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The true origins of the Renaissance lay in scientific enquiry

Posted in Art, Historical articles, History, Religion, Science on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Renaissance first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Gallileo on the tower of Pisa,  picture, image, illustration

Gallileo on the tower of Pisa by James E McConnell

New Year’s Eve in the year A.D. 999 was not the most joyous festival in the story of our world. In the churches men and women crowded the pews, weeping and lamenting. In the streets outside, crying sinners flayed each other with birch branches.

In the churchyards crowds on their knees waited for the graves to burst open, and for the skeletal dead to rise and beckon them with bony fingers to their everlasting fate.

For, said the knowledgeable, on the morrow, the first day of the year A.D. 1000, the world would come to an end. On that day Jesus would return to Earth to judge all men, to send them off to heaven or hell.

The appointed day, discovered by the sages in their study of the stars, approved by the Church and accepted by the gullible multitude, had for long been anticipated. Famines and plagues, sent by the Lord as advance warnings of His wrath, had been steadily increasing in number. In an attempt to counteract their evil effects, pilgrimages had multiplied. As the day of doom drew nearer, all Europe was gripped by a paralysis of fear.

On New Year’s Eve that fear turned into an hysterical panic. Those who dared to go to bed, closed their eyes never expecting to open them again. Those who stayed up, watched the sky and waited in wonder for the descent of Christ.

But He didn’t come. And when the cock crowed and the restless sleepers awoke, and first light streaked the dawn sky, men all over Europe rubbed their reddened eyes and looked at each other saying. “It’s just like any other day. We’ve been fooled!”

The dawn of the eleventh century, however, was not perhaps quite like any other day. For it may well have been the first day in history when a large number of people realised that what they had been taught to accept for centuries was not necessarily true. As such, it may have been the first birth pang of the glittering epoch that we call the Renaissance.

Like the middle ages and the industrial revolution, the Renaissance is an era which cannot be confined between dates marking a beginning and an end. It touched many countries and was about many different things, and most of those things were happening in different places at different times.

But in the broadest sense we could say that it began in Florence about the end of the fourteenth century and that the major changes associated with it went on for two hundred years, until the early years of the seventeenth century.

Renaissance means, of course, simply rebirth, and when we apply it to the great movement that swept across Europe in those two golden centuries, we mean a period in which all men’s powers were reborn – a period of awakening from a slumber in which all new ideas had been repressed by the dogmas of medievalism.

For centuries man’s imaginations had been stifled by the feudal system, a tyranny run by the aristocractic rich in league with a despotic Church. Artists, writers, scientists and philosophers, as well as the serfs labouring in the fields, were all equally subjugated by the system: the serfs because they had to obey their masters’ orders, the savants because they were obliged to follow the rules that had been followed for centuries.

In such a climate nothing was less likely to happen than a new idea. And in such a climate nothing would have been less welcome than an original thought.

An astronomy student who had, for instance, done some observing for himself, once reported to his tutor that he thought he had seen some spots in the sun. “It cannot be,” replied his tutor with a shrug. “Aristotle wrote nothing about it.”

Tradition, dogma, divine right and rigid formulae – these were the bonds that for centuries had kept men from freedom of thought and action. It was the breaking of these bonds that we call the Renaissance.

It involved the whole process of transition in Europe from the medieval to the modern order and it touched every branch of learning. Socially, it meant the end of feudalism and chivalry, and the beginnings of trade and industrialism. Scientifically, it heralded the birth of astronomy, anatomy, medicine and discovery by observation rather than by acceptance of age-old theories.

Geographically it brought exploration, and in religion it brought the Reformation. And, of course, in literature and art it brought a flowering of talent greater than the world had ever known before.

It brought, too, a revival of Classic culture – a fuller appreciation of the writings, the arts and the attitudes of mind of the Greeks and Romans. This revival of the ideas of the Classic civilisation is still viewed as perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Renaissance.

In the words of Martin Luther, the Protestant leader who was a Renaissance man, it meant that “another world had dawned, in which things go differently.”

Men had been searching for these different things for a long time, and when they began to find them they did not always at first recognise them. The Renaissance may be said to have had several false starts. On New Year’s Day in the year A.D. 1000, for instance, many realised that they had been fooled by the paralysing dogma of religious intolerance, but the dogma still remained for centuries more.

Later, as the light began to dawn, the Christian soldiers of the Cross who went on Crusades discovered to their surprise that the infidel was not a savage as they had been taught – that in many respects Moslems were nicer people than Christians. Such discoveries cast doubts on the wisdom of long accepted traditions and perhaps left the thought in the Christian soldiers’ heads that it was a good thing so many of their nobles were killed on Crusades, because it gave the common folk a chance to think about an alternative system to feudalism.

Trade, the enemy of feudalism, was a part of the new system. It brought riches and a desire for riches to a new class of man. Coupled with it was a need for more overseas exploration to provide still more riches; in order to be “near the action,” therefore, men came from the country to live in the towns and ports. At this the religious bigots who couldn’t imagine a different way of life shook their fingers in warning.

“There are no people in Terre Australis – or in any of those countries on the other side of the world,” declared Pope Zacharias. “It is iniquitous to say that there are.” A man who gainsaid the Pope’s pronouncement was burned at the stake in Florence in 1327.

Why was this? “Because,” said a theologian, “when the apostles went into the whole world to preach the gospel they did not go to the antipodes – therefore there can’t be any people there.”

We can imagine how, when explorers like Colombus and Magellan came home with their booty and tales of rich treasure and strange peoples, the opinions of “experts” like Pope Zacharias began to be more closely questioned.

And if human knowledge could be as wrong as that, men asked, what else lay waiting in the unexplored corners of the world? A land where no one grew old? A land of gold – an El Dorado? As explorers went hopefully in search of these things, Renaissance writers speculated in fiction on them.

In his “New Atlantis” Sir Francis Bacon told of a party of shipwrecked sailors who came to the island of Ben Salem, where lived a race of people more advanced in scientific achievement than any other race on earth. The result, said Bacon, was that they lived a more orderly, “more satisfying” life than any other race on earth.

The theme of Bacon’s story is the pursuit of knowledge; that of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia,” another book about a fictional community, was an attack on the political evils and injustices of the European world.

In “Utopia” the people worked a six-hour day and everything was State controlled. Such books showed how far the dreams of Renaissance men and women had advanced from the cramping days of the serf and feudalism. They were the “science fiction” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, as science fiction sometimes does, they gradually became science fact.

Men looked at their world – then they looked at the worlds beyond. The teaching of astronomy had not changed for 1,000 years: the Earth was the centre of all things, it claimed, and the sun and the moon revolved around it. The first direct challenge to this ancient idea struck men like a thunderbolt – for it relegated Earth to a minor role in the Universe and, by inference, all those creatures on it.

The challenger was one of the great Renaissance men, a Pole named Nicolaus Copernicus. In May, 1473 Copernicus, then an old man, lay dying in the little town of Franenburg in Poland. Although he was in pain he was holding a book and his eyes were shining.

Copernicus himself had written the book, “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), in which he had proved that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. The Earth, he showed, rotates on its axis and is one of several heavenly bodies all of which revolve about the sun.

Copernicus was the brilliant son of a Polish trader. He had studied mathematics in Poland, Church law in Bologna and medicine in Padua. He was 24 when he ‘retired’ to Franenburg as a cathedral priest, and a spare-time student of astronomy.

He finished his great book 12 years before his death, but he dared not publish it. That had to wait until he was dying – and by then it was too late for Copernicus to become the eye of the hurricane that broke when it was read. Even Luther complained that it went against the teaching of the Bible – which had always been a good enough reason to condemn anything in the old days.

That another great Renaissance scientist, Galileo Galilei, believed in the Copernicus theory did nothing to get it accepted. When Galileo published his “Dialogie of the Two Great Systems of the Universe” he was warned by the Church to beware of such revolutionary opinions.

Sixteen years later, when he was still persisting that he was right, he was called to account by the dreaded Inquisition. He was then in his seventieth year, a scientist of repute, and he was prepared to admit his “guilt” by signing a paper saying that the Earth was stationary.

A story is told – though there is no evidence to support it – that as Galileo laid down his pen he murmured, “E pur si muove.” (“And still it moves.”)

Galileo was kept under house arrest as a prisoner of the Inquisition for the rest of his life, but the views he had expounded could not be arrested. Men had started to ask questions – about the wisdom of clinging to old beliefs, about religious orthodoxy, about their own insignificant place in the universe. And having found out so much, they were determined to know more.

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