1.2 An Early Modern Europe

Matejko, Jan. "Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God." 1872.
Matejko, Jan. “Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God.” 1872. Jagiellonian University Museum. November 26, 2017. Wikimedia.

The study of history requires that you think about the past on two levels: “the broad and the specific.” One of the tasks of an historian is to look for changes in political structures, economic systems, class/gender/racial relationships, cultural movements, and religious beliefs over time. In order to track these changes, it is necessary to consider how specific events or circumstances fit within broader trends or themes that span time and geographic location. By taking a step back, and examining history in these broad terms, the relationship between the past and the present becomes clearer, and we gain an understanding of how history has shaped the modern world – the world in which we live.

As you read and review the stories of the Scientific Revolution, you should reflect on how and why the political, economic, social, and religious aspects of each culture developed as it did. What factors drove this development? Themes such as these serve to organize and inform your research as you build the picture of what happened in the past and how it has led to the present, making connections as we go.

The Scientific Revolution

Society & Culture

This category is a bit difficult to define. What do we mean by society? What do we mean by culture? Rather than delve into a complex theoretical discussion, let’s simply agree that society refers to how a civilization is organized by class, gender and ethnicity, while culture encompasses both artistic and intellectual pursuits.

The social organization and cultural output of any given society is often influenced by other factors, such as religion, politics and economics. Indeed, social organization and cultural output reflect the priorities, beliefs and values of the civilization in which they exist. As such, by examining society and culture, we gain a deeper understanding of the mind-set of those who lived in the past.

Learning Objectives

As you read this section look for the answers to the following questions:

  • What are the origins of the Scientific Revolution? Who were among the key intellectuals of this period and what were some of their achievements?
  • How and why did the study of alchemy transform? What were some of the medical advances obtained during this period of scientific inquiry?
  • How did the Catholic Church respond to the Scientific Revolution? What factors might explain that response?

During the latter sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, changes in how educated Europeans understood the natural world marked the emergence of a recognizably modern scientific perspective. The practical impact of that shift was relatively minor at the time, but the long-term consequences were enormous. For the first time, a culture emerged in Europe in which empirical observations served as the basis for logical conjecture about how natural laws operated, leading to the possibility of a vast range of scientific discovery.

For well over a thousand years, Europeans had looked backwards for insights into the natural world. They relied on Aristotle and accounts by other ancient authors to explain how the universe functioned, how physics operated, and how the human body regulated itself. These teachings were supplemented by Christian scholarship that sought to find the hand of God in the natural world. There was a marked absence of empirical research: observing, from a neutral and objective standpoint, natural phenomena and using those observations as the basis of informed experimentation as to their causes and operation.

Medieval and early-modern Europeans had never developed an empirical scientific culture because the point of science had never been to discover the truth, but to describe it. In other words, practically every pre-modern person already knew how the world worked: they knew it from myth, from the teachings of ancient authorities, and from religion. In a sense, all of the answers were already there, and thus empirical observation was seen as redundant. The term used at the time for “science” was “natural philosophy,” a branch of philosophy devoted to observing and cataloging natural phenomena, for the most part without attempting to explain those observations outside of references to ancient authorities and the Bible.

The Scientific Process, Mentality, and Method

The Scientific Revolution grew out of Renaissance humanism. Humanistic scholars by the late sixteenth century were increasingly dissatisfied with some ancient authors, since those authors did not, in fact, explain everything. While ancient authors wrote about astronomy, for instance, they did not adequately explain the observed movements of the stars and planets. Likewise, with the explosion of new translations of classical works, it became clear that ancient scholars had actively debated and even rejected the teachings of figures like Aristotle. This suggested that it was legitimate to question even the most fundamental ancient ideas.

Even to scholars who respected and deferred to ancient authors, much of ancient astronomy was based on some fairly questionable speculations, like the idea that the Earth sits on top of a giant sea that occasionally sloshes around, causing earthquakes. Thus, the first major discoveries in the Revolution had to do with astronomy, as scholars started carrying out their own observations and advancing theories to explain what they saw happening in the heavens. This process is known as inductive reasoning: starting with disparate facts, then working toward a theory to explain them. It is the opposite of deductive reasoning, which starts with a known theory and then tries to prove that observations fit into it. The classic example of the latter was taking the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe as a given, then trying to force the observed movements of the heavenly bodies to make sense through elaborate explanations.

That being noted, deductive reasoning is still an important part of “real” science in that it allows for proofs: in mathematics, for instance, one can start with a known principle and then use it to prove more complex formulas. Mathematics itself played a key role in the Scientific Revolution, since many thinkers insisted that mathematics was part of a divine language that existed apart from, but was as nearly important as, the Bible itself. God had designed the universe in such a way that mathematics offered the possibility of real scientific certainty. The close relationship between math, physics, and engineering is obvious in the work of people like Da Vinci, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, all of whom combined an advanced understanding of mathematics and its practical applications.

It would be wrong to claim that the Scientific Revolution sparked a completely objective, recognizably “modern” form of science, however. What early-modern scientists hoped to do was understand the secrets of the universe. Isaac Newton was a scientist but also an alchemist, devoting considerable time and effort to trying to figure out how to “transmute” base metals like lead into gold. There was a great deal of crossover between what we might think of as magic and spirituality on the one hand and “real” science on the other. This is evident not only with Newton, but with other scientists of the era – many were astronomers and astrologers, just as many were mathematicians and engineers while also being alchemists. The point here is that, ultimately, even though it turns out that magic does not exist, the interest in discovery piqued by the idea of probing the universe’s secrets still led to genuine scientific discovery.

The major figure in codifying and popularizing the new empirical, inductive process was Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), an English nobleman. Bacon is best remembered for “creating” the scientific method: advancing a hypothesis to explain observed data, but then trying to disprove the hypothesis rather than trying to force the facts to prove it. In this way, the best that could be hoped for was a highly likely, not-yet-disproven theory, rather than a flimsy, vulnerable theory that needed artificial defenses. Over time, the scientific method came to include a corollary requirement: the results of an experiment had to yield the same results consistently in order for a hypothesis to be considered viable.

Bacon took the radical step of breaking even with the Renaissance obsession with ancient scholarship by arguing that ancient knowledge of the natural world was all but worthless and that scholars in the present should instead reconstruct their knowledge of the world based on empirical observation. Bacon was a kind of prophet of the movement, not a scientist himself – he was fired as the Lord Chancellor of King James I after accepting bribes, and he died after catching a cold stuffing snow into a dead chicken as some kind of ill-conceived biological experiment. Regardless, he codified the new methodology and worldview of the Scientific Revolution itself.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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