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1600: Impressions and Questions March 15, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
OK, we know him, but what else?

OK, we know him, but what else?

Things are moving slowly around here what with the book and all, but a while ago in attempting to organize “what I think I know” about sciences-related things from a prior era well outside my expertise, I put together a snazzy little sketch of relations between areas of interest to historians of science and historians of ideas and creative practices more generally.  The idea is that you could make the diagram into some computer 3-D ball-like model and rotate it around and look at various areas.  Failing having a snazzy 3-D model complete with pull-up bibliographies, pictures, biographical databases, time-lines, and the like (but, seriously, how awesomely useful would that be?) I thought it would be of interest to toss out a few areas and connections between them that I am under the impression people who work on the pre-1600 period care about.  The idea is to have a sort of first approximation of what a historiographical synthesis would look like, and then figure out how the picture is right and wrong.  So, in no real order, the following represent chains of connections, rather than homogeneous categories….

1. Astronomy-mathematics/geometry: Big area of interest, classically on account the the exalted place of astronomy in the scientific revolution, but c. 1600 is mainly a wonky area of table-making, useful for calendars, astrology.  Big specialist historiography.

2. Mathematics/geometry-mechanics-optics-music theory: The “other” mathematical fields.  I really have no idea to what extent interest in these areas overlapped with interest in professional astronomy.  Obviously some people had wide interests, but if you were to take a survey how deep would it run, I couldn’t make a good guess of what the results would be.

319 after the jump.

3. Astronomy-surveying-cartography-navigation-instrument making: More practical; a “growth industry” of the period, but don’t really know how widespread advanced methods are.  Also don’t know to what extent these are of concern to university geometers; Galileo obviously, but beyond that?

4. Instrument making-surveying-drafting-architecture-art: This is where I’m under the impression the Renaissance-studies literature gets denseProbably fascinating, but how to synthesize into a coherent picture?

5. Architecture-naval architecture-fortification-ballistics: See 4.

6. Theology-Paripatetic philosophy: Probably the most important intellectual pursuit of the period; doubtless a substantial literature somewhere, but outside of our scholarly domain.  But important because….

7. Paripatetic theology-Paripatetic natural philosophy-medical theory: I imagine sort of marginal to the mainstream of university philosophy, but soon to take a lot of flak.  Worth knowing more about.

8. Alternative natural philosophies: Hermeticism-Paracelsian doctrines-natural magic-Epicureanism-atomism: I know there’s a literature on this, but I’m not really sure how to characterize it.

9. Cartography-cosmography-travel literature-“book lore”-poetry: Huge growth industry in history of science scholarship.

10. Natural magic-“book lore”-alchemy-artisanry: See 9.

11. Medical theory-physicians-apothecaries-botanists-surgeons-midwifery: Big literature on this stuff; sort of a high-traffic crossroads of ideas, also an area of significant dispute and tension.  Early institutionalization of expertise.

Below this point, I’ll dispense with the commentary.  It’s either stuff I know nothing about, or stuff where I know there’s a relevant literature.

12. Apothecaries-botany-cosmography-illustration-drafting.

13. Physicians-surgeons-artisans.

14. Architects-artisans-war

15. (Medicine-)court-law-ministry-politics-war

16. Court-politics-ethics-rhetoric-poetry

17. Court-politics-ethics-ministry-art

18. Court-art-architecture-artisanry-gardening-botany

19. Rhetoric-poetry-grammar(-music theory?)

OK, so what good does this do me?  I think of it as a sort of a mental model with which to approach a literature.  If I want to learn about these things, what are the relevant institutions, who are the relevant people?  Where I can I best learn about them?  So, not expecting to gain anything resembling mastery, what I’d like to do is try and make a little sense out of this sketch.  I think I’ll try and start with the artisans, which means, as far as I know, going to the works of Pamela Smith and Pamela Long.  After that, I’ll sketch out a new model and see if anything of interest develops.



1. Thony C. - March 18, 2009

Will, mathematics did not play a significant role in the mediaeval university a situation that first began to change around 1450. In the 16th century those universities that had chairs of mathematics taught a range of disciplines that we now call practical mathematics these were astronomy, astrology, cosmology, geography/cartography (one discipline mostly referred to as cosmographia), navigation, magnetism, instrument making and utilisation, chronometry (the design and construction of sun dials, the construction of calendars etc.) and surveying. These were not taught as separate disciplines but as sub-disciplines of one central subject usually called cosmographia.

