Childhood, war games and becoming a historian.

This week’s A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 The Horror of War by Renaissance historian Lisa Jardine was truly excellent and well worth ten minutes of your time. From the starting point of having visited a war exhibition she discussed how museums sometimes/often sanitize war when presenting it attractively pre-packaged for the viewing public. Turning to the anything but attractive reality of war she ended her short piece with a very personal anecdote from the bringing up of her own children. She told how her five-year-old son came home from primary school wishing to be bought a khaki shirt. It transpired that a group of kids in his class had started to play war games, re-enacting the Second World War. I was slightly surprised that the initiator or this activity was a recently arrived German boy because one of the things that struck me when I moved to Germany more than thirty years ago is that German children, unlike myself and my friends in my childhood, don’t play war games; a legacy of the German guilt for the Second World War and everything that happened in Germany during the Nazi period. In fact many of my German friends who had spent time in Britain told me how shocked they had been by the war stories in English children’s comics. How Lisa dealt with her own qualms about her son’s wish to play war games I will leave you to find out for yourselves, I want to talk about my own childhood, the war games I played and how it led to me becoming a historian.

I grew up I the 1950s in the shadow of the Second World War; although I don’t remember it the bottled milk on which I was fed was still rationed. From about the age of four to about the age of eleven me and my best friend Pete (and yes grammar fascists I know that is grammatically wrong!) played war games; it was one of our principle activities.

We were Royal Marine Commandoes parachuting behind enemy lines in France to rescue some imagined imprisoned spy, we were Viking warriors slashing and pillaging our way through some imagined coastal settlement or sailing the high seas in our dragon boat, we were Roman legionaries battling the wild Pictish hoards to regain the Eagle of the Ninth (slightly ironic as my father was a lowland Scot!), we were members of the French Foreign Legion besieged by marauding Arabs, you name it if there was a war in history we fought in it.

We had a large storage cupboard, without doors in a loft above a stables on whose top shelf we sat back to back whilst flying our Lancaster bomber; Pete was the pilot and I was by turns the tail-gunner and the bomb aimer. We had an old coalbunker in the yard that was by turns our tank or Panzerkampfwagen (we knew all the right terminology), or our submarine. I had a real periscope that I had built myself with the help of my mother. We were always in the workshop building the accoutrements of war. We carved swords out of fence palings and made shields of every imaginable shape and form out of plywood. We built wooden Sten submachine guns and Bren light machine guns. We fashioned bows and arrows out of hazel wood saplings and constructed lethal crossbows. When we played inside we glued together vast fleets of warships and airplanes, as well as squadrons of tanks from Airfix plastic kits.

A large part of our lives was devoted to the pursuit of war but it wasn’t just practical, there was a strong and surprisingly deep theoretical side to our endeavours. We wished our war games to be as authentic as possible and so we devoted a large part of our time to studying war history. Whilst still at primary school I could detail every model of tank (Panzerkampfwagen) produced in Germany during the 1930s and 40s, including who had designed them, which company had built them etc. etc. I knew the ranks of all the members of a Roman legion, how many men constituted a cohort, a legion, where which legions were deployed and so on, and so on. Aided by my historian father, I had books on such things as Lancelot de Mole’s tank and the construction of Samurai armour. I was a war history junkie, but more importantly I was a practicing historian. I served my first apprenticeship as a historian whilst still at primary school learning, in detail, about all of the ways humanity had dreamt up to kill itself off.

By the time I was fifteen I had become the totally convinced pacifist I remain today but my passion for history had grown and would soon turn first to the history of mathematics and then later to the more general history of science but that passion has its roots very firmly in those childhood years where, in my imagination, I slaughtered thousands and, it should be pointed out, died a thousand spectacular deaths. Being able to act out an Oscar worthy death was an essential part of our war games.

I never had children and being old, set in my ways as a single and, as my contribution to contraception, sterilised I never will have, so I can’t say how I would react to a child of mine wishing to play war games. I can only wish that my reaction would have been as wonderful as that of Lisa Jardine.



Filed under Autobiographical

The naming of America – Redux

This is a brief addenda to my previous naming of America post, as my copy of Peter Macdonald’s Cabot & The Naming of America: Dawn of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497 has finally arrived; remaindered, it cost all of £0.01! (p&p £4!).

As I suspected the book is self-published by the author, always a bad sign for a history book, and it lives down to expectations. Macdonald’s arguments in favour of the Ap Meric (Amerike) theories are even worse than those of Rodney Broome and are centred on a straightforward lie. On the second, unnumbered, page Macdonald writes:

In 1507 a cartographer by the name of Waldseemuller [sic] (meaning the miller from the forest sea [it’s actually wood lake]) produced a map in which he attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci. People assumed that he had got his facts right and that from this slender beginning grew the legend. However, it is more than probable that the miller man gave the credit to the wrong person. It is far more likely that the great continent was named after Richard Amerike, the King’s Customs Officer for Bristol in 1497, as will become evident in this book, and that Herr Waldseemuller’s was a shot in the dark that hit the wrong target.

As is very clear from the passages from the Cosmographiae Introductio, that I quoted in my previous post, Ringmann, its author, states that he and Waldseemüller had not attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci but believing Vespucci to be the discoverer of the new territories and coined the name themselves in his honour. Macdonald repeats this deliberate lie again on page 35:

In 1507 a young geographer who lived in Freiburg [St Dié actually], Martin Waldseemuller by name, drew a map of the new continent and gave it the name ‘America’. Because he knew that Amerigo Vespucci had accompanied Hojeda he assumed the name America, by which the place was beginning to be known, referred to him.

Naturally, Macdonald doesn’t quote a single occurrence of the name ‘America’ before it was coined by Ringmann and Waldseemüller in 1507.

An impression of Macdonald’s abilities as a historian can be gained from the following introductory paragraph on page 3. A warning to all serious medieval historians you might feel offended by Macdonald’s description of the late fifteenth-century. On the other hand you might fall about laughing.

It is difficult, today, to imagine just how ignorant people were five hundred years ago; they knew nothing about almost everything. They had no idea how their bodies worked – no idea why they breathed, urinated, defecated or felt hungry, felt sick or had a temperature – and many made no connection between the sexual act and childbirth. They knew nothing of geography – indeed most people didn’t know or care what went on on the other side of the horizon – and they thought the world was flat [my emphasis]. Nearly everyone was illiterate, even kings; only a few of the clergy knew how to read and write.




Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Another one bites the dust

This is a sort of footnote to my last post in which I criticised science writer Tim Radford for propagating myths about the reception of heliocentricity in the sixteenth-century. Now a second truly legendary astronomer and science writer, John Gribbin, has turned up in the comments and shown that he also lives in the nineteenth-century, as far as history of science is concerned, when John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White created the myth of an eternal war between science and religion and presented Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, alongside lesser lights such as Michael Servetus and Marco-Antonio de Dominis, as the scientific victims of Christian persecution.

Rushing in where angels fear to tread Gribbin sought to defend Radford’s honour with the following comment:

As a card-carrying pedant, I would point out that Tim says “ideas like that”, not “that idea”. Which makes Bruno relevant, whether you like it or not.

Now I appreciate Mr Gribbin’s attempt to help his friend and colleague but in doing so he has only displayed his own ignorance of the material. There was a very good reason why I ended my last post with the following tongue in cheek warning:

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.

No modern historian of science, knowledgeable of the history of astronomy in the Early Modern Period, would follow Draper and White in viewing Bruno as a martyr of science. This is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked and which is, these days, usually only dug up by historically ignorant gnu atheists and others of that ilk, as a weapon with which to beat the Catholic Church around the head. As John Gribbin has walked straight into the trap we will just briefly examine why the Church committed Giordano Bruno to the flames.

A Dominican monk, Bruno came under suspicion of heresy and fled his Southern Italian monastery in 1576. He spent the next sixteen years wandering around Europe blowing his own trumpet, generally annoying people and pissing off the authorities, both civil and religious, wherever he went. Returning to Italy he landed, not unsurprisingly in the clutches of the Roman Inquisition. He was held prisoner and interrogated for seven years before being tried for heresy, found guilty, and executed by burning at the stake in 1600. The proceedings of his trial have disappeared so it is not known what exactly he was found guilty of but summary was discovered in 1940 and a list of the charges against him is known:

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

Now this list is not hidden away somewhere, I just borrowed it from the Wikipedia Bruno article, so Mr Gribbin could have consulted it himself. He would of course pounce on the sixth item on the list gleefully crying I told you so, but let us examine if he should be so sure of being right.

Given the fact that Bruno was accused of breaching almost every single central doctrine of the Catholic Church did this one point of highly speculative cosmology really play such a central role in his conviction and subsequent execution, I hardly think so. In fact I don’t think it played much of a role at all compared to his denying the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth. However there is more.

Bruno’s claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity has little or nothing to do with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory the original statement for which Tim Radford claimed one could be condemned to the stake. Copernicus proposed a finite sun centred cosmos, Bruno speculated about an infinite universe filled with homogenously distributed infinite sun each with their own populated planets and no centre. The two proposals don’t have an awful lot in common. Copernicus expressly refused to enter the discussion as to whether the cosmos was finite or infinite, and never speculated about other inhabited planets. He, as a good Catholic cleric, would definitely have rejected an eternal universe as this contradicted the Creation. What about the two leading Copernican of Bruno’s own times? Kepler explicitly rejected Bruno’s infinite universe and infinite suns and in doing so brought the earliest known argument against Olbers’ paradox. Galileo simply ignored him. I think it is safe to say that the cosmological statements that were included in Bruno’s indictment were not ideas like Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, as claimed by Gribbin.

Gribbin’s claim also suffers from another problem. The reason why Bruno’s cosmological speculations were included in his indictment was very clearly theological and not scientific. As already mentioned if, as Bruno claimed, the universe were eternal then there could be no Creation, highly heretical. In fact this was one of the central reasons why the Catholic Church rejected the Greek philosophy of Atomism. Secondly if there were infinite populated worlds there would be serious problems with the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. If he was the only Son of God did he visit all of the infinite populated planets, simultaneously, one after the other? Or were there infinite Jesuses? Did he only save the earth? Then what about the other planets? A really tangled mess for the Catholic theologians! As with Galileo in 1615 if Bruno had had anything remotely like proof for his cosmology he might have had something he could argue with but he didn’t, all he had was pure unscientific, unsubstantiated speculation. As I sated in earlier posts Bruno’s cosmological speculations were anything but scientific and anything but accurate. As far as we know the universe is finite and not infinite, it had a starting point and will almost certainly have an end. There are neither infinite stars (suns) nor infinite planets and those that there are, are not distributed homogenously. To stylise Bruno as a scientific martyr, as Draper/White did in the nineteenth-century and as John Gribbin apparently still wants to do, boarders on the grotesque.







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

I expected better of Tim Radford

Tim Radford is a science writer who works for The Guardian newspaper. In fact many people consider him the best British science writer of the current crop, not without a certain amount of justification. Because of this I was, as a historian of science, more than disappointed by the opening paragraph of his latest post on the science section of the Guardian’s website, a book review: “The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf review – a cosmic quest”. Radford opens his review with three sentences of which the third caused me to groan inwardly and bang my head in resignation on my computer keyboard.

The Copernican principle changed everything. It was not formulated by Copernicus, who in 1543 proposed only that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the motion of the Earth around the sun could explain the irregularities in the heavens. At the time, ideas like that could get people condemned to the stake. [my emphasis]

I ask myself how much longer historians of science are going to have to keep repeating that this statement is complete and utter rubbish before science writers like Tim Radford finally take their hands off their ears and the blinkers from their eyes and actually accept that it is wrong. No Mr Radford, an astronomer or cosmologist in the sixteenth-century suggesting that we live in a heliocentric cosmos rather than a geocentric one was not in danger of being condemned to the stake and yes there is solid historical evidence, which apparently you choose to ignore in favour of your fantasies, to prove this. Let us briefly review that evidence for those, like Tim Radford, who have obviously not been paying attention.

Already in the fifteenth- century Nicholas Cusanus openly discussed various aspects of the heliocentric hypothesis in his works, presenting them in a favourable light. Was he condemned to the stake for his audacity? No he was treated as an honoured Church scholar and appointed cardinal.

Let us move on to the subject of Radford’s highly inaccurate statement, Copernicus, like Cusanus a cleric and a member of the Church establishment, how did the Church react to his provocative heliocentric claims? In 1533 the papal secretary, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter held a lecture on Copernicus’ theories to Pope Clemens VII and assembled company in the papal gardens. We assume this was based on Copernicus’ Commentariolus, the manuscript pamphlet of his ideas written around 1510, as De revolutionibus wasn’t published until 1543. Was he condemned to the stake for his rashness? No, Clemens found much favour in his lecture and awarded him a valuable present for his troubles. Two years later Widmannstetter became secretary to Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, an archbishop and papal legate, who had been present at that lecture. In 1536 Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his theories public and even offering to pay the costs of having his manuscript copied. Not a lot of condemning to the stake going on there. Copernicus had Schönberg’s letter printed in the front of De revolutionibus.

