Category Archives: Book Reviews

Putting women back into the history of science

Readers who have been around here for a long time will know that for several years I was editor in chief of On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival. They will also know that I buried it when its time had come and replaced it with Whewell’s Gazette Your weekly digest of all the best of Internet history of science, technology and medicine Editor in Chief: The Ghost of William Whewell, which I edited for three years until it became just too much, closing it down in July 2017. Since then, I have maintained a more casual but fairly comprehensive interest in the history of science content on the Internet. All of this means that I probably have an at least as great awareness of the history of science cyberspace activity as anybody alive.

Without any doubt whatsoever, one of the most important and significant online contributions to the history of science, in all the time that I’ve been monitoring it, has been Lady Science. Originally set up seven years ago by Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, as a blog dedicated to emphasising the role of women in the history of science it became so much more. A magazine with features, essays, commentaries, ideas, reviews, and podcasts, which describes itself as A magazine for the history and popular culture of science. We publish a variety of voices & work on women and gender across the sciences, written by an ever-expanding group of authors, who maintain an impressively high standard of expression. 

 Sadly, last week Anna and Leila announced that they were closing down Lady Science at the end of 2021 and you can read their explanation why here. They are moving on to new projects and I wish them all the best, whilst shedding a silent tear for the loss of Lady Science

However, for all fans and supporters of their work, Reser and McNeill published an encyclopaedical collection of their work this year under the title, Forces of NatureThe Women Who Changed Science.[1]

 Following an introduction, that sets out the Lady Science approach to investigating the role that women have played in science, the book is divided into five sections: I Antiquity to the Middle Ages, II The Renaissance & The Enlightenment, III The Long Nineteenth Century, IV The Twentieth Century, Pre-World War II, and V Twentieth Century, Post-World War II. Each section is in turn divided thematically into the numerous areas where women made their contributions to the development of science. So, in section II we have a section on women calculators in astronomy and one on the wives and sisters of scientific partnership. In section III one on women science writers and popularisers and in section IV one on women archaeologists and anthropologists. These are just examples, to illustrate the width of the authors’ presentation. 

Both authors excellent narrators and the individual essays are written in an attractive, easy to read style and are richly illustrated; the whole book has an attractive graphic design. Following the main section there is an afterword titled Other women to inspire, containing thumbnail portraits of other women scientists not included in the main-text.

This is followed by an index of names, endnotes referring to the sources and a bibliography of those sources presented chapter for chapter. 

 Regular readers of my reviews are probably expecting comments on the historical accuracy of the individual essays; there are not going to be any. This is not because the book is perfect, I have found historical errors, but here this is not so essential, as in other contexts. This book is intended to serve a very different purpose. That purpose consists of a broad sweep to illustrate the roles that women have played in the evolution of science throughout the ages. It’s a wakeup call! Most history of science writing simply ignores the roles that women have played, and this should and indeed must change. To give a simple example out of my own area of expertise. Neither Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687) nor William Herschel (1738–1822), both very important and significant astronomers, could have achieved that which they achieved without the active involvement and support of their respective wife, Elisabeth (1647–1693) and sister Caroline (1750–1848), who were very much more than just housewives, but skilled and active astronomers in their own right. 

As well as a wakeup call for historians, this book should serve as an inspiration for any young woman contemplating a career or a life in one of the sciences. This book should be available in every American high school and college library and in the libraries of the equivalent educational institutions of other lands. Teachers should place this book in the hands of any girl interested in STEM subjects, to show them that not all scientists are male and there are plenty of female role models that they could aspire to emulating. Also, the book should finally make clear that Hypatia, Ada Lovelace, and Marie Curie are not the only female scientists that four thousand years of science have thrown up. Lastly if you are a parent with a daughter, who displays an interest in science, do yourself a favour and buy them a copy of this excellent book. 


[1] Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, Forces of NatureThe Women Who Changed Science, Frances Lincoln Publishing, London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, Ladies of Science

Not just an elder sister

How do you write a biography of an intellectual woman, who was a major, significant figure in the scientific, social, and political circles of her time, but who, although she wrote extensively, published almost nothing and whose personal papers were scattered following her death and have over time mostly disappeared, leaving only faint traces of her existence dispersed in obscure archives spread over a handful of countries? In her biography of Lady Ranelagh, Michelle DiMeo delivers up a masterclass in how to achieve this seemingly impossible task. Once again, many regular readers of this blog are probably thinking, who is Lady Ranelagh and why is Thony writing about her? All becomes clearer if I quote the full title of DiMeo’s book, Lady RanelaghThe Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister.[1]  

Lady Ranelagh was born Katherine Boyle, on 22 March 1615, the seventh of fifteen children to Catherine Fenton and Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, an important and influential Anglo-Irish politician. She was twelve years older than her more famous brother Robert, who was the fourteenth child and seventh son born in 1627. If people know anything at all about the relationship of the two it is the fact that they shared a house in London from 1668 until they both died in 1691. However, as my title states Katherine was not just Robert’s elder sister but was a significant and influential figure in intellectual circles in England in the second half of the seventeenth century, in her own right and definitely exercised that influence in Robert’s own developments, in particular as a chemist. It is this story that DiMeo has carefully and skilfully excavated from the seemingly meagre sources available to the historian for Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh’s fascinating life.

Katherine’s life falls roughly into seven segments and after an introduction in which DiMeo discusses previous work done on Katherine’s life and work and also lays out her own decisions on technical matters, our author deals with each of those segments chronologically, always embedding the available information about Katherine in a rich web of historical context, which allows the reader to create a full picture of what it was like to be an intelligent, forceful and resourceful woman from an aristocratic background in seventeenth century Ireland and England.

The first segment deals with her childhood and young adulthood as a daughter of a politically power-hungry aristocrat. She would have received little education, which makes her later achievements all the more remarkable, and she was basically just a bargaining chip in Richard Boyle’s strategies to win more power and wealth. Bargained off in marriage to the son of one potential ally, at a very early age, in a deal that fell through when the potential father-in-law died, she was then delivered up to the son of another in the power brokerage game and became the wife, at the age of fifteen, of Arthur Jones, the future Viscount of Ranelagh. Unfortunately, Arthur Jones proved to be anything but a good husband and father and in 1642, it should be noted aged just twenty-seven, following trials and tribulations in a Catholic uprising, Katherine took the extraordinary step of leaving both Ireland and her husband, and taking her four children with her, decamped for England.

It is now that the Lady Ranelagh, who is interesting for those concerned with the history of science, comes into being and the next two sections of DiMeo book are devoted to this blossoming of an influential seventeenth century woman of science. Katherine became a member of the Hartlib Circle. Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600–1662) was a German polymath, who actively promoted his ideas on science, medicine, agriculture, politics, religion, and education within an informal group of like-minded thinkers and supporters, mainly in England but also in continental Europe, largely through correspondence. This informal group was, unusual for the time, open to women and Katherine became an active member, taking an informed interest in all of the topics listed above. This was for me the most interesting part of the book, because far too little attention is in general paid to the Hartlib Circle, one of the important predecessors to the more formal, later Royal Society. 

Katherine was recognised as a well-informed, intelligent and above all pious correspondent within this loose conglomeration of thinkers. Her ability to balance complex scientific and philosophical concepts with a devout moral attitude was much admired. One should always bear in mind that peoples religious beliefs played a significant role in the development of the sciences in the seventeenth century. I won’t go into detail, for that you will have to, and should, read the book, but her thoughts and advice were particularly sort on questions of medicine and chemistry/alchemy, interconnected fields in which women, guardians of a family’s health and welfare were considered knowledgeable. It was also in this phase of her life that Katherine took up the mentorship of her younger brother Robert helping to steer him also towards the deep interest in medicine and chemistry that would characterise his career as a natural philosopher, a common interest that the siblings would share for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, Katherine’s strong moral and religious convictions prevented her from ever allowing her fruitful ideas to be published, which would have been unseemly for a woman in the seventeenth century. However, Robert did acknowledge her influence and input in his own writings, whilst never referring to her by name, but always as his sister. DiMeo contrasts and analyses Katherine’s propriety with this famously brazen public performances of her near contemporary Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

In the 1650s there was a brief interlude where Katherine returned to Ireland to try and assist in sorting out the Boyle family affairs, which had been much disturbed by the uprising that had led to her leaving Ireland at the beginnings of the sixteen forties. Here we see Katherine’s political and diplomatic abilities on display, abilities that she would have to exercise upon her return to England.

Not long after her return to England, Katherine’s role in the intellectual community changed with the dissolution of the Hartlib Circle following the death of its central figure in 1662 and the foundation of the Royal Society in the early sixteen sixties. Unlike the Hartlib Circle the Royal Society remained firmly closed to women. Katherine, however, managed to exercise some influence within intellectual circles through her personal connections and her not inconsiderable diplomatic skills. During the plague and disaster years of 1665-1667, Katherine suffered more trials and tribulations but also continued to exercise a strong social and political influence in English society. It was also here that Robert paid his greatest tribute to his sister’s influence with the publication of a collection of his spiritual reflections, Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects, which is dedicated to Katherine under the pseudonym, Sophronia. 

Ironically, we know the least about the interaction between Robert and Katherine during the last twenty-three years of their lives, when they shared a house in London. Living together, they no longer needed to correspond and so there is no collection of letters informing us of their exchanges. Nevertheless, even here DiMeo manages to paint a vivid picture of their life together.

DiMeo delivers up in her book a powerful portrait of a very impressive woman who played a significant role in the intellectual life of seventeenth century England and by no means just because she was the elder sister of one of the periods most significant natural philosophers. Having excavated Katherine Jones née Boyle’s life out of the archives DiMeo poses both indirectly and directly the question, as to how many other strong intellectual seventeenth century women have been neglected up till now in our accounts.

Applying meticulous research and equally meticulous analysis of the results of that research, Michelle DiMeo has written an extraordinary book about an extraordinary woman. Expertly written and highly readable, all of DiMeo’s statements are carefully documented in extensive endnotes referencing the primary and secondary sources listed in the equally extensive bibliography. The book is rounded off with a detailed index. This is a book that should be read by anybody and everybody, who expresses an interest in the intellectual, social , and political life of the seventeenth century in both Ireland and England. 


[1] Michelle DiMeo, Lady RanelaghThe Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Chemistry, Ladies of Science

Martin who?

Anna Marie Roos is one of those scholars, who make this historian of Early Modern science feel totally inadequate. Her depth and breadth of knowledge are awe inspiring and her attention to detail lets the reader know that what she is saying is with a probability bordering on certainty accurate and correct. Over the years she has churned out an imposing series of books covering a wide spectrum of the history of science in Britain during the Early Modern Period, each of them an impressive monument to her scholarship. Her latest addition to this series is a biography of Martin Folkes. I can already hear a significant number of readers of this blog muttering Martin who? Hence the title of this review. The fog lifts somewhat if one reads the full title of the volume, Martin Folkes (1690–1754)Newtonian, Antiquary, Connoisseur.[1]

Folkes is in fact a victim of a strange little hiccup in the popular history of science and also of the big names, big events approach to the discipline. The hiccup is the fact that the spotlight is shone very bright on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the so-called scientific revolution, and on the nineteenth century, oft called the second scientific revolution, but the eighteenth century gets passed over with hardly a mention. Pass along folks nothing of interest to see here. This is, of course, not true a lot of important science was created in the eighteenth century, and this is one of the themes that Roos deals with, in her account of Folkes life, which encompassed the first half of the eighteenth century. 

On the problem of the big names, big events approach to the history of science, Folkes falls through the net because there are no theories, major discoveries or inventions that can be attributed to him. However, science does not just progress through the big events in fact most scientific progress comes from those, who, so to speak, dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s. What Thomas Kuhn in one of his most useful contributions called ‘normal science’. 

Martin Folkes was a mathematician, a Newtonian physicist, an antiquarian, a metrologist, a science administrator, an organiser, a science communicator, a science promotor, and a patron, and in all of these roles he made significant contributions to the progress of science not just in Britain but in the whole of Europe during the first half of the eighteenth century. Roos’ biography of this man with many hats brings all of these aspects of his personality and his activities vividly to light.

How did Martin Folkes become so significant and influential? One could say with more than somewhat justification that he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His family were wealthy, well connected, influential, landowning members of the London high society at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. He received an excellent private education receiving tuition in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and conversational French from the Huguenot refugee, James Cappel (1639–1722), and, perhaps more significantly, mathematics from another Huguenot refugee Abraham De Moivre (1667–1754), who was one of the leading mathematicians of the age and a member of the Newtonian inner circle. 

Folkes’ contact with De Moivre serves as an early introduction to what was probably Folkes’ greatest strength, he was, in modern parlance, a master networker. This aspect of Folkes’ life and personality is described in great detail throughout Roos’ narrative. Through De Moivre Folkes came into contact with De Moirve’s other private students a significant cross-section of the early eighteenth century scientific and social elite. Through De Moivre he also gained access to Newton and the Newtonians, becoming a life-long highly active Newtonian himself.

Through Newton, Folkes was elected to the Royal Society, the start of a career that would see him become president of that august organisation, as well as president of the equally august Society of Antiquities; he was the only man ever to hold both presidencies. Here we meet another aspect of Folkes personality that certainly played an important role in his networking activities, he was immensely clubbable. For those, who don’t know this somewhat archaic, wonderful English word, it means somebody that others like to have as members of their social clubs and groupings. It seems that if someone set up a new club or society for the intellectual and/or social elite in the first half of the eighteenth century then Folkes was member, oft a founding member, organiser, and driving force. 

Roos’ detailed description of the clubs, societies, and groups of which Folkes became an always-active member means that her biography is a historical guide to the social and cultural life of the social and intellectual upper echelons during Folkes lifetime. This not only includes the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquities, but also the then newly emerging English Freemasonry movement, in which Folkes played a leading role, the short lived but influential Egyptian Society, as well as various drinking and dinner clubs, in which members of the academic societies met more informally following sessions of those societies. Roos’ volume is also a guide to the eating and drinking habits of the well-heeled gentlemen of the period. 

Although very much a member of the English establishment, Folkes was anything but a Little Englander. He maintained active contact with natural philosophers, mathematicians, and other propagators of the new sciences throughout Europe. He encouraged foreigners to come to Britain, also to buy British scientific instruments, and to publish the results of their researchers in British journals. He also patronised and supported foreign scholars he thought worthy of promotion. 

Folkes extensive connections with the European mainland were also strengthened by his almost religious adherence to Newtonianism. Anybody who casts even a brief look at a modern English translation of Newton’s Principia quickly realises that it is not a work for the faint hearted or the ill prepared. The situation was not any different in the first half of the eighteenth century and Newton took no interest in popularising his work or making it available to the masses. Added to this was the fact that large parts of those in the know in Europe initially rejected much of Newton’s work on scientific and philosophical grounds, but also, with particular respect to his work in optics, because of their failure to reproduce many of his experiments. Various of Newton’s disciples jumped into the breach, left by the master’s silence, and presented popularisations of his major works, as books, lecture tours and demonstrations. Most notable, here, are another Huguenot refugee, John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744) and the Dutchman, Willem ’s Gravesand (1688–1742). 

Folkes was also an eager missionary in the cause of Newtonianism. Folkes went on a grand tour of Europe between 1732 and 1735 preaching the gospel of Newton to learned societies and individual savants, in particular demonstrating those of Newton’s optical experiments that others had had difficulty replicating. During this tour Folkes made many friendships within the European intellectual milieu; friendships that he maintained through extensive correspondence when he returned to England.

One aspect of Roos’ biography that I found particularly interesting was her descriptions of Folkes’ activities as a metrologist. For those that don’t know this is not a typo for meteorologist, as my Word correction programme seemed to think, until I added metrologist to its dictionary. Metrology is the scientific study of measurement or as another dictionary defines it, the science of weights and measures; the study of units of measurements. Folkes interests was antiquarian, and he spent significant time and effort, on his grand tour, in trying to determine the correct length of a Roman foot. Why should I be interested in what seems, superficially at least, to be an arcane hobby on Folkes’ part? 

In reality there was nothing arcane about Folkes’ interest in metrology. The turn to quantitative, empirical, experimental science and the resultant mathematisation that we call the scientific revolution led to a widespread discussion within the scientific community on systems and units of measurement towards unification, standardisation, and accuracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Historical investigations searching for supposed natural units of measurement were an integral part of that discussion. All of this peaked in the introduction of the metric system in France in 1799 and the Imperial system of measurement in the UK and British Empire in 1826. This important episode tends to get ignored in the mainstream history of science, so it was good that it gets handled here by Roos.

Oxford University Press have done Anna Marie Roos and Martin Folkes proud in the presentation of this biography. The front cover has a full colour portrait of the books subject and the book itself is extensively illustrated with grayscale and colour photos. The book is printed on bright white paper with an attractive typeface. Roos maintains her usual high scholarly standards, the book bursts at the seams with extensive, highly informative footnotes, which in turn reference a very extensive bibliography. All is rounded out by an equally extensive index.

All of the above is a mere sketch of all the context that Roos has packed into this model example of a biography of an eighteenth-century polymath, who definitely earns the attention that Roos has given to his life, work, and influence. This is an all-round, first-class piece of scholarship that not only introduces the reader to the little known but important figure of Martin Folkes, but because of the extensive contextual embedding provides a solid introduction to the social and cultural context in which science was practiced not only in England but throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century. Highly recommended and not just for historians of science 


[1] Anna Marie Roos, Martin Folkes (1690–1754)Newtonian, Antiquary, Connoisseur, OUP, Oxford, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

Isaac goes to town

I appear to have become something of a fan of the Cambridge University historian of science, Patricia Fara. The first book of hers that I read, and that some years ago, was Newton: The Making of a Genius (Columbia University Press, 2002), an excellent deconstruction of the myths that grew up around England’s most lauded natural philosopher during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I do not own this volume, but I do own her Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Pimlico, 2004), which delivers what the title promises. A detailed look at women, who contributed to enlightenment science and, who usually get ignored in mainstream history of science. I also own her An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (Icon Books: 2002), a delightful romp through the first century of the scientific investigation of phenomenon of electricity. Also on my bookshelf is her ScienceA Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), a fresh and provocative one volume overview of the history of science. To round out my Fara collection I also have her Sex, Botany & EmpireThe Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Icon Books, 2003) on my to-read-pile; I mean who could resist a title like that from an author with a proven track record for excellent history of science narratives.

Patricia Fara’s latest publication returns to the subject of England’s most iconic natural philosopher, Isaac Newton, but deals not with his science but the last thirty years of his life after he had effectively abandoned the production of new science and mathematics for the life of a gentleman about town, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career[1].

Before I go into detail, this book maintains the high standards of historical research and literary excellence that Fara has consistently displayed over her previous publication. 

Anybody, who is reasonably acquainted with Newton’s biography will already know that he turned his back on Cambridge and academia in 1696, to move to London to become first Warden and then in 1699 Master of the Royal Mint. This move enabled him to become President of the Royal Society in 1704, an integral part of the socio-political power structure in the capitol during the next thirty years, and also to become immensely wealthy. It is to this part of Newton’s life that Fara turns her sharp and perceptive eye and which she analyses with her acerbic, historical scalpel.

I have over the decades read a lot of Newton biographies, as well as papers and books that deal with specific aspects of his life and work, including aspects of the last thirty years of his life that he spent living in London, such as Tom Levenson’s excellent Money for NothingThe South Sea Bubble and the Invention of Modern Capitalism. Despite this, I learnt a lot of new things from Fara’s excellent small volume.

Fara’s book is actually two interlinked narratives; the contextual biography of Newton’s years in London is interwoven with an analysis of William Hogarth’s 1732 painting, The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico. As performed in the year 1731 in Mr Conduitt’s, Master of the Mint, before the Duke of Cumberland etc. Act 4, Scene 4.

This painting by Hogarth shows a performance of a heroic drama, written by John Dryden (1631–1700) and first performed in 1665, being performed by a group of children in the drawing room of the town house of John Conduitt (1688–1737), the husband of Newton’s niece and one time housekeeper, Catherine Barton; Conduitt was also Newton’s successor as Master of the Mint. This picture depicts several of the main characters of the book’s biographical narrative, including Newton as a bust mounted on the wall. It also reflects some of the main themes of the books such as imperialism. The interweaving of the descriptions of the painting and the various episodes of Newton’s life in London is a very powerful literary device and is representative for the fact that Fara’s book is deeply contextual and not just a simple listing of Newton’s activities during those last thirty years of his life.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which deals mainly with Newton’s various residences in London and his general domestic life, within the context of early eighteenth-century London. The second section turns the reader’s attention to Newton’s reign at the Royal Society and the reign of the first Hanoverian King, George I, and his family and court with whom Newton was intimately involved. The final section takes the reader to the Royal Mint and also turns the spotlight on English imperialism.

I’m not going to go into much detail, for that you’ll have to read the book and I heartily recommend that you do so, but I want to draw attention to two prominent aspects of the book that I found particularly good.

The first is, surprising perhaps in a Newton biography, a good dose of feminist historiography. As one would expect from the author of Pandora’s Breeches and more recently A LAB of ONE’S OWNScience and Suffrage in the First World War(OUP, 2018)–I love the indirect Virginia Woolf reference–Fara pays detailed attention to the women in her narrative. 

In her description of life in the Tower of London, where the Mint was situated and where Newton initially lived when he moved to London, she introduces the reader to Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754). Tollet, a poet and translator, was the handicapped daughter of George Tollet a Royal Navy, who lived with her father in the Tower. Unusually for the time, she was highly educated, Fara uses her diaries to describe life in the Tower and also features some of her poems that dealt with Newtonian natural philosophical themes and her elegy, On the Death of Sir Isaac Newton (1727).

Fara also paints a very sympathetic portrait of Queen Anne (1665–1714), who ruled over Britain for slightly more that the first decade of the eighteenth century. She has often been much maligned by her biographers and Fara presents her in a more favourable light. Newton niece and sometime housekeeper, Catherine Barton (1679–1739), naturally, features large and in this context Fara discusses an interesting aspect of male chauvinism from the period, of which I was previously unaware. The habit of older gentlemen having sexual relations with much younger, often closely related, women sometimes within a marital relationship, sometimes not. She details the case of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who slept with his niece Grace. She speculates, whether Voltaire’s claim that Newton got his job at the Mint, because Charles Montagu (1661–1715) had slept with Catherine Barton is true or not. If he had, she would have been a teenager at the time.

The section on the Hanoverian court concentrates on Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), George I daughter-in-law, a fascinating woman, who enjoyed intellectual relations with both Leibniz and Newton. Effectively abandoning the former for the latter, when she moved, with the court, from Hanover to London. Fara’s book is worth the purchase price alone, for her presentation of the women surrounding Newton during his London residency.

The second aspect of the book that I would like to emphasise is Fara’s treatment of British imperialism and the associated exploitation and racism during the first third of the eighteenth century. Recently, there have been major debates about various aspects of these themes. In the general actually debate on racism, historians have pointed out that the modern concept of racism is a product of the eighteenth century. Others have opposed this saying that one should instead emphasise the eighteenth century as the century of the Enlightenment, quoting Newtonian physics and astronomy as one of its great contributions, apparent unsullied by associations with Empire and slavery. Coming from a different direction the debate on the restoration of art works stolen by the colonial powers, Britain leading the pack, has cast another strong spotlight on this period and its evils.

Fara tackles the themes head on. She goes into detail about how the gold that Newton minted in large quantities, the major source of his own private wealth, came from British exploitation of Africa. She also goes into quite a lot of detail concerning the joint stock companies, set up to further Britain’s imperial aims, to establish and exploit its colonies and their active involvement in the slave trade. As well as profiting from the African gold that he minted for the British government, Newton also profited from his extensive investments in the East India Company and initially from his investments in the South Sea Company, both of which were involved in the slave trade. He, of course, famously also lost heavily in the collapse of the South Sea Company’s share price. Fara successfully removes the clean white vest that many attempt to award Newton in this context.

Fara’s book is much more that a portrait of Newton’s final three decades, it is also a wide ranging and illuminating portrait of London in the first third of the eighteenth century, its social life, its economics, its politics, and its imperialism. This is not just the London of Newton, but also of Swift, Defoe, Pope, and many others. Everything is carefully and accurately researched and presented for the reader in an attractive, easy to read, narrative form. The book has endnotes, which are just references to the very extensive bibliography. There is also as very good index.

The book is illustrated with a block of colour illustration, which are repeated in black and white at the relevant points in the text, and here I must make my only negative comment on Fara’s otherwise excellent book. The quality of the reproduction of colour prints is at best mediocre and, in my copy at least the black and white prints are so dark as to render them next to useless. Something went wrong somewhere.

As should be clear, if you have read your way through all of this review,  I think this is an excellent book and I can’t recommend it enough. If I had a five-star system of valuation, I would be tempted to give Fara’s volume six, with perhaps half a star taken off for the poor quality of the illustrations, for which, of course, the author is not responsible. In my opinion it is a must read for anybody interested in Newton and his life but also for those more generally interested in the Augustan Age. If you one of those general interested in reading, well written, accessible, entertaining, and informative history books then you can add Fara’s tome to your reading list without reservations.


[1] Patricia Fara, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career, OUP, Oxford, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

Divining the future in the past

This book review needs a little background. Some readers will know the blog post I wrote about meeting historian of astrology, Darrel Rutkin, on a country bus in 2014, whilst reading Monica Azzolini’s excellent The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan. Later I also wrote a review of Darrel’s equally excellent Sapientia AstrologicaAstrology, Magic and Natural Knowledgeca. 1250–1800: I.Medieval Structures (1250–1500)Conceptual, Institutional, Socio-Political, Theologico-Religious and Cultural. As I wrote in that review Darrel was in Erlangen as a fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities: Fate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe

The ICRH, for short, is a major international research institute set up to study the histories of divination and prognostication in China and in Medieval Europe. The post-doctoral fellows, many of them established professors, come to Erlangen for a period of time, between six and twenty-four months, to immerse themselves in the research of a specific aspect of these histories. There is much exchange between the fellows, who as well as following their own research take part in reading sessions, workshops, and conferences. During the semester there is a lecture every Tuesday evening given in turn by one of the fellows on the topic of their research, an incredible spectrum of themes. Since I met Darrel in 2014, I have been a regular audient of these lectures and have learnt an incredible amount. Although not a fellow, I even had the honour of holding a lecture in which I presented the recently published English version of our volume on the life and work of Simon Marius, concentrating in my lecture on his role as a Renaissance astrologer. I’m pleased to say that my lecture was well received. 

One long term aim of this research project, which has now been running for more that ten years, was to produce handbooks on Prognostication and Prediction in Chinese Civilisation and Prognostication in Premodern Western Society. This is a review of the latter, which has now been published under the title, Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook.[1]

Volume I opens with an introductory essay by the editors that clearly lays out the why, how and wherefor of the handbook. They also explain the guidelines given to the authors of the individual essays to try and ensure a unity in approach and presentation, making this a genuine handbook and not a random collection of papers. This is followed by nine introductory surveys covering, Divination in Antiquity, the Pre-Christian Celtic World, Prognostication in the Germanic Languages, Prognostication among Slavs in the Middle Ages, Prognostication in the Medieval Western Christian World, Prognostication in the Medieval Eastern Christian World, Prognostication in the Medieval Jewish Culture, Prognostication in the Medieval Islamic World, and Prognostication in Early Modern Times –Outlook.

The main section of the book gathers groups of essays under types of divination: Eschatology and Millenarism, Prophecy and Visions, Dream Interpretation, Mantic Arts, Astral Sciences, Medical Prognostication, Calendrical Calculations, Weather Forecasting and closes with a single essay on Quantifying Risks.

The various authors are all experts in their individual fields and the quality of the separate essays is uniformly high. A lot of effort has been invested in assuring that the handbook is a truly useful reference work.

Volume II is much shorter than Volume I, a mere 290 pages to 710, but is an important and significant supplement to the essays in Volume I. To quote the general introduction:

The third section offers a “Repertoire of Written Sources and Artifacts.” This consists of detailed representations of text genres, text corpora, individual works or descriptions of certain objects as concrete manifestations of prognostication. The articles, which are concise in comparison to the chapters in the previous sections, are equipped with a bibliography which is divided into “Primary Sources” and Secondary Literature.”

The entire handbook radiates legendary German thoroughness. It is attractively presented with a pleasant to read typography and illustrated with good quality mostly colour images. Each individual essay has an extensive bibliography, and in that respect, Volume II speaks for itself. There is a very comprehensive general index at the end of Volume II. 

This is definitely not bedtime reading but a reference book and with an official price of €279, but currently available from Amazon Germany for €219, Amazon America for $208, and Amazon UK for £226, not within the reach of the average scholar but intended for institution libraries. However, this is a reference work that should definitely adorn the shelves of every library that caters to medieval historians.


[1] Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook, 2 Vols., edited by Matthias Heiduk, Klaus Herbers and Hans-Christian Lehner, De Gruyter Reference, Berlin & Boston, 2021. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astrology, Mediaeval Science

Don’t major publishers use fact checkers or copyeditors anymore?

Trying to write a comprehensive history of science up to the scientific revolution in a single volume is the historian of science’s equivalent to squaring the circle. It can’t actually be done, it must fall short in various areas, but doesn’t prevent them from trying. The latest to attempt squaring the history of science circle is Ofer Gal in his The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution[1].

Gal’s book has approximately 380 pages and given what I regard as the impossibility of his task, I decided, if possible, to cut him some slack in this review. To illustrate the problem, David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science[2], with which Gal is definitely competing, has approximately 370 pages and only goes up to 1450 and has been criticised for its omissions. The Cambridge History of Science requires three volumes with an approximate total of 2250 pages to cover the same period as Gal and its essays can best be regarded as introductions to further reading. 

CUP are marketing Gal’s book as a textbook for schools and university students, which means, in my opinion, a higher commitment to historical factual accuracy, so where I might be prepared to cut some slack on possible omissions, I’m not prepared to forgive factual errors. If you are teaching beginners, which this book aims to do, then you have an obligation to get your facts right. The intended textbook nature is reflected in the academic apparatus. There is no central bibliography of sources, instead at the end of each section there is a brief list of primary and secondary sources for that section. This is preceded by a list of essay type questions on the section; questions that are more of a philosophical than historical nature. The book has neither foot nor endnotes but gives occasional sources for quotes within the main text in backets. 

Gal’s book opens with a thirty-page section titled, Cathedrals, which left me wondering what to expect, when I began reading. Actually, I think it is possibly the best chapter in the whole book. What he does is to use the story of the origins and construction of the European medieval cathedrals to illustrate an important distinction, in epistemology, between knowing-how and knowing-that. It is also the first indication that in the world of the traditional history and philosophy of science Gal is more of a philosopher than a historian, an impression that is confirmed as the book progresses. At times throughout the book, I found myself missing something, actual science.

Chapter two takes the reader into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and give comparatively short and concise rundowns on the main schools of thought, which I have to admit I found rather opaque at times. However, it is clear that Gal thinks the Greeks invented science and that Aristotle is very much the main man. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, which follows a very conventional script that is, once again in my opinion, limited and dated. 

The following section is the Birth of Astronomy, which Gal attributes entirely to the Greeks, no Egyptians, no Babylonians. He starts with Thomas Kuhn’s two sphere model that is the sphere of the Earth sitting at the centre of the sphere of the heavens and here we get a major factual error. He writes:

For the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia and the Aegean region, that model was of two spheres: the image of our Earth, a sphere, nestled inside the bigger sphere of the heavens.

Unfortunately, for Gal, the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia were flat earthers. Later in the section, Gal informs us that Babylonian astronomy was not science. I know an awful lot of historians of astronomy, who would be rather upset by this claim. Rather bizarrely in a section on ancient astronomy, the use of simple observation instruments is illustrated with woodcuts from a book from 1669 showing a cross-staff, first described in the 14th century by Levi den Gerson, and a backstaff, which was invented by John Davis in 1594. In the caption the backstaff is also falsely labelled a sextant. He could have included illustration of the armillary sphere and the dioptra, instruments that Hipparchus and Ptolemy actually used, instead.

Apart from these errors the section is a fairly standard rundown of Greek astronomical models and theories. As, apparently, the Greeks were the only people in antiquity who did science and the only science worth mentioning here is astronomy, we move on to the Middle Ages.

We get presented with a very scant description of the decline of science in late antiquity and then move on to the The Encyclopedic Tradition. Starting with the Romans, Cicero gets a positive nod and Pliny a much more substantial one. Under the medieval encyclopedist, we get Martianus Capella, who gets a couple of pages, whereas Isidore and Bede only manage a couple of lines each. We then get a more substantial take on the medieval Christian Church, although Seb Falk would be disappointed to note the lack of science here, the verge-and-foliot escapement and computus both get a very brief nod. Up next is the medieval university, which gets a comparatively long section, which however contains, in this context, a very strange attack on the university in the twenty first century. Gal also opinions:

They [medieval students] would study in two ways we still use and one which we have regrettably lost.

The three ways he describes are the lectura, the repititio, and the desputatio, so I must assume that Gal wishes to reintroduce the desputatio into the modern university! Following this are two whole pages on The Great Translation Project. This is somewhat naturally followed by Muslim Science. The section on the medieval university is slightly longer than that devoted here to the whole of Muslim science, with a strong emphasis on astronomy. In essence Gal has not written a book on the origins of modern science but one on the origins of modern astronomy with a couple of side notes nodding to other branches of the sciences. He devotes only a short paragraph to al-Haytham’s optics and the medieval scholars, who adopted it. Put another way, the same old same old. 

The next section of the book bears the title The Seeds of Revolution and begins with a six-page philosophical, theological discourse featuring Ibn Rushd, Moshe ben Maimon and Thomas Aquinas. We now move on to the Renaissance. In this section the only nominal science that appears is Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective as an example of “the meeting of scholar and artisan.” A term in the title of the next subsection and throughout the section itself left me perplexed, The Movable Press and Its Cultural Impact. Can anybody help me? The history of printing is one of my areas of study and I have never ever come across the movable type printing press simply referred to as “the movable press.” I even spent half an hour searching the Internet and could not find the term anywhere. Does it exist or did Gal create it? The section itself is fairly standard. This is followed by a long section on Global Knowledge covering navigation and discovery, global commerce, practical mathematics driven by commerce, trade companies, and the Jesuits.

We then get a section, which is obviously a favourite area of Gal, given to space that he grants it, magic. Now I’m very much in favour of including what I would prefer to give the general title occult theories and practices rather than magic in a text on the history of science, so Gal wins a couple of plus points for this section. He starts with a philosophical presentation of the usual suspects, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Kabbala et al. He then moves on to what he terms scientific magic, by which he means alchemy and astrology, which he admits are not really the same as magic, excusing himself by claiming that both are based on a form of magical thinking. He then attempts to explain each of them in less than three pages, producing a rather inadequate explanation in each case. In neither case does he address the impact that both alchemy and astrology actually had historically on the development of the sciences. Moving on we have Magic and the New Science. Here we get presented with cameos of the Bacons, both Roger and Francis, Pico della Mirandola, and Giambattista della Porta. 

When dealing with Roger Bacon we get another example of Gal’s historical errors, he writes:

This enabled him to formulate great novelties, especially in optics. Theoretically, he turned Muslim optics into a theory of vision; practically, he is credited with the invention of the spectacles.

Here we have a classic double whammy. He didn’t turn Muslim optics into a theory of vision but rather took over and propagated the theory of vision of Ibn al-Haytham. I have no idea, who credits Roger Bacon with the invention of the spectacles, in all my extensive readings on the history of optics I have never come across such a claim, maybe just maybe, because it isn’t true.

Roughly two thirds of the way through we are now approaching modern science with a section titled, The Moving Earth. I’ll start right off by saying that it is somewhat symbolic of what I see as Gal’s dated approach that the book that he recommends for Copernicus’ ‘revolution’ is Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, a book that was factually false when it was first publish and hasn’t improved in the sixty years since. But I’m ahead of myself.

The section starts with a very brief sketch of Luther and the reformation, which function as a lead into a section titled, Counter-Reformation and the Calendar Reform. Here he briefly mentions the Jesuits, whom he dealt with earlier under Global Knowledge. He writes:

The Jesuits, as we’ve pointed out, turned from the strict logicism of traditional Church education to disciplines aimed at moving and persuading: rhetoric, theater, and dance. Even mathematics was taught (at least to missionaries-to-be) for its persuasive power.

Ignoring this rather strange presentation of the Jesuit strictly logical Thomist education programme, I will just address the last sentence. Clavius set up the most modern mathematical educational curriculum in Europe and probably the world, which was taught in all Jesuit schools and colleges throughout the world, describing it as “even mathematics was taught” really is historically highly inaccurate. Gal now delivers up something that I can only describe as historical bullshit, he writes: (I apologies for the scans but I couldn’t be arsed to type all of it.)

I could write a whole blog post trying to sort out this rubbish. The bit about pomp and circumstance is complete rubbish, as is, in this context, the section about knowing the exact time that had passed, since the birth of Christ. The only concern here is trying to determine the correct date on which to celebrate the movable feasts associated with Easter. The error in the length of the Julian year, which was eleven minutes not a quarter of an hour, also has nothing to do with the procession of the equinoxes but simply a false value for the length of the solar year. The Julian calendar was also originally Egyptian not Hellenistic. The Church decided vey early on to determine the date of Easter astronomically not by observation in order not to be seen following the Jewish practice. The calendar reform was not part of/inspired by the Reformation/Counter-Reformation but it had been on the Church’s books for centuries. There had been several reforms launched that were never completed, usually because the Pope, who had ordered it, had died and his successor had other things on his agenda when he mounted the Papal Throne. Famously, Regiomontanus died when called to Rome by the Pope to take on the calendar reform. The calendar reform that was authorized by the Council of Trent, had been set in motion several decades before the Council. Ptolemy’s Almagest had reached Europe twice in translations, both from the Greek and from Arabic, in the twelfth century and not first in the fifteenth century. What was published in the fifteenth century and had a major impact, Copernicus learnt his astronomy from it, was Peuerbach’s and Regiomontanus’ Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae 

 Just to close although it has nothing to do with the calendar reform, the name Commentariolus for Copernicus’ short manuscript from about 1514 on a heliocentric system, was coined much later by Tyco Brahe.  

We now move on to Copernicus. His section on Copernicus and his astronomy is fairly good but we now meet another problem. For his Early Modern scientists, he includes brief biographical detail, which; as very much a biographical historian, I approve of, but they are unfortunately strewn with errors. He writes for example that Copernicus was “born in Northern Poland then under Prussian rule.” Copernicus was born in Toruń, at the time an autonomous, self-governing city under the protection of the Polish Crown. After briefly sketching Copernicus’ university studies he writes: 

“Yet Copernicus had no interest in vita activa: throughout his life he made his living as a canon in Frombork (then Frauenburg), a medieval privilegium (a personally conferred status) with few obligations…” 

The cathedral canons in Frombork were the government and civil service of the prince-bishopric of Warmia and Copernicus had very much a vita activa as physician to the bishop, as consultant on fiscal affairs, as diplomat, as governor of Allenstein, organizing its defences during a siege by the Teutonic Order, and much more. Copernicus’ life was anything but the quiet contemplative life of the scholar. Later he writes concerning Copernicus’ activities as astronomer, “his activities were supported by the patronage of his uncle, in whose Warmia house he set up his observatory.” Whilst Copernicus on completion of his studies initially lived in the bishop’s palace in Heilsberg from 1503 till 1510 as his uncle’s physician and secretary, following the death of his uncle he moved to Frombork, and it is here that he set up his putative observatory. Gal also writes, “It took him thirty years to turn his Commentariolus into a complete book – On the Revolutions – whose final proofs he reviewed on his death bed, never to see it actually in print.” The legend says the finished published book was laid in his hands on his death bed. He would hardly have been reviewing final proofs, as he was in a coma following a stroke.

This might all seem like nit picking on my part but if an author is going to include biographical details into, what is after all intended as a textbook, then they have an obligation to get the facts right, especially as they are well documented and readily accessible.

Rheticus gets a brief nod and then we get the standard slagging off of Osiander for his ad lectorum. Here once again we get a couple of trivial biographical errors, Gal refers to Osiander as a Lutheran and as a Protestant priest. Osiander was not a Lutheran, he and Luther were rivals. Protestants are not priests but pastors and Osiander was never a pastor but a Protestant preacher. Of course, Gal has to waste space on Bruno, which is interesting as he largely ignores several seventeenth century scientists, who made major contributions to the development of modern science, such as Christiaan Huygens. 

We are now well established on the big names rally towards the grand climax. Up next is Tycho Brahe, who, as usual, is falsely credited with being the first to determine that comets, nova et all were supralunar changing objects, thus contradicting Aristotle’s perfect heavens cosmology. History dictates that Kepler must follow Tycho, with a presentation of his Mysterium Cosmographicum. Gal says that Kepler’s mother “keen on his education” “sent him through the Protestants’ version of a Church education – grammar school, seminary and the University of Tübingen.” No mention of the fact that this education was only possible because Kepler won a scholarship. Gal also tells us:

By 1611, Rudolf’s colorful court brought about his demise, as Rudolf was forced off his throne by his brother Mathias, meaning that Kepler had to leave Prague. The last two decades of his life were sad: his financial and intellectual standing deteriorating, he moved back to the German-speaking lands – first to Linz, then Ulm, then Regensburg, and when his applications to university posts declined, he took increasingly lower positions as a provincial mathematician. … He died in poverty in Regensburg in 1630…

First off, Rudolph’s Prague was German speaking. Although Mathias required Kepler to leave Prague, he retained his position as Imperial Mathematicus (which Gal falsely names Imperial Astronomer), although actually getting paid for this post by the imperial treasury had always been a problem. He became district mathematicus in Linz in 1612 to ensure a regular income, a post he retained until 1626. He moved from Linz to Ulm in 1626 in order to get his Rudolphine Tables printed and published, which he then took to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, to sell in order to recuperate the costs of printing. From 1628 he was court advisor, read astrologer, to Wallenstein in Sagan. He travelled to the Reichstag in Regensburg in 1630, where he fell ill and died. He had never held a university post in his life and hadn’t attempted to get one since 1600. 

Having messed up Kepler’s biography, Gal now messes up his science. Under the title, The New Physical Optics, Gal gets Kepler’s contribution to the science of optics horribly wrong. He writes:

Traditional optics was the mathematical theory of vision. It studied visual rays: straight lines which could only change direction: refracted by changing media or reflected by polished surfaces. Whether these visual rays were physical entities or just mathematical representations of the process of vision, and what this process consisted of, was much debated. (…) But there was no debate that vision is a direct, cognitive relation between the object and the mind, through the eye. Light, in all of these theories, had an important, but secondary role:

(…)

Kepler abolished this assumption. Nothing of the object, he claimed, comes to and through the eye. The subject matter of his optics was no longer vision but light:

This transformation in the history of optics was not consummated by Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century but by al-Kindi and al-Haytham more than seven hundred years earlier. This was the theory of vision of al-Haytham mentioned above and adopted by Roger Bacon. 

We then get a reasonable account of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, except that he claims that Kepler’s difficulties in finally determining that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse was because he was trapped in the concept that the orbits must be circular, which is rubbish. Else where Gal goes as far as to claim that Kepler guessed that the orbit was an ellipse. I suggest that he reads Astronomia nova or at least James Voelkel’s excellent analysis of it, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (Princeton University Press, 2001) to learn how much solid mathematical analysis was invested in that determination.

As always Galileo must follow Kepler. We get a very brief introduction to the Sidereus Nuncius and then an account of Galileo as a social climber that carries on the series of biographical errors. Gal writes:

Galileo’s father Vincenzo (c. 1520–1591) (…) A lute player of humble origins, he taught himself musical theory and acquired a name and enough fortune to marry into minor (and penniless) nobility with a book on musical theory, in which he relentless and venomously assaulted the canonical theory as detached from real musical practices. 

This is fascinatingly wrong, because Gal gives as his source for Galileo’s biography John Heilbron’s Galileo, where we can read on page 2 the following:

Although Galileo was born in Pisa, the hometown of his recalcitrant mother, he prided himself on being a noble of Florence through his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and musical theorist. Vincenzo’s nobility did not imply wealth but the right to hold civic office and he lived in the straitened circumstances usual in his profession. His marriage to Giulia, whose family dealt in cloth, was a union of art and trade. 

The errors continue:

…he returned to the University of Pisa to study medicine, but stayed in the lower faculties and taught mathematics there from 1589. Two years later, he moved to Padua, his salary rising slightly from 160 Scudi to 160 Ducats a year. In 1599, he invented a military compass and dedicated it to the Venetian Senate to have his salary doubled and his contract extended for six years. When Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), Galileo’s friend and minor patron, arranged for the spyglass to be presented and dedicated to the Senate in 1609, Galileo’s salary was doubled again and he was tenured for life.

Galileo actually broke off his medical studies and left the university, took private lessons in mathematics and was then on the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, the Medici Cardinal, appointed to the professorship for mathematics in Pisa. He didn’t invent the military or proportional compass and didn’t dedicate it to the Senate and his salary wasn’t doubled for doing so. Although he did manufacture and sell a superior model together with paid lessons in its use. His salary wasn’t doubled for presenting a telescope to the Senate but was increased to 1000 Scudi.  

Of course, we have a section titled, The Galileo Affair: The Church Divorces Science, the title revealing everything we need to know about Gal’s opinion on the topic. No, the Church did not divorce science, as even a brief survey of seventeenth century science following Galileo’s trial clearly shows. Gal states that, “The investigation of the Galileo affair was charged to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine…”, which simply isn’t true. He naturally points out that Bellarmine, “condemned Bruno to the stake some fifteen years earlier.” Nothing like a good smear campaign.

At one point Gal discuses Bellarmine’s letter to Foscarini and having quoted “…if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. 

makes the following interesting statement:

Bellarmine was no wide-eyed champion of humanist values. He was a powerful emissary of a domineering institution, and he wasn’t defending only human reason, but also the Church’s privilege to represent it. He wasn’t only stressing that the Church would abide by “a true demonstration,” but also that it retained the right to decide what the criteria for such a demonstration were, and when they’ are met. [my emphasis]

The emphasised statement is at very best highly questionable and at worst completely false. Bellarmine was a highly intelligent, highly educated scholar, who had earlier in his career taught university courses in astronomy. He was well aware what constituted a sound scientific demonstration and would almost certainly have acknowledged and accepted one if one was delivered, without question. 

On Galileo’s questioning by the Roman Inquisition Gal writes:

After the first interrogation, he [Galileo] reached a deal which didn’t satisfy the pope and was interrogated again.

This is simply factually wrong; no deal was reached after the first interrogation. 

This review is getting far too long, and I think I have already delivered enough evidence to justify what is going to be my conclusion so I will shorten the next sections. 

Gal suddenly seems to discover that there were scientific areas other than astronomy and there follows a comparatively long section on the history of medicine that starts with William Harvey then back tracks to ancient Greece before summarising the history of medicine down to the seventeenth century. This is in general OK, but I don’t understand why he devotes four and a half pages to the Leechbook a relatively obscure medieval English medical text, whereas midwives warrant less than two pages. 

We are on the home stretch and have reached The New Science, where we discoverer that Galileo originated the mechanical philosophy. Really? No, not really. First up we get told that Buridan originated impetus theory. There is no mention of Johann Philoponus, who actually originated it or the various Arabic scholars, who developed it further and from whom Buridan appropriated it, merely supplying the name. We then get Galileo on mechanics, once again with very little prehistory although both Tartaglia and Benedetti get a mention. Guidobaldo del Monte actually gets acknowledged for his share in the discovery of the parabola law. However, Gal suggests that the guessed it! It’s here that he states that Kepler guessed that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse. 

Up next the usual suspects, Descartes and Bacon and I just can’t, although he does, surprisingly, acknowledge that Bacon didn’t really understand how science works. Whoever says Bacon must say scientific societies, with a long discourse on the air pump, which seems to imply that only Boyle and Hooke actually did air pump experiments. 

We now reach the books conclusion Sciences Cathedral, remember that opening chapter? This is, naturally, Newton’s Principia.  Bizarrely, this section is almost entirely devoted to the exchange of letters between Hooke and Newton on the concept of gravity. Or it appears somewhat bizarre until you realise that Gal has written a whole book about it and is just recycling. 

Here we meet our last botched biographical sketch. Having presented Hooke’s biography with the early demise of his father and his resulting financial struggles to obtain an education, Gal turns his attention to Isaac and enlightens his readers with the following:

Isaac Newton: While Hooke was establishing his credentials as an experimenter and instrument builder in Oxford, Isaac Newton (1642–1726) was gaining a name as a mathematical wiz in Cambridge. Like, Hooke, he was an orphan of a provincial clergy man from a little town in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England, and like him he had to work as a servant-student until his talents shone through. 

Hannah Newton-Smith née Ayscough, Newton’s mother, would be very surprised to learn that Isaac was an orphan, as she died in 1679, when Isaac was already 37 years old. She would be equally surprised to learn that Isaac’s father, also named Isaac, who died before he was born, was a provincial clergyman. In reality, he was a yeoman farmer. Hannah’s second husband, Newton’s stepfather, Barnabus Smith was the provincial clergyman. Woolsthorpe where Newton was born and grew up was a very little town indeed, in fact it was merely a hamlet. Unlike Hooke who had to work his way through university, Newton’s family were wealthy, when he inherited the family estate, they generated an annual income of £600, a very large sum in the seventeenth century. Why his mother insisted on him entering Cambridge as a subsizar, that is as a servant to other students is an unsolved puzzle. Gal continues:

Newton was a recluse, yet he seemed to have had an intellectual charisma that Hooke lacked. He became such a prodigy student of the great mathematician Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) that in 1669 Barrow resigned in his favour from Cambridge’ newly established, prestigious Lucasian Professorship pf Mathematics.

Here Gal is recycling old myths. Newton was never a student of Isaac Barrow. Barrow did not resign the Lucasian chair in Newton’s favour. He resigned to become a theologian. However, he did recommend Newton as his successor. Further on Gal informs us that:

Newton waited until Hooke’s death in 1703 to publish his Opticks – the subject of the earlier debate – and became the Secretary of the Royal Society, which he brought back from the disarray into which it had fallen after the death of Oldenburg and most of its early members.

I’m sure that the Royal Society will be mortified to learn that Gal has demoted its most famous President to the rank of mere Secretary. This chapter also includes a discussion of the historical development of the concept of force, which to put it mildly is defective, but I can’t be bothered to go into yet more detail. I will just close my analysis of the contents with what I hope was just a mental lapse. Gal writes:

Newton presents careful tables of the periods of the planets of the planets as well as those of the moons of Jupiter and Mercury [my emphasis].

I assume he meant to write Saturn.

To close I will return to the very beginning of the book the front cover. As one can see it is adorned with something that appears at first glance to be an astrolabe. However, all the astrolabe experts amongst my friends went “what the fuck is that?” on first viewing this image. It turns out that it is a souvenir keyring sold by the British Museum. Given that the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge has some very beautiful astrolabe, I’m certain that the CUP could have done better than this. The publishers compound this monstrosity with the descriptive text:

Cover image: habaril, via Getty Images. Brass astrolabe, a medieval astronomical navigation instrument.

We have already established that it is in fact not an astrolabe. The astrolabe goes back at least to late antiquity if not earlier, the earliest known attribution is to Theon of Alexandria (C. 335–405 CE), and they continued to be manufactured and used well into the nineteenth century, so not just medieval. Finally, as David King, the greatest living expert on the astrolabe, says repeatably, the astrolabe is NOT a navigation instrument.

Gal’s The Origins of Modern Science has the potential to be a reasonable book, but it is not one that I would recommend as an introduction to the history of science for students. Large parts of it reflect an approach and a standard of knowledge that was still valid thirty or forty years ago, but the discipline has moved on since then. Even if this were not the case the long list of substantive errors that I have documented, and there are probably others that I missed, display a shoddy level of workmanship that should not exist in any history book, let alone in an introductory text for students.  


[1] Ofer Gal, The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution, CUP, Cambridge 2021.

[2] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western ScienceThe European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2nd edition 2007. 

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Uncategorized

Kill or Cure!

One of the defining aspects of the so-called scientific revolution was the massive increase in experimentation as a method to discover or confirm knowledge of the natural world, replacing the empirical observation or experience of Aristotelian scientia. Ignoring the trivial and fatuous, but unfortunately still widespread, claim that Galileo invented experimental science, it is an important area of the history of Early Modern science to trace and analyse how, when and where this methodological change took place. This transition, a very gradual one, actually took place in various areas of knowledge acquisition during the Renaissance and might well be regarded as one of the defining features of Renaissance science, separating it from its medieval predecessor.

One, perhaps surprising, area where this transition took place was in the testing of poisons and their antidotes, as brilliantly researched, described, analysed and reported by Alisha Rankin in her new book, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science.[1]

Rankin20210426_15521483_0001

The starting point  for Rankin’s fascinating story is that it was apparently considered acceptable for a large part of the sixteenth century to test poisons and above all their supposed antidotes on human beings. No, you didn’t misread that last sentence, during the sixteenth century test on poisons and their antidotes were carried out by physicians, with the active support of the ruling establishment, on condemned prisoners, truly shades of Mengele and Auschwitz.

This medical practice of testing didn’t, however, begin in the Renaissance but there are precedence cases throughout history beginning in antiquity and occurring intermittently all the way up to the Renaissance. Testing poisons and their antidotes mostly on animals, although tests on criminals existed as well. Rankin’s opening chapter is a detailed sketch and analysis of poison trials that preceded the Renaissance, as well as a general history of poisons and their antidotes.

Her second chapter then deals in detail with the trial ordered by Pope Clement VII in 1524 of the antidote Oleum Clementis created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. Here a new chapter in the history of testing was opened, as this antidote was tested on two condemned prisoners under the supervision of a physician. Both prisoners were given a dose of a known strong poison and one was given a dose of the antidote. The prisoner, who received the antidote survived and the trial and its results were publicised creating a medical sensation.

Rankin explains that there was an obsession with poison and poisoning amongst the rich and powerful during the Renaissance, so the interest in methods of both detecting poisons and combating their effects was very strong amongst those in power, the most likely victims of an attempted poisoning. This also meant that there was an interest amongst physicians, apothecaries, and empirics to find or create such potions, as a route to fame and fortune.

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Having set the scene, in the rest of her book Rankin takes us through the sixteenth century through periods of testing on both humans and animals, into the seventeenth and the scientific revolution. Along route she introduces us to newly invented antidotes and their inventors/discoverers but also to an incredible amount of relevant contextual information.

We learn, for example, that poison antidotes were not considered poison specific but worked against all poisons, if they worked at all. We also learn that plagues were not, like other more common ailments, to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours, as taught by Galen, but were a poisoning of the body, so that a poison antidote, should or would function as a cure for plagues as well.

Alongside the purely medical descriptions, we also get the full spectrum of the social, political, cultural, ethical, and economic contexts in which the poison trials took place. A poison trial sanctioned by a head of state and carried out by a learned physician had, naturally, a completely different status to one carried out by an empiric on the town square during a local fair.

(I’m still hunting for a possible translation into modern English of the term empiric. This is, usually, simply translated as quack, and whilst it is true that many empirics were what we would now call quacks, the spectrum of their medical activities was not just confined to conning people. Quite a lot of them did offer genuine medical services, no more and no less effective than those of the university educated physicians.)

Rankin goes into great detail on how the physicians sought to present their trials, so that they were seen to be scholarly as opposed to the snake-oil salesman trials of the empirics. Writing detailed protocols of the progress of the victim’s condition following the administration of the poison dose and the antidote, noting times and nature of vomiting, sweating, diarrhoea etc, giving their trials at least the appearance of a controlled experiment. This is contrasted with the simple public presentations of the empirics.

