Trial of the pyx

In one of the novels in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle” Isaac Newton is subjected to a trial of the pix, in which random samples of the coins produced by the mint were examined for weight and purity. Now the pyx (samples) are a real concept and trials of the pyx really happened. But Stephenson’s books are a mixture of fact and fancy, real history (Newton really was the master of the mint and Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II, and all the rest really did happen. But there is also a lot of fiction; no one was ever impaled by the point of a cello from Handel’s orchestra (I don’t think cellos had even been invented yet), etc. So was Newton ever subjected to this trial?


From the Royal Mint’s own website.

Just to be clear, the Trial was (and is) a routine, annual event. The Mint always has to undergo it. Moreover, while it might lead to prosecutions against those responsible, it is the coins, not the Mint officials, that are being ‘tried’.

The story may be tosh, but since Bach wrote for the cello, the instrument was certainly around by Handel’s time.

The cello had certainly been around for some time, but it didn’t yet have a tailpin in the 18th century. Instead, the instrument was grasped between the knees:

It wasn’t quite an annual event during the period of Newton’s mastership. It had been until the disruptions of the Civil War - and the rule that there had to be one every year was reintroduced in 1870. In between, they waited until it was convenient, usually going by how many coins had been stockpiled. Thus Newton’s first Trial was in 1701, but there wasn’t another until 1707, then not until the notorious one of 1710, after which the next was in 1713.

It looks strange to see the bottom of the cello suspended in the air like that. Maybe it explains how there came to be so many women cellists-- a long skirt would help with holding it up.

Stephenson, like most historical fiction authors, builds from reputable facts for real figures. Note that I say “builds from”, not “follows slavishly”. He starts with something that history records, and then speculates on the details. It makes for good fiction that helps us suspend disbelief and understand more of the nature of the age. In Stephenson’s case, his inclusion of Newton is a wonderful introduction to the scientist as human being, as well as a good examination of the Hermetic tradition behind his science.

My first encounter with history melded to fiction was Ken Follett’s “The Man from St. Petersburg”. In this thriller, a young Winston Churchill is present at a fire in the Earl of Walden’s manor. I thought to myself when I first read it: “That’s a bit ballsy, putting a historical figure at a real event that you could verify.” I mean, Churchill meeting some fictitious character in an office is one thing; being present at a fire is another.

Then, in one of his biographies, I read that he helped put out a fire at a lord’s estate, in the same season of the same year as in Follett’s book. My skepticism was replaced by admiration for Follett’s historical research.


Let’s pyx this up and move it over to Cafe Society.


We omit here the Thomas Beecham story. :smiley: