Episode 084: Looking up at the sky in Tudor England

Episode 084 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is on Tudor Astronomy.

(Remember, if you like this show on Tudor Astronomy, there are two main ways you can support the podcast. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)



Shakespeare’s Astronomy:

The Scientific Odyssey Podcast

Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres:

Castel of Knowledge

Thomas Digges

Giordano Bruno

Tycho Brahe

Tycho’s supernova

Book Recommendation (that’s an Amazon affiliate link – you pay the same price, and the show gets a small commission)
Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church: Understanding the Heavens 1500-1700


(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)

“Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck, And yet methinks I have astronomy; But not to tell of good or evil luck, Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality.”
Shakespeare – Sonnet 14

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. This is episode 84 – Astronomy in Renaissance England. I have had this topic on my list of things I wanted to explore for several months, and I had been thinking I’d do it later on in the year. But the solar eclipse in North America meant that my Facebook feed was filled with astronomy, and so I decided to move it up a bit

So first, admin.

I have three messages this week. First, The Tudor Summit is this weekend, Sunday and Monday since it’s a three day weekend in the US. Ten talks from leading Tudor historians, bloggers, and podcasters. It’s all online, it’s all free. So go to TudorSummit.com to learn more and sign up.

Next, I need to thank my patrons and remind you that you still have a day or so to sign up to be my patron on Patreon. If you do so this month at the $3/episode level or higher, you will get a Tudor Planner as a thank you gift come November. So you get a super awesome limited edition Tudor Planner, as well as great karma from supporting podcasters. Hooray. I have amazing patrons – thank you to Kathi, Juergen, Kendra, Jessica (who also goes by Anne Boleyn, which I love – I love having Anne Boleyn support the podcast), Elizabeth, Cynthia, Judith, Char, Keeva, Amy, Allison, Barbara, Joanne, Kayleigh, Kathy, Christine, Annetta, Kandice, Rebecca, Al, and Sandor. You guys are awesome, and I love you.

Finally, the Agora Podcast of the Month – it’s August, so it’s still the Cannon Ball, which is a monthly podcast co-hosted by two well-educated autodidacts who are attempting to read all of the books in the appendix to Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon. Check it out at https://thecanonballpodcast.wordpress.com

Moving on – Tudor Astronomy.

I need to note that this is the briefest of introductions, and at some point maybe I’ll get a chance to explore some of these ideas and people further. But with that said, if you’re into scientific history, there’s a wonderful podcast by Dr. Chad Davies called The Scientific Odyssey, which I highly recommend. So if you want more science history, check him out.

For those of you who are familiar with scientific history, you will already know that the biggest event of the 16th century in terms of astronomy is the Copernican idea of the heliocentric solar system, which means that the planets go around the sun, and not the other way round.

Nicolas Copernicus was Polish, but he lived in Italy, and that’s where he came up with his theories. A few medieval astronomers had thrown around the idea of a sun centered solar system, but none of them were able to justify it with logic and calculations. Basically, they had access to some of the Arab mathematicians’ calculations, and they started to see that it didn’t add up with the view of the universe that Plato espoused, where everything was nice and orderly, and the earth was at the center. But they didn’t really have any kind of alternative yet.

Copernicus published his landmark work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in 1543.

It wouldn’t be proven until Newton in 1700, but even so it had the effect of shaking the foundations of belief, and was another blow to the Catholic church and the old order of the world. Thanks to a perfect storm, the new ideas could be disseminated easily because of the printing press, and for the rest of the 16th century astronomers and mathematicians would be occupied with proving or disproving the Copernican model.

Let’s step back before 1543, though, shall we? Medieval astronomy started to take off in the 11th century as the astrolabe hit the European circuit. It was taught at universities in Europe, but in a way that was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. The Aristotelian view of the universe is that the Earth is an unmoving sphere that sits at the center of the universe. The planets and fixed stars move uniformly around the Earth. Some of the medieval textbooks centered on Aristotle were still being used in universities in the 16th and 17th centuries.

We’ve all heard that the Renaissance, which started in Italy, was fueled by people rediscovering ancient texts by Greeks and Romans.

Other texts that were discovered were Arabic medical papers. The Arabs had studied astronomy extensively because the movement of the stars was useful in medical predictions since they used astrological forecasts. Also, the planets and zodiacs corresponded with organs in the body.

It’s important to put these changes into the context of two major events. The first is the black death of the 14th century. While on the surface it might not seem like an obvious connection between nearly half the population dying of the plague, and the developments of Copernicus, the immediate effect was that there was a massive labor shortage. What that meant was that new technologies had to be invented to help save labor.

