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The Curious Martin Folkes (1690–1754): sociability and collecting in the mid-18th century

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Martin Folkes, President of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, has not been treated kindly by historians. He has either been seen as an aristocratic menace to the progress of 18th-century science or else ignored completely. And yet his contemporaries awarded him prestigious scientific positions. The vast majority of contemporary voices praised him for his involvement in a wide variety of sciences – antiquarianism, numismatics, mathematics, astronomy and natural history. The disconnect between the negative picture of Folkes as drawn by historians and contemporaries’ more positive testimonies requires explanation. This talk examines Folkes’s correspondence networks, his possessions, and his travels around Europe. Contemporaries had a set of criteria for what counted as good science very different to that which scholarship presumes. In the first half of the 18th century, good science shifted from being about singular, one-off curiosities to valuing large collections of knowledge. Folkes was fundamental to encouraging and modelling this shift. Science was no longer about finding the unique; it was now about building large collections and ordering them. Folkes simultaneously collected various objects and European-wide correspondents and he himself conformed wonderfully to the criteria of good science which he helped to shape. This talk seeks to reconstruct how he successfully self-fashioned himself as the Curious Martin Folkes and how this relates to mid-18th century scientific practices.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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