Stevin Seminar: Clueless science: the study of earthquakes in the early modern period
Discussion with Rienk Vermij about his new book Thinking on Earthquakes in Early Modern Europe: Firm Beliefs on Shaky Ground (London: Routledge, 2020).
In the early modern period, there was a complete lack of understanding of earthquakes. The so-called “scientific revolution” brought no improvement. Mathematisation and experimental methods were of no use here. At the same time, there was an urgent need for explanation and interpretation. This creates an ideal situation for studying the changing ideas about nature. If “scientific” methods offered no clue, one may expect that theories were determined by philosophical and religious considerations and thereby open a window on people’s underlying beliefs and values. In this paper, I will discuss the question what ideas on earthquakes existed in the early modern period and how they changed.
Rienk Vermij is professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahamo.
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About the book
This book is the first extensive study of ideas on earthquakes before the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. The earthquake had a deep impact on European culture, and the reactions to it stood in a long tradition that, before this study, had yet to be explored in detail. Thinking on Earthquakes investigates both scholarly theories and views that were propagated among the early modern European population. Through a chronological approach, Vermij reveals that in contrast to the Ancient and medieval philosophers who suggested rational explanations for earthquakes, supernatural ideas made a powerful comeback in the sixteenth century. By analysing a variety of sources such as pamphlets, sermons, and treatises, this study shows how changes in the ideas on earthquakes were a result of social and political demands as well as from improvements in the means of communication, rather than from scientific methods. Thus, Vermij presents an illuminating case for the production of knowledge in early modern Europe. A range of events are explored, including the Ferrara earthquake in 1570 and the Vienna earthquake in 1590, making this study an invaluable source for students and scholars of the history of science and the history of ideas in early modern Europe.