When did the (Scientific) Renaissance take place?

Whilst I have been inactive two of my commentators have been conducting a discussion on their respective takes on the history of alchemy, magic and other related activities. In the course of their skirmishes one of them had the following to say:

…the name of the Blog is RENAISSANCE Mathematicus, not RESTORATION Mathematicus.
The Renaissance started in the 1430s and may be considered complete by 1560, and was driven by the sponsorship of the nobility, perhaps the last flowering of the feudal system.

Now his dating of the Renaissance is interesting and this and the dating of historical periods in general is what I wish to talk about here but before I do, I will just say that although I mainly write about the early modern period (and what exactly that is I say explain later), as this is one area in which I could possibly claim a modicum of knowledge or even expertise, I retain the right to write about any and all aspects of the history and philosophy of science beginning with the big bang and going up to tea time last Thursday afternoon. Just because I’m a Renaissance Mathematicus doesn’t mean that I confine myself to the fifteenth century, as any attentive regular reader will have already noticed.

Periodisation in human history is an artifice. We the historians impose periods onto history in order to try to tame it and make it easier to handle and in doing so we run the very real risk of falsifying it. There are no sign posts rammed into the real roadmap of time saying you are now leaving the Early Middle Ages please conduct your self in future in a manner suitable for the High Middle Ages. In fact as the peasant farmer in Middle Europe turned over the page of his calendar from the 25th to the 26th of March (or on which ever day in his part of the woods the new year happened to start) in 1199 and thus entered the thirteenth century nothing changed in his life at all. Time is a constantly flowing river and change is incremental and on the ground mostly imperceptible as societies, cultures and ways of live evolve within the general flow. It is only with hindsight and selective interpretation of the facts that we can perceive the major changes that we then use to identify the periods that we stamp out of the riverbed.

One of the major problems that this post hoc imposition of periods is that we begin to ignore or filter facts in order to make people and events better fit our arbitrary definitions of the period in question. Newton was a product and the crowning glory of the Scientific Revolution (an arbitrarily imposed historical period) so Newton is and must be a modern scientist. That he was nothing of the sort is casually swept under the carpet by all but a handful of Newton specialists buried somewhere deep in the bowels of dusty archives. I have been told on more than one occasion that to claim that Newton was a woo master, even if true, is to undermine peoples faith in the effectiveness of science, so please be so kind and shut up.

In terms of artificial historical periods the Renaissance is a particularly difficult beast to pin down (as is for very similar reasons the Scientific Revolution) because it has less to do with any socio-cultural attributes, such as the introduction of the deep blade plough, as with a philosophical mindset that was held by an elitist minority of the population. The problem is made even more complex by the fact that there was not one set of intellectual values that define the Renaissance but sets of varying and even contradictory ones that existed side by side over the period in question. This is wonderfully illustrated in the protracted mudslinging match between Johannes Kepler and Robert Fludd. Fludd is a Renaissance magus in all his glory revelling in alchemy in its most arcane form and totally rejecting the encroaching wave of mathematical science, one of whose staunchest exponents was Kepler. For the historian the answer in surely simple, Fludd is a representative of the dying Renaissance and Kepler an early personification of modern science. Wrong! Kepler is just as much part of the Renaissance as Fludd (who, by the way, also made sensible contribution to the progress of science) but with a different set of Renaissance philosophical beliefs.

Interesting in this context is the fact that it was the Renaissance humanists who first developed the periodisation scheme that we continue, with modifications, to use today. The humanist scholars of the Renaissance saw themselves as the natural successors to the glories of antiquity or the classical period (i.e. the Greeks and Romans) and regarded the period that had elapsed between the collapse of Rome and classical learning and its rebirth in their hands as the Middle Ages in which everything had been decidedly inferior. Through this rhetorical trick they sort to place themselves on a level with those authors of antiquity whose work they took as a model for their own.

So when does the Renaissance start and end? In my title I have included the word scientific in brackets to indicate that we are in fact dealing with two different but related concepts on the one side the Renaissance and on the other the Scientific Renaissance; the title of my blog of course references the later. The Renaissance proper was initially a literary movement and is said to start with Petrarca (1304 – 1374) gaining momentum over the next two centuries expanding into art and reaching a climax some time around 1500 or slightly later. Originally a return to the style of the classical or golden Latin in literature as exemplified by Cicero in its later phase it came to include the great Greek authors and in the 16th century the humanist became identified with the tri lingua scholar fluent in Latin Greek and Hebrew. This movement in the humanities (from which this branch of academia takes its name) continues to flourish into the 17th century and pinning down exactly where it ends is very difficult. Francis Yates sees its demise somewhere in the Thirty Years War with humanism still a dominant intellectual force before the start of this bloody altercation but very much in decline after the smoke had cleared on the battle fields of Middle Europe. On the whole I tend to agree with her but I would note that when I attended an English grammar school in the 1960s the model of pedagogic excellence to which I was exposed was a modified version of the Renaissance humanist ideals with A-Levels in Latin, Greek and Ancient History being the most exalted educational goal.

The Scientific Renaissance, which is in itself a fairly recent concept, in of course embedded in the wider Humanist Renaissance. Originally conceived by Maria Boas in her book in her book “The scientific Renaissance” from 1962 it has received its most recent treatment from Peter Dear in his “Revolutionizing the Sciences” from 2001. Whereas Boas saw it as an early phase of the scientific revolution, Dear sees the two as separate identifiable periods with differing characteristics. On the whole, as a gradualist, I side with Boas although I also reject the concept of ‘a’ or ‘the’ scientific revolution preferring a gradualist model of scientific evolution, which I wont however discuss here. The popular version of the Scientific Renaissance has it beginning with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and a supposed influx of Greek scientific text into Western Europe brought by the refugees. Its end is signalled, 90 years later, by the publication in 1543 of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. Both of these dates are problematic. Starting with the supposed end of the Scientific Renaissance, Copernicus was a Renaissance humanist scholar and apart from his heliocentricity his book is very much in the tradition of the Epytoma Almagesti from Peuerbach and Regiomontanus (the founders of Renaissance astronomy), which served as one of his major sources, an astronomical tradition that remained dominant in Europe until it was finally replaced by Kepler’s elliptical astronomy around 1660. This continuity is nicely illustrated by Kepler himself in the frontispiece of his Tabulae Rudolphinae from 1609. This displays astronomy as a somewhat ramshackle pavilion with its various pillars each constructed and contributed by different figure in the history of astronomy. One of the lesser figures included in the wonderful graphic is Bernhard Walther the colleague and pupil of Regiomontanus in Nürnberg who continued his astronomical observation programme after his untimely death in 1476 and whose observation where used by Copernicus in the De revolutionibus. However saying that the Scientific Renaissance comes to an end around 1660 is not without problems. I said earlier that Newton is presented as a modern scientist but even his work is steeped in the mindset of the Renaissance scholar with his alchemical studies and his prisca theology.

The supposed start of the Scientific Renaissance is also very problematic, as the Italian scholars had been collecting Greek scientific manuscripts in large quantities long before the fall of Constantinople as is well documented in Paul Rose’s “The Italian Renaissance in Mathematics”. The City of Florence was already importing teachers to teach its intellectuals Greek in the 1390s. I personally take the appearance of the manuscript of the first Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia in Florence in 1409, as a convenient starting point of the Scientific Renaissance, as this led to new developments in the sciences that increased and accelerated throughout the 15th century.

As I have already indicated above I personally reject both the Scientific Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. I’m prepared to discuss both of them when discussing or criticising the work of others but in my own work I talk about the evolution of the (mathematical) sciences in the early modern period. Of course to use the concept early modern period is just as artificial as any other periodisation but it doesn’t contain any terms loaded with preconceptions such as renaissance and revolution. For me the early modern period starts around 1400 and ends around 1750 but always with the awareness that the processes that I’m investigating actually start before this period and continue on after it.


Filed under History of science, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

48 responses to “When did the (Scientific) Renaissance take place?

  1. Jeb

    I hope Rahere does not view my disagrement with him to badly and I should note that especialy with regard to science my views are far from fully formed.

    Or perhaps better, I am aware of my limitations, as others are more than able to judge.

    I do have a habit of pulling what you say into a very diffrent context. I like using new ideas to spark and kick my own intrests so I can look very off topic indeed at times. But it is also what I most fully understand and the best way to kick new ideas with a lower degree of error. Or indeed at times reject them.

    .If it is a strictly a rigid on topic discussion between experts. I am clearly in the wrong place.
    But I see no reason to indicate or suspect that.

    on topic

    I just work from the 6th century through to the 19th. for the most part I don’t find it usefull to make distinctions.

    looking longterm creates particular problems but a certain Philosopher of Biology covered these problems rather well in his book on species.

    Its the way Ive always worked much to the annoyance of some of my Tutors as an undergrad.

    • Far from it, Rahere has much to learn, too.
      It’s a question of granularity: you can divide time as you want, but you can’t divide ideas, we’re as different from Newton as he was from Flamel as he was from Roger Bacon as he was from Aristotle. What we should be after is to show how nonsense got junked and the sense, such as it was, was refined.
      Just to explain a bit further, I’m using the nexus dates which change society, not the dates things start to hit. Thus, 1558/60 is where Mary Tudor and Francis II’s deaths split the UK from Europe and it turns Protestant, the French Wars of Religion start, partially because Catherine de’Medici was also into alchemy and took her eyes off the power plays, and of course Phillip II’s experiments sparked van Helmont. These arguments are exactly the same as Frances Yates’ Rosicrucian argument for 1620, but with the added validity that they track back to something halfway coherent, unlike the Royal Academy’s nonsense about Paracelsus, which denies the entire heritage van Helmont built on. The 1560-ish monarchic breakdowns let John Knox loose in Scotland, the defeat of Mary de Guise as Regent there, the Condé rebellion of the Huguenots against the House of Guise, the 1568 Iconoclasm, all of which showed the common man had real power. This would build in the UK to Parliament’s belief in itself in the Civil War, somewhat after the Continent. That was the real start of the Enlightenment, not 1620, which if anything was a setback, as it fractured Burgundy-Germany and reinstated Roman Catholicism as a secular power for another 200 years. The consequence was that the UK’s Industrial Revolution is nearly 100 years earlier than Europe’s. But it’s only a waypoint, a marker worth knowing about in a wider view of history, not a date at which everybody suddenly shared an epiphany.

  2. Jeb

    p.s with regard to disagreement. I like to use the lack of confidence dyslexia brings and find it usefull
    to constantly question my own perspective. I don’t like to argue from a position of being correct, only Ive not had enough data to change my perspective on sources. I like to be ready at all times to leave the building with an escape plan in case of fire.

    But its not just argument. I think you have to be fluid, new sources can appear at any moment that change and sometimes utterly alter perspective.

    I like being found to be wrong it means Ive learnt something new and thats an exciting thing.

    • Of course, we must be open to refinement. My discoveries show the importance of putting feet on the ground, that local history and specialist research get missed outside the pigeonholes Abelard’s ontological taxonomy forces them into. It’s part of a wider sense of academic revisionism afoot at the moment, revalidating generalism as a hypertool. The downside is that the noise is going up exponentially, as Wikipedia are discovering – their editors are all leaving because some generalists think they can dictate. The real need is something like the Windows spine, where everything bubbles up in a roiling boil until something else somewhere finds it relevant.

      • jeb

        Yes. I need a general long term view but I need to use, refine and present in a very specific context I feel. Ive done it with a number of subjects but they are in one way or another not suited to explore all the points I would like to.

        But I have learn’t lessons from doing so. I think Ive found a context that can daisy chain them together.

        But noise is always their not just on wiki.
        Perspectives are always going to be diffrent as they should be.

  3. There are no sign posts rammed into the real roadmap of time saying you are now leaving the Early Middle Ages please conduct your self in future in a manner suitable for the High Middle Ages.

    That would make an awesome single panel cartoon, in my opinion…

  4. I started looking at your point whether the Scientific and Cultural Renaissances were differently dated and came to the conclusion that by my date-scales, they were not. I’ve just shown that the tail end of the period is synchronous with both: the first toddler steps of what will drive van Helmont over the top into empiricism sixty years later were exactly contemporary with the loss of England and Scotland to Spain and France, respectively.
    Was the same true of the start? The French recovery under Joan of Arc was scientific in nature, with the use of cannonry (metallurgy) and gunpowder (chemystry) for the first time on an extensive scale: equally, Gilles de Rais who paid for it was eventually burned for the darker side of alchemy. That’s 1429. I’ve also shown how the working out in the early 1430s of d’Ailly’s philosophy was integral to the start of the Cultural Renaissance: as far as your point about the Florentine fascination with Greek is concerned, it was a natural consequence of their informal alliance as a peer city state with Venice from the late 1390s onwards (see Machiavelli’s History of Florence, ch.7, and Strathern’s The Medici for great detail on how they were getting their start as a power, in detail d’Ailly must have known and approved of). They were, in a word, the financiers behind the plan to salvage what they could of Constantinople’s history, and taking a Papal tiara in hock seems to have been all part of a day’s business.
    My dates are therefore integrally bound up with the changes of the period, both scientifically and culturally. To claim that the Italian Renaissance was literary, however, is stretching a case really rather beyond the pale: the great works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccacio are of the 13th and 14th century, before the Renaissance started, and only the Orlando pieces are of the High Renaissance. True, I point to Boccaccio’s contemporary van Ruusbroec as the spiritual inspiration of d’Ailly, but it is d’Ailly’s followers, van Eyck and Dufay, and Eugenius’ sponsorship of Fra’Angelico, who start the artistic fire of the Renaissance. We most certainly do not recognise Chaucer as being a Renaissance poet, but he was actually dealing with the Visconti in Milan in the 1370s, at about the time the Medici were starting: the Knight’s Tale is based around Sir John Hawkwood, who led the Florentine and Venetian forces against the Visconti.
    It’s you who are playing the date game, I regret to have to say: I’m playing the concept game, and that’s harder. We must show how ideas were refined or refuted, and only coincidentally when: a timescale is consequential to thinking, not dictatory of it.

  5. I agree with you that there are lots of continuities that stretch across the purported chasm of the scientific revolution. One thing that did happen that apparently made a heap of difference, however, was the advent of printing. It seems to me that people either make a great deal of this technological change (Elizabeth Eisenstein, for example) or they hardly mention it at all. I guess much depends on how you conceptualize or maybe imagine history and what matters to you.

    An analogy: an old history prof of mine pointed out to me long ago that if you read the Chronicles of Froissart, you’ll find endless descriptions of the battles and sieges of the Hundred Years War, but barely a mention of the Black Death that killed maybe a third of the population in the middle of the narrative. Wrong kind of happening from his point of view.

    I’m a fan of alternate systems of periods and eras because I’ve learned a lot by comparing and contrasting them. Anyhow, wouldn’t it be strange if it turned out that everything that happened could be captured in a single narrative punctuated with the same critical dates? I’d rather not believe that human affairs are so impoverished as to fold up that readily for easy storage.

    • Absolutely: even the Church was quite fast in on the act, when Eugenius’ nepote Pope Paul II set up a press in the Vatican in the 1460s, well before Manutius set up in Venice.

      One thing worth spelling out in greater detail, to fill in the gaps for the casual reader, is the nature of the paradigm shift at the end of the period, because it is well documented and accessible to us today. Previously, science was a subdomain of theology, as reported by van Helmont, who could be argued was defending himself against possible further Inquisition oppression, and George Starkey, who was well out of their reach. By the end of the period, science stands alone as the fruit of demonstrable empirical experiment, for all that a number of protagonists were proto-masonic, which requires a confession of faith in something.

      The paradigm shift at the start of the period is more economic in nature. The reorganisation of society from vertical (Lords and peasants) to horizontal (skill-based, although the Lords remain top of the heap: we see the rise of a middle class protected by guilds) created synergy efficiencies and spare time to actually do some research to find out why what you were doing happened to work. So, to some extent the period sees movement up the Maslowian pyramid of aspiration, and improved technology across the board arising from specialisation.

      Thus the knowledge junked during this period was the dictature of theology: the Church no longer controlled development at the end of it as it did at the start. The trivium-quadrivium-theology academic norm was replaced by scientific standards, although the last remnants of it, the trivium grammar requirement in the Universities to be able to read Latin, only disappeared inside the last fifty years.

      Thus it is that the scientist at the start of the period is concerned with cosmology and the apocalypse: at the end of it he’s concerned with real astronomy. Music has fed all kinds of pythagorean input into mathematics and physics, and arithmetic and geometry have deepened.

    • Turning to the fragility of human affairs, the Black Death was a close-run thing. A huge area of Central Western Europe centered on the Vosges, running through Alsace, the Eastern Low Countries and much of the Black Forest, was reduced to anarchy, indeed savagery, and it is my increasing impression that one minor shove might have sent Western Europe over the edge. Not for nothing did society take something like 50 years to recover, having lost a third of the population at best, and in some areas three quarters or more, and there was little of note during that period from this area. The Holy Roman Empire took an enormous setback then, as did Burgundy, and yet despite it all the French and English nobility continued the Hundred Years War as if nothing had happened. That in itself might well have finished matters.

      It would be an interesting project to assess objectively if it was actually more disasterous than the fall of Rome: I think it may have been.

    • jeb

      I had this problem when looking at medevial violence (or the feud as it is popular to term)

      From my perspective the main research presented (and in my context their was little to work with) was next to usless as it’s concern seemed to be not with understanding the subject but with addressing a very specific historical question relating to kingship. That seemed to me to be a question you asked after doing the work on the ground and not before.

      Plague was not simply a problem in this period
      One early med. historian suggested that the role of the rat should not be underestimated in history. It had a devistating effect on very snall population groups before.

      Causes of plague seem to be a bit more complex to identify than the rat last time I looked which was sometime ago. But it makes it’s point well.

      • I personally subscribe to the thesis the Black Death was haemorrhagic, not plague: I have had both Boccaccio and Marriott’s The Plague Race on my bedside for years (my secretary’s uncle is the General Manager of the French Hospital in Hanoi, so was on the front line of SARS) and the two don’t match. At one point Stephen Ng in HK was reporting SARS jumping in waves like the plague in the same catchment zone (about a mile to the west), but longer distances each time, something which the WHO report omits.
        The plague, in passing, is not history: the US West Coast still suffers from it, as do a number of other areas around the world, and any sudden harm to the rat population there could cause it to transfer to humans again.

