Joel Mokyr writes: In early modern Europe, national boundaries mattered little in the thin but lively and mobile community of intellectuals in Europe. Despite slow and uncomfortable travel, many of Europe’s leading intellectuals moved back and forth between states. Both the Valencia-born Juan Luis Vives and the Rotterdam-born Desiderius Erasmus, two of the most prominent leaders of 16th-century European humanism, embodied the footloose quality of Europe’s leading thinkers: Vives studied in Paris, lived most of his life in Flanders, but was also a member of Corpus Christi College in Oxford. For a while, he served as a tutor to Henry VIII’s daughter Mary. Erasmus moved back between Leuven, England and Basel. But he also spent time in Turin and Venice. Such mobility among intellectuals grew even more pronounced in the 17th century.
If Europe’s intellectuals moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, their ideas travelled even faster. Through the printing press and the much-improved postal system, written knowledge circulated rapidly. In the relatively pluralistic environment of early modern Europe, especially in contrast with East Asia, conservative attempts to suppress new ideas floundered. The reputation of intellectual superstars such as Galileo and Spinoza was such that, if local censorship tried to prohibit the publication of their works, they could easily find publishers abroad.
Galileo’s ‘banned’ books were quickly smuggled out of Italy and published in Protestant cities. For example, his Discorsi was published in Leiden in 1638, and his Dialogo was re-published in Strasbourg in 1635. Spinoza’s publisher, Jan Riewertz, placed ‘Hamburg’ on the title page of the Tractatus to mislead censors, even though the book was published in Amsterdam. For intellectuals, Europe’s divided and uncoordinated polities enhanced an intellectual freedom that simply could not exist in China or the Ottoman Empire.
After 1500, Europe’s unique combination of political fragmentation and its pan-European institutions of learning brought dramatic intellectual changes in the way new ideas circulated. Books written in one part of Europe found their way to other parts. They were soon read, quoted, plagiarised, discussed and commented upon everywhere. When a new discovery was made anywhere in Europe, it was debated and tested throughout the continent. Fifty years after the publication of William Harvey’s text on the circulation of blood De Motu Cordis (1628), the English doctor and intellectual Thomas Browne reflected on Harvey’s discovery that ‘at the first trump of the circulation all the schools of Europe murmured … and condemned it by a general vote … but at length [it was] accepted and confirmed by illustrious physicians.’
The intellectual superstars of the period catered to a European, not a local, audience and enjoyed continent-wide reputations. They saw themselves as citizens of a ‘Republic of Letters’ and regarded this entity, in the words of the French philosopher Pierre Bayle (one of its central figures), as a free commonwealth, an empire of truth. The political metaphor was mostly wishful thinking and not a little self-flattery, but it expressed the features of a community that set rules of conduct for the market for ideas. It was a very competitive market. [Continue reading…]