Science, War and Pestilence The Renaissance Mathematicus

The last years of Schickard’s life were filled with tragedy. Following the death of Gustav Adolf in the Thirty Years War in 1632, the Protestant land of Württemberg was invaded by Catholic troops. Along with chaos and destruction, the invading army also brought the plague. Schickard’s wife had born nine children of which four, three girls and a boy, were still living in 1634. Within a sort time the plague claimed his wife and his three daughters leaving just Schickard and his son alive. The invading troops treated Schickard with respect because they wished to exploit his cartographical knowledge and abilities. In 1635 his sister became homeless and she and her three daughters moved into his home. Shortly thereafter they too became ill and one after another died. Initially Schickard fled with his son to escape the plague but unable to abandon his work he soon returned home and he also died on 23 October 1635, just 43 years old, followed one day later by his son.

The fate of Schickard and his family made me, as a historian of science, once again brutally aware that the people that I, and other STEM historians, research and write about are not just producers of theories, theorems, hypotheses and discoveries living in some sort of Platonic space of Ideals but real people living working and often suffering in in a very real and frequently hostile world. Many of the scholars that form the subject of my own main interests in the history of science and mathematics suffered disruption, displacement and even death during the turmoil that engulfed Europe during the religious wars of the seventeenth century. In the following I’ll sketch some of those life-disturbing incidents suffered by those scholars, without any pretention to being exhaustive.

In his youth he came to Graz as a Lutheran Protestant teacher in a prominently Catholic district. During the counter-reformation this couldn’t last and it didn’t; the Protestants were ordered to convert or to leave. Initially Kepler, the district mathematicus, was granted an exception due to his successful astrological prognostica but in the end he too was forced to leave losing much of his wealth in the process. In Prague he was in a similar situation as Protestant Imperial Mathematicus to a Catholic Emperor. This time it was civil strive, as Rudolf II was deposed by his brother Matthias, which caused Kepler to leave Prague to become district mathematicus in Linz. Here once again he was a Lutheran in a predominantly Catholic district, which caused Kepler much stress. In 1625 Linz was besieged for two months by a peasants uprising. The printing press that Kepler had founded to print and published his own works was burnt to the ground with much of his work. The last years of Kepler’s life were spent wandering from town to town in Southern Germany and Austria never again finding a truly safe haven. Ironically he spent much of this time serving as court astronomer to Wallenstein the deposed Catholic commander in chief.

Even Galileo (1564–1642) can be considered to have suffered under the religious conflicts, although in Northern Italy he was outside of the immediate war zone. His problems in 1616 were certainly exacerbated by the fact that the conflicts between the Protestants and Catholics were reaching a highpoint just two years before the start of the Thirty Years War. In the 1630s Galileo’s situation was certainly worsened by the fact that he was perceived, as a Medici courtier, to be on the wrong side in the political struggle between the two great Catholic powers, France and Spain, to control the Papacy.

Do not misinterpret the above as in anyway supporting the unsubstantiated hypothesis of a conflict between religion and science. In each case, those I have listed suffered because of their religious affiliations or political views not because of their science. In fact it is interesting that during these times of intense religious strife, scientific scholars very often reached across religious and political boundaries to cooperate with each other, to share data, discuss discoveries and generally aid each other in their work.

Following the death of the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555–1617) the Jesuits offered his chair for mathematics in Bologna to the Lutheran Johannes Kepler, with the assurance that he would not have to convert. When the Lutheran Protestant Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574), professor for mathematics in Wittenberg, centre of the Reformation, visited the Catholic cathedral cannon Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) in Warmia, Dantiscus (1485–1548), the Bishop of Warmia and a counter-reformation hardliner, greeted him with warmth and honour as a scholar. Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, corresponded with scientific scholars from all religious persuasions exchanging scientific news. One of his successors, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), collected astronomical data from other Jesuits from all over the world and then redistributed it to astronomers throughout Europe, both Catholic and Protestant.

I’m not convinced lumping together gnu atheists, Draper, and White is a good idea. Based on the quoted passages in , Draper and White were arguing substantially different theses. They both seem wrong to me, but for different reasons. Draper’s thesis seems to overstate the importance of religion in the history of science, while White’s thesis seems to understate the threat to traditional religion represented by science, saying that untrammeled science is invariably good for religion. White may be correct that, of the options available, the best strategy for religion is to back off from any claim that seems to impinge upon science. But then, at least in my home country of the USA until recently, the largely Creationist Evangelical Protestants seemed to be doing better for themselves demographically than any other category of Christian, so he may even be wrong about that. As for the Gnu atheists, I agree the leading figures are not especially known for their historical expertise (the only one I can think of who’s any kind of a historian is Carrier, and he’s somewhat of a charlatan from what I can tell.) Nonetheless, they tend not to repeat the most egregious mistakes of Draper and White, such as the flat earth stuff.

As for the Galileo affair, you may be right that the Catholic Church would have transitioned to heliocentrism more quietly if Galieo had a different temperament, although we’ll never know. Nonetheless, the charges brought against Galileo, as far as I know, had nothing to do with his personal failings, but only his support for heliocentrism, and the works of other heliocentrists like Kepler and Copernicus were also placed on the index of prohibited books and continued to be long after Galileo’s death. So, it seems like the Church went to a lot of effort to make it seem like the whole thing wasn’t just about Galileo. What also seems clear is that, without a pre-existing perceived conflict between scripture and heliocentrism, Galileo would not have been in a position to write something as inflammatory to the Church as the Letter to Castelli.

Ray is right that White didn’t think that science was a threat to religion. White was an American Protestant of a type that was (and is) anything but hostile to science. In the 19th Century and right up to the 1950s, liberal Protestantism was a major cultural force, though more recently it has been outshouted and outnumbered by the Evangelicals. In it’s heyday it was a great promoter of public education and scientific research.

Well, things go around. To the disgust of right wingers, who think they are cucks and trimmers, and the disappointment of the gnu atheists, who prefer their opponents to be rustic enthusiasts for the science fiction version of theology, more rational types of Christians may reassert themselves in the next few years. Twenty years ago it was commonplace to suggest that mainstream churches had empty parking lots on Sundays because they couldn’t compete with the raw meat of the TV preachers, but these days the Fundies have their own problems filling the pews despite their obvious political power. There may be historical precedent for the situation. Radical Puritanism was actually in decline in the years before its apparent but temporary success in the English Civil War. The current Saturnalia of the Yahoos may be more evidence of desperation than triumph.

I find church history a desperately dull subject; but if you’re going to understand how science and religion have interacted, you do need to take it seriously. Though their Manicheanisms have slightly different antagonists—science + reasonable Protestantism vs superstition and tyranny for White, science vs superstition for the gnus—they are both crude lumpers in an area that calls for serious splitting.