Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mathematician, astrologer, conjurer! 

It is almost impossible to imagine a modern university without a large mathematics department and a whole host of professors for an ever-increasing array of mathematical subdisciplines. Mathematics and its offshoots lie at the centre of modern society. Because popular history of science has a strong emphasis on the prominent mathematicians, starting with Euclid and Archimedes, it is common for people to think that mathematics has always enjoyed a central position in the intellectual life of Europe, but they are very much mistaken if they do so. As I have repeated on several occasions, mathematics had a very low status at the medieval European university and led a starved existences in the shadows. Some people like to point out that the basic undergraduate degree at the medieval university formally consisted of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, with the latter consisting of the four mathematical disciplines–arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. If fact, what was largely taught was the trivium–grammar, logic, rhetoric–and large doses of, mostly Aristotelian, philosophy. A scant lip service was paid to the quadrivium at most universities, with only a very low-level introductory courses being offered in them. There were no professors for any of the mathematical disciplines.

Things only began to change during the Renaissance, when the first universities, in Northern Italy, began to establish chairs for mathematics, which were actually chairs for astrology, because of the demand for astrology for medical students. The concept of general chairs for mathematics for all educational institutions began with Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), when he set up the school and university system for Lutheran Protestantism, to replace the previously existing Catholic education system, in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.

Melanchthon in 1526: engraving by Albrecht Dürer Translation of Latin caption: «Dürer was able to draw Philip’s face, but the learned hand could not paint his spirit».
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Melanchthon did so because he was a passionate advocate of astrology and to do astrology you need astronomy and to do astronomy you need arithmetic, geometry, and trigonometry, so he installed the full package in all Lutheran schools and universities. He also ensured that the universities provided enough young academic mathematicians to fill the created positions.  

Catholic educational institutions had to wait till the end of the sixteenth century before Christopher Clavius (1538–1612) succeeded in getting mathematics integrated into the Jesuit educational programme and installed a maths curriculum into Catholic schools, colleges, and universities throughout Europe over several decades. He also set up a teacher training programme and wrote the necessary textbooks, incorporating the latest mathematical developments.

Christoph Clavius. Engraving Francesco Villamena, 1606 Source: Wikimedia Commons

England lagged behind in the introduction of mathematics formally into its education system. Even as late as the early eighteenth century, John Arbuthnot (1667–1735) could write that there was not a single grammar school in England that taught mathematics.

John Arbuthnot, by Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is not strictly true because The Royal Mathematical School was set up in Christ’s Hospital, a charitable institution for poor children, in 1673, to teach selected boys’ mathematics, so that they could become navigators. At the tertiary level the situation changed somewhat earlier. 

Gresham College was founded in London under the will of Sir Thomas Gresham (c. 1519–1579) in 1595 to host public lectures.

Gresham College 1740 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor Rijksmuseum

Amongst other topics, professors were appointed to hold lectures in both geometry and astronomy. As with the Royal Mathematical School a century later these lectures were largely conceived to help train mariners. The instructions for the geometry and astronomy professors were as follows:

The geometrician is to read as followeth, every Trinity term arithmetique, in Michaelmas and Hilary terms theoretical geometry, in Easter term practical geometry. The astronomy reader is to read in his solemn lectures, first the principles of the sphere, and the theory of the planets, and the use of the astrolabe and the staff, and other common instruments for the capacity of mariners.

The first university professorships for mathematics were set up at Oxford University in 1619 financed by a bequest from Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622), the Savilian chairs for astronomy and geometry.

Henry Savile Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the years it was not unusual for a Gresham professor to be appointed Savilian professor, as for example Henry Biggs (1561–1630), who was both the first Gresham professor and the first Savilian professor of geometry.

Henry Briggs

Henry Savile was motivated in taking this step by the wretched state of mathematical studies in England. Potential mathematicians at Cambridge University had to wait until a bequest from Henry Lucas (c. 1610–1663), in 1663, established the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, whose first incumbent was Isaac Barrow (1630–1677), succeeded famously by Isaac Newton (1642–1726 os).  This was followed in 1704 with a bequest by Thomas Plume to “erect an Observatory and to maintain a studious and learned Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, and to buy him and his successors utensils and instruments quadrants telescopes etc.” The Plumian Chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, whose first incumbent was Roger Cotes (1682–1716).

unknown artist; Thomas Plume, DD (1630-1704); Maldon Town Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/thomas-plume-dd-16301704-3186

Before the, compared to continental Europe, late founding of these university chairs for the mathematical sciences, English scholars wishing to acquire instruction in advanced mathematics either travelled to the continent as Henry Savile had done in his youth or find a private mathematics tutor either inside or outside the universities. In the seventeenth century William Oughtred (1574–1660), the inventor of the slide rule, fulfilled this function, outside of the universities, for some notable future English mathematicians. 

William Oughtred by Wenceslas Hollar 1646

One man, who fulfilled this function as a fellow of Oxford University was Thomas Allen (1542–1632), who we met recently as Kenhelm Digby’s mathematics tutor.

Thomas Allen by James Bretherton, etching, late 18th century Source: wikimedia Commons

Although largely forgotten today Allen featured prominently in the short biographies of the Alumni Oxonienses of Anthony Wood (1632–1695) and the Brief Lives of John Aubrey (1626–1697), both of them like Allen antiquaries. Aubrey’s description reads as follows: 

Mr. Allen was a very cheerful, facecious man and everybody loved his company; and every House on their Gaudy Days, were wont to invite him. The Great Dudley, Early of Leicester, made use of him for casting of Nativities, for he was the best Astrologer of his time. Queen Elizabeth sent for him to have his advice about the new star that appeared in the Swan or Cassiopeia … to which he gave his judgement very learnedly. In those dark times, Astrologer, Mathematician and Conjuror were accounted the same thing; and the vulgar did verily believe him to be a conjurer. He had many a great many mathematical instruments and glasses in his chamber, which did also confirm the ignorant in their opinion; and his servitor (to impose on Freshmen and simple people) would tell them that sometimes he should meet the spirits coming up his stairs like bees … He was generally acquainted; and every long vacation he rode into the country to visit his old acquaintances and patrons, to whom his great learning, mixed with much sweetness of humour, made him very welcome … He was a handsome, sanguine man and of excellent habit of body.

The “new star that appeared in the Swan or Cassiopeia” is the supernova of 1572, which was carefully observed by astronomers and interpreted by astrologers, often one and the same person, throughout Europe.

Star map of the constellation Cassiopeia showing the position of the supernova of 1572 (the topmost star, labelled I); from Tycho Brahe’s De nova stella. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conjuror in the Early Modern Period meant an enchanter or magician rather than the modern meaning of sleight of hand artist and was closely associated with black magic. Allen was not the only mathematician/astrologer to be suspected of being a conjuror, the same accusation was aimed at the mathematician astronomer, and astrologer, John Dee (1527–c. 1609). At one public burning of books on black magic at Oxford university in the seventeenth century, some mathematics books were reputedly also thrown into the flames. Aubrey also relates the story that when Allen visited the courtier Sir John Scudamore (1542–1623), a servant threw his ticking watch into the moat thinking it was the devil. The anonymous author of Leicester’s Commonwealth (1584), a book attacking Elizabet I’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532–1588) accused Allen of employing the art of “figuring” to further the earl of Leicester’s unlawful designs, and of endeavouring by the “black art” to bring about a match between his patron and the Queen. The same text accuses both Allen and Dee of being atheists. 

Anthony Wood described Allen as:

… clarrissimus vir [and] very highly respected by other famous men of his time … Bodley, Savile, Camden, Cotton, Spelman, Selden, etc. … a great collector of scattered manuscripts …  an excellent man, the father of all learning and virtuous industry, an unfeigned lover and furtherer of all good arts and sciences.

