John W. Draper as Protestant Historian

In his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), Draper commences his historical review of the interactions between science and religion by declaring that “modern science” was born in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great, and indicates that Alexandria, particularly its Museum, was the first civilization to pursue a “practical interrogation of Nature.”[1] This was the enlightenment of humanity before Christianity arose. He then follows with a more elaborate and gloomy account of the origin, spread, and ultimate degeneration of Christianity. He relates a common idealized image of primitive Christianity when he writes that

Jewish people at that time entertained a belief, founded on old traditions, that a deliver would arise among them, who would restore them to their ancient splendor. The disciples of Jesus regarded him as this long-expected Messiah. But the priesthood, believing that the doctrines he taught were prejudicial to their interests, denounced him to the Roman governor, who, to satisfy their clamors, reluctantly delivered him over to death. His doctrines of benevolence and human brotherhood outlasted that event. The disciples, instead of scattering, organized. They associated themselves on a principle of communism, each throwing into the common stock whatever property he possessed, and all his gains. The widows and orphans of the community were this supported, the poor and the sick sustained.[2]

The primitive church, the early followers of Jesus, was thus a movement of purity, according to Draper. It was a matter of life and practical goodness, enjoining veneration toward God, purity in personal virtues, and benevolence in social life.[3]

But the purity of the Christian movement did not last, according to Draper. It became popular, and was eventually adopted by many solely from interest and expediency. “Crowds of worldly persons,” he writes, “who cared nothing about its religious ideas, became its warmest supporters.” It thus relapsed into many of the forms and ceremonials of paganism, and subsequently incorporated pseudo-Christian dogmas. Indeed, according to Draper, Christianity had become “paganized” by the reign of Constantine, the first “Christian” emperor. These “modifications,” Draper argues, is what “eventually brought it in conflict with science.” He then offers an exposition of Tertullian’s famous second-century Apology as an example of Christianity’s purer days, exemplifying a life of innocence, justice, patience, temperance, chastity under persecution and struggle. All that changed, he says, when Christianity gained imperial power. “Great is the difference between Christianity under Severus and Christianity after Constantine,” he declares.[4]

It should be clear that Draper’s account of the rise, spread, and corruption of the Church was imbued with Protestant polemics. To strengthen his case, Draper even quoted a long passage from English cleric Bishop Thomas Newton’s (1704-1782) Dissertation on the prophecies, which have been remarkably fulfilled, and are at this time fulfilling in the world (1754) to demonstrate the paganization of Christianity:

Is not the worship of saints and angels now in all respects the same that the worship of demons was in former times? The name only is different, the thing is identically the same,…the deified men of the Christians are substituted for the deified men of the heathens. The promoters of this worship were sensible that it was the same, and that the one succeeded to the other; and, as the worship is the same, so likewise it is performed with the same ceremonies. The burning of incense or perfumes on several altars at one and the same time; the sprinkling of holy water, or a mixture of salt and common water, at going into and coming out of places of public worship; the lighting up of a great number of lamps and wax-candles in broad daylight before altars and statues of these deities; the hanging up of votive offerings and rich presents as attestations of so many miraculous cures and deliverances from diseases and dangers; the canonization or deification of deceased worthies; the assigning of distinct provinces or prefectures to departed heroes and saints; the worshiping and adoring of the dead in their sepulchres, shrines, and relics; the consecrating and bowing down to images; the attributing of miraculous powers and virtues to idols; the setting up of little oratories, altars, and statues in the streets and highways, and on the tops of mountains; the carrying of images and relics in pompous procession, with numerous lights and with music and singing; flagellations at solemn seasons under the notion of penance ; a great variety of religious orders and fraternities of priests; the shaving of priests, or the tonsure as it is called, on the crown of their heads; the imposing of celibacy and vows of chastity on the religious of both sexes—all these and many more rites and ceremonies are equally parts of pagan and popish superstition. Nay, the very same temples, the very same images, which were once consecrated to Jupiter and the other demons, are now consecrated to the Virgin Mary and the other saints. The very same rites and inscriptions are ascribed to both, the very same prodigies and miracles are related of these as of those. In short, almost the whole of paganism is converted and applied to popery; the one is manifestly formed upon the same plan and principles as the other; so that there is not only a conformity, but even a uniformity, in the worship of ancient and modern, of heathen and Christian Rome.

