University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > The adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England and Italy, a comparative perspective (13th–16th centuries)

The adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England and Italy, a comparative perspective (13th–16th centuries)

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While the first introduction in Europe of Hindu-Arabic numerals has been investigated among scholars, the history of their diffusion across the continent is not well known. On the background of the most detailed reconstruction available of the European tradition of practical arithmetic, the paper offers a comparative perspective on the adoption and social circulation of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England and Italy. The comparative approach is justified by the observation that these two societies adopted Arabic mathematics in strikingly different ways. While in England Arabic mathematics was used in scholarly contexts starting from the 12th century, its practical application was still limited at the end of the 16th century. Despite being an early mover, English society proved rather reluctant in adopting the new numeral system. Italian urban societies, on the contrary, introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals in practical contexts from the late 13th century, and started a progressive adoption which made the new symbols widespread across urban social strata from the 15th century. What were the reasons underlying these different patterns? Relying on a vast set of accounting, practical as well as theoretical sources and studying the wider practices and social contexts in which mathematics was used, the comparative analysis allows to identify a complex convergence of factors that allowed for the appropriation of Arabic mathematics in late medieval Italian society as well as for its recombination within a new framework. The novel possibilities opened up by their adoption made the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals a necessary tool for economic activity, triggering their consolidated spread in practical mathematics. It was a contingent, but not random, appropriation of a foreign form of mathematical knowledge. The spread of Hindu-Arabic numerals in England from the 15th century is understood as a reception of the developments that had started on the other end of the continent, opening a perspective on the varying social roles of mathematics across time and space.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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