So we see a great number of new technologies culminating in the printing press. The printing press would be key in disseminating information between scientists around different universities, and in the various responses to Copernicus. It’s impossible to underestimate the role of the printing press in fueling the scientific advances of the 16th century.

The next major event that puts this into context is the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Constantinople was a Christian refuge surrounded by the Ottoman Turks, and as the city was lost, many Christian scientists fled to Italy. They brought with them original Greek and Roman texts that had been in the enormous libraries in the city. Previously, many of these volumes had only been available through Arabic translations. Suddenly there was this huge influx of Christian scholars to the European universities carrying with them original source material. It was a huge deal.

So that brings us to the early 16th century.

Both France and Spain had consolidated their smaller kingdoms into larger, centralized nation states that we would recognize today. We see stability after the end of the Hundred Years War, and the Spanish Reconquista. And rather than spending our money on war, we can spend it on things like exploration, books, and learning. We have universities that are teaching material that is literally a thousand years old, but with new information coming in at a much faster pace than people can really keep up with thanks to these new Greek and Roman texts.

The general consensus is that the earth is fixed. It does not move. All of the planets, the sun, the other stars, all circle around the earth on fixed planes. If the earth was moving, surely you would be able to feel it? Also, a major argument against the movement of the earth was that if you shot an arrow straight up into the air, if the earth was moving the arrow would be expected to land in a different place. But it never did. So therefore, the earth wasn’t moving. This was, of course, before Newton proved the existence of gravity, and confirmed the Copernican view.

People had questioned Aristotle from the get go, but the problem with that is that once you start to poke holes in Aristotle, you poke holes in everything. The lovely thing about Aristotle is that he provides an answer to everything. It’s like a puzzle that fits neatly together, and if you say that one piece is incorrect, pretty soon you’re poking holes in everything. The earth, the planets, everything fits in Aristotle. But as soon as you pull one piece out, the whole thing collapses. So that’s why people had always been nervous about poking holes in it.

So along comes Copernicus.

His teachings found a home in England thanks to the unique situation of the English church. The Lutherans hated Copernicus. The Catholics hated Copernicus. But England and Tudor Astronomy had something no one else had. England had John Dee

John Dee is a curious person. I’ve mentioned him in passing in other episodes, specifically ones on trade. He was a mathematician, scientist, and occultist. He was one of the last great men of this generation before the scientific revolution where scientists could be expected to study the stars in order to cast horoscopes. Where the hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone was a major impetus in scientific advancement. The occult and hard science were intertwined in ways that we would find difficult to believe.

John Dee had one of the largest libraries in Europe. He also had a conjuring table.

A note on the word occult. It comes from the word Occultation which is an astronomical term describing an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer. It has no bearing on this discussion. I just think it’s interesting.

So in many ways, England was unique in astronomy because England had John Dee, who was open to these new ideas. England also had Elizabeth I who tried to straddle both faiths. Why were the Copernican ideas so threatening to people? Well, if you’ve believed a particular thing for 1500 years, you would have a hard time letting go of it too, right?

But even more, the entire way that people understood their relationship with God was that humans were God’s unique creation.

Humans were made in the form of God, to represent God. Humans were special. Therefore, everything revolved around this special place that God created just for humans. The stars were permanent and fixed, and ruled by God alone.

If suddenly you’re not the center of the universe, or if the movements of the heavens are guided by mathematics rather than divinity, well, what does that say about your relationship with God? About this special place that God created just for you? If you’re just one more planet moving around the sun, and you are governed by the laws of mathematics, how normal and unspecial is that? So this was very threatening to the Church, in particular. The Church was extra specially vulnerable during this time thanks to the Reformation, and saw this as one more threat to them.

But let’s go back to the first mention of Copernicus in England.

There was a Dr Robert Recorde, a Welshman from Tenby, who published the Castel of Knowledge around 1556. This was meant to be a primer in astronomy, and while it didn’t talk much about the new Copernican ideas, it did mention the new heliocentric ideas, and it didn’t automatically dismiss it.

One other interesting side effect of the Reformation during this time was that Henry VIII, when he dissolved the monasteries, had set in motion the largest land grab England had ever seen. Land that had previously been owned by the church was trading hands, and there was a huge demand for land surveyors. These people who surveyed and parceled up the lands knew mathematics. Maps and people who could understand them became incredibly popular.

The first English official Copernican was the son of one of these property surveyors.

