. Simcock, Solomon’s House in Oxford: New Finds from the First Museum, (Oxford, 2000); Stephen Johnston, ‘John Dee on geometry: Texts, teaching and the Euclidean tradition’, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science, 43 (2012), 470–9; Heaven and Earth United: Instruments in Astrological Contexts, ed. Richard Dunn, Silke Ackermann and Giorgio Stano (Leiden, 2018); Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980); id., Logic, Signs and Nature in the Renaissance: the Case of Learned Medicine (Cambridge, 2002); Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones, The Medical World of Early Modern France (Oxford, 1997); Benjamin Wardaugh, Music, Experiment and Mathematics in England, 1653-1705 (Aldershot, 2008); Dmitri Levitin, ‘”Made up from many experimentall notions”. The Society of Apothecaries, medical humanism, and the rhetoric of experience in 1630s London’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 70 (2014); Erica Charters, Disease, War, and the Imperial State (Chicago, 2014). Charters leads the timely ‘How Epidemics End’ project: For the history of pre-modern technology, the best starting point remains Liliane Hilaire Pérez and Catherine Verna, ‘Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era: New Approaches and Methodological Issues’, Technology and Culture, 47 (2006), 536–65.

[16] E.g. Charles Wolfe, La philosophie de la biologie avant la biologie: Une histoire du vitalisme (Paris, 2019); Justin Smith, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton, 2015).

[17] Perry Anderson, ‘The Force of the Anomaly’, LRB, 26 April 2012.

[18] E.g. Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010); Renée Raphael, Reading Galileo: Scribal Technologies and the Two New Sciences (Baltimore, 2017); Dmitri Levitin, Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science (Cambridge, 2015).

[19] Rhodri Lewis, Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to Locke (Cambridge, 2007); William Poole, The World Makers: Scientists of the Restoration and the Search for the Origins of the Earth (Oxford, 2010); id., ‘Edward Bernard’s Chinese map’, The Seventeenth Century, 35 (2020), 363–88; Thomas Roebuck, ‘Antiquarianism and regionalism, 1580-1640’ (DPhil, English Faculty, 2011); Karen Collis, ‘Shaftesbury and learned culture’ (DPhil, English Faculty, 2013); Jan Machielsen, Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford, 2015) (based on 2011 DPhil); Kelsey Jackson-Williams, The Antiquary: John Aubrey's Historical Scholarship (Oxford, 2016) (based on English Fac. DPhil); Justin Begley, ‘Margaret Cavendish, the last natural philosopher’ (DPhil, English Faculty, 2016); Nicholas Hardy, Criticism and Confession. The Bible in the Seventeenth Century Republic of Letters (Oxford, 2017) (based on English Fac. DPhil)Marcello Cattaneo, ‘Scholarship, polemics, and confession in the early satires of Jonathan Swift’ (DPhil, English Faculty, 2019); Kirsten Macfarlane, ‘Hugh Broughton (1549-1612): scholarship, controversy and the English Bible’ (DPhil, English Faculty, 2017). In a glorious triumph of intellectual-historical interdisciplinarity, Macfarlane is now Associate Professor in Early Modern Christianities in the Theology Faculty.

[20] Karen Hollewand, The Banishment of Beverland: Sex, Sin, and Scholarship in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic (Leiden, 2019), based on 2016 DPhil (History Fac.); Floris Verhaart, Classical Learning in Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic, 1690-1750: Beyond the Ancients and the Moderns (Oxford, 2020), based on 2016 DPhil (History Fac.). Both are contributors to The Worlds of Knowledge and the Classical Tradition in the Early Modern Age: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Dmitri Levitin and Ian Maclean (Leiden, 2021, forthcoming).

[21] E.g. Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon, ed. Avi Lifschitz and Michael Squire (Oxford, 2017); Beyond Greece and Rome: Reading the Ancient Near East in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jane Grogan (Oxford, 2019). The results of an experiment in collaboration between classicists, historians, and anthropologists in which I took part can be found in Regimes of Comparatism: Frameworks of Comparison in History, Religion, and Anthropology, ed. Renaud Gagné, Simon Goldhill and G.E.R. Lloyd (Leiden, 2018).

[22] Two Oxford-produced books addressing this issue in different ways are Giuseppe Marcocci, The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford, 2020); Dmitri Levitin, The Kingdom of Darkness: Bayle, Newton, and the Emancipation of the European Mind from Philosophy (Cambridge, 2021, forthcoming).

[23] E.g. Hardy, Criticism and Confession; Macfarlane, ‘Broughton’; Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford, 2008) (researched and composed over several visiting fellowships in Oxford); Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg, "I have always loved the holy tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship (Cambridge, MA, 2011); Jewish Books and their Readers: Aspects of the Intellectual Life of Christians and Jews in Early Modern Europe, ed. Scott Mandelbrote and Joanna Weinberg (Leiden, 2016); ‘The Reception of Josephus in the Early Modern Period’, Special Issue of the International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 23, (2016) ed. Martin Goodman and Joanna Weinberg; Piet Van Boxel, Jewish Books in Christian hands: Theology, Exegesis and Conversion under Gregory XIII (1572–1585) (Vatican City, 2016); Michelle Pfeffer, ‘The Pentateuch and the Immortality of the Soul in England and the Dutch Republic: The Confessionalisation of a Claim’, in The Classical Tradition and the Worlds of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Dmitri Levitin and Ian Maclean (Leiden, 2021, forthcoming). Here also current Oxford graduate students are making important contributions: Jacob Chatterjee, ‘Christian Antiquity and the Anglican Reception of John Locke’s Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St Paul, 1707–1730’, Locke Studies, 20 (2020).

