Special Collections Library, University of Michigan

Sixteenth-century cabinet of curiosities belonging to Ferrante Imperato, an apothecary in Naples; from the frontispiece of the 1672 edition of his Historia Naturale

At night, nowadays, we all go on strange and glorious journeys. Just hop through the glowing computer screen, skip from link to link, and you skim across oceans of information. Books and blogs, high-culture magazines and raunchy porn, travel agencies and term paper mills, YouTube and Early English Books Online: all of them blink their lights hopefully as you speed by them, your attention fixed on that elusive, definitive piece of information, the site at the end of the universe that will solve your riddle, finish your puzzle, or answer your question—until a link distracts you, and you drown, for a moment, in facts or images as attractive as they are irrelevant.

That is the way we live now—a new way of life, so it seems, one dominated at every turn by our ways of fin ding information, our mastery of, or our capture by, stores of data that no polymath or imperial librarian, no king or CEO could have summoned up a few decades ago. Yet in some ways, the splendors and miseries of our information-logged condition would have seemed surprisingly familiar when our imperial, continent-spanning nation was a chain of colonies ruled by London.

The seventeenth-century lawyer Francis Daniel Pastorius provides a striking example of someone who, like many of us these days, spent his life trying to keep his head above the surface of a flood of information. His job required him to master the real estate laws of Pennsylvania, where he lived. But his irrepressible curiosity kept pushing him to explore everything from the Greek and Latin classics, Renaissance works on world history and Quaker treatises on religion to the diseases prevalent in his part of the world and the therapies that might be available for them. His mind buzzed with poetry and prose, proverbs and biblical verses, edible legumes and rules for surveying, bibliographies and the incidents of his own life.

Pastorius, a magnificently energetic German who lived from 1651 to 1719, fled sinful Europe for William Penn’s colony in the New World. There he taught, worked as a scribe and court clerk, and served as a justice of the Pennsylvania County Court. And there, he read—big folios and little newssheets, classical poems and modern pamphlets. One ancient piece of literary technology, the commonplace book, enabled him to store everything that impressed him as he read and to find it again when he needed it. Pastorius copied, in his flowing, beautiful handwriting, every passage that struck him, placing them under topical headings and drawing up indexes as well. These notebooks became his most precious possession. On the first page of his largest single manuscript, the Bee-Hive, he urged his two sons to keep his writings “for ever, and not to part with them for any thing in this World; but rather to add thereunto some of their own, &c. Because the price of Wisdom is above Rubies.” This spectacular manuscript, now housed in the University of Pennsylvania Library, offers vital help for anyone interested in one of the newest forms of cultural history: the history of information, how it is made, stored, and transmitted.1

In many ways, Pastorius’s commonplace book even looks commonplace—as you might expect of a handwritten encyclopedia produced more than two centuries into the age of print. Well educated in the classics at Altdorf, Jena, and Strasbourg, Pastorius echoed the humanists of past centuries when he insisted that one could make “an Encylopady of all that can be known” by arranging extracts from books. His metaphors were as traditional as his methods. When Pastorius called his work a beehive and compared his extract making to a bee’s way of making honey, he drew on a tradition rooted in ancient Rome. Pastorius cited his Latin sources to make clear that he was updating them even as he cited them, as they had updated, and cited, their predecessors: “I acknowledge with Macrobius, that in this Book all is mine, and nothing is mine.”

Yet Pastorius was also excited by the contemporary culture of the mid-Atlantic colonies and the larger Atlantic world they belonged to. And his methods belonged to that world too. Though old-fashioned Latin learning was in retreat in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the making of commonplace books was not. The preeminently modern John Locke compiled many of them, and even devised a new method for making them. In fact, it was traditionalists who ridiculed these collections, as a trendy substitute for real learning—the Augustan counterpart to Wikipedia. In the preface to his 1704 Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift joked that he had planned to expand his satire with a panegyric to the present and a defense of the rabble, “but finding my Common-Place-Book fill much slower than I had reason to expect, I have chosen to defer them to another Occasion.” Pastorius found support for his habit of obsessive note-taking not only in the ancients, but also in modern essayists, like Joseph Addison, from whose Spectator he drew an apposite quotation, more than a quarter of a century after he started making the Bee-Hive.


