The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Harcourt Brown

The Renaissance and Historians of Science [1]

Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 7, 1960, 27-42.


Introduction: Intellectualization of the Mechanical Professions

The History of Science: Towards Mass Production

The Scientific Revolution: Changing the Character of Our Mental Operations

Conclusions: Renaissance as Episode between Two Creative Ages

HHC: Titling and index added


Intellectualization of the Mechanical Professions

TWENTY years have passed since the Surveys of Recent Scholarship in the Period of the Renaissance were planned for the Committee on Renaissance Studies of the American Council of Learned Societies, offprints of which were grouped in a brochure circulated under the date of 1945.  Any review of progress in these fields ought to start with these useful compendia, even though several important areas were not explored at that time.  Science was abundantly documented by Francis Johnson and Sanford Larkey, whose critical evaluations afforded a guide to the physical sciences and mathematics, including astronomy, geography, and cartography, as well as the principal parts of biology. [2]

In 1940 Johnson could properly remark that much detailed work had been contributed from outside the circle of historians of science, then still a small group whose boundaries were somewhat vague, whose methods and objectives uncertain.  George Sarton’s work was beginning to bear fruit, Isis was well established in the United States soon after, and a new generation of teachers was on its way to new departments.  Lynn Thorndike’s massive machine de guerre [3] was passing its halfway mark, and his teaching and writing was stimulating a good deal of activity.  Now, as we reach 1960, the situation of Renaissance science as a study has changed in several ways; we may be no nearer Francis Johnson’s dream of a complete picture of Renaissance activities in this field, but we have many more monographs and articles to draw on, and a few efforts at original synthesis which make older views almost unrecognizable.

[1] A version of this paper was presented at the twentieth anniversary meeting of the New England Renaissance Conference at Brown University on 16 October 1959

[2] Modern Language Quarterly II (1941), 363-406.

[3] Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. III and IV, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (New York, 1934).  Vols. V and VI were published in 1941.


There are many reasons why this paper cannot do what Johnson and Larkey did so successfully in 1940; I shall specify only two, a justifiable impatience with what must needs be a very long list of titles with capsule comments, and the fact that interest and modesty lead me to try another direction.  I propose to look rather at some writings about the Renaissance in an attempt to discover how the activities of that period appear from the point of view of modern historians who have interested themselves in the rise of science and technology, which we recognize now as perhaps the most lively intellectual forces at work among us today.  It is useful to look at science in the Renaissance rather from the point of view of its general development in the world at large, as a factor in world politics and strategy, than as a phenomenon bounded by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in one dimension and western Europe in another.  The question we may ask is what various activities, avowedly scientific or not, in our period have contributed to the present state of our world as a whole.

Renaissance science continues to be associated with a few strongly marked and dramatic figures.  No ‘medievalist’ debunking can destroy the legendary importance of Leonardo, Vesalius, and Copernicus; there is a sense in which they form the chief component of the Renaissance contribution.  They are the ‘culture heroes’, and it is with them that the historian has to reckon as he works his way through this age of stubborn legends and obscure facts.  Sarton, who rejected the claim of the Renaissance to a notable place in the history of science in I929, [4] later paid such groups as this the compliment of speaking on the period at some length, though, as I shall suggest, he never really reversed the general stand of that rather impolite piece.  Rather, he recognized the significance of the shadow cast over later views of the Renaissance by the three men, and his essential humanism, his infinite curiosity about human beings and their ways, led him in later writings to study their work with sympathy and insight.  Thorndike could not do that; in his writings it is not impossible to read even a dislike for the persons and texts his program condemns him to discuss.  There is little in his work to suggest a general outlook on the problems of history, nothing of the generous philosophical humanity of Charles Singer or Herbert Butterfield.  There is a problem here for us all which goes beyond Wallace Ferguson’s excellent study; the exploration and anatomy of the legend of the Ren-

[4] George Sarton, ‘Science in the Renaissance’, in The Civilization of the Renaissance, by James Westfall Thompson and others (Chicago, 1929).  (The Mary Tuttle Borden Lectures at Mount Holyoke College.)


aissance as a social and cultural myth.  We need to know who created it, what it is, what it has been, what use it has, and, in particular, the areas in which it operates influentially, e.g., nineteenth-century poetry, painting, architecture, etc., and in general what it has signified for the non- historian over the last three centuries.  If we knew the emotional background of the myth better, we could evaluate more effectively the reasons why some are not moved by it, and why the period fares so badly at the hands of those untouched by nineteenth-century l’art pour l’art which explains at least some of Burckhardt, while influenced by the positivism in which Sarton grew up.  I think we would also see that the Renaissance was not a scientific thing, that its trend was in general away from the cooperative and cumulative activities that science builds with, that much of its individualism was subjective and not empirical, and that it was concerned with the production of finalities rather than with hypotheses to be tested and perhaps rejected; that the Renaissance was indeed, as Herbert Butterfield is reported to have said, ‘one of the most typically medieval things that the Middle Ages ever produced’. [5]  There is nothing very open-minded about Henry VIII beheading More, Calvin burning Servetus, or Diego de Landa burning the unique and irreplaceable manuscripts of Mayan history and religion; nor is the characteristic art of the period experimental and tentative as we understand those words after three hundred years of seeking an exit from the tradition of classicism.

It may be appropriate to suggest that the time has come to pass beyond both viewpoints and to recognize that both outlooks, aesthetic and positivist, are now historical themselves, worthy of study for what they tell us about Burckhardt and Sarton, Thorndike and Panofsky, rather than as final doctrines concerning the Renaissance.  The outlook of scholarship has changed; in the interests of discrimination it was once desirable to assert the unique nature of the Renaissance, to attempt to prove that such a moment in history could be found and identified; people have done the same more recently with the baroque, mannerism, preromanticism, and other terms.  We know now that such words are valid in a context, that whatever ‘Renaissance’ may mean, it does not refer to a cause of anything, that it describes things that went on in the quattrocento or the cinquecento, and that we can use the word as a means of communication as long as we do not abuse it.  There is no need

[5] Quoted by Jean Lindsay in the introduction to A Short History of Science, Origins and Results of the Scientific Revolution, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959, p. xi.


to defend the word when the concept is not necessary; one can study the sixteenth century and never use the term, just as one can talk about seventeenth-century France, even its literature, without use of the concept classicism, and in neither case feel very much impoverished.  On the other hand, it is possible to spin a lot of cobwebs with such words, hardly strong enough to walk about on, yet certainly thick enough to obscure the facts which lie behind them.  This is why I think it may be useful to discuss writers who talk about our period, even if they do not speak our particular language or think much of our sacred cows.

The length of this introduction may suggest some of the difficulties I have felt in entering on this field.  In his preface to the Codex Huygens in 1940, Panofsky describes the history of art-theory as a ‘border-line district between the history of art, the history of philosophical thought, and the history of natural science’.  He proceeds to describe it as a playground where nobody is at home, but where every one has instructive experiences, which means that the literature is not professional but ‘esoteric and slightly amateurish’, and scanty in volume.  There is a relevancy in these comments; especially if one tries to think constructively about what has been written in our field in these twenty years.  Since Sarton created a somewhat stunned silence at Mount Holyoke in 1929 by remarks that, one could say, might have been written by Thorndike, historians of Renaissance science have had some reason to feel that this is a risky area in which to venture a reputation.  I might suggest here that the most penetrating work on the general history of science in this period has come from those who have seen no need to be embarrassed if they agreed with Sarton; from those in short who can speak with informed authority about science, who hold no brief for the Renaissance, but who know enough about the period, its antecedents and its sequel, to be able to tell us fairly well where our period stands in the general history of western and world-wide culture.

The issue between the Renaissance specialist and the general historian turns usually on the semantic problem, what exactly is meant by science?  We have a tendency to twist the term in a sense which suits us.  For the scientist, if a statement is not mathematical, exact, impersonal, objective, capable of producing identical meanings in all hearers, referring to cumulative and repeatable effects, it is not scientific.  For him, interesting, disconnected statements about the world in general, inexact, subjective, asking the use of intuition, special insights, do not count as


science, even if they are impressive and present exciting interpretations of phenomena.

