Science and Astronomy might not be the first topics that come to mind when thinking of the vast collections that the Archives and Chapter Library of St George’s Chapel holds. However, within a series of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tracts (brief pamphlets), there lie some works which discuss various fascinating philosophical and scientific topics of the day.
Printed by a publisher by the name of Richard Chiswel during the early 1680s in London, the three pamphlets are titled ‘Philosophical Collections’. [reference SGC TR.83, TR.91, TR.92]. Each contains a collection of essays and discourses written by academics and scholars from England and across Europe.
One highlight is an essay titled An account of a small discourse about Comets, aptly written by ‘A Lover of Astronomy’. In the essay, the author relays an account of a conversation between a Naturalist, a Politician and a Minister of the Church, concerning “the nature and effects of comets”.
Not surprisingly, they have differing opinions about the nature of comets and their significance to people on Earth. Firstly, the Naturalist (amongst other scientific theories), proclaims that they are “composed of vapours and fiery exhalations, which are kindled by the upper part of the air”. The Minister takes issue with this attempt at a scientific explanation, replying that “the comets are moved by Angels, which collecting a great quantity of terrestrial vapours, do carry them to the moon, and put them up there like a candle, to exhort the inhabitants of Earth to be good Christians”. The only contribution that the Politician makes to the discussion is his attempt to persuade both the Naturalist and the Minister that comets might be of some use “to terrify people from wearing any perukes” (an archaic term for a wig or periwig). It turns out that he is of the opinion that anyone who wears a peruke “may be called a Cometical Animal”.
In two of the three collections, there are three further essays on comets to be found, written by other authors. Clearly, they were of great interest to scientists and intellectuals during this period.
Another highlight of the collections, though admittedly less scientific, is a letter written by a Dr Lister from York, describing an account of “several curious antiquities” that he has found and subsequently studied. Among his discoveries, he seems most excited about some Roman Urns which he has found in “many places throughout the Kingdom”. He goes on to describe the different workmanship of the various urns, their composition and places where they were made.
He also compares the Roman urns to the pottery which is made in his day and age, stating that the Roman urns “have not been glazed with lead”, which is a modern invention. Dr Lister goes on to highlight the unlucky fate of a Roman altar he had discovered in Malton. The altar had unfortunately been placed by Lord Fairfax in the court of his house at York, and the inscription had been “miserably defaced” by masons working on it.
Aside from these two essays that have been highlighted, the three collections contain many other interesting essays and discourses, ranging from a description of a strange stone found in the body of a horse, to an account of several new interesting ‘discoveries’ made by a Mr Anthony Leuwenbrook in 1681.
George Frost, Work Experience Student