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The revolution in thought

The influence of Puritanism increased greatly during the seventeenth century, particularly among the merchant class and lesser gentry. It was the Puritans who persuaded James I to permit a new official ("authorised") translation of the Bible. It was published in 1611. This beautiful translation was a great work of English literature, and it encouraged Bible reading among all those who could read. Although the Bible was read most by merchants and lesser gentry, many literate labourers began to read it too. Some of them understood the Bible in a new and revolutionary way. As a result, by the middle years of the seventeenth century Puritanism had led to the formation of a large number of small new religious groups, or "sects", including the "Levellers".

Most of these Nonconformist sects lasted only a few years, but two are important, the Baptists and the Quakers. In spite of opposition in the seventeenth century, both sects have survived and have had an' important effect on the life of the nation. The Quakers became particularly famous for their reforming social work in the eighteenth century. These sects brought hope to many of the poor and the powerless. Social reform and the later growth of trade unionism both owed much to Nonconformism. In spite of their good work, however, the Nonconformists continued to be disliked by the ruling class until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Anglican Church, unlike the Nonconformist churches, was strong politically, but it became weaker intellectually. The great religious writers of the period, John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress, and John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, were both Puritan.

For some Nonconformists, the opposition to their reliefs was too great to bear. They left Britain to live a free life in the new found land of America. In 1620, the "Pilgrim Fathers" sailed in a ship called die Mayflower to Massachusetts. Catholic families settled in Maryland for the same reasons. But most of the 400,000 or so who left England were young men without families, who did so for economic and not religious reasons. They wanted the chance to start a new life. At the same time there were other people coming in from abroad to live in Britain. Cromwell allowed Jews to settle again, the first Jews since the earlier community had been expelled 350 Tears earlier. And after 1685 many French Protestants, known as Huguenots, escaped from Louis XIV's persecution and settled in Britain.

The revolution in religious thinking was happening at the same time as a revolution in scientific thinking. Careful study of the natural world led to important new discoveries.

It was not the first time that the people of Britain had taken a lead in scientific matters. Almost a thousand years earlier, the English monk and historian, Bede, had argued that the earth stood still, fixed in space, and was surrounded by seven heavens. This, of course, was not correct, but no one doubted him for centuries. In the twelfth century, during the reign of Henry I, another English scientist had gained European fame. He was Adelard of Bath, and he played a large part in the revolution in scientific thinking at the time. He knew that the Church considered his ideas dangerous. "I do not want to claim," he wrote, "that God is less than all-powerful. But nature has its own patterns and order, and we should listen to those who have learnt something of it."

In the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries English scientists, most of them at the University of Oxford, had led Europe. Friar Roger Bacon, one of the more famous of them, had experimented with light, heat and magnetism. Another, William of Ockham, had studied falling objects. Another, William Marlee, had been one of the first to keep a careful record of the weather. Chaucer himself wrote a book to teach his son how to use an astrolabe. At the same time, the practical effects of such curiosity were seen in new machinery, water mills, geared wheels and lathes.

But the seventeenth century saw the development of scientific thinking on an entirely new scale. The new mood had been established at the very beginning of the century by a remarkable man, Francis Bacon. He became James I's Lord Chancellor, but he was better known for his work on scientific method. Every scientific idea, he argued, must be tested by experiment. With idea and experiment following one after the other, eventually the whole natural world would be understood. In the rest of the century British scientists put these ideas into practice. The British have remained at the front of experiment and research ever since.

In 1628 William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood and this led to great advances in medicine and in the study of the human body. The scientists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke used Harvey's methods when they made discoveries in the chemistry and mechanics of breathing.

These scientific studies were encouraged by the Stuarts. The Royal Society, founded by the Stuart monarchy, became an important centre where thinkers could meet, argue, enquire and share information. Charles II, a strong supporter of its work, gave the Royal Society firm direction "to examine all systems, theories, principles . . . elements, histories and experiments of things natural, mathematical and mechanical".

In 1666 the Cambridge Professor of Mathematics, Sir Isaac Newton, began to study gravity, publishing his important discovery in 1684. In 1687 he published Principia, on "the mathematical principles of natural philosophy", perhaps the greatest book in the history of science. Newton's work remained the basis of physics until Einstein's discoveries in the twentieth century. Newton's importance as a "founding father" of modern science was recognised in his own time.

Newton had been encouraged and financed by his friend, Edmund Halley, who is mostly remembered for tracking a comet (Halley's Comet) in 1682. There was at that time a great deal of interest in astronomy. The discovery of the geometric movement of stars and planets destroyed old beliefs in astrology and magic. Everything, it seemed, had a natural explanation.

It was no accident that the greatest British architect of the time, Christopher Wren, was also Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. In 1666, following a year of terrible plague, a fire destroyed most of the city of London. Eighty-seven churches, including the great medieval cathedral of St Paul, were destroyed. Wren was ordered to rebuild them in the modern style, which he did with skill.

As a result of the rapid spread of literacy and the improvement in printing techniques, the first newspapers appeared in the seventeenth century. They were a new way of spreading all kinds of ideas, scientific, religious and literary. Many of them included advertisements. In 1660 Charles II advertised for his lost dog.


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 1789

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