Modest Public Interest in Science
The audience for science included the entire scientific community — elite and amateur — as well as those members of the literate public who were curious about the nature of the world. Some early modern writers recognized the importance of public interest in science. Both Bacon and Descartes, for example, emphasized the benefits that science offered to society, and Bacon thought that in exchange the public ought to supply data, while Descartes believed financial support was more efficient. At the heart of the relationship between specialists and the public were mutual benefits and overlapping interests. The scientific community and the public were united by a curiosity about the universe born from the conviction that understanding it was interesting, important, and potentially useful.
During the early modern period, science became a recreation for ever larger numbers of people, who came from ever broader cross-sections of the total population. The popularity of scientific literature in the vernacular, the publication of scientific treatises for the general reader, the development of lecture-demonstrations in the eighteenth century, the changing holdings of personal libraries, and patterns of borrowing from circulating libraries all signify this trend. Nevertheless, science remained the interest of a minority, and in some circles it was downright unfashionable.
The audience for science during the early modern period was heterogeneous, and it remains inadequately defined.
The "battle of the dictionaries" during the 1680s highlights French attitudes towards the sciences at the end of the seventeenth century. Two dictionaries competed against each other — one prepared by the Académie française, the other by Antoine Furetière, one of its members. At stake was the nature of the language. Furetière's Dictionnaire universel, with its technical vocabulary from the arts and sciences, was highly regarded despite a campaign by the Académie française to suppress it. In contrast, the Académie's own dictionary was widely criticized for excessive purism. One of the issues dividing the authors was the respectability of the sciences. Purists claimed that the lowly social origins of savants and the vernacular etymologies of scientific words made natural philosophy not respectable and thus justified the exclusion of its vocabulary. Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek, had traditionally been the language of scientific savants, and when science was a bookish, scholarly preserve, Latin's technical vocabulary and international compass made it indispensable. But as the nature of scientific inquiry changed and the ranks of natural philosophers were swelled by practitioners and others lacking university degrees or knowledge of Latin, the scientific vocabulary not only expanded but even took many of its neologisms from the vernacular.
During the sixteenth century especially, the vocabulary of the French language grew because literati explored many different subjects, championed to some extent the language of the people, and learned the technical terms of various disciplines. In the seventeenth century there was a purist reaction to this expansion of the language. But the triumph of Furetière's dictionary marks the partial defeat of those sticklers who disqualified words that referred to unseemly objects and activities or that lacked Greek or Latin forebears. In the best tradition of the previous century, Furetière remarked that architects, engineers, and mathematicians spoke good French and that a dictionary must include the language of practical disciplines.
Even scientific savants disagreed about the propriety of introducing harsh, technical terms into the delicate French language. The old-fashioned La Chambre, a physician renowned for his elegant prose and a member of both the Académie des sciences and the Académie française, urged physicians to conform to the highest literary standards so as to make medical literature acceptable in good society. But this would have entailed omitting such terms as capillaire, botanique, amputation, alimenteux, impénétrabilité, effervescence, balsamique, chirurgical, anastomose, aneurisme, and aorte
from the language, even though many were essential for discussing the most timely scientific issues. Other academicians were more receptive to innovation. Perrault and Tournefort welcomed the word botanique, Dodart and the Marchants coined new words for the natural history of plants, and Borelly, Blondel, and Auzout helped Furetière to master up-to-date scientific, technical, and medical vocabulary.
Most scientific institutions in the late seventeenth century adopted the vernacular and published their transactions in Italian, English, or French. Although the majority of books and articles by academicians appeared in French, the publications of the Academy's two permanent secretaries reflect a transition. Du Hamel's excellent command of Latin helped earn him his post, and he wrote his history of the Academy in that traditional scholarly tongue; in contrast, Fontenelle published the history and memoirs of the Academy and his eulogies of academicians in French. By the end of the century, science was commonly discussed in the vernacular in France, and scientific ideas and words had become useful metaphors in the language.
But at the very time when the vernacular began to replace Latin as the language for the sciences, literacy in France was declining. Carlo M. Cipolla has calculated that, for early modern Europe as a whole, one to three teachers per thousand persons would have been necessary to increase the proportion of those who could read and write. But "in 1672 there were in Paris 332 teachers … and about 480,000 people," or fewer than "seven formal elementary school teachers for every 10,000 people." This ratio was low by comparison with the late middle ages. In all of France between 1686 and 1690 only 25 percent of the persons "who contracted marriage … could sign their names." If the data for the Narbonne region apply generally, then "literacy among merchants and bourgeois was as high as 90 percent and more," while "among urban artisans it was about 65 percent, and among the rural population it ranged between 10 and 30 percent."
Literacy alone was no guarantee of an appetite for scientific literature, which in turn led only exceptionally to study of the new theoretical sciences. The reading public preferred religion, history, the ancient classics, and French literature to the sciences and philosophy. Moreover, this was the era when the fairy tale was in vogue and when the taste for the marvelous attracted the educated to study folktales, superstitions, and prodigies. Thus, natural histories reported monsters and other curiosities, and even academicians were not immune to fashion, although they tried to reform it. Popular treatises on science, some intended for the literate artisan or small shopkeeper, were practical, old-fashioned, and superstitious. Almanacs and books on medicine for the poor, or on arithmetic, astrology, or
travel were aimed at popular audiences, but devotional literature enjoyed a much larger share of that market. Only 5 percent of the books in private Parisian libraries in the second half of the century were scientific. Even Nicolas Blegny, the physician who compiled a book of useful addresses in Paris for 1691 and 1692, listed more music teachers (seventy-five) than physicians, and scientific practitioners and bookshops were in a minority. Except for the popular or the pseudosciences, science seems to have interested only a small proportion of the French population, and the principal audience for natural philosophy, as Henri-Jean Martin has shown, was among the upper robe, the politicoeconomic elite that dominated the cultural life of Paris.
Personal libraries reveal the kinds of scientific treatises collected in the period. Books by Bacon, Galileo, and Gassendi appeared frequently, those by Rohault and La Chambre occasionally, and Malpighi's anatomy of plants rarely. Parisian readers evinced little interest in chemistry, disdained perhaps as the domain of "sooty empirics," or in medicine, the province of specialists who made a living practicing it. The most popular fields were architecture, fortification, cartography, geography, and botany. A large number of the titles represent sixteenth-century authors. Of the official publications of the Academy, only Dodart's Mémoires des plantes appears in the inventories Martin has analyzed. Blondel was the most widely read academician, and his treatises on architecture, fortification, and geometry had appeal beyond any works by other members of the Academy. Thus, not many Parisians kept up with technology and science, and those who did preferred military subjects and natural history.
In general the audience for science was not strongly inclined to theory. It was dominated by amateurs who found scientific subjects entertaining or useful. Their relatively superficial interest is evident when their libraries are compared with those owned by the producers of scientific knowledge. In contrast to the 163 scientific books Martin identified in more than two hundred private collections, the library of Nicolas and Jean Marchant (whose work was descriptive rather than theoretical) contained more than two hundred titles on botany and medicine alone. Producers of science, therefore, were its most avid consumers, and the market for scientific books was small.