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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 1. Lateness of the Scientific Reawakening

WITH one or two exceptions—astronomy on the physical side, human anatomy on the biological—the reawakening in science lagged a century or more behind the renascence in literature and in art. What the leaders of thought and of practice in the arts of writing, of painting and of sculpture in western Europe were effecting in the latter part of the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century began to be paralleled in the investigations of the physical laws of nature only at the end of the sixteenth century and throughout the first three quarters of the seventeenth.

Writing broadly, we may say that, during the Stewart time, the sciences, as we now class them, were slowly but surely separating themselves out from the general mass of learning, segregating into secondary units; and, from a general amalgam of scientific knowledge, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, zoology, botany, agriculture, even physiology (the offspring of anatomy and chemistry) were beginning to assert claims to individual and distinct existence. It was in the Stewart reigns that, in England at any rate, the specialist began to emerge from those who hitherto had “taken all knowledge to be” their “province.”

Certain of the sciences, such as anatomy, physiology and, to a great extent, zoology and botany, had their inception in the art of medicine. But the last two owed much to the huntsman and the agriculturist. During the preceding century, the great Belgian anatomist Vesalius had broken loose from the bond of the written word which had strangled research for a thousand years and had looked at the structure of the human body for himself; he taught what he could himself see and what he could show to his pupils. Under him, anatomy was the first of the natural sciences to break loose from the scholastic domination which had hitherto ever placed authority above experiment.

As anatomy on the biological side, so astronomy on the physical, led the way. Copernicus had claimed that the sun was the centre of our system; but it was not until the following century, when the truth of his views was mathematically proved, that, first, men of science, and, later, the world at large, abandoned the views of Ptolemy, which, like those of Aristotle, of Galen and of Hippocrates, had obsessed the learned world since classical times.