Why England?  The English Revolution and Science [1640 CE – 1660 CE]

When teaching in Southwestern China in the 1980s, I occasionally asked my more advanced students why the number of people in China studying English was so much larger than the number of people in English-speaking countries studying Chinese.  After all, England is tiny, only slightly bigger than Shandong Province.  In terms of area and population, Sichuan Province alone was significantly larger than England.

Many of their responses boiled down to the proposition that England was very good at war, which contributed to the creation of the British Empire with exploited colonies around the globe.    When pressed further, they said England’s military prowess was because England experienced the Industrial Revolution before China, which in turn was because England had been the first nation to benefit from the Scientific Revolution, usually referring to the career of Isaac Newton [1643 CE – 1727 CE] to buttress their argument.

To which I would answer with examples of Chinese science and engineering that often preceded Western practice by hundreds of years, including:

  • Crossbows [5th Century BCE]
  • Belt drives [5th Century BCE]
  • Paper [300 BCE, used for toilet hygiene by 589 CE, and for money by the 9th Century CE]
  • The blast furnace [3rd Century BCE]
  • Deep drilling for natural gas as fuel [2nd Century BCE]
  • Ball bearings [2nd Century BCE]
  • Theory of blood circulation [2nd Century BCE]
  • Compass [lodestone compass by 83 CE; with magnetic needles by 1088 CE]
  • Seismographs [132 CE]
  • Paddle wheel ships [418 CE]
  • Iron chain suspension bridges [6th Century CE]
  • Printed books [by 868 CE]
  • Gunpowder [9th Century CE]
  • Inoculation against smallpox [10th Century CE]
  • Printing with movable earthenware type on paper [11th Century CE]
  • Two-stage rockets [1360 CE]

I would offer to provide further examples but those usually sufficed.

Joseph Needham’s masterpiece, the multivolume Science and Civilization in China, has fostered modern awareness of China’s magnificent pioneering contributions in a wide variety of fields, including mathematics, physics, mechanical and civil engineering, paper and printing, metallurgy, ceramics, botany, agriculture, and medicine.

Historians refer to “The Needham Question,” which asks why Chinese scientific creativity seems to have ended suddenly in the early 16th Century CE.  In other words, why didn’t the modern scientific revolution take place in China?

Scholarly responses to that question have suggested that:

  • Old China’s traditional denigration of hands-on work limited experimentation.
  • Unlike European powers, China lacked neighboring nation states to foster competitive generation of new ideas and technology.
  • Chinese bureaucracy killed entrepreneurial spirit, preventing the development of a strong merchant class that would adopt and disseminate technical improvements.
  • The Chinese simply stopped trying. In the Yuan [1271 CE – 1368 CE], Ming [1368 CE – 1644 CE] and Qing [1644 CE – 1911 CE] dynasties, they could not get ahead anyway.  The Yuan Dynasty was Mongol; the Ming was totalitarian even by Chinese standards; the Qing Dynasty was Manchu.
  • The Chinese got smug.  They were so used to being preeminent in Asia they became incurious, and tried to ignore the more advanced ways of Westerners who showed up on their shores in increasing numbers in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE. Chinese Imperial attempts to bully and bluff the foreigners backfired badly, resulting in a loss of the prestige that the assertions of the superiority of the Middle Kingdom were supposed to enhance.

One leading Sinologist, Nathan Sivin, has expressed doubt about the usefulness of further pursuit of answers to “the Needham Question” to explain why the Scientific Revolution did not happen in China: “What did happen was the emergence of early modern science in Europe. It is Europe that needs to be understood.”

In terms of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, England needs to be understood most of all.  Copernicus did not foster a Scientific Revolution in Poland; Galileo did not lead to a Scientific Revolution in Italy. What set England apart?

The key seems to be the English Revolution of the 1640s, when middle class gentry and merchants overthrew the not very competent government of Charles I, resulting in that monarch’s beheading and the creation of a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

The revolutionaries’ radical Protestantism was crucial, not because of any direct correlation between Protestantism and scientific genius, but because of the link between Protestantism’s emphasis on universal Bible reading and widespread literacy.  The widespread ability to read and write in England made it possible to disseminate and implement scientific advances in that country.  The Mediterranean lands lagged:  as late as the Napoleonic wars [1803 CE – 1815 CE] the illiteracy of Italian sailors shocked the men of the British Navy.

Following the success of the English Parliamentarians in the Civil War, there was a purge of royalist academicians at the universities.  This effectively removed the impediment of Aristotelian professors, thus helping to advance knowledge.

Francis Bacon’s [1561 CE – 1626 CE] emphasis on empiricism and inductive logic, and his dedication to The Advancement of Learning [1605 CE], could not have contributed as much as they did to the Scientific Revolution if education in England continued to be dominated by those who felt all answers could be found in ancient Greek and Latin authorities.

It should be noted, however, that Bacon’s logic sometimes led him to unfortunate conclusions, as when he was charged with taking bribes from both sides in a highly contentious issue he was supposed to resolve.  Bacon defended himself by saying that the person complaining about bribery had not received judgment in his favor, which meant that the money he had given to Bacon had not affected Bacon’s decision, and therefore had to be considered a gift, not a bribe. The King and Bacon’s opponents were not persuaded.