A paper which suggests thoughts along this line was presented by Erwin Panofsky at a symposium sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum in 1952. [6]  Reading it, one suspects that those who heard it and saw the accompanying slides must have felt that this was very close to the last and best word on Renaissance science, aimed very close to that impossible objective.  Professor Panofsky was shooting, I think, but his target was perhaps human; Sarton was in the audience, although I think that probably Thorndike was not.

The speaker began by claiming that there is an objective reference in historical time for the word ‘Renaissance’ on the basis of architectural evidence; the years from 1300 to 1600 show deliberate innovations in building, in which science and art advance radically together, on parallel lines.  The essential structures of art and science in the period were already so different from medieval standards and from ours that we must refrain from evaluating them as separate fields of endeavor; science, he said, should be given some credit for results in the fine arts, and some of the arts credit for their contribution to science.  The Renaissance was an age of decompartmentalization; breaking medieval barriers of order and separateness, it produced at least mixture and interpenetration, and perhaps synthesis and chaos as well.  The background for these remarks may be found in Panofsky’s own Albrecht Dürer. [7] in a chapter on Dürer as a theorist of art; he notices that Aquinas finds a painter painting according to other work he has seen, while in the Renaissance nature herself determines what will be depicted, for art is an imitation of natural objects.  This leads to the thesis that the artist is the first true natural scientist, and Dürer gives us, as he says, the ‘birth of German scientific prose’.  The whole chapter is an important and unusual contribution to the literature on the scientific attitude of the Renaissance, whose only disadvantage is that its propositions hardly make sense in the light of what scientists regard as science.

The contribution to the Metropolitan symposium was of course illustrated; one slide conveyed objective information about natural objects along with the customary trappings, mythology and physical reality in a single symbolic perspective; an accepted astronomical theory offered a pattern in which classical divinities strike dramatic poses in the fore-

[6] The Renaissance, a Symposium (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953).

[7] Princeton, 1943


ground.  In other illustrations, Panofsky went back to review the systematic exploration of nature by Brunelleschi, Alberti, Piero della Francesca, and Leonardo, who link practice and theory, who do not reject mathematical principles and explanations.

This trend he describes as breaking the barrier between manual and intellectual work, so that ‘the greatest advances… were made by engineers, sea captains, instrument makers, and artists, rather than professors’.  Fracastoro, Pirckheimer, Dürer, Leonardo, all contribute to the tangibilization of science, and thus complement the intellectualization of the mechanical professions.  This parallels the rise of the descriptive sciences, which in turn depend more and more on representational techniques, which gave notable service in transmitting a sense of shape, ‘for authors cannot give actual information by interminable, dull, confused writing’.  I must abridge his argument, but he goes on to claim that ‘in the history of modem science the invention of perspective, coupled with the nearly simultaneous emergence of the multiplying arts, marks the beginning of a first period; the invention of the telescope and the microscope that of a second; and the invention of photography that of a third’.  ‘Illustration is the statement itself’, he concludes, and he proceeds to show that observation is lost when it is not put in an image.

Perhaps the lesson derived from all this deserves comment.  The momentary association of artists and scientists, Marc Antonio della Torre with Leonardo, Vesalius with Calcar, suggests the sociological changes of the age, the development of a wealthy and intellectual elite, the secularization of the schools, the rise of the private academies, the decline of the guilds, the rising prestige of the inventor, the engineer, and the artist.  The creature has learned to create; divine is now applied to earthly things and earthly men and women, and if all had gone well, there would have been no break between the arts and the sciences.  But Panofsky finds that what was here and what was beyond could not be reconciled; mathematics set a course which the arts could not follow, and barriers between idealist and naturalist arose, creating a frontier that communication could not bridge.  From the seventeenth century on, the arts and science go their separate ways.