      • As far as the question of Raison d’Etat is concerned, can you be more specific about which King and which Plague?
        You have to realise that violence in the early mediaeval period was almost the norm. Not only were all nobility trained to arms from age 11, to the point where the ability to think was often disparaged, but also the entire political system was geared to it. You held your fee by the force you could contribute to your Liege, and disputes could be settled legally by a trial of arms – from which the duel descends. Some aspects of the chivalrous code even approached the levels of Bushido, where the only moral behaviour was suppressed violence. It caused no end of debate in the courts of the female lines of Acquitaine from the early thirteenth century onwards, where the code was developed, as we see in the Decameron, a classic example of such debate. The influence on de Troyes and Eschenbach I have already commented on in this series of notes as causing noise in older traditions which may have some bearing on the real subject here – I’m thinking of the Cauldron of Bran in the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, which has resuscitative powers which have some affinity with the alchemical workings. OK, this is now in the realm of mythic fiction because of the above noise, but in the Welsh tradition the idea of fiction didn’t really exist: the furthest you get was the over-emphasis of praise-singers which could make its way into the historic songs.
        So, to sum up that leg, there are at least three distinct celtic traditions which have been overlaid twice with early Gothic Romance from the period of the Romans de Geste in the 13th Century – I have already commented on how the image of the Fountain of Grace was resurrected by d’Ailly in 1402 in reply to the Fountain of Narcissus in the Roman de la Rose – and neo-Gothic or pre-Raphaelite Romanticism from the 19th Century. The first was a somewhat feminist argument derived from Jewish and Greek traditions, both from the classical school and from branches of the Orthodox Church in the South of France. The second was orientated more towards a justification of the Enlightenment teachings of masonic mysticism, and like d’Ailly, were attempts to underpin existing theologies: the distinction is that d’Ailly wove his material from the same threads as the theology, whereas the Enlightenment picked whatever bits of Egyptian, Kabbalistic and Thaumaturgical material seemed to fit a bit. This is why the ideas of Hermes Trimegistos are so weird: it’s an incoherent cobbling together of traditions from widely disparate and anachronistic cultures. I should know, as I have to fight the same tendency myself – timelines are there to constrain the history so I don’t try fitting the 1558 Chaumont workings into the framework of the 1560 Koudenberg ones, unless I can show that the 1560 started earlier.

    • jeb

      “I’m a fan of alternate systems of periods and eras because I’ve learned a lot by comparing and contrasting them. Anyhow, wouldn’t it be strange if it turned out that everything that happened could be captured in a single narrative punctuated with the same critical dates”

      Very; it seems to be to be very context sensitive. Some aspects can fit well with critical dates but others just drive straight through to some degree or other.

      A 17th century scribe can blow the dust of a 12th century manuscript, note some of it’s features, which still remain relevant and relaunch the material. If the original contains local themes, which are still to some extent played out in the culture. It’s an attractive means of presenting a subject to a specific audience.

      I find the long lifespan of the four humours a usefull tool in this regard.

  6. jeb

    The last outbreak here in Glasgow of it is still just about in the living memory of some.

    “The paradigm shift at the start of the period is more economic in nature. The reorganisation of society from vertical (Lords and peasants) to horizontal (skill-based, although the Lords remain top of the heap: we see the rise of a middle class protected by guilds) created synergy efficiencies and spare time to actually do some research to find out why what you were doing happened to work.”

    I like the way you keep noting spare time as a factor as it is also a factor in what I look at.

    I need to look at this and the rise of the middle classes more. I never expected to creep out of anything beyond the 12th cen.

    I have a particularly nice example (for my purposes) of this tension and social transition. I found it in the first book of manners written for english gentlemen. The barnacle goose is one of the creatures I have an interest in. The book makes mention of the in which vulgar members of society on the rise have somewhat vulgar coats of arms.

    The writer draws attention to one in particular, he drops his air of indignation and refers to it as being particularly funny. It’s of a barnacle goose with a latin inscription that basicaly infers to the person being neither one thing or the other.

    I think it almost certainly plays as well on the double sense of barnacle goose as meaning a person of ill reputation.

    Certainly more amusing than the way the barnacle (the instrument of torture) is used in the coat of arms of the nobility.

    But it’s nice the way such representations capture
    this movement and the attitudes and emotions that surround such concerns in such a direct and clear manner.

    A little history of the world as though in miniature.
    Mutum et Turpe Pecus.

  7. And that’s exactly the point of this. The thrust for the quick buck tends to leave other valid data in its dust, and our job is to glean the chaff. As modern bankers have proved, though, quick profits are shortsighted in the long term, and the chaff may be more valuable than what we’ve had to date. What if, for instance, we turned the hunt for string theory backwards and recommenced with Pythagorean harmonics? It fits, and rereading Newton’s esoterics in that light might get us somewhere interesting, I suspect.
    What was interesting was the case of the 17th century scribe who rediscovered the 12th Century Malachy prophecies – go research. This is a constant echo of the theological line in my work, as von Urach was implementing Bernard’s work, and of course Malachy and he were best chums. There’s no end of activity centered around Orval, where Malachy and Nostradamus both worked, the Templars took their first steps, and it seems to be the stamping ground of the modern dark alchemists. Nostradamus, of course, was first validated by Catherine de’Medicis, at the very time of the Hot Hill and Cold Hill, for predicting with precision the death of her husband, Henry II. These prophecies are to be read in the framework that Brussels, according to Erycius Puteanus, is the city of esoteric sevens, not least for its seven hills. Puteanus, it should be remembered, worked with the Vatican’s tame Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher and Vincenzo Galileo on the pythagorean theories of equal temperaments in music which would feed both Galilei and Newton. I have a copy of the ecclesiastical copy of his Bruxellas Millenaria, which is bound together with the codex of legal practices of the city at the end on the sixteenth century, so prized did the Church Fathers find it in the practical administration of the complex interface between Canon and Secular Law. What else is hidden in his dancing wheel of Houses is anybody’s guess: there’s sufficient linkage to the Seven-Fold Dry Path to know it was not some form of copy identifier.
    However, my data didn’t focus inwards to local themes, but expanded outwards to show what d’Ailly was up to. Layer by layer, it interlocked, a mere ghost of a model at first, but falling into place piece by piece. The author who recorded some of the questions without knowing the answers fifty years ago was certainly playing to a local audience: but when you can break through the conspiracy theory to hard fact, weaving together the existing opinions of the leading players into a picture bigger than they could see (an expert knowing everything about nothing), and finding original documentary support, then it’s something.
    The thesis of contiguity of research is relatively modern. Part of it is that the alchemists were notoriously secretive (the legend has it that they tried to keep themselves to a single apprentice), which is why none of their work is ever explicit in its meaning, hiding their work in allegory. Because Albertus Magnus was a cleric, his allegories are spiritual, and were the best known and possibly most trusted: this is why d’Ailly’s thinking fits into those tracks. However, there is more to it than that, as d’Ailly’s infrastructure is integrated across all four threads of the quadrivium, and is the same as Ruusbroec’s theological capstone, quite apart from what one might become tempted to term the satanic antithesis, proving the thesis by exception proving the rule. Maths is not allegorical, nor geometry, however much music and cosmology may be, nor does a constant counterpoint of dark opposition suggest great error on my part. Go think about what I’ve been saying about Ruusbroec’s work, and Malachy, and van Helmont’s subscription to it, and d’Ailly’s power play: these are possibly eternal truths of an Abelardian ontological scale, grown from and by de Champeaux’ Victorines according to Realist bottom-up theories: it is the point at which the two meet. Don’t forget d’Ailly was Chancellor of the University of Paris, the world’s top theological post, and was put onto this by Jean Gerson, his successor in post and one of the theological greats of all time. His work was endorsed by Eugenius IV twelve years after his death, and revalidated by Leo XIII, the top theologian of the last three hundred years, another four hundred and fifty years later yet. That’s not local myth! It’s just that local history records fine detail the broader brush of world history forgets.
    The fact I’m pointing at particular threads is partly because we don’t know about the sherpas carrying the baggage, which is what you’re talking about. I’ve shown how Dufay and van Eyck were among their number, how an entire Ducal House, its lieutenants and distant cousins, set it up and benefited from it: this, it seems to me, is not inconsistent with the fact that Flanders and Brabant were the LA of the fifteenth century, the home of fashion and wealth. Who exactly was the alchemist Baron René de Cerclaers, not recorded elsewhere but whose grave exists in the Church of St Nicholas in Drogenbos and whose money was really transferred to the Countess of Hoornes in 1600? His name is not French, not of Anjou, but is a mis-spelled version of T’Serclaes, another of the seven great lineages of Brussels aldermen, something the 1960s author who picked up on the question cannot but have known. He bridges the Montmorency line to van Helmont experiment. Another spear-carrier, but one I’d like to know more about, as Aline Goosens, the Belgians’ leading expert on Hoornes, has absolutely no idea why they were executed, other than the real accusation of heresy, which fits the alchemical theory to a T. Was there a relationship to Phillip II’s alchemist Pierre of Alsemberg? There’s a geographical locality here, because we also have Dufay, thought to be from Beerset, and Ruusbroec from the village of that name: it’s like talking about Stirling, Bridge of Allen, Kippenross and Dunblane, a string of adjacent villages. See http://maps.google.be/?ie=UTF8&ll=50.764368,4.328957&spn=0.06949,0.178356&t=h&z=13 for just how close they are. Why? Local knowledge again? There’s some hint of it in some of the old histories of Ruusbroec published by the local parish priest some two hundred years ago, which contains data missing from Pomerius. But not quite enough to base a case on – yet.

    There may be more, I’ve shown how d’Ailly’s cosmology spawned Cusanus, and the pair fed Columbus and Kepler and Copernicus, so this is no single thread as suggested. It may well expand backwards beyond 1400 into the sources of the Alfonsine Tables and beyond into Arabic and Greek thinking, but that can be someone else’s thread, I’ve got enough on my hands with the sheer scale I’ve shown.

  8. jeb


    Ive not had a chance to read all that I have some pressing political matters to attend to tomorrow.

    Prophecy is a significant theme in part of what I do. Very significant.

    D.N. Dumville paying homage to his study supervisor Molly Miller refers to the first terse entry in British history as it’s “historical horizon.”
    All it gives is the name of the location of the battle and a date.

    I study the early british version of the wild man
    not the later diffrent version that appears in romance. The distinction between the two merlins was always noted.

    At a later point a further line is added and merlin fled insane into the woods. The addition is still very british as the battle and flight are key.

    But the placement of this prophetic creature at the historical horizon (and he is not just a creature of prophecy, their is philosophy and “science” mixed in to its story) is very intentional I feel. But its never realy been discussed or noted.

    Most intresting.

    Its not the place to do it here but I would be most intrested to know how the role of the later legendry material plays out in alchemy.

    The last thing Ive got to do with the barnacle goose I have been through a mass of sources is to look at the copy Newton had concerning it. But thats somewhat apart from my interest in prophecy.

    Ive been ignoring alchemy and that book until I am finished elsewhere. I know if I start on it I will get sidetracked badly. But i will start of with that particular writer as I start.

    John Wilkins once metioned in passing in a post he thought alchemy may play out in folklore; philosophy and other subjects certainly do.

  9. jeb

    The placement of Myrddin Wyllt. Is one historical post hoc imposition I find fascinating.

    The creature that stands at the start of it all mute and disgraced by sin.

    • That’s d’Ailly’s plan yet again: look up what eschatology means and think about where the line can be drawn between it and prophecy. Rahere’s a tested seer, and is worried, as his arrival on the scene owes rather more to the structure of d’Ailly’s thinking than modern science. How else can you get your head round such experiences as giving up in mute despair on first encountering alchemy in this work, only to be put straight back to where you left off when you tackle a completely unrelmated thread: my mentor in the Brussels tunnels knew nothing about my earlier work, but sent me straight back to the very page I had just stopped at?
      As far as the Welsh thread’s concerned, it’s heavily tainted both by the Victorian revisionisms and their 14th century antecedents at the time of Geraldus. I keep trying to peer past their rehashing of the Germanic legends, and equally into the Mabinogion and the Black Book of Carmarthen, as I think there are things in there which may add to the Greek lineage: but like I say, enough is enough that far back, we’re in danger of being away with the fairies if we don’t have a good idea of where they came out at.
      Another site active on the wider side of things is Perillos, preferably the French site – they have a fairish case for the Languedoc claims of these legends. That doesn’t, in passing, discredit the Welsh, it simply reinforces Robert Graves’ suggestions that the Welsh/Cornish/Breton celts came up through Iberia, as opposed to the Scots and Irish who Heroditus marks as being headed up the Danube. Graves also suggests that the Keltoi were split by Israel, but I can’t find where again – somewhere in that morass of the White Goddess, I think, but where? Not a priority.

