A Scientists Take on the Renaissance and Medieval Eras

A friend who was student teaching history in middle school emailed me back when I was living in California and asked who my heroes of the Renaissance were, and if I could give a quick view of my take on the Medieval Era.  I’m the worst at history since I’m a scientist and am typically bad with names and dates, so I was a strange person to ask, but here’s my response:

PART I. My Heroes of the Renaissance

First order of business: my heroes of the Renaissance.  I mentioned Copernicus and I think you mentioned he was the wrong time period, so I’m not sure what exact dates you’re looking for, or if a general Renaissance Era aura would suffice.  I’m probably the last person to consult when it comes to history (my high school history teacher turned me off to that at a young impressionable age!).  But I’ll give you my take on the Renaissance period based on my piddly knowledge (stemming mainly from The Passion of the Western Mind and Sophie’s World).

The Renaissance, I think, holds a dear place in our hearts more so for the unprecedented quality of what came out of it than for the diversity and magnitude of the expressers and expressions that existed during that time.  MY GOODNESS … think about it … Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael creating eternal masterpieces; Columbus discovering America … new, uncharted territory previously unimagined; little loutish Luther rebelled against the ALMIGHTY Church (thus the Reformation); and last (but CERTAINLY NOT least) Copernicus boldly claimed maybe the earth wasn’t the center of the  universe … maybe the sun was!  Thus, unHoly Heliocentric Hypothesis man planted the little seedy weedy that germinated into the Scientific Revolution.  Knowing me and my nerdy scientific self, you can probably understand why Copernicus holds a special place in my heart … he risked everything to prove what he knew to be true; a dedicated scientist through and through.

But that list doesn’t even begin to scratch the Renaissance surface of overachievers. Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bruni, Alberti, Erasmus, More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Bacon, and Galileo.  Talk about setting the bar high!

The Renaissance was thrilling:  REBIRTH … developments in human consciousness and culture that hadn’t been seen since ancient Greek times.  All so exciting, it shouldn’t be hard to get the kids excited about it.  This was a time when shit hit the fan and out the other side came a convergence of conflicting events and ideas and figures creating an entirely new outlook on the universe and our place in it.  A paradigm shift my friend … giving rise to new visions with paradoxical consequences and everlasting influence on the way we view the world today, much like what we’re beginning now in the 21st century.  We’re on the verge of a paradigm shift, which could only mean we’re on the verge of reproducing masterminds of the 21st century!  Yay … hip hip hooray!

There was so much going on during this time, like the tight-hold of the Church on society loosening.  Their empire was crumbling, furthering the demise of totalitarianism in Europe, the Renaissance sparked the Reformation, and the monolithic authority/institutionalized Church decided to become Protestant (AKA Christian liberal).  WOWZERS!  That was a long time coming of course, not an overnight event.  The supreme court of religious dogma versus religious skeptics was a battle that had been brewing for a while.

The paradox though is that the Reformation, which was SO obviously religious, was a secularizing event (big influence on the modern Western mind).  That’s why, for me, the end-all-be-all of Renaissance … the name that rings the loudest buzzer in my head is Copernicus.  He rode that secularizing train to the bitter end, even though (and here’s another paradox) he was an outstanding Catholic.  He was buddies with a bishop and a cardinal who told him to publish his studies; then the “backstabber” (i.e. Copernicus) threatened the Church’s framework of cosmology and theology.  OOO spicy … I smell a fight coming: Copernicus versus the Christian worldview.  Really, as far back as Plato and Pythagoras, folks were suggesting a moving Earth.  “Balderdash … crackpots!” the Church claimed.  But AHA, a heliocentric model totally explained the ‘apparent’ (and deceptive) movement of the sun and stars.  Daily movements weren’t due to everything revolving around the earth, but because the earth was rotating on it’s axis and revolving around the sun.  OUCH!  Copernicanism proved to be a tougher blow to the Christian mind than Luther and Calvin combined.

