Dating Isaac

When in 1717 Princes Caroline learnt of Isaac Newton’s chronological studies through their mutual relation, the French Abbé Conti, she requested to see his work. Shortly after their meeting Newton presented her with his Short Chronicle, and allowed Conti to make a copy. That’s when things went a bit out of hand. Within months Conti had his copy translated into French, and in the following years Newton was continually baited to have it published with his imprimatur. After having sent three letters to Newton without receiving a direct response, the Parisian publisher Guillaume Cavelier decided to ask the historian Nicholas Fréret for a critique and published both in September 1725.

This was too much for Newton. The Royal Society’s Historical Transactions ran a lengthy reply in November 1725 in which Newton both addressed Fréret’s critique and expressed his dissatisfaction with Cavelier’s actions. Demonstrating the invalidity of his opponent’s arguments, whom he also assumed to have translated the Short Chronicle in the first place, he remarks in true Newtonian fashion:

So then the Observator hath mistaken my Meaning, in the two main Arguments on which the Whole is founded, and hath undertaken to translate and to confute a Paper which he did not understand, and been zealous to print it without my Consent; tho’ he thought it good for nothing, but to get himself a little Credit, by translating it to be confuted, and confuting his own Translation.”

What is most interesting is Newton’s following remark:

The Observator represents, that I have a great Work to come out: but I never told him so. When I lived at Cambridge, I us’d sometimes to refresh myself with History and Chronology for a While, when I was weary with other Studies: but I never told him, that I was preparing a Work of this Kind for the Press.”

With Newton explicitly stating that he did his historical and chronological studies when he lived at Cambridge, it would seem that he didn’t spend much time with these in the twenty-odd years before Princess Caroline asked him about them. The same Abbé Conti however states that when he visited Newton in 1715 he was amazed how well versed the scientist was in ancient history, which they apparently discussed, which probably led him to ask Caroline for a copy on his behalf. This indicates that Newton was still, or again, studying chronology around that time. In any case it is clear that from 1725 onwards to his death in 1727 he tried hard to prepare a full length version of his chronology for publication, with the posthumously published Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended as a result. The emphasis is on “a” result: his editors published a manuscript that they considered a final version. Who knows what changes Newton still had in mind?

The best evidence we have of Newton’s chronological studies are the numerous folios he left on that topic. The Newton Project’s website currently lists at least 43 manuscripts containing drafts of various chapters and passages. They are fascinating witnesses of Newton as a composer: compiling and weighing evidence, constructing expressions, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, deleting entire pages and starting all over, changing his mind about the validity of a particular ancient historian’s account, and so forth. From these manuscripts we also learn that his chronological studies rest upon three strands of evidence: astronomy, ancient history and ‘the course of nature’. By the latter he meant that it was highly unlikely for kings to reign for very long periods, at least for all of them. Using the reigns of the kings of England and France as examples, he showed how they reigned on average about 18 to 20 years. This allowed him to considerably shorten Egyptian and Greek chronology.

However, dating these manuscripts is notoriously difficult. Some can be pinned down rather accurately, for instance because Newton re-used a piece of paper containing Mint-related notes, or a draft letter. The majority are currently dated as post-1700 or post-1710, and there are good reasons for these termini-post-quem. But even these very broad dates are interesting in the light of Newton’s own statement that he performed his historical studies while at Cambridge, so before 1696. There’s much challenging work to be done here: just like Newton’s own forensics into dating his chronology had a triple foundation, so my own research into dating Newton’s chronology rests upon three pillars: the material culture of the manuscripts, the evolution of their narrative, and biographical evidence. For even the demi-god Newton has to obey ‘the course of nature’…


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