Generation 478, 1540-1560. Ideas updated and assimilated

This generation saw the appearance of the scientific revolution in three books, each epoch-making in its way.

The first was by Andries van Wezel from Flanders. As latin was the language of scholarship, he became known as Andreas Vesalius. During his studies in medicine at the universities of Padua and Bologna he became aware, as many had done before him, that the standard texts on anatomy were inaccurate. It is not surprising that they were, as they had been written over a millennium previously. Their author, Galen, had limited access to human bodies for study and so had made educated guesses from the dissection of animal bodies.

Galen had also stressed the need for continuing enquiry. Vesalius took him at his word and started doing dissections himself (already a revolutionary step. Previously the professor sat on a chair away from the smell of the decaying body and pointed out relevant features as someone else cut up the corpse). He then went a step further and drew diagrams of what he saw. Hundreds of detailed diagrams went into ‘De humani corporis fabrica’, ‘The structure of the human body’.

The second book was in the field of astronomy. A Polish churchman with the latinised name of Nicolaus Copernicus also went to study in Italy, although a generation earlier than Vesalius. His target was not Galen but another venerable text: Ptolemy’s Almagest. This was Ptolemy’s textbook of Mathematics and Astronomy, laying out what was known of these subjects at the time (around 150 AD). It describes the Earth as the still centre of the cosmos and charts the movements of the planets around it. However, as viewed from the Earth, the planets make some convoluted movements (because, as we now know, all of the planets including the one we live on circle around the Sun). Ptolemy devised a series of epicycles, circles within circles to accommodate this.

Copernicus came up with a simpler way to explain the data: why not think of the Sun as the centre with the planets revolving around it? He carried this idea with him for over twenty years, discussing it with others but not daring to publish it. However, he could not abandon the idea of perfect spheres for the movements of the heavenly bodies (they actually move in ellipses), and so his description was also inaccurate. ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published in the year he died, 1543, in such a complicated book that the initial small print run did not sell out. But a breakthrough had been made, to be developed by subsequent generations.

He needn’t have worried about offending officialdom with his book. His church, the roman catholic church, was quite amenable to the idea. After all, it was just a theory. It was the protestants who condemned it as heresy, contradicting what was written in the bible.

The third book that set a new standard was ‘De re metallica’ (on the nature of metals) by Georg Pawer, latinised to Georgius Agricola. He also trained as a doctor in Italy before returning to a mining area in his native Germany. This book paid tribute to ancient authorities and then updated them from his own observations. It became the standard mining textbook for nearly two centuries.
One of the many illustrations from De Re Metallica

A common theme in the story of these three books is the confidence in one’s own perceptions. A lock had been broken. While credit could be given to the ancient authorities when it was due, each writer’s own insights also had validity. A huge step forward.

In relation to mining, another man’s ideas from the previous generation were taken up in this one. Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who chose to be known as Paracelsus, developed a theory of occupational disease after observing the ailments that afflicted mineworkers. His self-confidence was as flamboyant as his name. ‘There are no incurable diseases, only ignorant physicians’, was one of his sayings. He was self-taught, and never qualified as a doctor himself. He outraged the establishment by lecturing in his native dialect rather than latin and by developing his own theories of disease. He rejected the ancients’ doctrine (which would treat mineworkers suffering from mercury poisoning by rebalancing the humours) in favour of a more pragmatic approach based on his own researches. The learned doctors prevented his writings from being published in his lifetime, but after his death it became clear that yet another lock had been broken.

A lock had also been broken in how people thought about religion. The Reformation was only a generation old. It had not faded away as the roman catholic church had hoped, but neither had it taken over the whole of christendom as many protestants believed was inevitable. Both sides had to deal with the new reality.

The roman catholic church convened a council at Trento in the north of Italy to discuss the future shape of the church. It was originally intended to be open to protestant and catholic alike, but no protestants came after they realised that they would effectively be treated as observers, without any authority to take decisions. Not many catholics came from outside Italy either, mainly for reasons of power politics. However, it was a defining moment for the church. The council clarified what their faith stood for, how they viewed the bible (let the church explain it to you) and protestantism (heresy), and attempted to clear up some of the worst abuses of its power, such as the sale of indulgences.

For the protestants, having broken the lock of Rome, they were then faced with the immense problem of what to replace it with. The most well-known of those thinkers today is John Calvin, who set up a church organisation in Geneva, from first principles. He was famous as a powerful and persuasive speaker. From the perspective of now, the church he set up looks as intolerant of dissent as the church it broke away from. Heretics were tried and burned at the stake just as happened with the Inquisition, which was also going strong during this generation. In both the catholic and protestant worlds there was a range of views from tolerant to hardline – and the hardliners tended to prevail.

This new thinking coincides with the virtual disappearance of the female gender from our story. An exception is this picture, one of the earliest family portraits to appear in England.


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