Once the spell of plunging analogies and vivid images has evaporated a little, it is possible to see what will not do in this version of the history of science.  Science is an intellectual construct, not a series of clear and independent statements made by draftsman or photographer; printing, engraving, aided by microscope or telescope, even in color or in motion,


are aids to scientists, but they cannot replace his brains and his capacity to put findings in an intelligible structure.  Even Panofsky is not content to show pictures without discourse; what he says adds to what he shows, and indeed could make sense without any pictures at all.  The mark of a good theory is its capacity to explain what has happened, and I think every reader and hearer must have been a little uncomfortable with the conclusion which he finally reached.  There must have been some more satisfactory reason why science and the fine arts went in separate directions after 1600.  One might be that after learning to create diagrams and depict objects accurately and in perspective, the scientists discovered that their interest was not in the diagram, the visual statement, but in what could be done with it, how it could be used, improved on, not artistically, but as a tool in the quite special enterprise that is science.  Panofsky’s question of which content is here and which is ‘beyond’ is irrelevant and in a sense silly; the scientist is not interested in the particular present object except as it leads him to knowledge of the class or classes of objects of which the individual is a member.  He does not, qua scientist, stand still to admire the object without reference to larger issues which the characteristics of the object reveal.  From what a scientist has to say about an object, it is possible to undertake some classification and interpretation on one’s own, with a sense of security in the result.  The intuitive perception, even if realistically exact, is unpredictable and inimitable; it may be exciting and reveal a vision, but there is no guarantee that it can become a usable element in systematic knowledge.  If these comments apply, they may suggest why science and the arts parted company, as well as why such a paper as the one we have described is not in the long run very helpful to the historian of science.  The history of science can be illustrated, but it cannot be told in picture-book form.


The History of Science

Towards Mass Production

This is said in spite of the 2962 or more illustrations which may be found in the recently completed five-volume History of Technology edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, A. R. Hall, and Trevor I. Williams, [8] in which it is difficult to find much reference to the Renaissance, although the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries occupy space in the appropriate chapters.  In this British work there is really very little periodization, and practically no conceptual treatment at all.  The sacred word quattrocento never occurs; the words ‘humanist’, ‘humanities’, and ‘humanism’ are never capitalized.  Those who feel lost without Machiavelli

[8] Oxford University Press, 1954-1958.


and Ariosto, Savonarola and Adrian VI, Marot and Montaigne, friendly landmarks of a well-known world, may well be dismayed by these massive volumes.  Yet their selva oscura is not so forbidding that one cannot enjoy the thirty or more well-selected plates at the end of each volume, and the hundreds of line drawings and cuts that illuminate the text.  For our purposes, the epilogues to volumes II and III, by Singer and Hall respectively, lucidly sum up the main points of technological history to the end of the seventeenth century, putting the sequence of contributions in an historical perspective which, for this reader at least, seems fresh and penetrating, quite indispensable, in fact.  The summarizing of such wide-ranging volumes is not easy; the chapters range from mining and metallurgy, agriculture and textiles, to the calendar, precision instruments, alchemical equipment, the art of printing, and clocks; each chapter is by a specialist in the particular topic, and the whole has been carefully edited to maintain a balance and avoid repetition.  A history of the useful arts asks for constant recognition of the human context, and the authors of the various chapters have treated homo faber with an understanding of homo sapiens as well.  There is throughout a relating of cunning and perception to the larger vision of science and philosophic insight.  Historical archaeology is given us in a full cultural perspective.

From these books, then, we may expect some view of where the Renaissance stands among historians of science and technology.  In his epilogue to volume III, Dr. Singer points out that the record shows that Greek and Roman technology was not superior to that of the ancient empires they overthrew, that ‘the curve of technological expertness tends to dip rather than to rise with the advent of the classical cultures’, which advent indeed appears rather as the work of heroic and barbarian victors over effete but highly civilized orientals.  He adds that, up to about 1300 A.D., northwestern Europe (in the early twentieth century technologically the most developed part of the Afrasian land mass) was greatly inferior to the near east, which in turn was far behind the far east in the arts and crafts.  From about 70 B.C. to A.D. 1500 eastern cultures were at their height, contributing technological ideas to the west, sometimes directly, sometimes via Byzantium, long the wealthiest and most civilized Christian state, and sometimes via Islam.  Fabrics, textiles, mosaics, silks, ivories, ceramics, glass and metal work came from the east, of a quality that the west could hardly rival; from Islam came science: alchemy, astrology, mathematics; many substances, drugs, dyes, instruments of precision, products of industrial chemistry, techniques of building, as well as foods and agricultural practices.  From the same


quarter came methods in transport, mining, and strategy; arms and armor, gunpowder, paper and printing, canal locks, rudders, rigging, and the mariner’s compass.

