Sprat, Thomas

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(b. Beaminster, Dorset, England, 1635: d. Bromley. Kent, England, 20 May 1713)

history of science.

Sprat was one of several children born to Thomas Sprat, a poor parish curate who held B.A. and M.A. degrees from Oxford, and his wife, who was the daughter of a Mr. Strode of Parnham, Dorset. From this “obscure birth and education in a far distant country,” as he later described it, he entered Wadham College, Oxford, in November 1651, receiving the B.A. in June 1654 and an M.A. three years later. At Wadham, Sprat became a member of the active and soon influential circle that launched him on his surprising and varied career as the historian and defender of the Royal Society and as a man of the church. He became the favorite and protégé of John Wilkins and formed close associations with other members of the scientific group that gathered around Wilkins during those years, especially with Christopher Wren, Seth Ward, and Ralph Bathurst. Although Sprat may possibly have attended their meetings, there is no record of his having done so and no indication that he ever engaged in the sort of scientific work that was their interest.

In 1659 Sprat’s first publications appeared. One was a poem, “To the Happy Memory of the Late Lord Protector,” dedicated to Wilkins for “having been as it were moulded by your own hands, and formed under your government,” and charged with devoted admiration for Cromwell as the great savior who had led his people into the promised land. Sprat’s loyalties were always pliable, a fact often noted by his contemporaries, for he later served Charles II, James II, and William and Mary with the same devotion he had expressed for Cromwell. In politics he became a staunch Tory, a defender of the divine rights of kings, and a strong exponent of high church doctrines. He has, not without reason, been called a time-server. In 1659 Sprat also published a poem in praise of the poet Abraham Cowley, written “in imitation of his own Pindaric odes,” thus gaining the nickname “Pindaric Sprat.” Cowley, who was also known as a promoter of natural philosophy, returned the favor in his “Ode to the Royal Society,” prefixed to Sprat’s Historyof the Royal Society, when he said that “ne’er did Fortune better yet / Th’ Historian to the Story fit.”

Sprat’s close association with Cowley had important consequences. In accordance with the poet’s will, Sprat was charged with the publication of his English Works, published in 1668 and often reprinted, for which he wrote “Account of the Life and Writings of Abraham Cowley.” Cowley may also have brought Sprat to the attention of George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, who by the late 1660’s was Wilkins’ patron. Having been ordained early in 1660, Sprat later that year gained his first ecclesiastical office through the influence of Cowley and the duke, who also helped him to some of his later preferments. During most of the 1660’s and perhaps longer, Sprat was the duke’s chaplain, and in 1675 he was appointed one of the three trustees for part of Buckingham’s estate, a position that may have helped to pay for his wellknown love of good living. In August 1676 he became one of the king’s chaplains, soon rising steadily to canon of the Chapel Royal, Windsor, near the end of 1680; dean of Westminster in September 1683; and bishop of Rochester in November 1684, holding the last two offices until his death. In 1676 Sprat married Helen, Lady Wolseley, of Ravenstone, Staffordshire, an event that later in that year led Robert Hooke to note in his diary that he “saw fat Tom Sprat joyd him of marriage.” Sprat was survived by his wife, who died in February 1726, and by a son, Thomas, archdeacon of Rochester. They were all buried in Westminster Abbey.

Although he was a prominent figure in his time. Sprat’s fame today rests entirely on his History of the Royal Society, first published in 1667. Its 438 pages constitute a large and puzzling work on an institution barely seven years old when the book appeared. Since its concerns and their implications touched all major aspects of contemporary affairs, not least religion, the infant Royal Society quickly became involved in controversy and detraction, against which even the good fortune of royal patronage proved insufficient. Neither its present position nor its controversial origins during the past twenty years, open to many unwelcome interpretations, was strong enough to allow it to ignore this opposition without risking serious damage to its reputation and success, which depended on wide cooperation and not least on considerable financial support.

It was the first design of the History to explain the nature, organization, work, and aims of the Royal Society to the public, thus showing that the promotion of its affairs was a national, even a patriotic, enterprise that promised both a healing of the wounds left by the recent turbulent events and great material benefits. The History was a piece of public relations, even of propaganda. The material that went into it was carefully supervised and selected, and its omissions and suppressions are as significant as its contents. It is not an impartial document; and it gave such strong impetus to renewed controversy that it may be doubted whether the Royal Society would not, at least in England, have been better off without this premature piece of justification. The formidable Henry Stubbe said a few years later that Sprat’s work was “a nonsensical and illiterate history.” It is a curious irony that the early Royal Society has been the center of similar debate in the extensive recent literature on its history.

The History is divided into three parts without separate titles. Part one (pp. 1–51) presents a survey of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy that is meant to show “what is to be expected from these new undertakers, and what moved them to enter upon a way of inquiry different from that on which the former have proceeded.” With exaggeration that mars the conciliatory tone, the Royal Society “most unanimously” follows in the footsteps of antiquity except in “matters of fact: for in them we follow the most ancient author of all others, even Nature itself.” It proposes to honor the ancients by being their children rather than their pictures. Here, and often in the rest of the work, Sprat’s strong words are reserved for “downright enthusiasts” and the “modern dogmatists,” whom he compares to the recent “pretenders to public liberty,” who became the greatest tyrants themselves. This political theme recurs forcefully throughout the work—for instance, in a later passage eulogizing Charles I as the royal martyr who followed the “divine example of our Saviour.” Sprat finds agreement between the growth of learning and of civil government. Already in this first part Bacon is, as it were, the Royal Society’s patron saint, “who had the true imagination of the whole extent of this enterprise, as it is now set on foot.” Even members and friends of the Society must have known that this respect for Bacon as the sole intellectual ancestor was exaggerated; but it was necessary in order to rule out the thought of any foreign influence or indebtedness, which an impartial judge would readily have admitted. Both Gassendi and Descartes had been read and admired in England.

