Francis Bacon and the History of the Winds: Elite Scholarship and Popular Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century England

Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Risha Druckman, Duke University
The wind makes its presence felt through its relationships with other objects. We see the wind through what it bends and shakes, through what it lifts into the air or drags across the ground. Its effects render it visible, while the wind itself eludes us. And yet, people have endeavored to know this force of nature, and to harness its power for thousands of years. What of that history?

In 1622 Francis Bacon published the first comprehensive study of the wind to appear in the western world since Aristotle’s Meteorologica (published in 340 B.C.). At a time when Aristotelianism dominated the academy, Bacon intended his History of the Winds to serve first and foremost as an example of his newly proposed method of intellectual inquiry. His text accomplished this, and far more: it identified the wind as an object of scholarly interest, visible to the intellectual community, and it unwittingly brought to light the voices and experiences of the common man as the wind affected them in their daily lives. By including artisanal knowledge and folkloric anecdotes about the wind in his work, Bacon gestured toward the wind’s broader effects upon human populations of all social classes, from aristocracy, to artisan, to peasant. As such, Bacon’s History of the Winds represents a surprising intersection between popular knowledge and elite scholarship at a time when intellectual dialogue across class lines was neither particularly common nor encouraged. The scope of Bacon’s study points toward the wide range of cultural interpretations about the wind circulating at this moment: religious, folkloric, philosophic. These, at times, competing discourses provide insight into a deeply complex and largely unhistoricized relationship—an oversight that the present scholarship seeks to remedy.

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