Dear Tim Radford I am sure that as a topflight science writer you check the scientific facts in the articles that you write very carefully to ensure that you are not misleading your many readers. May I humbly request that in future you pay the same attention to the historical facts that you publish so as not to serve up your readers with pure unadulterated historical hogwash?

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.




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

The naming of America

Some weeks ago I stumbled into an exchange amongst historians on Twitter about the origin of the Name of America and was totally stunned to learn that a very successful English popular historian and television personality is convinced that the theory that America is named for the Bristol trader Richard Ap Meric is much more probable than that it is named for Amerigo Vespucci. Don’t worry if one or other or both of these theories are unknown to you, all will be explained in the following. Given that early modern cartography is one of my special areas of study I could not believe that any professional historian could possibly defend this position and stated the factual historical sources for the Vespucci theory and asked for equivalent sources for the Ap Meric theory, knowing full well that they don’t exist. TV pop historian declined stating that one can’t discuss these things on Twitter. A couple of weeks later the whole started again as Mathew Lyons (@MathewJLyons), one of the participants in the original exchange asked me if I could recommend literature on the subject for Lauren Johnson (@History_Lauren) who was researching the topic in the archives of Bristol. This triggered the whole argument a second time with Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) defending the Ap Meric theory and TV pop historian, “not sure of worth of discussing this on Twitter!“ This being the case I have decided to discuss the issue here for the general amusement and edification of my readers.

From an academic historical point of view this is unfortunately rather a one sided contest, as is made clear by the available literature that I have consulted. On the Amerigo Vespucci side we have John Hessler, “The Naming of America” and “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox”, John Hessler and Chet van Duzer, “Seeing The World Anew”, Chet van Duzer, “Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515” and Kenneth Nebenzahl, “Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries”. On the Richard Ap Meric side we have Rodney Broome, “Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name”. Hessler, van Duzer and Nebenzahl are professional historians of cartography internationally acknowledged as leaders in the field. All I can find out about Rodney Broome is that he was born in Bristol and now lives in Seattle. He doesn’t seem to be a historian of any sort as far as I can ascertain. There don’t appear to be any works by professional historians outlining or supporting the Ap Meric claim. There is a second book on the subject by a Peter MacDonald, “Cabot And The Naming Of America: Dawn Of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497”, which appears to have been published by the author himself, (PetMac?) and is out of print. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy from England, it doesn’t appear to have been available in Germany, but it hasn’t arrived yet. There is an essay on the subject by MacDonald on the BBC website. Like Broome MacDonald doesn’t appear to be a professional historian.

As it is the accepted academic point of view I will start with the Vespucci theory. At the beginning of the sixteenth-century there was a school of cartographers working in the Vosgean Gymnasium at Saint-Dié-des-Vorges in Lorraine, under the patronage of Duke René II. The two principal members of this group were Martin Waldseemüller (c.1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c.1482–1511). In 1507 they published both a large wall map of the world printed on twelve sheets and a small globe containing the same map.

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Only one single copy of the map still exists and none of the globes although five sets of printed gores are still extant.

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)


In his diary Johannes Trithemius records buying copies of the map and the globe in the year of publication. As was common practice amongst cartographers of the period the map was accompanied by a so-called cosmographia explaining the basics of cartography and how to use the map, known as the Cosmographiae Introductio. Its full title is “Cosmographiae introductio cum quibusdam geometriae ac astronomiae principiis ad eam rem necessariis. Insuper quatuor Americi Vespucii navigationes. Universalis Cosmographiae descriptio tam in solido quam plano, eis etiam insertis, quae Ptholomaeo ignota a nuperis reperta sunt.”(Translation: Introduction to Cosmography With Certain Necessary Principles of Geometry and Astronomy To which are added The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci A Representation of the Entire World, both in the Solid and Projected on the Plane, Including also lands which were Unknown to Ptolemy, and have been Recently Discovered).

The map is justifiably regarded as an important historical document because it is the earliest map, which uses the name America for the recently discovered lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. North and South America are drawn as two islands that bear little resemblance to the real continents and the southern island bears the name America. In Chapter 8 of the Cosmographiae Introductio, The Climatic Zones that Divide the Earth, Ringmann, the author, writes:

The fourth part of the earth we have decided to call Americe, the land of Amerigo we might even say, or America because it was discovered by Amerigo.

Further on in Chaper 9, Rudiments of Cosmography, he explains why they used this name for the recently discovered territory:

Today these parts of the earth [Europe, Africa and Asia] have been more extensively explored than a fourth part of the world, as will be explained in what follows, and that has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Because it is well known that Europe and Asia were named after women, I can see no reason why anyone would have good reason to object to calling this fourth part Amerige, the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man who discovered it. The location of this part and the customs of its people can be clearly understood from the four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci that we have placed after this introduction.

Waldseemüller and Ringmann possessed a French edition of The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, a popular bestseller doing the rounds of Europe at the time, sent to Duke René by the King of Portugal, which, translated into Latin by Johannes Basinus Sendarcurius, another of the St Dié scholars, was appended to the Cosmographiae Introductio. It is clear that Waldseemüller and Ringmann, unaware of Columbus, erroneously named the new territory after Vespucci believing him to be its discoverer, giving his name a feminine ending in line with Europe and Asia. Later they would realise their error and on their world map the Carte Marina, a portulan style, sea chart published in 1516, they withdrew the name America but by then the damage had been done.

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Both the 1507 world map and the Cosmographiae Introductio are accepted as genuine historical artefacts with no doubt about their authenticity. This being the case it is very clear that anybody offering an alternative origin for the name, America, has to accuse Waldseemüller and Ringmann of lying. They state very clearly that they have chosen to name this newly discovered land America and why they have done so. The opponents of the Vespucci theory don’t accuse them of lying but try to fudge the issue by suggesting that Waldseemüller heard the name America elsewhere and not knowing its origins attributed it to Vespucci. This explanation contradicts Ringmann’s very clear explanation in the Cosmographiae Introductio and, in my opinion, demonstrates very clearly the shaky ground on which the opponents are manoeuvring.

I will now turn to the Ap Meric theory based on the account presented by Rodney Broome. Whereas the books of Hessler and van Duzer are solid pieces of academic history Broome’s book is a collection of unfounded speculations, conjectures and straightforward false statements, which contains not one single piece of factual evidence that America was named after Richard Ap Meric. So what does it contain? To detail everything that is false in Broome’s book would produce a book length post so I will just sketch the Ap Meric theory and then point out a couple of Broome’s errors or false statements.

