A Brief Note on Cambridge’s History of Science, Volumes II and III

Cambridge History of Science 2Those looking for a comprehensive history of science, the Cambridge History of Science series are an invaluable resource. To date, volumes 2-7 have been published, its most recent being The Cambridge History of Science Volume 2: Medieval Science (2013), edited by David C. Lindberg and Michael H. Shank. The Middle Ages has been characterized—and caricatured—as a period of  “darkness”; but this characterization began as “a slur born from Petrarch’s nostalgia for lost Roman power.” Despite long-standing criticism, the Middles Ages as “Dark Ages” “remains firmly anchored in our conceptualization of the past.” As Lindberg and Shank write in their introduction, “newspaper editorials and ordinary language continue to cast a pall of negativity on the period and its image,” and “no one has diffused [the schema of the “Dark Ages”] more widely than astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), whose television series Cosmos drew an audience estimated at half a billion.” In Sagan’s schema, the Middle Ages was a “poignant lost opportunity for mankind.” But as the editors of this compelling volume argue, Sagan’s “the timeline reflected not the state of knowledge in 1980 but [his] own ‘poignant lost opportunity’ to consult the library of Cornell University, where he taught. In it, Sagan would have discovered large volumes devoted to the medieval history of his own field, some of them two hundred years old.”

Indeed, this volume reveals the diversity of goals, contexts, and accomplishments in the study of nature during the Middle Ages. Synthesizing a vast array of sources, these essays cover topics such as Islamic culture and the natural sciences (F. Jamil Ragep), including mathematics (J.L. Berggren, Elaheh Kheirandish), astronomy (Robert G. Morrison), and medicine (Emillie Savage-Smith); science in Jewish communities of the medieval period (Y. Tzvi Langermann), and the Byzantine Empire (Anne Tihon); cathedral schools and universities (Michael H. Shank) and its organized curriculum (Joan Cadden). Midway in the volume Lindberg (“Science and the Medieval Church”) instructs us that “in the long relationship between Christianity and the natural sciences, the medieval chapter is one in which (contrary to the old stereotype of bloody suppression) Christianity and the classical tradition made peace.” There follows essays on natural knowledge in the early Middle Ages (Stephen C. McCluskey), including cosmology, astronomy, and mathematics (Bruce S. Eastwood), medicine (Vivian Nutton), the translation and transmission of Greek and Islamic science to Latin Christendom (Charles Burnett) and the twelfth-century renaissance (Burnett). There are also entire chapters devoted to medieval alchemy (William R. Newman), change and motion (Walter Roy Laird), cosmology (Edward Grant), astronomy and astrology (John North), light and color (Lindberg and Katherine H. Tachau), mathematics (A. George Molland), logic (E. Jennifer Ashworth), geography (David Woodward), natural history (Karen Meier Reeds and Tomomi Kinukawa), anatomy, physiology, and medical theory (Danielle Jacquart), medical practice (Katherine Park) and technology (George Ovitt).

Organized by topic and culture, Medieval Science offers the most comprehensive and up-to-date history of medieval science currently available.

Cambridge History of Science 3The following volume, The Cambridge History of Science Volume 3: Early Modern Science (2006), edited by Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, provides a comprehensive account of knowledge of the natural world in Europe from roughly 1490 to 1730. This period saw major transformations in fields as diverse as anatomy and astronomy, natural history and mathematics. This was indeed the “age of the new”: “New worlds, East and West, had been discovered, new devices such as the printing press had been invented, new faiths propagated, new stars observed in the heavens with new instruments, new forms of government established and old ones overthrown, new artistic techniques exploited, new  markets and trade routes opened, new philosophies advanced with new arguments, and new literary genres created whose very names, such as ‘news’ and ‘novel,’ advertised their novelty.”

The volume is divided into four parts. Part 1, “The New Nature,” “address shifts in the foundations and sources of natural knowledge as well as in its characteristic forms of explanation and proof,” and includes essays on physics and foundations (Daniel Garber), scientific explanation from formal causes to laws of nature (Lynn S. Joy), meanings of experience (Peter Dear) and proof and persuasion (R.W. Serjeantson). Part II, “Personae and Sites of Natural Knowledge,” deals with what David N. Livingstone has termed “geographies of scientific knowledge and practice.” Here we find essays on the man of science (Steven Shapin) and women of natural knowledge (Londa Schiebinger); sites of scientific knowledge such as markets, piazzas, and villages (William Eamon), homes and households (Alix Cooper), libraries and lecture halls (Anthony Grafton), courts and academies (Bruce T. Moran), anatomy theaters, bontanical gardens, and natural history collections (Paula Findlen), laboratories (Pamela H. Smith), military and technology (Kelly DeVries), coffeehouses and print shops (Adrian Johns), and networks of travel, correspondence, and exchange (Steven J. Harris).