Part two (pp. 52–319) contains the history proper and is chronologically divided into three sections. The first (pp. 52–60) relates the prehistory of the Royal Society up to the first regular meeting on 28 November 1660, tracing its origin exclusively to the meetings that were held “some space after the end of the Civil Wars at Oxford, in Dr. Wilkins his lodgings, in Wadham College.” Contradicted repeatedly in the seventeenth century, this brief account has dominated most discussions of Sprat’s work and has recently formed the center of much fruitless argument. It will be considered more closely below.

The second section (pp. 60–122) covers the period between the first meeting and the granting of the second royal charter in the spring of 1663. At this time Sprat was proposed for membership by Wilkins and was duly elected. When ninety-four original fellows were elected on 20 May, in accordance with the provisions of the new charter, the Royal Society was firmly established with a large and varied membership. This section is not historical. It explains the nature and aspirations of the Society; its organization, membership, meetings, subject matter, and method of inquiry; its careful interpretation of evidence; and “their manner of discourse,” a subject that has received more than its fair share of comment in the secondary literature. These pages contain a panegyric on “the general constitution of the minds of the English” and the special prerogative of England, “whereby it may justly lay claim to be the head of a philosophical league above all other nations in Europe,” owing to the “unaffected sincerity,” “sound simplicity” of speech, and “universal modesty” that characterize the English as a nation.

This section contrasts the need for cooperative labors and shared verification with Descartes’s contemplative method, explains that a division between teachers and scholars is not “consistent with a free philosophical consultation,” and suggests that the Royal Society seeks to satisfy the same ambition as the one which at Babel was punished by a “universal confusion” because it “was managed with impiety and insolence.” But true knowledge cannot be separated from “humility and innocence“: since the Society’s ambition “is not to brave the Creator of all things, but to admire him the more, it must needs be the utmost perfection of humane nature.”

At this point Sprat observed that the preparation of the History had been interrupted for more than a year by the plague (which caused the Royal Society to discontinue its meetings from June 1665 to February 1666) and the great fire of London during the first week of September 1666. Thus, although pails of the rest of the work may have written before, it was not printed until after this date. The third section (pp. 122–319) of part two tells the story of the Royal Society’s work since the spring of 1663. Its first division (pp. 122–157) deals with its reputation and correspondence abroad, and with the encouragement it has received at home from professional and social groups and from the royal family. It concludes with epitomes of the charter of 1663 and of the statutes that had been prepared between June and the June and the end of that year. As late as April 1667 Wilkins was, by order of the Council, directed to prepare these epitomes for the History.

The second division (pp. 158–319) of the third section of part two presents fourteen instances “of this their way of inquiring and giving rules for direction ... from whose exactness it may be guessed, how all the rest are performed,” interspersed with Sprat’s comments. These papers, not in chronological order, were read before the Royal Society between February 1661 and November 1664. Most of them were also printed in other contemporary publications; and they were drawn from the Society’s records under the careful supervision chiefly of Wilkins, who received orders regarding their selection between the end of 1664 and April 1667. The choice was clearly designed to be representative and to have wide appeal both to scientific and, not least, to practical and even lucrative interests. At the end of this part, Sprat confidently Observes, “If any shall yet think [the Society] have not usefully employed their time, I shall be apt to suspect, that they understand not what is meant by a diligent and profitable laboring about Nature”.

Finally, part three (pp. 321–438) is an apology for the Royal Society that tries to meet all conceivable objections to its enterprise, thus giving a telling picture of the Society’s conception of itself in relation to contemporary society, thought, and opinion. Among the many points raised, the following are the most important. The Royal Society poses no threat to learning, education, or the universities. This matter obviously caused some concern, for in the brief account of the Wadham meetings Sprat claimed that they had not only armed many young men against “the enchantments of enthusiasm” but also had helped to save the university itself from ruin. The Society is also a great ally of religion, leading man “to admire the wonderful contrivance of the Creation” so that his praises “will be more suitable to the Divine Nature than the blind applauses of the ignorant,” unlike the “enthusiast that pollutes his religion with his own passions.” Indeed, experiments are necessary to separate true miracles from falsehoods, and they especially support the Church of England by the agreement that exists “between the present design of the Royal Society and that of our Church in its beginning: “They both may lay equal claim to the word reformation.” It is Sprat’s conviction that “The universal disposition of this age is bent upon a rational religion.” Finally, the Society offers great benefits to all manual arts, to trade, to “wits and writers,” and to “the interests of our nation.” The History concludes with a list of all present fellows of the Society up to June 1667.

By early summer the History was in the press; in mid-August Pepys saw a copy at the booksellers; at the end of September several persons had read it; and on 10 October 1667 it was presented to the Society by Wilkins, hearty thanks being “ordered to the author for his singular respect to the Society shewed in that book.” That it did not, although issued by its printers, bear the Royal Society’s imprimatur may indicate some hesitancy to grant it, since this procedure was normal for books encouraged by the Society or written by its fellows, in accordance with the provisions of the royal charter. The History sold well, for some six months later Oldenburg reported that the first printing — presumably 1,000 copies—was nearly gone. The work was greatly praised in England and immediately gained the somewhat exaggerated reputation for eloquence and style that has been conventional ever since.

