‘Intellectual geogaphy’ might be conceived as operating on a number of different levels:
- At its most basic and descriptive level, it aims simply to map out the distribution of intellectual activity in space and time. For this purpose, a variety of data – from correspondence networks, matriculation lists, library or printers’ catalogues, subject bibliographies, and professorial prosopographies, to travel diaries – can be aggregated to help localize intellectual traditions spatially, establish the geographical scope of their influence, chart the media and routes through which they communicated with other centres, and plot their rise and fall relative to neighbours and competitors.
- Digging slightly deeper, these and other sources can reveal the pre-existing networks – confessional, academic, mercantile, or diplomatic – which helped translate intellectuals and their interests from one place to another, and which shaped much of this communication in turn.
- What we might call ‘analytical intellectual geography’ probes deeper still, to reveal how entire intellectual traditions and practices are deeply grounded in political, economic, confessional, and even physical geography. Such analysis suggests that much of the significance, fertility, and disruptiveness of early modern correspondence networks arose from their capacity to link regions in which radically different historical environments had nurtured radically different cultural and intellectual species. Viewed from this perspective, the extraordinary intellectual turbulence of the seventeenth century can be seen to result from the way in which the revolts and reformations of the period cross-fertilized European intellectual cultures by destroying established intellectual centres, scattering individuals, uprooting whole communities and traditions, and transplanting them to new contexts.
The significance of this deepest, analytical level is revealed most clearly by juxtaposing intellectual traditions rooted in fundamentally distinct forms of political organisation. Within early modern Europe, no pair of polities is more suggestive in this respect than England and the Holy Roman Empire, a comparison still the more revealing because both experienced major wars in the mid-seventeenth century.
- As an island nation, England was unified early. As a continental vestige of an ancient empire with a universal self-conception throughout the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire represents the opposite extreme of geographical fragmentation, with political authority consolidating largely on a territorial rather than a national basis.
- Patterns of urbanization were likewise entirely different: England became organised around a huge capital city growing exponentially throughout this period, while in Germany a very large number of middle-sized medieval civic foundations competed with one another on relatively equal footing.
- The consequences for court culture could scarcely be more apparent, with one large court (and its satellites) in London contrasting with myriad competing courts at every level of the imperial hierarchy.
- On top of basic structures such as these, diverse networks of communication also arose. England, for instance, possessed only two universities throughout the early modern period, while Germany hosted over one hundred university and sub-university institutions by 1700.
- In England, printing was concentrated overwhelmingly in one quarter of the capital city, while in Germany it was distributed over countless centres drawn together twice annually in the book fairs at Frankfurt and Leipzig.
- Geographical conditions necessitated the development of an extremely multilateral postal system in the Empire, upon which private correspondence networks, the commercial distribution of newspapers, and the conceptualization of learned societies were superimposed.
These concrete geographical conditions, and the systems of exchange built upon them, affected the cultural and intellectual life of the two territories in dramatically different ways, and have hitherto largely escaped the notice of historians.