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The Book of Knowledge

When you hear the names of great ancient philosophers like Pythagoras, Ptolemy or Aristotle the first thing that springs to mind probably isn't the weather, but the weather was a source of constant fascination and the subject of much study and speculation.

Printed  in the late 17th century, the  exuberantly titled 'Path-way to Knowledge' is one of the most enlightening and fascinating reads in the National Meteorological Archive.

Written c.1685 by the English poet and biographer, William Winstanley, The Path-way to Knowledge was a compilation of the latest thinking and wisdom on a great range of topics from philosophy to farming.

Weather through time - Book of Knowledge

We take a look at some of the most eye-catching excerpts from the book:

Weather forecasting in the 17th century

In the 17th century, very little was known about weather forecasting with predictions largely based upon observed behaviour and patterns, sometimes with some meteorological reasoning, but more often without.

On weather forecasting

There are signs of foul weather to ensue, soot falling down from Chimneys, Cattel eating greedily and licking their hoofs; the croaking of frogs, the creaking of Wainfrot, plaster falling from walls

On the seasons

Winter birds if they come sooner then ordinary and out of the Northern countries, so then cold winters. So the Swallow and Cuckoo that come towards Summer, if they come early, then a hot summer to ensue.

On the atmosphere

If the stars appear bright, blazing and bigger than ordinary, look for great winds and moisture in the part where they appear

Book of Knowledge - descriptions of forecasting and weather lore

A shaky understanding of earthquakes

There are also some attempts to theorise, with mixed success, some of the most spectacular natural phenomena:

On Earthquakes

Earthquakes are caused by plenty of wind which, getting into the holes and caverns of the Earth, and wanting a vent, the Earth closing again, causeth the shaking of Earthquake and is a token of ensuing war and other miseries.

On rainbows

The rainbow is only the suns reflection on a hollow cloud, which the edge being repelled and beaten against the Sun, from thence a riseth much variety of Colours

Of thunder and lightning

When hot and dry vapours mixt with moisture ... these two contraries not agreeing with each other, break forth with great violence; so that fire and water break out of the Cloud making a roaring noise which we call Thunder, and the fire, Lightning; the Thunder is first made, but the lightning first seen.

Book of Knowledge - descriptions of earthquakes, shooting stars, rainbows and thunder & lightning

Describing the weather

The book also contains some theories for the creation of various typical weather phenomena, demonstrating a surprisingly sound understanding of the formation of rain, but a slightly more quirky theory for wind.

Of Rain

Rain is a cold vapour and earthly humour, drawn from the Earth by the virtue of the Sun ... into the middle region of the Air, where by the extremity of cold is thickened into body of a cloud which the wind driving before it, it doth both dissolve and fall upon the Earth

Of Snow

Snow is in gendered of rain, the cloud congealing through extremity of Cold, but not altogether so hard as hail

Of Wind

Wind is hot and dry, fumes drawn from the Earth by the Starrs, which seeking to fly to the Sun, is by the freezing cold driven back

Book of Knowledge - descriptions of rain, snow, hail, frost, dew and wind

From Ancient knowledge to the Age of Enlightenment

The knowledge in the book was in many cases already ancient by the time it was printed, for example a theory on the earthquakes was proposed by Aristotle in the 4th Century BC. Often this shows how theory and understanding had not progressed in so many years.

The book offers a particularly fascinating insight to scientific and philosophical progress as it was produced at the very start of the Age of Enlightenment, the age which brought with it a new thirst for knowledge based on scientific reason, quantified measurement and proven theory. So in many ways this book serves a milestone in the ending of an era and the dawn of a new period of scientific understanding.

Last updated: Jul 16, 2015 11:59 AM