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Books have played a central role in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion since the beginning of written communication in the West. Scientific authors of the Classical past were relatively successful at gaining official approval of their writings, and their authority was accepted implicitly by medieval Christian scholars. However, conflicts arose both as Renaissance scientists developed new methods of empirical testing and as the printing press allowed the rapid circulation of new ideas without Church endorsement. Revolutionary theories about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it set many leading scientists in opposition to the conservative positions of the Church. While many scientific works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, science was not necessarily anti-religious. During the Enlightenment, many important works of science were inspired by a desire to reconcile the tenets of the Christian religion and the new scientific explanations of earthly and heavenly phenomena.
The books in this exhibition fall into four categories: works that show the cooperative sharing of scientific texts between religious groups; scientific treatises by leading medieval church officials; writings in which scientists and the clergy came into direct conflict; and publications intended to reconcile biblical teaching and scientific method.
Bernardus de Gordonio (c. 1258–c. 1320). [Lilium
medicinae]. Translated into Hebrew. Decorated
manuscript on paper, written by Moses ben Shmaya de
Castro. Escalona, Spain, 11 January 1466.
Bernardus de Gordonio wrote the Lilium medicinae in 1303-05 while teaching medicine at the University of Montpellier in France. A compilation of essential medical knowledge for young doctors, it enjoyed widespread popularity in Europe for more than three hundred years. The original Latin text, brought into Spain by Christian doctors, was translated into Hebrew c. 1360 at Seville. According to a scribal inscription at the end of the present manuscript, this copy was transcribed by the Jewish doctor Moses ben Shmaya de Castro at Escalona, Spain, in 1466. It is a rare survivor of the widespread destruction of Hebrew books following the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492.
Liber teisir, sive Rectificatio medicationis et
regiminis. Antidotarium. [With:] Averroës
(1124–1198). Colliget. Edited by Hieronymus
Surianus. Venice: Otinus de Luna, Papiensis, 23
A native of Seville, Avenzohar was the leading medical doctor in Islamic Spain. His most famous work, the Teisir, describes preparations for medicines and diets, provides clinical descriptions of numerous diseases, and discusses surgical procedures such as the tracheotomy. Although the original Arabic version of Avenzohar’s text was lost, its contents survived into the fifteenth century by means of Hebrew and Latin translations.
The second work included in this Venetian imprint of 1497 is the Colliget, or “general rules of medicine” by Averroës, the great physician and Islamic philosopher of Córdoba. Although his works attempted to reconcile science and religion, his Christian followers allowed that the two fields were separated by irreconcilable “truths.”
[Attributed to] John Peckham, Archbishop of
Canterbury (c. 1230–1292). De oculo morali et
spirituali. [Augsburg: Anton Sorg, not after
This treatise on the “Moral and Spiritual Eye” utilizes various optical phenomena to demonstrate lessons of Christian morality. One example translates: “It is proved by the science of perspective that if a viewer is deprived of direct rays or lines of sight, he cannot be sure of the size of the object he sees. Similarly, the sinner regards what he has committed by an oblique or broken line of sight, and does not recognize the degree of error in his sin.” Although this edition identifies its author as Archbishop Peckham, the treatise was probably written by Petrus de Limoges, a thirteenth-century French physician, astronomer, and cleric.
Pierre d’Ailly, Cardinal
(1351–1420). Concordantia astronomiae cum
theologia. Augsburg: Erhard Ratdolt, 2 January
Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly was a leading French theologian and champion of church unity during the Papal Schism (1378–1414). In this treatise he sought to reconcile theology and the science of astronomy, which included astrology. D’Ailly argued that divine will was revealed in the stars, and that although human will remains free, the outcomes of earthly endeavors are subject to astrological influences that can be forecast – an idea that the Inquisition later branded as heretical. The book’s woodcut frontispiece shows a theologian and an astronomer in harmonious conversation beneath the heavenly spheres.
Johannes de Sacrobosco (c.
1195–1252). Sphaera mundi.
