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                                       Samuel Hartlib: Introduction



catalogue no. 40

Samuel Hartlib (c.1600Ė62) was a Prussian who first came to England in the mid-1620s, when his initial contacts were with the University of Cambridge. Exiled from Germany, where the upheavals of the Thirty Years War (1618Ė48) made intellectual activity precarious, he made his home in England from the 1630s, settling first in Chichester, where the academy which he established soon failed, and then in London. He was deeply influenced by the utopian writings of Francis Bacon (see catalogue no. 53), and later by those of Comenius (catalogue nos. 39 and 40 ). Both of these authors suggested that the reform of education and philosophy might lead to universal improvement and peace, and seemed to Hartlib to offer practical solutions to the confusion and hatred which divided the con tempor ary Protestant Churches of Europe and left them, increasingly, at the mercy of their Catholic enemies. Although his enthusiasm for the Protestant cause seems to have fluctuated (at least to judge by the entries in his diary or commonplace book, the Ephemerides), Hartlib remained committed throughout his career to the extension of empirical knowledge, and the application of practical solutions to problems of the day.

From 1628, Hartlib was closely associated with John Dury (catalogue nos. 66 and 67), whose lifeís work consisted of trying to heal the divisions which politics and doctrine had erected between the Protestant churches of Europe. Dury shared Hartlibís belief that education and the reform of knowledge provided the means to purge minds of stubbornness and conceit. Both men were also convinced of the special nature of the times through which they were living, and persuaded by the millenarian writings of contemporary English and German divines that the sufferings of Continental Protestants were a period of trial which would eventually end in triumph.

Although Hartlib and Dury were on good terms with moderate Calvinist episcopalians within the Church of England, the meeting of the Long Parliament in London from 1641 and the establishment of the Presbyterian Westminster Assembly (see catalogue no. 71) seemed to provide them with wider opportunities to win official support for many of their schemes. It was in this context that they succeeded in bringing Comenius briefly to England. But, despite various efforts to win patronage across a broad range of activities, Hartlib never really succeeded in establishing the reformed institutions for investigation and learning after which he yearned. He did, however, bring together an increasingly varied circle of friends and correspondents who were attracted to aspects of his work. Some of the members of the Hartlib circle were individuals from whom Hartlib himself hoped to benefit, others were indigent exiles or scholars who were supported by him out of the funds which he managed to raise from government and elsewhere. Taken as a group, they provided Hartlib with a network of informants in England and across northern and central Europe, even including Ireland and North America.

  
catalogue no. 9

The upheavals of the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1649, and the confused political settlements which followed during the 1650s, frustrated but also encouraged Hartlib and his growing circle of correspondents. Throughout this period of dislocation, they worked tirelessly to propose ways in which poverty might be cured and the wealth of the nation increased. These were urgent matters, especially in the years around 1650, when the harvest was often poor and employment hard to find. At the same time, Hartlib and his friends searched for means to prolong and improve human life, in particular through alchemical discovery and the practice of chemical medicine, and strived to achieve dominion over nature through the application of new knowledge and new methods of understanding. As part of these quests, they developed detailed plans for co-operative scientific research, educational reform, agrarian improvement, and social amelioration. At least until the mid-1650s, they looked to those in authority as potential sponsors, appointed by God to care for his people. They were inspired by biblical promises of the restoration of human perfection at the end of time, and by the belief that contemporary wars and disasters were signs that human history was coming to its conclusion. Hartlib and his friends sought to collaborate with providence to hasten the improvement of the condition of humanity.

Despite the lack of real support for many of their schemes, several members of the Hartlib circle maintained close ties with the Commonwealth and Protectorate regimes which made it hard for them to accept the return of the Stuarts in 1660. Hartlib in particular seems to have found himself isolated by the political and ecclesiastical settlements at the Restoration. The writings of his last years are less ambitious and optimistic than before, even when referring to old friends or familiar themes. By then, Hartlibís chances of serious patronage and the opportunity to create or reform institutions had long passed. The failure of the republican experiment in England had also been a demonstration that the times were not ripe for projects such as Hartlibís.

Far from entering a new age of the rule of the saints, many of Godís people found themselves condemned to live ordinary lives. Their peace of mind was undermined by the spread of heretical theologies during the 1650s, and later by the growing threat of tyranny or persecution. This was particularly true for those who were eventually unable to conform to the restored Church of England, a group which included several of the Presbyterians and Independents to whom Hartlib felt closest. Threatened by a lawsuit and, despite his protestations of loyalty, perhaps disillusioned by the likely failure of attempts to create a more inclusive church settlement, John Dury decided to go abroad again in 1661. He left, as always, in search of patronage and determined to try to keep the German Lutherans from reaching an accommodation with the Papacy.

Yet there were also several of Hartlibís friends who remained in England and felt able to participate in the new establishment. They carried a zeal for improvement into the foundation of bodies like the Royal Society and helped to shape their early activities in a practical way. The ending of a period of social, political, and religious experiment did not mean that people had ceased to trust in providence, nor that they had abandoned the hope that God might allow them to change the world they lived in for the better. It did, however, reduce the opportunity for a rapid and complete alteration of things of the kind for which Hartlib had once hoped.

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