By the Numbers: Understanding the World in Early Modern England

Otis, Jessica, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Halliday, Paul, Department of History, University of Virginia

The ways English men and women apprehended numbers underwent a transformation during the last half of the sixteenth century and first decades of the seventeenth century. This dissertation analyzes the changes in how people encountered, perceived, and subsequently employed numbers in their day-to-day lives. It also argues that a quantitative worldview coexisted with Christianity and was supported by the belief that God used numbers to create the world.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, most English men and women expressed numerical concepts through a combination of performative and object-based symbolic systems, such as tally sticks and counting boards. Those who used written systems relied primarily on number words and Roman numerals. During the late sixteenth century, the advent of vernacular arithmetic textbooks combined with rising literacy rates to encourage the adoption of a single symbolic system: Arabic numerals. Unlike other number systems, Arabic numerals combined two different functions: permanent recording and calculation. Over the course of the seventeenth century, Arabic numerals became the dominant form of English numeracy, subordinating arithmetic to the previously separate skill of writing.

During the same period, English men and women increasingly used numbers to interpret the world around them. Mathematical texts and teachers stressed the utility of numbers, often bolstering their claims by citing a Biblical verse describing God's creation of the world in number, weight, and measure. Seventeenth-century almanacs reveal popular uncertainty about a chronologically fractured world and people's use of numbers to situate their lives with respect to both the past and present. At the same time, anxieties over the unknowable future led people to employ numbers in an increasingly probabilistic fashion to predict chance events and future risks. Fears of the plague, in particular, led to the collection of demographic data that formed the basis of political arithmetic in which the population itself became subject to numerical analysis.

By examining a diverse array of sources, this dissertation establishes the social pervasiveness of numbers and their power to shape modes of thought in early modern England. It also demonstrates the historiographical importance of numeracy by evaluating patterns of symbolic change within the context of changing social and educational practices, and by placing numbers in conversation with broader developments in English intellectual, political, and cultural histories.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
history, early modern, England, numeracy, arithmetic, education
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