Between fantasy and science
The natural world has always captivated the human mind, but the way people learned about nature has changed over time. The exploration of the natural world through observation and experimentation that we take so much for granted today was not common during the early modern era. The basic sources of knowledge were the Bible, the classical authors, the fathers and doctors of the church, and their respectable commentators. The books were a valid basis of knowledge because the study of the mysteries of nature was primarily a moral and philosophical endeavor. It was easy to imagine that the world was populated by the oft-described fantastic creatures – sirens, sea serpents or unicorns – even if no one had ever actually seen them. Renaissance naturalists did not challenge the assumption, inherited from their medieval predecessors, that the study of nature was essentially a philological task. They eagerly studied the works of Pliny the Younger, Dioscorides, and especially Aristotle, whom they now read in the original Greek and not merely in Arabic and Latin translations. The difficulties and obscurities of the ancient texts forced scholars to confront the literary tradition with data obtained by observation. Only then did the idea arise that instead of reading about nature in books, one could read in the book of nature.
Pre-Copernican representation of the Universe in which the celestial bodies revolve around the Earth. Christ and the saints rule over the Universe. Johannes de Sacrobosco, Sphaericum opusculum, Cracow 1522.
Sorrel. A hand-painted illustration in the incunable herbary. Herbarius, Passau: Johann Petri, 1485.
A man using a quadrant, an instrument used to locate astronomical objects on the celestial sphere. An armillary sphere is also shown in the illustration. Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia universalis, Basel: Sebastian Henricpetri, 1550.