Institutions and Actors of Early Modern Science

Institutions and Actors of Early Modern Science

Cooperation Partners: 

SFB 980Project leader: Jürgen Renn, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Edition Open Sources, University of Oklahoma, SYRTE Paris Observatory

This research endeavor brings into focus the mechanisms of institutionalization, dissemination and transformation of knowledge, especially of scientific practices (e.g., experimental approaches, standards of observation, argumentative methods) and of natural theories (e.g., Copernican astronomy, Galilean mechanics, Cartesian medicine), in the academic discourse as well as in the popular culture of the early modern period.


The institutionalization of knowledge in the framework of the universities implied the embedding of new theories in existing curricula and cultural traditions. In this context, conflicts between innovators and traditionalists often led to conflict but also to negotiations, which aimed at merging novel and old doctrines (as witnessed by the rhetorical-epistemological transformations of canonical sources on astronomy). Early modern teaching institutions were connected by territorial, political and confessional ties. Hence, cultural and ideological issues, as well as philosophical trends informed statutes, curricula and teaching.


Juleum Novum, the auditorium and library building of the University of Helmstedt (1592).


The institutionalization of scientific academies was marked by the progressive shift from a social knowledge system based on patronage to one based on statesponsored organizations, complemented by the creation of collective and experiment-based scientific communities tied to the political power. The establishment of these new learned bodies institutionalized specific scientific practices, alternative processes of legitimacy, as well as new protocols of argumentation and communication, which are reconstructed through a comparative study of the Florentine Accademia del Cimento (founded in 1657), the Royal Society (London 1660) and the Académie Royale des Sciences (Paris 1666).


Henri Testelin, Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667 (second half of XVII Century).


Less formalized circles and international networks of scholars (e.g., the humanistic Respublica Literarum) circulated ideas, knowledge and techniques via exchanges of letters, books, data and scientific objects, and reinforced their collective identity through adherence to shared values. At the same time, the printing press enabled international exchanges among the elites as well as the emergence of a popular scientific discourse in vernacular languages (as showed by the wide literature on supernovas and comets). The new means of communication of knowledge also led to the creation of the first scientific journals such as the Philosophical Transactions, the Journal des Sçavants and the Acta eruditorum.


Anonymus Broadsheet, Des Neuen Wundergroßen Comet-sterns von West westsüd gegen Nordost eigener Lauf (…)  in Nürnberg observiert und vor Augen gestellt (Nürnberg: Sandrart, 1681); in ECHO.


The Philosophical Transactions and collections, to the year 1700 (London 1716); in ECHO.