The books that Pastorius sliced and diced into handy, retrievable excerpts included not only well-established classics, but also innovative medical works by Paracelsus and the natural philosophy of the Dutch engineer, alchemist, and submariner Cornelis Drebbel. The Bee-Hive, in other words, is a document of two information regimes at once, one traditional, one highly up-to-date. It illustrates not how one replaced the other, but how they fused in Pastorius’s hands. More important, it shows that he, and the many others who resembled him, did not need computers to go sailing on vast seas of information. The Bee-Hive was Web enough for him: a vast handwritten search engine.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, books like the Bee-Hive and impresarios of information like Pastorius have suddenly begun to haunt scholars’ imaginations. As the information banks available on our computers expand vertiginously in the present, we have realized that we do not understand the ways in which information was created and transmitted in the past. New forms of cultural history are taking shape to fill this gap: histories that emphasize not the formal content of ideas but the institutions and practices that enabled them to be created and transmitted. Of course, historians have long taken an interest in libraries and universities, scriptoria and printing houses. But only for the past couple of decades have scholars begun to think of these as part of a single history, and to give that history a name.

Though the year 2000 did not bring the world’s computers to a halt, it did form a milestone in the development of scholarship, thanks to two prescient books. In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid made clear that information is more than a mass of abstract data.2 Information travels differently in manuscripts than in books, in conversation than in writing, and both historians and contemporary corporate managers need to understand these varied processes of transmission if they hope to grasp how organizations have worked in the past or how they work now. In A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Peter Burke sketched the first detailed map of all the institutions that made and transmitted information in the modern West.3 Production and consumption, the printing of pamphlets and the recording of experiments, he argued, formed part of a single story—that of modernizing Europe itself.

Since these pioneers hit the beach, waves of scholars have followed. Ann Blair, Noel Malcolm, and William Sherman have taught us to see the commonplace book as one among many strange devices—including book wheels for consulting many volumes at the same time and a pioneering version of the modern system of file cards—that scholars devised to bring what another scholar, Daniel Rosenberg, calls “early modern information overload” under control. Jacob Soll, Randolph Head, Filippo de Vivo, and others have begun to explore the creation of the vast archives compiled by popes, kings and ministers, chancellors and city bureaucrats as diplomacy, espionage, and taxation required the development of new ways of record-keeping.

Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, two historians based at the University of Oregon, have now made a first stab at a synthesis: a brief history of information in the West. Their lively and well-informed book starts in ancient Alexandria, with the library, and ends in the modern West, with the laboratory—which, they argue, has been transformed in the age of modern social science from a single, controlled space where replicable experiments could be performed to the entire social world. Between what they portray as these two radically different ways of treating knowledge—the one oriented toward the past, toward what has been preserved; the other toward the future, and what remains to be discovered—they offer rich and insightful treatments of the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters, and the modern scholarly and scientific disciplines.

In many ways, Reinventing Knowledge provides a terrific introduction to the multiple past lives of information. Each of the six core chapters rests on extensive and intensive reading. In each case, the authors show a welcome ability to tease out the complexities of what might seem, from the outside, a simple story. Modern textbooks sometimes describe the monastic culture that took shape in the Latin West in the fifth century and after as a kind of mosaic-making operation, a desperate effort to preserve the fragments of a larger heritage. Monks, on this account, built a vast network of institutions simply to save and copy some of the classics, the Bible, and the works of the Fathers of the Church.


This textbook story has an element of truth. Benedictine monasteries did emphasize a distinctive approach to texts, one that might be called “slow writing and reading”—and that contrasts as sharply with contemporary practices in reading and writing as Slow Food does with McDonald’s. The Benedictine rule allowed each monk to borrow one book a year from his monastery’s collection. This he was to read and meditate on, slowly and with concentration, in his few free hours. Public readings from the Bible and other central Christian texts, held at mealtimes, reinforced the instruction drawn from the carefully chosen Christian classics in individual cells. So, even more powerfully, did a central Benedictine task: that of copying the canon of sacred texts and their Christian commentators, precisely and accurately, on sheets of skin that would last for centuries, when bound into codices, and serve generations of Benedictine readers in their turn.