The Scientific Revolution needed a literate, bourgeois, practical social infrastructure in order for it to take root and grow.  The English Revolution of the 1640s provided the environment required.   When Newton married mathematics to the empiricism of early modern science, he brought the components of the scientific method together in a post-revolutionary England that was ready for it, having already assimilated profound changes in its social, political, and belief structures.

The upheavals of the English Revolution, Civil War, and Commonwealth resulted in a polity accustomed to change, and capable of conceiving and accepting, within certain limits, the implications of the new scientific manner.  The Scientific Revolution could only progress beyond a small circle of intellectuals after a revolution had broken the limiting paradigms of traditional thought and learning in the wider society.

It is common but none the less accurate to note that at the beginning of the 17th Century, most consciousness in England was at least half Medieval, while by the end of the 17th Century, most was at least half Modern.  When attempting to chart the course of the Scientific Revolution in England, it is necessary to first analyze the political and religious developments that paved the way for its success.

Further Reading: 

  • For China’s scientific contributions, see Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. He raises “the Needham question” in Volume 7:  The Social Background, Part 2, General Conclusions and Reflections as well as Chapters 5 and 6 of The Grand Titration:  Science and Society in East and West. For a condensed introduction to the topic, see Robert Temple’s The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention. Nathan Sivin’s argument that efforts to explain what did not happen in China were beside the point can be found in China Review International 2005.
  • Christopher Hill’s Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution deal with the complex issues of the recasting of England’s mentality during the 17th Century.  
  • R. Gardiner’s multi-volume History of the Great Civil War and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, The Puritan Revolution 1603 -1660 are still in many ways the finest narrative histories of the period.
  • P.V. Akrigg’s The Jacobean Pageant delivers a refreshingly non-hagiographic portrait of Francis Bacon in its overview of England during the reign of James I.
  • John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science gives a broader perspective to the English achievements.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still worth reading, no matter how many undergraduates have misused his concept of paradigm changes.
  • One radical take on the ultimate fate of the English Revolution is outlined in James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana. H. Parry’s Trade and Dominion: European Overseas Empires in the 18th Century illuminates many of the long-term effects of England’s 17th Century changes.

Cardinal Richelieu Saves German Protestantism: The 30 Years War [1618 CE – 1648 CE]

The Habsburg family, originally from Switzerland before it became entrenched and powerful in Austria, was unrivalled in its use of that most deadly of dynastic weapons, the wedding ring. This enabled them to surround France with an eclectic group of Habsburg land holdings in the late 16th and early 17th centuries CE.  France, arguably Europe’s most powerful nation at the time, fought to break the Habsburg encirclement for generations.  One curious outcome of this effort was the emergence of a French Prince of the Catholic Church as a savior of German Protestantism.

The Habsburgs held the throne of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from 1438 to 1740.  This ramshackle political entity covered most of Germany, Austria, and the Low Countries, as well as much of Italy and portions of the Slavic lands abutting German-speaking regions.  Originally founded by Charlemagne in 800, by the 15th Century the Holy Roman Empire consisted of an incredibly complex mixture of autonomous principalities, Habsburg family lands, bishoprics, and autonomous city-states.   It had failed both as a German nation and as an imperial power over the Italians and Slavs.

As no revenue was associated with the title of Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburg family monopoly on the elective position was usually tolerated without much dispute.  Unless dominated by a leader of the stature and strength of Charlemagne or Otto I, Germany was too large and diverse to be effectively united much less governed for long with the communications and administrative tools available to Medieval and Renaissance European rulers.  France was about the maximum size capable of being efficiently managed in the West in those times.

Habsburg fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.  Like most marriage-based triumphs, it developed in a circuitous manner, and deserves a bit of explanation.

Louis XI of France, the “universal spider” [reigned 1461 – 1483], was attacking Burgundian holdings in the Netherlands.  The Burgundian heiress married the Habsburg Maximilian, heir-apparent to the German Empire, for protection. Their son, named Phillip, married the only surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, a woman named Joanna.  Phillip died young.  Joanna went spectacularly mad, and was declared incompetent.  Phillip and Joanna’s son, Charles V [of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also Charles I of Spain] inherited among other lands Spain, Spain’s colonies in the New World, the Habsburg lands in Germany and Austria, the wealthy Netherlands, and much of Italy.  Vast quantities of precious metals from the Americas and armies of tough professional Spanish infantry seemed to promise further success for the House of Habsburg. The most pernicious effects of inbreeding that were to result in the multiply handicapped Charles II, Spain’s last Habsburg monarch [1661 – 1700], lay in the future.

The French immediately apprehended the danger of being surrounded by Habsburgs in Germany, the Low Countries, Spain, and Italy, and attacked Habsburg holdings in Italy, mostly without success.  They had slightly better luck in the Low Countries and Germany, but a series of weak French kings and religious disputes resulting in a massacre of French Protestant Huguenots [1572] sidelined France in the second half of the 16th Century.

