Between East-Central Europe and Britain: Reformation and Science as Vehicles of Intellectual Communication in the Mid-Seventeenth Century

By Rozbicki, Michael J. | East European Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Between East-Central Europe and Britain: Reformation and Science as Vehicles of Intellectual Communication in the Mid-Seventeenth Century


Rozbicki, Michael J., East European Quarterly


Two great processes taking place in mid-seventeenth century European culture -- the Reformation and the scientific revolution -- became instrumental in generating new types of intellectual contacts between East-Central Europe and Britain. Especially the Reformation, which linked dissenters in the sprawling, multi-ethnic Commonwealth of Poland with British Protestantism, engendered such relations. Hitherto, links of this type were scarce, and mostly limited to commercial, diplomatic, or tourist endeavors. This article examines the emergence of some little-known, early cases of such contacts, which transpired due to the activities of an informal, international group of reformers that has come to be known as the Hartlib circle. The chief pillars of this network of minds were Samuel Hartlib, a German-speaking immigrant from Poland who -- somewhat in the style of Marin Mersenne and Theofrastus Renaudot in France -- established and maintained a huge web of scholarly intelligence; John Dury, an English Protestant divine and theoretician of Christian unity and Bohemian Jan Amos Comenius, the creator of a universalist philosophical system which he called pansophia. Their interests represented three different faces of the same core aspiration to order, especially ecumenical peace, and scientific knowledge -- prominently including the progress of education -- as means of human advancement.

But while the latter two contributed mostly theory, it was the indefatigable efforts of Hartlib (1600-1662) and his prolific correspondence that provided the technical means of transcending the national and linguistic borders to promote intellectual contacts. Hartlib, although widely known in his time, was only rediscovered by historians in the last several decades. His contribution to the advancement of science and intellectual life has been gaining increased recognition in the last few years, and most recently he has been called "one of the key intellectual brokers of seventeenth century Europe."(1) Despite growing scholarship devoted to his activities, almost no attention has been paid to his continental roots and the ensuing links with East-Central Europe, a subject that will be engaging us on the pages that follow.

He spent the first twenty eight years of his life in Poland, and the numerous personal contacts made there were to be sustained for the rest of his life. He was born into a German-English family from Poznan. His father, Georg Hartlib [Hartlieb], was twice married to Polish women of gentry origin before he married Samuel's mother, Elizabeth Langthon, daughter of an English agent of the Eastland Company in Elblag (Elbing). Before moving to Elblag in 1589, he had a business in Poznan, in Western Poland; the scale of this enterprise must have been substantial since the account books of the Poznan Lutheran congregation show that in 1583 his quarterly contributions were the highest among church members.(2) It is noteworthy that this church fund was common for both Polish and German Lutherans. Sixty years later, Samuel observed with much pride to his friend John Worthington, philosopher and Master of Jesus College in Cambridge, that his father "founded a church in Poznan, Poland."(3)

We have very few facts about Samuel's education. We only know he went to school in Brzeg (Brieg) in Silesia and that he probably studied in Konigsberg in East Prussia.(4) Family ties also linked him with Wilno (Vilnius) in Lithuania, where his brother, Georg, was Rector of a renowned reformed Grammar School and minister of the Polish and German Lutheran congregation. It was he who became one of the main victims of the riot, organized by Jesuit students in 1640, in which the schools and meeting houses of Lithuanian Protestants were ravaged. A vivid description of these events may be found in Newes from Poland, a 1642 pamphlet by Eleazar Gilbert, minister to an English company in Kiejdany, written as a warning to Britain against the Jesuits. …

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