Then Galileo and Kepler tag-teamed with Copernicus for another major blow to the Church’s totalitarian power over European minds.  And we all know what happened to Galileo … he revoked his publishing under threat of being hanged by the Church, and was put on house arrest for the rest of his life.  YIKES!  Goes to show you how powerful the all-powerful-all-mighty Church can be.  In the end though, religion began to lose the battle – the monolithic structure which had begun to crack with the fall of totalitarian government was internally rotting.  Corruption in the Church allowed science to step up as our liberation!  YEAH SCIENCE!  Empirical, rational, common sense and concrete reality that anyone could weigh or measure themselves.  As opposed to being ‘fed’ the truth intravenously.  Was this good?  Hmm … dunno … verifiable facts versus dogmatic revelations?  The search for truth being conducted through tests and experimentation versus spiritual enlightenment?  Guess that’s a question we still ask.  So here’s what the Renaissance truly gave us … a mental conundrum to deal with for the rest of eternity.

Then there’s the inventions of the Renaissance Era (a scary list of cultural heritage that explains OH so much about ourselves today): magnetic compass (AKA exploration, exploitation, globalization, and free market); gunpowder (AKA ethnocentricism, nationalism, and distance slaughter); mechanical clock (which changed completely our relationship to time, nature, and work; AKA destroyer of nature’s rhythms); and Mr. printing press (which did disseminate a lot of info to the public (a plus); AKA eventual method for controlling the masses (a minus)).  Call me cynical!

And that concludes our lesson for today class.  Tomorrow, we’ll go backwards and end from the beginning with the downfall of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.  DOWN WITH FEUDALISM!  Marx would be proud.

PART II. The Medieval Era

Of course, before all that Renaissance gobbledygook was the Medieval Era.  This time period I remember more vaguely, probably because it had more to do with totalitarianism and monolithic dogmatism than science.  And yes, I am a dork when it comes to science especially; I gobble up anything relating to the topic … whether hard secular facts, political disputes, anthropological interpretations, philosophical, mystical, religious, alchemical,human ecology, botany, epistemology, conservation, historical geography, cultural survival, yada yada yada.  This is why I am having so much trouble figuring out grad school.  They want you to be so narrow-minded about what your goals and aspirations are.  How can I whittle down my interests to one page single-spaced and a few years of intensive study when I want to know everything.  I love/am interested in everything … a problem I suppose I’ll have to deal with eventually.  I suppose I don’t love micro- and macro-economics … but, then again, when they’re related to environmental science I become passionate about them.  I didn’t even think I cared about European colonial history until I wrote a 48 page paper on its impact on Mayan culture and ecology.   

Anyway, enough complaining, and back to the task at hand.  Lesson 2: “An Afterthought on the Forewarning of the Downfall of Despotism: Cultural Convulsions Prior to the Renaissance”  (could make that longer, but I won’t torture you too much).  The Medieval Era was like the digestion and reflection period.  Before it, came the Christian world-view period, which was consumed readily by society and was being uneasily digested during medieval times.  All that religious hypocrisy must’ve given people heartburn.  Anyway, in the process of digestion and upset stomachs, out the other end came the excretions of the Renaissance.  After years of stomach churning and social and political upheaval (and ulcers caused by the Christian world-view), the Medieval period pooped out the amazingly extravagant and eloquent period of the Renaissance.

So what was going through the heads and bowels of folks during medieval times?  Well, not much at first … during the first half of the Middle Ages intellectual development was painstakingly slow.  There wasn’t much time to learn new things when tyrannical peoples (AKA Charlemagne and his cronies) were busy taking over and amalgamating western peoples.  Teaching these newbies how to talk and think like proper Christians and discouraging involvement in classical thought and personal culture required centuries of breaking down captured peoples’ culture and replacing it with their own.  Thus, the slowness of cultural and intellectual progression (at first).  The minds of devout Christians (pretty much everybody at that time) were so focused they lost interest in things like nature, science, history, literature, and philosophy.  The poor schmucks spent centuries wasting time on this, until about the midpoint of the Medieval period.

