Generation 482, 1620-1640. Shifting focus.

The thirty years war was a fact of life for all of this generation if you lived in Europe. It was fought mainly in northern and central Europe, especially Germany and the Habsburg Empire (present day Austria, Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland). At different times Denmark, France and Sweden also sent troops to fight.

Looking back from here, I begin to suspect one reason why the supporters of the Roman Catholic church fought so bitterly and for so long. Something was slipping out of their grasp. The light of learning, enterprise, human curiosity was moving north. It found a home in the countries that largely escaped the fighting: France, England and the Netherlands.

For example, there is the story of William Harvey. Born in the south of England, a clever young man from a middle-class family, he went to Cambridge University, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts. To continue his studies after graduation, he went to the best establishment in Europe for medical studies: Padua in Italy. After studying there for four years he came back to England, returned to Cambridge and graduated as Doctor of Medicine within the year.

William Harvey is now remembered as a pioneer because he was one of a growing group who trusted the evidence of their own investigations rather than relying on books. Conventional medical science in his day was still based on books written by long-dead authorities. The standard theory of the blood, over 1300 years old, was that arterial and venous blood were different and separate. The heart was the source of heat and arterial blood in the body. Venous blood was created in the liver. From his own researches on animals, Harvey proposed that arterial and venous blood were part of the same system. He wrote that the blood circulates through the heart and lungs, around the body and back to the heart. He did not have access to a microscope, although it was invented around this time, so he could not see the capillaries that lie between the arteries and the veins. He proposed that they should be there, however, and was eventually proved right.


The anatomy lesson, Rembrandt 1631

For intellectual backup, Harvey could rely on the work of another remarkable Englishman from the previous generation. Francis Bacon also travelled and studied in southern Europe before returning to England. In his book Novum Organum (New Method), published in 1620,  he laid the basis for the scientific method. He warned of the danger of preconceptions, whether from previously written ideas or the prevailing orthodoxy, and championed the value of open-minded  enquiry and interpretation of observations. In his novel ‘New Atlantis’, published in 1623, he imagined a world where such open-minded exploration was the norm. A century later Voltaire described him as the father of experimental philosophy.

Mathematics was also explored in this generation. Some of the symbols we use now came from this period. English mathematicians devised the multiplication symbol (x) and the ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ signs (> and <). French mathematicians went into mathematical speculation. Pierre de Fermat pondered his ‘last theorem’. Scribbled in the margin was a note that he didn’t have time to write out the proof. (The proof was finally worked out in 1995 by Andrew Wiles). France also had a brilliant networker, a priest in Paris called Marin Mersenne. As well as conducting his own researches into music theory, he corresponded with mathematicians in France and elsewhere, keeping them up-to-date with new developments and introducing them to each other.


From the perspective of now, it seems to me that the deciding factor for this new spirit in the north was not the established religion. After all, France was catholic, the Netherlands were Calvinist protestant, and the reformed Church of England was a sort of cut-down Roman catholicism without Rome or the pope. But in each of these countries, people were relatively free to explore the new ideas. The new energy that was felt in these countries had another expression. The ‘Mayflower’ sailed to north America with English and Dutch settlers, the start of a wave of emigration across the Atlantic. In catholic Italy, on the other hand, the elderly Galileo was forced to publicly recant his view that the Earth moves around the Sun, because it was deemed to conflict with the teachings of the church.

Generation 484, 1660-1680. The free air of Amsterdam

For this generation, the most exciting place to be was the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam. Holland had recently won its independence from Spain, after eighty years of war. It was a republic, a collection of protestant provinces. It was small and prosperous. Its ships travelled the world and its people traded and talked. It was said to be the only country where a master and servant could not be distinguished by their dress.

It was the most tolerant and liberal country in Europe. Refugees from religious persecution elsewhere on the continent moved there: different protestant sects, jews and moslems. The university of Leiden had been founded in the previous century and attracted many great thinkers, people who wanted to push back the envelope of perception in ways that were not permitted in their own countries. The microscope and telescope also expanded the human view of the smaller and greater world. Bacteria were described, as were the rings of Saturn.

Artists aimed at realism, depicting the world they saw.

Het straatje

Here is a street scene from Delft, by Vermeer.

For me, the brightest star in this firmament is the work of Baruch Spinoza. His family was jewish, originally from Portugal. His father worked as a merchant. He was self-educated, and earned his living as a lens-grinder. And while he was grinding lenses he contemplated the universe, infinity, God …  and all without the need for the perspectives of any of the established religions that were tearing the rest of the continent apart. I found his book, Ethics, almost incomprehensible, but I love the fact that he felt enabled to explore such questions.