[1] Ibid., 19-23, 33.

[2] Ibid., 36-37.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 39-45.

Reinventing Christianity in the Nineteenth Century

Linda Woodhead - Reinventing ChristianityLinda Woodhead’s edited volume Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2001) is a group of portraits exhibiting the range of changes, adjustments, and initiatives in nineteenth-century Christianity. The collection, individually as well as collectively, eschews the standard assessment that Victorian Christianity was a religion in crisis. Its aim is to “introduce the most important varieties of Christianity in the Victorian era, and to consider their interactions with other aspects of western culture and society.”

After an extremely helpful introduction, this collection of essays offers a wide-ranging survey of the Victorian religious experience, beginning with the “Transcendent Christianity” of famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), the ultramontanism of the nineteenth-century Catholic basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, and the debates and controversy over confession in the Church of England. “Despite the immense emphasis on sin and damnation on the part of both ultramontane Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism,” Woodhead writes in her introduction, “neither was intended simply to engender fear and despair. On the contrary, their insistence on God’s transcendence and on human wretchedness served to intensify the need and longing for salvation.”

“Transcendent Christianity” is then contrasted with “Liberal Christianity and Alternative Spiritualities.” The following begins with an article on the world parliament of religions at Chicago in 1892, describing how the Unitarian triumphalism of its organizers was trumped by the representatives of eastern traditions, giving way to new forms of spirituality. According to Woodhead, although the rise of transcendent Christianity retained many believers, it also had the effect of alienating others. Those alienated by transcendent Christianity came to be classified as “liberal.” As Woodhead explains, “instead of viewing God as different and wholly other, liberalism affirms continuity and similarity between God and humanity. Christian liberals generally interpreted the doctrine of incarnation to mean both that there was something of the human in God, and something of the divine in human beings.” Liberals, then, were more optimistic, believing in the perfectibility of individuals and society, which often led them to a “strongly activist, ethical, and in some cases political stress” on Christianity. “Nowhere was Christian liberalism stronger than in the USA.”

The next essay then turns to the remarkable influence of Swedenborgianism, which “enjoyed a unique period of social and intellectual respectability after the 1840s.” Emanuel Swedeborg (1688-1772) is remembered as a seer, a mystic, a revelator or a theosopher by biographers. His reputation and influence rests on his authorship and his claims in the eighteen religious works he published between 1749 and 1771—from the Arcana Coelestia (1749-1756) to Vera Christiana Religio (1770-1771). He believed he was called to reveal the internal sense of the Bible and to announce a new “True” Christianity. During the nineteenth century, Swedenborgianism “helped bridge the gap between transcendent forms of Christianity and a purely inner spirituality; it offered a discourse in which key Victorian obsessions including death and ‘conjugal love’ could be articulated, and it offered a form of toleration towards other religions much greater than that which even liberal Protestantism could countenance.”

The final essay in this section discusses transcendentalists and Catholic converts in America, tracing the Catholic destinations of a number of Boston transcendentalists, including Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker, and Sophia Ripley, thereby showing how “radical spirituality could lead back to transcendent Christianity.”

