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A Rambo Trilogy in Early Modern Europe

An Interview with Professor Margaret Jacob, by Jorrit Smit


Royce Hall, UCLA

On one of those sunny, warm, Californian fall afternoons, I meet professor Margaret Jacob in the Herbert Morris Seminar Room on the first floor of Royce Hall in the middle of the UCLA campus. The well-known early-modern scholar has just entertained a crowd of scholars, students and unidentified passers-by with a talk on Unitarianism in 18th and 19th century Britain. The high correlation between rich industrialists and Unitarianism, she observes, is not captured by Weber’s alleged association of capitalism with Protestantism. It is one of those things she has stumbled upon in a long and rich career in intellectual and cultural history of Early Modern Europe. On Unitarianism, she hopes to write a book one day, but for now the talk suffices.

Margaret Jacob did her graduate studies at Cornell University, under the guidance of the late Henry Guerlac, held positions at the New School, Penn University, and is now, since 1998, professor in History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her interests range from freemasonry to the Newtonian synthesis, from freethinkers to ‘ordinary people’. For Shells and Pebbles I interviewed Professor Jacob about her inspirations, the obscure archives she has visited and the fascinating sources she discovered. In doing so, we touched upon much of her published works.


Which historical publications have been most inspiring to you, and in what way?

When I was a graduate student I was just blown away by Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). That was just an incredible book. It changed the way we thought about science, magic and the relationship between both of them. It influenced me a lot, because, when I actually met her – which was a trip, she was wonderful – I was starting to work on an early 18th century freethinker, John Toland. It was Toland who had reintroduced Bruno’s ideas. With the way she analyzed Bruno, I could see more clearly what was happening; Toland was using Bruno’s ideas as a source for his own pantheism, or naturalism.

I was also very genuinely persuaded by The World Turned Upside Down (Chrisopher Hill, 1975). In the History of Science, Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House (2007) is one of those books you start reading and you don’t want to put down.

Could you share with us a story about a fascinating source you got hold of?

Oh gosh, there have been so many! Early on in my career, I was working on the Toland manuscripts in the British library, where I found a two-page folio manuscript ‘David, 1710’. Written in French, it was the meeting record of a group that called themselves ‘The Knights of Jubilation’ and it was signed by five men who were there that evening. Basically they had a Grandmaster, called one another brother, and met under constitutions; they looked awfully masonic. Even though this was in Toland’s papers, I had never heard of any of the people who had signed this. I discovered that Prosper Marchand, who was the secretary of the order, had left a huge cache of manuscripts in Leiden. So I went over to the Netherlands and went through these manuscripts in the Marchand papers, which are voluminous. There I discovered about two-hundred letters to Marchand from another French Hugenot refugee, called Jean Rousset de Missy. A lot of the content of those letters was about Freemasons. I thought, well what is this? And I said to the librarian in Leiden, ‘is there a masonic library in the Netherlands?’ They said, in the most casual way possible, ‘oh yeah, you take the 10 bus, you go to The Hague…’. (laughter) I went down there with a copy of the manuscript from the Marchand papers, and asked the librarian ‘do you know who this is?’. He responded ‘oh my god yes, that is one of our founders’. So, suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me.


John Toland (1670-1722)

This beautifully illustrates how historical work can be driven by ‘archival chance’. To what extent did archival research direct your own career path?

The problem I was setting for myself was, ‘how was Newtonian science transmitted to the continent?’ I discovered that there are certain key figures – Musschenbroek, ‘s Gravesande – and that the Marchand circle also included ‘s Gravesande. Suddenly, my interests in Toland and Newtonianism were coming together and I realized that there was a story here that had to do with Anglo-Dutch connections. This in turn led me to think about French Newtonianism and about the application of Newtonianism in the 18th century. Thus, my move onto the continent was partly archive-driven and partly the result of asking this question.

