A learned artisan debates the system of the world: Le Clerc versus Mallemant de Messange

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Sébastien Le Clerc (1637-1714) was the most renowned engraver of Louis XIV's France. For the history of scientific publishing, however, Le Clerc represents a telling paradox. Even though he followed a traditional route based on classic artisanal training, he also published extensively on scientific topics such as cosmology and mathematics. While contemporary scholarship usually stresses the importance of artisanal writing as a direct expression of artisanal experience and know-how, Le Clerc's publications, and specifically the work on cosmology in his Système du monde (1706-1708), go far beyond this. By reconstructing the debate between Le Clerc and the professor Mallemant de Messange on the authorship of this 'system of the world', this article argues that Le Clerc's involvement in publishing ventures shaped his identity both as an artisan and as a scientific author. Whereas the Scientific Revolution supposedly heralded a change from the world of 'more or less' to the 'world of precision', this article shows how an artisan could be more 'precise' than the learned scholar whose claims he disputed, and points to the importance of the literary field as a useful lens for observing the careers of early modern scientific practitioners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)603-636
Number of pages34
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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