Part two of the volume surveys some literary approaches in “Christianity and Literature,” going on to “Christianity and Gender,” before concluding with “Christianity and Science.” Particularly noteworthy is a chapter on the nineteenth-century roots of the religion of English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). The Bible was central to Lawrence’s religiosity. Yet he rejected “traditional Christian uses of the Bible,” preferring the “radical reinterpreters of Christianity like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Biblical exegete Ernest Renan, and partly through the influence of representatives of alternative spirituality like Edward Carpenter and Madame Blavatsky (the founder of the Theosophical Society).” According to Woodhead, this chapter show “how challenges to Biblical authority from science and historical investigation did not necessarily lead to a straightforward choice between accepting or rejecting the Biblical text and the faith that rested on it”; questioning the authority of scripture more often led to a “disjunction between materialism, rationalism and literalism on the one hand, and more imaginative, poetic, aesthetic, open and creative modes of religious knowledge and interpretation on the other.”

Another essay discussing the astonishingly daring feminist theology of Florence Nightingale is worthy of notice. Nightingale is an example of “the remarkably subversive uses to which theology could be put in the hands of women.” According to Woodhead, Nightingale’s critique of contemporary Christianity and her radical reinterpretation of the Gospels can be said to “anticipate many of the achievements of feminist theology over a century later.”

The final section on Christianity and science begins by attacking the image of a “war” between the two and the way contrived master-narratives have contributed to misunderstanding. What is important for understanding science and the nineteenth century, says Woodhead, “is not the creation of a more adequate single story, but an investigation of why such stories came about, which contexts supported them, and whose interests they upheld.” The picture of Christianity in this chapter, as with the previous chapters, casts doubt on simplistic assertions about universal and inevitable secularization in the nineteenth century. “The sciences have never simply led to secularization. At issue has always been the cultural meaning to be placed on new forms of science” (my emphasis).

The following essay further contextualizes the “war” in terms of a new “knowledge class” seeking to rival the power of the clergy established in the universities, demonstrating that “the ideas of war between science and religion was a rhetorical strategy from the start.” An essay on influential and widely-ride naturalist and illustrator Philip Gosse (1810-1888) shows how far Edmund Gosse’s Father and son (1907) has misled the public into thinking he was a “scientific crackpot,” “bible-soaked romantic,” “a stern and repressive father,” and a “pulpit-thumping Puritan throwback to the seventeenth century.” In fact, writes Woodhead, “[Philip] Gosse was a severe critic of more optimistic forms of natural theology, his transcendent Protestantism leading him to emphasise both the fallenness of the created order and the greater authority of the Bible in matters pertaining to God.”

In her conclusion, Woodhead notes that the nineteenth century brought “unprecedented social, political, economic and cultural change,” and although Christianity was “profoundly affected by such change,” it was not “merely a passive victim of such forces.” “Christianity was actively and centrally involved in many of the most important cultural shifts and debates of the nineteenth century, and was transformed and reinvented in the process.” It responded by provoking, resisting, embracing, or selectively appropriating.

Myths about Science and Religion: That Galileo was Tortured and Imprisoned for Advocating Copernicanism

galileoThe “Galileo affair” is perhaps the most commonly discussed case of conflict between science and religion. According to widespread popular belief, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a martyr of science; that he was not only tortured, but imprisoned by the Roman Catholic Church. Although this myth may make for good drama, it is seriously deficient as history. As many contemporary historians of science have argued, including Maurice A. Finocchiaro in his article in Galileo goes to Jail, the Church had understandable reasons for refusing to accept Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system: Galileo was unable to produce the proof he needed; the waters were also muddied by Galileo’s academic enemies and by several misunderstandings, basic mistakes, missed opportunities, and complex theological debates that were rooted in the Protestant Reformation. Richard J. Blackwell argues that the Galileo affair is centered on four important issues:

(1) the state of the scientific debate at that time over the comparative merits of the older earth-centered astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (second century AD) and the more recent but conflicting sun-centered theory of Copernicus (1473-1543)

(2) the historical events that led the Catholic Church in 1616 to condemn Copernicanism as false and their rationale

(3) the question of what are the proper exegetical standards to be used in understanding the meaning and the truth of the Bible

(4) and the charges, the legal ground, and the course of events in Galileo’s trial and condemnation in 1633.

