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

In the seventeenth century large parts of Europe were still Catholic; in 1616 the Catholic Church had placed De revolutionibus and all other texts promoting a heliocentric world-view on the Index of Forbidden Books and in 1632 they added Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), so the question arises, how was knowledge of the heliocentric model disseminated? The answer is, somewhat surprisingly, that the dissemination of the heliocentric hypothesis was, even in Catholic countries, widespread and through diverse channels.

First off, although De revolutionibus was placed on the Index in 1616, it was only placed there until corrected. In fact, somewhat against the norm, it was actually corrected surprisingly quickly and, with a few rather minor changes, became freely available again for Catholic scholars by 1621. The astronomers within the Church had been able to convince the theologians of the importance of Copernicus’ work as an astronomy book even if one rejected the truth of the heliocentric hypothesis. The only changes were that any statements of the factual truth of the hypothesis were removed, so anybody with a censured copy could quite happily think those statements back into place for himself.

The Lutheran Protestant Church also rejected the heliocentric hypothesis but never formally banned it in anyway. In fact, from very early on, the astronomers and mathematicians at the Lutheran universities had begun teaching Copernicus’ work as a purely mathematical, instrumentalist thesis, whilst rejecting it as a true account of the cosmos. It was used, for example, by Erasmus Reinhold (1511–1553) using Copernicus’ data and mathematical models to calculate the Prutenicae Tabulae (1551), without however committing to heliocentricity. They maintained this instrumentalist approach throughout the seventeenth century utilising the most up to date books as they became available, without crediting the hypothesis with any truth. From about 1630 onwards, Kepler’s Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae (3 Vols. 1617–1621) and his Tabulae Rudolphinae (1627) became the leading textbooks for teaching the heliocentric hypothesis. The latter was used both sides of the religious divide because it was quite simply vastly superior in its accuracy to any other volume of planetary tables on the market.

However, the mainstream pro heliocentricity texts were not the only published sources spreading the information of the heliocentric hypothesis and making the information available across Europe. One, perhaps surprising, source was the yearly astrological almanacs.


These annual pamphlets or booklets contained the astronomical and astrological data for the coming year, phases of the moon, hours of sunlight, any eclipse or planetary conjunctions etc. They also included basic horoscopes for the year covering political developments, weather forecasts, health issues and whatever. These were immensely popular and printed on cheap paper and not bound were reasonably cheap, so they sold in comparatively vast numbers, having much larger editions than any printed books. The market was fiercely contested so to make sure that their product was preferred by the potential customers, who came from all levels of society, the authors and/or publishers included editorials covering a wide range of topic. These editorials often contained medical issues but in the seventeenth century they also often contained popular expositions of the heliocentric hypothesis. Given the widespread consume of these publications it meant that basic knowledge of heliocentricity reached a large audience.

Another important source for the dissemination of the heliocentric hypothesis was in the writings of some of those who, nominally at least, opposed it. I will now take a brief look at two of those authors the Italian, Jesuit astronomer, mathematician and physicist Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) and the French, priest, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) both of whom were highly influential and widely read scholars in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Pierre Gassendi is one of those figures in the history of science, who deserve to be better known than they are. Well known to historians of science and philosophy he remains largely unknown to those outside those disciplines. He was a central figure in the intellectual life of Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century part of the philosophical circle in Paris that included René Descartes, Marin Mersenne, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Baptiste Morin amongst others. He also travelled to Holland and made the acquaintance of Isaac Beeckman. Probably his most important contribution to the evolution of science was his attempt to reconcile Epicurean atomism with Christian theology.


Pierre Gassendi after Louis-Édouard Rioult. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout his life he actively promoted the work of both Kepler and Galileo. He wrote and published a biography of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), his patron, an astronomer and another supporter of the works of Galileo.  Shortly before the end of his life he published a collective biography of Tycho Brahe, Nicolaus Copernicus, Georg von Peuerbach and Johannes Regiomontanus: Tychonis Brahei, equitis Dani, astronomorum Coryphaei, vita; accessit Nicolai Copernici; Georgii Peurbachii, et Joannis Regiomontani, astronomorum celebrium vita (1654).


In 1645 Gassendi was appointed professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris and during his time there he wrote and published an astronomy textbook presenting both the Tychonic and heliocentric astronomical systems, Institvtio astronomica, iuxta hypothesis tam vetervm, qvam Copernici, et Tychonis. Dictata à Petro Gassendo … Eivsdem oratio inauguralis iteratò edita (1647).


Although, as a Catholic priest, he presented the Tychonic system as the correct one his treatment of heliocentricity was detailed, thorough and very sympathetic. Perhaps somewhat too sympathetic, as it led to him being investigated by the Inquisition, who however gave him a clean bill of health. Because of his excellent reputation his book was read widely and acted as a major source for the dissemination of the heliocentric hypothesis.

Like Gassendi, Riccioli was an important and influential figure in seventeenth century science. From 1636 he was professor in Bologna where did much important work in astronomy and physics as well as being the teacher of Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), who we will meet later in this series.


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

He is perhaps best known for his pioneering selenology together with his former student, Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), which provided the nomenclature system for the moons geological features still in use today.  As stated earlier it was Riccioli, who provided the necessary empirical proof of Galileo’s laws of fall. He also hypothesised the existence of, what later became known as the Coriolis effect, if the Earth did in fact rotate.

If a ball is fired along a Meridian toward the pole (rather than toward the East or West), diurnal motion will cause the ball to be carried off [that is, the trajectory of the ball will be deflected], all things being equal: for on parallels of latitude nearer the poles, the ground moves more slowly, whereas on parallels nearer the equator, the ground moves more rapidly.

Having failed to detect it, it does exist but is too small to be measured using the methods available to Riccioli, he concluded that the Earth does not in fact rotate.

This was just one of many arguments pro and contra the heliocentric hypothesis that Riccioli presented in his Almagestum novum astronomiam veterem novamque complectens observationibus aliorum et propriis novisque theorematibus, problematibus ac tabulis promotam (Vol. I–III, 1651), a vast astronomical encyclopaedia that became a standard astronomical textbook throughout Europe. Although Riccioli rejected the heliocentric hypothesis his very detailed and thorough analysis of it with all its strengths and weaknesses meant that his book became a major source for those wishing to learn about it.


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

This famous frontispiece shows a semi-Tychonic system being weighed against a heliocentric system and being found more substantial. Ptolemaeus lies on the ground under the scales obviously defeated but he is saying “I will rise again”.

As we have seen, although not provable at that stage and nominally banned by the Catholic Church, information on and details of the heliocentric hypothesis were widespread and easily accessible throughout the seventeenth century from multiple sources and thus knowledge of it and interest in it continued to spread throughout the century.










Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

5 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXII

  1. Jim Harrison

    “Dangerous” philosophical and scientific ideas are often spread by their refuters. The classic instance, exhaustively if not obsessively documented by Jonathan Israel, is how the many polemics against the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus taught everybody about Spinoza. Of course Spinoza’s ideas are an order of magnitude more corrosive of traditional religion than heliocentrism ever was—the Tractatus is a founding statement of what would later be called the Higher Criticism of the Bible. The professors and pastors that warned everybody about Spinoza appear to have been genuinely upset by his thinking to judge by the extracts from their writing you find in Israel’s books. I gather that Gassendi and Riccioli managed to disagree with Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler more dispassionately. Was anybody denouncing heliocentrism as an engine of the devil in the fashion of a creationist getting the vapors about Darwin?

    • At least we have the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus , so we can form our own opinion of Spinoza’s philosophy and of the criticism of him. It is actually much worse if the original source no longer exists (as for example the pagan philosopher Celsus’ work, which we only know in part through Origen’s attack on him where he quotes from it).

      So, for example, we have to take on trust that when Hevelius published Horrocks’ report on the transit of Venus (Part XXXI), he faithfully copied what Horrocks had written and did not add anything to or remove anything from Horrocks’ account, which had become known in the ensuing 23 years.

      • “So, for example, we have to take on trust that when Hevelius published Horrocks’ report on the transit of Venus (Part XXXI), he faithfully copied what Horrocks had written and did not add anything to or remove anything from Horrocks’ account, which had become known in the ensuing 23 years.”

        A very pertinent comment.

      • @ Laurence Cox: Although Horrocks was dead his papers still existed and were known to his English friends and admirers Nos Keplari (see link), who would had noticed if Hevelius had changed anything

    • I think Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1656) might be considered a commentator, whose attack on heliocentricity was entirely negative.

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