Kupperman, Karen Ordahl (Advisor)

Jennifer Egloff (Author)

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl

New York University

Outside Links

“The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” explores the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals used numbers in their daily lives, on both sides of the Atlantic, from the early sixteenth century. Rather than focusing primarily in advances in theoretical mathematics, such as the development of differential and integral calculus, “Cultural Life of Numbers” examines the more quotidian side of early modern number usage, showing that the ability to quantify and calculate was not only required for a minority of professionals, such as Atlantic merchants and navigators, but would have been useful for a wide range of men and women for a variety of purposes, including buying and selling items in the marketplace, making exchanges with one’s neighbors, and negotiating wages with one’s employer. Perhaps most surprising is the extent to which individuals utilized numbers for religious purposes, as numbers served an important indexing functions, which helped individuals to perform their devotions properly, contemplate, and discuss theology, and to predict when the Apocalypse would begin. Beginning in the early sixteenth century, various numerical technologies and mathematical techniques, such as Arabic numerals, geometrical measurement tools and methods, calculation tables, and numerical-lexicographical indexing, were introduced to England in attempts to manage new demands and uncertainties that resulted from the opening of the Atlantic Ocean to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information. Although many of these technologies had long been utilized on the continent, their introduction to, and adoption by, English-speaking individuals during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was related to the historical and cultural circumstances, as well as the specific needs of individuals who chose to utilize them. Some people embraced numbers and mathematical techniques because they felt that they offered more control, whereas other people chose to continue to use their less-mathematical traditional methods because experience had proven them to be trustworthy. Arranged thematically, “Cultural Life of Numbers,” explores various ways that numbers were used by early modern Anglophone people on both sides of the Atlantic. Indexing letters and numbers were applied to the text of the Scriptures, individuals utilized them to discuss theology and contemplate salvation, and members of the Anglican hierarchy issued calendars employing biblical indexing techniques in attempts to control lay devotions and ensure uniformity amongst the populace. Some scholars and theologians performed exegesis of Revelation, including calculations of the symbolic numbers, as well as analysis of the chronological records of various cultures in attempts to create a universal calendar, to correlate biblical and secular time, and to predict when Judgment Day would occur. Some of these predictions became very popular, and captivated the minds of the wider populace. Some mid-sixteenth century mathematicians sought to make measurement techniques more geometrical and precise. Atlantic navigators were quick to adopt some of these techniques for pragmatic purposes, while tradition and logistics contributed to some artisans' continued use of rule-of-thumb methods, and land surveyors often chose whether to employ traditional or more mathematical techniques based on particular circumstances, including their personal education, the amount and value of the land, and the time in which the survey needed to be conducted. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, calculations were generally recorded by manipulating small metal disks on a flat, ruled surface, and recorded using Roman numerals. Over the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Arabic numerals and methods of pen and paper calculation gained increasing acceptance, and new calculation techniques were introduced. While some technologies, such as tables of logarithms, were widely adopted, there was some persistence of traditional methods of calculation, particularly non-algebraic methods of solving problems. Atlantic merchants faced acute problems trying to conduct business at a distance. Price information served as a means of determining which commodities would yield the highest prices in particular markets, detailed record keeping and numerical accounting helped to foster trust between business associates, and tables helped individuals to calculate the simple and compound interest that they hoped would help their debtors to pay in a more timely fashion. Over all, “Cultural Life of Numbers” shows that quantification, calculation, and indexing skills were useful for men and women from a wide range of social statuses for a variety of purposes, and that numbers had cultural significances that transcended their pragmatic functions.

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