This is the abstract of Stephen Johnston, ‘Making mathematical practice: gentlemen, practitioners and artisans in Elizabethan England’ (Ph.D. Cambridge, 1994). Go to the contents page to access the individual chapters online.


Gentlemen, practitioners and artisans in Elizabethan England

Stephen Johnston

This dissertation studies the culture of mathematical practice in Elizabethan England. It looks in detail at the work of a small group of mathematical practitioners whose careers all intersected during the design and reconstruction of Dover harbour in the 1570s and ’80s. I show how English mathematical practice was fashioned through the technical and social strategies of its new practitioners.

My practitioners make up a diverse group: from Thomas Digges, a substantial gentleman, to Mathew Baker, an intellectually ambitious master shipwright. Between these social extremes lie Thomas Bedwell, a university graduate turned military engineer, and William Borough, a navigator and naval administrator, as well as a supporting cast of architects, masons and other experts. By examining the careers of these disparate figures and their participation in the design process at Dover harbour, I show how together they constructed a joint identity while simultaneously creating the technical procedures of their individual practices. Their new role was worked out in direct negotiation with patrons, statesmen and artisans, and presented to a lay public now addressed through the impersonal medium and market of the printed book.

The work of my practitioners encompassed a broad range of Renaissance mathematical arts: geometry, mathematical astronomy, surveying, navigation, gunnery, architecture and shipbuilding, as well as the harbour design represented by their activity at Dover. The work of the practitioners thus featured observation, experiment, calculation, technological design and mathematical demonstration. Following their careers means reconstituting a terrain of mathematical practice which cuts across modern distinctions between science, technology and mathematics.

As well as the disciplinary territory of mathematical practice, I also attend to its topography, to the places where the practitioners worked to master both nature and the manual labours of subordinates and workmen. Essential to their endeavours was the development of a rich repertoire of instruments, printed books and ‘plats’ (maps, charts and plans). Paper was the primary medium of this material culture; it served as a place where verbal argument and design could be juxtaposed with geometry and arithmetic. Using these resources, the mathematical practitioners successfully created a public culture in which mathematics was promoted as worldly, morally safe and useful to both the civil and military order.