The religious controversialist Thomas Herne (d. 17722) called Allen:

… a very great mathematician and antiquary [and] a universal scholar. 

In his History of the Worthies of Britain (1662), the historian Thomas Fuller (1608–1661) wrote of Allen:

…he succeeded to the skill and scandal of Friar Bacon [and] his admirable writings of mathematics are latent with some private possessors, which envy the public profit thereof.

The jurist John Selden (1584–1654), even in comparison with the historian William Camden (1551–1623), the diplomat and librarian Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) and the Bible translator and mathematician Henry Savile, called Allen:

…the brightest ornament of the famous university of Oxford.

So, who was this paragon of scholarship and learning, whose praises were sung so loudly by his notable contemporaries?

Thomas Allen was the son of a William Allen of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire. Almost nothing is known of his background, his family, or his schooling before he went up to Oxford. It is not known how, where, when, or from whom he acquired his knowledge of mathematics. He began acquiring mathematical manuscripts very early and there is some indication that he was largely an autodidact. He went up to Trinity College Oxford comparatively late, at the age of twenty in 1561. He graduated BA in 1563 and was appointed a fellow of Trinity 1565. He graduated MA in 1567. He might have acquired his mathematical education at Merton College. There is no indication the Allen was a Roman Catholic, but he joined an exodus of Catholic scholars from Trinity, resigning his fellowship, and moving to Gloucester Hall in 1570.

In 1598 he was appointed a member of a small steering committee to supervise and assist Thomas Bodley (1535–1613) in furnishing a new university library. Allen and Bodley had both entered Oxford at around the same time, graduating BA in the same year, and remained live long friends. Allen’s patrons all played a leading role in donating to the new library. About 230 of Allen’s manuscripts are housed in the Bodleian, 12 of them donated by Allen himself when the library was founded and the rest by Kenhelm Digby, who inherited them in Allen’s will. 

Through his patron, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Allen came into contact with John Dee and the two mathematician/astrologers became friends.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester artist disputed Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Polish noble and alchemist Olbracht Łaski (d. 1604), who took Dee with him back to Poland in 1583, also tried to persuade Allen to travel with him to the continent, but Allen declined the invitation. 

Olbracht Łaski Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this time of publish or perish for academics, where one’s status as a scholar is measured by the number of articles that you have managed to get published, it comes as a surprise to discover that Allen, who, as we have seen from the quotes, was regarded as one of the leading English mathematicians of the age, published almost nothing in his long lifetime. His reputation seems to be based entirely on his activities as a tutor and probably his skills as a raconteur. 

As a tutor, unlike a Christoph Clavius for example, there is not a long list of famous mathematicians, who learnt their trade at his feet. In fact, apart from Kenelm Digby (1603–1665) the only really well-known student of Allen’s was not a mathematician at all but the courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) for whom he probably wrote a sixty-two-page horoscope now housed in the Bodleian Library.

Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

He may have taught Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616) the promotor of voyages of explorations.

Hakluyt depicted in stained glass in the west window of the south transept of Bristol Cathedral – Charles Eamer Kempe, c. 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He did teach Robert Fludd (1574–1637) physician and occult philosopher

Source: Wikimedia Commons

as well as Sir Thomas Aylesbury (1576–1657), who became Surveyor of the Navy responsible for the design of the warships.

This painting by William Dobson probably represents Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st Baronet.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the end of his life, he taught and influenced the German scientific translator and communicator, Theodore Haak (1605–1690), who only studied in Oxford between 1628 and 1631.

Portrait of Theodore Haak by Sylvester Harding.Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a member of Gloucester Hall, he tutored the sons of many of the leading, English Catholic families. In this role, he tutored several of the sons of Henry Percy, 8th Earl of Northumberland the highest-ranking Catholic aristocrat in the realm. He probably recommended the Gloucester Hall scholar, Robert Widmerpoole, as tutor to the children of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. Percy went on to become Allen’s patron sometime in the 1580s.

HENRY PERCY, 9TH EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND (1564-1632) by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The ‘Wizard Earl’ was painted posthumously as a philosopher, hung in Square Room at Petworth. This is NT owned. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Allen became a visitor to Percy’s Syon House in Middlesex, where he became friends with the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621), who studied in Oxford from 1577 to 1580.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When he died Harriot left instructions in his will to return several manuscripts that he had borrowed from Allen. Percy was an avid fan of the sciences known for his enthusiasm as The Wizard Earl. He carried out scientific and alchemical experiments and assembled one of the largest libraries in England. Allen with his experience as a manuscript collector and founder of the Bodleian probably advised Percy on his library. Harriot was not the only mathematician in Percy’s circle, he also patronised Robert Hues (1553–1632), who graduated from Oxford in 1578, Walter Warner (1563–1643), who also graduated from Oxford in 1578, and Nathaniel Torporley (1564–1632), who graduated from Oxford in 1581. Torporley was amanuensis to François Viète (1540–1603) for a couple of years. Torpoley was executor of Harriot’s papers, some of which he published together with Warner. All three of them were probably recommended to Percy by Allen. 

When Allen died, he had little to leave to anybody having spent all his money on his manuscript collection, which he left to Kenelm Digby, who in turn donated them to the Bodleian Library. But as we have seen he was warmly regarded by all who remembered him and, in some way, he helped to keep the flame of mathematics alive in England, at a time when it was burning fairly low. 

6 Comments

Filed under History of Mathematics, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Illuminating the Middle Ages

It is probably true that no period in European history had been so misconceived, misconstrued, misrepresented, as the Middle Ages. Alone the fact that a period of history that is often considered to have lasted a thousand years from 500 to 1500 CE is perceived as somehow being a single, monolithic entity is at best a joke and at worst total nonsense; one that we owe to the Renaissance Humanists, who regarding themselves as the inheritors of the glory that was the Rome of Cicero and Quintilianus labelled the time span in between antique Rome and their own age, the middle period. A period of ignorance, illiteracy, and barbaric Latin in their opinion. Although we should know better, we continue to live with the Humanists coup de grace that effectively consigned a thousand years of history to the rubbish bin, not worthy of serious consideration. 

Although I assigned dates to it above, alone trying to fix a beginning and/or an end to this period is the subject of hot debates amongst historians. Maybe, the simple answer is that it didn’t really begin or end and there is much more continuity to European history than the labels Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance or Early Modern Period would at first glance imply. 

Unfortunately, whatever historians might think, do, or say, there is a very popular perception of the Middle Ages that gets regurgitated at regular intervals in novels, films, and television entertainment programmes. This is a dark, duster and barbaric period ruled over by the totalitarian, science rejecting, witch and heretic burning Church. A period of brutal wars carried out by tyrannical rulers. A period in which women are either damsels in distress, aged, wizened spinsters, whores, or witches. Peasants are filthy, downtrodden, superstitious, subhumans, who live in hovels and are subjected to the brutal whims of the tyrannical rulers and the Church. The term most often associated with this parody of the Middle Ages, and it really is pure parody, is the Dark Ages, which despite the best efforts of historians in recent decades to replace it with the Early Middle Ages is still widely used.

Two recent books on the Middle Ages have in their titles turned the tables rechristening the Middle Ages with synonyms for illumination. The first was Seb Falk’s excellent presentation of the real history of medieval science, The Light Ages, which I reviewed here. The second is Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry’s The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe[1], which I shall briefly review here.  

Whereas Falk concentrates on the history of medieval science Gabriele & Perry’s book deals with the general political and religious history of Europe from the early fifth century to the early fourteenth century. What Gabriele & Perry can’t deliver in the roughly two hundred and fifty pages of their volume is a detailed historical narrative of the entire European history of the nine hundred years that their book covers; they would probably require two and a half thousand pages for that. What they deliver is an episodic narrative of the period, which sketches very informatively the main developments, illustrating the ups and downs, twists and turns of European history that took place over this almost millennium. 

