Programme Line: Science - Key Concept: Latin literature as a medium for Early Modern Science

LBI: William Barton, Martin Korenjak, Johanna Luggin /
ERC (University of Innsbruck): Ovanes Akopyan, Dominik Berrens, Irina Tautschnig, Stefan Zathammer


In the institute’s second phase (2018–2024), the research line (formerly History of Mentalities) will turn its attention to the role of Latin in the development of Early Modern science. While the Early Modern history of science has experienced a period of rapidly growing interest in the last decades, the texts (qua texts) on which the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ was based have received scant attention at best. It is often supposed that the success of modern science was the inevitable consequence of its impressive experimental and technical results. However, these results were by no means so convincing on their own merits from the beginning; in many disciplines, they were lacking altogether. Inventions such as the steam engine or vaccination that have changed human life for the better on a large scale have only begun to amass since the beginning of the Modern period, that is, after the moment when they might have been instrumental in winning general recognition for the ‘New Science’. In fact, the most important medium for early modern scientists in attempting to convince their contemporaries of their ideas were texts – a tremendous mass of texts in an extremely wide array of genres: treatises, dissertations, journal articles, letters, dialogues, biographies of scientists, didactic epics, corollary poems and so forth.


The structure and staff of the science programme line will differ from the previous phase. Thanks to a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant awarded to Martin Korenjak in March 2017, there will be a total of seven researchers working on the topic of Neo-Latin and Early Modern science: three within the LBI, and four based at the University of Innsbruck’s Classics department. They will carry out six different sub-projects, concerned with the various genres in which Early Modern science was brought to its public, as well as with the ways in which the many new, sometimes radical ideas of the new science were labelled, explained and conveyed to their audience. Apart from articles, conference papers and other activities, the individual sub-projects will result in six monographs shedding light on different aspects of the role of Latin for Early Modern science. For descriptions of the projects carried out under the aegis of the ERC project, please refer to the NOSCEMUS website.


The three projects taking place at the LBI look at 1) scientific prose, persuasion and the rhetorical tradition (Johanna Luggin), 2) the role of disputation and dissertations in forming and spreading scientific ideas (William Barton), and 3) the overall picture of Latin’s role in promoting science by providing a literary system with which it was possible to reach a wide range of audiences (Martin Korenjak):


1) Early modern scientific authors often contradicted prevailing opinions and disagreed with each other over crucial issues. If possible, they resorted to incontestable evidence or mathematical demonstration to decide the matter under discussion. But often, there was no hard proof at hand. In such cases, verbal persuasion was called for. Much has been written about theories of proof and persuasion in early modern science (R. W. Serjeantson, "Proof and Persuasion", in: K. Park/L. Daston, eds., The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3: Early Modern Science, Cambridge 2006, 132-175). But little thought has been given to their rhetorical underpinnings, despite the well-known influence of legal thinking on scientific argumentation (e.g. L. Daston, "Baconsche Tatsachen", Rechtsgeschichte. Zeitschrift des Max-Planck-Instituts für Europäische Rechtsgeschichte 1 [2002], 36-55) and despite the fact that rhetoric was first and foremost a technique of forensic speech. Analysis of how persuasion worked in early modern scientific practice has been confined to a few famous vernacular authors such as Galilei and Robert Boyle. These omissions will be rectified in the present sub-project.

The material basis will be provided by a number of texts from major scientific controversies, for example concerning atomism, the Ptolemaic, Copernician and Tychonic world systems, the nature of fossils or the sexuality of plants. These texts will be analysed according to the three dimensions of rhetorical persuasion: rational argument (lógos), the self-presentation of the speaker (éthos) and the emotional arousal of the audience (páthos). Early modern science made full use of all of these - which is why it often makes for a colourful read, sharply contrasting with the style of modern science. It will thus be studied how authors tried to convince their readers rationally, applying the ramified theory of courtroom argumentation; how they catered for their trust by presenting themselves as well-respected members of the scientific community, as selfless labourers and even as heroes risking life and limb for scientific progress (and their opponents as the opposite); and how they swept their readers off their feet by the evocation of sublime natural spectacles, by the idea that science furthered the understanding of God's plan and, on the stylistic level, by the devices of the "great style" (genus grande).


2) Early Modern dissertations sprang from the practice of the academic disputatio common to all universities and other institutions of higher education in the period. They were written and printed in hundreds of thousands and their language was invariably Latin. Except from this linguistic unity, the genre of dissertations is very versatile in both form and content, containing numerous subtypes, ranging from the simple broadsheet featuring the theses discussed in a disputatio to the elaborate scientific monograph. They treat all manner of material from ecclesiology to magnetism. As the numerically dominant genre of early modern scholarship, dissertations are also among the most important sources that inform us about the development and dissemination of the new science: They are milestones in the careers of important scientists, represent the research interests of different university environments, inform us about scientific controversies and document the spread of new questions, approaches, discoveries and disciplines.

With the exception of some local initiatives, however, early modern dissertations are poorly studied. Their role in the scientific developments of the era has barely been given any thought at all. The present project makes a first step in this direction. In it, insights from select case studies, from the examination of thematically linked groups of dissertations (e.g. Linné 1749–90) and the study of the situation at different universities will be combined with a necessarily broad general overview of the field.


3) A monograph will provide an analytical overview of the field. The introduction will briefly review early modern science, Latin as Europe's learned language of the time and the interplay between science and Latin, including tensions between linguistic classicism and the need for innovation, the development of the technical languages of the scientific disciplines and the relationship between Latin and the ascending vernaculars. The main part will present a genre-by-genre review of early modern scientific literature in Latin. The treatment of each literary genre will start from an overview of ancient/medieval models and contemporary related genres (including the vernaculars). Its formal features (length, structure, style, vocabulary, verse or prose) will be described and it will be characterised in terms of content (disciplinary range, level of technicality). The social and institutional environment of the genre and its intended readership will be elucidated and its historical development delineated. In order to substantiate the general analysis of each genre, one typical specimen will be examined in-depth along the aforementioned lines. In its final section, the book will go beyond a simple enumeration and characterisation of genres: It will sketch an overall image of Latin scientific literature as a meaningful system whose generic constituents colluded to introduce science to an unprecedented range of environments from universities and courts to learned societies and private households.

Thus, the LBI’s Science Line, together with the ERC funded project  “NOSCEMUS”, aims at alerting today’s scientific community to the existence of the forgotten scientific literature of early modern times and to establish this literature as a legitimate and important object of research in the history of science. The humanistic and rhetorical characteristics that distinguish it sharply from modern texts in the natural sciences shall be scrutinized and it will be shown how they served to present people with startling novelties in acceptable and convincing form and to promote the new science as a whole.