The Historical Background

For nearly two thousand years before the Galileo affair, the almost universally accepted view of the heaven in Western culture was the geocentric theory initially proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC) and later considerably refined mathematically by Ptolemy. Heliocentric systems were not unheard of, but they survived in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages merely as curiosities. This universally accepted geocentric system, which came to permeate the medieval scientific and religious tradition, looked upon the earth as spherical, motionless, and fixed in the center of the entire universe. All of the then known observational evidence concerning the heavens was consistent with this astronomical model, especially when it was interpreted in the light of Aristotelian natural philosophy.

However, in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus, a church official and accomplished astronomer from norther Poland, published a book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, in which he took the heliocentric system and defended it as a true description of the universe. Copernicus  modified the earlier view in a major way by locating the sun at the center of the universe and the earth and its moon in motion around the sun. Copernicus had no new evidence to justify his theory; rather, his primary motivation was that he though that his view had more internal coherence and greater explanatory power than Ptolemy’s.

Copernicus’ book was a highly technical astronomical text, dominated by detailed geometrical models for all of the planets. Because his book was highly technical, written for a small audience of mathematically proficient astronomers, it was little known and less read. Contrary to other myths, its publication created no public stir. But the book did secure an audience among astronomers, many of whom employed it for calculating planetary positions, while denying its claim to cosmological truth.

Why was this so? Because the evidence that could be marshaled in the mid-sixteenth century in support of the heliocentric model as physically true was not convincing. No observation, taken by itself, could prove the sun rested and the earth moved. Predictions using the heliocentric system were no more accurate than those offered by the geocentric. If the advantages of the heliocentric system was slim, its disadvantages was greater. First, putting the earth in motion represented a massive violation of everyday common sense. Second, removal of the earth from the center of the cosmos represented a destructive attack on Aristotle’s physics—which was the only comprehensive system of physics in existence—and therefore represented a serious violation of scientific common sense. Third, to put the earth in motion was to put it into the heavens, thereby destroying the dichotomy between the heavens and the earth, which served as a fundamental cosmological premise wherever Aristotelian philosophy prevailed for the previous two millennia. Thus those astronomers and natural philosophers who rejected heliocentrism did so not because of blind conservatism or religious intolerance, but because of their commitment to widely held scientific principles and theories. Copernicus had been talked into publishing his book by various friends, including ecclesiastical officials. He had dedicated the Revolutions to the pope. And almost nobody judged his ideas dangerous.

Another important  historical element to consider is that, in Galileo’s day, Western European culture was undergoing some fundamental and disruptive changes. The Protestant Reformation and the ensuing Counter had occurred during the previous century. Echoes of the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Churches split from Western Christianity, frightened the church authorities in Rome as they witnessed much of norther Europe also breaking away from their control. The Catholic Church responded with the Council of Trent (1545-63). Its main effect on the Galileo affair was it declaration that no individual Christian should interpret the Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the early fathers of the church or contrary to the views of the pope and the bishops, who alone have the power to interpret the Bible. A decree on the interpretation of Scripture that emerged from the council reads:

The Council decrees that, in matter of faith and morals…no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.

This emphatic statement was a repudiation of the Protestant notion that Scripture stands alone as the proper authority for Christian belief and practice, in no way dependent on church tradition. As a result the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century had become unusually defensive, especially in regard to theological and scriptural matters. This attitude still predominated at the time of the Galileo affair. Thus if Copernicus’ book had been published either a century earlier or a century later, the Galileo affair would probably not have happened. But, in fact, it was published in 1543, when the Reformation was in full bloom and the Counter Reformation was just beginning. Hence it was that by 1616 all of the actors and cultural forces were in place for the drama of the Galileo affair to begin.

Galileo and Heliocentrism

Galileo did not begin advocating Copernicanism until 1609. He was acquainted with Copernicus’ work and appreciated its novel and significant argument for the earth’s motion. But Galileo was also acutely aware of the considerable evidence against Copernicanism stemming from direct sense experience, astronomical observation, and traditional physics.

