Science, magic and discovery

Science and magic - alchemy symbols

What was science and what was magic?

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, generals turned to astrologers for advice; rulers pondered the political meanings of monsters and miraculous signs; healers tried to exploit the ‘sympathies’ of inanimate objects; and respected scholars swapped leads on the mystery of the philosopher’s stone. Some people believed that they stood on the brink of a golden age of perfect knowledge, health, plenty, and harmony.

These approaches now seem unscientific, but historians describe this period as the age of the scientific revolution. Its thinkers revised accepted ideas on everything from human biology to the shape of the universe, forming a concept of science which still prevails today. This course puts scientific discoveries in the context of the broader culture of knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Was the scientific revolution simply the triumph of ‘science’ over ‘magic’? Why should historians care about theories and beliefs which have long been abandoned?

The course is built around questions asked by early modern scholars, such as:
Were there reliable ways to predict the future?
 Could music produce new medical treatments?
 How should scholars react to tales of 'monsters’ and 'wonders’?
 Was knowledge dangerous? What should be kept secret?
 What new rules could be found to demonstrate the truth?
 How could 'scientific’ and 'magical’ learning be made useful to the state?

Reading list
We always recommend that students read widely around their subject, deepening their knowledge and understanding, and some suggested reading is listed below:

Deborah E. Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (London, 2007).

Monica Azzolini, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan (Cambridge, Mass., 2013).