The double usage of the word cosmographia naturally leads to confusion for the historian and I have coined the concept ‘Ptolemaic Science’ for the central subject as all of its component sub-disciplines, with the exception of magnetism, are derived from the main works of Ptolemaeus, which had become available in printed editions in both the original Greek and Latin during the course of the second half of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century. This adoption of the works of Ptolemaeus in this period I call the Ptolemaic Renaissance. Although mostly known in Europe since the 12th century Ptolemaeus’ works had been rarely used, as they lay far above the general level of the mathematical sciences in the mediaeval period. Only during the 15th century did Europe reach the level of sophistication in mathematics of Ptolemaeus.

Examples of ‘Ptolemaic Scientists’ active on European universities in the 16th century are Peter Apian and his son Phillip in Ingolstadt, Gemma Frisius in Leuven, Rheticus in Wittenberg and then later in Leipzig, Oronce Finé in Paris, Johannes Schöner in Nürnberg (school and not university but highly influential), Michael Mästlin (Kepler’s teacher) in Tübingen and Pedro Nunes in Coimbra (this list is by no means exhaustive). Christoph Clavius was still teaching this subject with additions at the beginning of the 17th century at the Jesuit University in Rome.

2. Will Thomas - March 19, 2009

Excellent overview, Thony–thanks! Any recommended resources?

To anyone missing Hump-Day History: We’ll have one this week (on the Soviet Bomb), but it will be delayed, since book stuff is still bogging me down.

3. Thony C. - March 22, 2009

Will, the simple answer to your question is no! What you have above is an abstract for one of my “works in progress” (which is mostly a polite euphemism for “wont ever get finished”). The longer answer is actually interesting in terms of the problems of methodology and historiography in the history of science. The list of disciplines given above is what was taught as advanced mathematics in the European universities in the 16th century however it is not what modern historians of mathematics recognise as mathematics so they mostly ignore it, concentrating instead on the advances in algebra and trigonometry, ‘genuine’ mathematical disciplines. The other subjects are dealt with by historians of the individual disciplines i.e. navigation, surveying, cartography etc. without however straying beyond the boundaries of that discipline. To get something approaching a complete picture one has to dig around searching for specialist papers from twenty or more different discipline histories and then try to collate the information into a whole. This is often not easy because different discipline perspectives produce different judgements on the abilities and importance of an individual scholar.

For example the historians of geography and cartography (in modern terms two separate disciplines but in the 16th century one) regard Johannes Schöner as unimportant because he remained solidly Ptolemaic unlike Mercator whom they regard as modern, although he was in most aspects just as Ptolemaic as Schöner. However for the historians of globe making (a sub-discipline of the history of instrument making and not the history of geography or cartography) Schöner is a central seminal figure and highly important. Although some of the best early work on Schöner’s globe making activities are to be found in the work of historians of printing because Schöner was the first producer of mass produced printed globes.

Some figures, such as Mästlin, who are important in one of the fields, in his case of course astronomy, are only dealt with from that aspect whilst neglecting all other aspects of his work. I could go on for a long time detailing the problems of trying to do historical synthesis in 16th century ‘mathematics’ but I think I have said enough to illustrate the difficulties. In general I would say, that the history business needs to take a long hard look at the way we draw discipline boundaries when dealing with earlier ages. It doesn’t have to be the 16th century; I have similar problems doing research on 19th century science.

4. Will Thomas - March 23, 2009

Bless you, Thony C!

The “hey, this makes sense, but only if you try and put 20 or 30 secondary analyses together in some logical way” realization is something we’ve been discussing a lot around here at AIP, which has hopefully leaked through to the blog.

By the way, your guest post on Newton’s prism experiments is approaching 1,000 page views. It has blown everything else appearing on this blog out of the water.

Finally, for all EWP followers, I’ve successfully sweated through the fever dream of manuscript revisions, and will return to a normal posting schedule as soon as I figure out how to get back into the blogging groove.

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