For nearly three years Oldenburg had been announcing the work’s imminent publication to his correspondents on the Continent, and at last he could satisfy the inquiries that had kept streaming in. He sent out copies with elaborate covering letters inviting cooperation, an effort that soon proved successful in the form of further inquiries about details of experiments and other matters described in the History, although several correspondents complained that their poor English would deny full benefit until they had Latin or French translations. The Royal Society immediately tried to supply them, but only an unsanctioned French translation was published, in identical versions at Geneva and Paris in 1669 and 1670. Thus, as a careful exercise in public relations. Sprat’s work confirmed his hope that “this learned and inquisitive age will . . . think [the Society’s] endeavours worthy of its assistance.”

From the seventeenth century to the present day, the main problem raised by Sprat’s work has always been its historical reliability. As early as 1756, Thomas Birch explained in the preface to his own History of the Royal Society that part two of Sprat’s account was less admired than the others; and he could cite well-informed contemporary opinion for his wish that the history of the Royal Society’s “institution and progress” had omitted less and given more facts, and that “the order of time in which they occurred had been more exactly marked.” At the very least, Birch was certainly thinking of Sprat’s silence on the London meetings in 1645 attended by John Wallis, who in the meantime had given two detailed accounts of them. Their relevance to the prehistory of the Society has been denied—at the cost of creating an unconvincing, ad hoc image of the early post-1660 Society, built on interpretations and arguments so bizarre and ill-informed that they disprove themselves.

In addition to Wallis’ two accounts, both of which include Wilkins, it is well-known that since the early l640’s Wilkins had taken a strong interest in natural philosophy, was present in London in the mid-1640’s, and in other ways was associated with the people he met at those early gatherings. A further piece of information must be accorded high authority, although it seems not to have been previously cited in this context. It occurs in the Royal Society’s official memorial on Wilkins’ death, read on 27 November 1672, and it plainly says: “He had been one of that assembly of learned men, who met as early as 1645, and continued their meetings at London and Oxford, until they were formed into the Royal Society”(Birch, History,III. 68).

Clearly, the History is not reliable on matters of fact; it cannot, as has been claimed, be considered an impartial account written under the supervision of those who had all the information. They may have had it but not wished to use it all. And if less than dependable on this point, the History may be so on others, where similar interests were at stake. Well aware of French competition that might challenge its priority, and understandably concerned about some prominent members’ actions and allegiances during the 1640’s, the Society’s interests demanded that its official history omit information that cast doubt on its pure Englishness, on its agreement with the Church of England, and on its loyalty to the restored monarchy. The early London meetings were embarrassing on all counts. There is good reason to accept Wallis’ statement that they were suggested by Theodore Haak, a foreigner who had received the suggestion from his French connections, especially from Marin Mersenne, with whom he had then for some years been in correspondence on matters of this sort. At the time both Haak and Wallis were active in the Westminster Assembly; and Haak was associated not only with Comenian circles but also with Comenius, who by 1660, if not earlier, had become anathema owing to his strong millenarianism and defense of the apocalyptic prophets—no doubt Sprat’s strong words against enthusiasm are also aimed at Comenius. Tracing the Royal Society’s origins only to Wilkins’ Wadham group and Oxford ensured respectability. But there would seem to have been more involved than this.

Fortunately we have a great deal of information about the composition, supervision, and uncertain progress of Sprat’s work. Referring to the two secretaries, Oldenburg and Wilkins, and their authority “to publish whatever shall be agreed upon by the Society,” Sprat said that he was not usurping their prerogative, “for it is only my hand that goes, the substance and direction came from one of them.” That man undoubtedly was Wilkins, and Oldenburg seems to have had little to do with the project. The records abundantly demonstrate that the historical part was closely supervised, not only by Wilkins but also by several small groups of fellows, from 21 December 1664 until it went to press. That the choice fell on Sprat is perhaps not surprising: young, energetic (although, before it was finished. Oldenburg complained that the History was in “lazy hands”), available, an intimate of Wilkins and perhaps also recommended by Cowley, he had the time that others, especially Wilkins, could hardly have spared. But it might also—for the sake of distance—have been thought useful that the writer not have lived through the entire history of the last decades. Given the sort of image the Royal Society needed, Wilkins was safer in the background, unknown to the public, than as the official historian. Capable but busy, Oldenburg was no doubt ruled out by his German origin and perhaps by other considerations as well. Sprat was a useful and willing tool.

The first mention of a history dates from May 1663, immediately after the second charter and the election of the ninety-four additional original fellows, when Robert Moray wrote to Huygens that the Royal Society would soon publish a small treatise about itself. At the end of the year, again in a letter to Huygens, this work was for the first time called the “history of the Society,” intended to accompany the statutes when they were printed, which was believed to be soon. Nothing was heard of the project until November 1664, when Oldenburg wrote to two correspondents that the history was nearly finished and would “we hope, be published soon,” and informed Boyle that Sprat intended to give it to the printer in early December. Brouncker, Moray, Wilkins, Evelyn, and others had read it; “but we are troubled,” Oldenburg added, “that you cannot have a sight of it, before the publication,” for he was worried “whether there be enough said of particulars, or . . . whether there are performances enough for a Royal Society, that has been at work so considerable a time.” So far there was no indication that the Society had supervised the work; but within a month, and then repeatedly, well before the plague caused the meetings to be discontinued, it began active supervision and selection of suitable materials for Sprat. There is no doubt that this change was caused by the publication, in May 1664, of Samuel Sorbière’s Relation d’un voyage en Angleterre, addressed to the French king in the form of a letter dated 25 October 1663 (with a dedication dated 12 Deceit Sorbière had spent three months in England, beginning in early June 1663, seeing several prominent members of the Society, attending a number of its meetings, and becoming a member on the same day as Christiaan Huygens.

