Physicians to the fore – creating a new medical hierarchy in the Early Modern Period

People with only a minimal knowledge of the history of medicine might be forgiven for automatically thinking of doctors when talk turns to medical consultation, diagnosis and treatment in earlier ages. However in the High Middle Ages and down into the Renaissance physicians, barber surgeons, apothecaries, midwifes, herbalist all competed with each other for patients, in particular the university educated physicians and apothecaries were rivals. In the Early Modern Period the physicians set a campaign in motion to create a medical hierarchy with themselves at the top able to dictate to the other practitioners. Historian of medicine Hannah Murphy has written an excellent volume describing this process of social change in the world of medicine in Reformation Nuremberg, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg[1]


The introduction to Murphy’s is titled Inventing Medical Reform and starts with Joachim Camerarius’ Short and Ordered Considerations for the Formation of a Well-Ordered Medicine (1571) outlining his proposed reform of medicine in the city of Nuremberg in which physicians would be authorised to oversee the work of apothecaries and only physicians would be permitted to undertake diagnosis. As a brief side note this is the physician Joachim Camerarius the younger, the son of the much more famous Joachim Camerarius the elder, classicist, colleague and biographer of Philipp Melanchthon.


Joachim Camerarius the younger Source: Wikimedia Commons

The programme set out by Camerarius in his Short and Ordered Considerations was not immediately accepted and put into practice by the Nuremberg city council but over the next few decades something similar was gradually put into place in Nuremburg; a process that involved a major political, cultural and social war between the physicians and the apothecaries. This gradual development is the subject of Murphy’s book. The rest of the introduction is devoted to a general road map of her work.

The book is divided into six chapters or perhaps, better said sections, each one of which deals with an aspect of the life and work of Early Modern physicians and how they relate to the changes in the role and status of the physicians that were taking place. These topics are initially handled for a given individual, and then developed for the city of Nuremberg in general with parallels being drawn for other cities and regions within the Holy Roman Empire. So what initially appears to be a very narrow and specialised study widens to cover a substantially area of Europe.

The opening chapter looks at a new, contemporary pharmacopeia, the Dispensatorium of Valerius Cordus, i.e. a catalogue of recipes for medical remedies. This area would become central in the dispute between the apothecaries and the physicians who could prescribe the remedies and which remedies should or could be prescribed.


The second chapter takes a detailed look at the position, role, and status of the city physician and how it differed from that of other sections of society in particular from that of the apothecaries. Moving on Murphy deals with the subject of anatomy, another area where the role of the physician would undergo a major change especially following the work of the century’s greatest anatomist, Andreas Vesalius. Turning away from the practical Murphy next addresses the role that books played in the life and work of the physician. We remain, for the next section, in the realm of the written word. In the absence of journals, which today play a major role in transmitting medical and related information, the early modern physicians had their correspondence. I personally am constantly amazed at just how many letters early modern scholars exchanged in their lifetimes with their colleagues throughout Europe. Thankfully, for the historian, some of these collections of correspondence have survived down the centuries and provide us with as valuable a source of information, as they once provided their authors and recipients. The final chapter returns to the starting point and a closer detailed look at Camerarius’ New Order of Medicine. Moving on Murphy now shows how the status and function of the physicians and apothecaries did change over time and the moves and disputes that accompanied those changes.


The book closes with a brief conclusion summarising what had been achieved by the Nuremberger physicians, I quote:

In their legal and civic battle with apothecaries, in their claim to profession primacy over surgeons and midwifes, in their bid to establish themselves as the arbiters of legitimate medicine, early modern physicians were decisively victorious.

They had succeeded in establishing a new order, one that basically still exists today. This leads to a, for historians, very interesting epilogue in which Murphy outlines how these not insignificant changes in the medical landscape of Europe became forgotten and at the same time mythologised down the succeeding centuries.

The book is pleasantly illustrated with the, in the mean time standard for academic publications, grey in grey prints. It has extensive endnotes, which largely consist of bibliographical references to the even more extensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature. The academic apparatus is rounded off by a good index.

Despite extensive historical research resulting in a highly detailed and dense text with intensive historical analysis, Murphy’s book is well written and a comparatively light read. Murphy has written an excellent book that delivers up a masterful demonstration of how a narrowly focused piece of historical research can be worked and presented so that it shines a light on a wide ranging historical development. The book should be of interest to anybody involved in the history of European medicine over the last five hundred years but will also make an interesting read for any early modern historian interested in going beyond the boundaries of their own discipline.

[1] Hannah Murphy, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2019

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Filed under History of medicine, Renaissance Science

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIV

When contemplating the advent of the heliocentric hypothesis in the Early Modern Period, one of the first things that occurs to many people is the conflict between the emerging new astronomy and Christianity, in particular the Holy Roman Catholic Church. What took place in those early years was actually very different to what most people think occurred and to a large extent has over the years been blown up out of all proportions.

To a certain extent some sort of conflict was pre-programmed, as the Bible, which the majority in this period believed to be basically true , clearly presented a geocentric world, even to a small extent a flat earth given the Old Testament’s fundamentally Babylonian origins and the new astronomy was attempting to establish a heliocentric one. This situation called for a lot of diplomatic skill on the part of those proposing the new heliocentric cosmological system, a skill that some of those proponents, most notably Galileo Galilei failed to display.

Between the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, which was actively supported by several leading figures within the Catholic Church, and the sensational telescopic discoveries of 1610-1613 there was surprising little backlash against heliocentrism from any of the European Christian communities. I have dealt with this in detail in an earlier post and don’t intend to repeat myself here. The real problems first began in around 1615 and were provoked by Galileo Galilei and the Carmelite theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–1616).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Again I have already dealt with this in great detail in two earlier posts, here and here, so I will only outline the real bone of contention now, which surprisingly has little to do with the science and a lot to do with who gets to interpret the Holy Word of God e.g. The Bible.

From its foundation the Catholic Church had claimed the exclusive right to interpret the Bible for its followers, i.e. all true Christians. With time that interpretation was anchored in the writings of the early church fathers, what they had written was holy gospel and to openly contradict it was considered to be heresy. The Church was not only a powerful religious institution but also a powerful political one and over the centuries the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely certainly proved true within the Catholic Church. This led to several attempts to reform the Church and bring it back to the ‘true path’ as outlined in the gospels.

Before what we now know as The Reformation, notable attempts on varying levels were made by, amongst other, John Wycliffe (c. 1320s–1384) in England, Jan Hus (c. 1372–1415) in Bohemia and Desiderus Erasmus (1466–1536), although Erasmus’ reform efforts were very moderate when compared to the other two and those that came after. In the sixteenth century that which we call the Protestant Reformation broke out in several parts of Europe instigated by Martin Luther (1483–1546), Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525), Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Jean Calvin (1509–1564) and a host of other minor figure, such as Andreas Osiander (1496 or 1498–1552), who wrote the infamous Ad lectorum in De revolutionibus. The major characteristic of the Reformation was that those calling for reform demanded the right for each individual to be allowed to interpret The Bible for themselves, thus removing the Church’s monopoly on biblical interpretations. This was of course unacceptable for the Catholic Church, which in turn launched its Counter Reformation, with the Council of Trent (1545–1563), to try and stem the tide of dissent. This was the situation in 1615 just three years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of Europe triggered by just this religious dispute, when Galileo made the move that turned the Catholic Church against heliocentrism and began Galileo’s own downfall.

Before we examen what Galileo actually did to so annoy the Catholic Church, it pays to look at the historical context in which this all took place. Too often people try to judge what happened from a presentist point of view, thereby distorting the historical facts. As usual when I write on this subject I am not trying to apologise for the Catholic Church’s actions or to excuse them, merely to present them within the practices and beliefs at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Firstly, this was a historical period in which all social, cultural and political institutions were hierarchical and fairly rigidly structured. It was an age of absolutism in which most rulers, including or above all the Pope, had and exercised absolute power. Secondly, there was no such thing as freedom of speech or freedom of thought in either religious or secular society. Those at the top largely prescribed what could or could not be said or thought out loud. Anybody who pushed against those prescriptions could expect to be punished for having done so.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1615 both Foscarini and Galileo tried to tell the Church how to reinterpret those passages in the Bible that presupposed a geocentric cosmos in order to make a heliocentric cosmos theologically acceptable. This was simply not on. In my comments I will restrict myself to the case of Galileo. Modern commentators think that what Galileo said in his Letter to Castelli and in the extended version, his Letter to Christina, is eminently sensible and applaud him for his theological analysis but in doing so they miss several important points. In the Renaissance intellectual hierarchy theologians were at the top and mathematici, and Galileo was a mere mathematicus, were very much at the bottom. In fact the social status of the mathematicus was so low that Galileo telling the theologians how to do their job was roughly equivalent to the weekly cleaning lady telling the owner of a luxury villa how to run his household. This was definitely a massive failure on Galileo’s part, one that he should have been well aware of. The very low social and intellectual status of mathematici was the reason why he insisted on being appointed court philosophicus and not just mathematicus to the Medicean court. Philosophers ranked just below theologians in the hierarchy. Also given the fact that the Reformation/Counter Reformation conflict was rapidly approaching its high point in the Thirty Years War, this was not the time to tell the Catholic Church how to interpret the Bible.

As formal complaints began to be made about his Letter to Castelli, Galileo realised that he had gone too far and claimed that the copies in circulation had been changed by his enemies to make him look bad and presented the Church with a modified version to show what “he had actually written.” I fact we now know that the unmodified version was his original letter.

The writings of Foscarini and Galileo on the subject now led the Church to formally examine the relationship between Catholic doctrine and the heliocentric hypothesis, for the first time, and the result was not good for Galileo and the heliocentric hypothesis. A commission of eleven theologians, known as Qualifiers, undertook this examination and came to the conclusion 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.” The first part is obvious the Bible states clearly that it is the Sun that moves and not the Earth and as the heliocentric hypothesis directly contradicts Holy Scripture it is formally heretical. The second part is more interesting because it that the hypothesis is philosophically, read scientifically, absurd and foolish. Although the language used here in the judgement is rather extreme it was a fact in 1615 that there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, actually most of the then available empirical evidence supported a geocentric cosmos. If there had been empirical support for heliocentrism then the Church’s judgement might well have been different, as Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621) wrote in his infamous letter to Foscarini:

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.


Roberto Bellarmino Source: Wikimedia Commons

In other words, if you provide proof of your hypothesis, then we will be prepared to reinterpret the Bible.

This was the point where Galileo, realising that he was potentially in serious trouble, first rushed to Rome to peddle his theory of the tides, which he appeared to believe delivered the necessary empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

This theory had been developed together with Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) in the 1590’s and basically claimed that the tides were caused by the movements of the Earth, in the same way that water sloshes around in a moving bowl. The theory has however a fatal empirical flaw; it only allows for one high tide in twenty-four hours whereas there are actually two. Galileo tried to deal with this discrepancy with a lot of hand waving but couldn’t really provide a suitable explanation. This was, however, irrelevant in 1615, as Galileo having through his actions poked the proverbial bear with a sharp stick, nobody was prepared to listen to his latest offerings and his efforts fell on deaf ears.

The inevitable happened, the Church formally banned heliocentricity in 1616, although it was never actually declared heretical, something that only the Pope could do and no Pope ever did, and books explicating the heliocentric hypothesis were placed on the Index of forbidden books. Interestingly Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected and rather surprisingly this was carried out fairly quickly, the corrected version becoming available to Catholic scholars already by 1621. The Church had realised that this was an important book that should not be banned completely. The corrections consisted or removing or correcting the surprisingly few places in the text where the heliocentric hypothesis was stated as being scientifically true. This meant that Catholics were permitted to write about and discuss heliocentricity as a hypothesis but not to claim that it was empirically true.

Galileo who together with Foscarini had provoked this whole mess got off relatively lightly. At the Pope’s request he was personally informed by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino that he could no longer hold or teach the heliocentric theory and given a document confirming this in writing. He was not punished in anyway and continued to be popular amongst leading figures in the Church including Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.

Many modern commentators say why couldn’t the Church accept the eminently sensible suggestion made by Galileo and Foscarini and thus avoid the whole sorry mess. The answer is quite simple. If they had done so they would have surrendered their absolute right to interpret Holy Scripture, which, as pointed out above, lay at the centre of the Reformation/Counter Reformation conflict; a right that the Catholic Church has not surrendered up to the present day.





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

On Becoming German

Ten days ago I got my Personalausweis (identity card), which kind of make me feel like a real German citizen for the first time, although my certificate of naturalisation was issued on the 15 October and I officially became a German citizen when it was handed to me 21 October. It’s a rather strange feeling to become a citizen of another country, although as a EU citizen I retain my British citizenship and am thus a dual national.

It is a move I have been considering making for several years now, but as a ADDer with dysgraphia I hate, fear and loathe all bureaucracy, so my innerer Schweinehund (translates roughly as internal lazy hound) kept me from making it. The result of the Brexit referendum finally pushed me to get off my fat arse and do something but even then my inertia held me back. Last autumn I paid two hundred plus euro and took my German language and German citizenship exams. The first shouldn’t have been necessary, as I took and passed the much harder university German Language exam three decades ago but couldn’t prove it, the records have got lost, so I spent a whole day proving that I could master the German language. The citizenship exam was a joke. You have to answer 33 multiple-choice questions, 28 of which are taken from a catalogue of 3000 questions that you can read and learn on the Internet (I didn’t bother) and 5 specific to the German State in which you live, in my case Bavaria. To pass you have to get at least 17 right. You have 60 minutes for the exam; I took 4 minutes and I wasn’t the fastest. I got 31 right and am annoyed because I know one that I got wrong but have no idea what the other one was!

Having taken this step I still kept putting off having to actually deal with the bureaucracy. Eventually on 27 March just four days before the final Brexit deadline (remember that?!) I finally pulled myself together and submitted my application for German citizenship; with all the forms, documents and whatever that I had to submit, the pile was literally three centimetres thick; the Germans are very thorough. And then you sit and wait! I was actually fairly convinced that my application would be rejected because of lack of financial support. Having led a rather fucked up life, I live on a basic state pension, which is a pittance and have no financial resources whatsoever. I got more and more nervous as the next Brexit deadline approached fearing, I would become an undesirable alien in my country of residence. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I received the letter telling me to come and collect my certificate of naturalisation.

Having changed my nationality or rather acquired a second one as I am now a dual national, as I said above, I suppose I should feel something but I don’t and don’t really know what I’m supposed to feel.

I’m a white, middle class male born of British parents in Clacton-on-Sea of all places, so I suppose I couldn’t really be more British. However, as I pointed out in an earlier post my mother, although British, was born in Burma and grew up in British India first coming to Europe at the age of thirty-one. I’ve never really identified as British. It’s a word I fill in, in the appropriate section on official forms that ask for my nationality and it’s what is on the front of my passport. I enjoy watching sport but have never been particularly or even mildly fanatical about any team. Except for in rugby, which I played and enjoyed at school, and the Olympics there are no British sports teams but separate ones for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I take an Englishman’s perverse pleasure, I think the term is schadenfreude, in watching the inevitable English bating collapse in test matches or another golden generation of English soccer players crashing out of yet another European/World Cup. But that’s about it. I’ve never understood sentiments like “my country right or wrong” or dying for “king and country.” I’m a lifelong pacifist, who would adopt Bertrand Russell’s policy if those that I love and care for were threatened by fascism or anything similar and do what ever was necessary to oppose.

I vaguely identify as a West European; I have lived in England, Wales, Belgium, Sweden and the largest part of my life in Germany, Middle Franconia to be precise. Beyond that, I have travelled and holidayed in Denmark, Holland, France, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Andorra and Lichtenstein. However, my family background and my upbringing have led me to regard all culture and peoples to be fundamentally the same and to abhor discrimination of any sort.

I identify Middle Franconia in general and the area in and around Erlangen in particular, as being my Wahlheimat, Heimat is the German for home, home town, home country but has connotations of belonging that can’t really be translated into English and Wahlheimat is Heimat of choice. It’s where I feel at home, comfortable and everything else considered where I would like to live out the rest of my life. All of this was true before I applied for German citizenship and being granted it hasn’t really changed anything.

Going through the process of acquiring a new nationality has shown me that the word nationality really doesn’t have any deep meaning for me at all. I probably shouldn’t but I worry slightly about this realisation.


Filed under Autobiographical, Uncategorized

There is no year zero!

I realise that in writing this post I am wasting my time, pissing against the wind, banging my head against a brick wall and all the other colourful expressions in the English language that describe embarking on a hopeless endeavour but I am renowned for being a pedantic curmudgeon and so I soldier on into the jaws of disappointment and defeat. I shall attempt to explain carefully and I hope clearly why the 31st of December of the year 2019 does not mark the end of the second decade of the 21st century. I know, I know but I must.

The core of the problem lies in the fact that we possess two basic sets of counting numbers, cardinals and ordinals. Now cardinals have nothing to do with the Holy Roman Catholic Church, a family of birds or a baseball team from St. Louis but are the numbers we use to say how many items there are in a group, a collection, a heap or as the mathematician prefer to call it a set. Let us look at a well-known example:

I’ll sing you twelve, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What are your twelve, O?

Twelve for the twelve Apostles

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,

Ten for the ten commandments,

Nine for the nine bright shiners,

Eight for the April Rainers.

Seven for the seven stars in the sky,

Six for the six proud walkers,

Five for the symbols at your door,

Four for the Gospel makers,

Three, three, the rivals,

Two, two, the lily-white boys,

Clothed all in green, O

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

This is the final round of an old English counting song the meaning of several lines of which remain intriguingly obscure. Starting with the fourth line from the top we have a set of 12 Apostles i.e. the original twelve follower of Jesus. One line further in, we have a set of 11, who went to heaven, presumably the Apostles minus Judas Iscariot. And so we proceed, each line refers to a group or set giving to number contained in it.

In everyday life we use cardinal numbers all the time. I bought 6 eggs today. There are 28 children in Johnny’s class. My car has 4 wheels and so on and so forth. The cardinal numbers also contain the number zero (0), which indicates that a particular group or set under discussion contain no items at all. There are currently zero kings of France. We can carry out all the usually simple arithmetical operations–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division–on the cardinal numbers including zero, with the exception that we can’t divide by zero; mathematicians say division by zero is not defined. So if Johnny’s class with its 28 members are joined by Jenny’s class with 27 members for the school trip there will be 55 children on the bus. I’m sure you can think up lots of other examples yourselves.

Ordinal numbers have a different function, there signify the position of items in a list, row, series etc. We also use different names for ordinal numbers to cardinal numbers, so instead of one, two three four…, we say first, second, third, fourth…etc. an example would be, Johnny was the fifth person in his class to get the flu this winter. Now, in the ordinal numbers there is no zero, it would be a contradiction in terms, as it can’t exist. Occasionally when there is an existing ordered list of principles or laws people will talk about the ‘zeroeth’ law, meaning one that wasn’t originally included but that they think should precede the existing ones.

When we talk about years we tend to use the words for cardinal numbers but in fact we are actually talking about ordinal numbers. What we call 2019 CE or AD i.e. two thousand and nineteen is in fact the two thousand and nineteenth year of the Common Era or the two thousand and nineteenth year of Our Lord. Whichever system of counting years one uses, Gregorian, Jewish, Muslim, Persian, Chinese, Hindu or whatever there is and never can be a year zero, it is, as stated abve, a contradiction in terms and cannot exist. Therefore the first decade, that is a group of ten year, in your calendrical system consists of the years one to ten or the first year to the tenth year, the second decade the years eleven to twenty or the eleventh year to the twentieth year and so on. The first century, that is a group of one hundred years, consists of the years one to one hundred or the first year to the one-hundredth year. First millennium, that is one thousand years, consists of the years one to one thousand or the first year to the one-thousandth year.

Going back to our starting point the first decade of the 21st century started on the 1st January 2001 and finished on the 31st December 2010. The second decade started on the 1st January 2011 and will end on the 31st December 2020 and not on 31st December 2019 as various innumerate people would have you believe.



Filed under Calendrics, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science

Finding your way on the Seven Seas in the Early Modern Period

I spend a lot of my time trying to unravel and understand the complex bundle that is Renaissance or Early Modern mathematics and the people who practiced it. Regular readers of this blog should by now be well aware that the Renaissance mathematici, or mathematical practitioners as they are generally known in English, did not work on mathematics as we would understand it today but on practical mathematics that we might be inclined, somewhat mistakenly, to label applied mathematics. One group of disciplines that we often find treated together by one and the same practitioner consists of astronomy, cartography, navigation and the design and construction of tables and instruments to aid the study of these. This being the case I was delighted to receive a review copy of Margaret E. Schotte’s Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550–1800[1], which deals with exactly this group of practical mathematical skills as applied to the real world of deep-sea sailing.

Sailing School001.jpg

Schotte’s book takes the reader on a journey both through time and around the major sea going nations of Europe, explaining, as she goes, how each of these nations dealt with the problem of educating, or maybe that should rather be training, seamen to become navigators for their navel and merchant fleets, as the Europeans began to span the world in their sailing ships both for exploration and trade.

Having set the course for the reader in a detailed introduction, Schotte sets sail from the Iberian peninsular in the sixteenth century. It was from there that the first Europeans set out on deep-sea voyages and it was here that it was first realised that navigators for such voyages could and probably should be trained. Next we travel up the coast of the Atlantic to Holland in the seventeenth century, where the Dutch set out to conquer the oceans and establish themselves as the world’s leading maritime nation with a wide range of training possibilities for deep-sea navigators, extending the foundations laid by the Spanish and Portuguese. Towards the end of the century we seek harbour in France to see how the French are training their navigators. Next port of call is England, a land that would famously go on, in their own estimation, to rule the seven seas. In the eighteenth century we cross the Channel back to Holland and the advances made over the last hundred years. The final chapter takes us to the end of the eighteenth century and the extraordinary story of the English seaman Lieutenant Riou, whose ship the HMS Guardian hit an iceberg in the Southern Atlantic. Lacking enough boats to evacuate all of his crew and passengers, Riou made temporary repairs to his vessel and motivating his men to continuously pump out the waters leaking into the rump of his ship, he then by a process of masterful navigation, on a level with his contemporaries Cook and Bligh, brought the badly damaged frigate to safety in South Africa.

Sailing School004

In each of our ports of call Schotte outlines and explains the training conceived by the authorities for training navigators and examines how it was or was not put into practice. Methods of determining latitude and longitude, sailing speeds and distances covered are described and explained. The differences in approach to this training developed in each of the sea going European nations are carefully presented and contrasted. Of special interest is the breach in understanding of what is necessary for a trainee navigator between the mathematical practitioners, who were appointed to teach those trainees, and the seamen, who were being trained, a large yawning gap between theory and practice. When discussing the Dutch approach to training Schotte clearly describes why experienced coastal navigators do not, without retraining, make good deep-sea navigators. The methodologies of these two areas of the art of navigation are substantially different.

The reader gets introduced to the methodologies used by deep-sea navigators, the mathematics developed, the tables considered necessary and the instruments and charts that were put to use. Of particular interest are the rules of thumb utilised to make course corrections before accurate methods of determining longitude were developed. There are also detailed discussions about how one or other aspect of the art of navigation was emphasised in the training in one country but considered less important in another. One conclusion the Schotte draws is that there is not really a discernable gradient of progress in the methods taught and the methods of teaching them over the two hundred and fifty years covered by the book.

Sailing School003.jpg

As well as everything you wanted to know about navigating sailing ships but were too afraid to ask, Schotte also delivers interesting knowledge of other areas. Theories of education come to the fore but an aspect that I found particularly fascinating were her comments on the book trade. Throughout the period covered, the teachers of navigation wrote and marketed books on the art of navigation. These books were fairly diverse and written for differing readers. Some were conceived as textbooks for the apprentice navigators whilst others were obviously written for interested, educated laymen, who would never navigate a ship. Later, as written exams began to play a greater role in the education of the aspirant navigators, authors and publishers began to market books of specimen exam questions as preparation for the exams. These books also went through an interesting evolution. Schotte deals with this topic in quite a lot of detail discussing the authors, publishers and booksellers, who were engaged in this market of navigational literature. This is detailed enough to be of interest to book historians, who might not really be interested in the history of navigation per se.

Schotte is excellent writer and the book is truly a pleasure to read. On a physical level the book is beautifully presented with lots of fascinating and highly informative illustrations. The apparatus starts with a very useful glossary of technical terms. There is a very extensive bibliography and an equally extensive and useful index. My only complaint concerns the notes, which are endnotes and not footnotes. These are in fact very extensive and highly informative containing lots of additional information not contained in the main text. I found myself continually leafing back and forth between main text and endnotes, making continuous reading almost impossible. In the end I developed a method of reading so many pages of main text followed by reading the endnotes for that section of the main text, mentally noting the number of particular endnotes that I wished to especially consult. Not ideal by any means.

This book is an essential read for anybody directly or indirectly interested in the history of navigation and also the history of practical mathematics. If however you are generally interested in good, well researched, well written history then you will almost certainly get a great deal of pleasure from reading this book.

[1] Margaret E. Schotte, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550–1800, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2019.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIII

The first period of telescopic, astronomical discoveries came to an end in 1613, which was seventy years after the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. This makes it a good point to stop and take stock of the developments that had taken place since the appearance of that epoch defining magnum opus. First we need to remind ourselves of the situation that had existed before Copernicus heliocentric hypothesis entered the world and triggered a whole new cosmology and astronomy debate. The mainstream standpoint was an uneasy combination of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. Uneasy because, as some saw it, the Ptolemaic deferent and epicycle model of planetary motion contradicted Aristotle’s homocentric principle, which led to a revival of homocentric astronomy. Others saw the principle of uniform circular motion contradicted by Ptolemaeus’ use of the equant point. In fact, we know that the removal of the equant point, for exactly this reason, was the starting point of Copernicus’ own reform efforts. Another minority view that was extensively discussed was a geocentric system with diurnal rotation, as originated in antiquity by Heraclides of Pontus, regarded by some as more rational or acceptable than that the sphere of the fixed stars rotated once in twenty-four hours. Also still up for debate was the Capellan system with Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun in a geocentric system. Then came Copernicus and added a new radical alternative to the debate.

By 1613 most of the Aristotelian cosmology had been disposed of bit for bit. Aristotle’s sublunar meteorological comets had definitely become supralunar astronomical objects, although what exactly they were was still largely a mystery. As we shall see Galileo later embarrassed himself by maintaining a position on comets very close to that of Aristotle. The comets becoming supralunar had also disposed of Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, although Copernicus seems to have still believed in them. The telescopic discovery of the geographical features on the Moon and the spots on the Sun had put an end to Aristotle’s perfection of the celestial spheres. They together with the comets and the supernovas of 1573 and 1604, both of which had clearly been shown to be supralunar, also contradicted his immutability of the heavens. The discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter ended the homocentric concept and the discovery of the phases of Venus, originating in a solar orbit, ruled a pure geocentric system but not a geo-heliocentric one. As a result of all these changes cosmology was up for grabs.

In astronomy the biggest single change was that nearly all astronomers, following Copernicus, now believed in the reality of their models and no longer viewed them as purely mathematical constructions designed to save the phenomena. This was a major shift as previously the discussion of the reality of the heavens was regarded as a discussion for philosophers and definitely not astronomers. So which models were up for discussion? Had in the intervening seventy years the debate simplified, reduced to a choice between two competing models, Ptolemaic geocentrism and Copernican heliocentrism, as Galileo would have us believe twenty years later? Actually no, if anything the situation had got considerably more confused with a whole raft full of astronomical models jostling for a place at the table. What were these competing models?

Given the telescopic observations of the phases of Venus and the assumption of similar phases for Mercury, a pure Ptolemaic geocentric model should have been abandoned but there was still a hard core that refused to simply give up this ancient model. Christoph Clavius (1538–1612) in the last edition of his Sphaera, the standard Jesuit textbook on astronomy, acknowledged problems with the geocentric model but urged his readers to find solutions to the problems within the model. As late as 1651 Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671), in the famous frontispiece to his Almagestum novum, shows Ptolemaeus lying defeated on the ground, whilst the heliocentric and geo-heliocentric systems are weighed against each other, but he is saying, I will rise again.


Frontispiece of Riccioli’s 1651 New Almagest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Due to William Gilbert’s revival of the Heraclidian diurnal rotation, we now have two geocentric models, with and without diurnal rotation. The Copernican heliocentric system is, of course, still very much in the running but with much less support than one might expect after all the developments of the intervening seventy years.

Despite the phases of Venus all the various geo-heliocentric models are still in contention and because of the lack of empirical evidence for movement of the Earth these are actually more popular at this point in time than heliocentric ones. However, despite the lack of empirical evidence diurnal rotation enjoys a surprising level of popularity. We have a Capellan system, Venus and Mercury orbit the Sun, which orbits the Earth, both with and without diurnal rotation. Very much in consideration is the full Tychonic system; the five planets orbit the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Once again both with and without diurnal rotation. Riccioli favoured another variation with Venus, Mercury and Mars orbiting the Sun but with Jupiter and Saturn orbiting the Earth along with the Sun and Moon.

Perhaps the most interesting development was Kepler’s heliocentric system. Whilst Kepler regarded his system as Copernican, others regarded his elliptical system as a rival to not only to the geocentric and geo-heliocentric system but also to the Copernican heliocentric system with its deferent and epicycle orbital models. The most prominent example of this being Galileo, who promoted the Copernican system, whilst deliberately ignoring Kepler’s more advanced developments.

We can find solid evidence for this multiplicity of systems in various sources. The earliest in a card game devised by Johann Praetorius (1573–1616), professor for astronomy at the University of Altdorf near Nürnberg, which only exists in manuscript.


Source: Wikimedia Commons











Source: All playing card images Wikimedia Commons

Another much read source is the extraordinary Anatomy of Melancholy by the Oxford scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640). First published in 1621, it was republished five times over the next seventeen years, each edition being massively modified and expanded.


The Anatomy of Melancholy frontispiece 1638 ed. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a section entitled Melancholy of the Air Burton discusses the various astronomical models, favouring the system of David Origanus (1558–1629), professor for Geek Greek and mathematics at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, a Tychonic system with diurnal rotation.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Burton, as well as being one of the most erudite scholars of the seventeenth century, was also a practicing astrologer, who is said to have hung himself in his Oxford chambers to fulfil his own prediction of his death.

Already mentioned above is Giovanni Battista Riccioli, whose Almagestum novum (1551) contains descriptions of a wide range of different systems.


Riccioli as portrayed in the 1742 Atlas Coelestis (plate 3) of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book also contains a list of 126 arguments pro and contra heliocentricity, 49 for and 77 against, in which religios arguments play only a very minor role.

Another Jesuit was Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), who sat at the centre of a world spanning astronomy correspondence network, receiving astronomical data from Jesuits all of the world, collating it and re-distributing it to astronomers throughout Europe.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

He described six different systems as late as 1656 in his Itinerarium extaticum, with a revised edition from 1671.


Diagrams of the different world systems, Ptolemaic, Platonic, Egyptian, Copernican, Tychonic and semi-Tychonic from Iter Exstaticum (1671 ed.) p. 37 Source:

Contrary to a widespread view the question of the correct astronomical system was still very much an open question throughout most of the seventeenth century, largely because there existed no conclusive empirical evidence available to settle the question.





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

The Royal Society really needs to work on its history of the telescope

One would think that the Royal Society being one of the eldest, but not the eldest as they like to claim, scientific societies in Europe when presenting themselves as purveyors of the history of science, would take the trouble to get their facts right. If, however, one thought this, one would be wrong. Last week on the Internet the Royal Society was pushing a slide show, under their own name, on Google Arts and Culture on the history of the telescope in astronomy that in terms of historical accuracy is less than one, as a historian of science, nay of the telescope, might hope or indeed wish for.

The slide show in question is titled, Silent Harmony: astronomy at the Royal Society: Discover how innovation in telescopes and other optical instruments changed the way we see the universe. Following the title slide we have another general blurb slide but things then get serious on the history level, we get told under the heading, The new astronomy:


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was the first to explore the solar system using a telescope. His work directly built on famous predecessors such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who set out to model a heliocentric universe – one in which the sun is at the centre of the universe – and theorise the motion of planets. 

Sometimes I tire slightly of repeating myself but once more into the breach dear friends, once more. Galileo was not the first to explore the solar system using a telescope. That honour goes to a man in London, you know London home of the Royal Society, Thomas Harriot (1560–1621).


Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also at the same time as Galileo was aiming his telescope at the heavens in Padua, Simon Marius (1573–1625) was doing the same in Ansbach in Franconia


Simon Marius Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618) and Odo van Maelcote (1572–1615) in Rome. Whilst Galileo was more than prepared to call himself a Copernican, he very strongly rejected or ignored the work of Johannes Kepler, so saying that his work directly built on that of Kepler is more than a simple distortion of history. To say that these three theorised the motion of planets is to say the least bizarre, all astronomical models whether heliocentric, geocentric or geo-heliocentric theorise the motion of planets that is a large part of what astronomy is. We are not finished with Signor Galileo:

Galileo’s Starry Messenger was the first published work to incorporate scientific observations made using a telescope.

The treatise contains descriptions of lunar landscapes, new stars in well-known constellations and the major satellites of Jupiter.

This is all correct, however because he was the first to publish people make the mistake of thinking he was the first or even the only one to make telescopic observations in 1609. Moving on, the next slide caption isn’t correct:

Galileo designed and built the most powerful telescope of his generation.

His own instrument, a thirty-power magnifier preserved at the Museo Galileo in Florence, served as model to other instrument-makers for many years.

I’m beginning to think that the Royal Society has got something against Thomas Harriot. Whilst Galileo did indeed build a thirty-power telescope it was not the most powerful telescope of his generation, Harriot built a fifty-power one. However, as in a Dutch telescope (convex objective/concave eyepiece) the field of vision diminishes with magnification the fifty-power telescope proved next to useless. Galileo’s own instrument did not serve as a model to other instrument-makers for many years that, is to put it mildly, total bullshit. Lots of people knew how to construct a simple Dutch telescope and did so without any reference to Galileo.

We skip a few slides and arrive at the most famous President of the Royal Society, Isaac Newton;


Portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

we get a picture of Newton’s reflecting telescope with the following caption:


Replica of Newton’s second reflecting telescope, which he presented to the Royal Society in 1672 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Society also owns a reflecting telescope made by Newton as a direct application of his theories on light and colour.

This statement is a best misleading and at worst simply wrong depending on how you interpret it. Newton’s theories on light and colour led him to the awareness that the coloured fringes visible on the images of the then normal refracting telescope were the result of chromatic aberration, i.e. the visible light being split up into the colour spectrum when passing through a spherical lenses. This discovery led him to developing a reflecting telescope because he believed falsely that creating an achromatic lens was impossible. It would be more than half a century before Chester Moore Hall invented the first achromatic lens. The principle of the reflecting telescope, which with a suitable mirror, does not suffer from chromatic aberration, had been known since antiquity and Newton was by no means the first to try and construct one. He was, however, the first to succeed in producing a functioning reflecting telescope. You can read an outline of the full history of the reflecting telescope here. Interestingly nobody succeeded in copying Newton’s achievements for the best part of fifty years, when John Hadley (1682–1784), another fellow of the Royal Society, who gets no mention in this slide show, finally succeeded in producing large scale functioning reflecting telescopes; Newton’s instrument was little more than a toy.

The instrument allowed him to make various observations conclusive with his theories on gravity.

This caption is just high-grade rubbish. Newton did not make any observations with this instrument that were in anyway connected with his theory of gravity, let alone conclusive with it.

There are, in the mean time, quite a few good books on the history of the telescope, I have most of them sitting on my book shelf and I’m sure some of them are in the Royal Society’s library, so why didn’t who ever put this slide show together consult them or simply ask an expert?









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