“Reading Euclid” recently inspected its hundredth copy of the Elements, and we’ve now recorded more than three thousand separate items in our summaries of the marks that early modern readers left in these books. With visits to London and Cambridge planned, we’re well on our way to our goal of seeing a representative sample of the early modern copies of the Elements surviving in Britain.
Most of the copies we’ve seen so far are held in Oxford libraries, although their earlier homes have been all over Britain. We’ve seen copies owned by university professors, teachers and students, by doctors, lawyers, merchants and even a saint (Thomas More). Some of the most fascinating copies come from the university context, where we’ve seen evidence of students copying annotations from a teacher’s book into their own. We’ve also seen a fascinating series of notes relating to a proposed new edition of the text: a group of scholars copied in textual variants, amended the Latin translation and compiled thousands of cross-references and commentary items, as well as providing algebraic equivalents for some of the theorems. Sadly that project came to nothing.
The books give a real sense of how the cultural profile of mathematics was changing in the early modern period, and how people’s use of texts and ownership of books was changing too. Those two processes led to a huge range of ways of engaging with the Euclidean text, and we’re beginning to discern some of the patterns and the ways that worked. Now for the next hundred copies!