Whilst the narrative style of the two authors is light and breezy making their book a comparatively easy read and they also succeed in effectively demolishing a lot of myths about the medieval period, the book left me wanting more than they delivered. However, before I explain my reservations a couple of positive aspects of the book.

The first in in terms of the contents. Whereas, it is common in discussions of the Middle Ages to talk, as I did above, of the Church, meaning the Catholic Church, as if there was only one version of Christianity throughout the period, the authors show how different dominant political groups adhered to different interpretations of Christianity, during the Early Medieval Period and that a monolithic Catholic Church was a quite late development.

The second very positive aspect is the clear demonstration that there was more continuity between the decline of the Roman Empire and its political structures and the Early Modern Period than the ‘fall’ of popular perception.

For me the third big plus point is in the bibliography or rather the extensive further reading recommendations. The book is a trade book, not an academic one, aimed at a fairly wide audience and as such has not foot or end notes and no conventional bibliography. However, at the end there is a twenty-page Further Reading section, which chapter for chapter give annotated recommendation for deeper exploration of the topic dealt with in that chapter.

Now my personal reservations. Firstly, maybe it’s my problem, but a lot of the time I found that the authors were assuming too much previous knowledge for the level of text that they are trying to present in their book. For my taste it is neither an introductory text nor an advanced one, but an uneasy hybrid stuck somewhere in between. 

My second reservation is, in my opinion, more important. The book is very heavily tilted towards the two themes of religion and politics in the medieval period, which of course are very much intertwined for most of the period under discussion and this makes the book very narrow in its presentation of the period. There is next to nothing on agriculture, technology, trade, science, or finance, all areas which underwent important developments during the Middle Ages and helped to shape the future. Seb Falk has naturally covered the science and John Farrell the technology in his The Clock and the CamshaftAnd Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without, which I reviewed here. However, I feel that they should at least have been addressed in Garbriele & Perry’s volume.

As it stands The Bright Ages is good on the areas it covers and is definitely worth a read but in my opinion it could and should have been so much more.


[1] Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry, The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe, Harper, New York, 2021.

11 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Renaissance science – XXX

The life sciences and geoscience did not play any sort of significant role in medieval academia. This changed during the Renaissance, which saw the emergence over the sixteenth century of natural history, in its modern meaning, in particular botany. This a several subsequent episodes of this series will deal with the various aspects of that emergence[1].

As is the case with almost every development in the sciences during the Renaissance, if one wants to understand the emergence of natural history in this period, then one first needs to know what existed earlier. One first needs to understand what existed in antiquity and then examine how the knowledge from antiquity was received and regarded in the Middle Ages. 

There was no coherent, single area of knowledge in antiquity that can be labelled natural history but rather three distinct areas of information about plants and animals that would partially coalesce many centuries later, during the Renaissance. The first of these areas was philosophy and in the first instance the work of Aristotle (384–322). In his vast convolute of books Aristotle also turned his attention to animals, his principal work being his History of Animals (Latin: Historia Animalium).

Historia animalium et al., Constantinople, 12th century (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, pluteo 87.4) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is very much an application of his philosophy to a largely empirical study of animals based on observation. Aristotle says that his is investigating the what i.e., the factual facts about animals, before establishing the why i.e., the causes of these characteristics. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287), who took over as head of the Lyceum after Aristotle, applied Aristotle’s philosophy to the world of plants in his Enquiry into Plants (Latin: Historia Plantarum) and his On the Causes of Plants (Latin: De causis plantarum).

The frontispiece to an illustrated 1644 edition of Historia Plantarum by the ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second area of interest in antiquity was medicine and the use of plants in the treatment of ailments. Here the central text is the On Medical Materials (Latin: De materia medica) of the Greek physician, Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE). This five-volume work, composed between 50 and 70 CE, contains description of about 600 plants as some animal and mineral substances and approximately 1000 medicines made from them. The emphasis is very much on the medical, so the botanical descriptions of the plants are fairly simple but the descriptions of their medical uses comparatively extensive and detailed. The therapeutical work of the Greek physician Galen (129–c. 216) also contains lists and descriptions of simples i.e., that medicinal plants or a vegetable drug with only one ingredient. 

Our last source from antiquity is vast, sprawling encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of the Roman aristocrat Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24–79 CE), known in English as Pliny the Elder, the book that would go on to give the discipline its name. This monumental work, 37 books in 10 volumes, was intended to cover, according to Pliny, “the natural world or life” and covers topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, art, and precious stones, so not natural history as we now know it. Nothing in it is original from Pliny himself but is drawn together from a myriad of diverse sources. It claims to contain 20,000 facts drawn from 2,000 books. Unlike, Aristotle’s work it is not based on empirical observation. On plants, Pliny lists far more plants than Dioscorides, but they are by no means all medicinal, one of Pliny’s main sources was the works of Theophrastus.

Die Naturalis historia in der Handschrift Florenz, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r (15. Jahrhundert) Source: Wikimedia Commons

We now turn to the reception of these authors from antiquity in the Middle Ages. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280) included Historia Animalium in his edition of the works of Aristotle and would go on to write works on zoology and botany in his own writings. However, these played no significant role in the curricula of the medieval universities. The works of Theophrastus remained unknown in Europe during the Middle Ages, although his name was known through other sources such as Pliny

Albertus Magnus, engraved portrait, Jean-Jacques Boissard, Icones, 1597-99 (Linda Hall Library)

Galen was one of the major medical influences on the medieval European universities next to Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine, but mostly in translation from Arabic into Latin and not from the original Greek. As I pointed in an earlier episode the discovery and translation of Greek manuscripts of Galen’s work by Renaissance humanists led to a neo-Galenic revival as opposition to the work of Vesalius. 

A group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides; Galen is depicted top center. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The De materia medica of Dioscorides did not need to be rediscovered either in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance because it never went away. In the medieval period manuscripts of the De materia medicacirculated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. It was present even in the Early Medieval Period. Probably the most famous manuscript is the so-called Vienna Dioscorides, an elaborately illustrated, Geek manuscript produced in Constantinople for the imperial princess Anica Juliana (462–527), daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Anicius Olybrius (died 472). The manuscript was created in 512. The illustrations are thought to have been copied from the of Krateuas, a first century BCE Greek herbalist, none of whose work has survived.

Vienna Dioscorides Folio 83r Rubus fruticosus (bramble) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Vienna Dioscorides Folio 167v, Cannabis sativa (hemp) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The illustrations in the Vienna are stunning but exemplify a major problem, not just with De materia medica but with almost all other medieval herbal manuscripts. The, probably, mostly monks who copied them over the centuries did not make their plant drawing by looking at real plants but merely copied the drawing from the manuscript they were copying. This meant that the illustrations degenerated over time and were oft barely recognisable by the Renaissance. 

The medicine taught at the European, medieval universities was notoriously theoretical and almost wholly book based. This meant that the texts on medicinal plants by Galen and Dioscorides found little use on the universities. Instead, they were consulted by the apothecaries and the monks, who cared for the sick in the hospices of their monasteries, the earliest European hospitals. 

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia was, of course, ubiquitous throughout the High Middle Ages, which given the number of errors, myths, and falsehood it contained, was perhaps not such a good thing. Pliny is the main source for all the monsters and strange human races, such as the headless Blemmyes or the one-legged Sciapods, found on medieval Mappa mundi.

