Scribal Scholars: The Manuscript Economy of Overseas Natural History in France, 1660-1760

Scribal Scholars: The Manuscript Economy of Overseas Natural History in France, 1660-1760

José Beltran

Traveling naturalists were scholars with inky fingers. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, it was largely through manuscript records, texts, and images alike, that students of nature sought to collect and accumulate information on floras and faunas far afield. “Scribal Scholars” interrogates the manifold, changing, and often volatile bonds between manuscript culture and the laborious crafting of natural knowledge, from the field to the printing house. Between 1660 and 1760, French traveling naturalists as renowned as Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Michel Adanson, and Antoine Jussieu, and as little known as Louis Feuillée, Augustin Lippi, and Plumier himself, journeyed through the Levant, Western and Northern Africa, Southern Europe, and the Americas. By means of military and commercial networks, they engaged in an overseas commerce of paper materials between the field and Paris that was far from limited to an epistolary correspondence. This project argues that field notes’ vocation to record the world into words and images was neither self-evident nor necessary. At a time in which several enterprises of long-distance knowledge circulation invested in the printed form (for example the Jesuit missions in China), French naturalists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries committed themselves to the production and stockpiling of drawings and scripts. José Beltran asks why this was so, and how these handmade inscriptions—and the practices they entailed—served the unstable, changing purposes of both the emergent discipline of natural history and the rising French imperial ambitions.

“Scribal Scholars” investigates the many lives of French naturalists’ field records, from the tacit methods that controlled their making (in the field or elsewhere) to their subsequent construal. It pays particular attention to two aspects of the story. First, it confronts the materiality of field observation and note-taking with that of reading practices: excerpting, annotating, list-making, and copying (exactly or not) were acts of material appropriation of texts and the natural world alike. Second, it investigates how archives became sites of scientific practice, as well as of political negotiation: in the decades around 1700, the mutable interest of the French crown in naturalists’ field papers reveals the changing, and often volatile role that overseas natural history occupied in the state’s imperial ambitions.