Math in the 17th Century

Boys and girls who were educated in the 16th and especially the 17th century would have learned how to do math. There were many tools, including practice books, that would have allowed students to learn math. Math was a practical skill for the elites because it was necessary to keep track of their investments and trade interests. It was also a necessary skill for business owners and tradesmen to keep track of their accounts.


By the late 17th century, schools and tutors would advertise arithmetic lessons as part of their offerings. Bathsua Makin, who was developing a school curriculum in the 1670s for girls, included keeping accounts and arithmetic in her proposal. A practice book entitled The Accomptant’s Assistant in Vulgar and Decimal Arithmetic...Aimed at Revenue, Excise and Customs' officers, but also for the recreation of gentlemen, and the use of merchants, bankers and tradesmen and schools shows the importance of math skills across classes. And even though the title addresses men, the book was advertised in the Female Tatler, a periodical for women. Math exercise books would often include sections on addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and basic algebra, just like students would learn today.


Many of the word problems would focus on real life situations, as that was the primary use for most people learning math at the time. Money was a common example. Students would also learn how to calculate interest and foreign monetary exchange. And of course, word problems would also deal with the practical issue of marriage portions for a man with daughters and sons. Word problems


Here is a sample of a word problem in Sarah Cole’s exercise book which is held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection, one of the addition problems involves a loan: “I Lent 486 pound and received Back 199 I demand wt is due”. Can you figure out the balance on the loan?


Can you come up with a word problem for a Tudor era student? How would that word problem be different for one for today’s students?


Change in numbers

Math underwent a major change in Early Modern England. Examinations of account books show that many people in the 1500s and early 1600s used Roman numerals to keep track of money. Arabic numerals, the ones we use today, become more common in the middle of the 1600s. This represents a shift in how boys and girls would be taught how to do math.


Sources: “Learning to Invest: Women’s Education in Arithmetic and Accounting in Early Modern England” Amy Frode, Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

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