Okay, so after years of invasions and disorganization, Europe was becoming kinda comfy again, and culture had time to grow once more.  Population grew, inventions improved agriculture, and friendly contact with neighboring cultures began.  The most important thing though: THE FIXED WORLD OF FEUDAL ORDER WAS GIVING WAY TO SOM’M NEW.  Ooo-da-loley!  New social formations like communes and guilds, based on fraternity instead of lords; based on democratic consensus rather than Church sanctioned oaths and feudal commands.  So now the digestion was in full force; the meal of Christianity was about to be eaten away by stomach acids (AKA secular political rights, rational legal procedures, and the oh so divine nature).  What’s more, the Catholic Church, which previously strengthened itself by rigidly excluding any ideologies of paganism or secularism, was realizing other sources of culture and learning didn’t pose a threat.  Probably because the Church was the supreme intellectual authority and all-encompassing structure of the time and nothing really posed a threat … or so they thought.

But whatever, because what came out of it was more important than why it came.  And what came from the Church’s increased sponsoring of education and scholarship?  School, of course!  Hee hee … your students will love that!  You can let them know they ultimately have the Church to thank for institutionalized education.  Not just any school though, but THE school, which was the basis for the development of universities throughout all of Europe.  Okay, so my nerdy self can admit that the Church actually did something good here, because we all know school is cool!

People were finally interested in the natural world, finally taking the time to learn grammar, rhetoric, math, music, astronomy.  Thus, the questioning began!!

Uh-oh … the Church’s scriptures were becoming lax with the introduction of Aristotle’s philosophy and his pure reason.  Experiment and observation (cognition of the natural world) created a gap between reason and faith.  All these facts about concrete things didn’t support Christianity’s claims.  This was NOT meant to happen, but it did.  And the Church was probably kicking itself for starting and funding universities in the first place.  But honestly, this was a digestive aid for most people.  The inherent doctrines of divine revelation that had given people stomachaches were being soothed by the antacid qualities of knowledge of the natural world.

Like a kid realizing what their parents had taught them all these years was preposterous, but not wanting to get kicked out of the house for disagreeing with them, some people took up the task of synthesizing reason and faith.  Here’s where the infamous Thomas Aquinas (Tantalizing Academic) came in to play.  According to Aquinas, nature and spirit were intimately bound up with each other … not separate.  Laws of nature did not diminish God’s supremacy.  Instead, nature was valuable explicitly because God created it.  This could go on and on, but what eventually happened is Aquinas gave to God what Plato had given to Ideas … the way of truth was the way of the Holy Spirit.  Aquinas claimed that God was the cause for all that exists … he basically took Aristotle and baptized him!

Even with Aquinas trying to save face for the Church, they were losing ground.  Their hypocrisy could be seen where they, on the one hand supported academic universities that explicitly supported Christian doctrine, and on the other hand, suppressed and condemned innovations in rational thought (including Thomas Aquinas’).  “This far and no further” was the premise of their controlling doctrines.  Such obviously hypocritical principles made people further question the role of the Church.  And, as secular thought continued, lay mysticism arose among those who still believed in God.  Individuals began to have direct and private relationships with God … and thus the hierarchy of the Church continued to break down.

Then there was critical scholasticism and Ockham’s Razor.  Ockham denied the reality of universals outside the human mind and language.  Abstractions … all of them!  His claims that only creatures existed, not the Ideas of creatures, heightened the distinction between rational philosophy and religious truth.  And on and on … and I know you know all these details.  But it’s fun for me to re-pave that area of my brain that hasn’t thought about all these things that shaped our modern western thought.

Then came the rebirth of classical humanism and Platonic ideas.  Finally, the Medieval period was doing something worthwhile!  Basically, the Medieval Era ended with shit in the large intestine.  The stomach had been upset with the consolidation of political authority and religious monarchies and feudal order … so it passed this partially digested and secular speculation on to the small intestine.  As the more humanistic mind was opening to a new universe the medieval digestion of European culture reached a critical threshold (the anus) … and thus the Renaissance came out the other end.


2 thoughts on “A Scientists Take on the Renaissance and Medieval Eras

  1. An interesting take that, I must say, is rather fun to read. If you like reading fiction at all, I would recommend that you read John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus. It fictionalizes Copernicus’s life and discoveries and is incredibly beautifully written. Banville also wrote ‘biographies’ for two other scientists and they’re apparently excellent literary works as well.

    • Thanks. I’ll check it out. I enjoy reading and hearing interpretations on topics people are not entirely experts in … like the “Not My Job” portion of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

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