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How Confessional Divisions Influenced Writing on the Natural History of the Atlantic World

Raleigh Lecture on History, delivered by Professor Nicholas Canny FBA, on 22 November 2011 (venue: The British Academy).

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This lecture explores the way the natural history of the Americas was exported to 16th century northern European scientists and how they reacted intellectually and politically. It discusses the generally positive reception in northern European countries of José de Acosta’s Historia natural y moral de las Indias which seems to have been accepted both as a template of how natural history should be written and as a challenge to northern European scientists to emulate what the Spanish Jesuit author had accomplished. While this might be accepted as a tacit acknowledgement by northern Europeans that Catholic Spain had achieved intellectual as well as political ascendancy over their respective nations, Protestant authors responded to the challenge in a highly competitive fashion which aimed as much at undermining the credibility of those they identified as their Catholic opponents as on unveiling the secrets of natural history.

The lecture will look at the merits and demerits of Thomas Harriott, André Thevet and Jean de Léry as scientific reporters and at the inter-relationship between the religious position they adopted and their approaches to the study of natural history. It will argue that Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage (1578) can be considered as much a Calvinist polemic and a logical extension of the same author’s Histoire memorable de la ville de Sancerre (1574), as the landmark contribution to scientific writing it is usually represented as. It will contend that the enominalization of scientific reportage was consolidated by America by Theodore de Bry in 1591 and was not neutralized until Hans Sloane began to publish at the outset of the eighteenth century.

About the speaker
Nicholas Canny is a Member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. He was Director of the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway, 2000-11, where he was Professor of History 1979-2009. He served as President of the Royal Academy 2008-11. An expert on early modern history broadly defined, he edited the first volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire, and with Philip D.Morgan, The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, c1450-c1850 (2011). His major book is Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (2001). He is currently engaged on a comparison between English and French writings on the Natural History of America, 1580-1720.

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