Edinburgh’s Enlightenment 1680-1750

Edinburgh’s Enlightenment 1680-1750

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‘Edinburgh’s Enlightenment 1680-1750’ is a site which presents the digital resources of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded project, ‘Allan Ramsay and Edinburgh in the First Age of Enlightenment’. The Principal Investigator of the project is Professor Murray Pittock and the research team are drawn from the universities of Glasgow, Ghent, Manchester and Temple, the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland. The interactive map and the website were developed is Dr. Craig Lamont. The project is inter and transdisciplinary, comprising textual editors, literary critics, cultural historians, political historians and experts on the history of art and music. The project’s aim is twofold: to provide some of the materials which support a comprehensive biography of the city of Edinburgh in 1680-1750, and to scope the development of a full textual edition of the works of one of its most central figures, Allan Ramsay. 

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As a bookseller, art dealer, dramatist, publicist, theatre administrator and founder of Edinburgh’s first permanent theatre and the first circulating library, Ramsay was a key cultural entrepreneur; as a highly networked agent for noble patronage, a Royal Archer, a Freemason and at the heart of clubs and associations, he was emblematic of the first phase of this kind of life in the modern city; and as arguably the first Romantic poet, a Jacobite and an earnest and effective advocate of his son’s career as one of the most distinguished portraitists of the eighteenth century, he was a key figure in both Scottish and international literary history. Moreover, as a moderate Presbyterian who was strongly associated with anti Presbyterian cultural politics, his career presaged the full blown development of the Moderate party in the Church of Scotland, so key to Edinburgh in the later eighteenth century. Ramsay’s life has seldom been examined as an integrated whole, and that goes also for the life of his city.

‘Edinburgh’s Enlightenment’ displays research which is based on the premiss that it is by understanding the culture, associations, institutions, networks and personal movements and exchanges of the Old Town in 1680-1750 that we can best understand the unique historical, social and cultural conditions that led to the greatest flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment. We may historically have overestimated the importance of the University and underestimated the importance of continuing noble patronage in that Enlightenment; overestimated the importance of Scottish institutions post 1707 and underestimated the importance of Restoration Scotland, the policies of the later Stuart kings and the burgh authorities’ concern for civic improvement; and overestimated the importance of some clubs, societies and associations, while underestimating others like the Freemasons. These are some of the emerging themes of the early phases of the project.

The main digital resource of this site is a mapping of the associations, places, institutions, people and events linked to Edinburgh in this era, based on William Edgar’s 1742 map of the city, which is the best available for this purpose. As the project develops, we expect to introduce new digital resources to give a sense of how Edinburgh closes and interiors linked to some of the major cultural changes of the first half of the eighteenth century were developed and how they looked.

The Enlightenment is often criticized as a concept because it is seen as vague or ahistorical: the term ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ did not appear until the end of the Victorian era. This project will take the approach that the Enlightenment is a European phenomenon involving the application of reason to knowledge in the context of a challenge to received authority, particularly religious authority; that it was nationally inflected towards local conditions; and that in Scotland it can be characterized as the application of reason to knowledge in a context of material improvement. The stadial historicism developed in Scotland characterized the process of material and political improvement as a teleology of civility which came to be conflated with Whig history, while the technological innovation in which Scotland became globally pre-eminent from the age of James Watt to that of John Logie Baird was itself the development of a strong inflection towards material improvement in our national Enlightenment. This project aims to show how and why these conditions developed, and why where they developed was important, indeed central: ‘Edinburgh’s Enlightenment’.