ten things I’ve learned about Descartes

The research for The Words in My Hand (Worte in meiner Hand), was great fun and took me off in all directions. I read as widely as I could, starting with histories of the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, and then found myself off in hunt of snippets and details that would bring the story to life: recipes, house interiors, the book-selling trade, maps, medical practice, menstruation, breast feeding, illegitimacy, conditions in orphanages, rituals around death…

…Calvinism, vagrancy, street music, fairs, linen bleaching, church bells, van Ruisdael’s art.

I read histories and biographies of Descartes, his published work and his correspondence.

Only part of all this made it into the novel, and that’s probably as well. But it sits in the background, and hopefully informs the story at a distance.

Here are ten things I learned about Descartes, that I didn’t know before:

1. He believed women capable of learning.

2. He thought women as well as men played a part in procreation. Obvious to us now, not so at the time.

3. It’s thought he was vegetarian.

4. He was the black sheep of the family, (his father called him this).

5. He owned a beautiful nocturlabe, a nocturnal watch, which is on display in the Rijks Museum. Apart from his correspondence, it is the only item thought to be his that survives.

6. He was one of the first to describe twelve-sided snowflakes. How many snowflakes did he have to catch before he found one?

7. His correspondence (well worth reading) reveals him to be a witty man who did not tolerate fools.

8. He flew a kite at least once (see 7!).

9. His favourite colour was green.

10. (& with advance apologies to the deputy editor at Two Roads) — he hated Italy.


Descartes may now be known as the father of modern philosophy, but his father was scathing in his assessment at the time.


Worte in meiner Hand, Ullstein Buchverlage, August 2015

The Words in My Hand, Two Roads, January 2016.

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