The Relation was soon answered by Sprat in the form of a long letter addressed to Christopher Wren, dated 1 August 1664 and published in under the title Observations on Monsieur de Sorbère’s Voyage into England. It was an unfair defamatory pamphlet, in which Evelyn may have had a share, commensurate with the provocation; Sprat fell, “for having now under my hands History of the Royal Society, it will be in vain for me to try to represent its design to be advantageous to the glory of England, if my countrymen shall know that one who calls himself a member of that assembly has escaped unanswered in the public disgraces, which he has cast on our whole nation.” A brief view of the reasons for this violent reaction will explain the aim and reliability of Sprat’s History.

Sorbière was a somewhat unsteady and superficial character with considerable talent and flair. Some unwise political implications of the Relation had caused such strong displeasure in both England and Denmark that Louis XIV banished Sorbière to Nantes; but before the end of the year he had been pardoned, partly owing to the intercession of Charles II through diplomatic channels. Having also heard that some members of the Royal Society were preparing an answer, the king ordered them to desist. Thus the issue in fact concerned the Royal Society alone. As was usual in contemporary travel accounts, Sorbière had made some critical observations on individuals and on English history and institutions, but in general the Relation gave a very favorable picture of England and especially of the Royal Society. Sprat, however, dealt only with the criticism, often with obvious misrepresentation of his source. He chided Sorbière’s for reducing the Society to triviality in his account of its meetings, although clearly no such effect was either intended or expressed. He rejected Sorbière’s statement that Hobbes was Bacon’s follower in natural philosophy, “between whom there is no more likeness than there is between St. Gregory and the Waggoner.” Sorbière’s intimacy with Hobbes was a strong irritant: they met several times during Sorbière’s English visit —in fact, one of his reasons for going to England was to see Hobbes, whose early wink he had translated into French in the 1640’s. Worst of all Sprat claimed—again incorrectly — Sorbière had said that the Royal Society relied upon books for its knowledge of nature and that it divided into sects and parties, the mathematicians holding to Descartes and the men of general learning to Gassendi, “whereas neither of these two men bear any sway amongst them.” With the exception of Hobbes, wisely not mentioned in that work, these matters were all made prominent in the History, which also shared with the Observations Sprat’s patriotic defense of English politics and religion, about which Sorbière had said much that was now better forgotten.

Sprat’s suppressions are equally telling. He does not refer to Sorbière’s statements that he went to England to see his friends and to inform himself about the state of science in England; that the Royal Society’s history was being prepared (the first public mention); that as secretary of the Montmor Academy in Paris he knew Oldenburg, who pule in Paris as tutor to Boyle’s nephew Richard fanes had “constantly” attended its meetings from he spring of 1659 to the spring of 1660, a matter easily attested by other sources and well known to he Society, which in fact had very cordial relations with that Academy during the early 1660’s; and that the establishment of the Royal Society lad been preceded by the establishment of the Montmor Academy. The official beginning of the: latter is placed in 1657, but it was known to have its ancestry in Mersenne’s meetings during the 1640,“s, which through Haak connect with the early London meetings in 1645. Sprat’s silence on the Montmor Academy is notable also in the History, which cites only a single institution akin to the Royal Society, although only as a “modern academy for language”—the French Academy, well– known for its hostility to natural philosophy in those very years. This undoubtedly as the crux of the matter: only by suppressing all mention of the London meetings and of the Montmor Academy in favor of Wilkins’ Wadham circle was it possible to preserve priority and originality for the Royal Society, for Bacon, and for England.

There is finally one aspect of Sorbière’s Relation that could not escape any informed reader. Addressed to Louis XIV, the work clearly had as its primary aim, very cleverly pursued by a judicious balance between praise and criticism, to goad the king into official support and patronage for a French academy of science, an effort Sorbèire is known to have begun before he went to England, just as the French king is also known to have sought secret intelligence of the state of learning in England at the same time, the eventful spring of 1663, The publication of Sorbière’s Relation had created a crisis. Sprat put aside his History to write hisObservations, and the Royal Society intervened with its supervision late in 1664 because it felt that it was now openly in a race with Paris and shared Oldenburg’s fears that the History, in its late 1664 version, did not say enough about details and accomplishments for a society that had “been at work so considerable a time.” Thus Sprat’s History is thoroughly unreliable as history in our sense of the word. Far from ensuring impartiality and truth, the supervision was designed to suppress known but discomfiting facts. That the work also, in this respect, was transformed into a piece of propaganda shows the Society’s sense of its vulnerability.

For these reasons, whatever the truth (which may not now be ascertainable and may not matter much), Sprat’s History cannot be used to refute such accounts as Gian Donienieo Cassini’s, in Recueil d’ observations faites en plusisurs voyages (1693), to the effect that on his return to England in 1660, Oldenburg “gave the occasion for the formation of the Royal Society.” The general attitude of the Society to the whole matter may be reflected in its reaction to the suggestion that Sorbière be omitted from the lists of the Society, made and favored on 13 November 1666 in a meeting of the Council— which, however, did not have the power to do so. The following day, a vote taken at a meeting of the Society showed fourteen in favor of continuance, eight against.

Sprat was only thirty-two when the History was published but never again took any part in the Society’s affairs, although he remained a member until his death. Owing to his increasingly conservative politics and his services to changing monarchs, he soon assumed many high offices in the church, although not so high as he had hoped and others expected; he did not become archbishop of York when that see fell vacant in 1686. During the reign of James II , he was an active member of the “infamous” ecclesiastical commission but ultimately terminated its effectiveness when he resigned in August 1688, refusing to prosecute the clergy who had not read the king’s Declaration for Liberty of Conscience, although three months earlier he had himself caused much displeasure in London by insisting that it be read in Westminster Abbey. In May 1685 Sprat brought out a tendentious account of the Rye House Plot, written at the request of the king; but he later evaded James’s command to write an account of the Monmouth Rebellion. Only a few years later he assisted at the coronation of William and Mary.