Thus in the wide area represented by the history of technology it appears that certain perspectives more or less hallowed by tradition will have to be redrawn.  The long history of the arts and crafts, the métiers, of the west has really been a tale of continual assimilation of devices and procedures from many sources rather than of a sudden burst of creativeness confined to two centuries or so after 1400.  The movement of pilgrims, traders, colonists, embassies, refugees, and crusaders was the chief means of diffusion; they brought the products of eastern skills, and there is clear evidence that the artisans of the west were induced to imitate the east.  When intercourse was interrupted in the fifteenth century, the traces of the east were not obliterated, and in some ways the influence continued, though by this time western artisans had absorbed a large part of the basic techniques.  From the late sixteenth century on, increasingly as scientific influence on industry grows, the flow of ideas and skills begins to be reversed; and it is the considered view of the editors and authors of this History that the influence of science on technology is towards mass production, the cumulation of skills in larger and larger industries and trades in the hands of less imaginative and less perceptive workers.

The east had had a high level of technology without science; a long slow development through millennia had produced astonishing results, results which in some ways have not been, perhaps cannot be, equaled.  In the west, a scientific outlook has produced a technology which depends far less on the intuitive artistry of a single highly gifted individual than on the use of precise measurements and calculations embodied in delicate and sometimes elaborate machinery, itself the product of machines and specialized tools.  The operator of a machine may be capable of creative activity, of artistry; most often he is trained to work to patterns and templates which can be copied without understanding.  One might suggest parenthetically that a typical example of the sixteenth-century worker who has neither a developed science nor a craft tradition to support his work is perhaps Bernard Palissy, as he tries to make a glaze to equal that of Italian majolica.  He works by trial and error, without isolating his materials, with no measured knowledge of heat and its effects, plunging through hundreds of trials without rime or reason, by sheer persistence getting results which may or may not be the true equivalent of what he sought.  He marks the discontinuity that


Singer refers to, I think; there is no sense in which this adventure with materials and methods can be called a ‘renaissance’.  Indeed it raises the question of whether, in this whole area of activity, the word is not wrongly applied.

It will be apparent that for Charles Singer neither the period nor the concept we call the Renaissance has any real meaning.  His catalogue of achievements attained by 1500 lists very little that is fundamentally new, the product of the cherished quattrocento; civilization as he describes it has adapted the skills of the east to the conditions of western Europe, giving posterity the illusion of a sudden rapid change, an illusion which is reinforced by economic and political developments.  Mills and mining, carpenter’s tools, deep plowing, harness and rigging, the making of steel and soaps, alum, alcohol, pigments, and nitre have slowly revolutionized the way of western life, with no great influence on its thought or aesthetic perceptions.  The old culture has become stable, a comfortable, steady frame in which to live, and for about three centuries, down to the opening of the Industrial Revolution, there are no striking changes.

The great field in which advance takes place is of course the scientific, and here we are dealing with intellectual revolution rather than with cultural change.  It cannot be said to begin much before the very end of the sixteenth century, and it dates properly from the seventeenth, which sees the work of Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, and all the galaxy of genius that great age contained.  Singer’s epilogue is only one chapter among many which regard the age of the Renaissance as an age of uneasy expectancy rather than of great and definitive achievement.  From his point of view, which may inspire and is certainly justified by the volume as a whole, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries form a period of relative stagnation, not very creative, more repetitive and devoted to summarizing of the past, encyclopedic towards the present, than pointing the way towards the future.  One might see perhaps a new self-conscious attitude in the artisans; as they learned to read and write, booklets by and for them were beginning to circulate, products of other artisans in the printing houses.  R. J. Forbes in a chapter on metallurgy cites a number of early handbooks of the kind I mean: Kriegsbucher, Rüstungsbücher, Bergbüchlein, Probierbüchlein, of the years 1480-1550, are new as phenomena if not for their content, much of which is traditional craftsman’s lore.  They may be responsible for some of the work of Agricola, even of Biringuccio, Piccolpasso, Stradanus, and Ramelli, who have left us more elaborate accounts of the technology of the age.  They promote the progress of the arts in a way that could not have been done