Richard Ap Meric, a Welsh name anglicised to Amerike, was a successful Bristol trader who was one of the investors in the voyages to America made by John Cabot from the port of Bristol. The theory is that Cabot named part, or all, of his discovery after Amerike on the map(s) he made and that this map/these maps are the origin of the name America. So far, so good. This theory suffers from a few problems. Firstly, although he may have made maps of his discoveries in North America none of them has survived so we have no idea what they contained. Secondly there exists no other source of any kind suggesting that Cabot named anything at all after Richard Amerike, end of story!

I could end this post here. We have a very clear well established historical fact that Waldseemüller and Ringmann named America in 1507 after Amerigo Vespucci believing erroneously that he was its first discoverer. On the other hand we have an unsubstantiated conjecture that John Cabot named America after Richard Amerike, a Bristol trader, who was one of the backers of his voyages of discovery. I really don’t see how anybody could claim, as did the TV pop historian in my original Twitter encounter, that the Ap Meric theory is much more probable than the Vespucci theory. As stated above I will however look at some of the tactics used by Broome to try and shore up this rather extraordinary claim.

Broome starts his book with the Waldseemüller/Ringmann naming of America on the world map of 1507 and in the Cosmographiae Introductio but invents a totally spurious personal relationship between Vespucci and the two German cartographers with the former sending them his maps of the Americas on which they then base their map. This is all justified with statements such as “some historians believe” without giving any sources for the “some historians”. This is complete rubbish and is made even more bizarre by his then naming the real sources for the American portions of the map the world chart by Nicolo Caveri from 1505 and the written descriptions from Vespucci’s The Four Voyages.

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Throughout the book Broome follows a strategy of misinformation in order to support his central highly speculative theory that I will outline shortly. Before I leave his version of the Vespucci theory Broome delivers a wonderful piece of misinformation on page 6 of his book, he writes: Waldseemüller was unable to account for the origin of the name America! It is very obvious from the passages that I quoted from the Cosmographiae Introductio above that Waldseemüller and Ringmann coined the name themselves so were very able indeed to account for its origins.

Broome’s central argument, which he builds up throughout the book interspersed with general capitals on the port of Bristol, the traders of that city, the voyages of Columbus etc., is based around the three voyages of John Cabot. Having persuaded Henry VII and the traders of Bristol to support him Cabot made three voyages to America in 1497-98. The first voyage, with a single ship, was unsuccessful he being forced to turn back by bad weather. On the second voyage, again with a single ship, he reached and landed somewhere on the North American coast, exactly where is still the subject of heated debate. Finding evidence of habitation and scared of being attacked he re-boarded his ship and spent one month cruising southwards along the coast making a crude map before returning to Europe, first making landfall in France before returning north to Bristol. Flushed with success he now set out in 1498 with a fleet of five ships. One ship, damaged in a storm, returned to Ireland and the other four ships disappeared without trace. One of the accounts of the first two voyages is contained in the so-called Johan Day letter, sent by this Bristolian presumably to Columbus. I say presumably because the letter is addressed to a The Lord Grand Admiral, who is assumed to be Columbus. This letter contained a map of Cabot’s initial discoveries and this information almost certainly flowed into the early charts and maps of America such as the Caveri map and the earlier world chart of Juan de la Cosa, of which more later. None of these earlier maps and charts contains the name America or any variation thereof.

Broome’s theory hinges on the third voyage. There has been much speculation concerning the fate of this voyage but very, very little substantiated fact. Broome wants to have Cabot sailing all the way down the coast of North America, mapping as he goes, right on into middle America were he meets the fleet of Alonso de Ojeda, whose pilot and cartographer was Juan de la Cosa and navigator was Vespucci, in 1499. In Broome’s theory Ojeda fought and defeated the English fleet and Cosa came into possession of Cabot’s map the source of the name America based on the name Amerike. The passage where Broome sets up this meeting is interesting for its nested speculations and I repeat it in full.

A Spanish historian, Martin Fernandez de Navarette, wrote in 1829:

 It is certain that Hojeda in his first voyage encountered certain Englishmen in the vicinity of Coquibacoa. [emphasis in original]

Other than the Cabot expedition, there were no other English expeditions in that area at that time. Navarette’s source is unknown, but he was a widely respected historian in his day.

 If this is what happened Amerigo Vespucci and Juan de la Cosa may have been present at this ghastly deed, and Cabot’s maps could have been taken in the encounter. This would have been the second time that Cabot’s extraordinary efforts to produce a map of the New World would wind up in the hands of the Spanish.

 From Venezuela, Hojeda and de la Cosa sailed north with two of the ships and joined Columbus at the settlement he had established at Hispaniola. The ships had to be laid up to repair damage they had suffered, some say from the battle with Cabot.

What we have here is an unsubstantiated report from a historian writing in the nineteenth-century, more than tree hundred years after the events, of an encounter between Ojeda and some anonymous Englishmen. There is no account of a battle, there is no account of maps taken, there is in fact nothing to back up Broome’s story in anyway what so ever. I like the “some say” at the end. Who says?

Juan de la Cosa produced a map of the Americas in 1500 and this according to Broome is the proof of his theory.

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

He writes:

De la Cosa must have used Cabot’s charts to prepare his map. The coastline west of Coquibacoa is drawn with surprising accuracy, in spite of the fact that de la Cosa had not ventured that far west.

Even if Broome were correct about the accuracy and the lack of westward voyaging of de la Cosa there is no evidence that the knowledge used in the construction of this chart comes from a highly hypothetical chart of Cabot’s. However the first two claims are not true. Kenneth Nebenzahl describes the delineation of the chart, as crude not “surprisingly accurate” and de la Cosa had been further west. De la Cosa made a total of five voyages to the Americas before he drew his chart. He took part in the first three Columbus voyages, in fact the Santa Maria was his ship, the voyage with Ojeda described above and a fifth voyage in 1500 during which he mapped Colombia and Panama, i.e. the coastline west of Coquibacoa. It is somewhat superfluous to point out that the de la Cosa Chart does not contain the name America.

One rather desperate attempt made by Broome towards the end of the book, displays either his ignorance of the material or his deliberate selection of the same to create a false impression on pages 111 and 112, referring to now lost 15th and 16th century Kalendars, he writes the following:

A summary of these Kalendars was made in 1565 by Maurice Toby, and in this compilation he uses the name “America”:

“The land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow.”

Under the mayoral year of 1496-1497, Toby recorded [… …]

“This year [1497] on St John the Baptist’s Day [June 24th], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the “Mathew,” the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd May and came home again the 6th August following.”

Broome of course concludes that because Toby uses and is familiar with the term America it must have been contained in the original documents that he is referencing. This is by no means necessarily the case.

