Table of Contents for British Literature

Table of Contents for Shakespeare


(Technology and History)

Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Science...

Click here for additional information on Renassance science and culture in relation to Shakespeare's plays.


Modern science was founded by the men of the Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy, moved to France, Holland and saw its greatest achievements in England. These countries all played major role in the advancement of science as well as the other areas of Renaissance development. Germany contributed very little because of the religious overtones of the thirty years' war and the single-minded baronies devoted to conquering one another. Spain was cursed by the religious fanaticism of the Inquisition and as such contributed essentially nothing to the Renaissance.

There were three things which advanced the learning process 'and marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times.

1. The invention of the printing press in 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg (which also coincides with the end of Hundred Years War - which actually took 116 years - between the French and the English). The printing press made possible the wide distribution of printed matter - books and such - a viable fact. Books which had formerly been in rare number suddenly became much more accessible to the learned public through libraries.


2. The fall of the Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 caused the scholars to flee from the Turks. They brought the Greek letters and the ancient sciences with them. These very ancient sciences provided a starting ground for the advancement of modern science.

3. The discovery of the new world in 1492 by Columbus was the last push into the Renaissance. The concept of a round earth was not a new one. In 240 BC, Eratosthenes estimated the circumference of the earth to be 25,000 miles. He was correct, but Ptolemy in 140 AD thought the earth was much smaller, and Marco Polo led people to believe that Asia was much farther east. These two later people caused Columbus to believe he only needed to travel 3000 miles to Asia. Portugal thought the earth was more to the size of Eretoethenes' estimation and supported Diaz's effort to sail around Africa. However, because Spain felt secure on the battle fronts with the ousting of the Muslim from Granada in early 1492 and the Inquisition causing the expulsion of the Jews into Poland and the more sophisticated Muslim world, Ferdinand and Isabella decided to give a minimal financial backing to Columbus. This discovery of the new continent helped to eliminate this notion that the ancient thinkers knew everything and had solved all possible problems. Europeans finally felt beyond the ancients because of this.

To go back to what caused the Renaissance we need to look at what started it all. The decline of Rome marked the beginning of the "dark age." A full thousand years of cultural darkness and stagnation saw classical art succumb to religious symbolism and the humane letters fall before the rude vulgarity of the religious scholastics. As the emergence from the dark ages began in the fourteenth century, the humanists sought the restoration of the ancient literary and artistic forms. The return to antiquity was seen as marking the beginning of a new age. The goals were classicism in literature and the arts, educational reform and a purification of religion through a return to the primitive origins. It was in this era that Marco Polo visited the Far East with its technological advances. Spinning wheels made their way from India to Europe and the Long bow was developed by the Welsh and exported to the English who saw great value in it. This ended up leading the Hundred Years' War.

By the fifteenth century, however, the Age of Realism in art was coming of age and the Italian painters Bought to make their canvases three dimensional. This led to the idea of perspective in art which in turn led to projective geometry which is the study 'of shadows cast by geometric figures. This progression over four centuries marked the foundation of modern geometry. But by the end of the fifteenth century and into the beginning of the sixteenth century, there was an attempt to see a connection between the return to the ancient sources and the reformation of Christianity. This is exemplified by Johann Muller who charted the path of a comet for the first time. The German astronomer returned to the ancients by his self-chosen Latin name, Regiomontanus, and yet it also marked the beginning of rationalism with respect to the feared and mystical solar bodies known as comets. The reformation of Christianity culminated in 1517 with the 95 theses nailed on a church door by the German monk, Martin Luther This nation of rebirth was enlarged to include the revival of Platonic philosophy as an alternative to the scholasticism of Aristotle.

It was into this self-centered world that Copernicus was born in 1473. The religious continued to claim that man and the earth were the center of the universe. Copernicus held the different view that the sun was at the center of the universe. This was in line with a speculation made back in 280 BC by the Greek Aristarchus. Copernicus hesitated to publish his theory and computations because he knew that the geocentric theory was held by the Church to be in complete accordance with the Bible. He was afraid of creating a controversy. However, under much coercion from his colleagues, the book was published with a dedication to Pope Paul III. The Church immediately put the book on the Index, and it remained there until 1835. In spite of this action and its condemnation by the Lutherans, the book was widely circulated in the scientific communities. The printing press was exerting its influence. It took more than 50 years for the theory to become completely accepted, but it did much to modify the theory that the ancients knew it all.

This revolution of thought was not just in the physical sciences. At the same time that Copernicus was observing and calculating, there was an anatomist by the name of Vesalius also observing. He was also contradicting the Greek notion of anatomy by trusting hie eyes and not the words of the ancients. He not only published his research, but also had it illustrated very carefully. The scientists were beginning to take note of the world around them.

The seventeenth century saw radical transformations of scientific ideas. This was truly the turning point in the history of civilization. By the end of the sixteenth century, technological developments were making such rapid advancements that the ideological Greek theories were failing at an even faster rate.

Galileo lived in this time frame. Because of the advancements, he was able to actually test his theories of falling bodies. He then extrapolated his observations and theories to the heavenly bodies. He came to realize that angels were not needed to give continual pushes to the planets to keep them moving. This so inflamed the Church that he was kept under house arrest for the last eight years of his life until he rescinded his theories publicly. However, by the end of his life, others were noting his theories were correct and the Church was wrong. This marked a breech between science and religion that was never again to be healed. History has since credited Galileo as being the founder of experimental science.

