Professor Margaret Schotte’s new book ‘Sailing School’ offers new approach to maritime history

A new book released this summer by Margaret E. Schotte, York University associate professor of history, pushes us to rethink the relationship among maritime history, the scientific revolution, and the rise of print culture during a period of unparalleled innovation and global expansion.

Margaret Schotte

Margaret Schotte

Join Schotte to celebrate the launch of Sailing School in the Scott Library (Marsden Salon, second floor) on Oct. 3, from 3 to 5 p.m. As part of the launch event, a selection of early navigational books and manuscripts from the Clara Thomas Archives will be on display. To assist organizers with preparations for the launch, faculty, staff and students are asked to RSVP by emailing to sailbk@yorku.ca.

Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) has been called a “deft and scholarly chronicle” by the journal Nature. This richly illustrated comparative study offers an important new approach to maritime history, bringing together the history of science and the history of print culture. Schotte uncovers the stories of European navigators by analyzing hundreds of published textbooks and never-before-studied manuscripts crafted by practitioners themselves. She takes readers from a Dutch bookshop stocked with maritime manuals, to a French trigonometry lesson on the coast of Normandy, to the examination hall for England’s Royal Navy. The book concludes on the deck of a British ship, foundering after being hit by an iceberg in the turbulent Indian Ocean. In all these locales, Schotte shows how mariners deployed a hybrid form of technical expertise, one dependent on book learning and mathematics.

Book cover of Sailing School. Image used with permission from the author

“You might envision an early navigator tying knots and reefing sails as adroitly as he sets a course, but would you also credit him with a mastery of multiplication tables, trigonometry and logarithms? Thanks to Margaret Schotte’s personal voyage through several centuries’ worth of seamen’s texts from maritime countries, Sailing School teaches us what sailors had to learn on land to find their way at sea,” wrote Dava Sobel, author of Longitude in a recent review.

“Well-conceived and rich in empirical detail, this fascinating study traverses with ease between the worlds of print, teaching, and book learning and the worlds of seafaring, navigational practice, and instrumentation. Sailing School beautifully shows the extremely rich traditions of navigational print and the cross-dissemination across linguistic, political, and geographical boundaries. An outstanding, highly original piece of scholarship, this will be the standard, go-to book for years to come,” noted Pamela O. Long, author of Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600, in her review of the book.

Some of Schotte’s undergraduate courses at York University include Technologies of Communication: A History of Reading from the Codex to the Kindle, and Revolutions in the Stars: Science in the Age of Galileo. Her research focuses on the intersection of maritime history and the history of science and technology. She is currently investigating technical education on sea and shore, from the desk of a French East India Company vessel to a school in New France. To learn more, visit SailingSchoolBook.com.

Schotte will be a keynote speaker at the Canadian Science & Technology Historical Association in Halifax this November.

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