The name America was adopted very quickly by all the leading European cosmographers and cartographers. Johannes Schöner used it on his printed terrestrial globe in 1515 and in the accompanying cosmographia, his Luculentissima, where he repeats the Ringmann/Waldseemüller derivation of the term. He would go on to use the name on his manuscript globe from 1520 and his printed globe from 1533. Schöner’s globes were very successful and were sold all over Europe, including London as is shown by their presence in Holbein’s picture The Ambassadors that was painted in London in 1533.

Schöner Globe, Holbein's The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Schöner Globe, Holbein’s The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Peter Apian used the name on his world map of 1520 and in his Cosmographia of 1524. This book, under the editorship of Gemma Frisius from the 2nd edition of 1529, had at least thirty-two editions in many different languages throughout the sixteenth-century and was the most widely disseminated and read textbook on the subject in that century. Frisius used the name on his globes, as did his pupil Mercator on his highly successful terrestrial globe of 1541. Mercator was the first to use the name for both North and South America. Sebastian Munster used the name in his Cosmographia, first published in 1544, a book, which had twenty-four editions throughout the century and was translated into many different languages, including English. Selling over 120 000 copies in total, it was the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. Many other lesser known cosmographers and cartographers also adopted the name in their published works. By 1550 America had become the accepted name for the new continent throughout Europe, with the exception of Spain, where this name was well known but rejected in favour of the name New India. Writing in 1565 about Cabot’s discovery Toby was almost certainly just using the current widespread name for the new continent.

On the subject of the reliability of nineteenth-century historians I will close with Broome’s comments on the globe of Martin Behaim, which lives just down the road from where I am typing this. The Behaim Globe is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe in the world and was created under the supervision of Martin Behaim in Nürnberg between 1491 and 1493. Broome claims that it is based on the Toscanelli map, the famous map commissioned by the Portuguese that helped convince the Spanish that Columbus’ idea of sailing west to the Spice Islands was viable, and that both Columbus and Cabot consulted it before undertaking their voyages. None of this is true. The Behaim globe is not based on the Toscanelli map and it was not consulted by either Columbus or Cabot. That Columbus consulted the Behaim globe before setting off on his first voyage is a fairy story put in the world by “widely respected” German historians in the nineteenth century to make Behaim seem more important having played a leading role in the discovery of America. This small aspect of his book is all too typical for Broome’s very uncritical use of sources. He repeats myths and wild speculations as historical facts if they fit the story he is desperately trying to construct usually without giving sources or as above with such phrases as “some say”!

We have two theories for the origin of the name America. One is a solidly substantiated theory on which there is nothing to criticise, the other is a piece of pure speculation without the slightest shred of real evidence to support it. I leave it to my readers to decide which one is more probably true.



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

Galileo, Foscarini, The Catholic Church, and heliocentricity in 1615 Part 2 –the consequences: A Rough Guide.

In part one I outlined the clash, which took place between Galileo and Foscarini on the one side and the Catholic Church on the other in the second decade of the seventeenth-century. I ended by saying that this initial confrontation had very few consequences for Galileo at the time, who continued to be the highly feted darling of the North Italian in-crowd, including the higher echelons of the Catholic Church. Of course the events of 1615/16 would come back to haunt Galileo when he was tried for writing and publishing his Dialogo in the 1630s but that is a very complex topic that require a post of its own sometime in the future. I also wrote that the books of Foscarini and of the Protestant Copernicans, Michael Maestlin and Johannes Kepler were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Interestingly De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected. It is here that we will pick up the thread and examine the consequences of the Church’s actions on the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century.

What did it mean when I say that De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected? This means that De revolutionibus was not forbidden but that only those statements within the book, which claimed that heliocentricity was a proven fact, were to be removed. This mild censorship, only a handful of passages in the whole book were affected, was carried out comparatively quickly and the thus censored version was given free to be used by astronomers already in 1621. The whole of this episode demonstrates that the powers that be within the Church were well aware that De revolutionibus was an important astronomical text and should, despite the judgement of the eleven members of the commission set up to adjudicate on the affair that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith”, remain available to Catholic astronomers for their studies.

There is a widespread popular perception that the Church’s theological rejection of the theory of heliocentricity led to a breakdown of astronomical research in Catholic countries in the seventeenth-century. Nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned in the first part of this post, some historians think that Cardinal Bellarmino’s admission in his letter to Foscarini that … if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary …, was interpreted by many Jesuit and Jesuit educated astronomers as a challenge to find an empirical proof for heliocentricity. As we shall see there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this claim.

An important historical fact to be born in mind when considering the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century was that there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, whether it be in the original form proposed by Copernicus or the much more sophisticated form developed by Kepler. The astronomers would have to wait until 1725 before James Bradley delivered the first proof of the earth’s annual orbit around the sun with his discovery of stellar aberration and slightly longer before the geodesists demonstrated that the earth is an oblate spheroid thus confirming a prediction made by both Newton and Huygens that diurnal rotation would result in the earth having this form thus proving indirectly the existence of diurnal rotation. This tends to be forgotten or simply ignored by those claiming that the Church should have accepted heliocentricity as a fact in 1615. In reality the heliocentricity became accepted by almost all astronomers whether Catholic or non-Catholic by around 1660, long before any empirical proof existed, on the basis of accumulated circumstantial evidence and the lack of a convincing alternative. A lot of that circumstantial evidence was delivered by Catholic astronomers, who despites the Catholic theological position, continued to work avidly on the development of the modern astronomy.

It is also important to realise that although the Church banned claiming that heliocentricity was a fact, the heliocentric theory, it was still perfectly possible to speculate about heliocentricity, the heliocentric hypothesis. Throughout the seventeenth-century Catholic astronomers in Italy adopted an interesting strategy to deal with the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory. They would preface their works with a statement of the fact that in its wisdom the Church had shown the heliocentric theory to be contrary to Holy Scripture and thus factually false and then proceed to discuss this interesting mathematical hypothesis without claiming it to be true. This strategy sufficed for the Inquisition’s guardians of the truth and thus the astronomers continued to discuss and disseminate heliocentricity with impunity.

Scientific theories are not only disseminated by their supporters but often also by their opponents. Long before Galileo muddy the waters with his heated challenge to the Church’s exclusive right to interpret the Bible it is certain that more people learnt of the existence of the heliocentric hypothesis and its basic details from the works of Christoph Clavius, a convinced defender of geocentricity, than from De revolutionibus. In his commentary on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, an introductory astronomy textbook, Clavius discussed Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis sympathetically, respecting its mathematical sophistication, whilst firmly rejecting it. This book went through numerous editions and was the most widely disseminated and read, by both Catholic and Protestant students, astronomy textbook throughout most of the seventeenth-century and was for many their first introduction to the ideas of Copernicus. It was also Clavius’ postgraduate students, in his institute for mathematical research at the Collegio Romano, who provided the very necessary empirical confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in 1611, shortly before Clavius’ death. This activity by Jesuit astronomers pushing the boundaries of astronomical knowledge did not cease following the decisions of 1616.

