Posted in Gille of Limerick

Canon Lawyer, Papal Legate: Gille of Limerick

Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)
Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)

“For the early Irish Lent began the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Gilbert of Limerick (†1145) insisted on Ash Wednesday” 1. This injunction was part of the programme of church reform that took place in the 12th century, reform that Gilbert (or Gille) of Limerick was deeply involved with. Gille was also “a philosopher whose philosophical thinking form[ed] the basis of his canon law” 2.

We know very little about Gille’s life: there are even numerous versions given of his name. He refers to himself both as Gille and Gillebertus 3. It is not even clear whether he was of Irish or Norse extraction. John Fleming suggests that his family roots are almost certainly in the Hibero-Norse city of Limerick 4, but his choice to retire to Bangor, Co. Down where he died may suggest that as his birthplace 5
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Posted in Robert Boyle

Boyle’s Corpuscular Philosophy

That both parties agree in deducing all the Phaenomena of Nature from Matter and Local motion; I esteem‘d that notwithstanding those things wherein the Atomists and the Cartesians differ’d, they might be thought to agree in the main, and their Hypotheses might by a Person of a reconciling Disposition be look’d on as, upon the matter, one Philosophy. Which because it explicates things by Corpuscles, or minute Bodies, may (not very unfitly) be call’d Corpuscular.

Robert Boyle, The Physiological Essays, 1661.

Robert Boyle’s attempt to redraw the 17th century lines of debate about nature. For Boyle the major dividing line is between the scholastics who invoke forms to explain nature, while the Cartesians and the Atomists agree that the effects of nature can be explained using the principles of matter and motion. The latter two he therefore groups together under the Corpuscular Philosophy. Boyle argues that the differences between Cartesians and Atomists are either purely metaphysical or of minor theoretical importance. One such difference was that the Cartesians argued for a plenum (an entirely “full” world with no gaps) while the atomists believed the world was particles in a vacuum. Boyle describes himself as a corpuscularian, avoiding the term atomist which had become strongly linked to atheism.

This essay was the subject of correspondence between Henry Oldenburg and Spinoza, with Boyle participating at second hand in certain of the letters. Spinoza explicitly disagreed on some points of Boyle’s, for example the existence of vacuum, and even Boyle’s attempt at broad agreement between Cartesians and atomists was problematic for his philosophy. For more on the correspondence and the differences in position of Spinoza and Boyle see:

Filip Buyse (2013) Boyle, Spinoza and the Hartlib Circle: The Correspondence Which Never Took Place (online)

Filip Buyse (2010) Spinoza and Robert Boyle’s Definition of Mechanical Philosophy, Historia Philosophica, 8:73-89. (Academia)

Also see:
Peter Millican (2009) Robert Boyle’s Corpuscularian Theory, YouTube.

A room of 17th century women in conversation
Posted in Dorothy Moore

Dorothy Moore: Building Networks in the Republic of Letters


The digital humanities project Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is holding an add-a-thon on 23rd January 2016 aimed at increasing the number of women (Early Modern Britain, 1500-1700) included in the project (see the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon site here.) Participate in person or online. Further details here or on Twitter via @6Bacon.


In 1639 Johan van Beverwijck published his book On the Excellence of the Female Sex [1] which argued for the intellectual abilities of women. One of the examples included was Dorothy Moore [2]:

the widow of an English nobleman, not yet twenty-seven years of age, adorned with all the graces of body and soul. In a short time she learned Italian and French to such an extent that she could read works written in both languages and spoke French fluently. This encouraged her to study Latin, which she also mastered soon. Not stopping there, she embarked on the study of Hebrew, in which she progressed so far in a few months that she could read the Bible in that language. In addition she is so devout that, in between her studies, she sets aside a special time each day to spend piously, reading and meditating.