This enthralling story you wrote down in your book The Radical Enlightenment (1981). After you coined this term, it has been picked up and transformed by several scholars, most notably Jonathan Israel. What is your view on these adaptations and popularizations of this term?

Well, I have great admiration for Jonathan. He is a great, very hard-working scholar. However, I think he has reduced rather than expanded the meaning of the term. He reduced it to Spinozism and that is just not accurate. There are many, many more things going on. In his very most recent work I think he’s gone way far over the edge and has tried to see this Spinozism as the key ideological element in the French Revolution. There isn’t a French Revolution specialist that I know of who would give even passing attention to that.

In ‘The Radical Enlightenment’, and in much of your later work, you emphasize the spread of  Newtonianism as a key element in understanding the Enlightenment. How did this interest for Newtonianism come about?

I went to graduate school at Cornell University in German History, where I was going to work on the Weimar Republic. Then I went to Germany and began to ask myself – it was 1965 – do I really want to spend the rest of my career working on the run-up to Hitler? As I came back uncertain of that, another graduate student advised me to take a course with Henry Guerlac, who was one of the founders of the History of Science in this country (together with I.B. Cohen and Richard S. Westfall). Henry was terrific, a great teacher, a Newton scholar par excellence, who also worked on Lavoisier. He was just beginning to open up the Newton papers in Cambridge: nobody had done that sort of thing!

He wanted to get me interested in the Newton papers, so he gave me a copy of a manuscript and asked me to see what I could make of it. It was a draft version of one of the Queries to the Optics, in which Newton says things like, ‘all nature is attended with sounds and life’. Clearly, Newton is toying with the notion that matter is much more vitalist than he has been arguing. He didn’t publish it, but I have argued that it was a response to the use Toland had made of his ideas in Letters to Serena. Thus, it was a response that would undercut this atheistic pantheism. This got me started. Once I got interested in the Optics and the Queries to the Optics, it was invaluable that I could talk a lot about it with Henry, who was really specialized in these manuscripts.

What has been for you the most interesting historical actor, thing or process to work on?

What is loosely called secularization; the process by which Westerners begin to compartmentalize religion and it becomes a less visible part of everyday life, on a social level and on an intellectual level. This is a phenomenon that we, I think, don’t fully understand, but is terribly important in terms of the making of the Western mentality. There are so many different pieces to this puzzle.  You can’t rule out the turn that occurs in late 17th century towards agricultural surplus that eliminates famine from many parts of Europe. Also very important is the discovery of the new worlds on earth and in the heavens that opens up the European mind.

An ‘opening of the European mind’ sounds very abstract. In many of your books – such as ‘Living the Enlightenment’ and ‘Stranger Nowhere in the World’ – you try above all to bridge the gap between such abstract notions and the actual and ordinary people that lived in these societies. Why did you deem it important to direct attention to these people, who were not necessarily part of the elite culture of their times?

Well, I was not myself ‘to the manor born’. Do you know that phrase? The manor is the manor house, where the rich people are born. I did not come from the high-born, highly educated. My parents were not professors. I come from ordinary people and I know these people are influenced by and think about the ideas that are current in society. They get these, in our world, from television, newspapers, wherever. In that sense they are concurrent with all sorts of ideas that we think of as occupying the high and mighty. These ideas are spread widely, even where you have a population that is preliterate. That process of recapturing the conversations that were possible at least among the literate has always interested me.

How did you direct your research towards that goal of vitalizing the possible experience of the ordinary man or woman?

I probably do more manuscript work than many historians. When you go down to the level of the manuscript archives, you tend to run into more people who don’t publish books, of whom you have never heard, but who have written correspondences to whomever. You get a richer feel for a place if you go into these local archives and see what is being said to family members. I also like to go into regional local archives. In France, for example, I work a lot with the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris. This little library is fabulous, it has all kinds of stuff and, you know, it is a bit off the beaten track.