Whereas Part II covers personae and sites of science, Part III offers readers disciplines of science. “Dividing the study of nature” into natural philosophy (Ann Blair) and natural history (Paula Findlen), medicine (Harold J. Cook), cosmology (Klaus A. Vogel and Alisha Rankin), alchemy and “chymistry” (William R. Newman), magic (Brian P. Copenhaver), astrology (H. Darrel Rutkin), astronomy (William Donahue), acoustics and optics (Paolo Mancosu), mechanics (Domenico Bertoloni Meli) and the mechanical arts (Jim Bennett), and pure mathematics (Kirsti Andersen and Henk J.M. Bos), the aim of these chapters is to “acquaint readers with the substantive changes that occurred in natural knowledge”; however, it is noted that “neither all of the chapter headings nor their arrangement would have been recognizable to early modern Europeans, even those most abreast of new developments,” for these were not disparate and specialized areas of research—like much of today’s science—but “crosshatched and complex.” Astronomy and astrology (including optics, acoustics, music, mechanics, and parts of the mechanical arts) were, for example, frequently pursued by the same mind, as were medicine and natural history. It wasn’t until much later, late in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the sciences were specialized and categorized into disparate—some dropping from the definition of “science” altogether—fields of inquiry.

The chapters in Part IV, “The cultural meanings of natural knowledge,” “describe how natural knowledge interacted with the symbols, values, and imaginary of early modern Europe.” A compelling essay on religion (Rivka Feldhay) argues that “neither simple notions of conflict or separation nor general invocation of ‘interaction’ are powerful enough to capture the subtlety and complexity of the transformation of early modern European culture.” Also included in this final part are essays on literature (Mary Baine Campell), art (Carmen Niekrasz and Cluadia Swan), gender (Dorinda Outram), and European expansion and self-definition (Klaus A. Vogel and Alisha Rankin).

Such a wide-ranging and comprehensive volume is not easily navigable. Its scope, breadth, and range is simply overwhelming. But for all this attention to detail, the editors might be accused of one glaring omission: Where is the Scientific Revolution? This omission, however, is entirely deliberate. “The cumulative force of the scholarship since the 1980s,” they write in their introduction, “has been to insert skeptical question marks after every word of this ringing three-word phrase, including the definite article. It is no longer clear that there was any coherent enterprise in the early modern period that can be identified with modern science, or that the transformations in question were as explosive and discontinuous as the analogy with political revolution implies, or that those transformations were unique in intellectual magnitude and cultural significance.” Indeed, it is “the variety of these transformations that frustrates attempts to corral them into any single historical event, whether revolutionary or evolutionary, disciplined or dispersed.” They go on:

Yet the story of the Scientific Revolution retains its hold, even on those scholars who have contributed to its unraveling. Part of the reluctance to relinquish the historical narrative is due to the brilliance with which it has been told and retold in books that are deservedly numbered among the classics of the history of science. Its drama of worlds destroyed and reconstructed recruited many historians of early modern science to the discipline and still entrances students in introductory courses. But the magnetism of the mythology of the Scientific Revolution radiates beyond the classroom, to the airwaves of the public broadcasting system and the pages of the New York Times. It is a genuine mythology, which means it expresses in condensed and sometimes emblematic form themes too deep to be unsettled by mere facts, however plentiful and persuasive. The Scientific Revolution is a myth about the inevitable rise to global domination of the West, whose cultural superiority is inferred from its cultivation of the values of inquiry that, unfettered by religion or tradition, allegedly produced the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ‘breakthrough to modern science.’ It is also a myth about the origins and nature of modernity, which holds both proponents and opponents in its thrall. Those who regret ‘the modern mentality’ as the ‘disenchantment of the world’ are as captivated as those who celebrate it as a liberation from obfuscation and tyranny…

…The pessimistic conclusion that might be drawn from this account of the tenacity of the Scientific Revolution in the historiography of science is that it will last as long as the myth of modernity, of which it is part and parcel. But modernity itself has a history, myths and all. [There is a lingering image]…that emphasizes the enormous cultural difference between the elegantly clothed and technologically advanced Europeans and the culturally back-ward Americans, in a timeless rural landscape…[evoking] simultaneously the primitive inhabitants of the ‘New’ World and…Europe’s own primitive past. This is the early modern period’s own myth of modernity—one at least as spellbinding as that created for it by latter-day historians.


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