A Blemmyae from Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Source: Wikimedia Commons
A monopod. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the Renaissance shift towards the creation of the modern natural history began, as we will see, with a philological analysis of the Naturalis Historia.

Right up to the late fifteenth century the three fields of natural history information, the philosophical, the medicinal, and the encyclopaedic remained separate areas dealt with for completely different reasons. Beginning in the late fifteenth century and continuing throughout the sixteenth, as we will see, they began to fuse together and to evolve in phases into the modern discipline of natural history. Over the next few episode we will follow that evolution.


[1] In writing this and several of the following episodes, I shall be moving out of my safe zone as a historian of science. I don’t usually include sources in my essays, as I regard them more as newspaper columns for the general reader than academic papers. However, in this case I want to point my readers to Brian W. Ogilvie’s The Science of DescribingNatural History in Renaissance Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2006, ppb. 2008), which together with other sources formed the backbone of my writings on this topic. It is a truly excellent book and I recommend it whole heartedly to my readers. Brian Ogilvie is naturally not to blame for any rubbish that I might spout in this and the following blog posts. 

3 Comments

Filed under History of medicine, Natural history, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Christmas Trilogy 2021 Part 2: He was the author of rambling volumes on every subject under the sun?

The acolytes of Ada Lovelace are big fans of Sydney Padua’s comic book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Penguin, 2015). One can not deny Padua’s talent as a graphic artist, but her largely warped (she claims mostly true) account of their relationship is based on heavy quote mining and even distortion of quotes to make Lovelace look good and Babbage less than good. Just to give one example, there are many, many more, of her distortion of known facts she writes: 

I believe Lovelace used music as an example not only because she was steeped in music theory, but because she enjoyed yanking Babbage’s chain, and he famously hated music (my emphasis)

There is no evidence whatsoever that Babbage hated music, in fact rather the opposite. What Padua is playing on is Babbage’s infamous war with the street musicians of London and was about noise pollution and not about music per se. In fact, anybody, who has listened to a half-cut busker launching into their out of tune rendition of Wonderwall for the third time in an hour, would have a lot of sympathy with Babbage’s attitude.

I’m not going to analyse all the errors and deliberate distortions in Padua’s work, but I will examine in some detail one of her bizarre statements:

It’s not clear why Babbage himself never published anything other than vague summaries about his own machine. He published volumes of ramblings on every subject under the sun (my emphasis) except that of his life’s work (my emphasis)

Calling the Analytical Engine “his life’s work” shows an ignorance of the man and his activities. This is a product of a sort of presentism that has reduced Charles Babbage in the popular imagination to “the inventor of the first computer” and blended out the rest of his rich and complicated life. A life full of scientific, mathematical, and socio-political activities. The Analytical Engine was a major project in Babbage’s life, but it was far from being his life’s work.

The Illustrated London News (4 November 1871) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage actually only published a total of eight books over a period of forty years, none of which is in anyway rambling. If we look at the list a little more closely, then it actually reduces to three.

  1. (1825) Account of the repetition of M. Arago’s experiments on the magnetism manifested by various substances during the act of rotation, London, William Nicol
  2. Babbage, Charles (1826). A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives. London: J. Mawman.
  3. Babbage, Charles (1830). Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes. London: B. Fellowes.
  4. Babbage, Charles (1832).On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures London: Charles Knight.
  5. Babbage, Charles (1837).The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment. London: John Murray.
  6. Babbage, Charles (1841).Table of the Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108000. London: William Clowes and Sons.
  7. Babbage, Charles (1851).The Exposition of 1851. London: John Murray
  8. Babbage, Charles (1864).Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, London, Longman

No: 1 on our list is a thirty-page scientific paper co-authored with John Herschel and like No: 6, a book of log tables, need not bother us here. No: 2 is a sort of consumers guide to life insurance and is not really relevant here. Statistical tables of life expectancy and insurance schemes based on them had become a thing for mathematicians since the early eighteenth century, Edmund Halley had dabbled, for example. The leading English mathematician John Joseph Sylvester (1814–1897) worked for a number of years as an insurance mathematician. No:5 The Ninth Bridgewater Thesis gives Babbage’s views on Natural Theology, which he developed in a separate paper on his rational explanation for miracles based on programming of his Difference Engine, which I have dealt with here. No. 8 is of course his autobiography, a very interesting read. All of Babbage’s literary output has a strong campaigning element.

This leaves just three volumes that we have to consider in terms of the Padua quote, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, and The Exposition of 1851

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes is as it’s title would suggest a socio-political polemic largely directed as the Royal Society. Babbage thought correctly that there had been a decline in mathematics and physics in the UK over the eighteenth century, which was continued into the nineteenth. He began his attacks on the scientific establishment during his time as a student at Cambridge, when together with John Herschel and George Peacock he founded the Analytical Society, which campaigned to replace the teaching of Newton’s dated mathematics and physics with the much more advanced material from the continent. His Reflections on the Decline of Science upped the ante, as the now established Lucasian Professor for mathematics he launched a full broadside against the scientific established and in particular the Royal Society. 

Babbage was not alone in his wish for reform and he and his supporters were labelled the Declinarians. The Declarians failed in their attempt to introduce reform into the Royal Society, but the result of their campaign was the creation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was founded in 1831 by William Harcourt, David Brewster, William Whewell, James Johnston, and Babbage. Babbage’s book was regarded as the spearhead of the campaign. The BAAS was a new public mouthpiece for the scientific establishment that was more open, outward going, and liberal than the moribund Royal Society.

Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures from 1832, might be considered Babbage’s most important publication. Following the death of his first wife in 1827, Babbage went on a several-year tour of the continent visiting all the factories and institutions, which used and/or dependent on automation of some sort, studying and investigating. On his return from the continent, he did the same in the UK, once again examining all of the industrial applications of automation that he could find. This research took up more than ten years and Babbage became, probably, the greatest living authority on the entire subject of automation. This knowledge led him in two different directions. On the one hand it lay behind his decision the abandon his Difference Engine, a special-purpose computer, and instead invest his energy in his planned Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computer. On the other hand, it led to him writing his On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures

When it appeared On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was a unique publication, nothing quite like it had ever been published before. The book deals with the economic, social, political, and practical aspects of automation, and has been called on influential early work on operational research. It grew out of an earlier essay in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana An essay on the general principles which regulate the application of machinery to manufactures and the mechanical arts (1827). The book was a major success with a fourth edition appearing in 1836. From the second edition onwards, it included an extra section on political economy, a subject not included in the first edition.

The book also contains a description of what is now known a Babbage’s Principle, which emphasises the commercial advantage of more careful division of labour. An idea already anticipated in the work of the Italian economist Melchiorre Gioja (1767–1829). The Babbage’s Principle means dividing up work processes amongst several workers according to the varying skills. Such a division of labour was behind the origin of his Difference Engine. In the eighteenth century the French government had broken-down the calculation of mathematical tables to simple steps with each computer, those doing the calculations, often women, just doing one of two steps before passing the calculation onto the next computer. The Difference Engine was designed to automate this process.

Babbage never the most diplomatic of intellectuals thoroughly annoyed the publishing industry by including a detailed analysis of book production in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures including revealing the publishing trade’s profitability.

Babbage’s book had a major influence on the development of economics in the nineteenth century and was quoted in the work of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Ruskin. The book was translated into both French and German. It has been argued that the book influenced the layout of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it to this we turn for Babbage’s last book, his The Exposition of 1851

View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book is Babbage’s analysis of the Great Exhibition of 1851, brought into life by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and for which the original Crystal Palace was created. The Great Exhibition also led to the establishment of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum to provide permanent homes for many of the exhibits. This was the first world fair and Babbage was personally involved. One of the working modules of his Difference Engine was on display and in the windows of his house, which lay on the route to the exhibition, he demonstrated his optical signally device for ships, inviting visitors to the Crystal Palace to post the signalled number in his letterbox. To a large extent The Exposition of 1851 is a coda to both Reflections on the Decline of Science and On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which leads us an answer to the question of Babbage’s life’s work.