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Posted in James Ussher

“Too Gentle a Soul”: James Ussher

A historian, a scholar and a key figure in the religious debates of the 16th century, Ussher was born in Dublin (either on Nicholas St[1] or 57 High St[2] across from the old Christchurch Synod Hall) on the 4th January 1581 and baptised in the Church of Ireland St Nicholas Within. He was born into a prosperous merchant family, but one that was torn by the religious divisions of the time. Most of the Usshers conformed to the Church of Ireland, notably Henry Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613, who played an important role in the creation of Trinity College, Dublin in 1592. His mother remained Catholic; her brother was the famous historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), in later life a Jesuit priest [3].

James Ussher was one of the first to attend Trinity College Dublin, gaining his BA c. 1597 and MA in 1601. He was ordained by his uncle Henry Ussher in December 1601 and in 1602 took his first trip of many to England, in search of books for Trinity College Library. During his trips to London he made many antiquarian connections with figures such as Henry Savile and John Seldon. He graduated in Divinity in 1607, immediately becoming Professor of Theological Controversies. In 1613 he married Phoebe Challoner, daughter of the vice-provost of Trinity Luke Challoner, and published his first work, Gravissimae Quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum, in occidentis praesertim partibus, ab apostolicis temporibus, ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione & statu, historica explicatio (London, 1613). This work gave an account of medieval heretical groups drawing on original sources; however it also had the polemical purpose of tracing the rise of the Anti-Christ in Roman Catholic church, and the identification of groups such as the Cathars as proto-protestants[4].

Ussher graduated DD in 1614 and became vice-chancellor of Trinity in 1615. He is also credited with playing a large part in the creation of the Church of Ireland’s first full Confession of Faith. These articles were an advance on the 39 Articles on which they were based, they allowed more accommodation of puritan ideas than the equivalent in the Church of England (for example, allowing more leeway on the question of bishops) and did not require subscription. Ussher became Bishop of Meath and Clonmacnoise in 1621 and finally was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by James I of England in 1625[5]. It should be noted that of the twenty-five bishops James I placed in the Church of Ireland in his lifetime, Ussher was the only one born in Ireland and educated at Trinity [6]

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Posted in Lady Ranelagh

The “Incomparable Lady Ranelagh”

Detail from the Boyle Momument, St Patrick's Cathedral (c) Chiara Ogan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail from the Boyle Momument, St Patrick’s Cathedral
(c) Chiara Ogan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“UNESCO puts philosophy forward as a force for individual and collective emancipation”, as their statement for World Philosophy Day 2015 states. Historically, many have been locked out from philosophy due to their class or gender, and only had access to philosophical discussion through family or informal networks. One such was Katherine Jones, née Boyle.

Katherine Boyle was born 400 years ago this year, on the 22nd March, 1615 in Youghal. Her father, Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, saw no point in education for daughters beyond fitting them for the marriage market. It’s been suggested that Katherine obtained her education when she was sent at the age of nine and a half to live with the family of her prospective husband, Sapcott Beaumont. When she was thirteen Beaumont’s father died and the marriage contract fell through. After two years at home in Ireland she was married off to Arthur Jones, heir to Viscount Ranelagh in 1630 when she was fifteen.
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Posted in James Ussher

James Ussher: Academic Modernity

Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, intellectually the most imposing figure of this early period, combined moderate religious Calvinism and academic modernity in a manner more typical of the contemporary Dissenter than of bishops of the established church. He gave financial assistance to Samuel Hartlib, who as well as being publisher of Petty’s Advice, acted as a one-man clearing-house for advanced ideas in education, religion and the sciences. In 1641 he paid the publishing costs of Arnold and Gerard Boate’s Philosophia Naturalis (Dublin, 1641), being in agreement with the book’s strongly anti-Aristotelian tone. When in 1640 Dr Prideaux expressed fears over some of John Dury’s pansophist writings […], his friend Constantine Adams, ‘to shade off this needlesse fear,…did instance unto him in the ArchB. of Armach’. […]

But Ussher himself was no scientist, and knew relatively little of the New Learning’s techniques and justification. His correspondence with the English mathematician Henry Briggs and with the astronomer John Bainbridge was concerned largely with the help the new science could provide for his own historical and chronological studies. […] Nonetheless Ussher’s interest in science did lead him to acquire some of the manuscripts belonging to John Dee, Edward Wright and John Bainbridge.