before the invention of printing from movable type and the free use of woodcut illustrations.  In these books the compiler of other men’s inventions looks as proudly at the world as does Vesalius in the frontispiece of his Fabrica.  But for all that, they are textbooks, pastiches of science and primers of skills, in no sense heralds of a new world.

The new society of the west produced and used goods that could not compete with those of the east in technical skill and quality.  Its advantage lay in massive production, because the product in which art and technical skill are inseparable is always less sought after and less actively produced than the satisfaction of elementary needs, such as food in quantity, cheap clothes, cheap weapons, explosives, produced with the aid of pumps, conveyers, grinders, powered by water or wind.  The presence of the inventor or designer is no longer necessary to the building of a ship or a palace or a church, or the manufacture of cannon; unskilled labor under a trained foreman works to greater tolerances, variations and slight defects in skill and material being allowed for and even expected in the product.

The upshot of the movement is a gradual destruction of the class structure in its distinctive marks.  When all men lived by the product of the hand of the artisan, the rich commanded the best, the poor made do with what they could make themselves.  Mud floors and fine tiles, tapestries and drugget, batten doors and fine paneling, crude pots and fine china, all handmade, were available according to the status, social or financial, of the individual user, which seems to have varied enormously.  By 1700, industry was bringing quantity to all, an improvement of the worst, a deterioration of the best, and there were fewer skills in the general mass of people.  There were more books, but very few were as handsome as the best of the product of the early sixteenth century.  Socially, the ingenious, the industrious, the skilled technician is rewarded; his work is appreciated for its efficiency, its productiveness, not for its symbolic or aesthetic values.  Learning and science begin to be available to all in institutions and books, literacy is increasing, and in the long run, even in the universities, one finds the new mood, the view ‘that the impossible will surrender to the patient, systematic assault of natural science’.


The Scientific Revolution

Changing the Character of Our Mental Operations

I cannot find the phrase ‘scientific revolution’ before Koyré’s use of it at the beginning of an article in 1943. [9]  The term was defined and

[9] A. Koyré, ‘Galileo and Plato’, Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), p. 400.  Reprinted in Wiener and Noland, Roots of Scientific Thought (New York, 1957), pp. 147 ff.


given general circulation by repeated use in Herbert Butterfield’s modest but seminal volume of 1949, The Origins of Modern Science, [10] which led in due course to A. R. Hall’s more technical but hardly more important book, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800; the Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude. [11]  Since then the term has been accepted in the literature, with general agreement on its meaning and application.  Professor Butterfield has said that he had not realized the term was so new, that he had thought it apt, really a cliche.  Yet I am fairly sure the word is new since Johnson and Larkey put their review of the literature together twenty years ago.

The Renaissance falls squarely within the period studied by Butterfield and Hall, and from them we may perhaps see clearly how the historian of science today rates the activities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in comparison with what had happened before and what has happened since.  Counting pages, one finds less space devoted to the years before 1600 than to those which follow; it may be essential to know what went on before and during the sixteenth century, but it is clear that, to these historians at least, the Renaissance is not so central, that it offers no real crisis or turning point in the development of science.

Professor Butterfield’s book is based on lectures he was asked to give at Cambridge University, and its manner is that of spoken discourse.  Roughly chronological in form, its twelve chapters discuss the main developments, with more emphasis on the general intellectual implications of its subject matter than can be found in either Sarton or Thorndike, science being deeply woven into the social and political outlook of the centuries that have followed Newton.  Butterfield knows that the history of science is not directly important to the advancement of modern science, and suggests that if the subject is worthy of study at all, it must not be in an antiquarian spirit, but tested by being placed in close relationship to other major aspects of human history, intellectual and otherwise.