The Renaissance Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius argued, in a famous screed against the printing press, that this Benedictine way of engaging with texts was uniquely valuable because it eliminated all the slippages that can come between books and readers. Those who adopted this regime would be transformed by what they read:


Special Collections Library, University of Michigan

‘A European Gentleman with His Moonshee, or Native Professor of Languages’; illustration by Charles D’Oyly from Thomas Williamson’s The European in India, 1813

He who copies accepted and holy texts will not be burdened by vain and pernicious thoughts, will speak no idle words, and is not bothered by wild rumors…. And as he is copying the approved texts he is gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened. Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading. The repeated reading of Scripture will inflame the mind of the writer and carry him happily to total surrender to God.

McNeely and Wolverton describe the rule, and the life of reading that it regulated, in terms that Trithemius would have recognized, and do so with characteristic clarity and sympathy.

Yet they also show that even in the sixth and seventh centuries, monastic culture embraced new as well as old forms of knowledge. The monastic life consisted for the most part of timeless, repetitive routine. But monks had to celebrate the great feasts of the Christian year, such as Easter. And Easter—which formed the linchpin for a whole series of other observances, such as the Lenten Fast and Carnival—was a movable feast. Orthodox opinion held that it fell on the first Sunday after the full moon that followed the spring equinox. To identify this in advance, one had to update ancient cycles that correlated the movements of the sun with those of the moon, and collate both with the calendar created, in antiquity, by Julius Caesar. The unorthodox disagreed not just about method, but also about the larger system of rules. Uncertainty spread, disagreement raged, and a whole new branch of study, the so-called computus, took shape in order to sort out these problems. Monks drew up tables, diagrams, and rules for counting calendar days on one’s fingers.

In the eighth century, Bede, a monk of Jarrow in Northumbria, devoted himself to the study of time. He mastered calendars ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, and composed a lucid, authoritative treatise on time reckoning and the history of the world. In another work, his highly original Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he traced the ways in which debates over the celebration of Easter had damaged Christianity in the British Isles. More important still, Bede became the first historian to set the particular events he chronicled into the larger setting of Christian time, as reckoned from the Incarnation. By doing so he provided a model for history writing that would be followed long after his own belief in providence had made way for other kinds of explanation. This humble Benedictine, who recalled that he had “spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures” and singing in the choir, transformed Western thinkers’ understanding of time and history. For all its emphasis on tradition, meditation, and copying, in other words, the Benedictine monastery promoted the creation of knowledge—knowledge of a sort vital for its members and the world they served.

McNeely and Wolverton offer more than enlightening case studies. They also make clear, with force and brevity, some important points that have been obscured by the noisy but usually unenlightening recent debates about the rise of the Web and the decline of print. Information regimes, they argue, have met with strikingly varied fates after losing their original function. Some have shown remarkable longevity, even though they have not proved wholly adaptable in new conditions. The library, in Alexandria and long after, served as the central source of information not only about literature and tradition, but also about geography and ethnography. Nowadays, of course, scientists and social scientists find new knowledge outside the book stacks. Yet the library still exists, if only as “a mere storehouse of written texts,” and it does a vast amount of business in that more limited capacity. Many librarians are grimly amused by the notion that “dead tree media” are disappearing. More books appear most years than did so the year before, and major research libraries take in a mile or two of them each year.

The librarians who run these collections nowadays are, as many pundits insist, information magi: they conjure up more and more electronic media for the “power skimming” favored nowadays by students and faculty. But they also buy books—so many of them, in the bigger libraries, that they must sometimes feel like modern Macbeths watching whole forests of dead trees approach. It’s a complex and difficult situation—and no one knows how long university trustees and state legislators will support the amassing of books that no longer promise new truths about the world outside the library’s doors. Yet a library is still a repository.

