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Week 2. Theories of Everything, 1400-1600. Theories

Early modern theories of nature were all-encompassing. They covered everything from the movements of the planets to the causes of rain and snow to the function of the liver. In Christian Europe, the dominant theories were derived from the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Nearly 2,000 years after they were formulated, these theories continued to shape the lives of people in profound ways, especially through theology, medicine and astrology, disciplines that had one foot in the university and one in the wider world. New philosophies emerged in the sixteenth century to challenge Aristotle's ones, but the latter held firm. A comparison to theories of nature in China in the same period helps to show what was distinctive and contingent about the European ones.

Seminar questions

What were the main theories about nature in Europe in the period 1400-1600?

Why were these theories so persistent?

How useful is it to compare European and Chinese theories of nature?

Essential readings

Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences. Palgrave, 2009, chapter 1 (What was Worth Knowing in 1500) and chapter 2 (Humanism and Ancient Wisdom: How to Learn Things in the Sixteenth Century).

Cohen, Floris. The Rise of Modern Science Explained. Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 1-25 and 30-38.

Additional readings


Grafton, Anthony. Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. See especially chapter 2 (The Astrologer's Practice) for a friendly introduction to the theory and sixteenth-century astrology.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. See especially chapters 3, 4, 6, and 7.

French, Roger, and Andrew Cunningham. Before Science: The Invention of the Friars’ Natural Philosophy. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996.

Grant, Edward. God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, chapter 5 (on theology).

Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World. Midland Book. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Mercer, Christia. 'The Vitality and Importance of Early Modern Aristoteleanism.' In The Rise of Modern Philosophy: The Tension Between the New and Traditional Philosophies from Machiavelli to Leibniz, edited by Tom Sorell, 33–67. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Available as course extract [to transfer from HI296 list].

Shank, Michael H., and David C. Lindberg, eds. Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 2: Medieval Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2013. See especially the chapters by Newman (on alchemy), Woodward (on geography), Jacquart (on medical practice), and Park (on medical theory).


Blair, Ann, and Anthony Grafton. ‘Reassessing Humanism and Science.’ Journal of the History of Ideas, 53 (1992), 535–40

Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010)

Daston, Lorraine, ‘The Sciences of the Archive’, Osiris, 27 (2012), 156–87

Dear, Peter. Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools. Ithaca: London, 1988.

Grafton, Anthony. Defenders of the Text (Harvard, 1991). Classic study of humanist scholarship; note especially the chapters on Poliziano (for examples of humanist citation practices) and Kepler (for an example of a leading scientist who was also a humanist)

Joy, Lynn. Gassendi, the Atomist: Advocate of History in an Age of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Kristeller, Paul. ‘The Humanist Movement’, in Rennaisance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains, ed. by Paul Kristeller (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 3–23. A standard chapter-length summary of the humanist movement

Nauert Jr., Charles G., ‘Humanists, Scientists, and Pliny: Changing Approaches to a Classical Author’, American Historical Review, 84 (1979), 72

Pomata, Gianna, and Nancy G. Siraisi, 'Introduction', in their Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005)

Rabil, Jr., Albert, ‘Humanism: Renaissance’, in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. by Maryanne Cline Horowitz (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005), iii, 1029–33.

Various chapters in The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (CUP, 1988), the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy (CUP, 2007), and Philosophers of the Renaissance (Catholic University of America Press, 2015), all available online as Warwick ebooks. See also the three volumes of Renaissance Humanism, ed. Albert Rabil Jr.

Resisting new theories

Ashworth, William B. 'Emblematic Natural History of the Renaissance.' In Cultures of Natural History, edited by Nicholas Jardine, James Secord, and Emma Spary, 17–37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. [course extract to transfer from HI296]

Debus, Allen George. The French Paracelsians: The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985 -- especially chapters 1 and 2 (on ancient astronomy) and chapter 5 (on Copernicus).

Omodeo, Pietro Daniel. Copernicus in the Cultural Debates of the Renaissance: Reception, Legacy, Transformation. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Westman, Robert S. “The Astronomer’s Role in the Sixteenth Century: A Preliminary Survey.” History of Science 18: 2 (1980): 105-147. See especially sections 1-4.

Comparison to China

Lloyd, Geoffroy E. and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. Yale: New Haven, 2002. Deals with ancient rather than medieval science and medicine, but the best comparative study we have on science in premodern China and the West.