There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
During the 15th century Europe emerged from its 1000 years of backwardness and became again the centre of scientific teaching and learning, a position it retained for the next 500 years. The obvious question to ask at this point is: Why did modern science develop in Europe? What were the factors that prevented the Arab empires or China from becoming the world leaders in modern science?
We saw in the previous four lectures that during the 1000 years 500 to 1500 European science was eclipsed by science in India, the Muslim empires and China. Indian science was absorbed into Islamic science during the eastward expansion of the new faith. Muslim empires were still expanding into India during the 15th century, and the great Mughal empire of Muslim India was not established until the 16th century, but the golden age of Islamic science had passed; the great centres of learning in the Middle East had been destroyed by the Mongol invasion, the Moors were driven out of Spain.
Chinese science had suffered during the Mongol occupation of the 14th century, but China was still the technologically most advanced nation on Earth. If we consider only its intellectual and scientific capacity it does indeed appear surprising that China did not retain its lead and did not become the cradle of modern science.
This fact has caused some debate. Huff (1993) dedicated half a book to the question. His explanation for "the retarded state of systematic scientific thought in traditional China" lists a range of observations and claims made by others (including "the many weaknesses of the Chinese language as an instrument of clear and unambiguous communication," not the experience I have made at scientific conferences) but misses the point.
The question Huff should have asked is: Why did China not conquer the world? Why did Spain and Portugal destroy the civilizations of America, and later Britain and France the civilizations of Africa, and establish colonial rule in far-away continents? Based on science and technology alone, China was in a much better position to do so: It had the compass, which allowed Chinese mariners to cross oceans out of sight of land centuries before the Europeans. It had gunpowder, cannons, rifles and hand-grenades that would have beaten any adversary into submission, again centuries before the Europeans. The Chinese junk was the most seaworthy vessel of the time and vastly superior to the Spanish and Portuguese caravels and galleons. Why then did China not colonize the world? If it had, Chinese science would have become the base for all science to come.
To map the world requires the mastery of three problems: accurate measurement of time, determination of latitude (the distance from the equator) and determination of longitude (the east-west location relative to a reference longitude [which today runs through Greenwich in England]). By the beginning of the 15th century Chinese scientists had solved all three, and they were the only ones who had done so and thus could sail to any coast in the world.
To determine the time, Chinese scientists used a gnomon (a sun dial with a vertical shaft of great height for improved accuracy) during daylight hours and water clocks at night. Their astronomical tables allowed them to correct their readings for the variable speed of the Earth's movement around the sun, so their gnomons gave the time accurate to seconds. To determine latitude they observed the sun's position at noon and used declination tables to correct for the seasons; at night they observed the hight of the Polar Star above the horizon.
The greatest challenge to science was the determination of longitude. In theory, once the latitude is known the longitude can be determined from the time of sunrise and sunset. Unlike the determination of latitude, which requires a measurement of an angle (the sun's elevation above the horizon at noon), the determination of longitude requires a time measurement. Gnomons give accurate local time but cannot be used to connect time measurements at different places. Water clocks were not accurate enough and had to be calibrated regularly against gnomons.
The problem of determining longitude at sea was not solved until the invention of the chronometer - a clock that keeps time with extreme accuracy - by John Harrison in England during the 18th century. But by 1421 the Chinese had found a method to reconstruct the exact position of their vessels, including longitude, after their ships' return to their home port. The method was based on the use of simultaneous observations of a lunar eclipse. European astronomers were unaware of that method at the time. More than 100 years later, in 1541, the Portuguese tried to establish the longitude of Mexico City using a solar eclipse, with the result that they placed the city some 2,700 km too far west. Use of lunar eclipses enabled the Chinese to send ships out to other continents to survey unknown shores and mapping them accurately after the ships' return to China.
In 1402 Chu Ti, fourth son of emperor Chu Yüan-chang, became the third emperor of the Ming dynasty. Chu Yüan-chang, a son of a tenant farmer who had become a Buddhist monk, had risen to power as a leader of the uprising against the Mongols and had established the Ming dynasty in 1368. Fifty years later his son Chu Ti was already on the well-trodden path of heavy exploitation of the people for imperial grandeur. The inauguration of his new palace compound, the "Forbidden City," in 1421 was attended by 28 foreign ambassadors. Following the inauguration, a fleet of over 300 ships was to take them back to their countries around the Indian Ocean.
Taking 28 passengers and their parties did, of course, not require 300 ships crewed by tens of thousands of seamen. The fleet, under the command of admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) and his fleet commanders Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing, had two other tasks: to survey the coasts of unknown lands, and to establish diplomatic and trade relations with all empires that the fleet was to encounter.
To achieve this task, the core of the fleet consisted of 62 "treasure ships" of more than 100 m length, each filled with 2,000 tons of cargo including the best products China could offer as gifts for the rulers of the foreign empires. Other ships carried astronomers and other scientists, instrument makers and artisans needed for the planned survey.
Sending delegations with gifts abroad to establish official relations (and hopefully having the foreign rulers agree to regular tribute payment) was an old imperial tradition. Some 1500 years earlier, in 138 and again in 119 BC, emperor Wu of the state of Han had already sent an envoy westward with over 10,000 cattle and sheep and fabrics woven with silver and gold to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the kingdoms of the west. Chu Ti now made use of the progress of Chinese science to extend the practice to overseas empires.
The fleet sailed first to Calicut (Kozhikode), the largest trading port in India, which was regularly visited by Arab and Chinese ships, and on to southern Africa. Whether it visited all continents remains to be established. The accepted consensus is that it rounded the Cape of Good Hope, entered the South Atlantic Ocean and epxlored the coast of south-western Africa. Menzies (2003) has assembled evidence that it may have surveyed the east and the west coast of the Americas, all of Africa, probably Australia and Antarctica, and entered the Polar Seas. He reports that Chinese settlements existed in New England, in San Francisco Bay and on the Amazon River before Columbus arrived in America and that the burial chamber of a Chinese person, probably an ambassador, was found in the capital of the Inca empire. A global voyage of Cheng Ho's fleet may thus be a possibility.
Menzies' account has been rejected by many historians, and given the many obvious errors and false claims in his book it has to be said that his credibility is low. An objective assessment has to be based on independent evidence. A memorial stone erected by Cheng Ho on the Yangtze River estuary after his return to China says: "The emperor ... has ordered us [Cheng Ho] and others [Zhou Man, Hong Bao, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing] at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and imperial troops to journey in more than a hundred ships ... to treat distant people with kindness... We have gone to the western regions ... altogether more than three thousand countries large and small. We have traversed more than a hundred thousand li [forty thousand nautical miles, or 74,000 km] of immense water spaces." This suggests at least an undertaking on a scale not seen before.
The final assessment of the geographic coverage of Cheng Ho's voyage is still a task for scientific study. Whatever the outcome, it is beyond dispute that his maritime expedition was an outstanding achievement. In the context of the history of science it is of interest in two respects: It gives incontrovertible proof that during the 15th century China was the leading nation in scientific endeavours. It also raises again the question: Why did China not conquer the world?
In the 15th century feudalism reigned in China. Feudalism reigned in Europe, too; but there were important differences between the two feudal systems. The Chinese emperor ruled over a unified China with more than 60 million people (Anderle et al., 1966). This gave him a huge taxation base and an immense reservoir of human labour, sufficient to finance and build the vast canal system and other public works and satisfy the court's hunger for luxury as well. Contact with the outside world was only required to obtain foreign luxuries such as spices and other goods that could not be obtained in China itself. Chinese naval exploration was merely an extension of the feudal desire to obtain luxury goods from all over the world through trading contacts. China maintained trading posts in other countries but never had any plans to invade and conquer overseas territories. As Cheng Ho states on his memorial stone at the banks of the Yangtze River, his imperial orders were "to treat distant people with kindness."
European feudalism was in a very different state. Europe's population had shrunk during the first outbreak of the Black Death 1347 - 1351, and the ensuing labour shortage had made it more difficult to exploit the peasants and artisans, who had responded with the first peasant revolt in 1381. Lacking a taxation base at home, the feudal regimes had turned against each other in an attempt to fill the state coffers through robbery. England and France fought their Hundred Years' War (1337 - 1453). On the Iberian peninsula Christian rulers had taken Córdoba, the centre of Muslim power, in 1236; too weak to defeat Granada, the only remaining Islamic state (it survived until 1492), they were occupied with territorial wars against each other.
There was another important difference between China and Europe. The Chinese empire was based on a central administration and taxation system, and its finances were controlled by the court. Europe always had free cities that did not recognize feudal authority. The strongest and most independent of these were in Italy: Genoa and Venice had been ruled by trading oligarchies for centuries. Their merchant vessels were the backbone of their wealth, the European feudal houses had been their customers.
To finance their wars and maintain their luxurious lifestyle, the ruling houses of Europe turned increasingly to loans from the rich merchant cities. At the beginning of the 13th century Florence had developed into a financial centre; its banking houses had begun to establish branches all over western Europe. As a result Italian banking houses began to wield significant political power. This changed the structure of society profoundly, although the consequences were not to be felt to their full extent until a few centuries later. Feudalism is driven by the desire for luxury consumption, banking houses are driven by profit. They represented the first indication that a new economic order, capitalism, was to evolve from centuries of feudal rule.
The Europe of the 14th and 15th centuries was an amalgam of feudal desire for luxury goods, capitalist loan practices and unscrupulous adventurism. The banks provided the loans to the ruling houses, who funded naval exploratory expeditions of individuals, who were guaranteed their share in the profit of the voyage. When Cheng Ho set out on his mission he could expect an imperial pension on his return and a generous reward, but he had no claim to any part of his cargo. When the early European explorers set out on their voyages they could not expect a pension but had a signed contract from their sponsor that guaranteed them their share of the booty (spices, gold, slaves and whatever else proved profitable). The normal contract gave four fifth to the "explorer" and one fifth to the sponsor.
It is this introduction of private enterprise into naval exploration that explains the cruelty beyond belief of European colonization. Far from being intrepid explorers of unknown lands, Columbus, Magellan and da Gama were entrepreneurs who knew that they could make a bigger fortune through conquest than through honourable trade.
Menzies argues that a Venetian map of 1428, which is now lost, showed the coasts of all continents surveyed by the Chinese fleets, that a portion of it covering the west coast of South America and some notes about the map from Christopher Columbus' hands ended up with a Spanish seaman from Columbus' fleet, and that the seaman was captured by the Ottomans in 1501. The Ottoman admiral Piri Reis recognized the value of the map and combined it with other sources into a map of the world now known as the Piri Reis map of 1513. In A Chinese map that was produced in 1763 and claimed by the unidentified author to be based on a Chinese map of 1418 was discovered in 2005; some scholars consider it a fake. More study is required to throw light on the actual Chinese contribution on our knowledge of the surface of the Earth.
The massacres and destruction Europe inflicted on the American civilizations are well known. But death and destruction was not only brought to previously unknown continents. Calicut had been a meeting place of civilizations for centuries. "When da Gama reached Calicut he told his men to parade Indian prisoners, then to hack off their hands, ears and noses. All the amputated pieces were piled up in a small boat. The historian Gaspar Correa describes da Gama's next move:
When all Indians had been thus executed [sic], he ordered their feet be tied together, as they had no hands with which to untie them; and in order that they should not untie them with their teeth, he ordered them to strike upon their teeth with staves, and they knocked them down their throats." (Menzies, 2003)
The answer to the question why Europe and not China conquered the world becomes clear when Cheng Ho's motivation to visit Calicut is compared with the motivation of Vasco da Gama. Profit, and not just profit but maximum profit, drove the so-called European "Age of Exploration." Columbus' arrival on American soil in 1492 opened a new chapter in the history of civiization, science and society.
The term "Renaissance" is used for the 100 years of the European civilization from 1450 to 1550, a time characterized by a new appreciation of the achievements of the Greco-Roman or "classical" period. The Renaissance was prepared during the 13th century by the "Age of Scholastic Science" and before that by a few enlightened individuals, who happened to be ahead of their time and found it difficult to develop their full potential. Gerbert d'Aurillac, one of the first such individuals, was a rational thinker and great mathematician of the 10th century; he had to give science away to become Pope Sylvester II. Two hundred years later Adelard of Bath could devote his entire life to the teaching of the sciences and philosophy, but his work had little impact during his lifetime.
The major impact of Gerbert's and Adelard's work, as well as the work of others, came from their Latin translations of Greek and Roman works, which they had encountered in Arabic versions. Arabian rule over Sicily and Spain had brought Christian monasteries into the possession of Arabic manuscripts, which Gerbert and Adelard translated and used in their teaching. In the 13th century, when the informal circles of discussion and disputation that had developed in the major cities were given the status of universities with royal statute and the right to confer degrees, the universities became the repositories of the Latin translations.