By contrast, the university—as McNeely and Wolverton also show—has undergone more than one metamorphosis, and now fosters more forms of knowledge than ever before. Created in the Middle Ages to train doctors, lawyers, and theologians, the first universities harbored a culture centered not on the creation of new knowledge but on the transmission of canonical works and the dialectical techniques needed to analyze and apply their contents. University teachers mastered and taught set texts, working through them by a fixed regime, to train qualified professionals.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as McNeely and Wolverton show in their illuminating final chapters, the German university transformed itself into the home of the modern scholarly disciplines. Scholars dedicated themselves to finding new knowledge, and devised new forums for teaching their students to follow suit: the seminar, where young philologists were trained not only to teach canonical texts, but to dissolve them by systematic criticism and recover the circumstances in which they had taken shape; and the laboratory, where young scientists were trained not only to master the known laws of nature, but to search for new ones, and to devise reproducible experiments that supported their theses. The ancient corporation of professors, with all their pomp and privileges, took on a radically modern function, without abandoning the old ones.

Just as German professors kept their titles and privileges, so the schools of law and medicine remained—but were transformed in their own right as professionals in training mastered both canonical knowledge and the tools of research. For all the changes that have taken place since then and all their local differences, the universities of contemporary Beijing, Berkeley, and Boston, and the open-ended vision of information that they embody, are the recognizable descendants of medieval Bologna and Paris, Enlightenment Göttingen and Romantic Berlin, each strain of ancestry still visible in the many strata of the modern university.

Certain problems are inherent in the nature of McNeely and Wolverton’s enterprise. To impose order on the sprawling mass of material that they cover, they strive for neatness and symmetry. But information regimes are often messy. In his Social History of Knowledge, Peter Burke argued that the most fertile and productive information regimes of the modern West have been those that crossbred previously separate social orders and intellectual pursuits. In the printing house, for example, scholars could not confine themselves to working only with texts and one another, as they did in schools and universities. They had to collaborate with male artisans, with female colleagues who often worked in and sometimes owned the shops, and with correctors—learned men, in many cases, but also men with inky fingers, who did not clearly belong for certain to any distinct social order of society. In some cases they had to work day after day with Greeks and Jews, without whose expertise they could not produce editions of texts vital to classical and biblical scholarship alike.

Impure knowledge and impure knowledge regimes are certainly not confined to the West. The historian of Japan Mary Elizabeth Berry has shown, in her dazzling Japan in Print,4 how the Japanese vision of their nation was transformed in the seventeenth century by new developments in city life, new forms of publication, and a new class of authors and readers who served the new urban public. But there have been many of these messy, indeterminate regimes in the West, and they deserve more space than the neat case studies Reinventing Knowledge accords them.

No contemporary scholar—no pair of contemporary scholars—could possibly boast direct knowledge of all the periods and places to which McNeely and Wolverton briskly guide their readers. Inevitably, at times they pay the penalty for violating the modern scholar’s supreme commandment: to remain within the narrow comfort of one’s own scholarly specialty. The chapter most likely to come as a surprise to readers—as they themselves rightly note—is the fourth, in which they deal with the “Republic of Letters,” the imagined community of scholars across Europe that began to take shape in the fifteenth century and lasted at least three hundred years.

The citizens of this Republic, as McNeely and Wolverton note, created new systems and methods for exchanging knowledge. In the first instance, they devised a system of writing letters, nominally private but usually meant for wider distribution, that served many of the functions later taken over by scholarly journals. Letters provided a crucial way for the learned to swap data and ideas, one that bypassed the sclerotic oral and written debates of the universities, and laid the foundation for the periodicals that formed in the seventeenth century.

Republicans of Letters often served as advisers to publishers. In that capacity they helped make such challenging works as Copernicus’s 1543 treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres available to so large a readership that they could not be successfully censored. They built magnificent Kunst- und Wunderkammern, bedecked with starfish and alligators, narwhal horns and skis, inscriptions and sculptures. In such places they could organize, store, and label information in a new, material form, imposing order on the human and natural antiquities brought back by merchants and travelers from Asia and the Americas or found by antiquaries in local tombs and temples.

