Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What changed and what stayed the same?

Renaissance humanism, with its concern to recover ancient texts, can be seen as backward-looking. It took time for scholars to accept the idea that learning could be advanced rather than recovered. Scientists had to learn to separate their subject from theology, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astrology and Galenic medicine. The humours and the body (See also earlier post.) The difficulties of accommodating new knowledge to ancient categories can be seen in the speculations of Niccolò Leoniceno, professor of medicine at the University of Padua. He decided that what we call the ‘Columbian exchange’, the arrival of syphilis in the Old World, had to be due to a rise in the level of the Italian rivers, notably the Tiber, which disturbed the humours. There is therefore a sense in which the rediscovery of ancient texts confirmed ancient prejudices. But at the same time, the idea of the inexorable laws of nature – rational, comprehensible and divinely ordained - took hold and in time weakened the Church’s assertion that theology was the queen of the sciences. The new anatomy Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) trained initially at Louvain where he complained that lecturer who taught Aristotle was
‘a theologian by profession and therefore…ready to mingle his pious views with those of the philosophers'. (Quoted Koenigsberger, Mosse and Bowler, Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Longman, 1989, 419).

The four humours

‘Nature that framed us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.’
Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great

Humoral theory had been passed on from the late classical world in the works of Galen (c. AD 130-201). The four humours were four fluids that were thought to permeate the body and influence its health. Disease was thought to be caused by isonomia, the preponderance of one of the humours:
Yellow Bile
Black Bile
The four humours matched the four seasons

Autumn: black bile
Spring: blood
Winter: phlegm
Summer: yellow bile

Alchemy and magic

The sixteenth century saw an intensification of the ancient practice of alchemy. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man (scroll down), the Platonist, Pico della Mirandola (right) was careful to distinguish between good and bad magic.

Such was the significance of the alchemist that Christopher Marlowe (Dr Faustus, 1604), Shakespeare (The Tempest, 1610) and Ben Jonson (The Alchemist, 1610) all wrote plays illustrating his art. These fictional characters had some basis in real alchemists such as John Dee (1527-1609), Edward Kelley (1555-97/8) and Simon Forman (1552-1611). But alchemy was not confined to England. It was Europe-wide and was practised by Christians, Jews and Muslims, all engaged on a common quest to discover the inner meaning of life and of the universe.

Alchemy was empirical as well as mystical. It was at the centre of the investigations into the natural world and the heavens, which had contributed to the navigation of the world. With the increase of mining, there was a far greater potential for the exploitation of the earth’s minerals and metals and the search for wealth, power and cures, both chemical and herbal.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Divine Right of Kings

Go here to listen to Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time programme on the Divine Right of Kings.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Memories of Queen Victoria and Kaiser Bill

Nothing to do with the sixteenth century but those who were at my Saturday lecture might like to view this.  Click here.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The French Royal Family

Here is a family tree of the French royal family from Henri IV down to the present day. Click to enlarge. 

Merci, Martine.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Resistance and obedience: the crisis of political theory

In the second half of the sixteenth century both Protestant and Catholic writers began to construct theories of resistance to authority.

British theories of resistance
The first to do this were English Protestants in the reign of Mary I (1553-8) when Protestant exiles conducted a vigorous campaign in print against her religious policies, her Spanish marriage and the fact that she was a woman.

In his A Short Treatise of Politic Power (1556) John Ponet (c. 1514-56), bishop of Winchester, exiled in Strassburg, maintained that the power of the monarch rested on a contract with his people. This meant that their obedience was conditional: they would obey him as long as he ruled justly. Should he break this contract by depriving his subjects of their goods or murdering them, the people had the right to rebel and replace him with a leader more to their taste. In extreme circumstances they had a right to assassinate an evil ruler. Ponet’s justification of tyrannicide was not taken up in later centuries but his contract theory was to influence John Locke and provide the basis for the American Declaration of Independence.