“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!
The Reading Euclid project recently passed the milestone of having worked through fifty copies of Euclid’s Elements as part of the search for annotations and other marks made by readers. Principal Investigator Benjamin Wardhaugh writes:
We’re just a few months into our project on reading Euclid in Early Modern Britain, and we’re eventually hoping to work through two or three hundred copies of Euclid’s Elements. We’ve now completed the first fifty, and recorded our two thousandth mark made by an early modern reader. A few patterns are starting to emerge.
Most of the books have been written in by their early readers: not just bookplates, signatures, names and dates, but also detailed – even obsessive – corrections of the mathematics and the language in which it’s expressed. I’ve now seen about twenty-five thousand printed pages, and around one in ten of those pages bears readers’ marks of some kind. Wrong labels are corrected, missing lines are added to diagrams and missing steps are inserted into proofs. More adventurous readers – or those whose responsibilities included teaching – marked up the book in still more detail, selecting and rearranging, supplementing one edition of the Elements with passages from another, or copying in long explanations and discussions from other geometrical works.
What we’re starting to see is a rich and fascinating world of reading and studying, that can help us understand how mathematics was learned in the early modern period. It’s background to the scientific changes of the seventeenth century and the revolutions that shook mathematics in that period. There’s lots more to do, but I’m optimistic about what we’re finding out.