A “Usefull (Indeed Most Usefull) Thing” and the Fortunes of a Scholarly Petitioner in Interregnum England

By Contributing Writer Simon Brown

In November 1647, the dispossessed cleric Thomas Harrison wrote yet another petition to the Parliamentary Committee for Plundered Ministers, imploring them this time to use his innovative note-taking system for ordering all their records taken “since these times of much vanity.” Harrison appealed to the “vanity” of a parliamentary state that increasingly sought to render, in his words, a “ready Representation” of itself through diligent record-keeping of all transactions. That “vanity” could also evoke, however, the waste leveled in civil war and the lives needlessly overturned, including Thomas Harrison’s. The first stage of the civil war which had engulfed Britain over the previous six years reduced the royalist Harrison to regularly beseeching parliament to invest in his note-taking project and his own sustenance. Those petitions came to naught, and at the bottom of one of the many, a colleague recorded his death on September 12, 1649.

Thomas Harrison signature and death

Annotation in Harrison’s petition to the Committee for Plundered Ministers, dated August 27, 1648. British Library, Sloane MS 1466, ff 80-81.

The “poor, shipwrecked fortunes” that Harrison himself lamented had collapsed on a changing economy of scholarship hastened by war and republican government. Harrison’s career and demise illustrate how a transformed landscape of political institutions compelled scholars to engage by means of petitions and the language of projection to advocate their erudition. The insistence on the usefulness of their knowledge to the public interest raises questions about the relationship between the shifting political conditions in which petitioners advocated their knowledge and novel conceptions of that knowledge itself.

Though Harrison’s schemes went unrewarded in his lifetime, some contemporaries and modern historians recognize his place in the history of scholarly innovations in the seventeenth century.  His design for arranging and rearranging bibliographic notes on slips under topical headings exemplifies the intricate schemes to manage an “information overload” of scholarship, which historians like Ann Blair and Noel Malcolm have reconstructed. Blair and Malcolm trace the fortunes of Harrison’s method and find that a description was published in 1689 by the scholar Vincent Placcius, decades after parliament neglected to meet Harrison’s request to do so. Harrison’s scheme did garner the curiosity of his contemporaries, chief among them Samuel Hartlib, the intellectual correspondent extraordinaire of Interregnum England. Hartlib sought support from his widening circle of projectors and pedagogues to sustain Harrison and publish the details of his note-taking scheme, but to no avail.

Harrison foundered in the system of scholarly petitioning which Hartlib and his associates dominated, and which they extended into visions of future “Offices of Address” that would accept and publish proposals for employment of the poor and treatises on the meaning of scripture alike. Hartlib and his associates exploited the perpetually-sitting parliament of the 1640s and inundated their chambers with petitions for reforming  education in languages and erecting colleges of husbandry, among other more sweeping plans for reform. These petitions increasingly relied on pointed references to published plans for pedagogical or social reform that accompanied the more direct request for financial support.  Jason Peacey has demonstrated how the frequency of petitioning during the Interregnum rendered parliamentary chambers the direct audience for many disquisitions on schemes that addressed not only the employment of the poor, but also, as we’ll see, pedagogy in classical languages and the organization of bibliographic information.

The increasing desperation which marked Harrison’s frequent proposals to parliament represented a danger that even relatively successful petitioners cautioned against: the threat that scholars, teachers and craftsmen might be reduced to the status of “Projectors.” Engineers, architects and noblemen who had been granted support to prove their expertise through “projects,” like the draining of the fens for farmland in eastern England, had acquired a suspect reputation in the 1620s, associated with secretive monopolists exploiting Crown favor. Vera Keller and Ted McCormick have surveyed a growing literature on “projection” in early modern Europe to reconstruct the conditions under which scholars and scientists could be associated, often against their protestations, with projectors. As petitioners beseeched parliament for funds to reform schools, churches and workhouses, Thomas Harrison and his contemporaries increasingly resembled projectors, and increasingly talked like them as well.

These scholarly petitioners advocated their innovations by insisting on their contributions to the “public interest,” rendering them worthy of political support. Harrison himself pressed the “usefulness” of his note-taking system, all while preempting any accusations of self-interested careerism. In one petition from 1646, he assured his readers that he could have sought benefits from the King when he first presented his note-taking system to him before the war had begun, and before he was stripped of his clerical living. Unlike the “Court Chaplaines that use to study themselves,” he “scorned to make so noble a desire a stalke horse…to preferment.” It was that “noble desire” to produce something useful that guarded him, he thought, from accusations of self-interested projecting. In the same petition, he describes his “invention” as “a usefull (and indeed most usefull) thing” which is “intended for the general and extraordinary advantage of all sorts of learning.” He proceeds in a later letter, dated 1648, to explain that his “tedious troubles” in scholarly labor through his note-taking method were spent “not unprofitably for the publick good.” Ultimately his copious notes taken in service of the public good left him with a product whose weight attested not only to his labor but also its utility, explaining “The Worke, as it is Useful, so it is very large.”

