Euclid’s Elements of Geometry has enjoyed a very long history of use and study from Hellenistic Alexandria to the present day. For many centuries it has been both a canonical mathematical text and an important element in the reception of ancient thought. It has been read as a practical and a theoretical text; it has been studied for its philosophical ramifications and for its perceived potential to inculcate logical thought. It has also been critically important in the teaching of mathematics at many times and places. For the historian, it represents a location where history of mathematics meets history of ideas; where the history of the book meets the history of practice.
Nowhere was this more so than in the early modern period, when the Elements was particularly visible. Between 1500 and 1800 around 200 printed editions of the text appeared: roughly one every eighteen months. It was therefore an absolutely crucial part of the mathematical culture of the period, and of the construction of the ancient Greek past by early modern thinkers. In fact, it was embedded in early modern culture, and read by individuals ranging from schoolchildren to elite astronomers, from popular playwrights to learned philosophers. If Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was the book that ‘nobody read’ (as Gingerich memorably put it), Euclid’s Elements was the one that everybody read.
No mathematical text had such an impact on early modern culture, yet the early modern reception of the Elements has never received sustained scholarly attention. This project remedies this gap in scholarship by investigating the modes of early modern reception for Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. It will create new understandings of the cultural location(s) occupied by that text during the long seventeenth century, through studies of educational, editorial, and readerly practices. By focussing on Britain and Ireland from the appearance (1570) of the first English Elements up to the end of the seventeenth century, it will achieve a balanced study of Euclidean reception considering all the relevant types of evidence.
This project will result in open-access publications, publicly-available datasets and a public exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. See our project events and watch our chronicle for announcements.