As the seventeenth century started the heavens were continuing to be investigated even more critically than before. The orbits of the planets had been accepted to be simple circular orbits. Copernician assumed that they were circular, but Tycho Brahe, a rich young Dane, made incredibly careful and accurate measurements of the planets, particularly Mars. He found that the planets did not move in circles around the earth as did the moon and sun, but instead periodically retrogressed and moved backwards. This fact and Copernicus' theories were noted by a young German named Kepler who began trying to make the measurements fit into the perfect geometric shapes. He eventually found that the data makes the formulas and not vice-versa. From that knowledge and the realization that the orbits are actually ellipses, he formulated his two Laws of Planetary Motion.

Just as Vesalius was a pioneer in the field of medicine in the sixteenth century, William Harvey took up the role in the seventeenth century. Vesalius could not find the connectors to and from the chambers of the heart which he diagramed accurately. It was this area that Harvey undertook. He studied animals and noted that blood flowed in only one direction unlike air which went up and down the windpipe. He drew a reasonably accurate diagram of the circulatory system based on his animal studies and proved to be one of the first great medical experimenters.

As the seventeenth century humanists searched for a new attitude toward the past, they came to believe that what was actually needed was a repudiation of antiquity and a radical redirection of philosophical and scientific activity. The new philosophy creators saw it as a novel conception of reality and philosophical enterprise. To this end Francis Bacon published his "Novum Organum". He saw it as an untried and unknown method of inductive reasoning with which to investigate and not as an alternative to medieval scholasticism's deductive reasoning. Today this is known as the Scientific Method. It is the way in which all scientific research is approached.

By the use of this scientific method the Flemish physician Helmont sought to define more correctly what the Greeks had called the vapors. These vapors were any kind of air, which was one of the four elements which made of the earth according to Aristotle. He noted that there were different airs just as there were different liquids and different solids. He called the various airs gas - an abbreviation of the word "chaos". As the definitions improved, so did the sophistication of the equipment produced. Torricelli worked under the direction of Galileo who urged him to investigate pumping problems in the mines. Torricelli then proceeded to produce the very first vacuum and in the end the first barometer. From that invention came the investigation of pressure, volume, quantity, and temperature of gasses as well as their intrinsic nature, and identity. Because of Helmot's definitions and Torricelli's inventions, the chemical elements, as they were defined, needed a reappraisal. The four elements-- earth, wind, fire and air, on the universal scale, the four humors on the human scale, and the heavenly body element, aether, as defined by Aristotle were finally being discarded. With that redefinition the alchemists were also being discarded, and the age of the chemist began.

An English physicist and chemist named Robert Boyle is credited with changing the name from alchemist to chemist and as such displaced medievalism. He separated chemistry from medicine and pushed experimental science to the forefront. The experiments with gasses provided scientists of the day with some tangible evidence that atoms actually existed. The full acceptance of that theory took another century and another man, John Dalton, to be totally realized.

Galileo's work was widely distributed by the mid-seventeenth century, and it was at that time that his theories and minor experiments were put to the test by the young English scientist, Isaac Newton. He looked at the world and began testing it. As a result of his efforts, light and color were initially defined and related. Kepler's laws were fully examined with Galileo's predictions, and the Universal Law of Gravitation, gravity and Newton's three Laws along with math and calculus, to explain them emerged.

By the end of the seventeenth century, microscopes were refined, organisms studied, light's speed measured, planes investigated individually, the, earth measured and weighed; scientists began to make giant strides forward.

More progress was made in those two hundred and fifty years than in the two thousand years prior. More was still to come, but it all was built upon the work of a few curious men who would not be encumbered by the past.


An important element in Renaissance science is to understand that argument from analogy foreshadows scientific inquiry. If X were like Y, then information about how God created man and the universe could be inferred, including the belief that man (the microcosm) was in miniature like the universe (the macrocosm). Note the figure of speech that came from this comparison:___? Some linguists believe that the mind has certain innate properties, one of which is the ability to reason in terms of binaries or opposites: X -- Y. The technical name for this process is the CORRESPONDENCE THEORY, in which the larger unit (macrocosm, i.e. universe) "corresponds" to the smaller unit (microcosm). Thus:

river corresponds to blood

air corresponds to breath

law corresponds to reason

disorder corresponds to passion


It can be observed from these pre-scientific analogies that Renaissance theories of the universe suggest a divine providence who, like a king, creates an ordered world, but man who allows passion to dominate reason can sometimes disrupt that good order. Shakespeare gives expression to this concept in Ulysses' speech on "order and degree" from his Troilus and Cressida found in another section of this unit on the Renaissance:

You may return to the TABLE OF CONTENTS to view that speech now if you wish:

Table of Contents

Perhaps the fullest expression of Renaissance cosmology can be found in a concept termed by Arthur Lovejoy "the chain of being." This scheme posited a hierarchical order from the all perfect God to the least significant element in creation. Recall the Medieval unit that considered this idea.:



man--subdivided from King/Pope down to serf/parson

animals--with many subdivisions



The Universe was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. These properties of matter existed in all creation and when in proper balance, made for an ordered universe. Tillyard's Elizabethan World Picture is an excellent study of this theory.

The elements, arranged hierarchically, had the following properties:

fire----hot and dry effect

air-----hot and moist effect

water--cold and moist effect

earth---cold and dry effect

In man, being the microcosm or "little" universe, these four elements--called humors--were supposed to exist in harmony, and when they did not, chaos or insanity could occur.

The psychology section of the Renaissance unit will deal with these theories.



Table of Contents