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 Ireland, 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.