Thomas Digges was born in 1546, three years after Copernicus’s book was published, and was the son of a surveyor called Leonard Digges. Interestingly Leonard Digges is sometimes credited for inventing the telescope before Galileo. When his father died he lived with none other than John Dee.

In 1572 there was a major event in European skies. A new star appeared in Cassiopea. It confused everyone, because the predominant belief at the time was that the stars were fixed. How could a new bright star just appear in a major constellation? Turns out it was a supernova and was named as such by Tycho Brahe. But Digges was working on it in England, and he concluded that it had to be beyond the orbit of the moon. This contradicted the view of the universe that nothing changed in the stars.

In 1576 Digges published a new edition of the almanac his father wrote, A Prognostication everlasting.

He left the text written by Leonard Digges for the third edition of 1556 unchanged, but Thomas added new material in several appendices. The most important was A Perfit Description of the Caelestiall Orbes according to the most ancient doctrine of the Pythagoreans, latelye revived by Copernicus and by Geometricall Demonstrations approved. Contrary to the Ptolemaic cosmology of the original book by his father, the appendix featured a detailed discussion of the controversial and still mostly unknown Copernican heliocentric model of the Universe. This was the first publication of that model in English.

For the most part, the appendix was a loose translation into English of chapters from Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Thomas Digges went further than Copernicus, however, by proposing that the universe is infinite, containing infinitely many stars, and may have been the first person to do so.

English scientists were also in correspondence with Tycho Brahe, who was a Danish astronomer, born also in 1546. When he was 14 he saw a total eclipse of the sun, and felt called to pursuing astronomy. He went to Leipzig University (which is, incidentally, where my dad is from – the city, not the university) and he observed some strange phenomenon going on with Jupiter and Saturn that weren’t on the existing tables of planetary motions. So he decided to produce his own tables.

Brahe traveled throughout Europe getting instruments, and it was at this point when he lost part of his nose in a duel. He spent the rest of his life wearing an artificial metal nose. Brahe then built an observatory on the Southern tip of Sweden where he observed the aforementioned supernova. He published his work De Nova Stella (Of a new star) which made him famous.

Brahe was incorrect in one thing – he tried to compromise between the Aristotelian and Copernican systems. He said that other planets do go around the sun, but the sun goes around the earth.

We also can’t forget about Giordano Bruno, who was an Italian Dominican friar, as well as poet, philosopher, and mathematician.

He extended the Copernican model, and took it even further, postulating that each star was just a distant sun that could have its own planets orbiting around it. He even thought that there could be life on other planets. This got him tried by the Inquisition and burned at the stake. But he managed to visit England before that happened.

Bruno went to England in 1583 as a guest of the French Ambassador. He met the poet Philip Sidney, and dedicated two books to him. Bruno also met the circle around John Dee, though we can’t find evidence that he ever met Dee himself. He lectured at Oxford, and got into trouble with the Bishop of Oxford, and George Abbot, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Abbot made fun Bruno for supporting “the opinion of Copernicus that the earth did go round, and the heavens did stand still; whereas in truth it was his own head which rather did run round, and his brains did not stand still”.

Bruno did a lot of work while in England though, and many of his works were published in London. He wound up creating a lot of controversy. Some historians have theorized that while he was at the French Embassy in London Bruno was also spying on Catholic conspirators, under the pseudonym ‘Henry Fagot’, for Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network.

Bruno is sometimes cited as being the first to propose that the universe is infinite, which he did during his time in England. But an English scientist, Thomas Digges, put forth this idea in a published work in 1576, eight years earlier than Bruno.

So we see this world of astronomers in England centered around John Dee, open and welcoming to the new learning.

To illustrate how small the intellectual world in London at this time period was, I want to talk about Shakespeare, and this quote from Hamlet: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space’. There’s a paper I found called “Shakespeare’s astronomy: by Michael Rowan-Robinson of Imperial College London, and it gives a lot of background on Shakespeare and astronomy. He talks about this quote. To us this sounds just fine. But the idea of infinite space, introduced by Thomas Digges in 1576, was revolutionary to times which were still drenched in centuries of Aristotle’s finite universe. Infinite space would have been a mind-blowing idea in the late 16th and early 17th century. Here perhaps we do have a reference to the new astronomy of Copernicus, Tycho and Digges.

So there we have it. I’m going to put up lots of books and such in the show notes, but the book recommendation for the week is Stargazers: Copernicus, Galileo, the Telescope and the Church by Allen Chapman.

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)