A Brill Calendar: March 6
The Royal Society
Few innovations in international scholarly and scientific co-operation – the cornerstone of increasing and deepening knowledge in Western intellectual traditions – have been more fertile than the one launched in London, England, March 6, 1665.
On that day the ‘Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge’ published in print the 1st issue of ‘Philosophical Transactions’, intended as periodical dissemination of its proceedings; in an age that saw printed matter mainly in terms of books with one print-run, and of occasional pamphlets and loose leaves.
However, this ‘Society’ – founded in secret six years earlier – should not be considered a fine proof of the far-sightedness of England’s then monarch, King Charles II, when he gave the organization his official blessing in 1662.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1645, a handful inquisitive and enterprising gentlemen from London and Oxford had formed an ‘Invisible College’ of scholars, wits and philosophers without fixed abode; a neologism still maintaining itself in English idiom in 2009. They certainly didn’t feel themselves subservient to the traditional, sedate and influential Colleges of Oxford & Cambridge; while the Head of State restricted his benevolence largely to granting the adjective ‘Royal’ to the Society. Their unprecedented publication also served to keep the Society’s resourceful Secretary, the German Heinrich Oldenburg, out of debt.
It is seldom that a small circle of friends and relations – among them a bishop, a philosopher, a mathematician, a microscopist and an architect – became so powerful an agent of scholarly change in succeeding centuries; mainly because of the absence of officialdom, bureaucracy and chauvinism during its first half-century. Characteristic for this new approach was the Society’s advocacy for unadorned and simple scholarly prose; with the example of Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) as its ‘beacon’ of style.