Since this blog post was written, Professor Screech has recognised and acknowledged that he erred in his book and has made changes in the text reflecting the criticism in this post, which are already in the ebook version and will soon appear in a new print edition. To what extent he has made changes, I cannot at the moment say, but I shall be receiving a print copy of the amended book and will report when I have read it. The OUP blog post discussed here has already been amended.
Timon Screech is an art historian, who is professor for Japanese art of the Early Modern Period at SOAS in London. He is the author of numerous books and in his newest publication has decided to turn his hand to the history of astronomy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, namely the early years following the invention of the telescope, the result is a train wreck! The offending object is, The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600–1625. OUP, 2020.
If, as I state in the title to this blog post, I have not read this book, and in fact have no intentions of wasting my time and money in doing so, how can I claim that it is a train wreck? OUP have been kind enough to provide a description of the book on the Internet and Professor Screech has posted a lecture on YouTube in which he elucidates the central thesis of his work. These contain enough statements that make it very clear that that central thesis is a festering heap of dodo dung.
The OUP description opens thus:
Over the winter of 1610-11, a magnificent telescope was built in London. [my emphasis] It was almost two metres long, cast in silver and covered with gold. This was the first telescope ever produced in such an extraordinary way, worthy of a great king or emperor. Why was it made and who was it going to?
The origins of telescopes are shrouded in mystery. All that is known for sure is that the first one to be patented had been built in Middleburgh, in the Dutch Republic, in October 1608. [my emphasis] The English were soon making their own under the name of “prospective glasses,” for seeing “prospects” or distant views. One had been shown to King James I of England and Scotland in May 1609. The English and Dutch were not alone, for, famously, Galileo obtained a telescope some months later and conducted experiments in Venice. In March 1610, he published his seminal study, The Starry Messenger (so-called in English, though the text is in Latin). King James’s ambassador to Venice sent a copy to the king post-haste, with a letter emphasising the extraordinary importance of the object.
The telescope in question was very probably not built in London but imported from Holland, as was the one shown to James I&VI in 1609. The origins of the telescope, whilst complex, are, of course, not shrouded in mystery; there is in fact quite a lot of very good historical research on the subject. The Dutch city, where Hans Lipperhey (1569–1619) made the telescope mentioned in the next sentence lived, is Middelburg and not Middleburgh, which apparently is a town in the State of New York. Now history is not an exact academic discipline but an interpretative one. From the usually limited facts available the historian tries their best to recreate as accurately as possible that part of the past he is dealing with. Important in this process is that they get the known facts right. We know from that historical research on the origins of the telescope that Lipperhey applied to the States General for a patent for his instrument in Den Hague on 2 October 1608. However, we also know that on 15 December 1608 his request for a patent was denied. Actually, Sir Henry Wotton the English ambassador to Venice sent two copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius to London on the day it was published, 12 March 1610.
Up till now the OUP’s account has only been inaccurate and sloppy but now they leave the realm of bad history and enter the world of fantasy or perhaps wishful thinking
The telescope built in London the next year was made for King James I. It was not his to keep but was to be sent in his name to one of the world’s supreme potentates—one the English were desperate to please. This was the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Why send a telescope? English trade with Asia was the monopoly of the East India Company, founded a decade before, and they were very anxious to open markets in Japan. It was with a telescope that Galileo had made his findings, and although his discoveries were received with enthusiasm in some quarters, this was not the case in others. The Papacy, famously, could not accept his key finding, namely that the earth orbits the sun— [my emphasis] heliocentricity contradicted Scripture, which states that the sun moves. Later Galileo would be summoned before the Inquisition for this, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches. [my emphasis] It had evidently dawned on the East India Company, and perhaps on King James himself, that here was the perfect a way to court Japanese favour. They would show the shogun the latest scientific instrument, and in doing so embarrass the Iberians. Spain and Portugal were already trading successfully in Japan, accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, to whom the English had the highest aversion: the Jesuits were blamed for many things, including Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Japan, they spent as much time teaching astronomy as theology. A telescope would prove that they were teaching falsehoods, and that the Jesuits were a danger to Japan. [my emphasis]
First up, we have the usual false claim about the Sidereus Nuncius that it provided proof of the heliocentric hypothesis, it didn’t, and Galileo knew well that it didn’t. As a historian one gets tired of busting the same myths over and over again, but once more for those who haven’t been paying attention. The new telescopic discoveries made by 1610, not just by Galileo, disproved two aspects of Aristotelian cosmology, that the heavens were perfect and celestial bodies perfect spheres, and that all celestial bodies orbit a common centre. However, it offered no evidence to truly support or refute any of the three main contending models of the cosmos, geocentricity, heliocentricity and geo-heliocentricity. The later discovery of the phases of Venus eliminated a pure geocentric model, but that was made public well after the Shogun shiny new telescope was on its way to Japan, so needn’t be considered here.
I have looked at the phrase, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches numerous times, from various standpoints and different angles and all that occurs to me is, what the fuck is that supposed to mean? It is simply put baloney, balderdash, poppycock, gibberish, hogwash, drivel, palaver, mumbo jumbo, rubbish, or even more simply, total and utter crap! I’m not even going to waste time, space and effort in trying to analyse and refute it, it doesn’t deserve it. Somebody please flush it down the toilet into the sewers, where it belongs.
The final emphasised sentence is the whole crux of Screech’s argument, as we shall see, it refers to the fact that the Jesuit astronomers in Japan in 1611 were teaching that the cosmos was geocentric, as this was certainly the accepted scientific view of the vast majority of European astronomers in 1611, including those in London, I think claiming that they were teaching falsehoods is historically simply wrong.
OUP now explain how the telescope was delivered to the Shogun in Japan and make a clear statement of Screech’s central thesis:
The telescope was taken out in a flotilla of four vessels in spring 1611. Command was given to John Saris, who had already lived several years in Asia, as the most senior English merchant. Now on his second trip East, he was told to push further on, all the way to Japan, where no English ship had yet gone. Oddly, the Company was aware of one Englishman already living in Japan. This was William Adams, who had gone on a Dutch ship. Many people in London remembered him, and word was that he had married a great Japanese lady. Saris took only one of his ships to Japan (the others went home with nearer Asian goods), arriving in Japan in summer 1613. Adams was contacted and within a few months he and Saris took the telescope to the Shogun’s castle, presenting it together in September at a grand ceremony. The Japanese records show to this. Saris enjoyed success in opening trade with Japan, and by December 1614 was safely back in London. Adams preferred to stay.
Once the English had provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong, the Roman Catholic missions lost their value. [my emphasis] They were closed down forthwith, and the Jesuit missionaries were expelled. Their old enemies put to flight, the English looked forward to unfettered trade with what was perhaps the world’s richest country, somewhat grudgingly agreeing to share this with the Dutch.
You will be amazed as to how John Saris provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong.
We now turn to our author’s own presentation of his thesis in a 45-minute YouTube video. I shall only be commenting on the relevant statements from this.
(starting at approx. 23 mins) In 1610 Galileo had conducted his extraordinary discoveries.
Actually, he made a large part of them in 1609, he published them in 1610.
The first telescope referred to in England is also in 1609, when one was shown to King James.…We also know that one was on public display in London shortly after the Clove [Saris’ ship] left England  In other words they are still very rare, very special things. Not that many people can get hold of them.
Screech is obviously not aware of the fact that Thomas Harriot had been making and using telescopes in London since 1609 and by 1611, the group centred on Harriot (Harriot, Christopher Tooke his lens grinder, Sir William Lower and John Prydderch (or Protheroe)) were making and comparing astronomical observation. In fact, Harriot was using telescopes before Galileo.
Even in 1618, a telescope is still a rather unusual thing
Sorry, but no it wasn’t, not in scientific circles
The Japanese record says something that the English record doesn’t say that the telescope was, using their own measurements, about ten feet long. So, it was extremely long and that must have meant that it was actually quite powerful. Possibly more powerful than the one Galileo used. It was two years later so lenses might have improved. Galileo could of course see the rings of Saturn with his.
There is quite a lot to unpack here, which illustrates that Screech actually knows nothing about the early history of the telescope. For a telescope in 1611, ten feet is quite long not extremely long, telescopes later in the century reached lengths of fifty and sixty feet. However, length does not equal magnification power. For a Dutch or Galilean telescope, the magnification equals the focal length of the objective lens divided by the focal length of the eyepiece lens. So, if the Shogun’s telescope’s objective had a focal length of 120 inches and the eyepiece one of 1 inch, then it would have a magnification of 120. However, if the objective focal length was 8 feet and the eyepiece one 2 feet, its magnification would be only 4. These are not real numbers, just illustrative examples.
