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Best Book of 2020 by the Financial Times


In early modern Britain, belief in prophecies, omens, ghosts, apparitions and fairies was commonplace. Among both educated and ordinary people the absolute existence of a spiritual world was taken for granted. Yet in the eighteenth century such certainties were swept away. Credit for this great change is usually given to science - and in particular to the scientists of the Royal Society. But is this justified?

Michael Hunter argues that those pioneering the change in attitude were not scientists but freethinkers. While some scientists defended the reality of supernatural phenomena, these sceptical humanists drew on ancient authors to mount a critique both of orthodox religion and, by extension, of magic and other forms of superstition. Even if the religious heterodoxy of such men tarnished their reputation and postponed the general acceptance of anti-magical views, slowly change did come about. When it did, this owed less to the testing of magic than to the growth of confidence in a stable world in which magic no longer had a place.

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Professor Michael Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck, is the world’s foremost expert on Robert Boyle, the seventeenth-century scientist who was one of the founding members of the Royal Society.

A historian of international stature, Professor Hunter has made an incomparable contribution to the understanding of early modern science. During the past 20 years he has been the principal editor of Boyle’s Works (14 volumes, 1999-2000), Correspondence (6 volumes, 2001) and Workdiaries. These editions built on his work in the late 1980s in cataloguing Boyle’s vast archive.

Professor Hunter’s biography of the scientist, Boyle: Between God and Science, was published in 2009 by Yale University Press. In 2011, it was the winner of both the Samuel Pepys Award and the Roy G. Neville Prize. This drew on various interpretive studies of Boyle that Professor Hunter had published over the previous two decades, which presented Boyle as an anxious and convoluted figure, in contrast to the lay saint of traditional historiography. His work in this area led to him being elected to a Fellow of the British Academy in 2007.

More broadly, Professor Hunter is interested in the culture of early modern England as a whole, especially its visual culture, and between 2006-9 he directed a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a digital library of British printed images to 1700. 

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