Robert Recorde and his linguistic Witte

As someone who loves nothing more than rummaging through antiquarian books, mathematics is not usually my first go to subject. And so, in my new role as the Assistant Librarian here at Special Collections and Archives, I was tasked, amongst other things, with identifying some ‘treasures’ in the famous Salisbury collection. Brilliant. Over the past few weeks I have been indulging myself in this magnificent collection of almanacs, medical works, bibles, and musical scores to name but a few, with not a  single thought to Pythagoras, permutation, or anything perpendicular! The only algebra running through my mind is the three bs  – old books + more old books = bliss! And it was in this state of bliss I came across the following:

Whettstone of Witte title page

Title page of the Whetstone of Witte (London, 1557)

The whetstone of witte : whiche is the seconde parte of arithmetike ; containyng thextraction of rootes ; the cossike practise, with the rule of equation ; and the woorkes of surde nombers, published in 1557. Oh, my, God!

Why all the excitement? Well, while I freely admit I know nothing of ‘cossike practise’, I do know that this is no ordinary maths book. Its author, Robert Recorde, is best known as the Welsh Tudor mathematician who invented the equals sign, first introduced in English, in this very book. Fantastic, yes, but, there is much more to the man than just maths.

Quote on equals sign

Recorde’s introduction of the equals sign, from the Whetstone of Witte (London, 1557)

Born c. 1510 to a merchant family in Tenby, we know very little of Recorde’s formative years in Wales but should not discount, perhaps, the influences that this thriving mercantile port had on his young mathematical mind. We do know that he obtained his degree from Oxford in 1531, was elected a Fellow of All Souls college and granted a license to study medicine. After gaining his MD from Cambridge in 1545, it appears he moved to London where he reportedly served as Royal Physician to King Edward VI and Queen Mary.

It was not unusual for sixteenth-century physicians to have multifaceted careers as mathematicians, civil servants, diplomats, even spies (the renowned John Dee may well spring to mind here, and it is no coincidence that Dee edited some of Recorde’s works!) Recorde’s scientific and mathematical skills enabled him to work as an iron-founder, accountant and metallurgist for the Crown service. He also wrote on astronomy. The Castle of Knowledge published in 1556, was one of the first to make public reference to the heliocentric model which placed the sun at the centre of the solar system. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he also dabbled in antiquarianism and linguistics!

The Castle of Knowledge title page 1556

Title page of The Castle of Knowledge (London, 1556)

Such a comprehensive skill-set was not un-common amongst our learned contemporaries, but what makes Recorde unique is the linguistic insight displayed in his writings. The Ground of Artes  published in 1543, possibly the first original arithmetic book in English, was written in the form of a dialogue as ‘the easiest way of instruction, when the scholar may ask every doubt orderly, and the master may answer.’

Dialogue detail from the Ground of Artes, 1663

Opening page from The Ground of Artes (London, 1632)

Similarly, The Whetstone of Witte follows the conversation between a master and scholar comparing the rudiments of geometry and arithmetic. If this didn’t grab you, Recorde also created imaginative titles and often used poetry as a way of introducing his subject and injecting a little humour into his works. The Whetstone of Witte, for instance, so called after a whetstone to sharpen the mind:

Here if you lift your wittes to whette,
Much sharpness thereby shall you get’.

Poem detail from The Castle of Knowledge

Poem at the end of the contents page of The Castle of Knowledge (London, 1556)

His use of English as opposed to Latin, and his attempts to modify the language to explain the maths, highlights his aim to communicate his ideas as widely and effectively as possible. At a time when printing in the vernacular was relatively new and literacy was limited, Recorde’s approach was ground breaking.

His only medical work, The Urinal of Physick, is notable for its use of the vernacular as well as the choice of topic. At a time when fortune-telling and prophesying were highly suspect, uroscopy, or the study of urine for symptoms of disease could be seen as divinatory if it was the only medical method used. So to publish a treatise solely on urine, in English, was an original move especially as this type of literature was not typically produced by orthodox physicians.

Detail of urine flask in The Urinal of Physick

Urine flask detail from The Urinal of Physick (London, 1651)

Nor was this style of writing. It is a testament to Recorde’s innovative attitude to learning that he wrote his works the way he did. By introducing us to a general vocabulary of learning he enabled us to engage with ideas in a language that he helped mould as our own. And so, the lesson of this story is to never underestimate the allure of special collections, for old books, even those on maths = bliss, and as Recorde himself states: ‘no two things can be more equal’.


One response to “Robert Recorde and his linguistic Witte

  1. theoldbooklibrarian

    Great post!

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