Organized Session

Credibility in Circulation

Organizer

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh

University of Cambridge

Chair

Pratik Chakrabarti

University of Manchester

Metadata

Session Abstract

Little over a decade ago Kapil Raj published his ground-breaking book Relocating Modern Science, which argued that historians of science have much to learn from relocating their studies of the construction of knowledge from specific, localized sites to spaces of circulation. This shift, Raj argues, reveals the indispensable role played by non-European actors and knowledges in the co-construction of methods and practices that have gone on to shape modern "Western" science. Since then, historians-particularly those striving to understand the non-Western character of what has elsewhere been characterized as "European modernity"-have employed Raj's methods to great effect. One key issue that deserves further exploration, using episodes from across historical and geographical demarcations, is that of the credibility of non-European methods in shaping the emergent disciplines associated with "European" or "global" modernity. For example, in his recent work on the "first global turn," Alexander Statman suggested that Europeans' encounters with Chinese history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries radically reshaped conceptions of what "world history" could look like as an academic discipline. How does a shift from local to circulating spaces change the way historians of science can analyze the construction of credibility? The papers in this panel explore the processes involved in constructing credibility in spaces of circulation and examine whether these reveal previously under-appreciated non-European agency involved in the development of ostensibly "European" methods in emergent disciplines during the Enlightenment. The session seeks to problematize the categories of "credibility," "circulation," and "modernity" in the historical analysis of the emergence of certain disciplinary practices-in particular world historical, astronomical, and natural historical methodologies-in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

Presenter 1

Monuments, astronomy, or hermeneutics? China and the invention of Enlightenment world history

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh

University of Cambridge

Abstract

In 1658, as the Jesuit missionary Martino Martini was making his second journey to China, his "history of the great Empire," Sinicae Historiae Decas Prima, was published in Munich. In this work, just a few pages after reassuring his European readers that "one can have full faith in Chinese chronology," Martini claimed that through his erudite study of Chinese historical annals and the astronomical observations contained therein, he became "convinced that this extreme part of Asia ... was populated before the Flood." Martini's work generated lively debate amongst European scholars of different disciplinary backgrounds over how to best establish the credibility of distant antiquity. The curator of the museum at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher, following the antiquarian methods of his mentor Peiresc, examined material "monuments" like the Xi'an Stele to reconstruct forgotten Christian histories in China. Others, such as the "Figurists," argued that the Yijing prefigured Christian revelation and used it to re-write the earliest histories of humankind. However, the most popular way by which Jesuits-and numerous secular European scholars after them-convinced other Europeans of the verity of events from distant Chinese antiquity was by using ancient Chinese astronomical observations as an ostensibly culture-independent marker of historical events. By examining these three different methods used between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries to establish historical facts, this paper re-evaluates what Alexander Statman recently called the "first global turn" of history. I argue that the shift towards using astronomical methods to corroborate the distant past in Enlightenment world history (as in Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs) was largely kindled by Martini's mobilization of astronomy and mathematics as tools of political diplomacy during the turbulent Ming-Qing transition.

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Presenter 2

A Once Credible Science; or, the Lost Art of Arabic Astrology

Margaret Gaida

Oklahoma State University

Abstract

In the circulating space of the medieval Mediterranean, scores of Arabic astronomical and astrological manuscripts were translated into Latin. According to modern counts, the majority of medieval astrological manuscripts in European libraries are translations from the Arabic. At medieval universities, the Latinized Arab names Albumasar and Alcabitius appeared in student notebooks alongside Ptolemy and Sacrobosco. Medieval European scholars acknowledged their great debt to the Arabs and considered their knowledge authoritative. By 1500, humanist authors such as Pico della Mirandola began denouncing the Arabs for their "fables and superstitions." This paper treats these humanist critiques of Arabic astrology as proto-orientalist attitudes of Europeans towards Arabs that build throughout the sixteenth century.
By the Enlightenment, astrology had lost much of its credibility and astronomy was emerging as a "modern" scientific discipline. Historians have long sought internalist answers to the so-called "decline" of astrology, often assuming that since astrology is, in fact, false, the enlightened, rational minds of the eighteenth century must have dismissed the practice for its basis in superstitious beliefs. This paper interrogates how "the Arab"-and by extension certain domains of "Arabic" knowledge, including astrology and magic-were discredited beginning early in the sixteenth century. The loss of credibility for astrology is intimately intertwined with the loss of credibility for Arabic authors as an authoritative source of knowledge. "Modern" astronomy thus became an exclusively European science, erasing the enormous influence of Islamic astronomy and astrology in the medieval period.

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Presenter 3

Michael Boym and the Pictorial Co-Construction of Chinese and Southeast Asian Nature

Eszter M. Csillag

University of Hong Kong

Abstract

The more than one hundred images that accompany the Jesuit missionary Michael Boym's texts are key to understanding how he constructed credibility-a major challenge when transmitting natural history and medical practices of non-European cultures to early modern Europe. Boym provides an interesting case study for these issues, as his strategy of presenting distant information was unique and has yet to be examined in the literature. As I argue, Boym can be contextualized as a person who was actively collecting and transmitting during his two journeys to China (1641-52; 1655-1659), as well as providing information to those settled and well-connected within the Republic of Letters. He was successful in presenting himself as a well-versed scholar of natural history rather than as a defeated missionary allied with the overthrown Ming dynasty. Boym claimed to rely on the pictorial work of native informants. For example, in his description of Mozambique, he noted that an illustration of a pineapple had been made by a Chinese artist and, similarly, he acknowledged the work of non-European agents in his Flora Sinensis of 1656. Curiously, his images follow a European style of representing plants. Boym at once succeeded at establishing the reliability of his images through the use of authentic sources without alienating his audiences by providing images that did not fit into the visual discourses of early modern Europeans. These fruits and animals were often new and unknown in Europe, and many only reached it through textual and visual descriptions, which made the illustrations even more important in understanding, organizing and collecting the large variety of natural products. Boym's manner of collecting other cultures' practices in natural history and his acknowledgment of others' authorship suggests that he treated the members of these groups as knowledgeable and skilled, and just as important as the content itself in helping him pursue his aims of transmitting knowledge.

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Commentator

Alexander Statman

University of Wisconsin Madison