There was a slowdown in the development of modern astronomy in the second and third decades of the seventeenth-century that has nothing to do with the Church’s ban but was the result of a lack of technological advance. In the four years between 1609 and 1613 European astronomers had discovered everything that it was possible to discover using a Dutch or Galilean telescope with a convex objective and a concave eyepiece. The only new discoveries were the observations of a transit of Mercury by Gassendi in 1631 and a transit of Venus by Horrocks in 1639 neither of which had an immediate impact because they didn’t become widely known until much later. For various reasons, not least Galileo’s very public rejection of it as inferior, the superior Keplerian or astronomical telescope, with two convex lenses, didn’t start to become established until the 1640s. However once established the new discoveries began to flow again: the moons of Saturn, the rings of Saturn, diurnal rotation of the planets. Many of these new discoveries, which added new circumstantial evidence for heliocentricity, were made by Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini (1625–1712) a Jesuit educated Catholic astronomer. It was also Cassini, with the support of his teachers the Jesuits Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who proved, using the heliometer constructed for this purpose in the San Petronio church in Bologna, that either the sun’s orbit around the earth or the earth’s orbit around the sun must be an ellipse, as required by Kepler. Although this proved that the orbit is an ellipse it didn’t show which system was correct.

Cassini, who would go on to become the leading observational astronomer in Europe, always avoided committing himself to any systems simply delivering empirical results and leaving the cosmological interpretation to others. Although confirming Cassini’s heliometer results Riccioli stayed committed to semi-Tychonic system, in which the inner planets orbited the Sun, which in turn together with Saturn and Jupiter orbited the Earth. Riccioli presented this rather bizarre mongrel in his Almagestum Novum published in 1651. Riccioli’s Almagestum contained descriptions of all the various possible systems, including the Copernican, and became a very widely disseminated and read technical textbook for astronomers, both Catholic and Protestant. Like Clavius before him, Riccioli introduced many to heliocentricity for the first time. The Almagestum contained 126 arguments concerning the Earth’s motion 49 pro and 77 contra the most extensive discussion of the problem ever. You can read Chris Graney’s English translation of the arguments here. Although Riccioli came out against heliocentricity his analysis was sympathetic enough to the concept that he was actually investigated by the Inquisition.

Having been made available by the Index copies of De revolutionibus appear only to have been actually censored within Italy nearly all the surviving censored copies, including Galileo’s, coming from there. Outside of Italy, with the notable exception of Descartes, nobody seems to have taken very much notice of the Inquisition’s ban. Descartes appears to have withheld publication of his The World, in the 1630s, containing his defence of heliocentricity, out of respect for his Jesuit teachers. Publishing his views, in modified form, first in his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.

Another Frenchman, Pierre Gassendi like Descartes educated by the Jesuits, who became professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris in 1645 published his views on astronomy in his Institutio astronomica, although formally a supporter of the Tychonic system, Gassendi’s presentation of the Copernican system is so sympathetic that many historians have interpreted him as a secret supporter of heliocentricity. Gassendi also published biographies of Tycho, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus and Copernicus. Like Riccioli, Gassendi’s astronomical writings were very popular and very widely read, again leading to a widespread dissemination of the principles of heliocentricity.

Another leading French Catholic astronomer, Ismael Boulliau was an open and avid supporter of the Keplerian elliptical astronomy and was indeed the first to hypothesise that gravity ought to be an inverse quadrate force, a significant step in the road to acceptance of heliocentricity. It was Boulliau’s dispute with the English astronomer Seth Ward about Kepler’s second law, which nobody liked, both parties offering alternatives, that first made Newton aware of Kepler’s system.

By about 1660 enough circumstantial evidence had been accumulated that most astronomers in Europe both Catholic and Protestant, with the necessary education to do so, had accepted heliocentricity as a fact with a small minority still holding out for a Tychonic system. In the end the Tychonic system had fallen victim of Ockham’s razor being viewed as overly complex in comparison with the Keplerian elliptical system for which more and more evidence had accumulated throughout the preceding fifty years. A significant advance in the development of modern physics in which Galileo’s Discorsi had played an important role also contributed crucially to this acceptance, dealing as it did with the physical problems of terrestrial motion. A detailed analysis of these developments would make this already over long post even longer and must be dealt with separately.

Although by no means an exhaustive presentation of the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century, I think the above contains enough to demonstrate that the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory had very little negative influence on that development and that Catholic astronomers played a leading role within it. Returning to my earlier speculation, I feel justified in saying that had Galileo and Foscarini not forced the Church’s theologians into a corner in 1615, then the Catholic astronomers, and in particular the Jesuits and their pupils, would have led the Church to an acceptance of heliocentricity within the seventeenth-century.




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

Galileo, Foscarini, The Catholic Church, and heliocentricity in 1615 Part 1 – the occurrences: A Rough Guide.

I have been criticised for claiming, in a recent post, that given time the Catholic Church would have come to accept heliocentricity in the seventeenth-century and in fact because Galileo acted unadvisedly he drove the Church to reject and condemn heliocentricity and thus to substantially delaying its acceptance by that organisation. The criticism was that this claim is speculative and thus not history and one critic even said not scientific. Point one, history is not science and is considerably more speculative than science, although, contrary to popular opinion, science is by no means free of speculation. In this case I think a certain amount of speculation is justified and by looking at the available facts on the attitudes of Catholic astronomers, and in particular the Jesuits, during the seventeenth-century both before and after the events of 1615, which will be discussed, it is possible to argue for a Catholic acceptance of heliocentricity, if Galileo and Foscarini had not driven the theologians into a corner causing them to reject it.

In the first seven decades following the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus there was almost no rejection of heliocentricity on religious grounds but also very little acceptance by astronomers because of the substantial scientific problems that the theory entailed; problems associated with the physics of a moving earth. In a notorious footnote Copernican expert, Robert Westman, pointed out that there were only ten Copernican in the whole world between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600 and not all of those were astronomers, although it did include both Kepler and Galileo. After an initial period of excitement following the books publication Copernicanism was slowly drifting into obscurity due to its failure to deliver the goods, accurate astronomical tables. This situation changed dramatically in 1609.