Venice: Franciscus Renner de Hailbrun, 1478.
An English astronomer also known as John of Holywood, Sacrobosco completed this treatise on the “Earthly Sphere” while teaching at the University of Paris, c. 1230. As the title of his work indicates, medieval scientists were perfectly aware that the earth was not flat. Sacrobosco’s statement “Terra in medio omnium immobiliter teneatur” (the Earth is an immobile sphere at the center of the universe) was entirely in harmony with the beliefs of the medieval Church. The hand-colored woodcut in this 1478 Venetian edition is the earliest printed illustration of solar and lunar eclipses.
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).
Dialogo sopra i
due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo, Tolemaico, e Copernicano.
Florence: Giovanni Batista
One of the most significant books in the history of science, Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican resulted in his censure and imprisonment by the Inquisition in 1633. The controversy arose over Galileo’s proof of the Copernican cosmology, which placed the sun, not the Earth, at the center of the solar system. The engraved frontispiece depicts three great students of astronomy in dialogue: from left to right, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Ptolemy (90–168 CE), and Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543). Ptolemy holds an armillary sphere with the Earth at its center, while Copernicus grasps a heliocentric model of the solar system.
[Catholic Church]. Index librorum prohibitorum.
Rome: Typographia reverendæ Cameræ apostolicæ, 1758.
The official instrument of Roman Catholic Church censorship beginning in the sixteenth century was the Index of Prohibited Books. Listing authors alphabetically, this edition of 1758 indicates that Galileo’s Dialogo had been prohibited by a decree of August 23, 1634. The revolutionary scientific treatise was removed from the Index in 1824.
Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount of St. Alban
(1561–1626). Of the
Advancement and Proficiencie of Learning.
London: Thomas Williams, 1674.
The English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon was one of the first to establish the scientific method, in which a hypothesis can be tested objectively by experimentation. Bacon began this work, first published in 1623, by refuting the argument that the pursuit of knowledge was humanity’s Original Sin, and that learning inclines the mind toward heresy and atheism. Paraphrasing Proverbs 20:27, Bacon argued that “The spirit of a man is as the Lamp of the God wherewith he searcheth the inwards of all secrets.”
Rev. William Whiston
(1667–1752), A New Theory of the Earth, From its
Original, to the Consummation of All Things.
London: R. Roberts, for Benjamin Tooke, 1696.
This is the first edition of English theologian William Whiston’s most influential treatise, “Wherein the Creation of the World in Six Days, the Universal Deluge, and the General Conflagration, as laid down in the Holy Scriptures, are Shewn to be perfectly agreeable to Reason and Philosophy.” Attempting to reconcile the Genesis account with seventeenth-century science, Whiston posited that God had made the Earth inhabitable by introducing water from the vaporous tail of a comet. Likewise, he suggested that Halley’s comet caused the biblical Flood in 2346 BCE. The book was dedicated to Isaac Newton, who endorsed Whiston’s theories as reasonable and plausible.
Rev. John Ray (1627–1705).
The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the
Creation. London: R. Harbin for William Innys,
Known as the “father of English natural history,” the Anglican clergyman John Ray made major contributions to the classification and analysis of organisms. In The Wisdom of God, first printed in 1691 but based on sermons he preached at Cambridge in the 1660s, Ray cited numerous celestial properties, physiological adaptations, and natural laws as scientific evidence of the intelligence underlying God’s creation.
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer
(1672–1733). Geestelyke Natuurkunde. 9 vols.
Amsterdam: Petrus Schenk, 1735-1738.
A Dutch translation of the author’s Physica Sacra, this copiously illustrated nine-volume work provides scientific explanations of the astronomical, geological, meteorological, biological, and physiological aspects of biblical history. The exhibited volume includes engravings of the various states of the Earth during the seven days of Creation, depictions of fossils said to have been created by the biblical deluge, detailed diagrams of Noah’s ark, and this hand-colored illustration of the optical effects caused rainbows, the symbol of God’s covenant with humanity after the flood (Genesis 9:12-17).
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