Sprat often preached in London, where Evelyn heard him no fewer than seventeen times between 1676 and 1694, always with the greatest praise for “that great wit Dr. Sprat.” The sermons extol the monarchy and reason with as much spirit as they denounce “the Romish tyranny” and “the Anabaptistical Madness and Enthusiastical Phrensies of these last ages.”

In May 1692, Sprat was the victim of a fantastic blackmail attempt, complete with a forged incriminating document secretly placed in a vase in his palace, purporting to show that he was involved in a conspiracy to restore James II. It caused him great embarrassment, with house arrest and close examination by his peers, before the forgery was found out. For the rest of his life Sprat celebrated the day of his deliverance. He wrote a vastly entertaining account of the plot and the intriguing characters who perpetrated it. It may be argued that this is his best piece of writing.

Estimates of Sprat’s character have not been unanimous, either by his contemporaries or by posterity. Gilbert Burnet was not one of his friends, but on Sprat’s death he wrote a sketch for which there is support in other contemporary sources: “His parts were bright in his youth, and gave great hopes: but these were blasted by a lazy, libertine course of life, to which his temper and good nature carried him without considering the duties, or even the decencies of his profession. He was justly esteemed a great master of our language, and one of our correctest writers.” Swift said that Burnet’s estimate was false. Still, both the Observations on Sorbière’s Voyage and the History of the Royal Society show qualities that would seem to have belonged also to the man.


I Original Works.There is a mimeographed bibliography by Harold Whitmore Jones and Adrian Whitworth, “Thomas Sprat 1635–1713, Check List of his Works and Those of Allied Writers” (Queen Mary College, Univ. of London, 1952). The Observations on Monsieur de Sorbière’s Voyage was reissued in 1668, and again in 1709 in a volume that also contained the first English translation of Sorbière’s Relation and of François Graverol’s “Memoirs for the Life of M.Samuel Sorbière.” The Relation was published in German and Italian in 1667 and 1670. Sprat’s History reissued at London in 1702, 1722, and 1734. It has recently been made available in a facsimile reprint “edited with critical apparatus by Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones” in the series Washington University Studies (St. Louis, Mo., 1958). The introduction and notes are useful also for bibliography, but are weak on the actual History itself, paying more attention to contemporary controversy, especially to Joseph Glanvill, and Henry Stubbe. Unfortunately, this edition doses not supply an adequate table of contents and, astonishingly, has no index. Some of Sprat’s sermons were printed during his lifetime, but these are all among the ten printed in Sermons Preached on Several Occasions (London 1722), None of the sermons heard by Evelyn is among them. A True Account and Declaration of the Horrid Conspiracy to Assassinate the Late Kings Charle II at the Rye-Hotse was reissued in 3 vols., Edmund Goldsmid, ed., as Collectanea Adamantaea, XIV (Edinburg, 1886). A Relation of the Late Wicked Contrivance of Stephen Blackhead and Robert Young, Against the Lives of Several Persons, by Forging an Association Under Their Hands, 2 pts. (London, 1692), is in Harleian Miscellany, VI (London, 1745), 178–254. Sprat’s few poems were often reprinted in various colletions during the eighteenth century.

II. Secondary Literature There is no full life of Sprat, and the materials for one hardly exist. There is a very brief life in E. Curll, Some Account of the Life and Writings of the Right Reverend Father in God, Thomas Sprat, D.D, (London, 1715): it also contains Sprat’s will. Much detail is in H. W. Jones. “Thomas Spart’s (1635–1713),” in Notes and Queries, 197 (3 Jan, 1952) 10–14 and (15 Mar, 1952), 118–123: this is mean to supplement the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. There is much information about Sprat his History in most of the well-known seventeenth-century sources. The most important are the following. Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society, 4 vols.(London, 1756–1757), has been reissued in facsimile reprint by A. Rupert and Marie Boas Hall as Sources of Science, no. 44 (New York—London, 1968): there is a very incomplete index of names and subjects at the beginning of vol. I. Since Birch’s order is strictly chronological, the information drawn from that work can be readily identified. The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, A. R. and M. B. Hall, eds., II-VII, covers 1663–1672 (Madison, Wis., 1966–1970). Of comparable importance is the correspondence of Christiaan Huygens, in Oeuvres complètes de Christian Huygens, 22 vols. (The Hague, 1888–1950), with relevant material in II–VII. Sprat’s name occurs often in The Diary of John Evelyn, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1955), with much information in the excellent notes by the editor, E. S. de Beer.

Balthasar de Monconys. Journal des voyages de Monsieur de Monconys, 3rd ed., 3 vols. in 4 pts. (Paris, 1695). III, 1–170, deals with the six weeks he spent in England, where he often saw Sorbièere and attended meetings of the Royal Society; where the two accounts cover the same matters, Monconys agrees with Sorbièere. Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, Christopher and Stephen Wren, eds. (London, 1750), has some information about Sprat. Sprat has an entry in Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses. Philip Bliss, ed., IV (London, 1820), cols. 727–730.

Indispensable for reference is The Record of the Royal Society, 4th ed. (London, 1940), which reprints the charters and the statutes. General bibliography for the Royal Society can be found in Isis Cumulative Bibliography 1913–1965, Magda Whitrow, ed., 2 vols.(London, 1971), II, 749–751: and in Marie Boas Hall, “Sources for the History of the Royal Society.” in History of Science, 5 (1966), 62–76. Two relevant studies that have appeared since the Hall work are Charles Webster, “The Origins of the Royal Society,” ibid., 6 (1967), 106–128 (a review and critique of Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation [London, 1967], Which is informed by a doctrinal faith in the historical integrity of Sprat’s History, but the arguments that support this faith are unbelievable); and Quentin Skinner,“Thomas Hobbes and the Nature of the Early Royal society.” in Historical Journal, 12 (1969), 217–239.