However, Galileo, in 1609, learned from his friend Paolo Sarpi that a Dutch lens grinder, Hans Lipperhy, had developed an optical instrument that made distant objects appear much closer to the observer. Galileo perfected the newly invented telescope, and in the next few years made a series of important astronomical discoveries:  that the surface of the moon contains many craters and mountains (contrary to Aristotle’s  notion that the moon’s surface is a perfectly smooth sphere); that Jupiter has four moons that are invisible to the naked eye; that the surface of the sun displays continually changing dark spots that drift from left to right, which indicate that the sun is changeable and that it rotates on its own axis; and that Venus undergoes changing phases, like the moon, which proves that it revolves around the sun and not the earth (again contrary to Aristotle).

The Starry Messenger and Letters on Sunspots

Galileo’s publication of these and other observations brought him instant fame and controversy. He would describe all of these observations in his Starry Messenger (1610) and Letters on Sunspots (1613). Galileo’s telescopic observations certainly did not demonstrate the truth of the heliocentric model. However, they did, when deployed in his arguments, undermine some of the more powerful objections against heliocentric cosmology—a far cry from proving that heliocentric cosmology is true.

Nevertheless, in 1611 Galileo made a visit to Rome to plead the case for his telescopic discoveries in person. The Jesuits at the Collegio Romano confirmed his observations (but not the heliocentric interpretation that he gave them) and treated him as a celebrity.

Letters to Castelli and the Duchess Christina

But Galileo was not satisfied. Returning to Florence, Galileo attempted to further press his case for heliocentrism. In 1613 the religious orthodoxy of his pro-Copernican views first came under question at a social event at the ducal palace. Galileo responded in a pithy statement, addressed in the form of a letter to his disciple Benedetto Castelli, and in 1615 to the grand duchess dowager Christina. In his Letter to Castelli, Galileo explained his views on how the findings of natural philosophy should be related to Scripture. Galileo argued that the sole purpose of Scripture was to persuade readers “of those articles and propositions which are necessary for salvation” and that they “surpass all human reason.” When the scriptural passages oversteps those limits, addressing matters that are within reach of sensory experience and rational knowledge, God does not expect these God-given capacities to be abandoned. Thus theologians, before committing themselves to an interpretation of such passages, would be well advised to examine the demonstrative arguments of natural philosophers.

The Letter to Castelli was soon widely circulating. In 1615, Galileo considerably expanded his views into a much longer Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Some form of either letter eventually made it into the hand of a Dominican friar, and who quickly filed a written complaint against Galileo with the Inquisition in Rome. Although Galileo was never officially summoned to Rome, in December 1615 he decided to visit Rome of his own accord to defend the Copernican theory. He was so convinced that he had decisive arguments, he naively supposed that such arguments would carry him to victory over the geocentric opposition. A certain Antonio Querengo has left a vivid account of Galileo’s persuasive efforts:

He discourses often amid fifteen or twenty guests who make hot assaults upon him, now in one house, now in another. But he is so well prepared that he laughs them off; and although the novelty of his opinion leaves people unpersuaded, yet he reveals the futility of most of the arguments with which his opponents try to defeat him. Monday…in the house of Federico Ghislieri, he achieved wonderful feats; and what I liked most was that, before answering the opposing arguments, he amplified and strengthened them with new grounds that appeared invincible, so that, in subsequently demolishing them, he made his opponents look all the more ridiculous.

The Florentine ambassador to Rome, whose obligation it was to protect Galileo, was not pleased. Reporting to the grand duke of Tuscany, he wrote that Galileo “is vehement and stubborn and very worked up in this matter; and it is impossible, when he is around, to escape from his hands.” Galileo’s arrogant, impetuous style seems, on balance, to have been more effective in stirring up trouble and making enemies than in calming waters. Galileo received plenty of attention in Rome, but he did not convince the people who counted.

