There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
After the excursion into pre-Columbian civilizations we now return to Europe at the dawn of the 16th century. We saw in Lecture 17 how during the 15th century elements of merchant capitalism had become an important ingredient of European society, particularly through the banking houses of Florence. The general structure of Europe's civilization, however, remained feudal, and much of the wealth created by its people went into luxury consumption. This situation continued into the 16th century, but the contradictions between feudal consumption and merchant capitalism grew sharper, resulting in great social and intellectual upheaval.
Merchant capitalism had made itself felt well before the 16th century. The reformatio sigismundi, a pamphlet produced in 1439, printed in 1476 on one of Gutenberg's new printing presses, reprinted seven times during the next decades and distributed throughout Germany, had already described its impact on the economy of the medieval cities. "Trades are devised so that everyone wins their daily bread thereby and should be active, and nobody is to reach into another's trade," it said and complained that today "everyone wants to engage in trade, to more than he is entitled." The pamphlet encouraged the reader to action:
The problem with such a course of action was of course that it incited people to fight a loosing battle: Capitalism is economically superior to feudalism and will therefore win out sooner or later. The driving force of feudalism is luxury consumption; generating the goods that allow the ruling class a life in luxury is the rationale for its infrastructure. In contrast, the driving force of capitalism is accumulation of capital through maximum profit. Capitalist infrastructure is therefore geared towards re-investment of created wealth into more productive activity. Frugality and dedication to work was the capitalist ethic in its early stages. The first burghers of the cities that made the step to industrial capitalism turned every penny before they spent it on luxury goods. Where they indulged in a bit of luxury they did it in private and avoided the conspicuous consumption of the feudal aristocracy.
Anyone who follows the daily workings of modern capitalism will realize that the times where capitalist ethic emphasized frugality and work are long gone. Making gains at the share market and profits from trading in futures at the stock exchange is what drives capitalism today, and the Chief Executive Officers of companies get their bonuses not for improving the company's performance on the goods market but for the company's standing in the share market. The theory is of course that the two are linked, but there are plenty of examples that this is not always the case and that companies go bankrupt at the very moment when their shares are at their highest.)
In the 16th century the emphasis on wealth creation through the production of goods meant that capitalism could make much better use of the productive capabilities of the people than feudalism with its emphasis on consumption. Capitalism was therefore economically superior to feudalism, and it was only a matter of time that feudalism had to come to an end and make way for the new economic order.
On the intellectual level the conflict between feudalism and capitalism was fought out over the question of the rights and duties of the individual. The feudal state was based on the absolute power of the king, who claimed to rule by God-given right. His subjects could only follow the roles determined for them by birth and class. The new capitalism required private initiative, which was greatly restricted without the ability of people to move between classes and follow their own ideas. The aristocracy was not interested in frugality, so the new capitalists had to come from the citizens of the towns. As the elements of the new economy evolved, capitalism therefore created its own class, the bourgeoisie, which controlled all economic activity but had no political power. This contradiction had to be resolved in the long term and led to the series of revolutions of the 18th century.
During the 16th century these developments were still 200 years away, but the question of the rights and duties of the individual was already hotly debated. Given the state of Europe at the time, the debate took the form of a religious controversy. Can you reach redemption and go to heaven through personal dialogue with God, or do you have to negotiate with him through the structure of the established church and follow its orders? This was the question that occupied the minds of intellectuals in all European countries and turned the conflict between feudalism and the new economic order into a confrontation with the Catholic church.
A basic tenet of Christian faith is the dogma that all humans are sinners but can be absolved from their sins through Christ. In the teachings of the medieval church this required absolution given by a priest, contrition, and the purchase of an "indulgence" before a person was freed from committed sin. Indulgences were sold through accredited Papal agents. Where the agents went about their business in a region that did not belong to a monastery and was not governed by a bishop they had to obtain the permission of the secular ruler, who would then take a cut from the profit made through the indulgence trade.
The idea that the value of one's life and actions can be judged through direct dialogue with God and does not require the services of the clergy appealed to many people. When Jan Hus objected to the indulgence trade, the driving force of his opposition was Czech nationalism. Half of the Czech province of Bohemia was owned by the church, and the University of Prague was controlled by German lecturers who supported the church. Hus expressed the Czech hopes for national self-determination through the right of the individual to direct dialogue with God. His movement anticipated the big religious upheaval of the 16th century by more than a hundred years, and in 1415 Hus was burnt at the stake. The Hussite movement lasted for another 200 years.
In Germany political power was distributed among many small dukedoms, free cities, bishoprics and kingdoms, and several of the secular rulers had become more and more frustrated with the growing power of the church. The major confrontation with the church at the beginning of the 16th century developed therefore in Germany.
The church had increasingly abandoned its role as a provider of spiritual and social services and turned towards conspicuous feudal consumption. Just before the century began Pope Nicholas V had made the decision to build the largest church on Earth, and in 1506 Pope Julius II laid the first stone for the new Basilica of St. Peter's. When the Pope's finances became insufficient to fund the work, Pope Leo X introduced a "jubilee indulgence" and greatly expanded the indulgence sale. Unscrupulous salesmen travelled through Europe threatening everyone with eternal hell unless they purchased indulgences.
The excesses of feudal exploitation in the name of religion led Martin Luther, preacher at the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, to declare that
In 1517 he posted his "95 theses" on the doors of his church. Within weeks they were printed and distributed all over the country. Luther was excommunicated and declared an outlaw. But his ideas found sympathy with several secular rulers, and Luther could hide in the castle of the sovereign of Saxony. In the end Luther's "reformation" of the Catholic church led to the establishment of a "protestant" Christian church known today as the Lutheran church.
The establishment of the Lutheran church was the first step for Christianity to adapt to the new capitalist ethic. In contrast to the lavish and lascivious lifestyle of the Catholic clergy, Lutheran pastors led a simple life and preached puritan morals. Luther's contemporary John Calvin went even further in his own brand of Protestantism that became known as Calvinism. He promoted the new capitalist work ethic by banning dancing, gambling and theatre plays. After Calvin's death his followers managed to combine capitalism and Christianity even more by declaring that hard work pleases God and therefore leads to wealth. Personal prosperity thus turned into a sign of a godly life. In this form Calvinism became the main Christian faith in the Netherlands, Scotland and England, from where it spread to North America. From the Netherlands later sprang the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, which supported racial segregation (apartheid) as the natural Christian order of the world.
Why did Calvinism establish itself in the Netherlands? In the 16th century Holland was under Spanish rule, and Spain remained feudal and staunchly Catholic. But the trading and banking activities that were once dominated by Italian cities had been taken up by northern European cities as well. The Hanseatic League sent it ships from the Baltic Sea across the world ocean, and Dutch cities had become rich through monopolizing the wool trade. Holland was therefore a centre of mercantilism and opposed to Spanish rule not only out of nationalism - Dutch merchants had already set their eyes on the spice trade.
The Spanish king Charles V tried to stem the tide in 1522 by bringing the inquisition to Holland, but it only fanned the flames and strengthened the protestant movement. In 1581 the Netherlands declared his successor king Philip II deposed and laid the foundations to the Dutch Republic. This was the first time a feudal regime was deposed and replaced by a capitalist republic, and the event is sometimes referred to as the first bourgeois revolution.
Small feudal rulers and the new bourgeoisie were of course not the only ones who found the idea of personal freedom and dialogue with God appealing. The long-suffering peasants rose against heavy taxes and oppression and declared that before God all people are equal. Led by the preacher Thomas Müntzer they fought the brief but brutal Peasants' War of 1524 - 1525. It suffered the fate of all peasant revolts; the peasants were slaughtered, Thomas Müntzer was publicly executed.
One result of the Peasant's War was the proof that Luther's reformation had no intention to apply the principle that "Before God all men are equal" to all people but was merely the adaptation of Christianity to the new ruling order. Luther attacked the peasants in the most vitriolic manner; his pamphlet "Against the Murdering and Thieving Hordes of Peasants" earned him the name "the soft flesh of Wittenberg" from Müntzer.