Valuable for information and bibliography about French academies is Harcourt Brown, Scientific Organizations in Seventeenth-Century France 1620–1680)(Baltimore, 1934), to be supplemented by Albert J. George. “The Genesis of the AcadÉmic des Sciences,” Annals of science. 3 (1938), 372–401. To Vincent Guilloton goes the credit for first showing that the cause of the Sorbière-Sprat controversy lay in the Royal, Society although he uses only a few of the available sources;“Autour de la Relation de voyage de Samuel Sorbière en Angleterre,” in Smith College Studies in Modern Languages, 11, no. 4 (July 1930), 1–29.Important further information is in three studies by Andre Morize: “sammuel Sorbière et son Voyage en Aigleterre,” in Revue d’histoire litteére’s” de la France, 14 (1907), 231–275; “Samuel Sorbiere,” in. Zeitschrift füfranzösische sprache und Literatur, 33 (1908), 214–265, with bibliyography of Sorbiere MSS and printed works on 257– 5; and “Thomas Hobbes et Samuel Sorbière. Notes sur l’introduction de Hobbes en France,” in Revue germanique (Paris). 4 (1908), 193–204. There is a useful essay on Sorbière’s philosophical orientation in A. G. A. Balz, Cartesian Studies (New York, 1951), 64–79.

Sprat’s History and the problem of English prose style have been treated in a number of not very fruitful literary studies. The most significant is Francis Christensen, “John Wilkins and the Royal Society Reform of Prose Style,” in Modern Language Quarterly, 7 (June 1946), 179–187 and (Sept. 1946) 279–290. For general background there are the relevant chapters in R. F. Jones. Ancients and Moderns, 2nd ed. (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1961; paperback, 1965).

Hans Aarisleff

Sprat, Thomas (1635–1713)

views updated May 11 2018

SPRAT, THOMAS (16351713)

SPRAT, THOMAS (16351713), author of The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), an important document for those interested in Baconianism, the nature and program of the early Royal Society, and the development of English prose style. Educated at Wadham College, Oxford (B.A. 1654; M.A. 1657) and patronized by John Wilkins (16141672), the warden of Wadham College and an important figure in the founding of the Royal Society, Sprat appears to have been groomed for a clerical and literary career. His first publication was a panegyric to Oliver Cromwell (1659).

Commissioned by the Royal Society in 1663 to publicize and defend its aspirations, methods, and accomplishments, Sprat's History of the Royal Society was guided by a society committee and by John Wilkins. Scholars differ as to whether the sentiments expressed should be considered those of Sprat or Wilkins and the extent to which it represents the "official ideology" of the society. Sprat's History offers a Baconian vision of a useful, experimental, natural philosophy, although it accepts mathematics and hypothesis to a greater extent than Bacon did. Like Bacon's Advancement of Learning (1605), it argues that the pursuit of natural philosophy was not politically, socially, or religiously dangerous. Publication of the History was delayed by the plague and the fire in London. In the interim Sprat defended English science from the critique of Samuel Sorbiere (16151670).

The History is prefaced by a laudatory poem by Abraham Cowley (16181667) praising Bacon, the efforts of the Royal Society, and Sprat's literary style. Soon after, Sprat supervised the publication of Cowley's works and provided an account of his life and writing. Book I of the History is an outline of the history of learning, giving special attention to the defects of the Scholastic method and to the society's "new way of Inquiry." The accomplishments of the ancients are admired, but their authority rejected. Sprat emphasizes the detrimental effects of religious controversies and the need for peace if knowledge is to flourish.

Book II contains a description of the Royal Society's origins, its constitution, and legal structure. Although the society is characterized as open to men of all religions, nations, and professions, the role of gentlemen is particularly emphasized. Sprat notes the society's avoidance of politics, morality, oratory, and religion and describes its method of inquiry, highlighting the role of experiment, its preference for cooperative over individual investigation, and its rejection of the Cartesian method. It also includes a survey of the society's experiments and activities.

Book III, more apologia than history, defends experimental philosophy, emphasizing the society's hostility to religious fanaticism and other varieties of dogmatism. Sprat argues that experimental natural philosophy is not injurious to traditional education and its disciplines, altering only natural philosophy. Although the society did not meddle in spiritual things, its investigations supported natural religion, Christian belief, and the Church of England. The experimental approach also benefited the manual arts, the nobility and gentry, and wits and writers as well as encouraging the spread of civility and obedience to civil government. The History was attacked by Henry Stubbe (16321676), and modern scholars have questioned the accuracy of Sprat's account of the society's origins, the degree to which it represented accurately the society's methodology and goals, the extent of society supervision, and whether the History should be considered a latitudinarian document.

The best-known portions of the History, those advocating a plain, unadorned prose style devoid of metaphor and other figures of speech, have been central to discussions of scientific writing and prose style more generally. Sprat suggests that eloquence ought to be banished from civil society and that ornaments of speech are opposed to reason. The society therefore resolved "to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, which men delivered so many things, almost in a equal number of words." Sprat supported creation of an academy to polish the English language.

Sprat was a popular preacher and participant in high-church politics, holding a number of clerical posts before becoming bishop of Rochester in 1684. He defended the doctrine of the divine right of kings, wrote against the Whigs and the Rye House Plot, and served on James II's (ruled 16851688) ecclesiastical commission. Although willing to read James's Declaration for Liberty of Conscience from the pulpit, Sprat resigned from the commission, refusing to prosecute those unwilling to do so. Sprat accepted the Revolution of 1688.