The real point of Butterfield’s work, then, lies in the pages in which he traces the influence of science in modern thought and evaluates the period of his special interest, not from the strictly occidental viewpoint that characterizes Crane Brinton’s Shaping of the Modern Mind, [12] but from a height that allows him to survey what Leopold von Ranke called the ‘ocean of history’.  Here we may find evaluations which may

[10] London, 1949.

[11] London, 1954.

[12[ Partial reprint of Ideas and Men, the Story of Western Thought (New York, 1950).


be sobering to students of the Renaissance, who will discover that since the scientific revolution ‘overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world - since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics - it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.’  Changing the character of our mental operations, transforming the diagram of the universe and the texture of human life, he says, ‘it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisation of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.” [13]

This is not, of course, so much a devaluation of the Renaissance as it is a reconsideration of the bases on which the general intellectual history of Europe and the modem world should be based.  There is no medievalist animus in it; it is a sober view, repeated, emphasized, and slightly elaborated in the Horblit lecture which Butterfield gave at Harvard in March 1959.  It would not be fair to leave these views naked and unsupported without at least a glimpse at their background in his wide reading in the monographs and other literature.

We may turn to his handling of one of the key figures in sixteenth-century science and begin with Copernicus.  The criterion we are asked to accept for recognizing the scientific revolution is the discovery of ‘transpositions in the minds of scientists themselves’, radical restatements of the basic problems, leading to a reversal of an earlier view, to the acceptance of an outlook which makes the previous analysis useless and absurd.  ‘The teaching of Copernicus’, he writes, ‘is entangled… with concepts of value, teleological explanations and forms of what we should call animism.  He closes an epoch much more clearly than he opens any new one.  He is himself one of those individual makers of world-systems, like Aristotle and Ptolemy, who astonish us by the power which they showed in producing a synthesis so mythical - and so irrelevant to the present day - that we should regard their work almost as a matter for aesthetic judgment alone.  Once we have discovered the real character of Copernican thinking, we can hardly help recognising the fact that the genuine scientific revolution was still to come.’ [14]

This view that the scientific revolution must be recognized in its fulfilment and not in what were only primitive gropings appears even

[13]These quotations are taken from Butterfield, Origins, ed. 1951, p. viii.

[14] Butterfield, p. 26.


more clearly in his chapter on the study of the heart down to Harvey.  After discussing Vesalius, the Galenic tradition, Fabricius, and Cesalpino, and considering the vitally important role of the University of Padua, he is able to emphasize how fresh Harvey’s new view of circulation really was, how it describes for the first time ‘what [the blood] carries, why, how and where it takes up its loads, how, where and why it parts with them’.  Thus he can add that, in respect to methods and results, ‘we seem to have touched something like the genuine scientific revolution at last’. [15]

A chapter on the culmination of the story in the ‘synthesis of astronomy and mechanics… achieved in the system of Sir Isaac Newton’, an epoch which is ‘one of the great moments in the history of human experience… when… men acquired new habits of mind, new methods of enquiry - … founded modern science’, [16] introduces an account of the direct consequences in the philosophical eighteenth century, when science becomes a career, a social success, a matter for public lectures and politically interesting, evident in the vast popularizing literature of the time.

In this general perspective we may understand and allow a measure of justification to what Butterfield has to say about the Renaissance and its cultural heroes in the scientific disciplines.  He does not find that the Renaissance brought essentially new ingredients to our civilization, nor that there were in it intellectual changes of a nature to transform our society.  These things come later, in the seventeenth century, ingredients which neither the ancient world nor Byzantium could have achieved, but which in the long run end the domination of the west by the civilizations of the Mediterranean basin.  Among these he lists the colossal secularization of thought, not perhaps particularly a product of science, but a reaction to tensions which leads to the reduction of the churches to the level of parties within the state; after this comes the view of Europe as a fragment of a large and newly discovered world, in which many local creeds embody truths which lead to the understanding of larger plans and systems, and to the acceptance of deism in many circles; and finally the methodical skepticism generally practised, the fruitful basis on which science could be built.  These things, which the seventeenth century possessed much more clearly than the sixteenth, combined to carry the domain of science into all fields of thought and spec-