At about the same time, Phillip II of Spain bungled the handling of a revolt in the Low Countries, resulting in the creation of a strongly Protestant Dutch Republic [firmly established by 1594 – 1607] as well as English legends about the Spanish Armada [1588].  The ability of the Dutch to resist Spanish aggression until the cost became prohibitive for the largest empire in the world is no less remarkable in hindsight than it was to contemporaries.  Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller wrote about it in his Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung [History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands from Spanish Rule].

But even more serious trouble began in Germany and Central Europe in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague.  A Bohemian Protestant crowd threw three bullying Catholic Imperial officials out of a window to the street 70 feet below [21 meters].  The officials survived their fall either through miraculous intercession by angels or the Virgin Mary, or as a result of landing on a dung heap.

This incident sparked the Thirty Years War [1618 – 1648], which resulted in at least 8 million deaths.  Traditionally this conflict has been seen as a fight between the Protestant German princes and the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II.  Ferdinand had hopes of becoming the first Holy Roman Emperor since the Middle Ages with effective centralized power.  Without France’s subsidies and direct participation on the side of the Protestants, the war would have ended much sooner, with a very different outcome than reached in the Peace of Westphalia [1648].  France was not fighting for religious reasons.

The first serious stages of the war were successful Habsburg attacks on Bohemia and its northern Protestant allies, greatly enhancing Habsburg land holdings and power.  A second round of attacks on the Baltic region thoroughly alarmed the German princes, Protestant and Catholic alike, as well as the Swedes, who held some territories in the area.  The German princes might not be able to agree on religion, but they were united in their opposition to the idea of a Holy Roman Emperor with real power.  By threatening the Habsburg succession, they convinced Emperor Ferdinand to draw back.

But France’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Richelieu [1585-1642], had different ideas. War in Germany absorbed Habsburg energies and offered intriguing possibilities for France to break the ring of Habsburg encirclement.  Richelieu subsidized the Protestant Netherlands in their fight against the Spanish Habsburgs and the Lutheran Swedes against the Austrian branch of the family.  Although he became a Cardinal in 1622, Richelieu’s early training had been military.  He had joined the Church and become a bishop to protect family income when his older brother became a Carthusian monk, renouncing worldly possessions with a serious vow of poverty.

Richelieu found a willing instrument for his strategy in the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus.  The Swedes cut a meteoric path through The Holy Roman Empire with brilliant successes at the battle of Breitenfeld [1631] and in Bavaria, until their costly victory at Lützen [1632] resulted in the death of Adolphus.  Their utter defeat at Nördlingen [1634] resulted in the German princes and the Habsburgs agreeing on terms for a general cessation of hostilities.  Richelieu saw a new effort was necessary to keep peace from breaking out.  France declared war, coming to the aid of the German and Swedish Protestants.

The Swedes regrouped in northeastern Germany and began winning battles again. The French and Dutch pressured Imperial forces in the northwest of Germany.  Spain began to encounter serious problems.  Catalonia, threatened with higher taxes, seceded from Spain and asked France for help.  Richelieu was delighted to oblige.  Portugal, unhappy with the state of its colonies since it had been unified with Spain, revolted. The French army destroyed irreplaceable Spanish prestige and troops at the battle of Rocroi [1643].

The new Emperor Ferdinand III [reigned 1637 – 1657] opened a peace conference in Westphalia, making it clear that he was no longer pursuing Imperial Catholic goals.  It took four years of negotiations before the terms were agreed upon and the conflict stopped, but there was no doubt about who the victors were in 1648:  France, Sweden, and the German Protestant princes. Richelieu died six years before his victory was sealed by the Peace of Westphalia, which also laid the foundation for the development of the secular West European state.

Despite his prolonged campaigns that resulted in the preservation of German Protestantism, Richelieu could demonstrate implacable opposition to Protestants who threatened French domestic stability.  He declared suppression of the Huguenot’s revolt to be the first priority of the kingdom.  During the siege of La Rochelle [1627 -1628], Richelieu acted as commander of the French troops when the King was not present.

Zhou Enlai, when asked if he were more Communist or Chinese, replied he was more Chinese.  Cardinal Richelieu, if queried as to whether he were more Catholic or French, might, if maneuvered into an honest response, have identified himself as more French.  His actions in the Thirty Years War indicate a mind that had moved beyond confessional polities and dynastic landholdings to grasp the essence of the modern nation state.


Further Reading:

  • Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.
  • Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, the best-selling novel of the 17th Century, gives a contemporary view of the Thirty Years War that in many ways has never been bettered.
  • Brecht’s Mother Courage is a dramatic fable set in the same conflict, which some modern German polls rank as the worst disaster the country has ever experienced, including bombing, invasion, and defeat in the Second World War and occupation thereafter.
  • Alexandre Dumas provides a rousing if historically inaccurate picture of the times in France in The Three Musketeers and its sequels.
  • Geoffrey Parker’s The Dutch Revolt offers a lively overview of its topic; Jonathan Israel’s The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477 -1806 provides context and perspective.