Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Matters of Exchange"

Harold J. Cook is the Director of The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London and the author of, most recently, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his book and reported the following:
When Marshal Zeringue invited me to contribute to the page 69 test, I was quite sceptical. But being the kind of bloke who can’t pass up a chance to learn something new, I pointed my browser to the webpage indicated and found Marshall McLuhan being invoked. So I turned to page 69 of the book I’d written. Much to my surprise, it actually contained one of the chief arguments of the book.

On page 68 a new section of a chapter begins. The chapter overall makes to case for interpreting many aspects of the economy of the Dutch Golden Age as an information economy. The part of the argument beginning on p. 68 shows that people in the 17th century recognised, self-consciously, that the classical opinion about how no knowledge of truth can come from entanglements with commerce was wrong. On page 69, then, there is mention of the high rates of literacy in The Netherlands, and especially in Amsterdam, before the main body of the page, which begins to introduce the extraordinarily Caspar Barlaeus and his views. Upon the opening of a new Atheneaum in Amsterdam in 1632 (a kind of university although it could not award degrees), Barlaeus gave an address that was attended by the grandees of the city, who were mostly wealthy merchants. The theme he chose for his speech was on the marriage of Mercatura (trade) and Sapientia (wisdom). At the beginning of the last paragraph, I wrote:

“Barlaeus was therefore bold in his intention to refute the common assumption that commerce stood in opposition to virtue and the pursuit of wisdom.”

This argument is in fact at the core of the book, which is about how a revolution in knowledge (in this case knowledge of nature) grew from the new global commerce of the 16th and 17th centuries. There were plenty of nasty things that happened as well, such as the extermination of the people of the Banda islands so that the Dutch East India Company could monopolise the nutmeg trade. But the focus of both consumers and merchants on the goods that came from objects helped to make the knowledge of objects itself good, even virtuous. Barlaeus spoke to that point, and there he is on p. 69.

Now I will have to go back to the typescript of the manuscript and see what shows up on p. 69. No doubt the magic comes from the composing and printing rather than the writing? Materiality again! Nuts …
Learn more about Matters of Exchange at the publisher's website, and read an excerpt.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue