‘Suitable to the Meanest Capacity’: Mathematics, navigation and self-education in the early modern British Atlantic

By Mordechai Levy-Eichel, published November 2017


How was elementary mathematical learning initially acquired in early modern England and the wider Atlantic world? What kind of mathematics was being emphasized? What kind of materials and methods were employed? What were the motivations of those learning the subject? This article argues that a large part of early modern mathematics was self-taught, began informally, and that there are under-appreciated links between the growth of mathematical learning and early modern naval expansion. This argument is presented through a micro-historical reconstruction of the education of the seventeenth-century administrator, mathematician, and mariner, John Collins, and through a survey of other contemporaneous ciphering notebooks. Collins is a transitional figure in the waning of certain Renaissance ways of learning, in particular the transition from oral to textual instruction, and a pioneer in the spread of education outside of elite schools, including the universities. He commenced his mathematical learning at the feet of individuals who generally regarded the subject more esoterically and mystically, but by the end of his life he was known as an exemplar of the usefulness of mathematics. The article concludes by emphasizing how schools, despite being repositories of records, and therefore naturally appealing to the historian, are in fact likely not to be originators of educational change and innovation.

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Filed under: Atlantic | Other (Early Modern)
Subjects include: Science & Exploration

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