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The Calvinist Copernicans: The Reception of the New Astronomy in the Dutch Republic.

Rienk Vermij. The Calvinist Copernicans: The Reception of the New Astronomy in the Dutch Republic.

Amsterdam: Edita KNAW, 2002. Pbk. x + 434 pp. index. map. bibl. [euro]49. ISBN: 90-6984-340-4.

With historical hindsight, the heliocentric astronomical system, proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, may be considered to herald the beginning of modern science, an event which has often been called the Copernican Revolution. Its immediate impact, however, was far less dramatic. It took more than a quarter of a century before its deeper consequences were seriously taken up by astronomers and philosophers, and another fifty years before it reached a still wider audience, partly as a consequence of the infamous Galileo trial. The general story of this gradual reception has been traced by a variety of scholars, concentrating mainly on Germany and Italy. Rienk Vermij has produced a most valuable contribution to this literature, by studying in great detail the reception of Copernicus in the Dutch Republic. The scope of his book is very large, ranging from the late sixteenth until the middle of the eighteenth century and covering the work of astronomers, philosophers, theologians, mathematical practitioners, cartographers, poets and "ordinary" men. In general, it is a quite impressive work of outstanding scholarship and a landmark book in the history of Dutch science.

Vermij starts his narrative in 1575, the founding date of Leiden University. This is somewhat surprising, as the Copernican system was already quite well known to many scholars in the Netherlands. Vermij only spends a few words on Gemma Frisius, who worked in the university of Leuven, gathering around him a school of astronomers and cartographers, all studying Copernicus. Leuven was not a part of the Dutch Republic, but as for its intellectual influence and considering the number of scholars who migrated from the Spanish Netherlands to the North, the links with this early circle of Copernicans may have been worthwhile to take into account. Still, his analysis of the Leiden humanists and their defence of Copernicanism is one of the strong chapters of the book. Vermij shows how their approach was quite different from what Robert Westman has termed the "Wittenberg interpretation." For the Leiden humanists, not the mathematical usefulness of the Copernican astronomy, but its relevance to some cosmic harmony was appealing, an attitude which Vermij also finds in the views of Snellius, Mulerius, and even Stevin, whose dependence on the learned elites of Leiden contrasts nicely with his general matter-of-fact approach.

Less surprising is the part dealing with the influence of Descartes. The history of Cartesianism in the Netherlands has been well studied and Vermij has not much to add. He concedes that the debate on the Cartesian philosophy completely eclipsed the Copernican debates, which only served to defend or to attack Cartesianism. Even then, his breadth of arguments and archival sources is a worthwhile addition, which deserves to be read by any historian of Cartesianism.

Only in part 4, "Biblical authority and Christian freedom," Vermij addresses the Calvinist background of the debate. Although, as in the case of Leiden humanists, the Christian outlook does enter into the understanding of their position, Vermij apparently feels that the later theological controversies can in fact be separated from the scientific debates. It works indeed in his narrative, but isn't it the task of an historian to dig up deeper layers of intellectual kinship? In general, Vermij's approach is not that of a social historian, identifying the ambitions and resources of the different social groups involved. He singles out the intellectual content of the debates, which sometimes may be connected to the social aspirations of the protagonists, but which according to Vermij should not be explained by purely social arguments. Here he misses a central issue: the reception of Copernicanism, certainly in the wake of Cartesianism or the explicit involvement of religious views, does not depend on purely intellectual arguments, but rather on the general concept of what the new science may achieve, and perhaps even on a simple willingness to challenge the established order. Social history cannot be excluded from this debate, and it transcends the intellectual boundaries framed by academic disciplines. For all the meticulous scholarship Vermij has applied, a more daring approach would perhaps have yielded a more challenging analysis.


Catholic University, Leuven
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Vanpaemel, Geert
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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