See also Bacon, Francis ; Cartesianism ; Church of England ; Communication, Scientific ; Descartes, René ; Divine Right Kingship ; Empiricism ; James II (England) ; Johnson, Samuel ; Scholasticism ; Scientific Method ; Wilkins, John .


Primary Sources

Bacon, Francis. The Advancement of Learning. London, 1605.

Birch, Thomas. The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge from Its First Rise. 4 vols. London, 17561757. Reprint, New York, 1968.

Glanvill, Joseph. Plus Ultra, or, the Progress and Advancement of Knowledge since the Days of Aristotle. London, 1668.

Sprat, Thomas. "An Account of the Life of Mr. Abraham Cowley." In The Works of Abraham Cowley. London, 1669.

. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. Edited with critical apparatus by Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones. Saint Louis, 1958. Originally published London, 1722.

. A Loyal Satyr against Whiggism. London, 1682.

. Observations on Monsieur de Sorbier's Voyage into England. London, 1665.

. The Plague of Athens: Which Hapned in the Second Year of the Peloponnesian War. London, 1659.

. Sermons Preached on Several Occasions. London, 1722.

Secondary Sources

Hunter, Michael. "Latitudinarianism and the 'Ideology' of the Early Royal Society: Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667) Reconsidered." In Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society, pp. 4571. Woodbridge, U.K., 1989.

Jacob, J. R. "Restoration Ideologies and the Royal Society." History of Science 18 (1980): 2538.

Lynch, William T. Solomon's Child: Method in the Early Royal Society of London. Stanford, 2001.

Shapiro, Barbara. "Latitudinarianism and Science in Seventeenth-Century England." Past and Present 40 (1968): 1641.

Wood, P. B. "Methodology and Apologetics: Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society." British Journal for the History of Science 13 (1980): 126.

Barbara Shapiro

Royal Society

views updated Jun 27 2018


Dating itself from 1660, the Royal Society of London originated with informal gatherings that began fifteen years earlier and then received its Royal Charter in 1662 as one of the first institutions devoted to the advancement of science. It has been the model for many scientific organizations formed since, not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world. An independent charitable organization whose members have been selected for their eminence in the fields of science, technology, or medicine since the middle of the eighteenth century, the Royal Society was historically influential in establishing the processes of science and the scientific method as we understand them today.

Historical Impact

From the earliest days of the Society, religious or political affiliation was not a membership criterion. In principle, anyone could be a member; there was even a membership category for foreign nationals. In practice, however, the difficulties of travel kept many potential members from joining a group that met weekly in London, and membership fees were steep enough to exclude many others. In addition, lack of government financing spurred the Society to seek members from the upper social strata who presumably would be generous with their support. This may have inhibited lower-ranked individuals from joining a group that set a high social tone (Hunter 1982). Moreover, it has been suggested that the evolving criteria used for establishing scientific credibility deliberately excluded women and people of color (Harraway 1997). It was not until 1945 that the first woman was elected to the Fellowship. It was not until the tail end of the twentieth century that programs addressing diversity issues were put in place.

Henry Oldenburg (1615–1677), a man of German birth, was the first secretary of the Society (from 1660 to 1677), and as such became responsible for soliciting reports from around the world for publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest science journal still in publication. He was also instrumental in devising methods to secure works against plagiarism, a common problem of the day. These processes were precursors of contemporary notions of peer review and the credit due the first to publish a result. Moreover, in assessing the credibility of reports received, the Royal Society played a central role in establishing scientific norms for impartiality and absence of bias.

The inductive method as expressed by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was the source of inspiration for many early members of the Society, including Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Adherents to this method proceed by gathering facts through experimentation and observation and then using such collected facts to infer general relationships. Boyle, one of the founding members, was instrumental in defining the experimental method, developing procedures for conducting, validating, documenting, and interpreting experiments. Newton served from 1703 to 1727 as the twelfth president of the Royal Society, the first scientist to hold the title.

Given the lack of external funding and the consequent need to solicit membership from the aristocracy, it was not until the 1800s that membership became the province of professional scientists. During this timeframe the government increasingly looked to the Royal Society for advice on matters of science and technology—a relationship that continues into the twenty-first century. The Royal Society also became increasingly successful in gaining government support for scientific expeditions, particularly to the Arctic and Antarctic. In mid-century, the government initiated a yearly science research grant program, the funds of which were administered by the Royal Society.

This century also saw increasingly successful efforts by the Royal Society to influence the legislative process. One notable example was an effort to modify the proposed language of the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which would have eliminated experiments using animals not directly related to "saving or prolonging human life, or alleviating human suffering." The bill in its original form would have absolutely prohibited the use of dogs or cats in research. As passed, the prohibition against experimentation on cats and dogs was removed and restrictions generally loosened, though a license and inspection process was put in place (Hall 1984).

Recent Impact

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the goals of the Society are to "push back the frontiers of knowledge and to improve the quality of life in Britain and globally" (Royal Society 2005). The Society continues to publish the Philosophical Transactions as well as other peer-reviewed science publications, and rewards achievement through induction of new Fellows and by bestowing medals and other awards to deserving individuals. The Society also acts as the United Kingdom's Academy of Science, providing scientific advice on science policy issues such as funding, and on public policy issues with a scientific or technical component such as cloning. It further represents UK science internationally. The Society continues to act as a funding agency, providing grant support to researchers as well as resources for science and math teachers.

ETHICS OF SCIENCE. The Royal Society does not have a written ethics policy, though the "quality of life" clause in the Society's mission statement could be taken for the beginnings of one. The statutes of the society allow for expelling a Fellow for conduct injurious to the character or interests of the Society.