As already mentioned in Lecture 13, the period 1350 - 1450 saw a decline of the universities. Nevertheless, the period was an important preparatory phase for the Renaissance in various ways. In Germany Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press and by 1455 could match and better the Chinese technique of printing with movable type, which allowed the mass distribution of books. In Portugal Henry the Navigator, the third son of king John I of Portugal, established a private centre for innovation in seafaring and ship design, through which Arab navigational and technical knowledge (including the Chinese compass) were introduced into Europe.
But the Renaissance did not begin on the Iberian peninsula which, as we shall see, developed into a fortress of all reactionary forces. It did not spring from Germany's patchwork of feudal and episcopal mini-states either. The new spirit of independent thinking and openness to new ideas could only develop in the centre of world trade and world finance that carried the seeds of a new social order: Florence.
In Florence, during the years 1410 - 1415, the architect Brunelleschi rediscovered the geometrical principles of perspective drawing based on the concept of a single vanishing point, an art practiced by the ancient Romans but lost to Europe during the Middle Ages. This sparked a real revolution in painting and created great interest in Greco-Roman art. Using strict mathematics, the architect Alberti described the principles of perspective in 1435 in his work Della pintura ("On Painting"). In a work on geography Alberti described mathematical principles of surveying and mapping and the instruments used to that purpose based on the principles of geometric mapping in the works of Ptolemy.
Florence had been a centre of the arts for some time. Under the rule of Lorenco de' Medici "the Magnificent", head of the leading banking house and of the family that ruled Florence since 1434 (and would rule it for another 300 years), the city developed into the crown of the Renaissance, attracting artists such as Botticelli, Donatello and Michelangelo. Among them was also Leonardo da Vinci, known to most people for his portrait of Mona Lisa. What is often less appreciated is that da Vinci's influence on the intellectual development of Europe during the Renaissance period and beyond is far more important than his paintings.
Like Alberti, da Vinci was the incarnation of the humanist ideal of the educated person knowledgable in all areas of human endeavour. He was a scientist, but unlike Alberti he studied science only to the extent to which it was required for the pursuit of his work. When the necessity arose he studied geometry, arithmetic, languages, mechanics, hydrodynamics, animal movement and much more. In his treatise of the human anatomy he made a note to remind himself of the correct scientific approach to painting and sculpture:
The note demonstrates the new attitude to nature during the Renaissance and its influence in all areas of life including the arts: Everything derives from natural causes and without recourse to beliefs.
The new rational attitude to nature was bound to lead to conflict with the Christian church both as a spiritual leader and as one of the most powerful feudal landlords. The church tried to stem the tide by claiming to be the legitimate heir of Greek thought. Pope Julius II commissioned the artist Raphael to decorate his apartment in the Vatican with two giant frescoes. One wall was to show the Greek philosophers, while the wall on the opposite side of the room was to depict God, the prophets, apostles and representatives of the church.
Raphael's "School of Athens" in the Vatican apartment is a celebration of the new spirit of the Renaissance. Plato and Aristotle take centre stage in a congregation of all Greek philosopher-scientists known at the time and their Arabian translators. The "school" itself is a celebration of the rediscovery of perspective painting; with its intricately patterned vaults and highly structured ceiling it produces the illusion of great depth.
While the pope in Rome favoured adaptation to the new intellectual climate that emanated from the commercial centre in northern Italy, developments on the Iberian peninsula went in the opposite direction. Isabella I the Catholic, queen of Castile and Aragon, ended Arab domination by conquering the Muslim kingdom of Granada and expanded her rule into a unified Spanish kingdom. Under her reign Spain became the bulwark of reaction. The Inquisition became a powerful instrument of oppression. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or expelled; some 2,000 were burnt at the stake. The consequences for European science must have been severe. For centuries Spain remained a scientific backwater in Europe.
In 1492 Isabella I decided to agree to Columbus' request of sponsorship for a voyage to the west. It was the most important decision made during the Renaissance, a decision that determined the history of science into our days.
The European "Age of Discovery" is the dark side of the Renaissance. It led to the destruction of entire civilizations. Its booty helped the reactionary Spanish and Portuguese feudal kingdoms to survive into the 20th century. Scientifically it culminated in the invention of the Mercator projection by the cartographer Gerard Kremer in 1569. His projection remains an essential tool for navigation at sea and in aircraft even in the days of today's General Positioning Systems (GPS).
Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
Huff, T. E. (1993) The Rise of Early Modern Science; Islam, China and the West. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Menzies, G. (2003) 1421, the Year China Discovered America. Harper Collins, New York.