Technologies of Pow(d)er: Military mathematical practitioners’ strategies and self-presentation

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Book Chapter

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The category of “military mathematical practitioners” consists of those active soldiers and engineers who consciously broadcast their use of mathematical methods to achieve their goals in warfare. These are but a subset of mathematical practitioners more broadly, and they existed on a continuum from the practical to the theoretical, with each demonstrating a mix of the two. In this military case, I investigate the concerns in gunnery and fortification of Thomas Harriot, William Bourne, Thomas Digges, and Edmund Parker—an early-modern scientist, noted author on the mathematical arts, military administrator and author, and a polymath soldier and gunner, respectively—each of whom adopted a certain “mathematical posture” to distinguish themselves in these pursuits. Framed by the work of E.G.R. Taylor, Edgar Zilsel, and Erving Goffman, the examination of how mathematics were actually used by these military mathematical practitioners (which should not be conflated with their actual utility, which is shown here to be often quite lacking) demonstrates the relationship, often a gulf, between theory and practice in one area of the mathematics in later sixteenth-century England. The context, audience, method of development, instruments, and mode of presentation (print vs. manuscript vs. rhetoric) of the mathematical methods applied to warfare also provide evidence of how mathematics was both used and understood as useful in this period to build a self-image of competence and professionalism.

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Publication Title

Mathematical Practitioners and the Transformation of Natural Knowledge in Early Modern Europe