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Clerical Naturalists in the Age of Enlightenment

Although grounded in the work of the ancients, the science of natural history entered a new phase in the seventeenth-century 'Age of Enlightenment' with an new emphasis on observation, desciption, and taxonomy.

Perhaps surprisingly, in Great Britain and elsewhere an enormous amount of research into the natural world, as well as into agriculture and horticulture, was carried out by clergymen and their families. This phenomenon continued beyond the adoption of Darwinian evolution and into the twentieth century. By drawing attention to their local environments, clergymen of many demoninations also helped to lay the groundwork for the conservation movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

These pages showcase my research into (mostly) British clerical naturalists in the period 1660-1860, a period chosen because it stretches from the creation of the Royal Society to the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species - events which profoundly changed scientific and cultural understandings of the natural world. Over the coming years, I will be exploring the records and writings of these clerical naturalists and visiting their parishes across the British Isles and further afield.

As well as these webpages, I am writing an academic study of this diverse group in addition to an accessible - and affordable - book aimed at a general readership. This has the working title Small Patch, Big World: Walking with the Parish Naturalists Who Created a Scientific Revolution and is under contract to Reaktion Books with an estimated publication date in late 2025. I will be giving talks on this topic at many venues too, including universities, churches, conservation organisations, libraries, and local history groups. Please do get in touch if you would like to me to give a talk.

This research, under the title The Parish Revolution: Parochial Origins of Global Conservationism, has been generously funded by the Wolfson Foundation and the British Academy through a Wolfson Research Professorship.

At the centre of this research is a database that currently contains information on more than 1000 clerical naturalists dating from the middle ages to the late twentieth century.

As this develops, I will progressively increase the amount of information available on this website. For now, I have made available names and dates of birth and death and at least one source for each entry. I have added brief biographies and links to external online sources for about 40% of the entries, and this is increasing. To illustrate the data that will be available from the database when the project is more advanced, I have created sample pages for William Derham, William Turner, and Gilbert White.

As part of this research, I am co-organising an interenational conference on 'Gilbert White and his Contexts' at Selborne in June 2025. The conference will explore White's literary and scientific work, his influences and legacies, and his intellectual contexts. The call for papers is now open.

This research is ongoing and these pages will regularly develop and change over the coming months and years. Please come back soon!


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