The entire issue reached a climax in the early months of 1616. In Februuary, Pope Paul V requested the opinion of a group of this theologians on the orthodoxy of heliocentrism. They advised him unanimously that Copernicanism was not only false but also formally heretical. The pope agreed with his theologians and publicly announced to the whole church in a decree issued by the Congregation of the Index, dated March 5, 1616, that Copernicanism was condemned as “false and completely constrary to Divine Scripture.” Copernicus’ Revolutions was on the Index of prohibited books. Although the Inquisition censured heliocentrism, Galileo faced no personal danger. He was charged with no offense; he was not declared a heretic. He was simply summoned by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, and informed him that heliocentrism had been declared false and heretical and was not to be held or defended. Galileo agreed and complied.

The Assayer

The decree of 1616 brought Galileo’s public campaign on behalf of Copernicanism to a halt. Toward the end of 1618 three comets passed through the European skies, causing excitement and eliciting a considerable amount of discussion on the nature of comets. Galileo joined in, but was once again drawn into controversy with a Jesuit mathematics professor, Orazio Grassi, who had written on the subject. The two were soon attacking each other. The controversy culminated in Galileo’s publication of a treatise, The Assayer (1623), where he bitterly attacked Grassi, pouring invectives upon invectives, accusing him of rude behavior, fraud, and intellectual theft. This text essentially poisioned the waters between Galileo and the Jesuits, with whom Galileo had managed, until now, to maintain friendly relations.

The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini ascended the papal throne as Pope Urban VIII. Urban was considered an intellectual, a man of vision, and a moderate on the subject of heliocentrisim. Moreover, he was not only a fellow Tuscan, but an admiring personal acquaintance of Galileo. Before ascending the papacy, Urban had written a poem honoring Galileo for some of his telescopic discoveries; and just six weeks before his election, Urban had sent a letter to Galileo assuring him “that you will find in me a very ready disposition to serve you out of respect for what you so merit and for the gratitude I owe you.”

Thus with Urban now pope, Galileo felt freer to discuss heliocentrism. He requested an audience with the pope. In the course of six meetings, the two got around to the subject of cosmology. Urban made clear his belief that humans were, in principle, incapable of achieving certainty regarding cosmological matters.  Nonetheless, from these meetings Galileo came to understand that he was free to write about heliocentrism, so long as he treated it as a mere hypothesis.

Galileo set to work, completing his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1629, which featured three characters engaged in a critical discussion of the cosmological, astronomical, physical, and philosophical aspects of Copernicanism but avoiding the biblical or theological ones. One spokesman, Salviati, vigorously presented the new ideas; another, Simplicio, argued doggedly and in detail for the old tradition; and the third, Sagredo, was the open-minded inquirer who critically assessed the issues from a neutral point of view. At the close of four days of dialogue, after bombarding his readers with arguments in favor of heliocentrism, Galileo had Simplicio essentially repeat much of Urban’s argument to him during their earlier meeting. That Galileo put it into the mouth of a slow-witted Aristotelian laughingstock of the dialogue did not escape Urban’s notice when the Dialogue finally became available in 1632, creating a sensation.

The Trial: Tortured and Imprisoned?

Galileo’s enemies inevitably complained that the book defended heliocentrism and so violated Bellarmino’s warning. What’s more, a new charge emerged: that Galileo violated a special injunction issued in 1616, prohibiting him from discussing the earth’s motion in any way whatever. Thus he was summoned to Rome for trial, which began in April 1633.

During the first hearing Galileo admitted receiving from Bellarmino the warning that heliocentrism could not be held or defended. But he denied receiving any special injunction not to discuss the topic in any way whatever. In his defense he introduced a certificate he had obtained from Bellarmino in 1616, which mentioned only the prohibition to hold or defend.

In light of Bellarmino’s certificate, the Inquisition’s officials tried out-of-court plea-bargaining: they promised not to press the most serious charge if Galileo would plead guilty to a lesser charge, that is, a transgression of the warning not to defend heliocentrism. Galileo agreed.