[24] Jean-Paul Ghobrial, Whisperers of Cities: Information Flows in Istanbul, London, & Paris in the Age of William Turnbull (Oxford, 2013); Jan Loop, Johann Heinrich Hottinger: Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 2013); The Teaching and Learning of Arabic in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jan Loop, Charles Burnett, and Alastair Hamilton (Leiden, 2017); Alexander Bevilacqua, The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA, 2018); Simon Mills, A Commerce of Knowledge: Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, 1600–1760 (Oxford, 2020). From Oxford, see Noel Malcolm, Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750 (Oxford, 2019), and the project on ‘Stories of Survival: Recovering the Connected Histories of Eastern Christianity in the Early Modern World’ (

[25] From Oxford: Noel Malcolm, ‘Hobbes and the European Republic of Letters’, in Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford, 2002), 457–545; Hardy, Criticism and Confession; and, on the book market, Ian Maclean, Scholarship, Commerce, Religion: The Learned Book in the Age of Confessions, 1560–1630 (Cambridge, MA, 2012); id., Episodes in the Life of the Early Modern Learned Book (Leiden, 2020). Our ability to ask and answer these questions is being transformed by the Oxford-based Early Modern Letters Online project:

[26] The best work engages fully with that of American, Dutch and German historians of theology, not least the daunting output of Richard Muller and his many students and interlocutors. In Oxford, see e.g. Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: the Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge, 2010).

[27] With discovery comes the imperative of meticulous editorial and translation work. For Oxford-generated examples, see The Correspondence of John Wallis, ed. Phillip Beeley and Christoph J. Scriba, 4 vols of 8 planned (Oxford, 2003–); John Wallis, The Arithmetic of Infinitesimals, tr. and intr. Jacqueline Stedall (Heidelberg, 2004); Noel Malcolm and Jacqueline Stedall, John Pell (1611–1685) and His Correspondence with Sir Charles Cavendish: The Mental World of an Early Modern Mathematician (Oxford, 2004). The passing of Professors Scriba (†2013) and Stedall (†2014) was an immense loss both to the history of mathematics and to Oxford.

[28] Avi Lifschitz, Language and Enlightenment: the Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2012).

[29] E.g. Suzanne Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire (Washington D.C., 2009). In Oxford, see e.g. Constanze Güthenke, Feeling and Classical Philology: Knowing Antiquity in German Scholarship, 1770–1920 (Cambridge, 2020); Dmitri Levitin, ‘What Was the Comparative History of Religions in 17th-Century Europe (and Beyond)? Pagan Monotheism/Pagan Animism, from T’ien to Tylor’, in Regimes of Comparatism, ed. Gagné et al.

[30] For a groundbreaking philosophical anthropology written from the perspective of a preeminent historian of knowledge, see Lorraine Daston, Against Nature (Cambridge, MA, 2019). A different, if connected, approach is adopted by Jürgen Renn, The Evolution of Knowledge: Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene (Princeton, 2020).

[31] From the volumes of the History of the University of Oxford, that on seventeenth-century Oxford (1997, ed. Nicholas Tyacke) is widely acknowledge as the model for Anglophone university history. Laurence Brockliss, French higher education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a cultural history (Oxford, 1987) remains essential for France. The flourishing History of Universities journal is another jewel in OUP’s intellectual-historical crown.

[32] Natasha Bailey, ‘Academic Collaboration in the Early Enlightenment: Daniel Waterland (1683–1740) and his Cambridge Tyros’, English Historical Review, forthcoming. See also George Widdicombe’s blog post on this site. Howard Hotson, The Reformation of Common Learning: Post-Ramist Method and the Reception of the New Philosophy, 1618–c.1670 (Oxford, 2020) is a major attempt to place the rise of the mechanical philosophy in a new institutional context; one hopes for a fruitful discussion with historians of philosophy. Oxford historians of political thought have been examining it as a pedagogical enterprise: see above all Sophie Smith, ‘The Language of "Political Science" in Early Modern Europe’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 80 (2019); also my ‘Teaching Political Thought in the Restoration Divinity Faculty’, in Politics, Religion, and Ideas in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, 2019).

[33] E.g. Michelle Pfeffer, ‘The Society of Astrologers (c. 1647–1684): Sermons, Feasts, and the Resuscitation of Astrology in Seventeenth-Century London’, British Journal for the History of Science, forthcoming, 2021. From the perspective of the history of political thought, Mark Goldie’s recent Carlyle Lectures (Jan-Feb 2021), offered an entirely new way of thinking about Locke as an active political agent.

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