Early Science & Alchemy

Reunited (and It Feels So Good)

Henry Stubbe’s biting critiques of the Royal Society, originally appended together but separated over time, were happily reunited by CHF 338 years after publication.

By James R. Voelkel | August 24, 2010

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Henry Stubbe's books

Henry Stubbe’s biting critiques of the Royal Society, originally appended together but separated over time, were happily reunited by the Institute 338 years after publication.

Science History Institute

English physician Henry Stubbe (1632–1676) was a man of strong convictions who did not hesitate to publish them. In fact, his superabundance of opinions and his inability to leave well enough alone make his books an excellent illustration of a feature of 17th-century publishing that 21st-century readers may not appreciate.

In the 17th century some books—particularly in England—grew by accretion. The result was complicated books in which earlier title pages often appear in the middle of a book, causing headaches for modern collectors and curators as they try to untangle questions of edition, issue, and state. An unhappy outcome is that a later edition is considered defective if it lacks one of its constituent parts. Happily, the Othmer Library of Chemical History recently made a defective book whole by reuniting it with its other parts.

Stubbe combined a prodigious skill in Greek and Latin with a thorough knowledge of history and mathematics and a great respect for the ancient physicians. One day he heard a man quip that all ancient science was useless to the physician and did not so much as contribute to the cure of a cut finger. When pressed, the wag said that this was an opinion of Joseph Glanvill and the other members of the recently founded Royal Society. Outraged, Stubbe began writing an impassioned screed against the Royal Society.

His first target was Glanvill. After reading Glanvill’s Plus Ultra, Or, The Progress and Advancement of Knowledge Since the Days of Aristotle (1668), Stubbe composed a scathing critique. He titled it A Specimen of Some Animadversions upon a Book Entitled Plus Ultra, Or, Modern Improvements of Useful Knowledge Written by Joseph Glanvill, a Member of the Royal Society, which he had printed in the spring of 1670. When the book arrived, Stubbe decided that his “To the Reader” note did not sufficiently express his outrage and that the title didn’t contain enough vitriol. So he composed a new preface and a zingier title: The Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus: Or, A Specimen of some Animadversions upon the Plus Ultra of Mr. Glanvill, wherein sundry Errours of Some Virtuosi are discovered, the Credit of the Aristotelians in part Re-advanced; and Enquiries . . . followed by 12 bullet points detailing his rebuttal of Glanvill. These additional seven sheets were printed and appended to the front of the book. A copy of the book in this state found its way to bibliophile Roy G. Neville, whose collection is housed in the Othmer Library.

In the meantime it had become clear to Stubbe that Thomas Sprat also needed to be taken to task for his History of the Royal Society (1667). To be sure, both Sprat and Glanvill had been almost giddy in their unabashed promotion of the Royal Society. Why else publish a laudatory history of a society that was barely five years old? Stubbe sought to bring them down to earth with another 1670 publication titled Legends no Histories: Or, A Specimen of some Animadversions upon the History of the Royal Society—which, after two long sentences further elaborating the contents, ended Together With the Plus Ultra of Mr. Joseph Glanvill reduced to a Non Plus, &c. He appended this title, 11 other sheets of front matter, and 127 new pages of text to the front of The Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus.

In 2008 a book dealer advertised a defective copy of Stubbe’s Legends no Histories that was lacking the Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus. Though unappealing to collectors, for a research library already holding the other piece of the puzzle, it was kismet. The Othmer Library purchased the book, reuniting the pieces. As a bonus, bound in with this defective book was yet another book, the final part of Stubbe’s 1670 string of rants against the Royal Society, A Censure upon Certaine Passages Contained in the History of the Royal Society, As being Destructive to the Established Religion and Church of England.