The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1700

Tutor: Sophie Weeks and David Wootton

Module type: Histories and Contexts

Module Code: HIS00072I

This module will study the Scientific Revolution, primarily during the period 1500 to 1700. In the 1940s the British historian Herbert Butterfield argued that the Scientific Revolution ‘outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes.’ What were the grounds for this extraordinary claim?

The course examines the transformation in knowledge of the world and our place within it that occurred during this period. For Butterfield these changes were so profound that he saw the Scientific Revolution as marking the birth of the modern world. Few historians would deny that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed remarkable changes in what counted as knowledge and how it was discovered and verified. Most would also agree on the central importance of figures such as Galileo and Newton, who redefined the study of nature, and irrevocably transformed our whole understanding of the world and ourselves. Nor was it only our knowledge of the natural world that changed. The period also saw a massive increase in technological power and control over nature. It could be said that during this period people attempted to fulfil the Faustian dream of acquiring absolute mastery over nature. But the question of whether there was a scientific revolution in early modern Europe, and whether it is even appropriate to use the term “revolution” has not been settled.

We shall discuss the problem of historical continuity and discontinuity between ancient and medieval worldviews and the emerging modern science. The change between 1500 and 1700 was dramatic, but it was not sudden. Our task is to explore the nature of these changes and their impact on the mentalities of early modern Europe..

The lecture programme is likely to include the following:

  • Introduction: the historiography of science
  • The Aristotelian world picture
  • Ptolemy and ancient astronomy
  • Copernicus’s moving Earth
  • The mathematization of nature: Galileo and Kepler
  • The Galileo affair
  • Renaissance humanism and the new science
  • Magic and the origins of modern science
  • William Gilbert’s experimental method
  • Francis Bacon’s new method
  • The medical revolution: William Harvey and the circulation of the blood
  • Descartes’ mechanical philosophy
  • Seventeenth-century “big science”: Robert Boyle’s and Robert Hooke’s air-pump
  • The formation of the Royal Society
  • Isaac Newton’s “theory of everything”
  • Was there a Scientific Revolution?


Seminar topics are likely to include the following:

  • Does the Earth move? Ptolemy vs. Copernicus
  • Magic and the origins of modern science
  • Francis Bacon and modernity
  • The Galileo affair
  • William Harvey and the circulation of the blood
  • The Royal Society
  • Isaac Newton: “the last of the magicians”?
  • Was there a Scientific Revolution?