How does your upcoming work, The First Knowledge Economy (FKE, March 2014), connect to this attempt to ‘get into the heads’ of ordinary people?

Ideally that is what I would like to do in all my work. But you can’t just use biographies and examinations of individuals to get at larger processes. I have done a little bit of that in the FKE, because I spent a fair bit of time on the Watt family and on some case studies around the activities of individual entrepreneurs and merchant families. But I wanted to broaden this out to look at education more generally, to show where scientific knowledge is being made available in schools through the 18th century.


As you primarily trace the spread of Newtonian knowledge in European schools in the 18th century, am I correct in stating that this work is the result of your interest in the application of Newtonianism, that you picked up in graduate school?

It is a culmination of that interest. My partner calls the book ‘Rambo 3’ (laughter). The first one was Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution, the second was Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West and now we have the ‘FKE’ and that is it. I am not going to write another book on this topic. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it!

What cultural developments do you see in the first decade of the 21st century shaping the next generation of historians of science and what future do you see for the history of science?

Globalization is having an impact on the history of science. More and more studies of overseas trade and exploration are appearing. These study the way in which knowledge production is being shaped by the impact of importing all this new material – plants, animals, cadavers – that had never been seen before.

Where the history of science is going to go, more generally, I am not at all sure. I am not convinced that we are in a very lively moment in the history of science. The books that I read recently, I am sort of underwhelmed by them. I am thinking of Tresch’s The Romantic Machine and Shapins’ Social History of Truth, that both reflect a tendency in the history of science to isolate. By the time you’re finished, the historical actors are isolated from the world around them, and I think this doesn’t take us very far.  A great deal of what I do is an attempt to situate moments of scientific inquiry or even scientific innovation within their historical moments, in relation to economic development, religious issues, or whatever.  I appreciate the people who do that more internalist kind of work, but I have never been that interested in the work of a laboratory per se.

In conclusion, is there something you want to add?

The issue of being a woman in the history of science or this profession does at some point need to be addressed. I think it still is a factor, although not so much today as when I first started out. Back then, there were just certain jobs that were not going to be given to women.  Even around the ‘Radical Enlightenment’, historiography tended to marginalize female scholars. Me included, had it not been for several scholars of my era who went out of their way to make sure that I was included in the conversation. I think there is a way in which men are happier talking to other men.

It should be one of the great transformations of the last forty years that women authors, women actors, women agents, in whatever area, have been brought back into the historical story in a way they were never present before. That is an achievement that, I have to say, first and foremost came in American History, in historical writing in this country, and then spread. When I lived in Amsterdam in the early 80’s, I had a lot of female academic friends, who all said to me that they would never be made a professor. Now, in fact, all of them are, but in the early 80’s, they thought it was impossible.

Is it not ironic then, that your partner describes you in terms of the Western epitome of masculinity, Rambo?

(laughter) Well, the books are Rambos … She is very naughty, she says things like that all the time.


Jorrit Smit is a research master student at Utrecht University in the History and Philosophy of Science program, specializing in philosophy of science and the history of chemistry. In 2013 he was a visiting graduate student at UCLA and he is now preparing a publication on internationalism in the chemical community after World War I.


Harkness, Deborah (2007) The Jewel House. Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution.

Hill, Christopher (1975) The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. Penguin Books: London, New York.

Hunt L., Jacob M. C. & Mijnhardt W. (2010). The Book that Changed Europe. Picart and Benard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, USA.

Jacob, Margaret C. (1981) The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans. Allen & Unwin: London.

Jacob, Margaret C. (1988) Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution. Temple University Press: Philadelphia.

Jacob, Margaret C. (1997) Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West. Oxford University Press: New York.

Jacob, Margaret C. (2006) Strangers Nowhere in the World: the Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

Jacob, Margaret C. (2014) The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy. 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Shapin, Steven (1994) A Social History of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Tresch, John (2012) The Romantic Machine. Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Yates, Frances (1964) Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.


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