Padua thinks incorrectly that the Analytical Engine was his life’s work, a fallacy that is certainly shared by those, who only know Babbage as the inventor of the “first computer.” In reality, Babbage’s life’s work was the promotion and advancement of science and technology, his calculating engines representing only one aspect of a much wider vision. From his days as a student fighting for an improvement in the teaching of the mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, through his campaign to modernise the Royal Society, which led instead to the creation of the BAAS, he was also instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society. His research on automation leading to the highly influential On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures and his direct and indirect involvement in the Great Exhibition. All of these served one end the promotion and advancement of science and its applications.  

2 Comments

Filed under History of science, History of Technology, Uncategorized

Renaissance Science – XX

The term the Republic of Letters is one that one can often encounter in the history of Early Modern or Modern Europe, but what does it mean and to whom does it apply? Republic comes from the Latin res publica and means res “affair, matter, thing” publica “public, people.” However, here it is the “people” or “men”, as they mostly were, of letters. So, our Republic of Letters is the affairs of the men of letters or literati, as they are today more often known. Most often the Republic of Letters is used, as for example on Wikipedia, to refer to the long-distance intellectual community in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas. However, the earliest known appearance of the term in Latin, respublica literaria, appeared in a letter from the Italian politician, diplomat, and humanist Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454)

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio Venezia – Francesco Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

written to his fellow country man the scholar and humanist Poggio Bracciollini (1380–1459)

Riproduzione novecentesca del ritratto di Poggio Bracciolini, inciso da Antonio Luciani nel 1715. Source: Wikimedia Commons

in 1417, so the original Republic of Letters was the Renaissance literary humanist movement of Northern Italy. Here, we also have a second interpretation of the Letters part of the term, meaning literally the letters that the members of the community wrote to each other to communicate their ideas, to announce their discoveries and to comment on the ideas and discoveries of others. In fact, that first use of the term came about when Poggio was off searching through monastery libraries and sent news of one of his discoveries back to Florence. Barbaro replied to his news thanking him for the gift offered to the literaria res publica for the greater progress of humanity and culture.

Initially this community of communication by letter was restricted to the comparatively small group of the literary humanists of Northern Italy, but with time came to embrace an ever-widening community from China to the Americas and including, as we will see, the whole world of science. Such a community didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, so what changed in the Renaissance that made this happen or indeed possible? 

One simple, partial answer was the change of available writing material, when paper replaced parchment and velum. Parchment and velum were much too expensive to be used for large scale letter writing and correspondence. As I sit at my desk writing this post I’m surrounded by an abundance of paper, piles of books printed on paper, delivery notes, invoices and bank statements printed on paper, notebooks and note slips made of paper, a printer/scanner/copier filled with paper waiting to be printed and other bits and bobs made of paper. Paper is ubiquitous in our lives, and we seldom think about its history. 

If we ignore the fact that wasps were making paper millions of years before humans emerged on the Earth, then paper has only existed for about 0.1% (approximately two thousand years) of the approximately two million years that the genus Homo has been around. It has only been present in Europe for about half of that time. Invented in China sometime before the second century BCE,

Woodcuts depicting the five seminal steps in ancient Chinese papermaking. From the 1637 Tiangong Kaiwu of the Ming dynasty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

paper making was transmitted into the Islamic Empire sometime in the eighth century CE. It first appeared in Europe in Spain in the eleventh century CE. This is of course during the High Middle Ages but the knowledge and use of paper remained restricted to Spain, Italy, and Southern France until well into the fourteenth century, when paper making began to slowly spread into Northern France, The Netherlands, and Germany. The first English paper mill wasn’t built until 1588. 

Ulman Stromer’s Paper-mill. First permanent paper-mill north of the Alps 1390 (From Schedel’s Buch der Chroniken of 1493.)

New production technics and new raw materials for paper production vastly increased output and reduced costs, so that by the fifteenth century paper was much more widely available and by many factors cheaper than parchment and a growing letter writing culture could and did develop. However, before that culture could truly develop, another aspect that we take for granted had to be developed, a delivery system. 

Once again, as I sit in front of my computer, I can communicate almost instantly with people all over the world by email or at least a dozen different social media channels. I can also grab my mobile telephone and either telephone with it or send an SMS. Or I can phone them with my landline telephone and if I want to send something tangible, I can resort to the post service or anyone of a dozen international delivery companies. We live in a thoroughly network society. Most of this simply didn’t exist forty years ago but even then, the landline telephones and the postal services connected people worldwide if at much higher costs. Of course, none of this existed in the Middle Ages.

In the High Middle Ages only the rulers and the Church had courier services to deliver their missives, others were dependent on the infrequent long distant traders and travellers. This began to change in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance as long distant trade began to become more and more frequent and the large North Italian and Southern German finance house became established. Traders and financiers built up communications networks throughout Europe, which also functioned as commercial post services. Big trading centres such as Nürnberg, Venice, and the North German Hansa cities had their own major, highly efficient courier services.

Late in the fourteenth century the Dutchy of Milan set up a postal service and in the second half of the fifteenth century Louis XI set up a post service in France. In 1490 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I gave the von Taxis family a licence to set up a postal service for the whole of the empire. This is claimed to be the start of the modern postal series.

Taxis postal routes 1563 Source: Wikimedia Commons

By fifteen hundred it was possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate with each other by letter and they did so in increasing numbers, setting up their own informal networks of those interested in a given academic discipline: Natural historians communicated with natural historians, mathematici with mathematici, humanist with humanists and not least artists with artists.

Augsburg Postoffice 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the of the so-called age of discovery the whole thing took on a new dimension with missionaries and scholars exchanging information with their colleagues at home in Europe from the Americas, Africa, India, China, and other Asian lands. Here it was the big international trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company and English East India Company, who served as the courier service.

A modern replica of the VOC Duyfken a small ship built in the Dutch Republic. She was a fast, lightly armed ship probably intended for shallow water, small valuable cargoes, bringing messages, sending provisions, or privateering. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is another important aspect to this rising exchange of letters between scholars and that is the open letter meant for sharing. This was an age when the academic journal still didn’t exist, so if a scholar wished to announce a new discovery, theory, speculation, or whatever he could only do so by word of mouth or by letter if what he wished to covey was not far enough developed or extensive enough for a book or even a booklet. A scholar would write his thoughts in a long letter to another scholar in his field. If the recipient thought that the contained news was interesting or important enough, he would copy it and send it on to another scholar in the field or even sometimes several others. 

Through this process ideas gradually spread through a chain of letters within an informal network, throughout Europe.  By the seventeenth century several significant figures became living post offices each at the centre of a network of correspondence in their respective field. I recently wrote about Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), the Minim friar, who served such a function and who left behind about six hundred such letters from seventy-nine different scientific correspondence in his cell when he died.

Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

His younger contemporary the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), sat at the centre of a world spanning network of some seven hundred and sixty correspondents, collecting information from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world and redirecting it to other, not just Jesuit, scholars throughout Europe.

Athanasius Kircher portrait by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of his European correspondents, for example, was Leibniz (1646–1716), who himself maintained a network of about four hundred correspondents. 

Leibniz portrait by Christoph Bernhard Francke Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two members of Mersenne network, who had extensive correspondence networks of their own were Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694), of whose correspondence, about five thousand letters written by correspondents from all over Europe and the Near East still exist although many of his letters are known to have been lost

Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), who certainly holds the record with ten thousand surviving letters covering a wide range of scientific, philosophical, and artistic topics.

