The Renaissance May Not Have Advanced Science As Much As We Think

“Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure.” —Richard Feynman

In A Nutshell

The Renaissance is generally synonymous with progress, and progress is synonymous with science. So it is generally assumed that that era of European history represented a step forward for rationalism, scientific thought, and scientific discovery. But few meaningful discoveries were actually made during the Renaissance. The study of science took a backseat to burgeoning interest in the humanities and the occult, which was fueled by the recent invention of the printing press.

The Whole Bushel

Lasting roughly from the mid-15th century to mid-16th century, the Renaissance constituted an unscientific break with the empirical traditions of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages catch a lot of flak for religiosity and superstition, but at points, even the pope studied and wrote on a variety of scientific topics, including medicine. Plenty of medieval thinkers explored the natural world, too. John the Grammarian performed the experiment Galileo never did: John dropped weights of different sizes from a high tower to test his hypotheses on falling bodies. John did this in the sixth century—almost 1,000 years before Galileo was even born. Galileo drew inspiration from the Byzantine thinker’s writing. Scientists like Oresme were already explaining the mechanics of the universe centuries before the Renaissance. Countless other scholars were conceiving of and testing hypotheses in methods familiar to us today. Renaissance science, however, was mostly an attempt to conform the natural world and its mechanics to the ideas of ancient philosophers.

The result is that naming the scientific advances of the Renaissance is nearly impossible and riddled with compromises. Other than Copernicus and Galileo, the cupboard of Earth-shattering advances is somewhat bare.

The revival and reverence of the classics fostered a mindset which belittled the recent past in favor of the ancient. The theories of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers were nearly unquestioned by virtue of their age. Scholars and students were so focused on the humanities and ancient Greek and Latin that formal education in the sciences got pushed to the back burner. Almost no one taught science in organized fashion during the Renaissance—not that such teaching could have contended with the explosion of all manner of superstition and occult.

Unknowingly, Gutenberg set off that explosion when he lent his name to a press in 1450. Before printing, book production was a laborious pursuit. Even speedy scribes could only copy about six pages of text a day. Having to sharpen quills as many as 60 times in a day slowed medieval scribes down considerably. Before Gutenberg, a text’s merits had to be carefully weighed before committing the manpower to reproduce it. There simply was not time for the reproduction of frivolous works on a large scale.

But all of that changed when the printing press liberated books from the clutches of universities and monasteries. It seems the Renaissance went one step further than today’s most mind-numbing linkbait: Renaissance writers wrote inane nonsense about things which were (and are) nonexistent.

Since books were more common and more affordable, literate folks could finally focus on important things like publishing reference books on alchemy and witchcraft and raising the dead. There were also plenty of forgeries. The blind reverence of Renaissance humanists for anything classical meant that just about anything, no matter how mystical, was taken seriously so long as it purported to be ancient.

The printing press didn’t just make books cheaper; it made dabbling in the occult far less risky. Before then, if you wanted to learn a spell, you had to track down an actual warlock to teach it. Church authorities and their parishes responded by hunting and killing witches at a rate higher than any point in the previous 1,000 years. The Renaissance ushered in three waves of large-scale witch hunts which killing thousands.

Science stagnated during the Renaissance. People preferred painting and studying Greek and holding seances. Judging by the masterpieces we still marvel at today, it’s hard to argue with the results.

Show Me The Proof

Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia
Contesting the Renaissance, by William Caferro
Modern Occult Rhetoric, by Joshua Gunn
The Production of Books in England 1350–1500
Scribes and Illuminators, by Christopher De Hamel
Science and Literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by P. L. Jacob
Handbook of European History 1400–1600