Galileo had a four-foot telescope with a magnification of c. 30, meaning an objective with focal length of c. 46.5 inches and an eyepiece focal length of c. 1.5 inches. The next problem is the higher the magnification of a Dutch telescope the smaller the field of vision. A magnification of about 30 is the upper limit for a usable Dutch telescope, anything above that is basically useless. Galileo made most of his discoveries with a telescope with a magnification of about 20. There was also no real improvement in lens making between 1609 and 1611. The telescope delivered to the Shogun was almost certainly of poorer quality than those used by Galileo, who was at the time producing some of the best lenses in Europe.
The telescope is then presented and Ieyasu and Adams have a big discussion about and about what it means and what did it mean? Galileo, of course, as we all know ran into big problems with the Church, not because he discovered the rings of Saturn, which they didn’t care very much about but because he discovered that the Earth is not the centre of the world. [my emphasis] Church history, of course, early Ptolemaic astronomy teaches that the Earth is the centre of the world and the Sun revolves around it, which obviously you would think standing on Earth and watching the Sun move. We still say the Sun rises and sets and goes by the clouds. We use these expressions today although they are, of course, astronomical completely incorrect. So, the Church had a problem because the Bible explicitly says that the Sun moves, and you can’t suddenly say that it doesn’t.
The Catholic Church took a great interest in astronomy and Catholic astronomers, many of them Jesuits or Jesuit trained, took a great interest in all of Galileo’s discoveries including the indecipherable something that later turned out to be the rings of Saturn. Galileo, of course, did not then or at any later time discover that the Earth is not the centre of the world. The conflict between the Bible and the heliocentric hypothesis did not became an issue for the Church before 1615!
Now, the Church didn’t care too much about this because heliocentricity was an extremely abstruse thing. Copernicus was even a Roman Catholic priest and he did his discoveries while living with a Roman Catholic bishop in Poland. But Copernicus book has been called the book that nobody ever read, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. So, Copernicus’s discovery of heliocentricity had not really bothered anyone. The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. [my emphasis]
Before I start to dismantle it, one should reflect that this heap of garbage was written by a professor for history at a world-famous institute for higher education. I weep. I’m almost ashamed to admit that my father taught history at the same institution.
Where to start? We start with a couple of simple facts. There is nothing abstruse about the heliocentric hypothesis and Copernicus was not a Roman Catholic priest. He was a canon of the Cathedral of Frombork, who never took holy orders. I do hope that Owen Gingerich doesn’t see this video. The expression the book that nobody read is a quote from Arthur Koestler’s popular history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers. Gingerich spent several decades searching out all the extant copies of the first and second editions of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and analysing the readers’ annotations and marginalia to show that an awful lot of people did read it and did so meticulously. He published the results of his long year endeavours in his, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Brill, 2002), a very useful reference book for historians of astronomy. He then published an entertaining autobiographical book detailing some of the adventures he experienced compiling his census, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (Walker & Company, 2004). There was of course a very lively discussion about De revolutionibus and the heliocentric hypothesis amongst European astronomers between its publication in 1543 and 1611. If Professor Screech is too lazy to plough his way through Gingerich’s Census then might I suggest he reads, Pietro Daniel Omodeo, Copernicus in the Cultural Debates of the Renaissance: Reception, Legacy, Transformation (Brill, 2014) & Jerzy Dobrzycki ed., The Reception of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory (D Reidel, 1972). He might actually learn something.
Once again, I find myself flabbergasted by a Screech statement, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. This man is an academic historian or at least so he claims. Of course, it’s in bloody Latin that was the academic language of communication in the sixteenth century that all professional astronomers used. Also, for a sixteenth century astronomer the book is perfectly understandable.
Once again Screech takes us into cloud cuckoo land, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. I have to ask, when looking through this magic telescope, did the observer see little green Martians holding up a neon sign reading, you are now viewing a heliocentric cosmos? It would be 182 years after the publication of De revolutionibus and 117 after the invention of the telescope before somebody was able, using a telescope, to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun, when in 1725 Molyneux and Bradley detected stellar aberration, delivering the first real empirical evidence for heliocentricity. Empirical evidence for diurnal rotation would first come 126 years later, when Foucault demonstrated his pendulum in 1851!
Screech seems to have problems with chronology; he writes, This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. Screech’s story takes place between 1611 and 1613. Galileo’s first run in with the Church, concerning heliocentricity, was in 1615/16 and he was first “pulled” before the Inquisition in 1633.
So, the English had clearly turned up with an object, which was a wonderful thing to see in its own right, but it will also confuse and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church [my emphasis].
No, it wouldn’t!
And this is where Spain and Portugal come in, hopefully the present given by the king will neutralise the Dutch and show that the English were better than the Dutch but the Spanish and the Portuguese had been there much longer than the Dutch had been there for decades and most of the Spanish are buying and selling, are merchants. But, of course, there are a large number of priests, and the merchants tend to stick to the ports because that’s where they do business but the priest wander all over the place and the priest had had this absolute dream of building a church in Kyoto, which was the capital city at the time, and they had succeeded in doing it. […] Of course, the missionaries mostly Jesuits […] where seeking conversions. […] But the Jesuits also taught in Japan astronomy and this was absolutely crucial because various Japanese rituals surrounding the court and not the Shogun but the actual Emperor of Japan, it was very important to predict eclipses. This is really key to Japanese political thinking, and over the course of a lunar calendar that went out of sync Japanese astronomers had become less and less able to predict eclipses and the Jesuits could do it. This was also a reason why Christian missions were accepted in China, not to teach the gospel but to teach astronomy. [my emphasis]
I admit, quite freely, that I know nothing about Japanese astronomy in the Early Modern Period, but I do know that this was the function that the Jesuits fulfilled in China in the seventeenth century, which gave them access to Chinese society at the highest levels. They even ran the Chinese office or ministry for astronomy for large parts of that century. This being the case I assume that Screech is correct in saying the same for Japan.
The English had suddenly turned up and they say to the Japanese, all that astronomy they’ve been teaching you for the last fifty years, telling you how important it is, it’s wrong. It’s not only wrong, they know its wrong and they’re teaching you lies. And this must have been what Ieyasu heard in those hours after Saris left the room, while he has in his hands his silver telescope. [my Emphasis]
Just exactly how did the English tell Ieyasu this? As I have already pointed out, he could not have possibly got this information simply by looking through the telescope, as Screech claims, this is pure bullshit. Screech has obviously never tried to observe the heavens with a replica of an early seventeenth century Dutch or Galilean telescope. If you have never ever used one, and Ieyasu very obviously hadn’t, the very small field of vision means that you see almost nothing. If you are trying to use one without a tripod or some other support, then every slightest tremor of your hand or arms sends the image skittering across the skies. Even worse for Ieyasu, early telescopes suffered from both spherical and chromatic aberration meaning that the image was blurred and had coloured fringes. Add to this that early lenses were of very poor quality and so the images were anything but good and you’re not really going to impress anybody. Almost certainly. Saris and Adams demonstrated the telescope as a terrestrial telescope, as had Lipperhey during his first demonstration in Den Hague in the last September week in 1608. So, what about Saris and Adams as a source of astronomical information. Saris was a merchant trader and not an astronomer and there is nothing to indicate that he would have been up to date on the actual astronomical/cosmological discussions, let alone that he would have been a, for that time rare, supporter of heliocentricity. Adams is even more unlikely to have been informed of all things astronomical. He had been living in Japan since 1600, so the telescope would have been just as much a novelty for him as it was for Ieyasu. He was however a navigator so he would have had a basic knowledge of astronomy. However, navigators, even today learn geocentric astronomy, so once again no information forthcoming from that quarter.
Saris was given as a result of this permission to open a trading station in Japan and Ieyasu even said you can trade anywhere in my dominions that you wish. […]
Saris sailed back to England at the end of 1613 […] Within months, actually within weeks, even possibly within days of Saris leaving Ieyasu issues an instruction all Jesuit churches must be torn down all priests must leave the country and there was tremendous destruction. And in the early months of 1614 running through into the autumn, was what is often known as the great exile as a vast number of Japanese Christians fled. Mostly they went to the Philippines under Spanish protection or they went to Goa under Portuguese protection. We don’t know the number involved probably in the thousands. Fifty or sixty priest and friars left too […]
Why did it happen then, the Spanish and the Portuguese had been in Japan for fifty year and suddenly in one winter they were told to leave because the English turned up with their telescope.