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc portrait by Louis Finson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Later in the century the European mathematical community was served by the very active English mathematics groupie John Collins (1626–1683), collecting and distributing mathematics news. His activities would contribute to the calculus priority dispute and accusations of plagiarism between Newton and Leibniz, he, having supposedly shown Newton’s unpublished work to Leibniz. Another active in England at the same time as Collins was the German, Henry Oldenburg (c. 1618–1677), who maintained a vast network of correspondents throughout Europe.

Henry Oldenburg portrait by Jan van Cleve (III)

Oldenburg became Secretary of the newly founded Royal Society and used his letters to found the society’s journal, one of the first scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions, the early issues consisting of collections of the letters he had received. Oldenburg’s large number of foreign correspondents attracted the attention of the authorities, and he was for a time arrested and held prisoner in the Tower of London on suspicion of being a spy.

The simple letter, written on comparatively cheap paper and delivered by increasingly reliable private and state postal services, made it possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate and cooperate with each other, starting in the Early Modern period, in a way and on a level that had not been possible for their medieval predecessors. In future episodes of this series, we will look at how these correspondence networks helped to further the development of various fields of study during the Renaissance. 

1 Comment

Filed under History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

It’s Galileo time again!

An article in the Sunday Express, not a newspaper I would normally read in fact I would only ever use it as toilet paper in an emergency, starts thus:

Former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption has condemned attacks on scientists who challenge “official wisdom” on Covid, comparing their critics to the “persecutors of Galileo”.

A classic case of the Galileo fallacy or Galileo gambit. For anybody not aware of the Galileo fallacy:

Lucy Johnston, Health and social Affairs Editor of the Sunday Express tweeted this article with the following lede:

Lord Sumption: “Scientists behaving like the persecutors of Galileo….forgetting all scientific conclusions are provisional, including their own.

Lucy Johnston’s lede is in fact disingenuous, as she combines two half sentences that are in no way connected in the article, but we will examine it as if they were. Galileo’s persecutors were very well aware that scientific conclusions are provisional as stated very clearly by Roberto Bellarmino in his Foscarini Letter, I quote:

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. 

During the seventeenth century many Catholic astronomers and natural philosophers were involved in providing the necessary evidence to support a heliocentric world view. Many of them were Jesuits or Jesuit educated. They would not have done so if they did not believe that scientific conclusions are provisional. 

This is why I tweeted:

Sorry to introduce some real history into this thread but that is not what Galileo’s prosecutors did.

To which Helen O’Toole an Irish Early Years Educator (her description) replied with the following link:

One should note that the website, which is the website of the History television channel describes itself as “History #1 Factual Entertainment Brand” [my emphasis] History the television channel is notorious for it’s pseudo-documentaries of bullshit woo and the inaccuracies of its historical documentaries.

Here we can read the following: 

1633 April 12 Galileo is accused of heresy

This is in fact false. Galileo was not accused of heresy but of having breached the Church injunction, issued to him personally in 1616, not to hold or teach the heliocentric theory. Before somebody charges in saying, “they had no right to issue such an injunction”, I will point out, for the umpteenth time, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the Catholic Church was an absolutist political and legal authority and had every right under the prevailing system to do so. 

It is also important to note, again for the umpteenth time, that when Galileo got himself into trouble with the Catholic authorities, the scientific situation was such that the available empirical evidence supported a geocentric or helio-geocentric system and not a heliocentric one, as there was absolutely no evidence that the Earth moved. Also, and this is very important, Galileo or anybody else, for that matter, was free to discuss a heliocentric system hypothetically but not to claim that it was factually true.

On April 12, 1633, chief inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculani da Firenzuola, appointed by Pope Urban VIII, begins the inquisition of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Galileo was ordered to turn himself in to the Holy Office to begin trial for holding the belief that the Earth revolves around the sun, which was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. Standard practice demanded that the accused be imprisoned and secluded during the trial.

Galileo was ordered to turn himself in for holding and teaching the heliocentric hypothesis as proven fact. The heliocentric theory was never formally declared heretical by the Catholic Church. The eleven Qualifiers, appointed by the Church to examine the heliocentric theory, came to the conclusion that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…” However, only the Pope can formally declare something heretical and in the case of the heliocentric theory no pope ever took this step.

This is followed by a wonderful case of false information by implication. “Standard practice demanded that the accused be imprisoned and secluded during the trial.” In Galileo’s case, due to his advanced age and his social status, on the one hand he was the most famous natural philosopher and astronomer in Europe and on the other he was a Medici courtier, Galileo was given his own three-room apartment, with servants, in the palace of the Inquisition. This is a somewhat different picture to the usual one, implied here, of Galileo being thrown into prison, or even a dungeon. Galileo even wrote a letter to his daughter saying how well he was being treated.

This was the second time that Galileo was in the hot seat for refusing to accept Church orthodoxy that the Earth was the immovable center of the universe: In 1616, he had been forbidden from holding or defending his beliefs. In the 1633 interrogation, Galileo denied that he “held” belief in the Copernican view but continued to write about the issue and evidence as a means of “discussion” rather than belief. The Church had decided the idea that the sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed, despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

I do wish people wouldn’t in this context use the word belief. Galileo held it for a fact that the cosmos, as it was then known, was heliocentric and was convinced that he could prove it. The Church had not decided that “the idea that the sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed”. The Church said that scripture stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth and the best available empirical evidence at the beginning of the seventeenth century supported that hypothesis. The Church was quite happy to change that view if new evidence to support the heliocentric hypothesis should be found, which it did in the eighteenth century, when that evidence, stellar aberration, was in fact found. 

However, all the above I have gone through in various posts in the past, what drove me to write this new post was the last statement, “despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.” [my emphasis], I mean WHAT THE FUCK! It’s truly time for a bit of the HIST_SCI HULK

Can somebody please enlighten me, as to who these scientists were, who had known for centuries that the Earth was not the centre of the universe? 

Remember this was posted on “History #1 Factual Entertainment Brand” [my emphasis], so let us re-examine the actual historical facts. Copernicus published his De revolutionibus, containing his heliocentric hypothesis, in 1543, that’s ninety years before Galileo’s trial, not centuries. Copernicus had deferred the publication for a couple of decades because he couldn’t provide any empirical evidence to support his hypothesis. When he finally published his hypothesis was mathematically plausible but still lacked any empirical evidence. Over the next ninety years despite efforts by numerous astronomers at prove or refute Copernicus’ hypothesis nobody had found any empirical evidence to show that the Earth moved. The best evidence for a heliocentric system was Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion in particular his third law, which interestingly Galileo simply ignored. The other available evidence was the various observations, made by various astronomers, confirming the solar orbits of comets, which Galileo didn’t just ignore but actively rejected. Just for the record, in 1633, the available empirical evidence supported either a geocentric system or more likely a Tychonic helio-geocentric system with the Earth still firmly at the centre.

I find it simply depressing that an organisation with the worldwide reach of the History Channel (which actually just calls itself History these days) is propagating such inaccurate crap as factual history, which is being consumed and believed by such people as Helen O’Toole an Irish Early Years Educator, who drew my attention to this travesty. 

4 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

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 that the origins of science are to be found in ancient Greece, as he completely ignores the scientific activities in other earlier culture, 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.  

Addendum 29:01:2022

I don’t know why I missed it the first time round, but Nicolaus Copernicus was not a “Polish friar.” We’ll ignore the Polish for today, as I’ve already explained this too many times in the past. A friar is a member of one of the mendicant orders founded in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and Copernicus was not a member of any mendicant order. Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of the Cathedral of Frombork, which is something else altogether. This may seem, to people who don’t know their way around clerical titles, like hair splitting, but it is on the level of calling the plumber, who comes to fix your burst water main, a carpenter. It is a prime example of Gal’s extremely slapdash approach to historical facts.