During his 2004 Anniversary Address to the Society, Lord Robert May, its president, addressed the work the Society had done over the previous year in assessing scientific rules of conduct, specifically in regards to biological research. Among a variety of other issues, May noted his concerns about the peer review process, the unwillingness of some to consider other scientific views, and publication policies.

SCIENCE IN SOCIETY. In 1985, the Royal Society published a report on the public understanding of society that took the view that the general public did not know enough about science to make informed decisions and that more education was needed to correct this. However, given the negative reaction to the handling of science issues since then, including public concerns about genetically modified foods, the Society's approach to policy issues that affect the public has changed.

One outcome of this change was the establishment of a Science in Society program. This program has several components, one of which, the Dialogue initiative, is set up as a series of workshops between scientists and people of all walks of life. The purpose of these workshops is to develop consensus recommendations on topics of science or technology. The Royal Society carries these recommendations forward to the appropriate policy makers. Recent topics included trust in science, genetic testing, and cybertrust and information security.

Another component of the Science in Society program is a scheme whereby individual Members of Parliament (MPs) and a scientist from their district are paired up and allowed to experience each other's world. The scientists are briefed on the workings of government and accompany their MP during their daily activities. The MPs reciprocate by spending time in the scientist's laboratory. The aim is to both establish mutual understanding as well as to develop relationships.

SCIENCE POLICY. Each year, the Society provides reports on a wide variety of policy issues. In early 2005, the major policy topics included animals in research, bioweapons, climate change, the military use of depleted uranium, the environment, stem cells and cloning, nanoscience and nanotechnology, infectious diseases in livestock, humans in research, and genetically modified plants.

Increasingly these reports include sections summarizing societal concerns and the various ethical viewpoints held by stakeholders. Generally these reports do not choose a specific ethical standpoint; leaving that to society and the legislative process, but there are exceptions. For example, the 2003 report Measuring Biodiversity for Conservation takes the view that as a minimum "each generation should pass on a set of opportunities no less than what itself inherited."


SEE ALSO American Association for the Advancement of Science;National Academies;Newton, Issac.


Atkinson, Dwight. (1999). Scientific Discourse in Sociohistorical Context: The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1675–1975. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. A rhetorical and multidimensional analysis of the contents of the Philosophical Transactions and how that has changed over the life of the Royal Society.

Hall, Marie. (1984). All Scientists Now: The Royal Society in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Recounts the history of the Royal Society during the period where it transitioned from a society consisting largely of wealthy amateurs to its modern form where membership is selected based on scientific distinction.

Haraway, Donna J. (1997). [email protected]: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Hunter, Michael. (1982). The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660–1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution. Bucks, UK: The British Society for the History of Science. A scholarly analysis of the membership and activities of the Royal Society during its formative years.

Hunter, Michael. (1989). Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell. A series of essays on the activities and problems faced by the Royal Society during its early years.

Purver, Margery. (1967). The Royal Society: Concept and Creation. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. A scholarly assessment of the activities that led to the formation of the Royal Society.

Royal Society of London. (1985). The Public Understanding of Science. London: Author.

Royal Society of London. (2003). Measuring Biodiversity for Conservation. London: Author.


Royal Society of London. (2005). Available from http://www.royalsociety.org/. A good overview of the Royal Society, its history, and current activities.


views updated May 29 2018

ROYAL SOCIETY, full name Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge. The oldest continuously functioning scientific society in Britain and the world. It was founded in 1660 as the Royal Society for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy, and granted royal charters in 1662 and 1663, when it acquired its present name. In its early years, the Society showed a brief inclination to ‘improve the English tongue, paricularly for philosophic purposes’, setting up in 1664 a committee with that end in view. Among its 22 members were the poets John Dryden and Edmund Waller, Bishop Thomas Sprat, and the diarist John Evelyn. However, the committee met only a few times and achieved nothing, despite considering a GRAMMAR of English and the omission of superfluous letters from the orthography. In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Sprat continued the discussion by arguing that the Society should require of its members ‘a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can; and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits and scholars’. The Society took such matters no further, however, and this limited exercise was as close as England came to forming anything like the Académie française.

Royal Society

views updated May 29 2018

Royal Society. The oldest surviving scientific body in the world, the Royal Society was founded in 1660 and obtained its first charter in 1662, for the promotion of natural knowledge. Religion and politics were excluded; and the charter brought respectability, and the right to publish. In 1665 Henry Oldenburg, the secretary, began a journal, Philosophical Transactions, which evolved from letters to papers, and still continues. Earlier groups had flourished and collapsed, but the Royal Society with its elected president, secretary, treasurer, and council could go on indefinitely. Unlike the Paris Academy of Sciences founded soon after, it was and is a kind of club, and it was not until Humphry Davy was president in the 1820s that a majority on council had published any science. Joseph Banks reigned for over forty years, 1778–1820; but since the mid-19th cent. terms of office have been limited, and entry strictly controlled. Instead of a group of mostly amateur enthusiasts, the society by the 1870s had become a body of distinguished professional scientists, so specialized that in the 1880s the Philosophical Transactions was divided into ‘physical’ and ‘biological’ parts. Since the mid-19th cent. the society has received a parliamentary grant to support research, and increasingly it has advised governments about science, so that it has come to function more like an academy. It has a splendid library, but has never had a laboratory.

David Knight

Royal Society

views updated May 23 2018

Royal Society British society founded in 1660, and incorporated two years later. Its aim was to accumulate experimental evidence on a wide range of scientific subjects, including medicine and botany as well as the physical sciences. In the 20th century, the Royal Society became an independent body of scientists encouraging research.