Topics for this Section:


During the early modern period (the 17th and 18th centuries) views of nature and of the methods and social practices of its investigation changed fundamentally. This new way of acquiring knowledge consciously distanced itself from the traditional institutions that had until this time supported scholarly inquiry, namely the universities. Innovation centered experimental, empirical, and utilitarian research; it sprang from a tight connection between conventional science (mathematics, astronomy) on one hand, and artesian and technical know-how on the other.  The new view of an ordered universe (cosmos) is best exemplified by Copernican astronomy.  The “new scholarship” claimed recognition not simply in being “true” but also through the social and political support it enjoyed.

The various individual scholarly initiatives associated with this new scholarship had to be coordinated, the results circulated, methodological standards defined, and criteria established for determining credibility. Moreover, the explosion of new research had to be assembled, systematized, reviewed and filtered.  Such were effectively the achievements of the societies and academies, some of them private; others privileged official organizations that developed outside the traditional universities in an ever denser network during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The academies directed, coordinated and promoted the scholarship through a variety of means including but not limited to the publication of results, the establishment of prizes for the solution of particular scientific problems, and by the use of "correspondence" to circulate new ideas and concepts. The academies were also active in the censorship of books and the approval of patents.

In this module we trace the development of the academies and societies over the two hundred years leading up to the French Revolution.  Though the distinctions are not always definitive, we make distinctions between private academies and public/official institutes.