The trial ended on June 22, 1633. The Inquisition found Galileo guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” He was forced to recite an abjuration retracting these beliefs. There is an extant lengthy sentencing document recounting the proceedings since 1613, summarizing the 1633 charges, and noting Galileo defense and confession. This text was, interestingly enough, publicized by the Holy Office. This unprecedented publicity resulted from the express orders of Pope Urban VIII, who wanted Galileo’s case to serve as a lesson to all Catholics.

The impression that Galileo may have been imprisoned and tortured is primarily found in these documents. Yet there new evidence surfaced in 1774 about the imprisonment from a correspondence in 1633 between Tuscan ambassador to Rome, Francesco Niccolini and Tuscan secretary of state in Florence, and secondarily that to and from Galileo himself. Galileo was important to these Tuscan officials because he was employed as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke of Tuscany.

Finocchiaro provides a helpful summary, and it is worth quoting him at length:

Galileo, having been summoned by the Inquisition, left Florence on January 20 and arrived in Rome February 13. The Inquisition allowed him to lodge at the Tuscan embassy on condition that he remain in seclusion until the proceedings started. On April 12 Galileo went to the Inquisition palace for his first interrogation. He stayed there for the next eighteen days while undergoing further interrogations, but he was put up in the prosecutor’s six-room apartment, together with a servant, who brought him meals twice a day from the Tuscan embassy. On April 30, after his second deposition was recorded and signed, Galileo returned to the embassy, where he remained for fifty-one days, interrupted by a visit to the Inquisition palace on May 10 to give a third deposition. On June 20, he was summoned to appear in court the following day. The next day he underwent “rigorous examination”—and remained at the Inquisition palace until the evening of June 24. It is unclear whether he was held in a prison cell or permitted to use the prosecutor’s apartment. On June 22 he appeared at the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva for sentencing and abjuration. Two days later Galileo moved from the Inquisition palace to Villa Medici in Rome, a sumptuous palace owned by the grand duke of Tuscany. On June 30 the pope granted Galileo permission to travel to Siena to live under house arrest at the residence of the archbishop, a good friend of Galileo’s. The archbishop hosted him for five months. In December 1633 Galileo returned to his own villa in Acreti, near Florence, where he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.

Finocchiaro argues that with the possible exception of three days, Galileo was never held in prison, either during the trial or afterward. Even for those three days he likely lodged in the prosecutor’s apartment, not in a cell. The disposition, moreover, leaves no doubt that Galileo may have been threatened with torture during the June 21 interrogation, but there is no evidence that he was actually tortured, or that his accusers planned actually to torture him.

According to Finocchiaro, in view of all the available evidence, the most tenable position is that Galileo underwent an interrogation with the threat of torture but did not undergo actual torture. Although he remained under house arrest during the 1633 trial and for the subsequent nine years of his life, he never went to prison.


There are important lessons to learn from the Galileo affair, but not the ones customarily drawn. First, the Galileo affair had an enormous human and political dimension. As Lindberg put it, “there were old scores to settle, egos to stroke, and careers to be made.” Galileo’s own personality was undeniably a consistent and important factor: if he had played his cards differently, with more attention to diplomacy, Galileo might well have carried out a significant campaign on behalf of heliocentrism without condemnation.

Second, the outcome of the Galileo affair was powerfully influenced by local circumstances. We need to understand the tense circumstances then prevailing Rome. Europe was mid-way through the Thirty Years’ War; the power of the papacy was threatened by the Spanish, who controlled half of the Italian peninsular; and the pope himself had recently come under heavy criticism for adopting positions of political expediency apparently favorable to the Protestant king Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) of Sweden. At the local level, there were fears, rivalries, ambitions, personalities, political context, and socioeconomic circumstances.

And finally, everyone of the combatants, whether church official or disciple of Galileo, called himself a Christian; and all, without exception, acknowledged the authority of Scripture.