In 1609 Kepler published his Astronomia Nova containing his first two laws of planetary motion based on solid empirical evidence supplied by Tycho Brahe and providing the best evidence for a heliocentric system by that time. The same year also saw the advent of telescopic astronomy, the telescope having been invented in the previous year, and the beginning of a series of astronomical discoveries by Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius, Galileo Galilei, and the Jesuit astronomers Odo van Maelcote, Giovanni Paolo Lembo and Christoph Grienberger that brought about the biggest changes in astronomy since human being first turned their gaze to the heavens; most notably Galileo published his initial discoveries in his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610. None of these discoveries proved heliocentricity but they did refute significant aspects of the accepted Aristotelian cosmology and the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy forcing a serious and deep re-alignment of both disciplines. It was the Church’s own astronomers from the Jesuit Collegio Romano, who had quietly been making their own observations and discoveries before the publication of Sidereus Nuncius, who provided the much needed scientific confirmation of Galileo’s discoveries; passing this information on to the Church’s theologians. The Jesuit astronomers fully aware that Ptolemaic geocentricity was no longer tenable, following the discovery of the phases of Venus, like most other European astronomers, adopted the Tychonic helio-geocentric system; an intermediate solution that combined the best technical aspects of heliocentricity, for example the explanation of retrograde motion, without moving the earth. This was an important step down the road to heliocentricity, especially if, as it often was, combined with diurnal rotation. However Galileo could not accept this rational compromise, his ambition drove him on, because he wanted to go down in history as the man who established heliocentricity, ignoring in his egotism the work of Kepler who was much more advanced in his heliocentric astronomy than Galileo himself. To understand what happened next we need to briefly examine the position of the Church in this situation.

Religions are by their very nature conservative and opposed to sudden or significant change. They claim to be purveyors not just of truth but ‘the’ truth. This being the case all change is in one way or another an admission of failure; we got it wrong! This does not mean that religions are never changing, frozen in time, but it does mean that all change should be gradual, controlled and fully explainable within the religion’s own model of reality. A religion cannot allow itself to be seen to be forced to change by outside forces, otherwise believers might begin to question their monopoly on the truth. Since the thirteenth-century the Catholic Church had integrated an uneasy synthesis of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy, largely created by Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas, into their model of reality, one that seemed to fit the known empirical facts. Now at the end of the first decade of the seventeenth-century this synthesis was crumbling away very fast and the Church was in a very dodgy situation, over which they had very little control, a potential nightmare for the theologians, the official purveyors of the truth. The central problem in this situation was that various passages in the Bible, supposedly the indisputable word of God, contradicted a heliocentric model with a stationary sun and a mobile earth, most notably Joshua 10:12 “…and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon”. If the sun wasn’t moving how could the Lord command it to stand still? The Church’s theologians were not stupid and it was very clear to them that if they accepted heliocentricity then they would have to abandon a literal interpretation of this and some other passages in the Bible; a change that they were only prepared to make if there was solid empirical evidence available to make it inevitable, as we will see.

By 1613 Galileo was chomping at the bit and was very egger eager to persuade the whole world, including the Church, to accept Copernican heliocentricity. His influential friends within the Church, who included Cardinal Maffeo Barberini the future Pope Urban VIII, were very much aware of the situation sketched above and warned Galileo that he should proceed with caution and not stir up trouble with the Church’s theologians. Galileo ignored this very sensible advice. The matter first came to a head with the so-called Letter to Castelli that in a modified form is better known as the Letter to Christina. How this came about we need to look at Galileo’s official function at the Medici Court in Florence.

Galileo had used the Sidereus Nuncius to acquire a position at the Medici Court dedicating the pamphlet to Cosimo II, his former mathematics pupil, and naming the Moons of Jupiter, his greatest discovery, the Medicean Stars in his honour. This followed lengthy correspondence with court officials as to which name would be most acceptable to the Grand Duke. Galileo’s efforts were rewarded with a position as court philosophicus and mathematicus and an appointment as professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa without teaching obligations, all for a very generous salary. What exactly was Galileo’s role as court philosophicus? The position sounds very impressive but in reality, within the structure of a Renaissance absolutist court, Galileo was a sort of intellectual court jester. In an age without Internet, radio, television or any of the other modern invention with which we waste our time, after dinner entertainment at a Renaissance court took various forms; one of these took the form of intellectual debates. Galileo was expected to entertain the dinner guests by disputing given philosophical or scientific themes with others, especially invited for the purpose. Cosimo and his guest were not particularly concerned who won a given debate or who was right, they were more interested in being entertained by clever and witty repartee, Galileo a brilliant polemicist was naturally a master at this game and more than earned his keep. The situation that led to Galileo writing the Letter to Christina actually took place in Galileo’s absence.

Late in 1613 the newly appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa, Benedetto Castelli, a pupil of Galileo’s, attended a lunch hosted by the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo’s earlier patron who had employed him to teach mathematics to Cosimo. Also present on this occasion was the Pisan professor for philosophy, Cosimo Boscaglia. Christina expressed doubts about the existence of the Moons of Jupiter and about their possible connection with the, in her eyes, heretical Copernican astronomy. Boscaglia assured her that the moons were indeed real and expressed similar doubts about their astronomical implications. After the meal Christina summoned Castelli to her chamber and in the presence of Boscaglia and other guests challenged him on the mobility of the earth. Castelli was in the hot spot, but according to his own account, in a letter to Galileo, he acquitted himself skilfully. Galileo now set in motion a chain of events that probably constitute the biggest error in his life. He wrote a long letter to Castelli supplying him with arguments to use against those quoting Bible passages against heliocentricity. He set about playing the theologian, reinterpreting those passages to make them conform to Copernican thought. He suggested for example that when the Lord commanded the sun to stand still he stopped its rotation about its axis, a rotation that Galileo had recently proved with his study of sunspots. The whole letter was, to put it mildly, a blunder.

Some of Galileo’s enemies, disgruntled Aristotelians who had been subjected publically to the scorn of Galileo’s sharp tongue, got hold of a copy of the letter and presented it to the Church authorities. Surprisingly the Church found most of the letter unobjectionable except for a handful of passages. Galileo tried to bluff his way out of the matter by claiming that those passages were not in the original but had been added to the copy by his enemies, whether you believe him or not is left entirely up to you. The Church demanded the original. In the meantime Galileo instead of backing down was working on an expanded version of the letter, which would go down in history as the Letter to Christina, to whom it was directly addressed. Galileo really did not know when to leave things alone. Why one might ask was it so terrible for Galileo to suggest new interpretations of the Bible?

