May 1, 2021Last month, I presented at a conference organised by the American Philosophical Society on the theme of 'The Promise and Pitfalls of Citizen Science.' As a speaker on the panel on 'Historical Perspectives,' I shared some of my findings on what I called 'collective' weather observation in early modern Europe. By this I was not referring to meteorological networks (though these were relevant too) but instead to weather observers who worked in groups at the same site rather than as solitary individuals. Of the many cases I examined, I decided to present on two: a monastery in 17th-century Tuscany and a family of astronomers in 18th-century Berlin.
The first case was based entirely on my perusal of digitised manuscripts made openly accessible by the National Central Library of Florence: eight bound volumes of handwritten notes of the daily weather by the monks of Vallombrosa abbey near the city. The manuscripts are repetitive and frankly boring on first glance: each entry is almost exactly the same as the previous day's, with its identical opening remarks to the patron and the identical format of two columns of thermometric readings, each measured at the north and south terraces of the abbey. But while leafing through hundreds of pages of nearly indistinguishable weather entries, I noticed something strange in the bottom right. On several occasions, the name of the observer who did the recordings changed. Upon closer inspection of individual letters, the differences in signatures matched the differences in handwriting. Remarkably, not a single day was skipped - a level of diligence difficult to expect from an individual observer. Seventeenth-century Italian monks were not the most mobile people in their day, but whatever the reason it was clear that, in one's absence, another was there and ready to cover for his colleague.
While writing the paper for circulation among registered attendees ahead of the conference, I came to realise how much my working methods and interests had changed since arriving at my current institution. Previously, my eyes had been trained to detect discursive features internal to the text - the deployment of specific terms, classical references, and implicit allusions to contemporary writings with which it's supposedly 'in dialogue'. To this vision I have added another lens, one with which I scrutinise the materiality of texts - the paper, handwriting, format, paratext. I have learnt that reconstruction of past events can start from spotting something so small and easy to overlook as a change of signatures at the bottom of a page.