Screech has turned a correlation into a cause and effect, with a fallacious chain of reasoning based on a series of falsehoods. Analysed rationally the whole argument falls together like a house of cards that was erected with soggy sheets of toilet paper. If we add some more astronomical and historical context then Screech’s whole heap of fact vacant waffle collapses even further.
Screech informs us that the Japanese, like the Chinese, were interested in the Jesuit’s knowledge of astronomy because of their ability to accurately predict eclipses, which in Asian culture had a massive socio-political and cultural significance. What Screech doesn’t appear to know is that eclipse prediction models are, by nature, fundamentally geocentric as they are based on the relative positions of the Sun and Moon on the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth. So, the revelation that the solar system is heliocentric and not geocentric, would in this case have no relevance whatsoever.
Next, it pays to take a look at the Jesuits, the early history of the telescope and Asia. Would they have feared, or did they fear the revelations of the telescope? Historically the exact opposite is the case. The Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano, were making telescopic astronomical observations at least as early as Galileo and it was these astronomers, working together with Galileo, who provided the very necessary scientific confirmation of all of his discoveries. Having done so, they threw a large banquet in his honour in Rome. This doesn’t quite fit Screech’s narrative but there is more.
Almost all the telescopes, with possibly only the exception of King James’ present for Ieyasu, introduced into Asia,–India, China and even Japan–in the early part of the seventeenth century were brought there by the Jesuit missionaries. Mainly, like the silver telescope, as presents to impress but also for their own astronomical work. Jesuit missionaries bound for Asia were prepared for their mission at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. We know that from 1615 to 1617 the Jesuit astronomer, Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618), one of those Collegio Roman astronomers who confirmed Galileo’s discoveries, not only taught those trainee missionaries astronomy but also lens grinding and telescope construction, to enable them to make their own instruments in Asia. The Jesuits were also the first to introduce the heliocentric hypothesis into Asia, which they did in China, in Chinese, during the course of the seventeenth century.
Having completely demolished Screech’s totally crackbrained thesis, could there be another reason why the Jesuits were expelled from Japan shortly after the arrival of the English traders, apart from pure coincidence?
What Screech doesn’t explain in his lecture, maybe he does in his book, but I doubt it, is that there had been serious stress between the Jesuits and the rulers of Japan for several years before the arrival of the English. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan in the mid 1580s was suspicious of the activities of the Catholics and in 1587 he banned Catholicism in Japan. In 1597 twenty-six Christians–six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laymen–were crucified. Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who also distrusted the Catholics but wished to trade with both Spain and Portugal. The Protestant Dutch provided a counterbalance, so that the Iberian Catholics did not have a trade monopoly. The arrival of the English in 1613, meant that Ieyasu now had two Protestant European trading partners, who would compete because they didn’t like each other, but who both promised not to try and convert the Japanese to Christianity. Ieyasu could now get rid of the despised Catholics, which he then did in 1614. Simple, factual historical explanation without a cock and bull story about a magical telescope that revealed the heliocentric nature of the cosmos when one simply looked through it.
I find it both fascinatingly gruesome but also frightening and ultimately very depressing that a professor of history from a world-renowned university can propagate a thesis based on the early history of the telescope and the history of the most important transition in the history of astronomy, apparently without bothering to learn anything about either discipline. It appears that his sources were something along the lines of the 1920s Boy’s Own Big Book: Galileo’s Persecution by the Nasty Catholics and Enid Blyton’s Guide to the History of Astronomy for Under Fives.
Screech’s only achievement is that with his, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct, he delivers one of the mind bogglingly stupid history of science statements that I have ever read.
The main thesis of his book, which he presents in the lecture analysed here, is an abomination and an insult to every historian of the telescope and/or astronomy. Even worse is the fact that OUP, a major academic publisher, published and are promoting this heap of crap, without having subjected it to any sort of control of the accuracy of its historical content. If OUP possessed even a shred of decency, they should withdraw this book from the market, pulp it and issue a public apology to the history of science community.