To the unknown scribe – Isaac Newton’s assistants

Over the past year and a half I have been blogging about many things Newtonian. Some of these are of a more general nature, involving Newton’s life and works, while others are more directly related to my main research project. That main project involves Newton as a reader of books, a taker of notes, and as a composer of texts. My focus is on Newton’s least known project: his writings in chronology, an incredibly solitary endeavour. Yet, Newton did not work alone. Today I would like to discuss some of Newton’s collaborators.

We have over forty extant manuscripts as evidence of Newton’s chronological studies. Although they are rather hard to date, we know that Newton had begun writing about ancient civilizations and their religions some time before 1689. How do we know? Because from 1684 to 1689 Newton employed another Newton – Humphrey, whom we have met earlier in relation to Newton’s alchemical pursuits. Said Humphrey spent much time copying Newton’s writings, and his hand is clearly distinguishable among Newton’s writings.

A copy of "On the philosophical origins of heathen (or pagan) theology" in Humphrey Newton's hand. (Yahuda 16.1 f1r)
A copy of “On the philosophical origins of heathen (or pagan) theology” in Humphrey Newton’s hand. The corrections, additions and the Greek at the bottom are Isaac Newton’s. (Yahuda 16.2 f1r)

Newton employed one other assistant that we know of, John Wickins, with whom he shared a room at Trinity College from 1663 until Wickins leave in 1683. There are several reasons for having an assistance copying materials: to keep hold of a copy of a manuscripts that is only temporarily in your possession (as Newton himself did with many alchemical materials that he borrowed from others), to keep track of what you wrote in that letter, or to provide a printer with a legible version of your scribbles. Take for instance the following:

A copy of a text by Newton – but by whom? Between 1702 and 1714, most likely ca. 1710. Yahuda 25.2f f39r.

It’s a beautiful, neat hand, and the text is definitely Newton’s. However, we have no idea who this scribe is. Reading the text and comparing it with variant versions makes me date this copy ca. 1710. It’s importance to notice that we do not have an original, so did Newton send it to someone?

Recently I came across another hand, different from the ones we know. I haven’t yet compared it with variant texts, but it is exciting to find out that Newton was working with scribes at various stages in his chronological studies. Was he sending materials to someone? Maybe a printer? We do know that Newton showed a publishable version of the Theologiae Gentilis to the Scottish mathematician David Gregory in May 1694, possibly the copy in Humphrey’s hand. We do not know of similar publication attempts until 1725, when an illegal French translation of Newton’s Short Chronicle – a summarized version of his chronology – was published, together with a critique by Fréret. That’s when Newton started frantically to recast his materials and write possibly as many as a dozen versions of what would become The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended.

What if…? What if Newton was indeed working towards publication of his chronological studies around 1710? We certainly would have ended up with another famous episode of Newton having fierce discussions with his adversaries, as the critique that was levelled at the posthumously published Chronology showed. Alas, he did not publish – maybe interrupted by other matters, Mint or priority dispute related. Or maybe, and very likely, he decided that what he had written so far was not yet good enough – it would definitely befit the man who after all published only two books during his long lifetime.


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