From K. Theodore Hoppen (1970) The Common Scientist in the the Seventeenth Century: A study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683-1708, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 11-12.

To put the printing of the Philosophia Naturalis into perspective, of the 93 books printed in Dublin between 1626 and 1650, it was the only one dealing with science (even taking the widest possible sense of the term.) The Boates are cited by Robert Boyle in his Origin of forms and Qualities alongside Lucretius, Bacon and Gassendi as excellent authors who are opposed to Aristotelian ideas.

I’m intrigued by James Ussher, patron of the New Learning, but I haven’t as yet found any more on this side of him in relation to science. This from Renaissance Mathematicus, In defence of the indefensible, explains how the work of Ussher and others like him laid the foundation of both modern history and archaeology.

Posted in 1689 & earlier: Medieval and Early Modern

Farback, pitchblack centuries: Joyce amid the Franciscans

St Francis, from St Bonaventura's "Life" of the saint (1597) (c) Marshs Library (cc)
St Francis, from St Bonaventura’s “Life” of the saint (1597)
(c) Marshs Library (cc)

Running since October 2014, the exhibition James Joyce: Apocalypse and Exile is open on Bloomsday and beyond, to September 2015.

The exhibition explores Joyce’s connection to Marsh’s Library (he read there in October 1902), the references to Marsh’s Library and to books he read there in his writings, and his interest in the Franciscan tradition. The latter includes a connection to the Irish Colleges, specifically those of the Irish Franciscans.
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Posted in Eriugena Sophie Bryant

Flavour of Gaelic Origin

There is a strong flavour of his Gaelic origin in Eriugena’s thought, an unmistakable dash of that Gaelic love of enterprise, fearlessness of consequences, and joy in conflict which can find a field in philosophy and literature as well as in deeds of war and difficult feats of self-devotion. As a thinker he follows without hesitation the lead of reason, not fearing that the end of philosophy could be any other thantruth, though charges of heresy and the thunders of the Church abound. The quality of the race which have made many of its difficulties are yet the qualities which make individual Irishmen, and will yet make the Irish nation great.

Irish mathematician and writer Sophie Bryant in Celtic Ireland, p. 57 (archive.org).

Posted in Events Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle Summer School, Lismore Co. Waterford, 25th-28th June, 2015

The Robert Boyle Summer School takes place this year (2015) from June 25th-28th in Lismore Heritage Town, Co Waterford.

This summer school will attract people interested in exploring different aspects of culture. It is not a “scientific conference” but will be of special interest to scientists, engineers, technologists, along with historians, educators and anyone with an interest in the progress of human thought. It will also be accessible to those with no scientific background. As well as talks and discussions, there will be a costumed recreation of Boyle’s most famous experiments, a guided tour of the castle gardens, a visit to St. Carthage’s Cathedral, a chance to enjoy the historic and beautiful Blackwater Valley.

Come and join people with wide interests for a fun interesting break in this beautiful heritage town.

Take advantage of special Early Bird offer of €50 for all talks until June 1st

See the programme at www.robertboyle.ie

Posted in Augustinus Hibernicus Eriugena G. G. Stokes George Berkeley George Boole John Tyndall William Molyneux William Rowan Hamilton

Root and STEM

Taming the Electric Fluids (c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Taming the Electric Fluids
(c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the general consciousness, philosophy is more associated with the arts than with science. The nesting of philosophy under “literature” in the Oxford Reference timeline tool is one example. In the case of Irish philosophy it’s understandable given great writers such as Swift, Wilde and Yeats fit into the category of Irish philosopher. But Irish philosophy (as all philosophy) also includes people who are interested in the natural world, mathematics and technology.

AE wrote in 1925 (Irish Statesman): “Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.” Four of those names unequivocally played a role in the history of STEM. Three of those were also philosophers.
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