As the 16th century drew to a close, the two camps were poised for war. On one side was Spain, the bastion of reactionary feudalism and new colonial power with its ally the Catholic Church; on the other side there were the republican Netherlands and the various protestant German states. The Thirty Years' War of 1618 - 1648 was one of the most devastating periods in Europe's history, comparable in its cruelty and depravity with the darkest times of the Middle Ages.
The Thirty Years' War was still a century away when the burgher Kopernik, a merchant of Torun in Poland, decided to send his son Nicolaj to the university of Krakow, where the young student became interested in astronomy. Studying the stars had become a pressing pursuit. As we saw in Lecture 7 the Julian calendar had moved 10 days away from the true time, and rectification required the accurate determination of the year's length. But the more observations became available, the more difficult it became to reconcile them with Ptolemy's theory of the solar system, which had the Earth in its centre and the Sun and all planets revolving around it.
The Renaissance had made the writings of the Greek philosopher-scientists accessible to Europe again. When Nicolaj Kopernik (Copernicus) studied them he discovered that several of the ancient Greeks had mentioned the idea of the Earth revolving around the Sun. Using his excellent mathematical training, he developed an alternative to the Ptolemaic system, in which all planets including the Earth revolve around the Sun.
Suggesting that Ptolemy might be wrong was a dangerous undertaking. In Lecture 17 we saw how the Catholic church had just decided to present itself as the legitimate heir to the Greek classics and that the Pope had commissioned Raphael to paint his "School of Athens" in the Vatican. This was not the time to question classical Greek teaching. Copernicus summarized his ideas in "A commentary on the Theories of the Motions of Heavenly Objects from their Arrangements." It does not come as a surprise that he refused to have his work published.
It is important to understand the reasons for Copernicus' reluctance. We know today that planetary movement is controlled by gravity, which causes planets to move on ellipses. Gravity was an unknown concept in the 16th century, and Copernicus could see no reason to abandon Ptolemy's premise of circular orbits. Placing the Sun in the centre made the system mathematically simpler and aesthetically more pleasing because it no longer required the many epicycles of the Ptolemaic system. But it does not improve the prediction of planetary positions because it is based on unrealistic orbits.
What Copernicus was offering was in essence an attempt to find a mathematically simpler description for the observations. But this mathematical simplicity came at a very large price:
Copernicus understood all this and struggled for two decades with the consequences. In 1536 he asked the Vatican for permission to publish his work "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres." Four years later the work was taken to protestant Germany for printing. It appeared in 1543, the year of Copernicus' death.
Two years later a church council authorized Pope Paul III to take steps to improve the calendar. Observation of the stars became even more important. The man to perform the most accurate observations was Tycho Brahe, the son of the governor of Hälsingborg castle in Denmark. Brahe's observations allowed Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to introduce his new calendar (see Lecture 7), but they increased the difficulties of matching the observed planetary movements with either the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system.
By the end of the 16th century two outstanding minds, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, occupied themselves with the problem. Kepler worked at the observatory of the Holy Roman Emperor near Prague as the royal astronomer, Galilei was professor of mathematics at the University of Padua in Italy. Being close to observations and performing observations of his own, Kepler came to the conclusion that the planets' orbits had to be elliptic and formulated his laws, known ever since as Kepler's Laws. The second law, which states that the line between the Sun and a planet traverses equal areas in equal times, could account for the observed variations in the speed of planets that had caused so many problems for both Ptolemy and Copernicus.
Galilei maintained a correspondence with Kepler, and both agreed that the Sun had to be in the centre of the planetary system. But Galilei was not satisfied with a better mathematical description, he wanted to understand the physics. He studied the equilibrium of floating bodies and the movement of falling bodies and discovered the law of uniformly accelerated movement, but the concept of gravity escaped him. When he heard about the invention of the telescope he increased its magnification more then ten-fold and discovered the Sun spots and the phases of Venus. These observations were well outside the range of possible explanations through the Ptolemaic system. Galilei sought church permission to present his findings. But the Catholic church feared that moving the Earth from the centre of the universe into a position where it was just one planet among others would question Man's position as the pinnacle of God's creation and eventually bring the entire system of "God-given" rules and authority into question. In 1616 it declared the Copernican theory "false and erroneous."
