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.