The Sociohistorical Context of the Early Royal Society

Today, the Royal Society is known as a successful scientific organization that has produced some of the most noteworthy findings in the world, boasting members such as Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Ernest Rutherford. Yet it originally began as a group of just twelve men in 1660’s London, and back then its potential was not so obvious or well received. It emerged during the Restoration era during a period of political and social turmoil, which significantly influenced how the society went about forming and presenting itself, as well as on how the public received it. In an attempt to gain more support and clarify their goals, the society commissioned an apologia – basically a propaganda piece – to be written by one of its fellows, Thomas Sprat. It is likely that Sprat was only made a fellow for the sake of writing this work, as he was known to be a skillful writer, and made no further contributions to the society. So, how did the sociohistorical context of Restoration England shape the Royal Society in its early years?

Before the Royal Society’s formation, the British Isles had experienced nearly two decades of war and rebellion. King Charles I had undertaken a “personal rule” in which he ignored Parliament’s authority, was irresponsible with his expenditures and taxed the people for them, and made terrible decisions with the army and its funding while sending it into battle against the Scots and the Irish.[1] The regicide of Charles I theoretically ended the civil war, leaving England under the rule of the Cromwellian regime until the restoration of King Charles II. The Restoration era involved restructuring and resettling the government, further religious conflict, and wars with Spain and the Dutch.

In its development, the Royal Society heavily stressed adherence to values that directly reflected those that came about during the Restoration era, namely stability and public interest. The founding members of the Royal Society had a strong desire to make its institution organized, permanent, and stable, representing the principles that became important due to the “deep sense of instability” in the “aftermath of the Civil War […], which characterizes mid-seventeenth century England as a whole.”[2] Thus, it was important to the society to have received its official charter from King Charles II, which outlined the roles of the President, Council, Treasurer, Secretaries, and fellows, and made them an official corporate body.[3] This organization was mirrored in the English government, which was also moving toward more bureaucratic institutionalization and away from personal authority.[4] Personal interest became threatening to the English following King Charles I’s “personal rule,” and the Royal Society attempted to soothe this fear in its development by stressing its worth for the public good, which was evident in Sprat’s apologia. One way Sprat did this was by claiming that the experimental nature of the society itself was “a design so public, and so free from all suspicion of mean, or private interest” because it sought to create knowledge to be established for the public.[5] Sprat also portrayed the Society as an escape from the horrors of the previous era, writing that one of their goals was healing and “experimental tranquility”[6] by bringing together reasonable men from various backgrounds and opinions, who could still collaborate “without risking the damaging divisions which the Civil War and Interregnum seemed to exemplify.”[7] Thus, it is evident that there were still fears and apprehensions stemming from the civil wars that permeated the Royal Society’s early years.

It was also important to the Royal Society, and especially to Sprat, to demonstrate that the society would immediately benefit the English nation, which was significant in light of contemporary foreign affairs. During this time, England was in conflict with both Spain and the Dutch, both powerful enemies. Sprat emphasized the idea that the Royal Society was involved in “practical tasks that could make money”, and that its inventions would improve the nation’s industry by leading to the “more advantageous organization of labor.”[8] He wrote that the Royal Society would make England the leader in a “knowledge war” against other European nations by becoming the dominant body of scientific knowledge, which all of Europe would look to.[9] Sprat also claimed that the advancements to come from the Royal Society would boost England’s trade, and even encouraged more merchants to seek membership in the organization, so that they could take what they learned with them to improve their commerce.[10]

The way in which the Royal Society was involved in religious matters at the time is still surrounded by confusion and debate among historians. Early on, those who wanted to become fellows were “free from religious or political pressures in deciding to join the society” because no one was turned away due to their stances.[11] The society’s membership included representatives of every sect of society: Royalists, Parliamentarians, Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, and others. The debate about where the Royal Society stood in terms of its position on religion mainly stems from the idea that the society claimed to be both “devoted to the glory of God” as seen in its charter, but also “avoided meddling with divinity”, as noted by Sprat.[12] This contradiction can be explained by considering the way in which the word “meddling” is used: it meant that the fellows would not get involved in any specifics of religion that were “dispute-engendered” following the Reformation – demonstrating, again, the desire to avoid conflict.[13] While some thought the society stressed the separation of science and religion, many of the fellows made explicit connections between their scientific activities and religious convictions, and used religion as a “social sanction” when scientific activity was criticized for impiety; for example, one of the prominent members of the early Royal Society, Robert Boyle, stated that science provided “rational grounds to believe, admire, adore, and obey the Diety.”[14]

The Royal Society in its early years provides insight into the values, fears, and divisions that existed within the context of Restoration England. It is evident in how its members organized themselves, which aspects of their society they chose to put on display, and what was heavily emphasized in Sprat’s writing, that they were strongly influenced by, and made decisions based on, what was deemed important to the English nation in the wake of the civil wars. Though the Royal Society may have initially struggled to meet the demands of the society it emerged from, it was able to maintain the stability it strove for, and to produce such impressive work that they were able become one of the most established scientific organizations in history.

-Marisa Vomvos

References:

[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “English Civil Wars”, accessed October 08, 2015 http://www.britannica.com/event/English-Civil-Wars.

[2] Michael Hunter, Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1989), 9.

[3] Hunter, Establishing the New Science, 3.

[4] Hunter, Establishing the New Science, 7.

[5] John Morgan, “Science, England’s ‘Interest’ and Universal Monarchy: the Making of Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society,” History of Science 47 (2009): 35.

[6] Morgan, “Science, England’s ‘Interest’ and Universal Monarchy,” 35.

[7] Hunter, Establishing the New Science, 10.

[8] Morgan, “Science, England’s ‘Interest’ and Universal Monarchy,” 39.

[9] Morgan, “Science, England’s ‘Interest’ and Universal Monarchy,” 40.

[10] Morgan, “Science, England’s ‘Interest’ and Universal Monarchy,” 27-54.

[11] Lotte Mulligan, “Civil War Politics, Religion and the Royal Society,” in The Intellectual Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), 327.

[12] Peter Harrison, “Religion and the Early Royal Society,” Science and Christian Belief 22 (2010), 3-22.

[13] Harrison, “Religion and the Early Royal Society,” 3-22.

[14] Harrison, “Religion and the Early Royal Society,” 3-22.

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