The edict did not stop Kepler, who worked in the relative safety of Prague and later Linz (Austria), from publishing his "Epitome of Copernican Astronomy." But Galilei lived in a Catholic country, and the events of 1624, when the Parliament of Paris banned attacks on Aristotle by pain of death, were a clear warning that critique of the Greek classics was not tolerated by Catholicism.
Galilei eventually received permission to proceed, provided he restricted himself to a theoretical comparison of the Ptolemaic to the Copernican system and did not derive conclusions about the structure of the universe from it. When his work "Dialogue on the Two Main World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican" appeared in 1632 his "comparison" was a ringing endorsement of Copernicus and Kepler. Galilei was brought to trial; under pressure he recanted. His work was placed on the list of banned literature. It was not until 1992 that the Vatican formally acknowledged its error and rehabilitated Galilei.
Galilei's decision to distance himself from his own scientific findings has caused much debate during the following centuries. The German playwright Berthold Brecht wrote his play "The Life of Galilei" in 1943 as his response to the first successful nuclear fission experiment; he portrayed Galilei as a traitor to science. The question how the private life of scientists should influence our judgement of their role in history has to be addressed at some point in these lectures, and Galilei's recanting provides an opportunity to do that.
The same question arises of course in the judgement of other personalities of history as well, be they artists, writers, physicians, rulers, philosophers or people of other occupations. The key consideration is always to what extent morality is part of the person's profession: A philosopher who teaches altruism but exploits others for selfish reasons has to be judged differently from a composer who writes heavenly music but shows selfish behaviour.
The quest for knowledge does not have a moral dimension in itself, and the private lives of scientists can influence our evaluation of their achievements only to the extent that they make use of their findings for non-scientific ends. In the area of science itself the criteria for judgment can only relate to the tenets of scientific ethics - no plagiarism, no false accusation of others, no exploitation of co-workers, no fraudulent claims.
Galilei committed no such acts. His work was available in the protestant countries and could be studied by everyone. Why should he be burnt at the stake for it? Science develops when there is a need for it, and when the time comes his work will serve its purpose. (Its time came within a generation, as we shall see in the next lecture.) One might be inclined to judge Galilei's decision to recant as a fraudulent claim, but all who knew the circumstances would not believe his retraction and would not change their judgement of Galilei as an eminent physicist and mathematician. Galilei was painfully aware of the limitations of his time when he wrote to a friend:
Galilei could have moved to Holland and get out of reach of the papal court. But emigration is not an easy decision for someone who is 69 years of age. It is also true that the protestant churches were not the selfless defenders of free thought that they had claimed to be in the early days of the reformation. Calvin had already taken recourse to burning an opponent at the stake to secure his position in his movement, and Giordano Bruno, who had competed with Galilei for the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua, had been excommunicated by the Lutheran church.
Of course, it was not Galilei who became the inspiration for the liberal movement of 19th century Europe and a beacon for freedom of thought but Bruno, who was burnt for his teachings that the bible should be read for its moral guidance but not be taken as a literal description of the universe and that the universe is infinite and contains innumerable worlds similar to the solar system. Bruno's words when he received his death sentence showed his clear perception of the course of history: "Perhaps your fear in passing judgement on me is greater than mine in receiving it."
One generation later the words of the early humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus "All sound learning is secular learning", spoken a century before Galilei, had become reality. Humanist high schools ("gymnasiums") where the study of the Greek and Latin classics was pursued in the spirit of historical-critical study of the past, had sprung up all over Europe. The Catholic church included many passages from Erasmus' writings in its list of forbidden texts, but that did not prevent their use as the first textbooks in the humanist high schools.
The last great thinker exposed to the wreath of the church of both the Catholic and protestant variety was René Descartes. As a philosopher Descartes was a pioneer of the Age of Reason of the next century. In science he was a brilliant mathematician whose work La Géometrie combined geometry with algebra, introduced the notation x, y and z for variables, consonants for constants and superscripts for exponential notation, and developed key tools for the study of mechanics, fluid dynamics and other fields. The Cartesian coordinate system is the starting point for numerical models in physics, meteorology and oceanography. To avoid religious persecution Descartes had to commute between Paris and Holland, where he spent 16 years of his life before harassment by the Calvinists forced him to leave. He died in Sweden.
The new approach to the Greek and Roman classics found its way into the scientific approach to medicine as well. It did not occur in the same systematic way as in the area of astronomy and physics, and the promotion of the new medicine happened through the intermediary of a highly original personality of somewhat tempestuous character. Paracelsus, the greatest physician of the 16th century, was certainly headstrong and without fear of authority, but his success and immediate fame would have been unthinkable without the radical changes that occurred during his lifetime.
When Paracelsus attended university the standard medical course was based on the texts of Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna. The prevailing view at universities was that the body and its functions are controlled by the stars and planets. Paracelsus attacked the classical position without restraint. Although a Catholic he emulated Luther in his methods of protest: In 1527, ten years after Luther had nailed his theses against the indulgence trade on his church door, the lecturer in medicine at the University of Basel Paracelsus pinned a public notice on the university notice board inviting not just academics but everyone to his new lecture series, which was to be held not in Latin but in German. Three weeks later he recalled Luther's burning of the Papal bull against him by publicly burning the works of Avicenna. He provoked public anger by writing:
Trained originally as a mining chemist, Paracelsus made use of his knowledge of minerals and other chemicals to introduce new pharmaceutics based on minute additions of what was generally considered poisonous substances and laid the grounds for homoeopathic treatment. He rejected the classical idea of the "four humours" and declared that "all things are poison, and nothing is without poison. The amount alone decides that a thing is no poison."
Paracelsus found a cure for syphilis based on mercury compounds, a method only used on a large scale 500 years later. He discovered the cause of silicosis and that goitre is caused by substances in the drinking water. His attacks on the apothecaries' guild, though based on insight and knowledge, made him many enemies:
Paracelsus' expertise as a physician meant that the potentates of the time including bishops and archbishops grudgingly accepted him as a physician. His major troubles came from his theological writings, which according to a report written by Mattis Quad more than 50 years after his death still were the cause for outright condemnation of the man Paracelsus. There is no doubt that Paracelsus thrived on controversy, and his adoption of the name Paracelsus to indicate that he was "beyond Celsus" does not lack of arrogance. But medicine as a science was based on his work for several hundred years after his death.
Fifteen years after Paracelsus had pinned his invitation to public lectures on the notice board of the University of Basel the Flemish physician Andries van Wesel, who had turned his name into the Latin Vesalius, published his textbook of anatomy De humani corporis fabrica libri septem ("The Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body"). Vesalius was not a rebel; he presented his book to Charles V and entered his service as court physician, and another sixteen years later he served Philip II of Spain.
But Vesalius' work revolutionized surgery in the same way as Paracelsus' work revolutionized general medicine. During his medical studies at the University of Padua Vesalius had realized that Galen's human anatomy was not based on human dissections but on extrapolation from the dissection of monkeys, dogs and pigs. Through many dissections of human cadavers he made himself thoroughly familiar with the human anatomy. To guarantee the highest quality of the illustrations to his Fabrica he travelled to Venice to have his detailed sketches turned into excellent wood block prints by Jan Stephan van Calcar, who worked in the studio of the famous painter Titian. Vesalius' work established human anatomy as a scientific discipline and human dissection as a compulsory part of all medical education.
The contribution of the Arab world to the development of science was discussed in detail in Lecture 16, where it was seen that the golden age of Islamic science had come to an end towards the late 15th century. But the end of the role of Muslim civilization as the leading force in science did not prevent Muslim civilization from flourishing. On the contrary, the 15th and 16th centuries witnessed the rise of two magnificent Muslim civilizations, the Ottoman empire and the Mughal empire. Before we leave the 16th century and move to the Age of Reason we therefore turn briefly to Asia, where Islamic civilizations went through another golden age.
