Science, War and Pestilence

In my recent blog post about the Renaissance polymath Wilhelm Schickard I wrote the following paragraph about the demise of him and his family, killed by plague brought into his home by invading soldiers in the Thirty Years War.


Wilhelm Schickard, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

The last years of Schickard’s life were filled with tragedy. Following the death of Gustav Adolf in the Thirty Years War in 1632, the Protestant land of Württemberg was invaded by Catholic troops. Along with chaos and destruction, the invading army also brought the plague. Schickard’s wife had born nine children of which four, three girls and a boy, were still living in 1634. Within a sort time the plague claimed his wife and his three daughters leaving just Schickard and his son alive. The invading troops treated Schickard with respect because they wished to exploit his cartographical knowledge and abilities. In 1635 his sister became homeless and she and her three daughters moved into his home. Shortly thereafter they too became ill and one after another died. Initially Schickard fled with his son to escape the plague but unable to abandon his work he soon returned home and he also died on 23 October 1635, just 43 years old, followed one day later by his son.

The fate of Schickard and his family made me, as a historian of science, once again brutally aware that the people that I, and other STEM historians, research and write about are not just producers of theories, theorems, hypotheses and discoveries living in some sort of Platonic space of Ideals but real people living working and often suffering in in a very real and frequently hostile world. Many of the scholars that form the subject of my own main interests in the history of science and mathematics suffered disruption, displacement and even death during the turmoil that engulfed Europe during the religious wars of the seventeenth century. In the following I’ll sketch some of those life-disturbing incidents suffered by those scholars, without any pretention to being exhaustive.

Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) spent large parts of his life coping with the disruptions caused by the reformation and counter-reformation.


Portrait of Johannes Kepler. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his youth he came to Graz as a Lutheran Protestant teacher in a prominently Catholic district. During the counter-reformation this couldn’t last and it didn’t; the Protestants were ordered to convert or to leave. Initially Kepler, the district mathematicus, was granted an exception due to his successful astrological prognostica but in the end he too was forced to leave losing much of his wealth in the process. In Prague he was in a similar situation as Protestant Imperial Mathematicus to a Catholic Emperor. This time it was civil strive, as Rudolf II was deposed by his brother Matthias, which caused Kepler to leave Prague to become district mathematicus in Linz. Here once again he was a Lutheran in a predominantly Catholic district, which caused Kepler much stress. In 1625 Linz was besieged for two months by a peasants uprising. The printing press that Kepler had founded to print and published his own works was burnt to the ground with much of his work. The last years of Kepler’s life were spent wandering from town to town in Southern Germany and Austria never again finding a truly safe haven. Ironically he spent much of this time serving as court astronomer to Wallenstein the deposed Catholic commander in chief.

Even Galileo (1564–1642) can be considered to have suffered under the religious conflicts, although in Northern Italy he was outside of the immediate war zone. His problems in 1616 were certainly exacerbated by the fact that the conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics were reaching a highpoint just two years before the start of the Thirty Years War. In the 1630s Galileo’s situation was certainly worsened by the fact that he was perceived, as a Medici courtier, to be on the wrong side in the political struggle between the two great Catholic powers, France and Spain, to control the Papacy.


Galileo Galilei portrait by Domenico Tintoretto Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most obvious victim of the religious conflicts of the times was Pierre de la Ramée (Petrus Ramus) (1515–1572), who had a much bigger influence of the evolution of modern science than is usually acknowledged.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

A convert to Calvinism in 1562 he was initially forced to flee Paris, where he was Regius Professor at the Collège de France, and his house was pillaged and his library burnt in his absence. He spent two years wandering around Europe before returning to Paris. In 1572 he was murdered, one of the most famous victims, during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when a Catholic mob rose up against the Huguenots. It is not known how many Huguenots died during this slaughter but estimates range between five and thirty thousand.

The Calvinists in Geneva were responsible in 1553 for the immolation of the Spanish mathematicus and physicus Michael Servetus (1509 or 1511–1553)  (Span. Miguel Serveto) for his heterodox religious views. Although the Catholics and Lutherans would probably all have done the job if the Calvinists hadn’t.