The Catholic Church was founded on the premise that they, and they alone, were privileged to interpret the word of God. In the early sixteenth century various thinkers, who became known collectively as the Protestants, challenged the Church on this very issue, claiming that every individual had the right to read and interpret the word of God for himself. A universal claim that was later modified as the various branches of this protest movement solidified into established churches themselves. But I digress. This led to the greatest schism in Church history now known as the Reformation. From the middle of the century following the Council of Trent the Catholic Church hit back with its own movement, which became known as the Counter-Reformation, leading storm-troopers being the Jesuits, although they were not initially founded for this purpose. Galileo, a mere mathematicus and thus the lowest of the low in the intellectual hierarchy, was claiming the right to re-interpret the Bible just five years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War the devastating and extremely bloody highpoint of this struggle between the forces of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Not a clever move from a man who many regard as a genius.

To pour even more oil into the fire, as if Galileo’s own efforts were not enough, a Carmelite theologian, Paolo Antonio Foscarini, submitted a book he had written to the Church censors in 1615, which contained very similar reinterpretations of the Bible to bring it into line with the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis. Not surprisingly the anonymous censor thought the book to “excessively favour the rash opinion” of Copernicus. Like Galileo, Foscarini was not prepared to let matter lie and submitted both the text of his book and the censor’s judgement to the Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, who was considered one of the greatest living theologians. Bellarmino considered Foscarini’s book and Galileo’s letter and came to a famous conclusion that he sent to Foscarini in the form of a letter the relevant passages of which I have reproduced below.

My Very Reverend Father,

It has been a pleasure for me to read the Italian letter and the Latin paper you sent me. I thank you for both the one and the other, and I may tell you that I found them replete with skill and learning. As you ask for m y opinion, I will give it as briefly as possible because, at the moment I have very little time for writing.

First, I say it seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo act prudently when you content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and no absolutely, as I have always understood that Copernicus spoke. For to say that the assumptions that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still saves all the celestial appearances better than do eccentrics and epicycles is to speak with excellent good sense and to run the risk whatever. Such a manner of speaking suffices for a mathematician. But to want to affirm that the Sun, in very truth, is at the centre of the universe and only rotates on its axis without traveling from east to west, and that the Earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves very swiftly around the Sun, is a very dangerous attitude and one calculated not only to arouse all Scholastic philosophers and theologians but also to injure our hold faith by contradicting the Scriptures….

Second, I say that, as you know, the Council of Trent forbids the interpretation of the Scriptures in a way contrary to the common agreement of the holy Fathers. Now if your Reverence will read, not merely the Fathers, but modern commentators on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will discover that all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the Sun is in the heavens and revolves round the Earth with immense speed and that the Earth is very distant from the heavens, at the centre of the universe, and motionless. Consider, then in your prudence, whether the Church can support that the Scriptures should be interpreted in a manner contrary to that of the holy Fathers and of all modern commentators, both Latin and Greek….

Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me. To demonstrate that the appearances are saved by assuming the sun at the centre and the earth in the heavens is not the same thing as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is in the centre and the earth is in the heavens. I believe that the first demonstration may exist, but I have very grave doubts about the second; and in case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the hold Fathers…

Having very firmly pointed out that neither Galileo nor Foscarini had the right to interpret or reinterpret Holy Scripture, Bellarmino adds a very important comment in the final paragraph. He states very clearly that if there were proof of the heliocentric system then the Church would have to very carefully reinterpret the Bible, but he says, quite correctly, such proof does not exist at the moment so no deal. He then goes on the say that he personally doesn’t think that such proof would ever be found, proving that even Saint Roberto Bellarmino S. J. was not infallible. This final passage clearly illustrates something that the modern Galileo fan club love to ignore; in 1615 there was no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis. It has been suggested that some Jesuit astronomers interpreted Bellarmino’s concession that if such a proof were to be found, as an instruction to go out and find one, but more of that in Part 2 – the consequences.

Things were now approaching the denouement. It was very clear to Galileo and all the other interested parties that the whole episode had been submitted to the Roman Inquisition. Instead of doing the sensible thing and keeping his head below the parapet, as advised by all of his influential friends including Cesi the head of the Academia dei LIncei and Cardinal Barberini, Galileo decided to go on the offensive. Obtaining permission from his employer, Cosimo, Galileo set off to Rome to canvas for the acceptance of heliocentricity. Knowing full well that he lacked empirical proof of heliocentricity, Galileo wrote up for the first time his infamous theory of the tides, thought out by him and Paolo Sarpi in the 1590s and which would go on to become Day Four, the crowning glory as he saw it, of his Dialogo. This theory posited that the tides were the result of the oceans swapping about like water in a moving bowl, as a result of the motion of the earth. It suffered from one major failure, and lots of minor ones, it only allowed for one tide a day, whereas there are in reality two.

Galileo arrived in Rome and began badgering anybody and everybody of influence that he could get hold off pressing copies of his theory of the tides into their hands and trying to persuade them to support his cause. He might as well have stayed at home, nobody in Rome, least of all influential public figures, was going to stick his neck out and help a mere mathematicus who was under investigation by the Inquisition.

It came as it had to come, the eleven members of the commission set up to adjudicate on the affair found that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.” Put into simple terms heliocentricity, as a theory of fact was both scientifically and theologically wrong. Galileo and Foscarini had forced the Church into making, what was to all intents and purposes, a disastrous judgement. As everybody knows the Pope instructed Bellarmino to inform Galileo of the commission’s judgement and to formally forbid him from holding or teaching the heliocentric theory. It is important to note that the theory, heliocentricity as a statement of fact, was forbidden and not the hypothesis, a distinction that was to play a very central role in the following decades.

Personally, this judgement had very little influence on Galileo life or status in Northern Italian society. Initially there were some rumours that he had been punished in some way by the Church, but at Galileo’s request Bellarmino wrote a letter stating that they had merely had a friendly chat and that Galileo was free of all suspicion. Unfortunately Galileo would later view this letter as a get out of gaol free card but that is the subject of another story. Galileo continued to be a highly feted figure in Northern Italian intellectual circles and to have easy access to the highest circles of the Church. He was not some sort of outcast battling the ignorant Curia, as he is often falsely depicted.

The direct consequences for the heliocentric hypothesis were that Foscarini’s book together with the books of the Protestant Copernicans, Michael Maestlin and Johannes Kepler were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Interestingly De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected. What this meant and the effect that all of this on the future development of heliocentricity will be dealt with in Part 2 – the consequences, which should, all thing being well appear here next week.

For those reading one of my The Transition to Heliocentricity: The Rough Guides posts for the first time you can find a list of links at the top of the website.


Filed under Uncategorized