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)
written to his fellow country man the scholar and humanist Poggio Bracciollini (1380–1459)
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of his European correspondents, for example, was Leibniz (1646–1716), who himself maintained a network of about four hundred correspondents.
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
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.
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.
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.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I conduct history of astronomy tours of the city of Nürnberg. This tour always starts at the main railway station at 10:30 am. This is so that having wound our way through the city, we arrive at the marketplace at the latest at 11:30, in time to drink a cup of coffee before 12:00. At twelve a crowd will have gathered on the marketplace gazing up at the impressive looking clock of the Frauenkirche, anticipating the Männlienlaufen, in English “the little men walking.
Beneath the impressive blue and gold clock dial sits an even more impressive Holy Roman Emperor on his throne holding the symbols of his office the orb and sceptre in his hands. He is flanked by two trumpeters holding floor length trumpets. Above the trumpeter on the right is a drummer and above the one to the left a flute player. Next to the drummer above the Emperor is a town-crier with a bell and next to the flautist a man holding up a sundial (he lost his sundial down the years). Above the clock dial is a blue and gold ball which shows the phases of the moon, still accurate today. Above the moon ball is an open bell tower flanked by two bellringers wielding hammers.
As noon arrives the mechanical clock begins its display. As the clock chimes the hour the two trumpeters raise their trumpets to play a fanfare. Then the drummer and the flute player both play. The town crier next to the drummer and the man holding up his sundial on the other side do their thing. At the end of this initial display, the two bell ringers above the clock being ringing their bells with their hammers. As these bells chime, A door to the right of the seated Emperor opens and seven, ornately clothed worthies troop out, circling the Emperor turning to view him as they pass; he in turn blesses them with his sceptre. They disappear through a door on the left only to appear once again on through the door on the right. The worthies circle the Emperor three times and then the display is over for another day.
When the display is over, I then explain the origins of the clock and its significance to my, mostly suitably impressed, guests. In 1356, the then Holy Roman Emperor, Karl IV, issued the so-called Golden Bull whilst holding court in the Imperial City of Nürnberg. This document became the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire and amongst many other laws it contains the rules for the election of the emperor and names the seven Kurfürsten (English Electors), who are appointed to carry out this task, the Archbishops of Mainz, Köln, and Trier, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg.
In 1506, the city council of Nürnberg ordered the construction of the clock to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the issuing of the Golden Bull and it continues to do so until today. The seven figures circling the emperor and paying him obeisance are the seven Kurfürsten and their ornate clothing is their robes of office.
All of this means that this spectacular clock and its display symbolises quite a lot. It symbolises the central position of power of the Holy Roman Emperor and because it celebrates the Golden Bull it also represents the laws by which he exercises that power. It symbolises the orderly process by which, at least theoretically, the seven Kurfürsten choose and appoint the emperor, to rule over the patch work of nations and states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire. I say theoretically because the process was very often anything but orderly, sometimes even descending into war. Built in the façade of one on Nürnberg’s most prominent churches it symbolises the bond between Church and state; the Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally crowned by the pope. The issuing of the Golden Bull and this monument to it symbolises Nürnberg’s significance as an imperial city within the empire. Lastly, the clock itself and the man holding the sundial symbolise Nürnberg’s status as Europe’s premium manufacturer of scientific instruments.
Analysed thus, this clock appears to carry a very heavy symbolic burden. One could perhaps argue that this is a unique timepiece, which indeed it is, and that the symbolism that it carries is thus also unique. Whilst this is true for some aspects, the Golden Bull for example, it is actually so that there is nothing really unique in the Nürnberger Frauenkirche clock’s political, social, religious, and commercial symbolism. Timepieces have almost always fulfilled these varied symbolic roles and historian of time David Rooney has written an excellent book detailing the symbolic functions of clocks down the ages from antiquity to the present, his About Time: A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks.
The first thing to say about Rooney’s book is that the title contains a fib. There are not just twelve clocks in his book but lots more, in fact altogether not twelve but dozens of timepieces. So, why does he say twelve? This has to do with the structure of the book. The book has twelve chapters each one of which deals with a social, cultural, commercial, or political aspect of human existence that is effected or influenced or controlled or dictated or dominated by the measuring of the passage of time, described by a single word title. The theme of each chapter is introduced by one specific clock, whereby the word clock is used fairly elastically, and the word timepiece might be more appropriate. Having introduced his exemplary timepiece and explained how it produces the social effect described by the chapter’s title word, he then goes on to described other similar timepieces that fulfil the same function.
To take one example. The second chapter of Rooney’s book is simply entitled Faith. It starts with a detailed description of al-Jazarī’s truly magnificent, water driven Castle clock from 1206.