Muslim rule over Anatolia in Turkey had been established for about 300 years before Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it into his capital Istanbul. Mehmed's son Bayezid II began the expansion of the country into the great Ottoman empire, a task finally completed by Bayezid's grandson Süleyman I.
The 15th and 16th centuries brought stability and prosperity to the people of the old empire at the expense of the new occupied territories. The Muslim rulers embarked on extensive building programmes that went beyond palaces and places of religious worship. Roads and bridges were built across the country, and true to the social dimension of Islamic faith the sultans ordered the construction of hospitals, schools (medreses) and houses for the old and the poor. The Mosque of Bayezid II in Edirne became the largest social service building of the 15th century. Süleyman's state architect Sinan did build 34 palaces but also 79 mosques, 33 public baths, 55 schools, 16 poorhouses and 7 medreses.
The great progress experienced by Ottoman society did not reach into the area of science. Bayezid II established institutions of higher learning in the capital that became famous beyond the borders of the empire in the areas of law and music but did not contribute to the various disciplines of science. The reason has to be seen in the return to religious emphasis on learning. Mehmed II had opened the country to European ideas and introduced reforms aimed at strengthening the secular sector. (He had for example transferred the work of charities from the mosques to the state.) Bayezid II continued to practice religious tolerance but was a strict Muslim himself and did not promote foreign ideas. He revoked his father's reforms, and his institutions of higher learning were concerned more with philosophy than science.
Süleyman continued the tradition of excellence in law, architecture and the arts. His legal code Kanûn-nâme-i-sulaiman defined the law of the country for every aspect of life. It left no room for independent thought as it developed in Europe at the time. The Ottoman empire remained a feudal state and did not revive the proud tradition of Islamic science of the past.
The Mughal empire of India was founded in the mid-16th century by Babur, fifth generation descendant of the Mongol emperor Timur, by conquering the Delhi sultanate. Babur's grandson Akbar the Great built the new state into a great empire. Akbar's empire flourished through religious tolerance, separation of state and religion and a just and efficient administration and continued to flourish for another two generations. His son Jahangir and his grandson Shah Jahan continued his policy of religious harmony, and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived peacefully together in an empire that became famous beyond its borders.
The enlightened policies of Akbar and his two successors led to much prosperity of the Indian cities. By the time Shah Jahan's son Aurangzeb became emperor in 1658, artisans had set up shops everywhere, the municipalities were less economically dependent on the central administration, and a desire for more political independence could be felt throughout the country. The situation was probably not very different from the situation of Europe some 200 years earlier as it was described so vividly by the reformatio sigismundi. But the Mughal empire did not develop forward towards capitalism; instead, Aurangzeb tried to enforce old style autocratic feudalism. In an effort to increase centralized control he enforced Islam as state religion, introduced Islamic law for people of all denominations, re-introduced the special tax for non-Muslims and executed a Sikh guru who refused to convert to Islam. His actions led to civil war and created the conditions which 300 years later led to the rift between multi-religious but Hindu-dominated India and Islamic Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The enforced continuity of feudalism meant that science in India did not experience the revival that it experienced in Europe. Mughal science remained feudal science, and all scientific activity was determined by the personal interests of the emperor. Akbar's interest was architecture, and as a result India has some of the most impressive public buildings and monuments that have become tourist destinations today. His grandson Shah Jahan shared this interest, as the Taj Mahal, often called the most beautiful building ever created, documents. Only under Jahangir did science take prominence to some degree. Jahangir had a great interest in nature and used his master painter Mansur to document animals and plants of his empire. He kept his own imperial zoo and aviary and supervised experiments. When he found the milk from a particular camel especially tasty he investigated its diet and ordered that the entire herd be fed the same mixture of cow's milk, fodder and herbs. Science owes him the only lifelike painting of a dodo, the flightless bird of Madagascar that was hunted to extinction by the European colonialists; Mansur painted it from the live specimen of Jahangir's zoo.
Dudgeon, R. E. (2004) Similarities between Hahnemann and Paracelsus.
http://www.homeoint.org/morrell/clarke/dudgeon.htm (accessed 14 February 2004)