  10. jeb

    It’s really hardly surprising that the texts may contain classical allusions. Whilst it is impossible to tell one way or the other the bards you speak of may well have been praising there lords in Latin before switching to British in the 6th.

    “it’s heavily tainted”

    It always is. Their is always a context in which to place these things. See above and ask why the 6th century seems so important with regards to language. Also relates to the Keltoi. Kim McCone may be more helpfull for you in this regard on language difference among P and Q celtic speakers than Graves is on culture and origin.

    But the litreture is packed with discussion on these issues with regard to identity. As it’s had so many issues surrounding it.

    • The sixth century was the point at which Latin no longer had writ and the vernacular could reappear – Latin’s quite constrained emotionally, and in times of stress, quite unusable, as it has deeply-inbuilt presumptions about duty and rectitude in constructions like the gerund which whilst elegant don’t do the job when the horrible hairy hordes are at the gate.
      This is the start of the period of Celtic reevangelisation, when the Irish Church starts to reseed Europe. The hordes aren’t actually that uncivilised – see the career of Belisarius as a ferinstance – and some (the Visigoths) are as Christian as any around.

    • As far as Welsh is concerned, certain words betray latin usage, eglwys, ffenster. But the mind of the people is older: my wife’s family is from the depths of Welsh-speaking Wales, and the way the language is constructed denies basic principles of Latin law. There is no such thing as property, for instance, as there’s no word for “my”, simply a construction indicating an association between the object and me – almost the polar opposite of the gerund, in a way, as the gerund presumes there’s a call on the user to apply something about his resources. Much the same applies in Scots gaelic, if you see Dwelly’s. There’s not even a decent Welsh dictionary, the idea of that much order is deeply offensive to them: but that’s what you get with a language whose words change spelling at the start depending on what’s just gone before, in the vowels depending on what you’re trying to say, and in the end both on Latin-style grammar and on what’s coming up. No dictionary can cope with that…when a word can start any one of three different ways! It’s no wonder Microsoft dealt with spellchecking most of the third world before they started on Welsh, and then gave up in despair!

      • jeb

        Rahre I wonder if we could stop this please. Ive been kind enough to point you to some material.

        You should find interesting. The earliest law tracts in Wales are based on latin law. Gildas will give you some idea of the latin education
        of the period if you read his text on Britians downfall. As will any number of papers on this area of history.

        The medical text attributed to Gildas
        should be a gold mine for you.

        I like using this site as it is related to a subject I need to learn more about.

        This period is not one of them.

  11. jeb

    With regard to plague Gildas on the ruin of Britian is the most accesable example for you. Its one of the sins that leads to Britians ruin a key theme.

    Academic work is slight on the subject.
    Few of them though. One suggests smallpox.

    Violence in early medevial period is not as you describe but yes they certainly started young.

    One heroic poem which describes the warriors as “crying for their mothers” and “a man in might a youth in years” in a highly unusual break from it’s series of elegyies a nursery rhyme was placed into part of the text. The inclusion would appear to have been intentional.

    • Chevy Chase? I find the most telling line the one about the lordling “whose fate was doleful dumps, for when they had his legs cut off, he fought upon his stumps”. Truth is stranger than Monty Python.
      However, these were, and are, the effect of many an evening’s reworking around the farmhouse fires around Rothbury. Those areas of the Borders are so far from any entertainment they still do the rounds during the week, to this day: it’s why there are so many fine Northumbrian Pipers from out there.
      But again, you’re rather talking about the UK – I’m painting a broader picture, that Europe was seriously brutal. Simon IV de Montfort was killed in front of his 10-year-old son Simon, who none the less was leading his family forces in the Albigeois within 3 years. Look at the Children’s Crusade: how anyone could countenance that defies description. Look at de Rais: hundreds dead until his own family came to visit.

      • jeb

        Yes it was Rahere. Very violent at times. I suspect that were the monty python bit may come from then? But you seemed to be talking of a later context with regard to a diffrent period of history.

        In an early med context I think you have to see through the fire and sword view. The legal minimum for a war band in one Anglo Saxon legal text is 7 men.

        Some battles gloryfied by the bards may have been the result of a few noble “farm boys” caught with their pants down on a cattle raid.

        Numbers of people involved could be tiny in some major events of the time.

        The role of hostage taking and also the “adoption” of lesser nobles by the king. Or indeed the warband. All those young kids crying for there mothers drawn from a considerable distance, some far from home.

        These are forms of controling and limiting the potential of those you rule to obey.

        But I common practise and it also went on later was just to bump of a few of youre rivals servant’s.

        Less compensation worries. Less chance of full retaliation. Stephen Whites good on this in a latter French context.

        No I don’t just look at the U.K. but this is not a subject I study of late.

  12. Jeb


    I’ve not looked at this aspect in any detail but the Lorica attributed to Gildas is as far as I am aware the only early medevial medical magical text on the subject. Some historians do think it is the same illness as the later watershed moment. I’ve not looked yet at any more modern work with regard to dating accuracy ect

    It does seem odd when you are so use to seeing it presented as one of those defining points that mark out a period of later history.

    Older work by a historian of science and medicine.
    on subject from Proc R. Soc. Med.


    • Vaughan Williams attributed the hymn St Patrick’s Breastplate to this period. Given that underneath a heap of Tudor decoration lies the ruins of something which might fit the pattern of the few surviving celtic harp pieces – things like the finger-exercise Port-a-buil which actually translates as Mouth Music in Scots gaelic but is indeed a warm-up piece dating back at least before Tudor times, the ap Huw manuscript, the Harp Key and a few other such – see Maire ni’Chatasaigh for exemplary performances, much better than Alison Kinnaird’s – we see a second model within the framework of the Gospel breastplate.

  13. jeb

    p.s the Irish annals or the Welsh chronicles will give you specific names of kings nobles etc.

    Dating seems to suggest that the outbreak Gildas records hit Ireland at around the same time.

    But with youre interests the annals and chronicles should be essential reading. As they are prohetic in tone in places and very helpfull in identifying certain literary themes helping to avoid the heavy sprinkling of fairy dust that is common with regard to this subject as you note.

    Early med. is very well studied by some very able historians it’s not the pre- plague ‘dark ages’ it was sometimes presented as in the past.

    • And that is exactly why I’m stopping at 1400 for the moment. The next steps for those wanting to go that way are to follow the same principle back to 1100 in the University of Paris, and then before that in the chronicles. You find no end of oddities, like Cynewulf’s Elena, which looks to me very much like an eyewitness statement by a member of her Varingarian bodyguard. The details corroborate, and it’s unlikely that much detail could have been made up – see the epilogue for a big hint that he was troubled by his controversial testimony. However, there is also much about the text which is redolent of early mediaeval gloss, mixed with pure Nordic heroic imagery, “bound ocean-racers resting on the sea”.

  14. jeb


    I must appoligise for the way this thread has filled up. I don’t like to claim any expertise in any area. Perhaps you are compaired to someone walking in of the streets but I think when you understand how big these subjects really are every one to some extent is walking in dark corners yet explored.

    Rather than feel the need to having to substatiate any point I make with clear further refrence to sources I will refrain from commenting and stick to reading the excellent material you are sharing with us all.

  15. jeb

    p.s i will leave with this as John will find the Barnacle goose refrences funny in the chapter on heraldry and the introduction.


    He also did this

    Dame Opinion has a rod in one hand and a Chameleon in the other which can transform into any colour apart from white as dame opinion can transform herself into any form other than that of truth. Her opinions are of course fed and watered by a fool much like myself.

  16. jeb

    p.s Thony was Rahre you? I don’t think what I am looking at has anything to do with modern science but may have something to do with pre-evolutionary beliefs concerning human origins.

    Gefeory of Monmouth wrote a later life of Merlin
    It is influenced in parts clearly from the ideas moving from the muslim world. The older material stems from similar routes though thats more related to st. lives.

    John Wilkins has been most helpfull to read on the actual start of the subject. As has youre site.

    If my comments were unhelpfull you should have said.

    I may know little about the world of the Renessiance Mathematicus but I know something about it’s comedy and during my classical education was taught that in order to play such roles one had to understand the manners of the age. So I know a little of Renessiance Gentlemen.
    It’s essential knowledge if you wish to play such parts

    If you can move past the obey king and god.
    In many ways this book is an ancestor of what some are trying to do to day I think. It was very popular over a long period. My first teacher in classical drama had a regard for such things.

    Its where my interest in custom’s manner’s and indeed where the best part of my training on how to interpret narrative stems from.


    • Seconded. Thony speaks for himself, as does Rahere, who was getting more than somewhat ticked off with being dragged kicking and screaming into territory nobody’s ready to handle yet. Rahere’s shared his thoughts on the subject, for what they’re worth, which is probably next to nothing.

  17. jeb

    I am glad. I did not think so. I did not make the comment at the end I did for fear that I was presenting a weak argument. It was very clear whoever I was speaking to had no understanding of the sources I use or indeed the time period and location my subject starts.

    It was clear from the use of lingustic evidence.

    the welsh have no word for property.

    The earliest monastic charters and they are early are written in latin and follow Roman legal precedent. It also indicates a legal litrate culture which of coures has so much relationship with the begining of written narrative. Along with the medical kindreds who’s contribution to narrative has almost certainly been over looked in places.

    The point relating to the native british language as offering a wider emotional range was a particularly bad one and also an indication that the individual concerned had no understanding of this subject in it’s context.

    The evidence we have for this period stems from poetry, herioc verse, which by its nature is restrictive in it’s emotional tone. A.O.H. Jarmans introduction to the Goddodin makes this point very clearly.

    Rather than rebutting the possibility (and it is a point that has no bearing on my research) that the bards of Gildas time may have been composing in latin it would seem to add possible support to the notion. It was a point made on a rainy day by one of the best historians of this period Ive certainly come across in my life.

    I simply asked the person concerned to please stop as it was very very clear he had no understanding of what I was disscusing at this point. Very clear.

    Given that the thread was going all over the place I was embarresed to come under such attack and have to give such detailed responses with regard to a topic that youre readers may have no interest or little understanding off.

    I realy do feel concerned at the level of hostility I felt I recieved in this from someone with clearly no specialist understanding of this subject. But someone with clear understanding of later European History.

    • OK, so connect up the dots: how does the early Welsh work join up to our later activities? My biggest concern is that for something like a thousand years from Roman times to the period I’ve been talking about a bit more firmly, women put food on the table grown by their husbands, armourers built weapons, and society limped along developing somewhat from where it left off. It’s a bit like building a house from the roof down, we know where the foundations probably are, but what goes in to make the first and possibly second floors? At the moment, I’ve got a bunch of religious with an agenda which arguably leads to modern science, but what were they really building on? Pure philosophy? Not in a thousand years, they were Realists, keeping a foot in reality at all times. Some of their opposition were visibly practicing creeds which go back to Babylon, so what fed d’Ailly? that’s the ball I’ve thrown.

    • PS And if you care to argue other threads, feel free: but argue something. I’ve pointed out something which seems fairly mainstream, but there’s obviously all kinds of other activities, as I’ve pointed out: metallurgy and agrochemistry for starters. Not for nothing were the best sword-blades from Toledo, they must have learned that from Damascus, and they, perhaps, from the Far East: Japanese legend suggests the use of Damascening started in about the eighth century or shortly thereafter. Certainly, the scarcety of quality carbon steel made the technique essential, as anyone who uses Japanese woodworking tools knows to this day: a hard but brittle edge protected by a resilient spine makes a fine chisel. But something nags at my mind, that the rusting of Norse swords shows they too laminated their weaponry, probably for similar reasons, shortage of metal to work with. Was this necessity mothering invention in identical manners under identical constraints? Or should we look further back? The synchronicity of the work suggests it’s possible: or were the Japanese copying something from the Varingarian Guard? Or is there simply too little evidence to know? That’s the kind of real thread we need.
      Have you ever seen any of the models how they built mediaeval churches, by inverting the loads and modeling it in a mirror. The undercrypt of the Sagrada Familia has a good example: you know where you’re going, now how do we get there? What I want is to build as well working backwards in time as we built going forwards, so we stop the nonsenses of attributing the origins of science to Paraceslus. Pure mysticism’s one thing, you can sell any kind of flim-flam on that basis, this had better be something different, because from these acorns a great oak grew.

  18. jeb

    p.s thony as i feel I have come under considerable attack here from a user of the forum and my views are open to question. Their is one area of my research that has made me slow up a bit. As I remain uncertain about it.

    The rest steps on no toes as far as the history of science goes, as far as I am aware.

    Its the only part I see a potential problem with and you metioned it somewhere else a while ago.

    I was extremly gratefull as it alerted my to the potential pitfalls of what I do and the limitations of my knowledge at the time in the subject area.

    You may recall the Scottish preacher i think you refered to his hatred of french sauces and my remarks concerning the barnacle goose being used as a religious metaphor. At the time i felt I had resonable but not 100% solid evidence to suggest that this was one of its functions.

    Ive not read it the book which from reading comments on it would appear to support that claim.

    As after youre remarks I want to tread with extreme caution. But it’s the book on Newtons bedside table concerning the goose.

    I don’t look at Newton,It’s written by an alchemist but I suspect it does not have much to say about either Newton or Alchemy. It may however possibly and I would stress that word, have something to say about My preacher and Sir Robert Muray. But I remain uncertian on this point after youre words of advice.

    I certianly can’t continue with my project without peer review and i have worked very hard and am very relucatant to just give up now. I was kindly offered some help in this regard by an expert on the subject, but I am uncertian if the offer still stands.

    I certainly want my work peer reviewed I don’t want to make mistakes and I am happy to take on critisim when valid like the help you gave me some time ago.

    I dont think my work says very much about the history of science it is related but is more concerned with the relationship between oral and written culture. Elite perspectives are the tool I use to trace such a relationship.

    But I hope I can demonstrate the strength of using
    evolutionary biology as a means of interpreting narrative and I would hope to be able to use some recent developments in taxonomy, an area which I think my arts subject may have been a bit amiss in looking at for a number of years.

    Sorry to go on at length but i feel I have come in for something of a kicking here and i feel that be related to the fact I don’t express myself very clearly in posts.

    I need to proof work very carefully both with regard to spelling and grammer.

    Posts like this one are like a first draft of written work, not normally something I would air in public
    but if i dont I cant contribute and won’t be able to recieve helpfull coments like the one you gave.

    I certainly had a bad understanding in this subject at first but someone was kind enough to clear me straight right at the start of this. I can and do identify mistakes and my knowlege of the material I look at is far greater than Rhere who ever he may be clearly thought.

  19. jeb

    p.p.s with regard to peer review Rehre certainly is not a good choice with regard to early me.d My comments would made before would stand anywhere the response was not credible.

    With regard to prophecy this aspect is not a science matter. Core to my research is it’s realtionship with satire but particularly cursing. and it’s relationship with female participation with early medevial ‘violence’ i.e see the 6th century magico medical text I linked too. Note the group of figures it protects against they crop up both in early law texts and other 6th century medical texts specificaly related to compensation to payments payed as the result of injury in warfare and the treatments recieved.

    The three female figures disscused as entitled to half payments, their unusual names suggest a relationship with beliefs regarding the origin of language. A central theme of my work.

    and with a final note with regard of my use of the term violence as opposed to bloodfeud.

    I could see why some historians would cry horror at this suggestions as it would suggest that they can no longer spend one afternoon sitting in a reading room reading one athropological text on the subject and then use it as a basis for resolving political aspects relating to very diffrent concerns.

    Anthropolgy has had in the past particular difficulties with regard to the enternal or indeed the peace in feud.

    I think it’s a bit of a barnacle goose term so Violence is prefered as it avoids anthropological issues (which may now have been addresed no idea) and suggests instead a diffrent approach is needed first to understand the subject in a specific context before becoming involved in the standard debates of history.

    As Rehre clearly thought I had no understanding of what I was talking about and clear a limited understanding of the issues that have traditionaly surrounded this subject.

    He clearly gave my slight of hand with termonolgy
    no real thought.

    But it is not just a case of replacing a new term for thought. It aviods some clear issues with regard to this subject rather well.

    Sorry to go on but I felt the need. If the early medevial ‘expert’ and expert of violence in medevial society would care to rebut any of the points made feel free.

    But please check youre understanding of specific context first.

    Some of that was a mess.

  20. jeb

    As a final point at peice of advice. If you do have an interest in suggesting that the later medevial period was more violent than traditional opinion suggests.
    I would use the term shift.

    I was never allowed to study it fully as an undergrad in the mai history department. But I was allways slightly sceptical myself with regard to the suppression of bloodfeud particulary when you look at the activity surrounding other laws related to the protection of property and dispute.

    But thats slightly speculative. Thier is certianly good evidence to suggest the aearly anglo saxon laws worked in practice (a vexing subject).

    And some very intresting research to suggest that the played a major role in the rise of the anglo saxon kingdoms and fall of the Britons.

    The Scots look like they were up to the exact same trick with the British population of southern scotland and their cultural cusions the picts.

    But as yet that research remains to be fully investigated and is unpublished.

  21. jeb

    If any one has any points they wish clarified or problems with my poor spelling. Feel free.

    But if you would like to suggest that you have a superior knowledge or indeed any realy understanding of this subject or the sources I use could you please ensure you check youre facts first and don’t place a later context into an early one if you are having to struggle with a limited knowledge base in this paricular area.

    Its not very acceptable for historian to do so I feel.
    Nor is the barnacle goose (see it’s full inflection) approach if that indeed was the case here as I suspect.

  22. Regarding Fludd v. Kepler, Kepler also had a lot of mystical ideas going around his head that don’t seem scientific to the modern mindset at all. So putting Fludd as a representative of some dying age isn’t the only problem with that simple narration.

  23. Pingback: Monday blast from the past #6: Periodisation in history | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  24. houinkyouma

    This may be of interest on the subject.


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