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Also, important, and highly relevant to the historical development of science, Rankin discusses and analyses the use of the terms, ‘experience’, ‘experiment’, and ‘proof’ in the descriptions of poison trials. The transition from Aristotelian experience to empirical experiment being one of the defining characteristics of the scientific revolution.

In the final section of her book Rankin expands her remit to cover the history of the universal cures on offer during the period, both the exotic imported kind as well as the locally discovered/invented ones.

An important element of the whole story that Rankin deals with extensively is how the various vendors of antidotes and universal cures advertised and promoted their wares. Hereby, the question whether reports of successful trials or testimonials from cured patient carried the greater weight is examined. We are of course well into the age of print and there was a flourishing market for books and pamphlets praising one’s own wonder products or damning those of one’s rivals.

Rankin tells a highly comprehensive tale of a fascinating piece of Renaissance medical history. It is thoroughly researched and presented in exhaustive detail. A true academic work, it has extensive endnotes (unfortunately not footnotes), a voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and an excellent index. It is also pleasantly illustrated with the, in the meantime ubiquitous, grey scale illustrations. However, despite the academic rigour, Rankin has a light, literary style and her prose is truly a pleasure to read.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I would say that this volume is a must read for anybody involved in the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance medicine but also more generally for those working on the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance science, or simply Early Modern and/or Renaissance history. I would also recommend it, without reservations, for any general readers, who like to read well written accounts of interesting episodes in history.

[1] Alisha Rankin, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

A flawed survey of science and the occult in the Early Modern Period

There is no shortage of good literature on the relationships between science and magic, or science and astrology, or science and alchemy during the Early Modern Period so what is new in Mark A. Waddell’s Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe[1]? Nothing, because it is not Waddell’s aim to bring something new to this material but rather to present an introductory textbook on the theme aimed at university students. He sets out to demonstrate to the uninitiated how the seemingly contradictory regions of science, religion and magic existed in the Early Modern Period not just parallel to but interwoven and integrated with each other.  Waddell’s conception is a worthy one and would make for a positive addition to the literature, his book is however flawed in its execution.

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Image with thanks from Brian Clegg

The book actually starts well, and our author sets out his planned journey in a lengthy but clear and informative introduction. The book itself is divided into clear sections each dealing with a different aspect of the central theme. The first section deals with the Renaissance discoveries of hermeticism and the cabala and the concept of natural magic, as a force to manipulate nature, as opposed to demonic magic. Although limited by its brevity, it provides a reasonable introduction to the topics dealt with. My only criticisms concerns, the usual presentation of John Dee as a magus, whilst downplaying his role as a mathematician, although this does get mentioned in passing. However, Waddell can’t resist suggesting that Dee was the role model for Marlowe’s Faustus, whereas Faustus is almost certainly modelled on Historia von D. Johann Faustus, a German book containing legends about the real Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–c. 1541) a German itinerant alchemist, astrologer, and magician of the German Renaissance. A note for authors, not just for Waddell, Dee in by no means the only Renaissance magus and is not the role model for all the literary ones.

Waddell’s second section deals with demonic magic, that is magic thought to draw its power from communion with the Devil and other lesser demons. As far as I can tell this was the section that most interested our author whilst writing his book. He manages to present a clear and informative picture of the period of the European witch craze and the associated witch hunts. He deals really well with the interrelationship between the belief in demonic witchcraft and the Church and formal religion. How the Church created, propagated and increasingly expanded the belief in demonic magic and witches and how this became centred on the concept of heresy. Communion with the devil, which became the central theme of the witch hunts being in and of itself heretical.

Following this excellent ´section the book starts to go downhill. The third section of the book deals with magic, medicine and the microcosm. Compared with the good presentation of the previous section I can only call this one a mishmash. We get a standard brief introduction to medieval academic medicine, which Waddell labels premodern, with Hippocrates, Galen and a nod to Islamic medical writes, but with only Ibn Sīnā mentioned by name. This is followed by a brief description of the principles of humoral medicine. Waddell correctly points out the academic or learned doctors only represent one group offering medical assistance during this period and gives a couple of lines to the barber-surgeons. It is now that the quality of Waddell’s presentation takes a steep nosedive.

Having correctly pointed out that medieval academic medicine was largely theoretical he then, unfortunately, follows the myth of “and then came Andy”! That is, we jump straight into Andreas Vesalius and his De fabrica, as I quote, “the beginnings of what we would understand as a rigorous and empirical approach to the study of anatomy.” Strange, only two weeks ago I wrote a post pointing out that Vesalius didn’t emerge out of the blue with scalpel raised high but was one step, albeit a very major one, in a two-hundred-year evolution in the study of anatomy. Of course, Waddell dishes up the usual myth about how seldom dissection was before Vesalius and corpses to dissect were rare etc, etc. Whereas, in fact, dissection had become a regular feature of medical teaching at the European universities over that, previously mentioned two-hundred-year period. Waddell closes his Vesalius hagiography with the comment that Vesalius’ De fabrica “was a crucial step in the more widespread reform of medical theory and practice that took place over the next 150 years” and although his book goes up to the middle of the eighteenth century, we don’t get any more information on those reforms. One of his final comments on Vesalius perpetuates another hoary old myth. He writes, “Vesalius made it permissible to question the legacy of antiquity and, in some cases, to overturn ideas that had persisted for many hundred years.” Contrary to the image created here, people had been challenging the legacy of antiquity and overturning ideas since antiquity, as Edward Grant put it so wonderfully, medieval Aristotelian philosophy was not Aristotle’s philosophy. The same applies to all branches of knowledge inherited form antiquity.

Having dealt with Vesalius, Waddell moves on to the philosophy of microcosm-macrocosm and astro-medicine or as it was called iatromathematics, that is the application of astrology to medicine. His basic introduction to the microcosm-macrocosm theory is quite reasonable and he then moves onto astrology. He insists on explaining that, in his opinion, astrology is not a science but a system of non-scientific rules. This is all well and good but for the people he is dealing with in the Early Modern Period astrology was a science. We then get a guide to astrology for beginners which manages right from the start to make some elementary mistakes. He writes, “You might know what your “sign” is, based on when you were born […]. These refer to the twelve (or according to some, thirteen) signs of the Western zodiac, which is the band of constellations through which the Sun appears to move over the course of a year.” The bullshit with thirteen constellations was something dreamed up by some modern astronomers, who obviously know nothing about astrology, its history or the history of their own discipline for that matter, in order to discredit astrology and astrologers. The only people they discredited were themselves. The zodiac as originally conceived by the Babylonians a couple of millennia BCE, mapped the ecliptic, the apparent annual path of the Sun around the Earth, using seventeen constellations. These were gradually pared down over the centuries until the Western zodiac became defined around the fifth century BCE as twelve equal division of the ecliptic, that is each of thirty degrees, starting at the vernal or spring equinox and preceding clockwise around the ecliptic. The most important point is that these divisions, the “signs”, are not constellations. There are, perhaps unfortunately, named after the constellations that occupied those positions on the ecliptic a couple of millennia in the past but no longer do so because of the precession of the equinoxes.

Although, Waddell gives a reasonable account of the basics of astro-medicine and also how it was integrated with humoral medicine but then fails again when describing its actual application. A couple of examples:

There were cases of surgeons refusing to operate on a specific part of the body unless the heavens were aligned with the corresponding zodiac sign, and it was not uncommon for learned physicians to cast their patient’s horoscope as part of their diagnosis.

[……]

Though the use of astrology in premodern medicine was common, it is less clear how often physicians would have turned to astrological magic in order to treat patients. Some would have regarded it with suspicion and relied instead on genitures alone to dictate their treatment, using a patient’s horoscope as a kind of diagnostic tool that provided useful information about that person’s temperament and other influences on their health. Astrological magic was a different thing altogether, requiring the practitioner to harness the unseen forces and emanations of the planets to heal their patient rather than relying solely on a standard regimen of care.

This is a book about the interrelationships between magic, religion and science during the Early Modern period, but Waddell’s lukewarm statements here, “there were cases of surgeons refusing to operate…, not uncommon for learned physicians…” fail totally to capture the extent of astro-medicine and its almost total dominance of academic medicine during the Renaissance. Beginning in the early fifteenth century European universities established the first dedicated chairs for mathematics, with the specific assignment to teach astrology to medical students.

During the main period of astrological medicine, the most commonly produced printed products were wall and pocket calendars, in fact, Gutenberg printed a wall calendar long before his more famous Bible. These calendars were astronomical, astrological, medical calendars, which contained the astronomical-astrological data that enabled physicians and barber-surgeons to know when they should or should not apply a particular treatment. These calendars were universal, and towns, cities and districts appointed official calendar makers to produce new calendars, every year. Almost no physician or barber-surgeon would consider applying a treatment at an inappropriate time, not as Waddell says, “cases of surgeons refusing to operate.” Also, no learned physicians in this time would begin an examination without casting the patient’s horoscope, to determine the cause, course and cure for the existing affliction. The use of what Waddell calls astrological magic, by which he means astrological talismans, by learned physicians was almost non-existent. This is aa completely different area of both astrology and of medicine.

Within the context of the book, it is obvious that we now turn to Paracelsus. Here Waddell repeats the myth about the name Paracelsus, “The name by which he is best known, Paracelsus, is something of a mystery, but historians believe that it was inspired by the classical Roman medical writer Celsus (c. 25 BCE–c. 50 CE). The prefix “para-“ that he added to that ancient name has multiple meanings in Latin, including “beyond,” leading some to speculate that this was a not-so-modest attempt to claim a knowledge of medicine greater than that of Celsus.” This is once again almost certainly a myth. Nowhere in his voluminous writings does Paracelsus mention Celsus and there is no evidence that he even knew of his existence. Paracelsus is almost certainly a toponym for Hohenheim meaning ‘up high’, Hohenheim being German for high home. By the way, he only initially adopted Paracelsus for his alchemical writings. The rest of his account of Paracelsus is OK but fails to really come to grips with Paracelsus’ alchemy.

To close out his section on medicine, Waddell now brings a long digression on the history of the believe in weapon salve, a substance that supposedly cured wounds when smeared on the weapon that caused them, an interesting example of the intersection between magic and medicine. However, he misses the wonderful case of a crossover into science when Kenhelm Digby suggested that weapon salve could be used to determine longitude.

 

The next section A New Cosmos: Copernicus, Galileo, and the Motion of the Earth, takes us into, from my point of view, a true disaster area:

In this chapter, we explore how the European understanding of the cosmos changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was on the single greatest intellectual disruptions in European history, and in some ways we are still feeling its effects now, more than 450 years later. The claim that our universe was fundamentally different from what people had known for thousands of years led to a serious conflict between different sources of knowledge and forms of authority, and forced premodern Europe to grapple with a crucial question: Who has the right to define the nature of reality?

This particular conflict is often framed by historians and other commentators as a battle between science and religion in which the brave and progressive pioneers of the heliocentric cosmos were attacked unjustly by a tyrannical and old-fashioned Church. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. [my emphasis]

Waddell starts with a standard account of Aristotelian philosophy and cosmology, in which he like most other people exaggerates the continuity of Aristotle’s influence. This is followed by the usual astronomers only saved the phenomena story and an introduction to Ptolemy. Again, the continuity of his model is, as usual, exaggerated. Waddell briefly introduces the Aristotelian theory of the crystalline spheres and claims that it contradicted Ptolemy’s epicycle and deferent model, which is simply not true as Ptolemy combined them in his Planetary Hypothesis. The contradiction between the two models is between Aristotle’s astronomical mathematical homocentric spheres used to explain the moments of the planets (which Waddell doesn’t mention), which were imbedded in the crystalline spheres, and the epicycle-deferent model. Waddell then hypothesises a conflict between the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic system, which simply didn’t exist for the majority, people accepting a melange of Aristotle’s cosmology and Ptolemy’s astronomy. There were however over the centuries local revivals of Aristotle’s homocentric theory.

Now Copernicus enters stage right:

Copernicus had strong ties to the Catholic Church; he was a canon, which meant he was responsible for maintaining a cathedral (the seat of a bishop or archbishop), and some historians believe he was ordained as a priest as well.

If a student writes “some historians” in a paper they normally get their head torn off by their teachers. Which historians? Name them! In fact, I think Waddell would have a difficult time naming his “some historians”, as all the historians of astronomy that I know of, who have studied the question, say quite categorically that there is no evidence that Copernicus was ever ordained. Waddell delivers up next:

Most probably it [De revolutionibus] was completed by the mid-1530s, but Copernicus was reluctant to publish it right away because his work called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the universe held at the time.

It is now generally accepted that Copernicus didn’t published because he couldn’t provide any proofs for his heliocentric hypothesis. Waddell:

He did decide to circulate his ideas quietly among astronomers, however, and after seeing his calculations were not rejected outright Copernicus finally had his work printed in Nuremberg shortly before his death.

Here Waddell is obviously confusing Copernicus’ Commentariolus, circulated around 1510 and  Rheticus’ Narratio prima, published in two editions in Danzig and Basel, which I wouldn’t describe as circulated quietly. Also, neither book contained  calculations. Waddell now tries to push the gospel that nobody really read the cosmological part of De revolutionibus and were only interested in the mathematics. Whilst it is true that more astronomers were interested in the mathematical model, there was a complex and intensive discussion of the cosmology throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Waddell also wants his reader to believe that Copernicus didn’t regard his model as a real model of the cosmos, sorry this is simply false. Copernicus very definitely believed his model was a real model.

 Moving on to Tycho Brahe and the geo-heliocentric system Waddell tells us that, “[Tycho] could not embrace a cosmology that so obviously conflicted with the Bible. It is not surprising, then, that the Tychonic system was adopted in the years following Brahe’s death in 1601”

At no point does Waddell acknowledge the historical fact that also the majority of astronomers in the early decades of the seventeenth century accepted a Tychonic system because it was the one that best fit the known empirical facts. This doesn’t fit his hagiographical account of Galileo vs the Church, which is still to come.

Next up Waddell presents Kepler and his Mysterium Cosmographicum and seems to think that Kepler’s importance lies in the fact that he was ac deeply religious and pious person embraced a heliocentric cosmos. We then get an absolute humdinger of a statement:

There is more that could be said about Kepler, including the fact that he improved upon the work of Copernicus by proposing three laws of planetary motion that are still taught in schools today. For the purpose of this chapter, however, Kepler is significant as someone who embraced heliocentricity and [emphasis in the original] faith.

With this statement Waddell disqualifies himself on the subject of the seventeenth century transition from a geocentric cosmos to a heliocentric one. Kepler didn’t propose his three laws he derived them empirically from Tycho’s observational data and they represent the single most important step in that transition.

We now have another Waddell and then came moment, this time with Galileo. We get a gabled version of Galileo’s vita with many minor inaccuracies, which I won’t deal with here because there is much worse to come. After a standard story of the introduction of the telescope and of Galileo’s improved model we get the following:

[Galileo] presented his device to the Doge (the highest official in Venice) and secured a truly impressive salary for life from the Venetian state. Mere weeks later he received word from the court of the Medici in Galileo’s home in Tuscany, that they wanted a telescope of their own. The Venetian leaders, however had ordered Galileo to keep his improved telescope a secret, to be manufactured only for Venetian use, and Galileo obliged, at least temporarily.

When they bought Galileo’s telescope they thought, erroneously, that they were getting exclusive use of a spectacular new instrument. However, it soon became very clear that telescopes were not particularly difficult to make and were freely available in almost all major European towns. They were more than slightly pissed off at the good Galileo but did not renege on their deal. The Medici court did not request a telescope of their own, but Galileo in his campaign to gain favour by the Medici, presented them with one and actually travelled to Florence to demonstrate it for them. We now move on to the telescopic discoveries in which Waddell exaggerates the discovery of the Jupiter moons. We skip over the Sidereus Nuncius and Galileo’s appointment as court philosophicus and mathematicus in Florence, which Waddell retells fairly accurately. Waddell now delivers up what he sees as the great coup:

The problem was that the moons of Jupiter, while important, did not prove the existence of a heliocentric cosmos. Galileo kept searching until he found something that did: the phases of Venus.

The discovery of the phases of Venus do indeed sound the death nell for a pure geocentric system à la Ptolemy but not for a Capellan geo-heliocentric system, popular throughout the Middle Ages, where Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, which orbits the Earth, or a full Tychonic system with all five planets orbiting the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Neither here nor anywhere else does Waddell handle the Tychonic system, which on scientific, empirical grounds became the most favoured system in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

We then get Castelli getting into deep water with the Grand Duchess Christina and, according to Waddell, Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. He never mentions the Letter to Castelli, of which the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina was a later extended and improved version, although it was the Letter to Castelli, which got passed on to the Inquisition and caused Galileo’s problems in 1615. Waddell tells us:

In 1616 the Inquisition declared that heliocentrism was a formal heresy.

In fact, the eleven Qualifiers appointed by the Pope to investigate the status of the heliocentric theory delivered the following verdict:

( i ) The sun is the centre of the universe (“mundi”) and absolutely immobile in local motion.

( ii ) The earth is not the centre of the universe (“mundi”); it is not immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.

All unanimously censure the first proposition as “foolish, absurd in philosophy [i.e. scientifically untenable] and formally heretical on the grounds of expressly contradicting the statements of Holy Scripture in many places according to the proper meaning of the words, the common exposition and the understanding of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians”; the second proposition they unanimously censured as likewise “absurd in philosophy” and theologically “at least erroneous in faith”.

However, the Qualifiers verdict was only advisory and the Pope alone can official name something a heresy and no Pope ever did.

Waddell gives a fairly standard account of Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino in 1616 and moves fairly rapidly to the Dialogo and Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633. However, on the judgement of that trial he delivers up this gem:

Ultimately, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” which marked his crime as far more serious than typical, run-of-the-mill heresy.

One really should take time to savour this inanity. The first time I read it, I went back and read it again, because I didn’t think anybody could write anything that stupid. and that I must have somehow misread it. But no, the sentence on page 131 of the book reads exactly as I have reproduced it here. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I never knew that to be suspected of a crime was actually “far more serious” than actually being found guilty of the same crime. One of my acquaintances, an excellent medieval historian and an expert for medieval astronomy asked, “WTF is run-of-the-mill heresy?” I’m afraid I can’t answer her excellent question, as I am as perplexed by the expression, as she obviously is.

Enough of the sarcasm, the complete sentence is, of course, total bollocks from beginning to end. Being found guilty of suspicion of heresy, vehement or not, is a much milder judgement than being found guilty of heresy. If Galileo had been found guilty of heresy, there is a very good chance he would have been sentenced to death. The expression “run-of-the-mill heresy” is quite simple total balderdash and should never, ever appear in any academic work.

Waddell now draws his conclusions for this section, and they are totally skewed because he has simple ignored, or better said deliberately supressed a large and significant part of the story. In the final part of this section, “Science versus Religion?”, he argues that the Church was defending its right to traditional truth against Galileo’s scientific truth. He writes:

This was not a fight between winners and losers, or between “right” and “wrong.” Instead, this is a story about power, tradition, and authority, about who gets to decide what is true and on what grounds.

[……]

Organised religion, exemplified here by the Catholic Church, had an interest in preserving the status quo [emphasis in original] for many reasons, some of which were undeniably self-serving.

[……]

The ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy were still taught in virtually every European university well into the seventeenth century, making the Church’s allegiance to these ideas understandable. At the same time, the Church also recognised another source of authority, the Christian scriptures, which stated clearly that the Earth did not move. On both philosophical and theological grounds, then, the Church’s position on the immobility of the Earth was reasonable by the standards of the time.  

The above quotes have more relationship to a fairy tale than to the actual historical situation. Due to the astronomical discoveries made since about 1570, by1630 the Catholic Church had abandoned most of the Aristotelian cosmology and never adopted  Aristotelian astronomy. They fully accepted that the phases of Venus, almost certainly observed by the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano before Galileo did, refuted the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy. Instead by 1620 the Church had officially adopted the Tychonic geo-heliocentric astronomy, not, as Waddell claims, on religious grounds but because it best fit the known empirical facts. Despite efforts since 1543, when Copernicus published De revolutionibus, nobody, not even Galileo, who had tried really hard, had succeeded in finding any empirical evidence to show that the Earth moves. Waddell’s attempt to portrait the Church as at best non-scientific or even anti.scientific completely ignores the fact that Jesuit and Jesuit educated mathematicians and astronomer were amongst the best throughout the seventeenth century. They made significant contributions to the development of modern astronomy before the invention of the telescope, during Galileo’s active period, in fact it was the Jesuits who provided the necessary scientific confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, and all the way up to Newton’s Principia. Their record can hardly be described as anti-scientific.

The Church’s real position is best summed up by Roberto Bellarmino in his 1615 letter to Foscarini, which is also addressed to Galileo:

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. 

Put simple prove your theory and we the Church will then reinterpret the Bible as necessary, which they in fact did in the eighteenth century following Bradley’s first proof that the Earth does actually move.

Waddell then goes off on a long presentist defence of Galileo’s wish to separate natural philosophy and theology, which is all well and good but has very little relevance for the actual historical situation. But as already stated, Waddell is wrong to claim that the phases of Venus prove heliocentrism. Worse than this Galileo’s Dialogo is a con. In the 1630s the two chief world systems were not Ptolemy and Copernicus, the first refuted and the second with its epicycle-deferent models, which Galileo continues to propagate, abandoned, but the Tychonic system and Kepler’s ecliptical astronomy, which Waddell like Galileo simply chose to ignore.

One last comment before I move on. Somewhere Waddell claims that Galileo was the first to claim that the Copernicus’ heliocentric model represented reality rather than simply saving the phenomena. This is historically not correct, Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler all believed that their models represented reality and by 1615, when Galileo first came into confrontation with the Church it had become the norm under astronomers that they were trying to find a real model and not saving the phenomena.

Waddell’s account of the early period of the emergence of modern astronomy sails majestically past the current historical stand of our knowledge of this phase of astronomical history and could have been written some time in the first half of the twentieth century but should not be in a textbook for students in the year 2021.

With the next section we return to some semblance of serious state-of-the-art history. Waddell presents and contrasts the mechanical philosophies of Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes and their differing strategies to include their God within those philosophies. All pretty standard stuff reasonably well presented. The section closes with a brief, maybe too brief, discourse on Joseph Glanvill’s attempts to keep awareness of the supernatural alive against the rationalism of the emerging modern science.

The penultimate section deals with the transition from the Aristotelian concept of an experience-based explanation of the world to one based on experiments and the problems involved in conforming the truth of experimental results. In my opinion he, like most people, gives far too much attention/credit to Francis Bacon but that is mainstream opinion so I can’t really fault him for doing so. I can, however, fault him for presenting Bacon’s approach as something new and original, whereas Bacon was merely collating what had been widespread scientific practice for about two centuries before he wrote his main treatises. Specialist historians have been making this public for quite some time now and textbooks, like the one Waddell has written, should reflect these advances in our historical awareness.

Waddell moves on to alchemy as another source of experimentation that influenced the move to an experiment-based science in the seventeenth century. To be honest I found his brief account of alchemy as somewhat garbled and meandering, basically in need of a good editor. He makes one error, which I found illuminating, he writes:

Aristotle in particular had taught that all metals were composed of two principles: Mercury and Sulphur

Aristotle thought that metals were composed of two exhalations, one is dry and smoky, the other wet and steamy. These first became widely labeled as Mercury and Sulphur in the ninth century writings of the Arabic alchemist Jābir ibn-Hayyān, who took it from the mid-ninth century work, the Book of the Secrets of Creation by Balīnūs. I find this illuminating because I don’t know things like this off by heart, I just knew that Mercury-Sulphur was not from Aristotle, and so have to look them up. To do so I turned to Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy. Now, according to Waddell’s bibliographical essays at the end of the book, Principe is his main source for the history of alchemy, which means he read the same paragraph as I did and decided to shorten it thus producing a fake historical statement. When writing history facts and details matter!

Having introduced alchemy we now, of course, get Isaac Newton. Waddell points out that Newton is hailed as the epitome of the modern scientist, whereas in fact he was a passionate exponent of alchemy and devoted vast amounts of time and effort to his heterodox religious studies. The only thing that I have to criticise here is that Waddell allocates Newton and his Principia to the mechanical philosophy, whereas his strongest critics pointed out that gravity is an occult force and is anything but conform with the mechanical philosophy. Waddell makes no mention of this here but strangely, as we will see does so indirectly later.

The final section of the book is a discussion of the enlightenment, which I found quite good.  Waddell points out that many assessments of the enlightenment and what supposedly took place are contradicted by the historical facts of what actually happened in the eighteenth century.

Waddell draws to a close with a five-page conclusion that rather strangely suddenly introduces new material that is not in the main text of the book, such as Leibniz’s criticism that Newton’s theory of gravity is not mechanical. It is in fact more a collection of after thoughts than a conclusion.

The book ends with a brief but quite extensive bibliographical essay for each section of the book, and it was here that I think I found the reason for the very poor quality of the A New Cosmos section, he writes at the very beginning:

Two important studies on premodern astronomy and the changes it experienced in early modern Europe are Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (Penguin Books, 1990) and Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Harvard University Press, 1992)

The Sleepwalkers was originally published in 1959 and The Copernican Revolution in 1957, both are horribly outdated and historically wildly inaccurate and should never be recommended to students in this day and age.

All together Waddell’s tome  has the makings of a good and potentially useful textbook for students on an important set of themes but it is in my opinion it is spoilt by some sloppy errors and a truly bad section on the history of astronomy in the early modern period and the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church.

[1] Mark A. Waddell, Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & London, 2021

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Reading Euclid

This is an addendum to yesterday review of Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe. As I noted there the book was an outcome of two workshops held, as part of the research project Reading Euclid that ran from 2016 to 2018. The project, which was based at Oxford University was led by Benjamin Wardhaugh, Yelda Nasifoglu (@YeldaNasif) and Philip Beeley.

The research project has its own website and Twitter account @ReadingEuclid. As well as Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonders: The Many Lives of Euclid’s Elements, which I reviewed here:

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And Reading Mathematics in Early Modern EuropeStudies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books, which I reviewed yesterday.

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There is also a third online publication Euclid in print, 1482–1703: A catalogue of the editions of the Elements and other Euclidian Works, which is open access and can be downloaded as a pdf for free.

All of this is essential reading for anybody interested in the history of the most often published mathematics textbook of all times.

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There’s more to reading than just looking at the words

When I first became interested in the history of mathematics, now literally a lifetime ago, it was dominated by a big events, big names approach to the discipline. It was also largely presentist, only interested in those aspects of the history that are still relevant in the present. As well as this, it was internalist history only interested in results and not really interested in any aspects of the context in which those results were created. This began to change as some historians began to research the external circumstances in which the mathematics itself was created and also the context, which was often different to the context in which the mathematics is used today. This led to the internalist-externalist debate in which the generation of strictly internalist historians questioned the sense of doing external history with many of them rejecting the approach completely.

As I have said on several occasions, in the 1980s, I served my own apprenticeship, as a mature student, as a historian of science in a major research project into the external history of formal or mathematical logic. As far as I know it was the first such research project in this area. In the intervening years things have evolved substantially and every aspect of the history of mathematics is open to the historian. During my lifetime the history of the book has undergone a similar trajectory, moving from the big names, big events modus to a much more open and diverse approach.

The two streams converged some time back and there are now interesting approaches to examining in depth mathematical publications in the contexts of their genesis, their continuing history and their use over the years. I recently reviewed a fascinating volume in this genre, Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonder: The Many Lives of Euclid’s Elements. Wardhaugh was a central figure in the Oxford-based Reading Euclid research project (2016–2018) and I now have a second volume that has grown out of two workshops, which took place within that project, Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe: Studies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books[1]. As the subtitle implies this is a wide-ranging and stimulating collection of papers covering many different aspects of how writers, researchers, and readers dealt with the mathematical written word in the Early Modern Period.

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In general, the academic standard of all the papers presented here is at the highest level.  The authors of the individual papers are all very obviously experts on the themes that they write about and display a high-level of knowledge on them. However, all of the papers are well written, easily accessible and easy to understand for the non-expert. The book opens with a ten-page introduction that explains what is being presented here is clear, simple terms for those new to the field of study, which, I suspect, will probably the majority of the readers.

The first paper deals with Euclid, which is not surprising given the origin of the volume. Vincenzo De Risi takes use through the discussion in the 16th and 17th centuries by mathematical readers of the Elements of Book 1, Proposition 1 and whether Euclid makes a hidden assumption in his construction. Risi points out that this discussion is normally attributed to Pasch and Hilbert in the 19th century but that the Early Modern mathematicians were very much on the ball three hundred years earlier.

We stay with Euclid and his Elements in the second paper by Robert Goulding, who takes us through Henry Savile’s attempts to understand and maybe improve on the Euclidean theory of proportions. Savile, best known for giving his name and his money to establish the first chairs for mathematics and astronomy at the University of Oxford, is an important figure in Early Modern mathematics, who largely gets ignored in the big names, big events history of the subject, but quite rightly turns up a couple of times here. Goulding guides the reader skilfully through Savile’s struggles with the Euclidean theory, an interesting insight into the thought processes of an undeniably, brilliant polymath.

In the third paper, Yelda Nasifoglu stays with Euclid and geometry but takes the reader into a completely different aspect of reading, namely how did Early Modern mathematicians read, that is interpret and present geometrical drawings? Thereby, she demonstrates very clearly how this process changed over time, with the readings of the diagrams evolving and changing with successive generations.

We stick with the reading of a diagram, but leave Euclid, with the fourth paper from Renée Raphael, who goes through the various reactions of readers to a problematic diagram that Tycho Brahe used to argue that the comet of 1577 was supralunar. It is interesting and very informative, how Tycho’s opponents and supporters used different reading strategies to justify their standpoints on the question. It illuminates very clearly that one brings a preformed opinion to a given text when reading, there is no tabula rasa.

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We change direction completely with Mordechai Feingold, who takes us through the reading of mathematics in the English collegiate-humanist universities. This is a far from trivial topic, as the Early Modern humanist scholars were, at least superficially, not really interested in the mathematical sciences. Feingold elucidates the ambivalent attitude of the humanists to mathematical topics in detail. This paper was of particular interest to me, as I am currently trying to deepen and expand my knowledge of Renaissance science.

Richard Oosterhoff, in his paper, takes us into the mathematical world of the relatively obscure Oxford fellow and tutor Brian Twyne (1581–1644). Twyne’s manuscript mathematical notes, complied from various sources open a window on the actual level and style of mathematics’ teaching at the university in the Early Modern Period, which is somewhat removed from what one might have expected.

Librarian William Poole takes us back to Henry Savile. As well as giving his name and his money to the Savilian mathematical chairs, Savile also donated his library of books and manuscripts to be used by the Savilian professors in their work. Poole takes us on a highly informative tour of that library from its foundations by Savile and on through the usage, additions and occasional subtractions made by the Savilian professors down to the end of the 17th century.

Philip Beeley reintroduced me to a recently acquired 17th century mathematical friend, Edward Bernard and his doomed attempt to produce and publish an annotated, Greek/Latin, definitive editions of the Elements. I first became aware of Bernard in Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonder. Whereas Wardhaugh, in his account, concentrated on the extraordinary one off, trilingual, annotated, Euclid (Greek, Latin, Arabic) that Bernard put together to aid his research and which is currently housed in the Bodleian, Beeley examines Bernard’s increasing desperate attempts to find sponsors to promote the subscription scheme that is intended to finance his planned volume. This is discussed within the context of the problems involved in the late 17th and early 18th century in getting publishers to finance serious academic publications at all. The paper closes with an account of the history behind the editing and publishing of David Gregory’s Euclid, which also failed to find financial backers and was in the end paid for by the university.

Following highbrow publications, Wardhaugh’s own contribution to this volume goes down market to the world of Georgian mathematical textbooks and their readers annotations. Wardhaugh devotes a large part of his paper to the methodology he uses to sort and categorise the annotations in the 366 copies of the books that he examined. He acknowledges that any conclusions that he draws from his investigations are tentative, but his paper definitely indicates a direction for more research of this type.

Boris Jardine takes us back to the 16th century and the Pantometria co-authored by father and son Leonard and Thomas Digges. This was a popular book of practical mathematics in its time and well into the 17th century. Jardine examines how such a practical mathematics text was read and then utilised by its readers.

Kevin Tracey closes out the volume with a final contribution on lowbrow mathematical literature and its readers with an examination of John Seller’s A Pocket Book, a compendium of a wide range of elementary mathematical topics written for the layman. Following a brief description of Seller’s career as an instrument maker, cartographer and mathematical book author, Tracey examines marginalia in copies of the book and shows that it was also actually used by university undergraduates.

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The book is nicely presented and in the relevant papers illustrated with the now ubiquitous grey in grey prints. Each paper has its own collection of detailed, informative, largely bibliographical endnotes. The books referenced in those endnotes are collected in an extensive bibliography at the end of the book and there is also a comprehensive index.

As a whole, this volume meets the highest standards for an academic publication, whilst remaining very accessible for the general reader. This book should definitely be read by all those interested in the history of mathematics in the Early Modern Period and in fact by anybody interested in the history of mathematics. It is also a book for those interested in the history of the book and in the comparatively new discipline, the history of reading. I would go further and recommend it for general historians of the Early Modern Period, as well as interested non experts.

[1] Reading Mathematics in Early Modern Europe: Studies in the Production, Collection, and Use of Mathematical Books, eds. Philip Beeley, Yelda Nasifoglu and Benjamin Wardhaugh, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture, Routledge, New York and London, 2021

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