Mordechai Feingold

Projectors and learned Projects in Early Modern England

Commenting in 1692 on the "Projecting Humour that now reigns" in England, Daniel Defoe felt justified in nicknaming the period the "Projecting Age." In his Essay on Projects he established the start of such an age c. 1680, even though he admitted that "it had indeed something of life in the time of the late Civil War" as  well. But Defoe was wrong. Decades earlier both Elizabethan and Jacobean commentators inveighed against the rampant passion for schemes of all sorts, and the soundness of their perception has been carefully documented by a growing number of scholars. For the most part, however, the appraisal of early modern projects has been confined to the domain of economic and social history. Monopolies, inventions and plans to ameliorate the condition of the poor and of the infirm, and schemes guaranteeing the enrichment of the nation, have generally been the subject matter of historians, while only sporadic attention has been paid to the numerous scholarly projects that also proliferated during the same period. Certainly no attempt has ever been made to analyze such schemes collectively and to reflect on their common features as well as on what distinguished one from the other. It is my intention this afternoon to offer a prolegomena for such a study. I shall focus on a large body of proposals that sought to establish new institutions of higher learning, usually through a substantial outlay of public capital.