Miguel Servet, (Villanueva de Sigena 1511- Genevra 1553) Spanish theologian & physicus Source: Wikimedia Commons

In England, the Keplerian astronomer William Gascoigne (1612–1642) died fighting on the royalist side at the Battle of Marston Moor during the English Civil War, which can also be viewed to a large extent as one of the European religious wars.


The Battle of Marston Moor 1644, by J. Barker Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the royalist side, which lost the battle, William and Charles Cavendish, both actively engaged supporters of the new sciences evolving at the time, were forced to flee to France, where they met up with natural philosopher Kenelm Digby (1603–1685) and Margaret Lucas (1623–1673), the future Lady William Cavendish and notorious female natural philosopher, two further Civil War refugees. In this later case these English refugees, although displaced by war, became part of an exhilarating philosophical scene in Paris, which featured Descartes, Mersenne, Gassendi and another English exile, Thomas Hobbes.


Margaret Cavendish: Segment from Frontispiece for several of her books in the 1650s and 1660s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Do not misinterpret the above as in anyway supporting the unsubstantiated hypothesis of a conflict between religion and science. In each case, those I have listed suffered because of their religious affiliations or political views not because of their science. In fact it is interesting that during these times of intense religious strife, scientific scholars very often reached across religious and political boundaries to cooperate with each other, to share data, discuss discoveries and generally aid each other in their work.

Following the death of the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555–1617) the Jesuits offered his chair for mathematics in Bologna to the Lutheran Johannes Kepler, with the assurance that he would not have to convert. When the Lutheran Protestant Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574), professor for mathematics in Wittenberg, centre of the Reformation, visited the Catholic cathedral cannon Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in Warmia, Dantiscus (1485–1548), the Bishop of Warmia and a counter-reformation hardliner, greeted him with warmth and honour as a scholar. Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, corresponded with scientific scholars from all religious persuasions exchanging scientific news. One of his successors, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), collected astronomical data from other Jesuits from all over the world and then redistributed it to astronomers throughout Europe, both Catholic and Protestant.

In all of our #histSTM studies we should never lose sight of the fact that those we are researching are first and foremost human beings, who, to quote Shakespeare, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, whilst trying to complete their own scientific investigations.









Filed under History of science

11 responses to “Science, War and Pestilence

  1. Pingback: Science, War and Pestilence — The Renaissance Mathematicus | Die Goldene Landschaft

  2. Ray

    This is overall a very good post, whose core point is helpful and important. That said, there is one bit that rubs me the wrong way.

    What exactly do you mean when you say that claims of a conflict between science and religion represent an “unsubstantiated hypothesis?” Perhaps the most traditional reading of this sort of denial is the line of reasoning denoted by slogans like “truth cannot contradict truth,” but this can’t be what you mean, since you’ve said elsewhere that you don’t regard religion as true.

    The sorts of things you say in support seem more a matter of degree, e.g. that the Catholic Church lagged the scientific community on heliocentrism by decades rather than centuries. I see how that supports the claim that the conflict is exaggerated, not that it is unsubstantiated. I also presume you don’t mean to deny that creationism is a genuine religious movement which has opposed established scientific claims, often through legal action.

    Oh well, perhaps I should just wait for you to say what you mean rather than ruling out guesses about what you could mean.

    • thonyc

      I was referring to thesis of a general principle conflict between science and religion as formulated by Draper/white and still unfortunately propagated by many gnu atheists. The situation that you refer to respective the Catholic Church and heliocentricity was more the result of a personal clash between Galileo and the curia in Rome than a conflict between science and religion

      • Ray

        I’m not convinced lumping together gnu atheists, Draper, and White is a good idea. Based on the quoted passages in , Draper and White were arguing substantially different theses. They both seem wrong to me, but for different reasons. Draper’s thesis seems to overstate the importance of religion in the history of science, while White’s thesis seems to understate the threat to traditional religion represented by science, saying that untrammeled science is invariably good for religion. White may be correct that, of the options available, the best strategy for religion is to back off from any claim that seems to impinge upon science. But then, at least in my home country of the USA until recently, the largely Creationist Evangelical Protestants seemed to be doing better for themselves demographically than any other category of Christian, so he may even be wrong about that. As for the Gnu atheists, I agree the leading figures are not especially known for their historical expertise (the only one I can think of who’s any kind of a historian is Carrier, and he’s somewhat of a charlatan from what I can tell.) Nonetheless, they tend not to repeat the most egregious mistakes of Draper and White, such as the flat earth stuff.

        As for the Galileo affair, you may be right that the Catholic Church would have transitioned to heliocentrism more quietly if Galieo had a different temperament, although we’ll never know. Nonetheless, the charges brought against Galileo, as far as I know, had nothing to do with his personal failings, but only his support for heliocentrism, and the works of other heliocentrists like Kepler and Copernicus were also placed on the index of prohibited books and continued to be long after Galileo’s death. So, it seems like the Church went to a lot of effort to make it seem like the whole thing wasn’t just about Galileo. What also seems clear is that, without a pre-existing perceived conflict between scripture and heliocentrism, Galileo would not have been in a position to write something as inflammatory to the Church as the Letter to Castelli.

        My apologies if none of this is relevant to what you’re trying to argue, but I’m afraid I’m still not entirely clear what does and doesn’t count as a conflict between science and religion from your perspective.

      • Jim Harrison

        Ray is right that White didn’t think that science was a threat to religion. White was an American Protestant of a type that was (and is) anything but hostile to science. In the 19th Century and right up to the 1950s, liberal Protestantism was a major cultural force, though more recently it has been outshouted and outnumbered by the Evangelicals. In it’s heyday it was a great promoter of public education and scientific research.

        Well, things go around. To the disgust of right wingers, who think they are cucks and trimmers, and the disappointment of the gnu atheists, who prefer their opponents to be rustic enthusiasts for the science fiction version of theology, more rational types of Christians may reassert themselves in the next few years. Twenty years ago it was commonplace to suggest that mainstream churches had empty parking lots on Sundays because they couldn’t compete with the raw meat of the TV preachers, but these days the Fundies have their own problems filling the pews despite their obvious political power. There may be historical precedent for the situation. Radical Puritanism was actually in decline in the years before its apparent but temporary success in the English Civil War. The current Saturnalia of the Yahoos may be more evidence of desperation than triumph.

        I find church history a desperately dull subject; but if you’re going to understand how science and religion have interacted, you do need to take it seriously. Though their Manicheanisms have slightly different antagonists—science + reasonable Protestantism vs superstition and tyranny for White, science vs superstition for the gnus—they are both crude lumpers in an area that calls for serious splitting.

  3. Ray

    Speaking of the plague, I suspect that the most famous round of plague that hit Europe around 1349 wreaked quite a bit of devastation on the scientific community of the time. The early decades of the 14th century seem to have been a good time for European science, featuring the work of Theodoric of Freiburg, Oresme, Occam, Buridan, and the Oxford calculators. The late 14th and early 15th century seem markedly less so. Not sure exactly what the effects of the plague were aside from killing Bradwardine, Dumbleton, and presumably many more minor figures, but it must have been a terrifying time to live and work.

    • thonyc

      I don’t know of any study on a decline in science caused by the plague in the fourteenth century, which is not to say that there isn’t one; I just don’t know of any. There has certainly been work done of that plague’s effects on the universities, showing that both enrolment and graduation figures declined substantially as a result of the plague.

  4. Thony,
    You say, “Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), collected astronomical data from other Jesuits from all over the world and then redistributed it to astronomers throughout Europe, both Catholic and Protestant”.

    I should like to have your take on specific sources and specific points to which Kircher distributed this information – apart from the distribution of his great printed books.

    I guess the answers are in the Kircher archives but has anyone yet written about Kircher in this role as distributor? If not – would you?

    • thonyc

      Interestingly in the available pop literature on AK there very little on him as an astronomical facilitator; his myriad other bizarre undertakings are probably too attractive for anybody to deal with anything so mundane. You will probably find the answer to your questions in the Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project. And no I wouldn’t write about it, neither my Latin nor my Italian, much of what has been written about AK is in Italian, are good enough.

  5. I hope someone comes up with an entanglements map. That would really be something!

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