Like his associates in Hartlib’s orbit, Harrison cited the “useful knowledge” that his invention offered as a contrast to the mysterious, unprofitable schemes of self-interested projectors. Koji Yamamoto has argued that the Hartlib Circle insisted on open publication of inventions and proposals lest the “useful knowledge” they claimed to provide be seen as mysterious means for engrossing one’s wealth and reputation at the expense of the nation. For many in Hartlib’s circle, the public had an interest in all knowledge that could be “useful,” in this case, for improving the nation’s material wealth and increasing England’s dominion over its resources.

This insistence on public interest and advocacy for state investment in uniquely useful knowledge exemplifies the kind of political and economic claims that, according to McCormick and Heller, intellectual histories that consider the status of “projection” can uncover. The public proposals for institutions dedicated to “useful knowledge” did not subside with the English republic, but rather continued and proliferated in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, such as with John Bellers’ Proposals for raising a colledge of industry of all useful trades and husbandry (1695), and Lewis Maidwell’s A scheme of learning propos’d to be taught in the Royal Schole for the real improvement and advancement of useful navigation (1700).

Harrison advertised his scheme for note-taking as a “usefull (indeed most usefull) thing,” but the erudition in “all sorts of learning” it sought to organize and propagate were not confined to trades, husbandry, or navigation. He may have advocated his invention in the projectors’ language of public interest and usefulness, but his vision of what knowledge could count as useful was not yet constrained to the domain of natural improvement. Other manuscripts in the same collection at the British Library (Sloane MS 1466), likely owned by Hartlib himself, forward proposals to advance the public interest through forms of knowledge far from the natural science or commercial trades which later projectors referred to as “useful” education. In correspondence with Hartlib as early as the 1620s, the competing pedagogues Joseph Webbe and William Brookes sparred over the proper method for teaching classical and foreign languages. Brookes justified his critical appraisal of Webbe’s unorthodox pedagogy for teaching languages without reference to grammatical rules as a necessary labor to advance Hartlib’s “pious endeavour for the publique good.”

Neither Brookes nor Webbe explicitly described knowledge of languages, or language pedagogy, as “useful,” but their debate turned on a question about the role of “Use” for acquiring knowledge of languages. Webbe insisted that teaching grammatical rules could instill nothing but frustration in students, given the nature of language itself. For Webbe, effective and elegant composition proceeded from the “use” of language, which one could learn from sustained encounters with classical authors unmediated by grammarians, and immersive travel in foreign cities (in 1652 the German scholar Georgius Hornius combined these methods and wrote to Hartlib suggesting the establishment of whole colonies composed of classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew speakers, strictly for educational purposes). Brookes received Webbe’s radical vision of a grammar-less pedagogy with skepticism, but concurred that “The Overthrow of all Learning is the not fitting it to use therefore Languages must be taught also in the same manner.” In this debate, both authors elevate “Use” as a, possibly the, most important pedagogical principle to distinguish genuine knowledge of language from pedantic knowledge of grammar.

Bookes and Webbe’s debate suggest that while “useful” became a ready descriptor for any invention, scheme, or patent proposed to advance the public interest in the mid-17th century, scholars were also exploring the relationship between knowledge and its “use” in abstract terms. “Useful knowledge” would come to refer primarily to those sciences and arts that yielded a greater authority over nature, but humanistic scholars and erudite projectors like Thomas Harrison did insist on the uniquely useful quality of the knowledge they offered, all while debating whether knowledge without use could count as knowledge at all.

The same theologians and educators who debated the relationship between knowledge and its use proceeded to propose plans to realize ideal grammar schools and bibliographic tools in the name of the public interest. These discussions of “use” in humanist pedagogy and practical divinity suggest that the proliferating language of projection accompanied shifts in the conception and construction of the knowledge it sought to describe. The sources of those new conceptions and the political and religious pressures that spurred them offer a generative field for further research.

Thomas Harrison failed to convince the right people that his note-taking system was useful enough to warrant the generous support for which he pleaded. While his associates excelled in propagating their plans for education reform and national improvement, his scheme sat unnoticed and largely unknown for decades after his early death. Whether he met his demise because the “usefulness” of his invention was plausible only to him, or because, as he feared, the republican government had little patience for a dispossessed royalist debtor, becomes an important question when we begin to follow the history of the concept.

Simon Brown is a PhD student in history at UC Berkeley. He is interested in theology and political economy in early modern England, and his research focuses on “Useful Knowledge” between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. 

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