According to the title, this series is supposed to be about Renaissance science but as we saw in the last episode the Renaissance started off as anything but scientific, so what exactly is Renaissance science, does it even exist, and does it actually have anything to do with the language and linguistics movement that kicked of the period that is now known as the Renaissance? I will start with the second of these questions and return later to the other two.
The history of science in its present form is actually a very young discipline, which really only came to fruition in the twentieth century. There are of course early elements of the discipline scattered around the past but the structured academic discipline as we know it only really began in the decades between the two world wars and came to maturity following the second world war. The early discipline was of course very euro-centric, and a major element was the so-called scientific revolution, which was initially seen as a single historical block. Maria Boas Hall (1919–2009) was, as far as I know, the first to divide that block into two parts, a sort of proto scientific revolution, her The Scientific Renaissance 1450–1630 (published, 1962), followed by the full scientific revolution. She was followed in this bifurcation by Peter Dear in his book Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge in Transition 1500–1700 (originally 2001, 3rd ed. 2019), who sees two phases, 1500-1600 and 1600-1700. These two books established, I think correctly, the idea of a separate Scientific Renaissance, which preceded the Scientific Revolution.
So, what is the nature of this Renaissance science, how did it differ from the existing medieval science and what changed and when going forward into the so-called scientific revolution? There is quite a lot to unpack here and the first thing we need to do is to stop talking about science and instead talk about knowledge, the more correct translation of the Latin term, scientia used in this period. Also, within the scope of scientia, what we might regard as the areas of hard science, which Aristotle called physics, meaning the study of nature, should more appropriately be referred to as natural philosophy. However, medieval natural philosophy was a very restricted area, it included cosmology but did not for example include astronomy, which was a mathematical discipline. Aristotle rejected mathematics as scientia, because its objects were not real. The mathematical disciplines, such as astronomy and optics, were not regarded as belonging to natural philosophy but were given a sort of halfway status. Natural philosophy also didn’t include any of what we would now call the life sciences.
Knowledge in the European medieval context was divided into two completely distinct areas, which didn’t intersect in anyway. On the one side there was the knowledge propagated by the medieval universities, which, as I explained in an earlier post, was almost totally theoretical book knowledge, with almost no practical aspects to it at all. This knowledge was not static, as it is often falsely presented, but evolved over time. However, this evolution was also a theoretical process. The knowledge progressed through debate and the application of argumentation and logic, not through the acquisition of new empirical facts.
The other area of knowledge was artisanal knowledge, that is the knowledge of the maker, the craftsman. This knowledge was empirical and practical, consisting of directions or instruction on how to complete a given task, how to achieve a given aim or fulfil a given assignment. It might, for example, be how to make bricks out of clay, or how to build a stone arch that would be stable and not collapse under load. This knowledge covered a vast range of activities and had been accumulated from a very wide range of sources over virtually the whole of human existence. This knowledge was, traditional, rarely written down but was usually passed on by word of mouth and direct training from master to apprentice, often from father to son over many generations. This knowledge was in general not viewed as knowledge by scholars within the university system.
Starting around fourteen hundred a process of what we would today call crossover began between these two previously distinct and separate areas of knowledge. Scholars began to write learned works about specific areas of artisanal knowledge, a classic example being Georgius Agricola’s De re metallica, published posthumously in 1556, and craftsmen began to write books explaining and elucidating their forms of knowledge, for example the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti’s I commentarii, which remained unfinished in manuscript and unpublished at the time of his death in 1455. It should be noted that before the Renaissance the people we now call artists were regarded as craftsmen. Crossover is here perhaps the wrong term, as people didn’t just cross the boundary in both directions but the boundary itself began to dissolve producing a meld between the two types of knowledge that would over the next two and a half centuries lead to the modern concept of knowledge or science.
What provoked this move towards practical, empirical knowledge during the Renaissance? There are two major areas of development driving this shift in emphasis, as to what constitutes knowledge. The first is general social, political, economical and cultural developments. The rapid increase in long distant trade produced a demand for new methods of navigation and cartography. Changes in concepts of land ownership also drove developments in cartography and the closely associated surveying. Developments in warfare again drove developments in cartography but also in gunnery, a new discipline, and military tactics in general. The invention of gunpowder and with-it military gunnery drove developments in metallurgy, as did other areas where the use of metals increased, for example in the wider use of metal coinage. The greater demand for metals in turn drove the development of mining. Greater wealth in society in general and the perceived need for rulers to display their power through ostentatious display increased the demand for architecture and fine art. The introduction of gunpowder and gunnery also drove the development of architecture because of the need for better defences. These are just some examples of the growing demand for artisanal knowledge within an increasingly urban culture financed by long distance trade.
But what of the movement that gave the Renaissance its name, which we saw was initially language and linguistic based movement, how did this play a role in this move towards the elevation of the status of empirical and practical knowledge if at all? This is in fact our second area of development. Those early Renaissance scholars, who searched for Latin literature texts and orations in the monastic libraries also unearthed Greek and Latin texts on science, technology, mathematics and medicine and in the general renewal of the culture of antiquity also translated and made these texts available, often arguing for their purity in comparison to the texts from the same authors that had come into Europe through the filter of translation into Arabic and then back into Latin. Example of texts that became available for the first time are Vitruvius’ work on architecture De architectura and Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. The latter had been known to the Islamic cartographers but had not been translated into Latin from Arabic during the twelfth century translation movement. As well as bringing new original Greek and Latin manuscripts into circulation the Renaissance scholars introduced a strong empirical element through their philological work. This work was based on an empirical analysis of various copies of a given work as well as an investigation of the plausibility of a given word, phrase or sentence, which didn’t appear to make sense. Beyond this in some areas the Renaissance scholars, as we shall see in more detail later, began to try and understand what the scholars were referring to in specific instances. For example, which plants was Dioscorides referring to in his De meteria medica? The answer to such questions required real empirical research.
The Renaissance opened up a whole new world of practical, empirical knowledge alongside the theoretical book knowledge of the medieval university. The last question is how did this differ from the knowledge of the following period and when did this transition take place?
The emphasis on this Renaissance empirical knowledge was very much on the practical. How can we use it, where and how can it be applied? During the seventeenth century the emphasis changed to one of devising theoretical explanations for all of the freshly won empirical knowledge from the previous two hundred years. The transition is from how do we use or apply it, to how do we explain it. It is impossible to set a firm date for this transition as it was by its very nature a gradual one, so both Boas Hall and Dear are in a certain sense correct with their respective 1630 and 1600. The transition had definitely already begun by 1600 and probably wasn’t finished, yet by 1630. In my case I follow Francis Yates in choosing the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648, as I think the transition had been completed by then at the latest.