Later still they created academies: formal organizations such as the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academia Naturae Curiosorum, and the Royal Society, which pursued new knowledge with a rigor and energy as yet impossible for university faculties. Devoted to exploring literature and the natural world, these academies were not bound to respect the authority of ancient texts or compelled to entertain rulers who wanted magic shows and fireworks. They staged lectures and debates in which new theories could be tested, published those that held up, and wove networks of correspondents across Europe and beyond. They created the ascetic, disciplined search for truth that we know as empiricism. And they laid the foundations for the new disciplines that would, in the late eighteenth century, move back into and colonize the universities.

McNeely and Wolverton offer more than a synthesis of existing studies. They also show how the new concentration on natural knowledge and, especially in France, the new official recognition of academies in the seventeenth century gradually excluded women from the public culture of the republic—except in certain salons and literary circles. And their sketches of individual Republicans of Letters, such as Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc and Ole Worm, are vivid, accurate, and perceptive.

The problem with their account is that it is a little too clear and straightforward to do justice to the complex intellectual world it claims to represent. They treat universities, for example, as bastions of tradition, intellectual prison-houses. Some were. But obviously, others weren’t. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand how brilliant anatomists like Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey—both of whom were trained and taught in traditional institutions, and neither of whom is mentioned here—managed to revolutionize the study of anatomy and physiology; or how, as Alan Kors has shown, scholastics in the French faculties of theology devised, in order to refute them, the formal arguments that gave atheism a philosophical underpinning; or how Isaac Newton managed to spend productive years working in Cambridge.

Occasionally, this—and other—chapters take on the brittle clarity of wall texts in museum exhibits and callouts in textbooks. Unfortunately, McNeely and Wolverton argue, the Republicans of Letters purchased their relative freedom of inquiry at a high price. Unlike contemporary Chinese literati and their modern successors, who never gave up trying to make the state conform to the moral ideals taught by canonical ancient texts—and whose example was well known to Europeans—Western intellectuals pursued a new form of unpolitical expertise. They

achieved unprecedented breakthroughs in astronomy, physics, anatomy, and natural history but at the cost of abandoning politics and constructing an imaginary Republic of Letters that thrived in the midst of unprecedented violence and chaos.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, Charles Webster, and others showed long ago that much of the scientific activity of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was actually motivated by utopian aspirations. The hope of changing the human condition for the better inspired Francis Bacon and René Descartes, as well as a host of Central European and British innovators, some of whom wound up playing major roles in the Royal Society. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the language of the Republic changed from Latin to French and its citizens began to write for a larger lay readership, the Republic remained the habitat of Bayle and Montesquieu, Beccaria and Voltaire—seekers of justice who did their best to combat social injustice and religious persecution. For all their human fallibility, no citizens of the Republic illustrate this point better than the North American ones who created the republic that we still hope we inhabit: Adams and Hamilton, Franklin and Jefferson, avid note takers and letter writers to a man.

The career of Francis Daniel Pastorius neatly reveals the complex character of the Republic of Letters: its strange, fertile combination of traditionalism and innovation, erudition and engagement. His learning did not make him a detached observer. Rather, it reinforced his belief that a scholar must judge, and try to improve, the world. In 1688 he and three Quaker friends submitted to the Burlington Yearly Meeting a document that became famous in the 1840s, as Abolitionism spread: a protest against the slave trade. Pastorius and his friends compared the slavery imposed on Africans to the religious persecution Quakers had undergone, and still underwent, in Europe. If the latter was wrong, so was the former:

Tho they are black, we can not conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones. There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience wch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body, except of evil-doers, wch is an other case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed who are of a black colour.

When Pastorius collected information and quotations about justice and injustice, humanity and inhumanity, he wasn’t merely stockpiling impressive morsels of Latin. He was thinking about what they implied for the social world that he experienced every day. In this passion for connecting the real to the ideal—as well as in his ability to work fruitfully between an older and a newer information regime—Pastorius was typical of that imaginary, but not unreal, community, the Republic of Letters.

Reinventing Knowledge is a very good synthesis. Students should read it—and so should everyone interested in the knowledge revolution we are living through. But it’s only by diving deeper that one can see the full complexity with which information regimes unfold, and coil, and interfere with one another. If you really want to understand the hum of our computers in a historical way, it helps to listen to the hum of Pastorius’s Bee-Hive.

This Issue

December 23, 2010