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Science, Religion and Society in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Christopher Hill
Past and Present, No. 32. (Dec., 1965), pp. 110-112.
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Sat Oct 27 15:37:53 2007
I have been allowed so much space in recent discussions inPast
and Present that I must only commentbrieflyonthecontributions of
Dr. Kearney and Mr. RabbinNo. 31 (July, 1965). I apologize to
the former if my previous reply appeared ill-humoured. His new
definition of Puritanism (p. 105)restores my good humour, sinceit
differs substantially from all those he employed earlier and comes
closertothatofGardinerandHallerwhichIfollow. ButwhenIsay
"Puritanism is not to be identiJied with either Presbyterianism or
Independency", this does not mean that my definition excludes
members ofthesesects(pp. 105-6):aglanceatthenameswithwhich
I illustrated "the main stream of Puritanthought" would make this
c1ear.l Dr. Kearney might consider some recent wise words by
Professor Dickens andMr.Yule onthe existence within the Church
of England of non-sectarian Puritans.?
really should not keep ondoingit. It is fair enoughtospeak of my
"belief that there are no loose ends in history, no gaps for lack of
evidence, nosurprisingcontradictionsinhuman behaviour" (p. I O~ ) ,
since it is clear from the context that this is polemical hyperbole
unsubstantiated by facts. But Dr. Kearney seems seriously to
suggest that I am dejinilzg "seventeenth-century science" or "the
Scientific Revolution" where (as any reader can see from his
quotation) I am describilzg Bacon's programme (pp. 107-8). The
whole of Dr. Kearney's second sectionin consequencetilts at wind-
mills. "Nor was Pascal collecting facts'' is a good thundering
phrase:but please, did I ever say he was?
Mr. Rabb argues at length that many early scientists outside
England were Roman Catholics. I was not concernedto denythis.
' Hill, Society and Puritai~ism i n pre-Revolutionary England (London, 1964),
pp. 28-9.
". G. Dickens, Tlze English Refornzation (London, 1964), pp. 313-15;
G.Yule, "Developments of English Puritanism intheContextoftheReforma-
tion", Studies in the Puritan Tradition (aJointSupplementoftheCongregational
andPresbyterianHistorical Societies, 1964),p p 8-27.
My subject was not the scientific revolution, in which Dr. Kearney
and Mr. Rabb are primarily interested; I was looking for origins of
the political and intellectual revolution which took place in England
in the sixteen-forties. As I explained in the Preface to my Intellectual
Origins, I should have written a different book if I had been discussing
the intellectual history of the period; it would have been different
again if my subject had been the history of European science. To
isolate one country has obvious limitations, which I pointed out
(pp. 3-4, 8, chapter vi); but I could not otherwise have discussed the
contribution of English science to the only one of the contemporaneous
seventeenth-century revolutions which was successful.
I suggested that a protestant environment was more favourable to
the spread of scientific ideas than a post-Counter-Reformation
Roman Catholic environment. Is it relevant to retort (p. 112) that
Copernicus was a pre-Counter-Reformation Catholic, or that
subjectively Galileo and Descartes wanted to remain Catholics?
Nor was I primarily concerned with the quality of science, with "the
great advances of anatomy, physics and astronomy" which interest
Mr. Rabb (p. 112). The best early scientists naturally came from
the old cultural centres. But in England, I argued, there was
greater popular interest in science, a more widespread understanding
of science, than in most Roman Catholic countries before 1640.
I think this stands, and it is my main point. There was indeed
a crucial break-through for science, as for so much else, in republican
England (and I am grateful to Mr. Rabb for reinforcing my argument
by reminding us that a similar break-through occurred thirty years
earlier in the Dutch Republic -note 23). But the spread of popular
scientific knowledge and appreciation before 1640 contributed to
making possible the English Revolution as well as laying the basis for
exceptional scientific progress afterwards.
For the rest, readers must decide between us. They can see for
themselves whether I "consider the practical applications and
'fruitful' results of English work a touchstone of its excellence" (p. I 18;
my italics) by turning up the page reference which Mr. Rabb
fortunately gives. They can compare his flat assertion that "in
Bacon himself the religious impulse was almost entirely absent" with
pages 85-96 of my Intellectual Origins where I try to document the
contrary. They can judge from my text whether I in fact "placed
Bacon's programme 'entirely in the Puritan tradition' . . . . with no
more evidence than the Puritanism of Bacon's mother" (p. 115; my
italics). And they can ponder Mr. Rabb's ingenuous argument that
"there was no Protestant parallel to Galileo's enforced recantation
perhaps (sic !) . . . . merely because no Protestant sect had quite as
much power as the Catholics at the appropriate time" (p. 122). At
"the appropriate time" James I was burning heretics condemned by
Anglican bishops, and Gustavus Adolphus was King of Sweden!
Mr. Rabb regards my remarks about the effectiveness of early Stuart
censorship as "weakly documented" (note 11). It is indeed difficult
to establish what would have been written if no censorship had existed.
But the censorship itself was not a figment of my imagination: for
documentation see the index to my Century of Revolution or
Intellectual Origins under that word.3
For something that is "essential to the issue" (p. 122)~ Mr. Rabb's
chronology is curiously unstable. Roman Catholic opposition to
scientific enquiry began to appear in the sixteen-tens, and to have
effect in the sixteen-thirties (p. 122). It was however still just
beginning after 1640 and in the mid-century (pp. 125-6). Unlike
Charles 11, it was an unconscionable time being born. I gave
examples (Intellectual Origins, pp. 26-7; Past and Present, No. 27,
pp. 70-2; No. 29, pp. 88-9) to suggest that it started well before any
of these dates.4 Again readers will decide between us on the
evidence. Finally, I see no contradiction in arguing that protest-
antism contributed to the rise of science both by reducing the power
of priests and by its doctrine and ethos (p. 124). The power of
priests was reduced by the central reformation doctrine of the
priesthood of all believers, and by doctrinal opposition to magic in
most spheres. The doctrine and ethos spread as the authority of
conscience and experience supplanted the authority of priests. The
working out of these two complementary processes was what I had in
mind when I spoke of "the relationship between protestantism and
the rise of science". '
Balliol College, Oxford Christopher Hill
Vrofessor Wickham (like many others) attributes "the decadence in Jacobean
and Caroline dramatic writing" t o the censorship: G. Wickham, Early English
Stages, ii, 1576-1660, Part I (London, 1963), p. 94.
Professor Trevor-Roper, whilst criticizing my interpretation, seems t o
accept an earlier dating than Mr. Rabb's: "Religion, the Reformation and
Social Change", Historical Studies, iv (1963),,p. 44.
"fear I must reject the hand of friendship even when Mr. Rabb extends it
by referring to an "apt distinction" of mine (p. 119). Alas, I made the "apt
distinction", with what I hoped everyone would recognize as heavy irony, in an
attempt t o reduce an argument t o the absurd by summarizing it. Never try
to be funny.