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The rebirth of knowledge

  • from Shaastra :: vol 02 issue 06 :: Nov - Dec 2023
The Other Renaissance: From Copernicus to Shakespeare: How the Renaissance in Northern Europe Transformed the World; By Paul Strathern; Published by Atlantic Books; 384 pages; $29.95

Northern Europe made enormous contributions to the Renaissance. Paul Strathern tips his hat to those who helped change the world.

For centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe was an ideological and social prison. It was heresy to question church doctrine, which included "theories" such as the Earth being at the centre of the universe. There was little technological innovation and no advance in scientific understanding. Europeans even forgot much that the ancient Romans and Greeks knew.

The "Renaissance" — literally rebirth — was roughly the period between 1400 and 1700 CE, when Europeans pulled out of the "Dark Ages". Religious dogma was widely questioned, and this resulted in a schism in the Church, and bloody religious wars.

Meanwhile, curious individuals started to conduct experiments to test laws of nature rather than blindly accepting the Church's teachings. There were bursts of innovation. Voyages of exploration led to "globalisation" as Europeans looked for trading opportunities, slaves and colonies. Art and culture flourished across the continent.

The Renaissance is generally considered to have been centred in Italy, which produced geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. But Northern Europe, too, made enormous contributions, with Holbein, Copernicus, Paracelsus, Erasmus and others pushing boundaries of knowledge, while German preacher Martin Luther led the battle against religious orthodoxy. Paul Strathern's book concentrates on this "Other Renaissance" and its Northern axis.

The map of Europe was very different during this period. Italy and Germany consisted of small kingdoms. The Holy Roman Empire, run by the Pope, was a serious force; Poland and Spain, along with France, were great powers. Russia was isolated from Western Europe; England and Scotland were separate nations and often at war for much of this time. Once Luther raised the flag of religious revolt, many countries went Protestant to escape being taxed by the Pope. Europe saw small and large conflicts, including wars that lasted for decades. But despite the turmoil — or perhaps because of it — there were great advances across multiple domains of human thought and endeavour.

Notably, the printing technology of Gutenberg, another "Northerner", democratised knowledge and enabled it to be recorded and preserved, and spread easily. Moreover, while scientists continued to write in Latin and Greek, they started to deliver lectures in the vernacular, which meant a better dissemination of their ideas.


Strathern's book features the achievements and lives of a large number of artists, scientists, explorers and thinkers. It's organised into chapters that are biographical in theme. The chapters are mostly around the life of a prominent individual, but others who played supporting roles to that person are also fleshed out in conjunction. Da Vinci, for example, plays a supporting role in the section on King Francis I of France, so the supporting cast may consist of superstars in their own right.

During this time, the foundations of modern science, with an emphasis on experimental verification and proof, were laid by astronomers such as Tycho Brahe, Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, who meticulously recorded and "curve-fitted" astronomical data to re-establish long-discredited heliocentric theories and to discover the laws of planetary motion. The new attitude to medical research gave rise to Paracelsus and his followers. Paracelsus was a sword-wielding eccentric and sometime con artist who lectured in German. He pioneered getting down and dirty in research: by investigating faecal matter, for example. He was followed by Vesalius, who dissected corpses and wrote the Fabrica, the standard textbook of anatomy for centuries.

Strathern's book also features many characters who are footnotes in that they made important discoveries that helped later scientists build theories. The work of friar Dietrich, who made vital discoveries about the behaviour of light by studying rainbows, was later foundational to Newtonian optics. Nicholas of Cusa ground the first accurate lenses and pioneered methods for precisely measuring small quantities.

Europeans rediscovered and reconnected with mathematics as it had been studied in greater depth and rigour in Asia. Decimal notation was introduced, and algebraic notation adopted; trigonometric tables were printed and quadratic and cubic equations investigated. Many of the basics were picked up from Arabs who, in turn, looked further East, at Iran and India.
Incidentally, in 1520, Copernicus wrote an economic thesis demonstrating that the price of goods varied directly according to the quantum of money in circulation, and, in the 1680s, Newton developed coinage that couldn't easily be forged. This illustrates how eclectic researchers were in their areas of interest. 


The Renaissance (both versions) also featured many voyages of exploration, which led to the interchange of knowledge and technologies with West Asia, India and China. This sparked a technological revolution as new navigational aids, better sailcloth and superior ship-building techniques and marine weaponry were developed.

The explorations also led to sophisticated financial markets where commodities could be traded. Insurance policies came into being to meet the risk of shipwrecks and lost cargo. Powerful merchant confederations, such as the Dutch merchant guilds, became serious political players, as did the East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch EIC. The Fugger family of Augsburg, which pioneered financial engineering, may have become the world's richest private family due to this trend of mercantilism.

Monarchs and merchant guilds funded voyages of exploration, mostly looking for new ways to access trade goods (spices, silk) from India and China. Columbus famously reached the Americas, as did others, including Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the continents are named. Some reached the Cape of Good Hope and beyond. Magellan and Drake were among the first sailors to circumnavigate the world.

The foundations of modern science, with an emphasis on experimental verification and proof, were laid by astronomers such as Nicolaus Copernicus.

Spanish explorers discovered the relative abundance of gold in the Americas, and the legend of El Dorado led to centuries of colonialism, the extermination of entire empires and the institution of slavery. Exploration also gave rise to men such as Mercator, who conceptualised the projection of a three-dimensional spherical object onto a two-dimensional plane, making geometrically ingenious maps. Incidentally, Mercator was imprisoned for seven months as a heretic.


Gutenberg's invention of movable type and the development of chemicals that could transfer permanent text and images to paper are perhaps the biggest force multiplier civilisation has ever had. But whether Gutenberg knew it or not, China had been using similar technology for centuries. Artist Jan van Eyck pioneered and fully exploited the properties of oils in his paintings; Albrecht Dürer invented engraving.

On the religious front, Martin Luther's questioning of the Church in his seminal 95 Theses led to a vast schism, which gave rise to centuries of religious wars. The Theses drove a bulldozer through the tower of religious infallibility. After Luther, you could question church dogma, and therefore strive to test scientific assertions made by the Church, giving men of scientific temper a freer rein. While Galileo was persecuted in Catholic Italy, scientists who perpetrated similar heresies in Protestant realms were not risking their lives or freedom to that extent. This meant greater freedom of thought in Northern Europe, where the Reformation (as the backlash against Catholicism is known) took hold. 

The concept of humanism was developed during this period, and became a counterweight to religious doctrine.

The concept of humanism was developed during this period, and became a counterweight to religious doctrine. Art and literature changed inevitably as feedback loops arose in popular culture from the more open philosophy underpinning the Renaissance. 

Writers François Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel) and Thomas More (Utopia) delved into fantasy to illustrate their philosophical ideas. Montaigne and Erasmus wrote thought-provoking satirical essays and commentaries.

The book covers a lot of ground, and the author's style is easy and engaging. There are dozens of pen portraits of interesting characters with odd anecdotes. However, there's only one woman — Catherine de' Medici — in the frame, which reflects the gender gap of that period. Rather than trying to force-fit an overarching theme, this book gives us a flavour of the life and culture of Northern Europe at a time of creative and political disruption.

Devangshu Datta is a consulting editor and columnist with a focus on STEM and finance.


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