Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The New Astronomy

Nicolas Copernicus

With the discovery of the New World the axis of the old world was changed. With the spread of individual thought men's ideas of the entire universe changed also. The old astronomy had taught that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the sun and all the planets revolved round it in a proper and humble manner.

Now Nicolas Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, published a book in which he explained that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the universe, and that the earth revolved round the sun like any other planet. This was another shock to man's faith. Such an idea was considered by the Church as heretical and contrary to Scripture. Had not Joshua commanded the sun to stand still? And had not the sun obeyed him?

To the ignorant theologians of the day it seemed that Copernicus was attacking the very foundations of religion. To them he was not an eager seeker after truth but a wicked man who must be silenced and punished for his wickedness. Copernicus escaped any persecution, as he died almost as soon as his book was published. His theory, however, did not die with him. Others carried on his work, just as others had carried on that of Columbus. They were the men, it had been said, who did more than any others to alter the mental attitude of humanity. Yet it was nearly a hundred years after the death of Copernicus that Galileo Galilei, an Italian astronomer, began openly to spread his teaching.


Then once again the blind defenders of orthodoxy were in arms, and Galileo was threatened with the Inquisition, and forbidden to teach a theory which was "expressly contrary to Holy Scripture." He promised obedience, and was left in peace. But sixteen years later he forgot his promise, and wrote a book in which he supported the teaching of Copernicus.

At once the thunders of the Church were launched against him. He was by this time an old man of seventy. But that did not save him from torture and imprisonment, and under the threat of death by fire his courage gave way, and he retracted. He acknowledged his errors, and declared that the earth was stationary. But, it is said, that as he rose from his knees after making his confession, he was heard to murmur, "Yet still it moves."

This recantation saved Galileo from death. He was, however, condemned to imprisonment during the pleasure of the Inquisition. But after a short time he was practically released, and allowed to live in his own house not far from Florence. Here, eight years later, he died, still nominally the prisoner of the Church.

But in spite of suppression and persecution the world moved on. The inquiring spirit of man once awakened could not be put to sleep again. An intense desire to know all that there was to know increased daily.

Giordano Bruno

One of the great leaders in this fight for liberty of thought and speech was Giordano Bruno, a Neapolitan monk. Persecuted and hunted from place to place, he was at last seized by the Inquisition, and after eight years' imprisonment was burned as a heretic.

"The earth," he said, "only holds her high rank among the stars by usurpation. It is time to dethrone her. Let this not dispirit man as if he thought himself forsaken by God. For if God is everywhere, if there is in truth an unnumbered host of stars and suns, what matters the vain distinction between the heaven and the earth? Dwellers in a star, are we not included in the celestial plains set at the very gates of Heaven?

Sayings such as these cost Bruno his life. Not unworthily has he been named "a hero of thought." He dared to break the bonds of "authority," to think for himself, and follow truth even to death.

As can be seen the new birth was accomplished only through much pain. The new day dawned on Europe slowly and stormily. But in spite of the hindering hand of superstition, in spite of dark dungeons and the rack, in spite of the stake and its cruel fires, the movement increased until at length the old order vanished, and the new took its place all over Western Europe. In every country, on all subjects, men fought for and won the right of private judgment, the right of individual freedom.