15 Butterfield, p. 41.

16 Butterfield, p. 122.


ulation, creating a new factor in history, a force which in the long run will disturb most seriously the generally accepted periodization of the historians.  The dissolution of old forms of society, the gradual reduction of the role of the Greek and Roman heritage, and indeed of Christianity itself, leads Butterfield to see ‘emerging towards the end of the seventeenth century… a civilization exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as Nineveh and Babylon’.  ‘That is why’, he concludes, ‘since the rise of Christianity, there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared with this.’ [17]



Renaissance as Episode between Two Creative Ages

The more closely the historians examine our period, the more shadowy does the concept of Renaissance become.  The trends of the century are not in one direction, the developments are not parallel.  There was a revival of the classics, not the first nor yet the last; there was also significant interest in the languages of the near east, perhaps rising from the contributions of that area in science and the arts.  There was a new realism in the arts and literature, and there was a new freedom and a new symbolism.  There was a continued development of music, apparently both in theory and practice.  The three old stand-bys of high school history, explosives, the compass, and the printing press, were new, but only to Europe, where a new technology of metals made them useful on a continental scale.  Anatomy, astronomy, mechanics, physics, mathematics, all advanced, in different ways and for different reasons.  Some of these developments stem from spiritual or intellectual causes; many are due to the attaining of temporary solutions of long-felt problems in the arts and crafts.  Much is due to the temper and mood of the western artisan, less humanist, less addicted to philology and purely intellectual pursuits, more given to materialist bourgeois enterprise, than we have formerly been told.  The question remains, does the acceleration in ideas and speculation for which the invention of printing is largely responsible show any general pattern, or enough common causes and effects, for us to insist, as the philologists and historians of art ask us to, that the whole period be set apart and called the Renaissance?

Current interpretations stemming from the history of science and technology seem to answer ‘no’.  In very many lines of development, in most of the useful arts, in science, in related areas of philosophy, and, I am told, in religious thought and piety, these centuries do not show the kind of change of pace or direction that can really justify their de-

17 Butterfield, p. 149.


scription as a unique period in history, nor do what changes took place derive from any single source or inspiration.  The middle ages, once unduly maligned by positivistic scientists, are now allowed to inspire Copernicus and even, in part, Kepler; their larger trends do not end with 1453 or 1492, but with Galileo, Harvey, Descartes, and Isaac Newton, the founders of the scientific revolution.

Thus one is led to agree with Butterfield that the advent of the new outlook of the history of science and technology will have revolutionary effects among historians, and that the impact of the recognition of the influence of science and technology on history will eventually displace our customary periodizations and cause a revision of traditional evaluations.  History, like any other discipline, is the product of historians; its categories remain fluid as new outlooks and emphases produce new evaluations.  If an earlier generation of positivist historians has been emphatic in its stress on the Renaissance, on three great men, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Vesalius, it was because of defective understanding of the history of science and a failure to know the dangers inherent in devices planned for didactic expediency.  As the work of, for instance, Pierre Duhem has progressed and been absorbed, the perspective has changed, and much of sixteenth-century science has lost its glamor.

I conclude that Sarton may have been right in all but his manners in 1929.  He was only repeating what had been said a year before by Charles Singer, [18] and he was saying what was to be a commonplace in 1959.  It is as necessary to indicate the great creative moments in history, the epochs of revolutionary change, as to exercise George Sarton’s other function, that of the encyclopedist who must record the totality of the events of history.  He loved, as he said repeatedly, Leonardo da Vinci, and he could not do enough to praise him for what he was, a man of science, a genius, even if he does not represent a movement in sixteenth-century science or contribute to the great changes of the seventeenth century.  But Sarton never, to my knowledge, withdrew his fundamental view that the so-called Renaissance was an episode between two creative ages, a period of preparation for the truly great seventeenth century, the age in which the modern world began to take its scientific shape and character, for better or for worse.

Brown University HARCOURT BROWN


[18] In ‘Historical Relations of Religion and Science’, in Science, Religion, and Reality, ed. Joseph Needham (New York, 1928); see especially pp. 121 and 123.