And believe you me, it was truly mind blowing in its complexity and took twenty-five years to construct. Although, built to impress the king Nāsir al-Dīn, his patron, its main was function was to demonstrate al-Dīn’s devotion to the worship of Allah. Having set up the concept of a clock as a symbol of religious devotion Rooney takes us on a tour of other Islamic devotional clocks, then moving on to timepieces used to mark the passage of time in Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist religious practice. Arriving on our journey in Europe and the story of the great medieval mechanical clocks found in churches and cathedrals celebrating God the creator of the universe.
My Nürnberg clock is a direct descendent of these awe-inspiring creations. We then trace the development of the modern mechanical clock out of these medieval marvels and the concept of time controlling the lives of upstanding people. The chapter closes with the author’s visit to the Museum of Science and Technology Museum in Islam in Saudi Arabia, which included a visit to the imposing Makkah Royal Clock Tower.
The last is a strong feature of the book. Rooney, a master storyteller, doesn’t just talk about clocks, but also relates his own personal pilgrimages to view, admire, study, and learn about remarkable timepieces throughout the world. This is not just a book about time and timekeeping but also about the author’s lifelong journey to an understanding of time and the role that it has played in human existence. An understanding that he communicates to his readers in a flowing, easily accessible, and highly readable style. Rooney’s book relates how he became a time lord and invites his readers to undertake a journey through time and space in his time machine narrative.
So where does time lord Rooney take us in his time machine narrative? We set off in chapter one, Order, in ancient Rome in 263 BC and the introduction of the sundial into Roman culture and the dictate of order that measured time brought to that culture. Then, we follow that same dictate through other ancient cultures. Chapter two, Faith, as we have already seen shows the concept of time as imbodied in religions. Chapter three, Virtue, explains, amongst other things, how the hourglass became a symbol for virtue in the Middle Ages.
In chapter four, Markets, we spring into the seventeenth century and the birth of the stock exchanges closely followed by the stock exchange clock, to regulate the periods when share dealing was permitted. This leads us on the standardised time and those who created and sold it to those who needed it. Astronomical Knowledge is the theme of chapter five, and the observatories that were built to obtain that knowledge. Astronomical knowledge is, of course, the fundament of time measurement. Chapter six takes into the world of Empires and the elaborate time signals–time balls, midday cannons etc.–that the rulars of empire installed all over the globe, in the nineteenth century to give accurate time to their marine fleets, so that they could navigate on the high seas.
We enter the world of Manufacture in chapter seven and in particular the world of clock manufacture in the modern period. Here Rooney traces how and why the market dominance changed from European country to European country over time. Chapter eight tackles Morality starting with the introduction of an electric time system in Brno at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an introduction to the beginnings of rigorous time standardisation throughout the world. Chapter nine, Resistance, deals with the pushbacks against the dictates of time that have flared up from time to time throughout history. He starts with the fascinating, suffragette attempted bombings of those centres of time, the Royal Observatories in Edinburgh and Greenwich.
Chapter ten, Identity, tells the story of TIM, the British talking clock, and the fascinating story of how TIM’s voice was selected in a nationwide casting competition, and you thought casting shows were a recent invention. What identity should the voice of time have? This chapter evoked strong memories of having often dialled TIM and hearing those crisp English tones, at the third stroke…
This expands to the general, perhaps central, question, what are clocks or rather what are clocks to us, the people who live with and by them? Chapter eleven, War, brings a very central theme of human existence or perhaps those attempts to end that existence and a very modern application of time the invention of GPS. You use GPS to help you navigate the traffic jams on the way home from you well-earned summer holidays, but you shouldn’t forget that GPS was developed to help the military land its guided missiles on target. GPS is in essence nothing more and nothing less that a network of very accurate clocks. Here, Rooney wakes the spectre of a doomsday disaster. Over the decades an incredible amount of earth-bound infrastructure has become totally depended on GPS and related systems; Rooney dares to pose the question, what would occur if the systems all failed?
Chapter twelve, Peace, takes the reader into the future and into the realm of clocks designed and built to still function millennia from now, as time capsules, a message to our descendants, should we actually still have any.
Rooney’s book is a masterpiece in telling us how our lives, our very existence, became subservient to the dictates of time and its measuring devices, the clock in all its myriad forms. As already stated, Rooney is a master storyteller, and his narrative is a deceptively simple read. It’s interpretation and the digestion of its message are perhaps not so simple. There are endnotes that are simple short references to the selected bibliographies presented for each individual chapter. The apparatus is rounded out with a comprehensive index. The book is illustrated with the now ubiquitous greyscale prints, several of which leave much to be desired in terms of quality, my only complaint in an otherwise excellent volume.
This is not a book for specialist historians of science and technology, who however can read this book and gain much in doing so, but a book for everyone, who in interested in the relationship between the human species and time and how it got to where it is, and that should actually be everyone.
 David Rooney, About Time: A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks, Viking an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2021
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.
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.
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, with which Gal is definitely competing, has approximately 370 pages and only goes up to 1450 and has been criticised for its omissions. The Cambridge History of Science requires three volumes with an approximate total of 2250 pages to cover the same period as Gal and its essays can best be regarded as introductions to further reading.
CUP are marketing Gal’s book as a textbook for schools and university students, which means, in my opinion, a higher commitment to historical factual accuracy, so where I might be prepared to cut some slack on possible omissions, I’m not prepared to forgive factual errors. If you are teaching beginners, which this book aims to do, then you have an obligation to get your facts right. The intended textbook nature is reflected in the academic apparatus. There is no central bibliography of sources, instead at the end of each section there is a brief list of primary and secondary sources for that section. This is preceded by a list of essay type questions on the section; questions that are more of a philosophical than historical nature. The book has neither foot nor endnotes but gives occasional sources for quotes within the main text in backets.
Gal’s book opens with a thirty-page section titled, Cathedrals, which left me wondering what to expect, when I began reading. Actually, I think it is possibly the best chapter in the whole book. What he does is to use the story of the origins and construction of the European medieval cathedrals to illustrate an important distinction, in epistemology, between knowing-how and knowing-that. It is also the first indication that in the world of the traditional history and philosophy of science Gal is more of a philosopher than a historian, an impression that is confirmed as the book progresses. At times throughout the book, I found myself missing something, actual science.
Chapter two takes the reader into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and give comparatively short and concise rundowns on the main schools of thought, which I have to admit I found rather opaque at times. However, it is clear that Gal thinks the Greeks invented science and that Aristotle is very much the main man. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, which follows a very conventional script that is, once again in my opinion, limited and dated.
The following section is the Birth of Astronomy, which Gal attributes entirely to the Greeks, no Egyptians, no Babylonians. He starts with Thomas Kuhn’s two sphere model that is the sphere of the Earth sitting at the centre of the sphere of the heavens and here we get a major factual error. He writes:
For the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia and the Aegean region, that model was of two spheres: the image of our Earth, a sphere, nestled inside the bigger sphere of the heavens.
Unfortunately, for Gal, the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia were flat earthers. Later in the section, Gal informs us that Babylonian astronomy was not science. I know an awful lot of historians of astronomy, who would be rather upset by this claim. Rather bizarrely in a section on ancient astronomy, the use of simple observation instruments is illustrated with woodcuts from a book from 1669 showing a cross-staff, first described in the 14th century by Levi den Gerson, and a backstaff, which was invented by John Davis in 1594. In the caption the backstaff is also falsely labelled a sextant. He could have included illustration of the armillary sphere and the dioptra, instruments that Hipparchus and Ptolemy actually used, instead.
Apart from these errors the section is a fairly standard rundown of Greek astronomical models and theories. As, apparently, the Greeks were the only people in antiquity who did science and the only science worth mentioning here is astronomy, we move on to the Middle Ages.
We get presented with a very scant description of the decline of science in late antiquity and then move on to the The Encyclopedic Tradition. Starting with the Romans, Cicero gets a positive nod and Pliny a much more substantial one. Under the medieval encyclopedist, we get Martianus Capella, who gets a couple of pages, whereas Isidore and Bede only manage a couple of lines each. We then get a more substantial take on the medieval Christian Church, although Seb Falk would be disappointed to note the lack of science here, the verge-and-foliot escapement and computus both get a very brief nod. Up next is the medieval university, which gets a comparatively long section, which however contains, in this context, a very strange attack on the university in the twenty first century. Gal also opinions:
They [medieval students] would study in two ways we still use and one which we have regrettably lost.
The three ways he describes are the lectura, the repititio, and the desputatio, so I must assume that Gal wishes to reintroduce the desputatio into the modern university! Following this are two whole pages on The Great Translation Project. This is somewhat naturally followed by Muslim Science. The section on the medieval university is slightly longer than that devoted here to the whole of Muslim science, with a strong emphasis on astronomy. In essence Gal has not written a book on the origins of modern science but one on the origins of modern astronomy with a couple of side notes nodding to other branches of the sciences. He devotes only a short paragraph to al-Haytham’s optics and the medieval scholars, who adopted it. Put another way, the same old same old.
The next section of the book bears the title The Seeds of Revolution and begins with a six-page philosophical, theological discourse featuring Ibn Rushd, Moshe ben Maimon and Thomas Aquinas. We now move on to the Renaissance. In this section the only nominal science that appears is Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective as an example of “the meeting of scholar and artisan.” A term in the title of the next subsection and throughout the section itself left me perplexed, The Movable Press and Its Cultural Impact. Can anybody help me? The history of printing is one of my areas of study and I have never ever come across the movable type printing press simply referred to as “the movable press.” I even spent half an hour searching the Internet and could not find the term anywhere. Does it exist or did Gal create it? The section itself is fairly standard. This is followed by a long section on Global Knowledge covering navigation and discovery, global commerce, practical mathematics driven by commerce, trade companies, and the Jesuits.
We then get a section, which is obviously a favourite area of Gal, given to space that he grants it, magic. Now I’m very much in favour of including what I would prefer to give the general title occult theories and practices rather than magic in a text on the history of science, so Gal wins a couple of plus points for this section. He starts with a philosophical presentation of the usual suspects, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Kabbala et al. He then moves on to what he terms scientific magic, by which he means alchemy and astrology, which he admits are not really the same as magic, excusing himself by claiming that both are based on a form of magical thinking. He then attempts to explain each of them in less than three pages, producing a rather inadequate explanation in each case. In neither case does he address the impact that both alchemy and astrology actually had historically on the development of the sciences. Moving on we have Magic and the New Science. Here we get presented with cameos of the Bacons, both Roger and Francis, Pico della Mirandola, and Giambattista della Porta.
When dealing with Roger Bacon we get another example of Gal’s historical errors, he writes:
This enabled him to formulate great novelties, especially in optics. Theoretically, he turned Muslim optics into a theory of vision; practically, he is credited with the invention of the spectacles.
Here we have a classic double whammy. He didn’t turn Muslim optics into a theory of vision but rather took over and propagated the theory of vision of Ibn al-Haytham. I have no idea, who credits Roger Bacon with the invention of the spectacles, in all my extensive readings on the history of optics I have never come across such a claim, maybe just maybe, because it isn’t true.
Roughly two thirds of the way through we are now approaching modern science with a section titled, The Moving Earth. I’ll start right off by saying that it is somewhat symbolic of what I see as Gal’s dated approach that the book that he recommends for Copernicus’ ‘revolution’ is Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, a book that was factually false when it was first publish and hasn’t improved in the sixty years since. But I’m ahead of myself.
The section starts with a very brief sketch of Luther and the reformation, which function as a lead into a section titled, Counter-Reformation and the Calendar Reform. Here he briefly mentions the Jesuits, whom he dealt with earlier under Global Knowledge. He writes:
The Jesuits, as we’ve pointed out, turned from the strict logicism of traditional Church education to disciplines aimed at moving and persuading: rhetoric, theater, and dance. Even mathematics was taught (at least to missionaries-to-be) for its persuasive power.
Ignoring this rather strange presentation of the Jesuit strictly logical Thomist education programme, I will just address the last sentence. Clavius set up the most modern mathematical educational curriculum in Europe and probably the world, which was taught in all Jesuit schools and colleges throughout the world, describing it as “even mathematics was taught” really is historically highly inaccurate. Gal now delivers up something that I can only describe as historical bullshit, he writes: (I apologies for the scans but I couldn’t be arsed to type all of it.)
I could write a whole blog post trying to sort out this rubbish. The bit about pomp and circumstance is complete rubbish, as is, in this context, the section about knowing the exact time that had passed, since the birth of Christ. The only concern here is trying to determine the correct date on which to celebrate the movable feasts associated with Easter. The error in the length of the Julian year, which was eleven minutes not a quarter of an hour, also has nothing to do with the procession of the equinoxes but simply a false value for the length of the solar year. The Julian calendar was also originally Egyptian not Hellenistic. The Church decided vey early on to determine the date of Easter astronomically not by observation in order not to be seen following the Jewish practice. The calendar reform was not part of/inspired by the Reformation/Counter-Reformation but it had been on the Church’s books for centuries. There had been several reforms launched that were never completed, usually because the Pope, who had ordered it, had died and his successor had other things on his agenda when he mounted the Papal Throne. Famously, Regiomontanus died when called to Rome by the Pope to take on the calendar reform. The calendar reform that was authorized by the Council of Trent, had been set in motion several decades before the Council. Ptolemy’s Almagest had reached Europe twice in translations, both from the Greek and from Arabic, in the twelfth century and not first in the fifteenth century. What was published in the fifteenth century and had a major impact, Copernicus learnt his astronomy from it, was Peuerbach’s and Regiomontanus’ Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae
Just to close although it has nothing to do with the calendar reform, the name Commentariolus for Copernicus’ short manuscript from about 1514 on a heliocentric system, was coined much later by Tyco Brahe.
We now move on to Copernicus. His section on Copernicus and his astronomy is fairly good but we now meet another problem. For his Early Modern scientists, he includes brief biographical detail, which; as very much a biographical historian, I approve of, but they are unfortunately strewn with errors. He writes for example that Copernicus was “born in Northern Poland then under Prussian rule.” Copernicus was born in Toruń, at the time an autonomous, self-governing city under the protection of the Polish Crown. After briefly sketching Copernicus’ university studies he writes:
“Yet Copernicus had no interest in vita activa: throughout his life he made his living as a canon in Frombork (then Frauenburg), a medieval privilegium (a personally conferred status) with few obligations…”
The cathedral canons in Frombork were the government and civil service of the prince-bishopric of Warmia and Copernicus had very much a vita activa as physician to the bishop, as consultant on fiscal affairs, as diplomat, as governor of Allenstein, organizing its defences during a siege by the Teutonic Order, and much more. Copernicus’ life was anything but the quiet contemplative life of the scholar. Later he writes concerning Copernicus’ activities as astronomer, “his activities were supported by the patronage of his uncle, in whose Warmia house he set up his observatory.” Whilst Copernicus on completion of his studies initially lived in the bishop’s palace in Heilsberg from 1503 till 1510 as his uncle’s physician and secretary, following the death of his uncle he moved to Frombork, and it is here that he set up his putative observatory. Gal also writes, “It took him thirty years to turn his Commentariolus into a complete book – On the Revolutions – whose final proofs he reviewed on his death bed, never to see it actually in print.” The legend says the finished published book was laid in his hands on his death bed. He would hardly have been reviewing final proofs, as he was in a coma following a stroke.
This might all seem like nit picking on my part but if an author is going to include biographical details into, what is after all intended as a textbook, then they have an obligation to get the facts right, especially as they are well documented and readily accessible.
Rheticus gets a brief nod and then we get the standard slagging off of Osiander for his adlectorum. 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.
 Ofer Gal, The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution, CUP, Cambridge 2021.
 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2nd edition 2007.
To paraphrase what is possibly the most infamous opening sentence in a history of science book, 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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
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 Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, 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.
 Anton Howes, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2020.
We haven’t had a good Galileo rant here at the Renaissance Mathematicus for some time, but when you just begin to think that maybe people have stopped misusing the Tuscan natural philosopher for their own ends, up pops a new example and we’re off again.
My attention was drawn to today wonderful example by the following exchange on Twitter:
Seb Falk (@Seb_Falk): I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about Galileo, but persecuted by the Church for being insufficiently woke? That’s a new one on me.
Is there a Galileo-related law equivalent to Godwin’s Law? If not, Falk’s Law states that as a culture war continues, the probability that someone will invoke a mythologised account of the trial of Galileo in a specious defence of academic freedom approaches 1.
Dave Hitchcock (@Hitchcokian): Amazing. it shall definitely be known henceforth as Falk’s Law.
Seb Falk: I’m honoured – though I was just thinking that @rmathematicus has been calling this stuff out for so long we should call it Christie’s Law. Bloody history of science, always naming things after the wrong person
James Sumner (@JamesBSumner): Well, now, that’s perfectly consonant with Stigler’s law of eponymy
For those not aware of Stigler’s Law, it states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Stigler’s law itself was in fact discovered by Robert K Merton and not Stephen Stigler.
So what was the piece about Galileo that provoked the creation of Falk’s Law?
Every scientist knows the Galileo story. When one of the greatest minds of the 17th (or any other) century concluded that, contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching, the Earth was not the still centre of the universe but just one satellite of the sun he was for the high jump.
Subjected to six years at the hands of the Inquisition, character assassination and house arrest, he finally gave in and admitted his “wrongthink” but is reputed to have muttered under his breath “E pur si muove” – “Still, it moves”. The man whom Einstein called the father of modern science was said to be hurt most by the way his fellow philosophers abandoned him for fear of suffering the same fate.
I find it fascinating just how much a supposedly intelligent, educated, well informed writer can get wrong in just two very short paragraphs. We start with the opening sentence; experience has clearly shown that very few scientists know the actual Galileo story; most of them know one or other very mangled version of what might be termed the Galileo myth, which all have something in common, a factual, historical truth content on a par with an episode of Game of Thrones.
We then get the statutory hyperbollocks as soon as Galileo becomes the subject of discourse, “one of the greatest minds of the 17th (or any other) century.” This leads me to the thought, what if Galileo had not been hyped up to this larger than life, once in a century genius, would people be just as outraged if he had been mistreated by the Inquisition. Is it a worse crime if those in power mistreat a brilliant scientist, than if they mistreat Giuseppe, the guy who empties the trash cans? Not just here but in lots of things that I have read, I get the impression that is exactly what a very large number of people think. Are some lives really worth more than others? Their argument seems to be something along the lines of but Galileo changed the world, Giuseppe the trash can guy didn’t. What if the fact that Giuseppe was rotting in an Inquisition dungeon, instead of cleaning the streets led to an outbreak of cholera that wiped out half the population of the city? But I digress.
What follows is a significant misrepresentation of the facts that is dished every time somebody present their mythical version of the Galileo story and one that I have dealt with many times. It wasn’t just the Catholic Church’s teaching that we live in a geocentric cosmos but was the considered, majority opinion of informed astronomers based on the then available empirical evidence. Galileo was involved in a complex scientific debate on the astronomical and cosmological status of the solar system and was not this brilliant scientist taking on the ignorant, non-scientific, religious prejudices of the Catholic Church. There are a couple of grammatical and lexigraphical anomalies in Phillips’ sentence that should have been picked up by a good sub-editor. If he is going to write Earth with a capital ‘E’ then he should also write sun with a capital ‘S’ and the earth is not a satellite of the sun it is a planet. Satellites orbit planets, planets orbit suns.
Subjected to six years at the hands of the Inquisition? Really? Galileo’s interrogation, trial and the passing of judgement by the Roman Inquisition lasted not quite four months, so I have literally no idea what Phillips is talking about here. I also have absolutely no idea what he means when he writes, “character assassination”, through out the whole affair he was treated with care and consideration and the respect due to him both because of his age and his reputation. Does one really need to repeat that Galileo was not tried for supporting the heliocentric hypothesis but for breaking an injunction from 1616 not to hold or teach the heliocentric theory as fact rather than, as a hypothesis? There was literally no question of “wrongthink”, Galileo was fully entitled to think what he liked about heliocentricity and even to express those thoughts verbally but he was not permitted to claim that heliocentricity was a proven fact. Just for the record, for the umpteenth time, it wasn’t. I find it almost funny that Phillips includes house arrest amongst the mistreatments before Galileo adjured. Having adjured he was, in fact, sentenced to imprisonment, which was immediately commuted to house arrest by the Pope, so after the fact not before.
Of course, having dished up a totally fictional account of Galileo’s dispute with the Church, Phillips doesn’t not spare us the “E pur si muove” – “Still, it moves” myth, in for a penny in for a pound. If we going to present fairy tales in place of historical accuracy then why not go the whole hog? We, natural, get that leading expert on the history of science, Albert Einstein, quoted on Galileo’s status in that history. Why ask a historian when you can ask Uncle Albert, the font of all wisdom? Another reminder, the expression ‘father of’ is a meaningless piece of crap.
Phillips’ last claim leaves me, once more, totally bewildered. “[Galileo] was said to be hurt most by the way his fellow philosophers abandoned him for fear of suffering the same fate.” There are two aspects to this claim. Firstly, the man, who is a serious candidate for the most egotistical and arrogant arsehole in the entire history of science and who spent a large part of his life actively insulting, denigrating and alienating ‘his fellow philosophers’ was hurt because they didn’t support him, really? Secondly, I have spent a life time reading about and studying Galileo and the historical context in which he lived and worked and I have never ever come across anybody claiming anything remotely like this claim made by Phillips. Put differently, Phillips is just making shit up to bolster the argument that he is going to present in his article. This is not history or journalism this is quite simply lying!
People used to refer to the Galileo Gambit, when somebody, almost always a crank, compared having his ‘fantastic ideas’ rejected to the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. To this Bob Dylan delivered up the perfect retort:
He said, “They persecuted Jesus too.”
I said, “You’re not him.”
“I said you know, they refused Jesus, too. He said you’re not him.”
[Correct version of Dylan quote curtesy of Todd Timberlake]
Trevor Phillips delivers up a slightly different variation on the theme. He is using a totally mythical version of the Galileo story to beat people, who he disapproves of or disagrees with around the head. If he can’t make the points that he wishes to make without resorting to lies and deception in that he misuses an episode in the history of science then he should give up pretending to be a journalist.
At the end of the last section Isaac Newton was still a student, who had embarked on a six-year period of intensive study teaching himself the modern analytical mathematics, the basics of mechanics and optics.In 1666 during the phase when he was learning mechanics, principally from the works of Descartes and where like Huygens he corrected Descartes theories of elastic collision and Galileo’s false value for g, the acceleration due to gravity, he had his legendary flash on inspiration, possibly inspired by the equally legendary falling apple, in which he asked himself if the force that causes an object to fall to the ground is the same as the force that prevents the Moon from flying off at a tangent, as the law of inertia, acquired from Descartes, said it should. Newton made a back of an envelope calculation, which gave an interesting correlation but was somewhat inaccurate due to inaccurate input data. Newton dropped the line of enquiry and didn’t take it up again for almost twenty years. However, one aspect of his calculation was very important for the future. In order to calculate the force holding the Moon he plugged Kepler’s third law into Huygens’ formula for centripetal force, which led to the inverse square law of gravity.
In 1669, on the recommendation of Isaac Barrow the retiring incumbent, Newton was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.The appointment was not as impressive as it appears today and Newton remained still largely under the radar, although the mathematics fan John Collins (1625–1683) had circulated some of his mathematical manuscripts awaking the world to his immense mathematical talent. This changed in the early 1670s when he presented the world with his reflecting telescope, the first functioning one, and published his first paper on the nature of white light. A new leading natural philosopher had arrived on the European stage.
In 1680 and 1681 two new great comets lit up the skies and once again the astronomers all turned their attentions into trying to determine their flight paths. The 1680 comet was discovered by the German astronomer Gottfried Kirch (1639–1710) from Coburg, who lived from writing and publishing almanacs, on 4 November.
It was the first ever comet to be discovered by telescope, that is before it became visible to the naked eye. It remained visible until 7 December when it disappeared. The comet of 1681 first appeared on 20 December. One astronomer, John Flamsteed (1646–1719), who had been appointed Astronomer Royal for the new Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675, had the bright idea that these were not two separate comets but one single comet on its way to and from the sun (modern designation C/1680 V1). Unsure of his assumption Flamsteed turned to Isaac Newton to ask his opinion. Flamsteed did not know Newton personally so the contact, by letter, was initially through a mutual acquaintance at Cambridge.
Historical picture of the first comet ever discovered using telescope, the Great Comet of 1680 (C/1680 V1), as painted by Lieve Verschuier: Source
Flamsteed’s hypothesis was that the comet turned in front of the Sun upon reaching it; he, echoing Johannes Kepler, suggested that the comet was attracted to the Sun magnetically and then through a change in polarity as it neared the Sun repulsed. In two letters in February 1881 Newton dismantled Flamsteed’s hypothesis, concentrating on his magnetic argument but also not accepting that the two comets were actually just one. Newton had applied the inverse square law of gravity to a theoretical system consisting of a single planet and the Sun, a year earlier, but did not apparently consider applying it to the comet at this point in time. However, in a draft of his second letter to Flamsteed, which he never sent, he did sketch a dynamic system of the comet circling behind the Sun but in terms of magnetic attraction.
John Flamsteed by Godfrey Kneller, 1702 Source. Wikimedia Commons
Later in the year Newton received new observational data on the comet from an old school acquaintance, Arthur Storer (c. 1648–1686) an amateur astronomer, who had emigrated to Maryland in 1679. He also later sent Newton data on the 1682 comet (Comet Halley), which he was amongst the first to observe in North America and which was named after him there for some time. Edmond Halley (1656–1741), an excellent astronomer and mathematician, who observed the comet of 1680/81, whilst travelling in France, also believed, like Flamsteed, that the two comets were one. In 1682 he came to Cambridge to visit Newton and the two of them discussed the comets.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Newton observed the comet of 1682 and at some point after 1680 he systematically collected together data on all recorded comets and decided that comets did indeed obey the inverse square law of gravity just like planets, their paths being oval if they returned and hyperbola if not. This was possibly the point where Newton’s thoughts on gravity became a universal theory of gravity. Comets and their flight paths would go on to play a significant role in the Principia. Newton apparently didn’t think to inform Flamsteed of his change of mind and acknowledge that Flamsteed had been right, at least in principle, until 1685.
The orbit of the comet of 1680, fit to a parabola, as shown in Isaac Newton’s Principia Source: Wikimedia Commons
Newton and Flamsteed were not the only people to reconsider the flight paths of comets in the early 1680s and Newton was not the only person to think that the inverse square law of gravity applied to them, Newton’s rival Robert Hooke also did so. Robert Hooke had been investigating the effects of gravity for many years and had discovered the inverse square law for himself and became convinced of a universal gravity. He thought that the flight paths of comets, like planets, were determined by gravity and that the inverse square law also applied to them. However, unlike Newton he didn’t do the mathematics. This mutual independent discovery of universal gravity would lead to renewed conflict between the two natural philosophers, who had already crossed swords over the nature of light.
Eleven is a number word in English that derives from the Old English ęndleofon, which is first attested in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There are cognates in all the Germanic languages, all of which have the same meaning of ‘one is left’. Left that is having counted up to ten. This is of course, a clear linguistic indication that we use, and have long used, a ten based, or decimal, number system contingent on the fact that through evolutionary chance we possess ten fingers or digits. Just to round up the picture twelve and its equivalents in other Germanic languages originally meant ‘two are left’ before we move onto thirteen, fourteen etc., which are simply three plus ten, four plus ten and so on and so fourth.
Coming back to eleven, on this day one year ago we celebrated, in our own inimitable way, the glorious tenth anniversary of the Renaissance Mathematicus that we are still here 366 days later, don’t forget that 2020 is a leap year, means that your favourite malcontent, #histSTM blogger has managed to fill yet another year with his incoherent scribblings. Counting up to ten we have one left. Ignoring such trivial matters, as the current world pandemic not much has changed in the world of the Renaissance Mathematicus. I have somehow managed, against my usually tendency to wander off and start something else, to complete another twenty-five slices of my, in the meantime, monumental series on the emergence of modern astronomy, bringing the word count up to a guesstimated fifty to sixty thousand. An end is actually in sight even if we haven’t quite reached it yet. This will be when the real work starts if I really want to turn it into a book. I need to go back to the beginning and basically rewrite the entire thing!
Turning to other matters, today is purely by chance the religious festival Corpus Christi or to give it it’s official title Dies Sanctissimi Corporis et Sanguinis Domini Iesu Christi (Day of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ the Lord), a Christian liturgical solemnity celebrating the Real Presence of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the elements of the Eucharist, to quote Wikipedia.
Corpus Christi procession. Oil on canvas by Carl Emil Doepler Source: Wikimedia Commons
Now you might think that this particular piece of Catholic mumbo-jumbo (you might remember that one of the things that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, is that Protestants stopped believing that the bread and wine actually changed into the body and blood of Christ) has little or nothing to do with the history of science, you would be wrong.
The actually Church feast was suggested by and campaigned for, thirty years long by Juliana of Liège (c. 1192–1258) prioress of the double canonry of Liège and her wish was granted by Pope Urban IV, who commissioned his chief theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to compose an office for the Feast of Corpus Christi to be celebrated on the Thursday after Pentecost, which is itself celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday. Thomas Aquinas plays a very central role in the history of European science, as it was he together with his teacher Albertus Magnus (before 1200–1280), who made Aristotelian natural philosophy acceptable for the Catholic Church, thus establishing it as the predominant scientific corpus in the European High Middle Ages.
The next #histSTM connection with the feast of Corpus Christi actually occurred in the life of Galileo. In his Il Saggiatore Galileo speculated a little bit with the ancient Greek theory of atomism. Because of this he was denounced anonymously to the Inquisition. The denunciation claimed that atomism contradicted the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation, which was based on the medieval Aristotelian theory of matter. This distinguished between substantial and accidental properties of matter. In this theory the appearance of a piece of matter is accidental but its true nature is substantial. According to the transubstantiation theory the bread and the wine change in their substance into the body and blood of Christ whilst retaining the accidental appearance of bread and wine. If, however, the Aristotelian theory of matter were to be replaced with atomism this theory would no longer function. The Inquisition never proceeded against Galileo in this matter but it is of note that in England Thomas Harriot and Sir Walter Raleigh were held and questioned on a similar charge somewhat earlier.
Returning to personal matters, as is usually my wont in my birthday posts, I recently had an acrimonious exchange with one of my readers, whose comments were from the beginning aggressive, insulting and historically false. I tried to reason with him and he just got more abusive in his tone. In the end I blocked him and erased his comments but I found his parting shot insult, and it was clearly meant as an insult, fascinating; he stated that I was not a historian but a storyteller.
This is interesting because, as is very clear to see history and story share the same etymological root, the Latin historia, “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” from Greek historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries; knowledge, account, historical account, record, narrative.” It is not until the late 15thcentury that the two differentiated meanings for history and story began to slowly appear. In German the same word, Die Geschichte means both story and history, the different meanings depending on context.
If I get asked in a formal or semi-formal context how I describe what I do, my answer is that I’m a narrative historian of the contextual history of science. That quite a mouthful and might sound, to some, rather pretentious. If I get asked what that means, my answer is I’m a storyteller. I don’t regard being called a storyteller as an insult; I regard it as a compliment.
If your philosophy of [scientific] history claims that the sequence should have been A→B→C, and it is C→A→B, then your philosophy of history is wrong. You have to take the data of history seriously.
John S. Wilkins 30th August 2009
Culture is part of the unholy trinity—culture, chaos, and cock-up—which roam through our versions of history, substituting for traditional theories of causation. – Filipe Fernández–Armesto “Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration”