In the first of our interviews with authors from the Society for Renaissance Studies book series in 2023, we talk to Eleanor Chan about her book Mathematics and the Craft of Thought in the Anglo-Dutch Renaissance, the difficulties of interdisciplinary research and advice to PhD students starting out in intellectual history.
1) What drew you towards Renaissance and Early Modern studies in general and then intellectual history in particular?
I spent a LOT of my undergraduate degree thinking I was going to be a Modernist (it feels a bit like a dirty secret now!). Slowly but surely, I realised that the things I loved studying were early 20th century responses to 16th and 17th century ideas, approaches, trends, fascinations. Descartes was my gateway drug. The more I read his own writing and the way that it was initially translated (the Discours, Geometrie and Dioptrique of course, but also the wonderfully contentious L’Homme/De Homine) the clearer it became that his famous ‘mind-body division’ was a massive oversimplification of a fascinating attempt to reconcile materiality and intellection. This tension has been at the heart of my research ever since, even though I’ve moved nominally far from Descartes (although I’d love to do something with his Compendium Musicae some day).
2) Apart from your own, what book would you recommend for people to read to learn more about your field of study?
Mary Thomas Crane’s Losing Touch with Nature and Henry S. Turner’s The English Renaissance Stage.
3) What were the key arguments in your book?
Mathematics is made out of craft metaphors. The system that we have inherited wasn’t archaeologically uncovered, wasn’t pre-existing: our predecessors constructed it, and tailored it towards practical application, and over time we have fine-tuned it into what we have today.
4) How has your work on this topic developed since the book was published? Have any of your thoughts radically changed?
This book was more of a case study into the topic (broadly, I think I’d currently define it as the history of writing/visuo-graphic signification systems) so I wouldn’t say my thoughts have developed or changed so much as shifted sideways. If anything, I’m just even more convinced that it’s incredibly important to undertake such investigations with a view to having the widest possible interdisciplinary scope – because cleaving too hard to a single discipline can really trap us into just accepting that there’s a certain way to do things and certain things to look for, and often that leads us to overlook some of the most exciting things and details.
5) What were the most fruitful sources you found in your research?
An enormous swordplay treatise, which I stumbled upon by accident at the Wellcome Collection 9 years ago – the Academic de l’Espee by Girard Thibault (1628). It was a bit of a mixed blessing, because whilst the book opened lots of fascinating avenues and allowed me to bring the project together as a whole, I had to fight tooth and nail to prevent it from becoming the Girard Thibault Show. He is pretty fascinating, and definitely worth several PhD dissertations in himself.
6) What was the biggest obstacle to conducting your research?
The perennial issue of interdisciplinary research: finding a common language that speaks to all of the disciplines that you are writing across. An established methodology from one discipline is often hugely controversial in another, and it’s difficult to predict when and where that will happen. Likewise, a concept that seems too mundane to even bother examining in one discipline can be fascinating and a really hot topic in another. Negotiating that kind of clash is pretty challenging, but if we are shift to a more integrated interdisciplinarity in Renaissance and Early Modern studies, I passionately believe that it is worth the hard work.
7) If you could go back and start the book over again, is there anything you would change, either about the structure of the book itself or about your sources / methodology?
After several years of agonising over all of the above, I am relieved to be able to say: absolutely nothing. I am so pleased with how it has turned out, so big props to the Routledge production team in particular!
8) What are you working on now?
An idea that just didn’t fit into the book itself! Because of constraints of space (and for some reason no one wants to read a 700,000 word tome on every single minute aspect of early modern mathematics) most of the material on music had to be axed. I’m now just finishing up a monograph on false relations (one particular form of musical dissonance typical of the musical style of the English Renaissance), and their visual/material/cultural/intellectual milieu. They are a mathematical issue (they are a by-product of debates over how to divide the musical scale, and the gradual movement from one system to another) and so aren’t too far from my previous work – but they require a whole different mode of contextualisation.
9) Do you have a favourite discovery or favourite fact from your research for this book or from what you are currently working on?
That mathematics is an invented language and not ‘found’. There are a few people who would still fight me on that.
10) If you were not an early modernist, is there any other period or history or historical field you would like to work on?
Either the music and visual culture of the Ballet Russe (and the ballet Petruschka in particular), or the collage artist John Piper.
11) Is it necessary to be able to read and understand Latin to work in Renaissance / early modern studies?
Not really, but it helps. But also, there are so many other languages that could be more worth your time and helpful to your research, like Arabic or Hebrew. It’s also never too late to learn, so if you haven’t picked it up by the time you start (or even finish) your PhD and find yourself in desperate need you can always start learning it then.
12) If you could instantly acquire one skill or ability to help your research, what would it be?
It’s rather stupid, but quite genuinely: the ability to hop at will between reading various languages (and musical idioms) without my brain insisting that it should still be reading in early modern Dutch/orthochronic notation/etc. and that I can no longer read modern English/neumatic notation/etc. I wish someone had told me that picking up languages was only the beginning of the problem…
13) Is there any advice you would give to PhD students or early career researchers for finding their feet or developing their work in your field?
Find your people. Your name will be the one on the research, but you are never ever going to be the sole author of it, because it takes a village.
Eleanor Chan is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Music department at the University of Manchester. Her work focuses on the interaction between word, image and notation in early modern Europe, with a particular interest in the musical and the mathematical. She received her PhD in History of Art from the University of Cambridge and has published widely, with articles on the visual implications of the English cadence, the interdisciplinary interaction between music and art in the English Renaissance, Anglo-Dutch geometry and realism, the Amsterdam city harpsichord case and mathematical visual culture, and the competing editions of Descartes’ anatomical treatise.
Her book, Mathematics and the Craft of Thought in the Anglo-Dutch Renaissance, was published in September 2021: https://www.routledge.com/Mathematics-and-the-Craft-of-Thought-in-the-Anglo-Dutch-Renaissance/Chan/p/book/9780367345327