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. 

28 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Uncategorized

Renaissance Science – I

To paraphrase what is possibly the most infamous opening sentence in a history of science book[1], there was no such thing as Renaissance science, and this is the is the start of a blog post series about it. Put another way there are all sorts of problems with the term or concept Renaissance Science, several of which should entail abandoning the use of the term and in a later post I will attempt to sketch the problems that exist with the term Renaissance itself and whether there is such a thing as Renaissance science? Nevertheless, I intend to write a blog post series about Renaissance science starting today.

We could and should of course start with the question, which Renaissance? When they hear the term Renaissance, most non-historians tend to think of what is often referred to as the Humanist Renaissance, but historians now use the term for a whole series of period in European history or even for historical periods in other cultures outside of Europe.

Renaissance means rebirth and is generally used to refer to the rediscovery or re-emergence of the predominantly Greek, intellectual culture of antiquity following a period when it didn’t entirely disappear in Europe but was definitely on the backburner for several centuries following the decline and collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The first point to note is that this predominantly Greek, intellectual culture didn’t disappear in the Eastern Roman Empire centred round its capitol Constantinople. An empire that later became known as the Byzantine Empire. The standard myth is that the Humanist Renaissance began with the fall of Byzantium to the Muslims in 1453 but it is just that, a myth.

2880px-The_School_of_Athens_by_Raffaello_Sanzio_da_Urbino

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1509–1511) symbolises the recovery of Greek knowledge in the Renaissance Source: Wikimedia Commons

As soon as one mentions the Muslims, one is confronted with a much earlier rebirth of predominantly Greek, intellectual culture, when the, then comparatively young, Islamic Empire began to revive and adopt it in the eight century CE through a massive translation movement of original Greek works covering almost every subject. Writing in Arabic, Arab, Persian, Jewish and other scholars, actively translated the complete spectrum of Greek science into Arabic, analysed it, commented on it, and expanded and developed it, over a period of at least eight centuries.  It is also important to note that the Islamic scholars also collected and translated works from China and India, passing much of the last on to Europe together with the Greek works later during the European renaissances.

Baghdad_150_to_300_AH

The city of Baghdad 150–300 AH (767 and 912 CE) centre of the Islamic recovery and revival of Greek scientific culture Source: Wikimedia Commons

Note the plural at the end of the sentence. Many historians recognise three renaissances during the European Middle Ages. The first of these is the Carolingian Renaissance, which dates to the eighth and ninth century CE and the reigns of Karl der Große (742–814) (known as Charlemagne in English) and Louis the Pious (778–840).

Karl_der_Grosse_-_Pippin_von_Italien

Charlemagne (left) and Pepin the Hunchback (10th-century copy of 9th-century original) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This largely consisted of the setting up of an education system for the clergy throughout Europe and increasing the spread of Latin as the language of learning. Basically, not scientific it had, however, an element of the mathematical sciences, some mathematics, computus (calendrical calculations to determine the date of Easter), astrology and simple astronomy due to the presence of Alcuin of York (c. 735–804) as the leading scholar at Karl’s court in Aachen.

Raban-Maur_Alcuin_Otgar

Rabanus Maurus Magnentius (left) another important teacher in the Carolignian Renaissance with Alcuin (middle) presenting his work to Otgar Archbishop of Mainz a supporter of Louis the Pious Source: Wikimedia Commons

Through Alcuin the mathematical work of the Venerable Bede (c. 673–735), (who wrote extensively on mathematical topics and who was also the teacher of Alcuin’s teacher, Ecgbert, Archbishop of York) flowed onto the European continent and became widely disseminated.

E-codices_bke-0047_001v_medium

The Venerable Bede writing the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, from a codex at Engelberg Abbey in Switzerland. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Karl’s Court had trade and diplomatic relations with the Islamic Empire and there was almost certainly some mathematical influence there in the astrology and astronomy practiced in the Carolingian Empire. It should also be noted that Alcuin and associates didn’t start from scratch as some knowledge of the scholars from late antiquity, such as Boethius (477–524), Macrobius (fl. c. 400), Martianus Capella (fl. c. 410–420) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) had survived. For example, Bede quotes from Isidore’s encyclopaedia the Etymologiae.

The second medieval renaissance was the Ottonian Renaissance in the eleventh century CE during the reigns of Otto I (912–973), Otto II (955–983), and Otto III (980–1002). The start of the Ottonian Renaissance is usually dated to Otto I’s second marriage to Adelheid of Burgundy (931–999), the widowed Queen of Italy in 951, uniting the thrones of Germany (East Francia) and Italy, which led to Otto being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 962.

Meissner-dom-stifter

Statues of Otto I, right, and Adelaide in Meissen Cathedral. Otto and Adelaide were married after his annexation of Italy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This renaissance was largely confined to the Imperial court and monasteries and cathedral schools. The major influences came from closer contacts with Byzantium with an emphasis on art and architecture.

There was, however, a strong mathematical influence brought about through Otto’s patronage of Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 946–1003). A patronage that would eventually lead to Gerbert becoming Pope Sylvester II.

Meister_der_Reichenauer_Schule_002_(cropped)

Sylvester, in blue, as depicted in the Evangelistary of Otto III Source: Wikimedia Commons

A monk in the Monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac, Gerbert was taken by Count Borrell II of Barcelona to Spain, where he came into direct contact with Islamic culture and studied and learnt some astronomy and mathematics from the available Arabic sources. In 969, Borrell II took Gerbert with him to Rome, where he met both Otto I and Pope John XIII, the latter persuaded Otto to employ Gerbert as tutor for his son the future Otto II. Later Gerbert would exercise the same function for Otto II’s son the future Otto III. The close connection with the Imperial family promoted Gerbert’s ecclesiastical career and led to him eventually being appointed pope but more importantly in our context it promoted his career as an educator.

Gerbert taught the whole of the seven liberal arts, as handed down by Boethius but placed special emphasis on teaching the quadrivium–arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy–bringing in the knowledge that he had acquired from Arabic sources during his years in Spain. He was responsible for reintroducing the armillary sphere and the abacus into Europe and was one of the first to use Hindu-Arabic numerals, although his usage of them had little effect. He is also reported to have used sighting tubes to aid naked-eye astronomical observations.

Gerbert was not a practicing scientist but rather a teacher who wrote a series of textbook on the then mathematical sciences: Libellus de numerorum divisione, De geometria, Regula de abaco computi, Liber abaci, and Libellus de rationali et ratione uti.

Pope_Sylvester_II_(Gerbert_d'Aurillac)_-_De_geometria

12th century copy of De geometria Source: Wikimedia Commons

His own influence through his manuscripts and his letters was fairly substantial and this was extended by various of his colleagues and students. Abbo of Fleury (c. 945–1004), a colleague, wrote extensively on computus and astronomy, Fulbert of Chartres (c. 960–1028), a direct student, also introduced the use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals. Hermann of Reichenau (1013–1054 continued the tradition writing on the astrolabe, mathematics and astronomy.

Gerbert and his low level, partial reintroduction into Europe of the mathematical science from out of the Islamic cultural sphere can be viewed as a precursor to the third medieval renaissance the so-called Scientific Renaissance with began a century later at the beginning of the twelfth century. This was the mass translation of scientific works, across a wide spectrum, from Arabic into Latin by European scholars, who had become aware of their own relative ignorance compared to their Islamic neighbours and travelled to the border areas between Europe and the Islamic cultural sphere of influence in Southern Italy and Spain. Some of them even travelling in Islamic lands. This Scientific Renaissance took place over a couple of centuries and was concurrent with the founding of the European universities and played a major role in the later Humanist Renaissance to which it was viewed by the humanists as a counterpart. We shall look at it in some detail in the next post.

[1] For any readers, who might not already know, the original quote is, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it”, which is the opening sentence of Stevin Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1996

5 Comments

Filed under History of science, Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Wot no new blog post, but it’s Wednesday

Where’s the new blog post?

There isn’t one.

But it’s Wednesday.

I know.

There’s always, well almost always, a new blog post on Wednesdays

Yes, but not today

Why not?

Because Friday is Christmas Day

Oh, do you have a break over Christmas?

No, exactly the opposite. Over Christmas I always post the Renaissance Mathematicus Christmas Trilogy celebrating the birthdays of Isaac Newton, 25th, Charles Babbage, 26th, and Johannes Kepler, 27th. To learn a little more and for links to all the Christmas Trilogies going back to 2009 follow this link here.

See you on Friday!

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Different Royal Society

What do the Penny Post, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Albert & Victoria Museum, GCSEs, the iMac and the art works on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square all have in common? Their origins are all in someway connected to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The Royal Society for what, I hear you ask, or at least that was my reaction when I first read the name.

Few people have heard of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Even fewer know what it does. Many assume, as its name is usually abbreviated to the Royal Society of Arts, that it is all about art. It has certainly done a lot to promote art, but it has also done much more than that. In fact, the Society is by its very nature difficult to define. There is no other organisation quite like it, and nor has there ever been. It is in a category of its own.

The quoted paragraph is the opening paragraph to the introduction to Anton Howes’ Arts and MindsHow the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation[1], which is the fourth official history of the Society and the first written by an independent, professional historian. The first three were written by society secretaries. Howes’ book will answer any and all question that you might have about the Royal Society of Arts. In little more than three hundred pages he takes his readers on a whirl wind tour of three centuries of British political, social, cultural and economic history and the at times complex and influential role that the Society played in it. To describe Howes’ work as a tour de force barely does this superb piece of interdisciplinary history justice. 

One would be forgiven for assuming that the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) had nothing to do with the Royal Society that more usually features on this blog, but you would be mistaken. The RSA owes its existence very directly to its Royal cousin and not just in the sense of a society for the arts modelled on the one for science. The Royal Society of London was modelled on the natural philosophical concepts of Francis Bacon. A very central element of Bacon’s utopian vision of natural philosophy was that advances in the discipline would and should serve the improvement of human society, i.e. science in the service of humanity. This ideal got lost, pushed aside, forgotten fairly rapidly as the Royal Society evolved and in the eighteenth century various people discussed revitalising this Baconian utopian aim and after much discussion the result was the founding of the RSA, whose aims were to support efforts to improve human society. As a side note the Royal Society became royal on the day it was founded, whereas the RSA only acquired its royalty in the nineteenth century and didn’t actually call itself Royal until the early twentieth century.

The Society was founded as a subscription and premium society. Membership was open to all and members paid a yearly subscription. This money and other donations were then used to pay premiums to help people to develop ideas that were seen as improvements. From the beginning the whole concept of improvement and what could or should be improved was left very vague, so over the three centuries of its existence the Society has launched a bewildering assortment of projects over a very wide range of disciplines. A standard procedure was to select an area where improvement was thought necessary and then to write out a call for suggestions. The suggestions were then examined and those thought to be the best were awarded a premium. The areas chosen for improvement varied wildly and were mostly determined by powerful individuals or pressure groups, who managed to persuade the membership to follow their suggestions. Often those pressure groups, brought together by common aims within the RSA, moved on to found their own separate societies; one of the earliest was the Royal Society of Chemistry. Over the three centuries many other societies were born within the RSA.

Howes guides he readers skilfully through the meandering course that the Society took over the decades and centuries. Presenting the dominant figures, who succeeded in controlling the course of the Society for a period of time and the various schemes both successful and unsuccessful that they launched. One area that played a central role throughout the history of the RSA was art, but predominantly in the form of art applied to industrial design. However, the Society also encouraged the development of art as art putting on popular exhibitions of the art submitted for premiums. 

We follow the society through its highs and lows, through its periods of stagnation and its periods of rejuvenation. As the well-known cliché goes, times change and the society had to change with them. Howes in an excellent guide to those changes taking his readers into the depth of the societies’ problems and their solutions. Here one of his strengths is his analysis of the various attempts by the society to define a new role for itself since World War II and up to the present.

Having grown up in the second half of the twentieth century, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of two important socio-cultural developments from my youth, where I was not aware of the strong involvement of the RSA. The first was the beginning of the movement to conserve and preserve historical building and protect them from the rapacious post-war property developers. The Society was active in arranging the purchase of such buildings to place them out of harm’s way, even at one point buying an entire village. The second was the birth and establishment of environmentalism and the environmental protection movement in the UK, which was led by Peter Scott, of the Wildfowl Trust, and Prince Philip, who was President of the Society. It was for me a timely reminder that Phil the Greek, who these days has a well-earned bad reputation amongst left wing social warriors, actually spent many decades fighting for the preservation of wildlife and the environment. I was aware of this activity at the time but had largely forgotten it. I was, however, not aware that he had used his position as President of the RSA, and the Society itself, to launch his environmental campaigns. 

To go into great detail in this review would produce something longer than the book itself, so I’ll just add some notes to the list in my opening question. The Penny Post was a scheme launched by the society to make affordable and reliable written communication available to the general public. The Great Exhibition of 1851, the first ever world fair, was set in motion by the Society in imitation of and to overtrump the industrial fairs already fairly common in various cities on the continent. Howes takes us through the genesis of the original idea, the initial failure to make this idea a reality and then the creation of the Great Exhibition itself. This probably counts as the Societies greatest success. Two things I didn’t know is one that the Societies’ committee played a significant role in setting up and promoting later world fairs other countries in the nineteenth century and was responsible for the British contributions to those fairs. Secondly the desire to preserve much of the content of the Great Exhibition led to the setting up of the museums in South Kensington, including the V&A. 

To help working people acquire qualifications in a wide range of subjects and disciplines that they could then use to improve their positions, the Society set up public examinations, in the nineteenth century. As they became popular and widespread Oxford and Cambridge universities took over responsibility for those in academic disciplines and these are the distant ancestors of todays GCSEs. Jonathan Ive was Apple’s chief designer and the man behind the iMac, as a polytechnic student he won the RSA Student Design Award, which afforded him a small stipend and a travel expense account to use on a trip to the United States, which took him to Palo Alto and his first contact with the people, who would design for Apple. I was surprised to discover that the, at time controversial, scheme to present art works on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square also originated at the RSA.

This is just a small selection of the projects and schemes launched by the RSA and I found it fascinating whilst reading to discover more and more things that are attributable to the RSA’s efforts. Howes’ book is a historical and intellectual adventure story with many surprising discoveries waiting to be made by the reader. Despite being densely packed with details the book is highly readable and I found it a pleasure to read. It has extensive endnotes, which are both references to the very extensive bibliography, as well containing extra details to passages in the text. The whole is rounded out by a good index. As one would expect of a book about the greatest active supporter of design in UK history the book is stylishly presented. A pleasant and easy to read type face, a good selection of grey in grey illustrations and a good collection of colour plates. 

If you like good, stimulating and highly informative history books or just good books in general, then do yourself a favour and acquire Aton Howes’ excellent tome. No matter how much you think you might know about the last three centuries of British political, social, cultural and economic history, I guarantee that you will discover lots that you didn’t know. 


[1] Anton Howes, Arts and MindsHow the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2020.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized