Renaissance Science – III

Before we can finally move on to the actually subject of this series, The Renaissance, we first need to take a brief look at the European medieval university to which the Renaissance was to some extent a reaction. Actually, the European is superfluous as the medieval university is a unique European invention but it has become a bad habit in recent years to label different institutions of higher education from other cultures universities, particularly when claiming that they are older. Yes, other culture had institutes of higher education, many of them much earlier than the medieval universities. For example, the ancient Greek schools of philosophy were institutions of higher education. But the institutions of higher education of each culture have different roots, different structures and different aims and labelling them all universities is simply wrong. A madrasa is not a university and a university is not a madrasa. To use the term university exclusively for the medieval European institution also does not imply some sort of superiority, which some people try to suggest is what is wrong with this exclusive usage. 


View of the Qarawiyyin Mosque on the skyline of central Fes el-Bali: the green-tiled roofs of the prayer hall and the minaret (white tower on the left) are visible.Founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 and falsely called the oldest university in the world Source: Wikimedia Commons

The European universities have their roots in the cathedral schools that began to appear in the seventh century, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The education in these institutions was nominally based on the seven liberal arts, an educational ideal that goes back to the Pythagoreans. It consists of the trivium–grammar, logic and rhetoric–and the quadrivium–arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. However, if we look at the description of the quadrivium by Isidore of Seville (c. 560­–636), in his Etymologiae, offered at the early cathedral schools, arithmetic, geometry and music are little more than a short list of empty definition with only astronomy having some substance as a discipline. This schools taught little more than Latin and the basics of Christian theology. 


A page of Etymologiae, Carolingian manuscript (8th century), Source: Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium via Wikimedia Commons

The Carolingian Renaissance, which I described in the first post of this series was basically an upgrading of the cathedral schools to proper institutes of education with a fairly low level but much fuller curriculum. Between the tenth and twelfth centuries a series of great teaching masters very much raised the standard of cathedral schools and increased and improved the scientific content of the curriculum. These men attracted large numbers of students and trained other teaching masters. Amongst the most well-known were Gerbert of Arillac (c. 964–1003), Adalberon of Laon (d. 1030), John of Auxerre, Thierry of Chartres (d. c. 1150), Fulbert of Chartres (c.960–1128) a pupil of Gerbert, Peter Abelard (c. 1079–1142), Bernard of Chartres (d. after 1124), William of Conches (c. 1090–c. 1160) pupil of Bernard of Chartres, Clarenbold of Arras (c. 1110–c. 1187) also school of Chartres, and John of Salisbury (late 1110s–1180), a pupil of William of Conches. Most of these were Neo-Platonists heavily influenced by the Timaeus, one of the few Greek natural philosophy texts known throughout the Middle ages.


Chartres Cathedral by night Source: Wikimedia Commons

Europe saw some major changes in the period between 800 CE and 1200 CE, which was a comparatively stable political period. The major changes were in agriculture. In this period the most important innovation was the mouldboard plough and the related heavy plough. Along with this was the invention of the horse collar and the horseshoe, which meant that the horse could replace the ox as the ploughing animal. This meant that much heavier land could be used for crop production and ploughing took much less time. Another significant improvement was the introduction of a three-field rotation system to replace the earlier two-field one. This led to a major increase in food production, which in turn led to a large population increase.


Medieval horse drawn heavy plough Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was paralleled by a growth in the town and cities with more and more people moving from rural to urban residency. The same period saw a major economic upturn within Europe with a substantial increase in long distance trading and a move to a money-based economy.  

These developments led to the transition of some of the cathedral schools to becoming the first universities. The towns and cities attracted increasing numbers of students looking for teachers and teachers looking for students. A major change came in the twelfth century with the rediscovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis. The codification of Roman law was originally created in the sixth century but almost totally disappeared during the Early Middle Ages. This reintroduced the concept of a corporation from the Latin corpus meaning body or body of people recognised as a legal entity. This led to merchant traders and artisans forming corporations, known in the case of artisans as guilds, with legally defined membership, giving the members a collective legal status and collective protection under the law.


German medieval guild symbols

The travelling students and masters, as individuals living in cities other than their hometowns and cities, had very little legal status or legal protection, so they too formed corporations, for which one Latin term was universitas, meaning whole or the whole. There were universitas magistrorum or universities of masters, universitas scholarium or universities of students and universitas magistrorum et scholarium or universities of masters and students.


universitas scholarium

Originally universitas referred to these corporate bodies and also to individual faculties, such as the faculty of arts, faculty of theology, faculty of law or faculty of medicine. The masters and students of each faculty forming their own corporation or universitas. The term for what we now call a university was studium generale, which was only applied to a school with at least three of the four traditional faculties or was a highly prestigious school such as Paris, Oxford and Bologna, or both. 

At some point the term universitas ceased to be used for corporations of traders and crafts guilds being then only used for academic corporation, as a consequence universitas began to replace studium generale for the whole academic institution. The big three–Paris, Oxford and Bologna–were the first to become universities in something approaching the modern meaning of the term. As there was a gradual transition from cathedral school to university it is impossible to say exactly when any of them became a university, but it is general acknowledged that in each case it occurred before twelve hundred with Bologna the first medieval university. Bologna concentrated more on law and theology, whereas Paris and Oxford concentrated more on philosophy. By fifteen hundred there were about seventy European university with, in general, those in Northern Europe following the Paris-Oxford model and those in the South and Italy modelled on Bologna. 


Bologna University Interior view of the Porticum and Loggia of its oldest College, the Royal Spanish College. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A full university had four faculties, arts, law, medicine and theology. The arts faculty was the undergraduate faculty where nominally the seven liberal arts determined the curriculum. Here the first degree, BA, usually took four years but many students left the university after only two years, without a degree, having acquired the basic minimum of an education. Those who stayed after completing a BA, went on to acquire and MA, which was the teaching qualification and usually required a further two years of study. It was these MAs, who taught the undergraduates. Those with a MA could now progress to one of the higher faculties, law, medicine and theology, progressing through BA and MA till they finally graduated with a doctorate. This course of studies took a substantial number of years, so the number of students, who followed this course always remained relatively small. 

It is no coincidence that the emergence of the universities coincided with the highpoint of the translation movement or Scientific Renaissance, and the texts brought into the European sphere had a major influence on the curriculum of the new universities. 

The newly acquired knowledge radically upgraded the quadrivium with the first six books of Euclid’s Elements becoming the geometry course, arithmetic remained anchored in Boethius’ De institutione arithmetica, which was largely a Latin translation of the Introduction to Arithmetic of the Neopythagorean Nicomachus of Gerasa (c. 60–c. 120 CE). This was complimented by the study of Algorismus, that is the Hindu-Arabic number system, used in computos, the calculation of the date of Easter.  Music was also taken from Boethius’ De musica in turn based on a lost work of Nicomachus and Ptolemaeus’ Harmonica. Over the course of the next three centuries the works of Boethius were replaced by new texts written by medieval masters. Astronomy was largely taught according to John of Sacrobosco’s (c. 1195–c. 1256) Tractatus de Sphera (c. 1230). Sacrobosco taught at the university of Paris and also wrote a widely used Algorismus, De Arte Numerandi. Because Sacrobosco’s Sphera was very basic it was complimented with a Theorica planetarum, by an unknown medieval author, which dealt with elementary planetary theory and a basic introduction to the cosmos.


13th century Manuscript of Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphera, manuscript also contains his Algorimus Source

It should, however, be noted that the commitment to actually teaching the quadrivium during the High Middle Ages was in practice very low at most medieval universities. Lectures on the quadrivium were often only held on holidays, when normal teaching was suspended. The quadrium subjects were normally not examination subjects and it was even the case at many universities that if a student did not have the credit for a quadrivium course, he could acquire it simply by paying the lecture fees.

The biggest change, however, was in the trivium, which became basically the works of Aristotle. Having acquired a fairly complete model of the world and everything in it, in the works of Aristotle, the medieval scholars adopted it. This meant that the natural philosophy taught at the universities consisted mainly of Aristotle’s physics, meaning the general study of nature, and his cosmology. This was not necessarily that simple, as the universities were institutions of the Church and Aristotle was a pagan and various aspects of his philosophy contradicted the Church’s teachings. The biggest stumbling block was that Aristotle believed in an eternal cosmos with no beginning, whereas a central tenet of Christianity was the creation of the world by God, as described in Genesis. There were other philosophical problems that we don’t need to analyse in detail here. 

Given the conflicts there were various attempts by powerful figures in the Church, particularly in Paris, to try to ban the study of Aristotle in the universities. The most famous one being the list of 219 philosophical and theological propositions issued by the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier (d. 1279) in 1277, which were contradictory to Christian belief and should not be taught at the university.


Bishop Étienne Tempier

All such prohibitions failed to have a real affect but did create an interesting new method of thought into the medieval discourse. Scholars began to discuss these banned theses hypothetically, i.e., what if the universe were eternal or what if the Earth rotated on its axis once a day and the sphere of the fixed stars were still. One important point is that medieval Aristotelean philosophy was not Aristotle’s philosophy. Things had changed and progressed over the centuries; the most well-known example is that the impetus theory had replaced Aristotle’s theory of projectile motion. Also, thought was not as static on the medieval university, as it is often described, especially by the humanist scholars rebelling against the Aristotelean tradition in the Renaissance.

In the higher faculties it is only the faculty of medicine that is of direct interest for the history of science, although as we saw above the theologians determined what was permitted and what not. The curriculum of the faculty of medicine was informed with translations from Greek physicians, mostly Galen and Hippocrates but the major influence was Arabic medical texts, which were also based on the works of Galen and Hippocrates. One of the biggest were The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb) a five-volume medical encyclopaedia written by Ibn Sina, known in the Middle Ages as Avicenna, which remained a central European university text for several centuries.


The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb) Ibn Sina, known in the Middle Ages as Avicenna

Another was Kitāb al-Ḥāwī fī al-ṭibb (The Comprehensive Book on Medicine) by Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī, known in the Middle Ages as Rhazes. Another nine-volume medical encyclopaedia. There were also many other Arabic texts translated into Latin. This predominance of Arabic influence would come to play a role in the changes demanded during the Renaissance.

It is important to note that medieval university knowledge, even in medicine, was literary or book knowledge, that is totally theoretical without any practical aspects. Scholars challenged the ideas of other scholars with theoretical arguments not with experiments or newly acquired empirical evidence. As we shall see this is the basis for the major change that took place during the Renaissance.

The above is, of course, a simplified sketch of a process that should have a complete series of its own but I hope will suffice as a background to the changes that took place during the Renaissance the actual subject of this series.

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Review of a book I have not read and have absolutely no intention of wasting money on!

Since this blog post was written, Professor Screech has recognised and acknowledged that he erred in his book and has made changes in the text reflecting the criticism in this post, which are already in the ebook version and will soon appear in a new print edition. To what extent he has made changes, I cannot at the moment say, but I shall be receiving a print copy of the amended book and will report when I have read it. The OUP blog post discussed here has already been amended.

Timon Screech is an art historian, who is professor for Japanese art of the Early Modern Period at SOAS in London. He is the author of numerous books and in his newest publication has decided to turn his hand to the history of astronomy at the beginning of the seventeenth century, namely the early years following the invention of the telescope, the result is a train wreck! The offending object is, The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600–1625. OUP, 2020.


If, as I state in the title to this blog post, I have not read this book, and in fact have no intentions of wasting my time and money in doing so, how can I claim that it is a train wreck? OUP have been kind enough to provide a description of the book on the Internet and Professor Screech has posted a lecture on YouTube in which he elucidates the central thesis of his work. These contain enough statements that make it very clear that that central thesis is a festering heap of dodo dung.

The OUP description opens thus:

Over the winter of 1610-11, a magnificent telescope was built in London. [my emphasis] It was almost two metres long, cast in silver and covered with gold. This was the first telescope ever produced in such an extraordinary way, worthy of a great king or emperor. Why was it made and who was it going to?

The origins of telescopes are shrouded in mystery. All that is known for sure is that the first one to be patented had been built in Middleburgh, in the Dutch Republic, in October 1608. [my emphasis] The English were soon making their own under the name of “prospective glasses,” for seeing “prospects” or distant views. One had been shown to King James I of England and Scotland in May 1609. The English and Dutch were not alone, for, famously, Galileo obtained a telescope some months later and conducted experiments in Venice. In March 1610, he published his seminal study, The Starry Messenger (so-called in English, though the text is in Latin). King James’s ambassador to Venice sent a copy to the king post-haste, with a letter emphasising the extraordinary importance of the object.

The telescope in question was very probably not built in London but imported from Holland, as was the one shown to James I&VI in 1609. The origins of the telescope, whilst complex, are, of course, not shrouded in mystery; there is in fact quite a lot of very good historical research on the subject. The Dutch city, where Hans Lipperhey (1569–1619) made the telescope mentioned in the next sentence lived, is Middelburg and not Middleburgh, which apparently is a town in the State of New York. Now history is not an exact academic discipline but an interpretative one. From the usually limited facts available the historian tries their best to recreate as accurately as possible that part of the past he is dealing with. Important in this process is that they get the known facts right. We know from that historical research on the origins of the telescope that Lipperhey applied to the States General for a patent for his instrument in Den Hague on 2 October 1608. However, we also know that on 15 December 1608 his request for a patent was denied. Actually, Sir Henry Wotton the English ambassador to Venice sent two copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius to London on the day it was published, 12 March 1610.

Up till now the OUP’s account has only been inaccurate and sloppy but now they leave the realm of bad history and enter the world of fantasy or perhaps wishful thinking

The telescope built in London the next year was made for King James I. It was not his to keep but was to be sent in his name to one of the world’s supreme potentates—one the English were desperate to please. This was the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Why send a telescope? English trade with Asia was the monopoly of the East India Company, founded a decade before, and they were very anxious to open markets in Japan. It was with a telescope that Galileo had made his findings, and although his discoveries were received with enthusiasm in some quarters, this was not the case in others. The Papacy, famously, could not accept his key finding, namely that the earth orbits the sun— [my emphasis] heliocentricity contradicted Scripture, which states that the sun moves. Later Galileo would be summoned before the Inquisition for this, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches. [my emphasis] It had evidently dawned on the East India Company, and perhaps on King James himself, that here was the perfect a way to court Japanese favour. They would show the shogun the latest scientific instrument, and in doing so embarrass the Iberians. Spain and Portugal were already trading successfully in Japan, accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, to whom the English had the highest aversion: the Jesuits were blamed for many things, including Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Japan, they spent as much time teaching astronomy as theology. A telescope would prove that they were teaching falsehoods, and that the Jesuits were a danger to Japan. [my emphasis]

First up, we have the usual false claim about the Sidereus Nuncius that it provided proof of the heliocentric hypothesis, it didn’t, and Galileo knew well that it didn’t. As a historian one gets tired of busting the same myths over and over again, but once more for those who haven’t been paying attention. The new telescopic discoveries made by 1610, not just by Galileo, disproved two aspects of Aristotelian cosmology, that the heavens were perfect and celestial bodies perfect spheres, and that all celestial bodies orbit a common centre. However, it offered no evidence to truly support or refute any of the three main contending models of the cosmos, geocentricity, heliocentricity and geo-heliocentricity. The later discovery of the phases of Venus eliminated a pure geocentric model, but that was made public well after the Shogun shiny new telescope was on its way to Japan, so needn’t be considered here.

I have looked at the phrase, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches numerous times, from various standpoints and different angles and all that occurs to me is, what the fuck is that supposed to mean? It is simply put baloney, balderdash, poppycock, gibberish, hogwash, drivel, palaver, mumbo jumbo, rubbish, or even more simply, total and utter crap! I’m not even going to waste time, space and effort in trying to analyse and refute it, it doesn’t deserve it. Somebody please flush it down the toilet into the sewers, where it belongs.

The final emphasised sentence is the whole crux of Screech’s argument, as we shall see, it refers to the fact that the Jesuit astronomers in Japan in 1611 were teaching that the cosmos was geocentric, as this was certainly the accepted scientific view of the vast majority of European astronomers in 1611, including those in London, I think claiming that they were teaching falsehoods is historically simply wrong.

OUP now explain how the telescope was delivered to the Shogun in Japan and make a clear statement of Screech’s central thesis:

The telescope was taken out in a flotilla of four vessels in spring 1611. Command was given to John Saris, who had already lived several years in Asia, as the most senior English merchant. Now on his second trip East, he was told to push further on, all the way to Japan, where no English ship had yet gone. Oddly, the Company was aware of one Englishman already living in Japan. This was William Adams, who had gone on a Dutch ship. Many people in London remembered him, and word was that he had married a great Japanese lady. Saris took only one of his ships to Japan (the others went home with nearer Asian goods), arriving in Japan in summer 1613. Adams was contacted and within a few months he and Saris took the telescope to the Shogun’s castle, presenting it together in September at a grand ceremony. The Japanese records show to this. Saris enjoyed success in opening trade with Japan, and by December 1614 was safely back in London. Adams preferred to stay.

Once the English had provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong, the Roman Catholic missions lost their value. [my emphasis] They were closed down forthwith, and the Jesuit missionaries were expelled. Their old enemies put to flight, the English looked forward to unfettered trade with what was perhaps the world’s richest country, somewhat grudgingly agreeing to share this with the Dutch.

You will be amazed as to how John Saris provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong.

We now turn to our author’s own presentation of his thesis in a 45-minute YouTube video. I shall only be commenting on the relevant statements from this.

(starting at approx. 23 mins) In 1610 Galileo had conducted his extraordinary discoveries.

Actually, he made a large part of them in 1609, he published them in 1610.

The first telescope referred to in England is also in 1609, when one was shown to King James.…We also know that one was on public display in London shortly after the Clove [Saris’ ship] left England [1611] In other words they are still very rare, very special things. Not that many people can get hold of them.  

Screech is obviously not aware of the fact that Thomas Harriot had been making and using telescopes in London since 1609 and by 1611, the group centred on Harriot (Harriot, Christopher Tooke his lens grinder, Sir William Lower and John Prydderch (or Protheroe)) were making and comparing astronomical observation. In fact, Harriot was using telescopes before Galileo.

Even in 1618, a telescope is still a rather unusual thing

Sorry, but no it wasn’t, not in scientific circles

The Japanese record says something that the English record doesn’t say that the telescope was, using their own measurements, about ten feet long. So, it was extremely long and that must have meant that it was actually quite powerful. Possibly more powerful than the one Galileo used. It was two years later so lenses might have improved. Galileo could of course see the rings of Saturn with his.  

There is quite a lot to unpack here, which illustrates that Screech actually knows nothing about the early history of the telescope. For a telescope in 1611, ten feet is quite long not extremely long, telescopes later in the century reached lengths of fifty and sixty feet. However, length does not equal magnification power. For a Dutch or Galilean telescope, the magnification equals the focal length of the objective lens divided by the focal length of the eyepiece lens. So, if the Shogun’s telescope’s objective had a focal length of 120 inches and the eyepiece one of 1 inch, then it would have a magnification of 120. However, if the objective focal length was 8 feet and the eyepiece one 2 feet, its magnification would be only 4. These are not real numbers, just illustrative examples.

Galileo had a four-foot telescope with a magnification of c. 30, meaning an objective with focal length of c. 46.5 inches and an eyepiece focal length of c. 1.5 inches. The next problem is the higher the magnification of a Dutch telescope the smaller the field of vision. A magnification of about 30 is the upper limit for a usable Dutch telescope, anything above that is basically useless. Galileo made most of his discoveries with a telescope with a magnification of about 20. There was also no real improvement in lens making between 1609 and 1611. The telescope delivered to the Shogun was almost certainly of poorer quality than those used by Galileo, who was at the time producing some of the best lenses in Europe. 

The telescope is then presented and Ieyasu and Adams have a big discussion about and about what it means and what did it mean? Galileo, of course, as we all know ran into big problems with the Church, not because he discovered the rings of Saturn, which they didn’t care very much about but because he discovered that the Earth is not the centre of the world.  [my emphasis] Church history, of course, early Ptolemaic astronomy teaches that the Earth is the centre of the world and the Sun revolves around it, which obviously you would think standing on Earth and watching the Sun move. We still say the Sun rises and sets and goes by the clouds. We use these expressions today although they are, of course, astronomical completely incorrect. So, the Church had a problem because the Bible explicitly says that the Sun moves, and you can’t suddenly say that it doesn’t.

The Catholic Church took a great interest in astronomy and Catholic astronomers, many of them Jesuits or Jesuit trained, took a great interest in all of Galileo’s discoveries including the indecipherable something that later turned out to be the rings of Saturn. Galileo, of course, did not then or at any later time discover that the Earth is not the centre of the world. The conflict between the Bible and the heliocentric hypothesis did not became an issue for the Church before 1615!

Now, the Church didn’t care too much about this because heliocentricity was an extremely abstruse thing. Copernicus was even a Roman Catholic priest and he did his discoveries while living with a Roman Catholic bishop in Poland. But Copernicus book has been called the book that nobody ever read, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. So, Copernicus’s discovery of heliocentricity had not really bothered anyone. The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. [my emphasis]

Before I start to dismantle it, one should reflect that this heap of garbage was written by a professor for history at a world-famous institute for higher education. I weep. I’m almost ashamed to admit that my father taught history at the same institution.

Where to start? We start with a couple of simple facts. There is nothing abstruse about the heliocentric hypothesis and Copernicus was not a Roman Catholic priest. He was a canon of the Cathedral of Frombork, who never took holy orders. I do hope that Owen Gingerich doesn’t see this video. The expression the book that nobody read is a quote from Arthur Koestler’s popular history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers. Gingerich spent several decades searching out all the extant copies of the first and second editions of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and analysing the readers’ annotations and marginalia to show that an awful lot of people did read it and did so meticulously. He published the results of his long year endeavours in his, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Brill, 2002), a very useful reference book for historians of astronomy. He then published an entertaining autobiographical book detailing some of the adventures he experienced compiling his census, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (Walker & Company, 2004). There was of course a very lively discussion about De revolutionibus and the heliocentric hypothesis amongst European astronomers between its publication in 1543 and 1611. If Professor Screech is too lazy to plough his way through Gingerich’s Census then might I suggest he reads, Pietro Daniel Omodeo, Copernicus in the Cultural Debates of the Renaissance: Reception, Legacy, Transformation (Brill, 2014) & Jerzy Dobrzycki ed., The Reception of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory (D Reidel, 1972). He might actually learn something.

Once again, I find myself flabbergasted by a Screech statement, if you get hold of a copy it’s impossible to read it’s in Latin, it’s completely impossible to understand. This man is an academic historian or at least so he claims. Of course, it’s in bloody Latin that was the academic language of communication in the sixteenth century that all professional astronomers used. Also, for a sixteenth century astronomer the book is perfectly understandable.

Once again Screech takes us into cloud cuckoo land, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct. I have to ask, when looking through this magic telescope, did the observer see little green Martians holding up a neon sign reading, you are now viewing a heliocentric cosmos? It would be 182 years after the publication of De revolutionibus and 117 after the invention of the telescope before somebody was able, using a telescope, to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun, when in 1725 Molyneux and Bradley detected stellar aberration, delivering the first real empirical evidence for heliocentricity. Empirical evidence for diurnal rotation would first come 126 years later, when Foucault demonstrated his pendulum in 1851!

Screech seems to have problems with chronology; he writes, This would give the Church considerable worries and that’s why they…it was Galileo pulled before the Inquisition; Copernicus had died peacefully in bed. Screech’s story takes place between 1611 and 1613. Galileo’s first run in with the Church, concerning heliocentricity, was in 1615/16 and he was first “pulled” before the Inquisition in 1633.

So, the English had clearly turned up with an object, which was a wonderful thing to see in its own right, but it will also confuse and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church [my emphasis].

No, it wouldn’t! 

And this is where Spain and Portugal come in, hopefully the present given by the king will neutralise the Dutch and show that the English were better than the Dutch but the Spanish and the Portuguese had been there much longer than the Dutch had been there for decades and most of the Spanish are buying and selling, are merchants. But, of course, there are a large number of priests, and the merchants tend to stick to the ports because that’s where they do business but the priest wander all over the place and the priest had had this absolute dream of building a church in Kyoto, which was the capital city at the time, and they had succeeded in doing it.  […] Of course, the missionaries mostly Jesuits […] where seeking conversions. […] But the Jesuits also taught in Japan astronomy and this was absolutely crucial because various Japanese rituals surrounding the court and not the Shogun but the actual Emperor of Japan, it was very important to predict eclipses. This is really key to Japanese political thinking, and over the course of a lunar calendar that went out of sync Japanese astronomers had become less and less able to predict eclipses and the Jesuits could do it. This was also a reason why Christian missions were accepted in China, not to teach the gospel but to teach astronomy. [my emphasis]

I admit, quite freely, that I know nothing about Japanese astronomy in the Early Modern Period, but I do know that this was the function that the Jesuits fulfilled in China in the seventeenth century, which gave them access to Chinese society at the highest levels. They even ran the Chinese office or ministry for astronomy for large parts of that century. This being the case I assume that Screech is correct in saying the same for Japan.

The English had suddenly turned up and they say to the Japanese, all that astronomy they’ve been teaching you for the last fifty years, telling you how important it is, it’s wrong. It’s not only wrong, they know its wrong and they’re teaching you lies. And this must have been what Ieyasu heard in those hours after Saris left the room, while he has in his hands his silver telescope. [my Emphasis]

Just exactly how did the English tell Ieyasu this? As I have already pointed out, he could not have possibly got this information simply by looking through the telescope, as Screech claims, this is pure bullshit.  Screech has obviously never tried to observe the heavens with a replica of an early seventeenth century Dutch or Galilean telescope. If you have never ever used one, and Ieyasu very obviously hadn’t, the very small field of vision means that you see almost nothing. If you are trying to use one without a tripod or some other support, then every slightest tremor of your hand or arms sends the image skittering across the skies. Even worse for Ieyasu, early telescopes suffered from both spherical and chromatic aberration meaning that the image was blurred and had coloured fringes. Add to this that early lenses were of very poor quality and so the images were anything but good and you’re not really going to impress anybody. Almost certainly. Saris and Adams demonstrated the telescope as a terrestrial telescope, as had Lipperhey during his first demonstration in Den Hague in the last September week in 1608.  So, what about Saris and Adams as a source of astronomical information. Saris was a merchant trader and not an astronomer and there is nothing to indicate that he would have been up to date on the actual astronomical/cosmological discussions, let alone that he would have been a, for that time rare, supporter of heliocentricity. Adams is even more unlikely to have been informed of all things astronomical. He had been living in Japan since 1600, so the telescope would have been just as much a novelty for him as it was for Ieyasu. He was however a navigator so he would have had a basic knowledge of astronomy. However, navigators, even today learn geocentric astronomy, so once again no information forthcoming from that quarter.

Saris was given as a result of this permission to open a trading station in Japan and Ieyasu even said you can trade anywhere in my dominions that you wish. […]

Saris sailed back to England at the end of 1613 […] Within months, actually within weeks, even possibly within days of Saris leaving Ieyasu issues an instruction all Jesuit churches must be torn down all priests must leave the country and there was tremendous destruction. And in the early months of 1614 running through into the autumn, was what is often known as the great exile as a vast number of Japanese Christians fled. Mostly they went to the Philippines under Spanish protection or they went to Goa under Portuguese protection. We don’t know the number involved probably in the thousands. Fifty or sixty priest and friars left too […]

Why did it happen then, the Spanish and the Portuguese had been in Japan for fifty year and suddenly in one winter they were told to leave because the English turned up with their telescope.

Screech has turned a correlation into a cause and effect, with a fallacious chain of reasoning based on a series of falsehoods. Analysed rationally the whole argument falls together like a house of cards that was erected with soggy sheets of toilet paper. If we add some more astronomical and historical context then Screech’s whole heap of fact vacant waffle collapses even further.

 Screech informs us that the Japanese, like the Chinese, were interested in the Jesuit’s knowledge of astronomy because of their ability to accurately predict eclipses, which in Asian culture had a massive socio-political and cultural significance. What Screech doesn’t appear to know is that eclipse prediction models are, by nature, fundamentally geocentric as they are based on the relative positions of the Sun and Moon on the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth. So, the revelation that the solar system is heliocentric and not geocentric, would in this case have no relevance whatsoever.

Next, it pays to take a look at the Jesuits, the early history of the telescope and Asia. Would they have feared, or did they fear the revelations of the telescope? Historically the exact opposite is the case. The Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano, were making telescopic astronomical observations at least as early as Galileo and it was these astronomers, working together with Galileo, who provided the very necessary scientific confirmation of all of his discoveries. Having done so, they threw a large banquet in his honour in Rome. This doesn’t quite fit Screech’s narrative but there is more.

Almost all the telescopes, with possibly only the exception of King James’ present for Ieyasu, introduced into Asia,–India, China and even Japan–in the early part of the seventeenth century were brought there by the Jesuit missionaries. Mainly, like the silver telescope, as presents to impress but also for their own astronomical work. Jesuit missionaries bound for Asia were prepared for their mission at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. We know that from 1615 to 1617 the Jesuit astronomer, Giovanni Paolo Lembo (1570–1618), one of those Collegio Roman astronomers who confirmed Galileo’s discoveries, not only taught those trainee missionaries astronomy but also lens grinding and telescope construction, to enable them to make their own instruments in Asia. The Jesuits were also the first to introduce the heliocentric hypothesis into Asia, which they did in China, in Chinese, during the course of the seventeenth century.

Having completely demolished Screech’s totally crackbrained thesis, could there be another reason why the Jesuits were expelled from Japan shortly after the arrival of the English traders, apart from pure coincidence?

What Screech doesn’t explain in his lecture, maybe he does in his book, but I doubt it, is that there had been serious stress between the Jesuits and the rulers of Japan for several years before the arrival of the English. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan in the mid 1580s was suspicious of the activities of the Catholics and in 1587 he banned Catholicism in Japan. In 1597 twenty-six Christians–six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laymen–were crucified. Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who also distrusted the Catholics but wished to trade with both Spain and Portugal. The Protestant Dutch provided a counterbalance, so that the Iberian Catholics did not have a trade monopoly. The arrival of the English in 1613, meant that Ieyasu now had two Protestant European trading partners, who would compete because they didn’t like each other, but who both promised not to try and convert the Japanese to Christianity. Ieyasu could now get rid of the despised Catholics, which he then did in 1614. Simple, factual historical explanation without a cock and bull story about a magical telescope that revealed the heliocentric nature of the cosmos when one simply looked through it.

I find it both fascinatingly gruesome but also frightening and ultimately very depressing that a professor of history from a world-renowned university can propagate a thesis based on the early history of the telescope and the history of the most important transition in the history of astronomy, apparently without bothering to learn anything about either discipline. It appears that his sources were something along the lines of the 1920s Boy’s Own Big Book: Galileo’s Persecution by the Nasty Catholics and Enid Blyton’s Guide to the History of Astronomy for Under Fives.

Screech’s only achievement is that with his, The thing about the telescope is that any person using a telescope can see for themselves that heliocentricity is correct, he delivers one of the mind bogglingly stupid history of science statements that I have ever read.

 The main thesis of his book, which he presents in the lecture analysed here, is an abomination and an insult to every historian of the telescope and/or astronomy. Even worse is the fact that OUP, a major academic publisher, published and are promoting this heap of crap, without having subjected it to any sort of control of the accuracy of its historical content. If OUP possessed even a shred of decency, they should withdraw this book from the market, pulp it and issue a public apology to the history of science community.



Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy

Renaissance Science – II

The so-called Scientific Renaissance at the beginning of the High Middle Ages was truly a renaissance in the sense of the rediscovery or re-emergence of the, predominantly Greek, intellectual culture of antiquity albeit, much of it in this case, filtered through the medium of the Islamic intellectual culture. This latter point would play an important role in the later emergence of the Humanist Renaissance.

The initial Islamic Empire dates its beginning to Muhammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. It expanded incredibly rapidly absorbing more and more territory.


Muhammad built the Masjid Qubā’ upon his arrival at Medina Source: Wikimedia Commons

By the middle of the eighth century the Abbasid Caliphate covered most of the Middle East and a large part of Northern Africa. According to the legend a delegation from India came to the Abbasid capital in 750 CE and the Muslims became aware that their visitors were intellectually far more advanced than themselves and this awareness triggered the Islamic translation movement. With scholars actively seeking out manuscripts of Greek, Persian and Indian knowledge and translating them into Arabic. No such legend exists for the acquisition and appropriation of that knowledge from the Islamic culture by the European Christians at the beginning of the High Middle ages.


Map of the fragmented Abbasid empire, with areas still under direct control of the Abbasid central government (dark green) and under autonomous rulers (light green) adhering to nominal Abbasid suzerainty, c. 892 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Western Europe went into decline around the fifth or sixth century CE following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the urban culture largely disappeared to be replaced by a rural culture. A bare minimum of the scientific culture of antiquity in the works of Boethius (477–524), Macrobius (fl. c. 400), Martianus Capella (fl. c. 410–420), Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) was maintained largely in the monasteries and other church institutions. Following the Carolingian unification of Europe, the situation in Europe began to improve and slowly a new urban culture began to develop. With this social and economic evolution, a thirst for knowledge also developed.


Map of the rise of Frankish Empire, from 481 to 814.Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is a popular image of perpetual war between Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages but in fact there was much exchange on many levels between the two cultures. Although the Carolingian kings did battle the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, Karl der Große (742–814) (known as Charlemagne in English) maintained diplomatic relations with Harun al-Rashid (763–809), the fifth Abbasid Caliph, and the two empires carried out economic and technological exchanges.

Through trade and other contacts, the European Christian scholars gradually became aware of the superiority of the scientific knowledge of their Islamic neighbours, who they encountered along the borders of the two cultures, in particular in Southern Italy and in Spain. Gerbert of Aurillac’s acquisition of some astronomical and mathematical knowledge in Spain in the tenth century was a precursor to the translators, who kicked off the translation movement at the end of the eleventh century.

The earliest, substantial translations from Arabic were made by Constantinus Africanus (died before 1098), a North African Muslim, living in Monte Cassino in Southern Italy. Constantinus translated a substantial body of Arabic medical treatises based on Hippocratic and Galenic concepts.


Constantinus Africanus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sicily, which had been part of the Byzantine Empire until 878 and then under divided Byzantine and Islamic rule from 878 to 965. Pure Islamic rule lasted until 1091 although the Byzantines, with the assistance of Norman mercenaries reinvaded in 1038. The Normans finally achieved total control of the island in 1091, which they maintained until 1198, when the island passed through marriage into the possession of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty. This constant change of ruling cultures led to the trilingual culture, almost predestined for translations. Here Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxisand texts from Plato and Euclid were translated directly from Greek into Latin. Other important works such as Ptolemaeus’ Optics and various medical works, including Avicenna’s (Ibn Sina) The Canon of Medicine, which became a standard work in Europe were translated from Arabic. Translations of individual works into Latin from Greek and Arabic continued in Italy well into the thirteenth century.


Historic map of Sicily by Piri Reis 15th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Italy in general and Sicily in particular produced many important translations into Latin, it was Spain that became the major centre for the translation movement and here the translations were from Arabic into Latin. Here works across the entire academic spectrum from Greek, Arabic and Indian sources found there way into medieval, Latin Europe.

The most notable centre for translations was Toledo and by far and away the most notable translator was Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187). Gerard originally travelled to Spain in search of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, which he translated from Arabic into Latin, in about 1175 1150 (see comment from CPE Nothaft). He was unaware of the earlier translation direct from the Greek made in Sicily and It was his translation that became the standard work in medieval Europe not the Sicilian one (see comment from CPE Nothaft). Gerard stayed in Toledo and is reputed to have translated a total of eighty-seven works from Arabic into Latin, including many important mathematical works such as Euclid’s Elements, Archimedes On the Measurement of the Circle, and al-Khwarizmi’s On Algebra.


Theorica Planetarum by Gerard of Cremona, 13th century.Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some translators actually travelled to Islamic lands outside of Europe, such as Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–c. 1152), who is thought to have travelled extensively throughout Southern Europe but also West Asia and possibly Palestine. Adelard’s interests were mostly philosophical but he produced the first Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements and the first translation of al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical tables.


Detail of a scene in the bowl of the letter ‘P’ with a woman with a set-square and dividers; using a compass to measure distances on a diagram. In her left hand she holds a square, an implement for testing or drawing right angles. She is watched by a group of students. In the Middle Ages, it is unusual to see women represented as teachers, in particular when the students appear to be monks. She is most likely the personification of Geometry, based on Martianus Capella’s famous book De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, [5th c.] a standard source for allegorical imagery of the seven liberal arts. Illustration at the beginning of Euclid’s Elementa, in the translation attributed to Adelard of Bath. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A notable later translator was William of Moerbeke (c. 1220–c. 1286), who made substantial translations from Greek into Latin in the thirteenth century, most notably the works of Aristotle, which became the bedrock of European, medieval university education.


The beginning of Aristotle’s De anima in the Latin translation by William of Moerbek.. Manuscript Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vaticanus Palatinus lat. 1033, fol. 113r (Anfang des 14. Jahrhunderts) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Something that is often sort of half ignored is that the translation movement also brought a lot of literature of the so-called occult sciences into Europe. There was major interest in both Greek and Arabic astrology texts and Robert of Chester (fl. 1140) introduced medieval Europe to alchemy with his translation of Liber de compositione alchemiae (The Book of the Composition of Alchemy). Robert also made the first Latin translation of al-Khwarizmi’s Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing).


al-Khwarizmi al-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah title page 9th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is only a very brief sketch of what was a vast movement involving many scholars over a period of more than two centuries. It is important to note, as far as the translations from Arabic as concerned, that very few of the translators actually spoke Arabic. The work was carried out by groups or teams, who first translated the Arabic into a vernacular language and from there into Latin. The intermediary translators were very often Spanish Jews, who spoke Arabic. This meant that some of the original Greek works had been translated from Greek into Syriac, from Syriac into Arabic, From Arabic into an intermediary language, and then from the intermediary language into Latin. Add to this the normal copying errors from several generation old, handwritten manuscripts and the texts that finally arrived in Europe were often very corrupt and confusing. Add to this the fact that with scientific texts, each new language often lacked the necessary scientific terminology and the translator had to invent new terms and concepts in his own language making for a high level of incomprehension by the time the text had finally been translated into Latin. These high levels of text corruption and incomprehension would play a major role in motivating the Humanist Renaissance.

Another factor that needs to be taken into considerations is that, although the translators made a vast amount of the Greek, Arabic, Persian and Indian scientific texts available to the European scholars in the High Middle Ages, quite a few important texts remained untranslated and unknown. Examples are Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which although known to the Arabs remained unknown in Europe until the fifteenth century or although many of Galen’s works were translated into Latin, some of his principal anatomical works also remained unknown until the fifteenth century.

A final note is that although many technical works became available fairy early on, medieval Europe lacked the knowledge background to truly comprehend or utilise them. A good example is Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, which became available, relatively early, in two separate translations from the Greek and from Arabic. However, almost no one in Europe possessed the necessary mathematical or astronomical knowledge to truly comprehend or utilise it. Instead, European astronomers universities relied, for teaching, on translations of Arabic astronomical tables and on Sacrobosco’s very simple introductory textbook De sphaera mundi, based not directly on Ptolemaeus but on two much simpler Arabic texts.

Europe was not yet ready to enjoy the fruits of all the treasures that the translation movement brought, and it would take a couple of centuries of further development before that was truly the case.


Filed under Book History, Renaissance Science

The man who printed the world of plants

Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) is justifiably famous for having produced the world’s first modern atlas, that is a bound, printed, uniform collection of maps, his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Ortelius was a wealthy businessman and paid for the publication of his Theatrum out of his own pocket, but he was not a printer and had to employ others to print it for him.


Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens , Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

A man who printed, not the first 1570 editions, but the important expanded 1579 Latin edition, with its bibliography (Catalogus Auctorum), index (Index Tabularum), the maps with text on the back, followed by a register of place names in ancient times (Nomenclator), and who also played a major role in marketing the book, was Ortelius’ friend and colleague the Antwerp publisher, printer and bookseller Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–1589).


Plantin also published Ortelius’ Synonymia geographica (1578), his critical treatment of ancient geography, later republished in expanded form as Thesaurus geographicus (1587) and expanded once again in 1596, in which Ortelius first present his theory of continental drift.


Plantin’s was the leading publishing house in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, which over a period of 34 years issued 2,450 titles. Although much of Plantin’s work was of religious nature, as indeed most European publishers of the period, he also published many important academic works.

Before we look in more detail at Plantin’s life and work, we need to look at an aspect of his relationship with Ortelius, something which played an important role in both his private and business life. Both Christophe Plantin and Abraham Ortelius were members of a relatively small religious cult or sect the Famillia Caritatis (English: Family of Love), Dutch Huis der Leifde (English: House of Love), whose members were also known as Familists.

This secret sect was similar in many aspects to the Anabaptists and was founded and led by the prosperous merchant from Münster, Hendrik Niclaes (c. 1501–c. 1580). Niclaes was charged with heresy and imprisoned at the age of twenty-seven. About 1530 he moved to Amsterdam where his was once again imprisoned, this time on a charge of complicity in the Münster Rebellion of 1534–35. Around 1539 he felt himself called to found his Famillia Caritatis and in 1540 he moved to Emden, where he lived for the next twenty years and prospered as a businessman. He travelled much throughout the Netherlands, England and other countries combining his commercial and missionary activities. He is thought to have died around 1580 in Cologne where he was living at the time.


Niclaes wrote vast numbers of pamphlets and books outlining his religious views and I will only give a very brief outline of the main points here. Familists were basically quietists like the Quakers, who reject force and the carrying of weapons. Their ideal was a quite life of study, spiritualist piety, contemplation, withdrawn from the turmoil of the world around them. The sect was apocalyptic and believed in a rapidly approaching end of the world. Hendrik Niclaes saw his mission in instructing mankind in the principal dogma of love and charity. He believed he had been sent by God and signed all his published writings H. N. a Hillige Nature (Holy Creature). The apocalyptic element of their belief meant that adherents could live the life of honest, law abiding citizens even as members of religious communities because all religions and authorities would be irrelevant come the end of times. Niclaes managed to convert a surprisingly large group of successful and wealthy merchants and seems to have appealed to an intellectual cliental as well. Apart from Ortelius and Plantin, the great Dutch philologist, humanist and philosopher Justus Lipsius (1574–1606) was a member, as was Charles de l’Escluse (1526–1609), better known as Carolus Clusius, physician and the leading botanist in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. The humanist Andreas Masius (1514–1573) an early syriacist (one who studies Syriac, an Aramaic language) was a member, as was Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) a Spanish orientalist. Emanuel van Meteren (1535–1612) a Flemish historian and nephew of Ortelius was probably also Familist. The noted Flemish miniature painter and illustrator, Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601), was a member as was his father a successful diamond dealer. Last but by no means least Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525– 1569) was also a Familist. As we shall see the Family of Love and its members played a significant role in Plantin’s life and work.


Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens Museum Platin-Moretus  via Wikimedia Commons Antwerp in the time of Plantin was a major centre for artists and engravers and Peter Paul Rubins was the Plantin house portrait painter.

Christophe Plantin was born in Saint-Avertin near Tours in France around 1520. He was apprenticed to Robert II Macé in Caen, Normandy from whom he learnt bookbinding and printing. In Caen he met and married Jeanne Rivière (c. 1521–1596) in around 1545.


Jeanne Rivière School of Rubens Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

They had five daughters, who survived Plantin and a son who died in infancy. Initially, they set up business in Paris but shortly before 1550 they moved to the city of Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands, then one of Europe’s most important commercial centres. Plantin became a burgher of the city and a member of the Guild of St Luke, the guild of painter, sculptors, engravers and printers. He initially set up as a bookbinder and leather worker but in 1555 he set up his printing office, which was most probably initially financed by the Family of Love. There is some disagreement amongst the historians of the Family as to how much of Niclaes output of illegal religious writings Plantin printed. But there is agreement that he probably printed Niclaes’ major work, De Spiegel der Gerechtigheid (Mirror of Justice, around 1556). If not the house printer for the Family of Love, Plantin was certainly one of their printers.

The earliest book known to have been printed by Plantin was La Institutione di una fanciulla nata nobilmente, by Giovanni Michele Bruto, with a French translation in 1555, By 1570 the publishing house had grown to become the largest in Europe, printing and publishing a wide range of books, noted for their quality and in particular the high quality of their engravings. Ironically, in 1562 his presses and goods were impounded because his workmen had printed a heretical, not Familist, pamphlet. At the time Plantin was away on a business trip in Paris and he remained there for eighteen months until his name was cleared. When he returned to Antwerp local rich, Calvinist merchants helped him to re-establish his printing office. In 1567, he moved his business into a house in Hoogstraat, which he named De Gulden Passer (The Golden Compasses). He adopted a printer’s mark, which appeared on the title page of all his future publications, a pair of compasses encircled by his moto, Labore et Constantia (By Labour and Constancy).


Christophe Plantin’s printers mark, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Engraving of Plantin with his printing mark after Goltzius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Encouraged by King Philip II of Spain, Plantin produced his most famous publication the Biblia Polyglotta (The Polyglot Bible), for which Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) came to Antwerp from Spain, as one of the editors. With parallel texts in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic and Hebrew the production took four years (1568–1572). The French type designer Claude Garamond (c. 1510–1561) cut the punches for the different type faces required for each of the languages. The project was incredibly expensive and Plantin had to mortgage his business to cover the production costs. The Bible was not a financial success, but it brought it desired reward when Philip appointed Plantin Architypographus Regii, with the exclusive privilege to print all Roman Catholic liturgical books for Philip’s empire.



In 1576, the Spanish troops burned and plundered Antwerp and Plantin was forced to pay a large bribe to protect his business. In the same year he established a branch of his printing office in Paris, which was managed by his daughter Magdalena (1557–1599) and her husband Gilles Beys (1540–1595). In 1578, Plantin was appointed official printer to the States General of the Netherlands. 1583, Antwerp now in decline, Plantin went to Leiden to establish a new branch of his business, leaving the house of The Golden Compasses under the management of his son-in-law, Jan Moretus (1543–1610), who had married his daughter Martine (1550–16126). Plantin was house publisher to Justus Lipsius, the most important Dutch humanist after Erasmus nearly all of whose books he printed and published. Lipsius even had his own office in the printing works, where he could work and also correct the proofs of his books. In Leiden when the university was looking for a printer Lipsius recommended Plantin, who was duly appointed official university printer. In 1585, he returned to Antwerp, leaving his business in Leiden in the hands of another son-in-law, Franciscus Raphelengius (1539–1597), who had married Margaretha Plantin (1547–1594). Plantin continued to work in Antwerp until his death in 1589.


Source: Museum Plantin-Moretus

After this very long introduction to the life and work of Christophe Plantin, we want to take a look at his activities as a printer/publisher of science. As we saw in the introduction he was closely associated with Abraham Ortelius, in fact their relationship began before Ortelius wrote his Theatrum. One of Ortelius’ business activities was that he worked as a map colourer, printed maps were still coloured by hand, and Plantin was one of the printers that he worked for. In cartography Plantin also published Lodovico Guicciardini’s (1521–1589) Descrittione di Lodovico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (Description of the Low Countries) (1567),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

which included maps of the various Netherlands’ cities.


Engraved and colored map of the city of Antwerp Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin contributed, however, to the printing and publication of books in other branches of the sciences.

Plantin’s biggest contribution to the history of science was in botany.  A combination of the invention of printing with movable type, the development of both printing with woodcut and engraving, as well as the invention of linear perspective and the development of naturalism in art led to production spectacular plant books and herbals in the Early Modern Period. By the second half of the sixteenth century the Netherlands had become a major centre for such publications. The big three botanical authors in the Netherlands were Carolus Clusius (1526–1609), Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) and Matthaeus Loblius (1538–1616), who were all at one time clients of Plantin.

Matthaeus Loblius was a physician and botanist, who worked extensively in both England and the Netherlands.

NPG D25673,Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaram

Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaramprint, 1615 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Stirpium aduersaria noua… (A new notebook of plants) was originally published in London in 1571, but a much-extended edition, Plantarum seu stirpium historia…, with 1, 486 engravings in two volumes was printed and published by Plantin in 1576. In 1581 Plantin also published his Dutch herbal, Kruydtboek oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen….


Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is also an anonymous Stirpium seu Plantarum Icones (images of plants) published by Plantin in 1581, with a second edition in 1591, that has been attributed to Loblius but is now thought to have been together by Plantin himself from his extensive stock of plant engravings.

Carolus Clusius also a physician and botanist was the leading scientific horticulturist of the period, who stood in contact with other botanist literally all over the worlds, exchanging information, seeds, dried plants and even living ones.


Portrait of Carolus Clusius painted in 1585 Attributed to Jacob de Monte – Hoogleraren Universiteit Leiden via Wikimedia Commons

His first publication, not however by Plantin, was a translation into French of Dodoens’ herbal of which more in a minute. This was followed by a Latin translation from the Portuguese of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e Drogas da India, Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indios nascentium historia (1567) and a Latin translation from Spanish of Nicolás Monardes’  Historia medicinal delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, , De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est (1574), with a second edition (1579), both published by Plantin.His own  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas (1576) and Rariorum aliquot stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa … (1583) followed from Plantin’s presses. His Rariorum plantarum historia: quae accesserint, proxima pagina docebit (1601) was published by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the Antwerp printing house.


Our third physician-botanist, Rembert Dodoens, his first publication with Plantin was his Historia frumentorum, leguminum, palustrium et aquatilium herbarum acceorum, quae eo pertinent (1566) followed by the second Latin edition of his  Purgantium aliarumque eo facientium, tam et radicum, convolvulorum ac deletariarum herbarum historiae libri IIII…. Accessit appendix variarum et quidem rarissimarum nonnullarum stirpium, ac florum quorumdam peregrinorum elegantissimorumque icones omnino novas nec antea editas, singulorumque breves descriptiones continens… (1576) as well as other medical books.


Rembert Dodoens Theodor de Bry – University of Mannheim via Wikimedia Commons

His most well known and important work was his herbal originally published in Dutch, his Cruydeboeck, translated into French by Clusius as already stated above.


Title page of Cruydt-Boeck,1618 edition Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin published an extensively revised Latin edition Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXXs in 1593.


This was largely plagiarised together with work from Loblius and Clusius by John Gerrard (c. 1545–1612)


John Gerard Source: Wikimedia Commons

in his English herbal, Great Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), which despite being full of errors became a standard reference work in English.

The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes / by John Gerarde

Platin also published a successful edition of Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano (1568), which had been first published in Rome in 1556. This was to a large extent a plagiarism of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543).


Another area where Platin made a publishing impact was with the works of the highly influential Dutch engineer, mathematician and physicist Simon Stevin (1548-1620). The Plantin printing office published almost 90% of Stevin’s work, eleven books altogether, including his introduction into Europe of decimal fractions De Thiende (1585),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his important physics book De Beghinselen der Weeghconst (The Principles of Statics, lit. The Principles of the Art of Weighing) (1586),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his Beghinselen des Waterwichts (Principles of hydrodynamics) (1586) and his book on navigation De Havenvinding (1599).

Following his death, the families of his sons-in-law continued the work of his various printing offices, Christophe Beys (1575–1647), the son of Magdalena and Gilles, continued the Paris branch of the business until he lost his status as a sworn printer in 1601. The family of Franciscus Raphelengius continued printing in Leiden for another two generations, until 1619. When Lipsius retired from the University of Leiden in 1590, Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) was invited to follow him at the university. He initially declined the offer but, in the end, when offered a position without obligations he accepted and moved to Leiden in 1593. It appears that the quality of the publications of the Plantin publishing office in Leiden helped him to make his decision.  In 1685, a great-granddaughter of the last printer in the Raphelengius family married Jordaen Luchtmans (1652 –1708), who had founded the Brill publishing company in 1683.

The original publishing house in Antwerp survived the longest. Beginning with Jan it passed through the hands of twelve generations of the Moretus family down to Eduardus Josephus Hyacinthus Moretus (1804–1880), who printed the last book in 1866 before he sold the printing office to the City of Antwerp in 1876. Today the building with all of the companies records and equipment is the Museum Plantin-Moretus, the world’s most spectacular museum of printing.


2-021 Museum Plantin Moretus

There is one last fascinating fact thrown up by this monument to printing history. Lodewijk Elzevir (c. 1540–1617), who founded the House of Elzevir in Leiden in 1583, which published both Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze in 1638 and Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences in 1637, worked for Plantin as a bookbinder in the 1560s.


Nikolaes Heinsius the Elder, Poemata (Elzevier 1653), Druckermarke Source: Wikimedia Commons

The House of Elzevir ceased publishing in 1712 and is not connected to Elsevier the modern publishing company, which was founded in 1880 and merely borrowed the name of their famous predecessor.

The Platntin-Moretus publishing house played a significant role in the intellectual history of Europe over many decades.




Filed under Book History, History of Mathematics, History of medicine, History of Physics, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – I

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

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

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


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.

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


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.

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


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

Reading Euclid

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

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


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

Reading Maths01

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

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

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Mathematics

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

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

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

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

Reading Maths01

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Maths02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Maths03

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

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

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

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Mathematics

Charles not Ada, Charles not Charles and Ada, just Charles…

The is an old saying in English, “if you’ve got an itch scratch it!” A medically more correct piece of advice is offered, usually by mothers in a loud stern voice, “Don’t scratch!”  I have had an itch since the start of December and have been manfully trying to heed the wise words of mother but have finally cracked and am going to have a bloody good scratch.

I actually don’t wish to dump on Lady Science, which I regard as a usually excellent website promoting the role of women in science, particularly in the history of science but the essay, Before Lovelace, that they posted 3 December 2020 is so full of errors concerning Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage that I simply cannot ignore it. In and of itself the main point that the concept of the algorithm exists in many fields and did so long before the invention of the computer is interesting and of course correct. In fact, it is a trivial point, that is trivial in the sense of simple and obvious. An algorithm is just a finite, step by step procedure to complete a task or solve a problem, a recipe!

My objections concern the wildly inaccurate claims about the respective roles of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the story of the Analytical Engine. Let us examine those claims, the essay opens at follows:

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace loom large in the history of computing. These famous 19th-century figures are consistently cited as the origin points for the modern day computer: Babbage hailed as the “father of computing” and Lovelace as the “first computer programmer” Babbage was a mathematician, inventor, and engineer, famous for his lavish parties and his curmudgeonly attitude. Lady Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was a mathematician and scientist, introduced to Babbage when she was a teenager. The two developed a long professional relationship, which included their collaborative work on a machine called the Analytical Engine, a design for the first mechanical, programmable computer.

They might be cited as the origin points of the modern-day computer, but such claims are historically wrong. For all of Babbage’s ingenuity in the design and conception of his mechanical, programmable calculating machines they played absolutely no role in and had no influence on the later development of the computer in the twentieth century. They were and remain an interesting historical anomaly. Regular readers of this blog will know that I reject the use of the expression “the father of” for anything in #histSTM and that for very good reasons. They will also know that I reject Ada Lovelace being called the “first computer programmer” for the very simple reason that she wasn’t. (See addendum below) I am of the opinion that Ada Lovelace was not a mathematician in any meaningful sense of the word, and she was in absolutely no way a scientist. Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage did not have a long professional relationship and did not collaborate on the design of the Analytical Engine, which was entirely the work of Charles Babbage alone, and in which Ada Lovelace played absolutely no part. Assigning co-authorship and co-development to Ada Lovelace for Babbage’s work is no different to saying that a journalist, who interviews a scientist about his research work and then write a puff piece about it, is the scientist’s co-researcher! The train-wreck continues:

Much of what we know about the Analytical Engine comes from Lovelace’s paper on the machine. In 1842, she published” A Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with notes by the Translator”,” a translation of an earlier article by mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Lovelace’s English translation of Menabrea’s article included her own extended appendix in which she elaborated on the machine’s design and proposed several early computer programs. Her notes were instrumental for Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computer in the 1930s. His work would later provide the basis for the Colossus computer, the world’s first large-scale programmable, electronic, digital computer, developed to assist with cryptography work during World War II. Machines like the Colossus were the precursors to the computers we carry around today in our pockets and our backpacks.

We actually know far more about the Analytical Engine from Babbage’s biography (see footnote 1) and his own extensive papers on it, which were collected and published by his son Henry, Babbage’s Calculating Engines: Being a Collection of Papers Relating to Them; Their History and Construction, Charles Babbage, Edited by Henry P. Babbage, CUP, 1889. The notes to the translation, which the author calls an appendix, we know to have been co-authored by Babbage and Lovelace and not as here stated written by Lovelace alone. There is only one computer program in the notes and that we know to have been written by Babbage and not Lovelace. (See addendum below) Her notes played absolutely no role whatsoever in Turing’s work in the 1930s, which was not on the first modern computer but on a problem in metamathematics, known as the Entscheidungsproblem (English: decision problem). Turing discussed one part of the notes in his paper on artificial intelligence, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, (Mind, October 1950). Turing’s 1930s work had nothing to do with the design of the Colossus, although his work on the use of probability in cryptoanalysis did. Colossus was designed and built by Tommy Flowers, who generally gets far too little credit for his pioneering work in computers. The Colossus played no role in the future development of computers because the British government dismantled or hid all of the Colossus computers from Bletchley Park after the war and closed access to the information on the Colossus for thirty years under the official secret act. We are not done yet:

With Babbage and Lovelace’s work as the foundation and the Turing Machine as the next step toward what we now think of as computers…

Babbage’s work, not Babbage’s and Lovelace’s, was not, as already stated above, the foundation and the Turing Machine was very definitely not the next step towards what we now think of as the computer. I really do wish that people would take the trouble to find out what a Turing Machine really is. It’s an abstract metamathematical concept that is useful for describing, on an abstract level, how a computer works and for defining the computing power or capabilities of a given computer. It played no role in the development of real computers in the 1940s and wasn’t even referenced in the computer industry before the 1950s at the very earliest. Small tip for future authors, if you are going to write about the history of the computer, it pays to learn something about that history before you start. We are approaching the finish line:

One part of the history of computing that is much less familiar is the role the textile industry played in Babbage and Lovelace’s plans for the Analytical Engine. In a key line from Lovelace’s publication, she observes, “we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” The Jacquard Loom was a mechanical weaving system controlled by a chain of punched cards. The punched cards were fed into the weaving loom and dictated which threads were activated as the machine wove each row. The result was an intricate textile pattern that had been “programmed” by the punch cards.

Impressed by the ingenuity of this automation system, Babbage and Lovelace used punched cards as the processing input for the Analytical Engine. The punched cards, Lovelace explains in her notes, contain “the impress of whatever special function we may desire to develop or to tabulate” using the machine.

Why is it that so many authors use ‘less familiar’ or ‘less well known’ about things that are very well known to those, who take an interest in the given topic? For those, who take an interest in Babbage and his computers, the fact that he borrowed the punch card concept from Jacquard’s mechanical, silk weaving loom is very well known. Once again, I must emphasise, Babbage and not Babbage and Lovelace. He adopted the idea of using punch cards to program the Analytical Engine entirely alone, Ada Lovelace was not in anyway involved in this decision.

Itch now successfully scratched! As, I said at the beginning the rest of the essay makes some interesting points and is well worth a read, but I really do wish she had done some real research before writing the totally crap introduction.


I have pointed out on numerous occasions that it was Babbage, who wrote the program for the Analytical Engine to calculate the Bernoulli numbers, as presented in Note G of the Lovelace memoir. He tells us this himself in his autobiography[1]. I have been called a liar for stating this and also challenged to provide evidence by people to lazy to check for themselves, so here are his own words in black and white (16-bit grayscale actually)

Babbage 01

[1] Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, Green, London, 1864, p. 136


Filed under History of Computing, History of Logic

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part LII

This is a concluding summary to my The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic blog post series. It is an attempt to produce an outline sketch of the path that we have followed over the last two years. There are, at the appropriate points, links to the original posts for those, who wish to examine a given point in more detail. I thank all the readers, who have made the journey with me and in particular all those who have posted helpful comments and corrections. Constructive comments and especially corrections are always very welcome. For those who have developed a taste for a continuous history of science narrative served up in easily digestible slices at regular intervals, a new series will start today in two weeks if all goes according to plan!

There is a sort of standard popular description of the so-called astronomical revolution that took place in the Early Modern period that goes something liker this. The Ptolemaic geocentric model of the cosmos ruled unchallenged for 1400 years until Nicolas Copernicus published his trailblazing De revolutionibus in 1453, introducing the concept of the heliocentric cosmos. Following some initial resistance, Kepler with his three laws of planetary motion and Galileo with his revelatory telescopic discoveries proved the existence of heliocentricity. Isaac Newton with his law of gravity in his Principia in 1687 provided the physical mechanism for a heliocentric cosmos and astronomy became modern. What I have tried to do in this series is to show that this version of the story is almost totally mythical and that in fact the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the cosmos was a long drawn out, complex process that took many stages and involved many people and their ideas, some right, some only half right and some even totally false, but all of which contributed in some way to that transition.

The whole process started at least one hundred and fifty years before Copernicus published his magnum opus, when at the beginning of the fifteenth century it was generally acknowledged that astronomy needed to be improved, renewed and reformed. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was just one contribution, albeit a highly significant one, to that reform process. This reform process was largely triggered by the reintroduction of mathematical cartography into Europe with the translation into Latin of Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis by Jacopo d’Angelo (c. 1360 – 1411) in 1406. A reliable and accurate astronomy was needed to determine longitude and latitude. Other driving forces behind the need for renewal and reform were astrology, principally in the form of astro-medicine, a widened interest in surveying driven by changes in land ownership and navigation as the Europeans began to widen and expand their trading routes and to explore the world outside of Europe.


The Ptolemaic Cosmos: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the fifteenth century the predominant system was an uneasy marriage of Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic astronomy, uneasy because they contradicted each other to a large extent. Given the need for renewal and reform there were lively debates about almost all aspects of the cosmology and astronomy throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many aspects of the discussions had their roots deep in the European and Islamic Middle Ages, which shows that the 1400 years of unchallenged Ptolemaic geocentricity is a myth, although an underlying general acceptance of geocentricity was the norm.

A major influence on this programme of renewal was the invention of moving type book printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, which made important texts in accurate editions more readily available to interested scholars. The programme for renewal also drove a change in the teaching of mathematics and astronomy on the fifteenth century European universities. 

One debate that was new was on the nature and status of comets, a debate that starts with Toscanelli in the early fifteenth century, was taken up by Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the century, was revived in the early sixteenth century in a Europe wide debate between Apian, Schöner, Fine, Cardano, Fracastoro and Copernicus, leading to the decisive claims in the 1570s by Tycho Brahe, Michael Mästlin, and Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek that comets were celestial object above the Moon’s orbit and thus Aristotle’s claim that they were a sub-lunar meteorological phenomenon was false. Supralunar comets also demolished the Aristotelian celestial, crystalline spheres. These claims were acknowledged and accepted by the leading European Ptolemaic astronomer, Christoph Clavius, as were the claims that the 1572 nova was supralunar. Both occurrences shredded the Aristotelian cosmological concept that the heaven were immutable and unchanging.

The comet debate continued with significant impact in 1618, the 1660s, the 1680s and especially in the combined efforts of Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, reaching a culmination in the latter’s correct prediction that the comet of 1682 would return in 1758. A major confirmation of the law of gravity.

During those early debates it was not just single objects, such as comets, that were discussed but whole astronomical systems were touted as alternatives to the Ptolemaic model. There was an active revival of the Eudoxian-Aristotelian homocentric astronomy, already proposed in the Middle Ages, because the Ptolemaic system, of deferents, epicycles and equant points, was seen to violate the so-called Platonic axioms of circular orbits and uniform circular motion. Another much discussed proposal was the possibility of diurnal rotation, a discussion that had its roots in antiquity. Also, on the table as a possibility was the Capellan system with Mercury and Venus orbiting the Sun in a geocentric system rather than the Earth.


The Copernican Cosmos: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early in the sixteenth century, Copernicus entered these debates, as one who questioned the Ptolemaic system because of its breaches of the Platonic axioms, in particular the equant point, which he wished to ban. Quite how he arrived at his radical solution, replace geocentricity with heliocentricity we don’t know but it certainly stirred up those debates, without actually dominating them. The reception of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was complex. Some simply rejected it, as he offered no real proof for it. A small number had embraced and accepted it by the turn of the century. A larger number treated it as an instrumentalist theory and hoped that his models would deliver more accurate planetary tables and ephemerides, which they duly created. Their hopes were dashed, as the Copernican tables, based on the same ancient and corrupt data, proved just as inaccurate as the already existing Ptolemaic ones. Of interests is the fact that it generated a serious competitor, as various astronomers produced geo-heliocentric systems, extensions of the Capellan model, in which the planets orbit the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Such so-called Tychonic or semi-Tychonic systems, named after their most well-known propagator, incorporated all the acknowledged advantages of the Copernican model, without the problem of a moving Earth, although some of the proposed models did have diurnal rotation.


The Tychonic Cosmos: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica 1660 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The problem of inaccurate planetary tables and ephemerides was already well known in the Middle Ages and regarded as a major problem. The production of such tables was seen as the primary function of astronomy since antiquity and they were essential to all the applied areas mentioned earlier that were the driving forces behind the need for renewal and reform. Already in the fifteenth century, Regiomontanus had set out an ambitious programme of astronomical observation to provide a new data base for such tables. Unfortunately, he died before he even really got started. In the second half of the sixteenth century both Wilhelm IV Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel and Tycho Brahe took up the challenge and set up ambitious observation programmes that would eventually deliver the desired new, more accurate astronomical data.

At the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century, Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, with his first two planetary laws (derived from Tycho’s new accurate data), and the invention of the telescope and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius with his telescopic discoveries are, in the standard mythology, presented as significant game changing events in favour of heliocentricity. They were indeed significant but did not have the impact on the system debate that is usually attributed them. Kepler’s initial publication fell largely on deaf ears and only later became relevant. On Galileo’s telescopic observations, firstly he was only one of a group of astronomers, who in the period 1610 to 1613 each independently made those discoveries, (Thomas Harriot and William Lower, Simon Marius, Johannes Fabricius, Odo van Maelcote and Giovanni Paolo Lembo, and Christoph Scheiner) but what did they show or prove? The lunar features were another nail in the coffin of the Aristotelian concept of celestial perfection, as were the sunspots. The moons of Jupiter disproved the homocentric hypothesis. Most significant discovery was the of the phases of Venus, which showed that a pure geocentric model was impossible, but they were conform with various geo-heliocentric models.

1613 did not show any clarity on the way to finding the true model of the cosmos but rather saw a plethora of models competing for attention. There were still convinced supporters of a Ptolemaic model, both with and without diurnal rotation, despite the phases of Venus. Various Tychonic and semi-Tychonic models, once again both with and without diurnal rotation. Copernicus’ heliocentric model with its Ptolemaic deferents and epicycles and lastly Kepler’s heliocentric system with its elliptical orbits, which was regarded as a competitor to Copernicus’ system. Over the next twenty years the fog cleared substantially and following Kepler’s publication of his third law, his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, which despite its title is a textbook on his elliptical system and the Rudolphine Tables, again based on Tycho’s data, which delivered the much desired accurate tables for the astrologers, navigators, surveyors and cartographers, and also of Longomontanus’ Astronomia Danica (1622) with his own tables derived from Tycho’s data presenting an updated Tychonic system with diurnal rotation, there were only two systems left in contention.

Around 1630, we now have two major world systems but not the already refuted geocentric system of Ptolemaeus and the largely forgotten Copernican system as presented in Galileo’s Dialogo but Kepler’s elliptical heliocentricity and a Tychonic system, usually with diurnal rotation. It is interesting that diurnal rotation became accepted well before full heliocentricity, although there was no actually empirical evidence for it. In terms of acceptance the Tychonic system had its nose well ahead of Kepler because of the lack of any empirical evidence for movement of the Earth.

Although there was still not a general acceptance of the heliocentric hypothesis during the seventeenth century the widespread discussion of it in continued in the published astronomical literature, which helped to spread knowledge of it and to some extent popularise it. This discussion also spread into and even dominated the newly emerging field of proto-sciencefiction.

Galileo’s Dialogo was hopelessly outdated and contributed little to nothing to the real debate on the astronomical system. However, his Discorsi made a very significant and important contribution to a closely related topic that of the evolution of modern physics. The mainstream medieval Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmological- astronomical model came as a complete package together with Aristotle’s theories of celestial and terrestrial motion. His cosmological model also contained a sort of friction drive rotating the spheres from the outer celestial sphere, driven by the unmoved mover (for Christians their God), down to the lunar sphere. With the gradual demolition of Aristotelian cosmology, a new physics must be developed to replace the Aristotelian theories.

Once again challenges to the Aristotelian physics had already begun in the Middle Ages, in the sixth century CE with the work of John Philoponus and the impetus theory, was extended by Islamic astronomers and then European ones in the High Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century the so-called Oxford Calculatores derived the mean speed theorem, the core of the laws of fall and this work was developed and disseminated by the so-called Paris Physicists. In the sixteenth century various mathematicians, most notably Tartaglia and Benedetti developed the theories of motion and fall further. As did in the early seventeenth century the work of Simon Stevin and Isaac Beeckman. These developments reached a temporary high point in Galileo’s Discorsi. Not only was a new terrestrial physics necessary but also importantly for astronomy a new celestial physics had to be developed. The first person to attempt this was Kepler, who replaced the early concept of animation for the planets with the concept of a force, hypothesising some sort of magnetic force emanating from the Sun driving the planets around their orbits. Giovanni Alfonso Borelli also proposed a system of forces as the source of planetary motion.

Throughout the seventeenth century various natural philosophers worked on and made contributions to defining and clarifying the basic terms that make up the science of dynamics: force, speed, velocity, acceleration, etc. as well as developing other areas of physics, Amongst them were Simon Stevin, Isaac Beeckman, Borelli, Descartes, Pascal, Riccioli and Christiaan Huygens. Their efforts were brought together and synthesised by Isaac Newton in his Principia with its three laws of motion, the law of gravity and Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, which laid the foundations of modern physics.

In astronomy telescopic observations continued to add new details to the knowledge of the solar system. It was discovered that the planets have diurnal rotation, and the periods of their diurnal rotations were determined. This was a strong indication the Earth would also have diurnal rotation. Huygens figured out the rings of Saturn and discovered Titan its largest moon. Cassini discovered four further moons of Saturn. It was already known that the four moons of Jupiter obeyed Kepler’s third law and it would later be determined that the then known five moons of Saturn also did so. Strong confirming evidence for a Keplerian model.

Cassini showed by use of a heliometer that either the orbit of the Sun around the Earth or the Earth around the Sun was definitively an ellipse but could not determine which orbited which. There was still no real empirical evidence to distinguish between Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric model and a Tychonic geo-heliocentric one, but a new proof of Kepler’s disputed second law and an Occam’s razor argument led to the general acceptance of the Keplerian model around 1660-1670, although there was still no empirical evidence for either the Earth’s orbit around the Sun or for diurnal rotation. Newton’s Principia, with its inverse square law of gravity provided the physical mechanism for what should now best be called the Keplerian-Newtonian heliocentric cosmos.

Even at this juncture with a very widespread general acceptance of this Keplerian-Newtonian heliocentric cosmos there were still a number of open questions that needed to be answered. There were challenges to Newton’s work, which, for example, couldn’t at that point fully explain the erratic orbit of the Moon around the Earth. This problem had been solved by the middle of the eighteenth century. The mechanical philosophers on the European continent were anything but happy with Newton’s gravity, an attractive force that operates at a distance. What exactly is it and how does it function? Questions that even Newton couldn’t really answer. Leibniz also questioned Newton’s insistence that time and space were absolute, that there exists a nil point in the system from which all measurement of these parameters are taken. Leibniz preferred a relative model.

There was of course also the very major problem of the lack of any form of empirical evidence for the Earth’s movement. Going back to Copernicus nobody had in the intervening one hundred and fifty years succeeded in detecting a stellar parallax that would confirm that the Earth does indeed orbit the Sun. This proof was finally delivered in 1725 by Samuel Molyneux and James Bradley, who first observed, not stellar parallax but stellar aberration. An indirect proof of diurnal rotation was provided in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the natural philosophers of the French Scientific Academy correctly determined the shape of the Earth, as an oblate spheroid, flattened at the pols and with an equatorial bulge, confirming the hypothetical model proposed by Newton and Huygens based on the assumption of a rotating Earth.

Another outstanding problem that had existed since antiquity was determining the dimensions of the known cosmos. The first obvious method to fulfil this task was the use of parallax, but whilst it was already possible in antiquity to determine the distance of the Moon reasonably accurately using parallax, down to the eighteenth century it proved totally impossible to detect the parallax of any other celestial body and thus its distance from the Earth. Ptolemaeus’ geocentric model had dimensions cobbled together from its data on the crystalline spheres. One of the advantages of the heliocentric model is that it gives automatically relative distances for the planets from the sun and each other. This means that one only needs to determine a single actually distance correctly and all the others are automatically given. Efforts concentrated on determining the distance between the Earth and the Sun, the astronomical unit, without any real success; most efforts producing figures that were much too small.

Developing a suggestion of James Gregory, Edmond Halley explained how a transit of Venus could be used to determine solar parallax and thus the true size of the astronomical unit. In the 1760s two transits of Venus gave the world the opportunity to put Halley’s theory into practice and whilst various problems reduced the accuracy of the measurements, a reasonable approximation for the Sun’s distance from the Earth was obtained for the very first time and with it the actually dimensions of the planetary part of the then known solar system. What still remained completely in the dark was the distance of the stars from the Earth. In the 1830s, three astronomers–Thomas Henderson, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel and Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve–all independently succeeded in detecting and measuring a stellar parallax thus completing the search for the dimensions of the known cosmos and supplying a second confirmation, after stellar aberration, for the Earth’s orbiting the Sun.

In 1851, Léon Foucault, exploiting the Coriolis effect first hypothesised by Riccioli in the seventeenth century, finally gave a direct empirical demonstration of diurnal rotation using a simple pendulum, three centuries after Copernicus published his heliocentric hypothesis. Ironically this demonstration was within the grasp of Galileo, who experiment with pendulums and who so desperately wanted to be the man who proved the reality of the heliocentric model, but he never realised the possibility. His last student, Vincenzo Viviani, actually recorded the Coriolis effect on a pendulum but didn’t realise what it was and dismissed it as an experimental error.

From the middle of the eighteenth century, at the latest, the Keplerian-Newtonian heliocentric model had become accepted as the real description of the known cosmos. Newton was thought not just to have produced a real description of the cosmos but the have uncovered the final scientific truth. This was confirmed on several occasions. Firstly, Herschel’s freshly discovered new planet Uranus in 1781 fitted Newton’s theories without problem, as did the series of asteroids discovered in the early nineteenth century. Even more spectacular was the discovery of Neptune in 1846 based on observed perturbations from the path of Uranus calculated with Newton’s theory, a clear confirmation of the theory of gravity. Philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, no longer questioned whether Newton had discovered the true picture of the cosmos but how it had been possible for him to do so.


However, appearances were deceptive, and cracks were perceptible in the Keplerian-Newtonian heliocentric model. Firstly, Leibniz’s criticism of Newton’s insistence on absolute time and space rather than a relative model would turn out to have been very perceptive. Secondly, Newton’s theory of gravity couldn’t account for the observed perihelion precession of the planet Mercury. Thirdly in the 1860s, based on the experimental work of Michael Faraday, James Maxwell produced a theory of electromagnetism, which was not compatible with Newtonian physics. Throughout the rest of the century various scientists including Hendrik Lorentz, Georg Fitzgerald, Oliver Heaviside, Henri Poincaré, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley tried to find a resolution to the disparities between the Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories. Their efforts finally lead to Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and then on to his General theory of Relativity, which could explain the perihelion precession of the planet Mercury. The completion of the one model, the Keplerian-Newtonian heliocentric one marked the beginnings of the route to a new system that would come to replace it.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Newton, Renaissance Science

Christmas Trilogy 2020 Part 3: The peregrinations of Johannes K

We know that human beings have been traversing vast distances on the surface of the globe since Homo sapiens first emerged from Africa. However, in medieval Europe it would not have been uncommon for somebody born into a poor family never in their life to have journeyed more than perhaps thirty kilometres from their place of birth. Maybe a journey into the next larger settlement on market day or perhaps once a year to an even larger town for a fair on a public holiday. This might well have been Johannes Kepler’s fate, born as he was into an impoverished family, had it not been for his extraordinary intellectual abilities. Although he never left the Southern German speaking area of Europe (today, Southern Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic), he managed to clock up a large number of journey kilometres over the fifty-eight years of his life. In those days there was, of course, no public transport and in general we don’t know how he travelled. We can assume that for some of his longer journeys that he joined trader caravans. Traders often travelled in large wagon trains with hired guards to protect them from thieves and marauding bands and travellers could, for a fee, join them for protection. We do know that as an adult Kepler travelled on horseback but was often forced to go by foot due to the pain caused by his piles.[1]

It is estimated that in the Middle ages someone travelling on foot with luggage would probably only manage 15 km per day going up to perhaps 22 km with minimal luggage. A horse rider without a spare mount maybe as much as 40 km per day, with a second horse up to 60 km per day. I leave it to the reader to work out how long each of Kepler’s journeys might have taken him.


Johannes Kepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes’ first journey from home took place, when he attended the convent-school in Adelberg at the age of thirteen, which lies about 70 km due west of his birthplace, Weil der Stadt, and about 90 km, also due west of Ellmendigen, where his family were living at the time.


Adelberg Convent Source: Wikimedia Commons

His next journey took place a couple of years later when he transferred to the Cistercian monastery in Maulbronn about 50 km north of Weil der Stadt and 30 west of Ellmendingen.


Maulbronn Monastery Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finished with the lower schools in 1589, he undertook the journey to the University of Tübingen, where he was enrolled in the Tübinger Stift, about 40 km south of Weil der Stadt.


The Evangelical Tübinger Stift on the banks of the Neckar Source: WIkimedia Commons

Johannes’ first really long journey took place in 1594, when on 11 April he set out for Graz the capital city of Styria in Austria to take up the posts of mathematics teacher in the Lutheran academy, as well as district mathematicus, a distance of about 650 km. The young scholar would have been on the road for quite a few days.


Graz, Mur und Schloßberg, Georg Matthäus Vischer (1670) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he only spent a few years in Graz, Kepler manged at first to stabilise his life even marrying, Barbara Müller, and starting a family. However, the religious conflicts of the period intervened and Kepler, a Lutheran Protestant living in a heavily Catholic area became a victim of those conflicts. First, the Protestants of the area were forced to convert or leave, which led to the closing of the school where Kepler was teaching and his losing his job. Because of his success as astrologer, part of his duties as district mathematicus, Kepler was granted an exception to the anti-Protestant order, but it was obvious that he would have to leave. He appealed to Tübingen to give him employment, but his request fell on deaf ears. The most promising alternative seemed to be to go and work for Tycho Brahe, the Imperial Mathematicus, currently ensconced in the imperial capital, Prague, a mere 450 km distant.


Prague in the Nuremberg Chronicle 1493 Source: Wikimedia Commons

At first Kepler didn’t know how he would manage the journey to Prague to negotiate about possible employment with Tycho. However, an aristocratic friend was undertaking the journey and took Johannes along as a favour. After, several weeks of fraught and at times downright nasty negotiations with the imperious Dane, Kepler was finally offered employment and with this promise in his pocket he returned to Graz to settle his affairs, pack up his household and move his family to Prague. He made the journey between Graz and Prague three times in less than a year.

Not long after his arrival in Prague, with his family, Tycho died and Kepler was appointed his successor, as Imperial Mathematicus, the start of a ten year relatively stable period in his life. That is, if you can call being an imperial servant at the court of Rudolf II, stable. Being on call 24/7 to answer the emperor’s astrological queries, battling permanently with the imperial treasury to get your promised salary paid, fighting with Tycho’s heirs over the rights to his data. Kepler’s life in Prague was not exactly stress free.

1608 saw Johannes back on the road. First to Heidelberg to see his first major and possibly most important contribution to modern astronomy, his Astronomia Nova (1609), through the press and then onto the book fair in Frankfurt to sell the finished work, that had cost him several years of his life. Finally, back home to Prague from Frankfurt. A total round-trip of 1100 km, plus he almost certainly took a detour to visit his mother somewhere along his route.

Back in Prague things began to look rather dodgy again for Kepler and his family, as Rudolf became more and more unstable and Johannes began to look for a new appointment and a new place to live. His appeals to Tübingen for a professorship, not an unreasonable request, as he was by now widely acknowledged as Europe’s leading theoretical astronomer, once again fell on deaf ears. His search for new employment eventually led him to Linz the capital city of Upper Austria and the post of district mathematicus. 1612, found Johannes and his children once again on the move, his wife, Barbara, had died shortly before, this time transferring their household over the comparatively short distance of 250 km.


Linz anno 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Settled in Linz, Kepler married his second wife, Susanna Reuttinger, after having weighed up the odds on various potential marriage candidates and the beginning of a comparative settled fourteen-year period in his life. That is, if you can call becoming embroiled in the Thirty Years War and having your mother arrested and charged with witchcraft settled. His mother’s witchcraft trial saw Johannes undertaking the journey from Linz to Tübingen and home again, to organise and conduct her defence, from October to December in 1617 and again from September 1620 to November 1621, a round trip each time of about 1,000 km, not to forget the detours to Leonberg, his mother’s home, 50 km from Tübingen, from where he took his mother, a feeble woman of 70, back to Linz on the first journey.

In 1624, Johannes set out once again, this time to Vienna, now the imperial capital, to try and obtain the money necessary to print the Rudolphine Tables from Ferdinand II the ruling emperor, just 200 km in one direction. Ferdinand refused to give Kepler the money he required, although the production of the Rudolphine Tables had been an imperial assignment. Instead, he ordered the imperial treasury to issues Kepler promissory notes on debts owed to the emperor by the imperial cities of Kempten, Augsburg and Nürnberg, instructing him to go and collect on the debts himself. Kepler returned to Linz more than somewhat disgruntled and it is not an exaggeration that his life went downhill from here.

Kepler set out from Linz to Augsburg, approximately 300 km, but the Augsburg city council wasn’t playing ball and he left empty handed for Kempten, a relatively short 100 km. In Kempten the authorities agreed to purchase and pay for the paper that he needed to print the Rudolphine Tables. From Kempten he travelled on to Nürnberg, another 250 km, which he left again empty handed, returning the 300 km to Linz, completing a nearly 1,000 km frustrating round trip that took four months.

In 1626, the War forced him once again to pack up his home and to leave Linz forever with his family. He first travelled to Regensburg where he found accommodation for his family before travelling on to Ulm where he had had the paper from Kempten delivered so that he could begin printing, a combined journey of about 500 km. When the printing was completed in 1627, having paid the majority of the printing costs out of his own pocket, Kepler took the entire print run to the bookfair in Frankfurt and sold it in balk to a book dealer to recoup his money, another journey of 300 km. He first travelled back to Ulm and then home to his family in Regensburg, adding another 550 km to his life’s total. Regensburg was visited by the emperor and Wallenstein, commander in chief of the Catholic forces, and Kepler presented the Tables to the Emperor, who received them with much praise for the author.

In 1628, he entered the service of Wallenstein, as his astrologer, moving from Regensburg to Wallenstein’s estates in the Dutchy of Sagan, yet another 500 km. In 1630, the emperor called a Reichstag in Regensburg and on 8 October Kepler set out on the last journey of his life to attend. Why he chose to attend is not very clear, but he did. He journeyed from Zagan to Leipzig and from there to Nürnberg before going on to Regensburg a total of 700 km. He fell ill on his arrival in Regensburg and died 15 November 1630.


Regensburg Nuremberg Chronicle 1493 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mathematical abilities of the young boy born to an impoverish family in Weil der Stadt fifty-eight-years earlier had taken him on a long intellectual journey but also as we have seen on a long physical one, down many a road.


[1] I almost certainly haven’t included all of the journeys that Kepler made in his lifetime, but I think I’ve got most of the important ones. The distances are rounded up or down and are based on the modern distances by road connecting the places travelled to and from. The roads might have run differently in Kepler’s day.

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science