Oh really, might as well pack up and go home then.

The New Statesman recently had a review of Catherine Fletcher’s new book on the history of the Italian Renaissance, The Beauty and the Terror,[1] written by Rowan Williams under the title, Breaking the Renaissance myth.  For those, who might not know Rowan Williams is an ex Archbishop of Canterbury, who although ordained served as an academic rather than as a priest: However, he is/was a theologian and not a historian and very definitely not a historian of science.

Fletcher’s book is largely about what we might term the dark side of the Italian Renaissance and this is reflected in the title of Williams’ review.


I had no problems with the general tenor of what he had to say until I stumbled across the following two paragraphs in the middle of his review:

If we demythologise the Renaissance a little, we may learn to do more justice to what preceded it. Professor Fletcher has a brief discussion of scientific advances in the mid 16th century, especially in anatomy, navigational skills and botany – the latter two spurred on by the fresh stimulus of colonial travel and discovery. But the fact that this treatment is relatively brief and relates to a period rather later than the “high Renaissance” should give us pause if we are inclined to think of this as an epoch of spectacular scientific progress.

Many scholars have pointed out that the 15th and early 16th centuries are a rather stagnant period in many areas of natural science compared with some parts of the Middle Ages, when astronomy, mechanics and logic made substantial advances. The great 16th-century exception, Copernicus’s treatise of 1543 on the circulation of planets around the sun, was not a dramatic and total rejection of earlier astronomical method based on new scientific evidence, but a refinement designed to clear up the mathematics of charting the heavenly bodies. It was received with interest and some enthusiasm at the time, but was clearly not seen as a radical departure from the principles of Aristotle. Only with slightly later figures like Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) did actual observation of the heavens play a decisive part in the argument.

As somebody, who generally describes himself as a historian of Renaissance science I was, to say the least, more than somewhat discombobulated by the good Reverend Williams’ claims about my chosen discipline and I thought I might take a couple of minutes to examine them.

I’ll start with what Williams describes as Professor Fletcher’s brief discussion of scientific advances in the mid 16th century, especially in anatomy, navigational skills and botany. This is indeed extremely brief. The main text of the book is 350 pages long and there is a just-15-pages long chapter entitled, Art, Science and Reform of which only three pages deal with the scientific topics mentioned by Williams. This is principally a book of political history and the comment here have almost a throw away quality, something mentioned in passing. The anatomy mentioned is, of course, Vesalius’ De fabrica, which together with all the new developments in medicine, mainly in the North Italian universities, constitutes one of the largest revolutions in the entire history of medicine.  Fletcher does not discuss advances in the science of navigation, which were in fact very extensive in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the ‘navigations’ another term for the voyages of exploration and discovery undertaken in those centuries and their influence on developments back in Italy, as recorded by authors such as Giovanni Battista  Ramusio and Richard Hakluyt.

The botany refers to the establishment of botanical gardens at the universities of Padua and Pisa and the publications of herbaria (herbals) aimed at correcting such works as Pliny’s Natural History, as Vesalius had corrected Galen in medicine. What she doesn’t mention is that both the botanical gardens and the herbals were also part of the medical revolution, the scientific investigation of healing herbs being one of their central functions.

The last sentence of the first paragraph and the first of the second paragraph are a bit of a stunner. You know that I have a tendency to call myself a historian of Renaissance science and Williams is saying that I’m a historian of a bit of a damp squib. I’m used to people, who should know better, making rude and highly inaccurate statements about the history of medieval science, but to have somebody praise the vitality of medieval science, whilst at the same time putting the boot into Renaissance science is I think a first, at least as far as I’m concerned. This raises all sorts of problems, not least because the division between medieval science and Renaissance science is totally artificial and there is in reality continuity in European scientific activity that goes through from the translation movement in the twelfth century to at least the middle of the sixteenth century. Also I think to claim that medieval science made “substantial advances in astronomy, mechanics and logic” is a bit strong, as they were more involved in a game of catch up with antiquity and medieval Islam. On the other hand if you do try to identify a specifically Renaissance science, you first have to decide when it begins and when it ends. My own period definition of Renaissance science starts at the beginning of the fifteenth century and ends with the Thirty Years War. Kepler for all of his modernity is philosophically much more a Renaissance philosopher than a modern one, as is also Tycho. Galileo is more transitional but still has at least one foot in the Middle Ages.

Let us take stock and make an inventory of all the scientific activities that were developed and/or advanced in the period between 1400 and 1600. Regular readers will already have encountered much of what follows in various posts here over the years but it might prove of interest to see it laid out, if only in outline, all in one place.

We start with the first Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia from the Greek by Jacobus Angelus in Florence in 1406. This is of course Renaissance culture in pure form, the translation from Greek into Latin of a major text from antiquity, above all because it was a text that had never been translated out of Arabic in the original translation movement. This text kicked off mathematical cartography in Renaissance Europe and with it revitalised astronomy, which was needed to determine latitude and longitude coordinates for this new form of cartography. The Ptolemaic world map, which very soon followed the translation both in manuscript and in print, was a totally new perception of the world in comparison to the medieval mappa mundi.

Harley 7182 ff.58v-59

A mid-15th century Florentine map of the world based on Jacobus Angelus’s 1406 Latin translation of Maximus Planudes’s late-13th century rediscovered Greek manuscripts of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century Geography. Ptolemy’s 1st (modified conic) projection. Credited to Francesco di Antonio del Chierico – Ptolemy’s Geography (Harleian MS 7182, ff 58–59) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The new cartography spread northwards throughout Europe helping to trigger the First Viennese School of Mathematics. Here Gmunden, Peuerbach and Regiomontanus modernised Ptolemaic astronomy, integrating the newly developing trigonometry and many Arabic developments into Peurbach’s Theoricae Novae Plaetarum (1473) and the Peuerbach & Regiomontanus Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae (1496), which became the new textbooks for astronomy for the next one hundred plus years and were also the books Copernicus used to learn his astronomy.


Title page Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Second Viennese School of Mathematics with Johannes Stabius, Andreas Stiborius, Georg Tannstetter and Peter Apian pushed the advances in cartography and astronomy further.


Apian’s copy of the Waldseemüller world map, naming the new fourth continent America Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Viennese mathematici stood in close contact with their colleagues in Nürnberg, where Johannes Schöner and Johannes Werner also made substantial contributions to theses advances. Schöner in particular was heavily involved in the activities that led to the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in Nürnberg in 1543. It was Schöner, who also kicked off the production of printed terrestrial and celestial globe pairs,


Celestial globe by Johann Schöner, c.1534 Source: Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

which was picked up by Gemma Frisius, who taught astronomy, cartography and mathematics to Gerhard Mercator, who in turn would go on to revolutionise both cartography and globe making triggering the golden age of both disciplines in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.


Abraham Ortelius, who produced and published the first modern atlas, was also a member of the Frisius-Mercator circle along with numerous other important cartographical innovators.


Frisius, of course, introduced triangulation an important new tool in cartography, surveying and geodesy. New surveying instruments, such as the plane table, were also developed to carry out surveying using triangulation.

The early modern cartographers were not just simple mapmakers, their publications also contained much geographical information, much of it new, as well as historical, anthropological and ethnographical information about the areas mapped.

Another member of this European wide group of mathematici, Pedro Nunes, in Portugal was the discovery of the fact that a course of constant compass bearing on the globe is not part of a great circle but a loxodrome, a spiral.


Image of Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in Panorama magazine (1843); Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This knowledge lies at the centre of the so-called Mercator map projection. Turning to navigation, the Portuguese and later Spanish explorations out into the Atlantic led to major developments such as the determination of latitude and the development of new instruments for this purpose such as the backstaff and the marine astrolabe. At the end of our period in 1600 to be exact, William Gilbert published his De Magnete, as well as being the definitive text up to that time on magnets and magnetism, it was also an important text on empirical, experimental science. Although published at the end of our period it relied on earlier work on magnetism and the magnet by such researchers as Robert Norman.

Coming back to astronomy, Copernicus’ De revolutionibus didn’t, as often presented, appear out of thin air but was part of a general movement to modernise astronomy and above all to make it more accurate that begins with Peuerbach and Regiomontanus and gains a lot of momentum in the sixteenth century particularly in the Europa wide debate in the 1530s, in which Copernicus also took an active part. I will address here Williams’ mindboggling statement about De revolutionibus:

The great 16th-century exception, Copernicus’s treatise of 1543 on the circulation of planets around the sun, was not a dramatic and total rejection of earlier astronomical method based on new scientific evidence, but a refinement designed to clear up the mathematics of charting the heavenly bodies. It was received with interest and some enthusiasm at the time, but was clearly not seen as a radical departure from the principles of Aristotle. [my emphasis]

As almost always we are dealing with someone whose knowledge of Renaissance cosmology and astronomy is obviously very minimal. The Peuerbachian geocentric system of the cosmos with which Copernicus was working was not Aristotelian astronomy but an uneasy mash up of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy. In fact there was a major attempt to return to Aristotelian homocentric astronomy, launched by Fracastoro amongst other, during those debates in the 1530s. Whilst, in a mathematical sense, Copernicus’ heliocentric astronomy didn’t stray far from Ptolemaic astronomy with its deferents and epicycles, but without its, for Copernicus, offensive equant points, it deviated radically from Aristotle’s cosmology and physics. Fundamental to Aristotelian cosmology is the fact that the Earth is immobile at the centre of the cosmos, to place the Sun there instead and the Earth in orbit around the Sun is a very a radical departure from the principles of Aristotle. Fundamental to Aristotelian physics is that the cosmos in divide into supralunar and sublunar areas. Above the Moon’s orbit natural motion is uniform and circular below it natural motion is perpendicular to the Earth’s surface. Upwards for fire and air, downwards for earth and water. Giving the Earth three additional motions–diurnal rotation, annual orbit around the Sun and a circulating of the poles– was a very radical departure from the principles of Aristotle.

Moving on from the mathematical sciences–astronomy, cartography, navigation, and surveying–to mathematics itself, the Renaissance saw a massive development in trigonometry and its applications. All four of the named mathematical sciences make extensive use of trigonometry. Regiomontanus wrote the first complete account of the six basic trigonometrical functions in Europe, this had been done much earlier in Arabic science, which also presented trigonometry as a separate mathematical discipline and not just a subsidiary of astronomy; this was published by Schöner in 1533.

Rheticus published an expanded version of the trigonometry section of De revolutionibus as a separate work before De revolutionibus itself was published. The historian of mathematics, Grattan-Guinness, calls the Renaissance the age of trigonometry. We also have the transition of algebra from being merely commercial arithmetic to becoming a central mathematical discipline during the sixteenth century. This new analytical mathematics lay at the core of the so-called scientific revolution in the seventeenth century.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also saw a renaissance in the mathematics and physics of Archimedes, in which Regiomontanus, once again, played a significant role. This renaissance peaked in 1544 when Thomas Venatorius published a bilingual, Greek and Latin, edition of the Works of Archimedes in Basel.


Archimedes, Opera omnia, Basel, 1544,

Galileo, who is often (falsely) called the founder of modern physics, explicitly took the work of Archimedes rather than that of Aristotle as reference point for his own work.

In the so-called natural sciences the Middle Ages were dominated by the Naturalis Historia of Gaius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny as he is know in English. This work is an encyclopaedia of everything that Pliny considered related to nature, astronomy, meteorology, geography, ethnography, anthropology, physiology, zoology, botany including agriculture and horticulture, pharmacology, magic, water, mining and mineralogy.  The work lacks originality and depth and is a ragbag of other sources thrown together under one concept, natural history; a term that we still use today. The Renaissance, especially after the invention of moving type book printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, saw the separating out and development of the individual disciplines as we known them today.

Vannoccio Biringuccio in his De la pirotechnia (1540) and Georgius Agricola in his De re metalica (1556) modernised and established metallurgy as an independent discipline. Agricola’s work together with his De natura fossilium also contributed substantially to the founding of geology and mineralogy as separate disciplines.


Zoology found its independence in the works of Ulisse Aldrovandi, who also contributed substantially to the foundations of geology, a word that he coined, and Conrad Gesner, who also published a fossil book. Aldrovandi was one of those who established a botanical garden and wrote and published a herbal. In zoology, some of the anatomists, who followed in the wake of Vesalius in the second half of sixteenth century, also instituted comparative anatomy, dissecting animal as well as human corpses.


Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros from Conrad Gesner’s History Animalium

Herbals had already existed in the Middle Ages but following the invention of the printed book they took on a whole new dimension. The sixteenth century became the age of the great herbals of Otto Brunfels, Leonhart Fuchs, Hieronymus Bock, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Propero Alpino and others. Botanical gardens and herbariums, collections of dried plant specimens, were also established all over Europe and not just in university towns. Both the herbals and the botanical gardens served two purposes, on the one hand the study of botany and on the other the study of pharmacology. The authors of the herbals and the keepers of the botanical gardens and herbariums exchanged seeds, plants and dried specimens with their colleagues throughout Europe and even further afield. Researchers in the newly discovered lands (newly discovered for Europeans that is) sending specimens home from all over the world.


Leonhart Fuch’s Herbal

Williams emphasises that the little bit of scientific activity that he acknowledges took place during the Renaissance did so outside of the “high Renaissance”:

But the fact that this treatment is relatively brief and relates to a period rather later than the “high Renaissance” should give us pause if we are inclined to think of this as an epoch of spectacular scientific progress.

The expression “high Renaissance” is a highly dubious and rather meaningless historical concept, as it just basically means the short period when Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo were active, but is William’s implied claim that this period invoked no scientific progress really true?

The books on zoology and botany listed above were spectacularly illustrated, large format volumes and can even be viewed as the first printed coffee table books. What is interesting here is that they reflected and contributed to the development in fine art now labelled Naturalism. Many of the illustrators of those early coffee table books trained in the studios of the high Renaissance artists. Similarly the illustrations in the anatomical, medical works. This development lies at the heart of the so-called high Renaissance and alongside the realistic depiction of the natural world this included as a central element the development and use of linear perspective. Linear perspective is in fact a branch of applied or practical mathematics that developed in the Renaissance out of the medieval theories of optics. It developed further in the seventeenth century into projective geometry. The high Renaissance was not quite as devoid of scientific progress as Williams would have us believe.

Medicine also saw many new developments alongside the Vesalian revolution in anatomy. Many new drugs both botanical and mineral were sent back to Europe and investigated for their efficacy by those at home. With Paracelsus a whole new direction is medicine was established which grew and expanded following his death in 1541.


Paracelsus Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was a medicine based on alchemy and mineral rather than plant based medicines. The Paracelsian alchemy played a significant role in the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry and helped to establish the modern science of pharmacology. The first university chairs for chemistry at the beginning of the seventeenth century were chairs for Paracelsian medicine.

The sixteenth century also saw a restructuring of the medical industry in general with the physicians gaining prominence over the apothecaries, midwives and herbalist, creating a medical hierarchy that persists, with modifications, to the present day.

The above is merely a sketch of the scientific activity during the Renaissance and is by no means exhaustive. There are certainly other activities that I haven’t listed and even ones that I’m not aware of yet. However, I think I have outlined enough to show that the 15th and early 16th centuries are anything but a rather stagnant period in many areas of natural science compared with some parts of the Middle Ages. In fact those two centuries were rich in scientific developments and advances more than equal to anything produced in the earlier part of the Middle Ages. I would, however, once again emphasise that I think dividing the period between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries into Middle Ages and Renaissance with relation to the history of science is artificial and unproductive and we should look more at the continuities and less at the divisions.


[1] Catherine Fletcher, The Beauty and the Terror, The Bodley Head, London, 2020, As it is a book largely about political history I probably won’t be reviewing it here.


Filed under Renaissance Science

2 responses to “Oh really, might as well pack up and go home then.

  1. Robert E. harris

    plane table not plain table

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