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The Scientific Revolution (1550-1700)

Prevailing Superstition (1550-1700)

Cooperation in Science: The Role of the Royal Society (1662-1700)

Study Questions


Despite the advances in science and the efforts of the scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century to demonstrate that the world and universe, were governed by discernable laws, the Scientific Revolution had little impact on the everyday lives and thoughts of the mass of European citizens. For example, despite the advances in biology and the subsequent development in medical theory, serious misconceptions about the human body remained widely adhered to. The most notable example of this is the prevailing theory of the four humors, developed by the Greeks. This theory held that the human body contained four major fluids--blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm - and that if one of the four fluids were present in too little or too great an amount, predictable illness would result. The most widely experienced manifestation of this theory was the use of leeches in the act of bloodletting, a long-standing medical practice widely employed in the effort to return the four humors to equilibrium. This disastrous practice remained common well after more compelling theories on the chemistry of the human body were developed, and even George Washington fell victim to bloodletting when he became sick with pneumonia, an event which no doubt accelerated his death.

The discoveries of the Scientific Revolution that overturned the tenets of traditional belief systems were only gradually accepted by the general population, and were often rejected by those who found their traditional beliefs easier to comprehend, as well as more congruent with the beliefs of their neighbors and of their church. Throughout the seventeenth century, despite the breakthroughs made in astronomy and physics, most Europeans retained a belief in astrology, ghosts, and magic. German princes often relied on court astrologers as their closest advisors. Indeed, even Johannes Kepler sought to confirm the power of astrology with the results of his work, though he proved unable to do so.

One of the most prevalent superstitions of Europeans and their American brethren during the seventeenth century was the belief in the existence and powers of witches. The most notable extension of this belief was the hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts, which resulted in the trial of some 200 people for witchcraft during the summer of 1692. The Salem witch trials resulted in the execution of 20 people. The total numbers of executions in Europe are unknown for certain, but it is estimated that between 1550 and 1700, about 5000 women were executed for witchcraft in Switzerland, 700 in Germany, and 1000 in England. However, by the dawn of the eighteenth century the witch-hunts had largely ended.


The reception (or non-reception) of the Scientific Revolution in Europe demonstrates the stratification of society into levels of citizens to whom the progress of science was accessible and understandable and those to whom the progress of science was neither accessible nor understandable. For even though many of the advances made were not wholeheartedly accepted by the elites and intellectuals of the day, at the very least something of the spirit of the times touched their lives and prepared them for the dawning of new beliefs, the scientific nature of which they were often educated enough to comprehend. On the other hand, the masses were largely untouched by the sentiment of the times and unprepared for any news of progress and revolutionary change that might trickle down to their ears. Despite advances in literacy and the wider spread of books which resulted from the proliferation of the printing press, the common European was left largely in the dark as to what was occurring in the world of science, and even if suddenly enlightened would not have possessed the intellectual background to assimilate the knowledge of progress into his or her concept of the world. Thus when the first signs of the Scientific Revolution began to show themselves to the masses, many reacted, not surprisingly, in fear and disbelief.

Furthermore, in the lives of the impoverished masses, stability was of the utmost importance. Maintenance of one's job, one's family life, one's quality of living were the utmost goals of the commoner, and these goals informed the reaction to suggestion that the principles upon which everyday life was thought to be based were no longer valid. In the face of this threatened instability and change, common Europeans often turned to the Church for guidance, for the Church had been the most stable feature of the previous millennium, defining the phenomena of the often hard to understand natural world, and in essence telling the common churchgoer what to believe. The combination of the influence of the Church and the traditions which had been passed down for hundreds of years produced an attitude of mysticism which seemed to answer all of the difficult questions of everyday life. Events in the natural world occurred not because of the interaction of mechanical forces but because of the influence of the positioning of the planets. This was a convenient and well-ingrained belief system.

In fact, this belief system was so ingrained that even scientists themselves often fell prey to it. The most illustrative case is that of Johannes Kepler, who was convinced that the universe had to be arranged according to some grand scheme, and that the teachings of astrology were largely correct. In keeping with these ancient beliefs Kepler searched for a simple geometric model of the universe, largely ignoring the evidence to the contrary. Kepler's was a common dilemma faced by the thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The ancient traditions exercised a strong pull on many scientists, who often allowed the supposed authorities of the past, or even simply the spirit of the past, to cloud their judgment and limit the progress made by their work.

A temptation exists to see science as separate from the world, as something pure and rational. Similarly, it is tempting to see the Scientific Revolution as a movement that existed as somehow separate from the world in which it emerged. However, the events of the Scientific Revolution, in its origins within the political and religious traditions of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, to its role in bringing about the Enlightenment, in the very experiences of the scientists themselves, all show that the scientific revolution functioned as part of society, played a vital role as cause of and reaction to a changing world.

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