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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.