Beware of hindsight!

This post is a sort of footnote to my review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare it doesn’t really contain anything that I haven’t already said in several earlier posts but it does say something that I think bears repeating at regular intervals for those contemplating historical studies, the dangers of presentism. This time my thoughts were provoked by a comment on Twitter on my review. Jeffrey Newman (@JeffreyNewman) tweeted the following:

Is it too simplistic to suggest that Shakespeare, whose awareness of religious controversy is acute though his own views are wisely not revealed – must have been equally fascinated by contemporary scientific discoveries and controversies, news of which must have been circulating in his circles?

I had of course said something similar in the opening paragraph of my review:

Given that Shakespeare was born just twenty-one years after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published and lived through the period in which Kepler and Galileo, amongst others, made the heliocentric hypothesis the hottest item in the European scientific community it is not unreasonable to ask, as Falk does, in the more general sense, whether the cosmological and astronomical upheaval of the age left any traces in Will’s work.

What I wish to address here is to what extent Copernicus and heliocentricity really was actual and controversial during Shakespeare’s lifetime and how much of our perception that it must have been is actually the product of misapplied hindsight.

The common modern perception of the impact of Copernicus and his heliocentric cosmology finds its origins in the work of Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential of all European philosophers, in the late eighteenth century. Kant coined the term Die kopernikanischen Wende (The Copernican Turn) to describe what he saw as the biggest change of perception of humanities place in the cosmos that had ever taken place. In the course of the nineteenth century in English, Kant’s term mutated into the Copernican Revolution also called the Astronomical Revolution and often conflated with the Scientific Revolution, a concept also born in that century. For here on the advent of heliocentricity in the Early Modern Period was perceived as something stupendous, quite literally earth moving, a change in the intellectual climate that was almost without comparison in the history of human existence. But was it perceived as such in the second half of the sixteenth-century? The very simple answer is no, in fact rather the opposite, almost nobody took any notice of it at all.

Most astronomers and those who understood mathematical astronomy and cosmology found his book interesting but most of them remained largely unconvinced by his hypothesis and that’s all it was, an unsubstantiated hypothesis. Outside of this rather small circle of knowledgeable experts, Copernicus’ ideas received almost no attention at all. Put simply the majority of people living in Europe at that time had more important things to occupy their minds than the complex mathematical ideas of some German speaking cleric from the outskirts of civilization (Copernicus’ own estimate of his place of domicile). As I wrote in an earlier post on the same subject Copernicus’ hypothesis went off like a damp squib rather than the proverbial bombshell.

A more general discussion of the various competing systems of astronomy on offer at the beginning of the seventeenth-century first really took off in 1610 following the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Marius, Harriot, Lembo and others; the biggest impact being made by Galileo’s publication of his Sidereus Nuncius. I say various because there were more systems on offer than just Ptolemaic geocentricity and Copernican heliocentricity as I outlined in an earlier post. Kepler had thrown his hat into the ring one year earlier with his Astronomia nova, but his tendency to write long diatribes in convoluted Latin meant that not many people could be bothered to plough through his book. Heliocentricity, in the Keplerian version, first gained a foothold, as a viable alternative, after Kepler published his ideas in simple readable form in his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, in three volumes between 1617 and 1621, and his Rudolphine Tables in 1623. Even here the acceptance, which was effectively completed by about 1660, was more gradual and low key than revolutionary.

On the negative side the common modern perception of the reception of the heliocentric hypothesis is almost totally shaped by the all too notorious dispute between Tuscany’s lamb to the slaughter, Galileo Galilei, and the big bad wolf of Early Modern history, the Catholic Church. Unfortunately here mythology rather than factual history looms large. The popular vision has the astronomers and cosmologist of Europe quaking in their shoes, only daring to discuss the new astronomy behind closed doors in fear of being used as fuel to fire the Vatican’s furnaces having first had their finger nails extracted with red hot pincers.

In reality there was almost no appreciable opposition to heliocentric astronomy before 1616. In 1616 the Catholic Church reacted to the attempts of Galileo and Foscarini to reinterpret Holy Scripture to remove the contradictions to heliocentric cosmology. This was done sotto voce and remained a purely local affair, causing hardly a ripple outside of Rome. Galileo’s trial in 1632 stirred up a lot more interest but its effect on the spread of heliocentric cosmology and astronomy in Europe was considerably less than most people imagine, in fact it was almost negligible outside of Italy, even in Catholic countries. Within Italy there was a short period of caution and then authors started producing heliocentric texts, which merely pointed out in the preface that the system whilst mathematically interesting was of course entirely hypothetical because the Holy Mother Church said so. A great battle between the Church and the astronomers never really took place and very few astronomers ever quaked in their shoes.

So what does this all mean for Dan Falk, Peter Usher and Will Shakespeare? As far as can be ascertained Shakespeare was active as a playwright from about 1590 to 1610, or possibly a couple of years longer. During this period heliocentric cosmology was not really a burning topic either scientifically or in any way socially, politically or religiously so there are no real grounds to think that Shakespeare would take up the topic in his plays, which were largely social or political commentaries. Usher argues that Shakespeare encoded the new astronomy in his plays, most notably Hamlet, rather than discussing it openly out of fear of repression. However nobody was being repressed for discussing Copernicus or Copernicanism during Shakespeare’s lifetime, he died in 1616 just as the Galileo affair was beginning, so this claim is based on a false assessment of the actual historical situation.

We now come to the crux of the matter. The arguments for a potential interest of Shakespeare in the evolving new astronomy in the closing decade of the sixteenth-century and the opening decade of the seventeenth-century and a necessity for secrecy on his part in taking an interest are based on hindsight and not on real historical research. The current view of the Copernican Revolution and its social, political and religious consequences consists largely of myths created in the late eighteenth-century and throughout the nineteenth-century. By projecting backwards from these myths, and that is committing the historical sin of presentism, rather than researching the actual historical facts Falk, Usher and Jeffrey Newman with his question on Twitter create a false scenario for Shakespeare and his potential interest in the then new but hardly present astronomy.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

15 responses to “Beware of hindsight!

  1. Isn’t there also a kind of foreshortening that takes place among non-historians? That is, an underestimation of the diversity of viewpoints and interests in past periods, and a compression of timescales. So, Milton discusses the astronomical systems in Paradise Lost — but he’s writing decades later, and for a different audience.

    • As you correctly say Milton was writing post 1610 and Sidereus Nuncius (as was John Donne), the publication of which really does mark a turning point in the story. It didn’t go anywhere near proving Copernicus right but it did liven up the debate considerably. Milton of course is said to have visited Galileo whilst he was under house arrest.

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  3. Thank you for taking an interest in my book “The Science of Shakespeare” — your scrutiny is much appreciated! You are right, of course, that hindsight is a very tricky matter for historians, and there is always a danger (as I emphasize toward the end of the book) of viewing the 16th and 17th centuries through 21st century eyes. Caution is in order.

    I agree, in a certain sense, that “almost nobody took any notice of [the Copernican theory] at all” and that Copernicus’s ideas “received almost no attention at all” outside of a rather small circle of knowledgeable experts. (There is by now a significant body of literature on this subject, and you’ll see the various citations in my bibliography.) But the issue is not so much, What percentage of people worried about Copernicanism — surely the answer is “close to zero” — but rather, for those who *were* interested, what were the implications? And I think that for people like Tycho Brahe, Thomas Digges, Giordano Bruno, and a handful of other thinkers, Copernicanism was of intense interest. (And we should note — as I do in the book — that students, craftsmen, and instrument-makers had some measure of interest in the new theory as well.) Again, it was not “the talk of the town” — but nobody said it was.

    Usher’s theory does, indeed, require a healthy dose of skepticism — as I state in the book. And yet there is still a story to be told here: How did people envision the cosmos, and their place within it, in Renaissance Europe — and in England during the age of Shakespeare, in particular? I hope I have not created “a false scenario for Shakespeare.” (If Usher has done so, that is a different matter; and I am not familiar with Jeffrey Newman’s work, so I cannot comment on that.) What I have done in “The Science of Shakespeare,” I hope, is less alarming: I hope the book will get people thinking about changing conceptions of nature in Shakespeare’s time. For some, perhaps, these ideas may provide a new angle from which to read the playwright’s work; for others, it may spark an interest in what is surely one of the most fascinating periods in Western history, when the modern world was just coming into existence.

    • Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to my thoughts on your book. I would point out, that despite what appears to be a high level of criticism, I did actually recommend it both at the beginning of my review and at the end. My main reason for doing so was in fact the first section of the book where you describe the early reception of Copernicanism, rather well in my opinion. However I still don’t think you make an adequate case for an interest on the part of Shakespeare in the heliocentric hypothesis.

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    • This is a blog post and not an academic paper. Were I to add all of the papers and monographs, whose contents are distilled into the thousand words of this post then the bibliography would be at three times as long as the post itself. If you wish to distill that information for yourself you could start with everything that Owen Gingerich, Robert Westman, Noel Swerdlow, John Heilbron and John L. Russell have written about the reception of Copernicanism. That should keep you occupied for at least a year and you can move on from there.

  5. This article is another example of presentism. Revolutionary ideas don’t have to be debated widely to be revolutionary and to have an impact. In the mid-19th century, only a handful of people even cared about internal combustion engines, but those who did recognized that the engine was revolutionary. You won’t find a lot of references to the Higg’s boson in the late 1960s. The Vietnam War and the baby boom generation seem to have captured most imaginations. The headline science involved DNA, lasers and quasars. (Lasers were revolutionary and they did capture the public imagination, but they had been a subject of interest since the 1930s.)

    Copernicus’s book was widely read in scientific circles. There’s even a good book about this “The Book Nobody Read”. True, Copernicus’s goal was to improve astrological interpretation as his system provided impact values for the positions of Mercury and Venus which the geocentric system did not. I suppose Shakespeare might have cribbed this for a plot point, but he had other source material.

    • Baerista

      I find it ironic that you would brand this article as presentistic whilst committing the same sin yourself in the same breath by imposing the dynamics of 19th and 20th communities of scientists on the situation in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when channels of communications were far more heterogeneous and isolated and opinions much more fragmented. The idea that there was some pan-European community of astronomers who immediately recognized heliocentrism as “revolutionary” in anything close to the modern sense of the word is a figment of the 20th century imagination. Your response makes me wonder if you actually read Gingerich’s book, which, in spite of the memorable title, does much more to underscore thony’s words than to confirm yours.

    • ko

      The term “revolutionary” has several senses. In one sense, an idea is revolutionary if it, when first introduced, has rapid and widespread impact in the thoughts and actions of people living then. The article argues that there was no copernican revolution in that sense. In another sense, an idea is revolutionary if it, as time goes on, is a key feature of a new scientific or philosophical paradigm, which later on will have a very larger impact on society. You seem to say that there was a copernican revolution in that sense. I agree, but that is compatible with everything in the article as long as we distinguish between these two senses of revolution.

      • Both Baerista and ko have given parts of the answer to your comment that I would have given myself but there are some important points that I wish to add.

        Owen Gingerich’s book, The Book That Nobody Read is a collection of popular essays on the research and writing of his An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus both of which I not only own but have actually read, as well as a very large number of papers that Owen has written and published on the same subject, something I very much doubt you have done.

        How extensive do you imagine scientific circles were in the second half of the sixteenth century? The number of people in Europe capable of reading and understanding De revolutionibus who lived between 1543 and 1600 was actually very small, in the tens and certainly less than fifty in total over about three generations. Not what you would call a widespread readership. Of those, Gingerich’s researches have shown, the majority although they read and annotated their copies of Copernicus’ magnum opus, rejected or simply ignored the heliocentric hypothesis and were only interested in the mathematical models that he used to plot the planetary motions. They hoped that these would provide more accurate predictions for practical applications. astrology, navigation, cartography etc. As this proved not to be the case they quickly lost interest in the book, some of them like Thomas Harriot, pinning their hopes on the new observational data being collected by Wilhelm IV von Hessen-Kassel in Kassel and Tycho Brahe on the island of Hven.

        In an infamous footnote Robert Westman claimed, correctly, that between 1543 and 1600 their were just ten Copernicans in the whole world. That is people who bought the whole package, heliocentric hypothesis and all. Of this ten only half actually committed to the Copernican hypothesis in public, the rest we only know of through their private correspondence. Not exactly a public uproar.

        One should be very wary of generalised statements of the type, “Copernicus’s book was widely read in scientific circles”.

  6. fluffy

    It’s called “Die kopernikanische[n] Wende (The Copernican Turn)” without the ‘n’.

  7. Pingback: Cosmos, Just-So Stories, and Hindsight [Uncertain Principles] | Gaia Gazette

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