Historical fiction

Sometimes a historical fiction by a good and responsible author can be very informative. Of course one should always check reliable sources for details. But a good author can do a lot of that research for you. And they can add environmental and dramatic material which helps to put the details of the history into context.

I recently commented (see Waking from a coma!) about Stuart Clark’s new book. It’s the first in a trilogy of historical fiction describing the history of astronomy. The book, Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, is set around Galileo and Kepler, their scientific contributions, personal lives and their treatment by the church and society.

Having finished reading the book I can recommend it. It’s well written, informative on the  scientific history and provides good images of the culture of the times.

Some more Galileo myths

Recently some people of a historical bent have criticised my articles on Galileo. So I guess I may now be criticised for reading historical fiction after this revelation. But any such criticism will be irrelevant as I always do try to check details with reliable sources.

I am surprised at some of the criticisms I have already had. Perhaps I shouldn’t be as there are clearly some people who have motivations for misrepresenting Galileo and for criticising the status he has today. I commented on this before in The Galileo myths.

One Galileo myth I have heard came initially from a local theologian. He twisted and squirmed (as they do) to justify the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the end he actually made the claim that Galileo based his own heliocentric position on faith and that the Church based their geocentric one on the science! That Galileo was in conflict with all the scientists of the time.

This came up again recently when a commenter on another blog repeated this claim and told me that the church had consulted a committee of “scientists” in 1616 who confirmed that heliocentricism was scientifically wrong (as well as being theological heretical). I think the theologian may also have been using this to justify his claim.

(Galileo was initially investigated by the Inquisition in 1616 as a result of complaints he held the opinion of a heliocentric universe. However, the trial and conviction for which he is remembered was held in 1633).

“Scientists” or theologians?

Lets put aside the fact that a committee of “scientists’ would have been unlikely at that time (perhaps a committee of mathematicians and astronomers but not “scientists”). I pointed out that the panel was actually made up from eleven theologians – and got told I was incorrect and simply making the claim because of my “personal dislike of the Catholic Church”! Strange reaction considering I had already quoted from the preamble to Galileo’s “Inquisition’s Sentence (22 June 1633)” – a primary source”

“the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun’s stability and the earth’s motion, as follows:
That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.”

The highlighting of the word theologian is mine.

A good source of primary documents

Still one can argue about the significance of the assessor theologians report and it always best to consult the actual documents before doing so. Therefore I have provided in full below the report from the assessor theologians. You can make your own inferences on their qualifications and reasons for making the assessments they did. You can also draw your own conclusions about the extent to which they consulted the astronomers of the time.

My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted, amongst others, the most outstanding Italian astronomer of the time, who incidentally was also in Rome when they sat, Galileo.

As for the apparent unanimity and confidence of the report – I find that strange as the Church in other documents of the time was expressing concern “about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless.”


The source is Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

Consultants’ Report on Copernicanism

(24 February 1616)

Assessment made at the Holy Office, Rome, Wednesday, 24 February 1616, in the presence of the Father Theologians signed below.

Propositions to be assessed:

(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

  • Petrus Lombardus, Archbishop of Armagh.
  • Fra Hyacintus Petronius, Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace.
  • Fra Raphael Riphoz, Master of Theology and Vicar-General of the Dominican Order.
  • Fra Michelangelo Segizzi, Master of Sacred Theology and Commissary of the Holy Office.
  • Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori, Consultant to the Holy Office.
  • Fra Thomas de Lemos.
  • Fra Gregorius Nunnius Coronel.
  • Benedictus Justinianus, Society of Jesus.
  • Father Raphael Rastellius, Clerk Regular, Doctor of Theology.
  • Father Michael of Naples, of the Cassinese Congregation.
  • Fra Iacobus Tintus, assistant of the Most Reverend Father Commissary of the Holy Office.

And what about this from the Inquisition Minutes of the next day:

“The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

Rather an extreme discussion to be based on such a flimsy report, isn’t it?

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9 responses to “Historical fiction

  1. I do see “extreme-nesses” going on on both sides here, though not equally from all.

    I originally made one of my few comments on all this because you seemed to put a dichotomy between “theologians” and “scientists”, when back then such a dichotomy was false (and can be still false today). The committee of theologians assessing Galileo would, I suppose, have been considered a committee of “philosophy” as well, no strong dichotomy really being made back then between theological, philosophical and scientific judgments.

    Your point seems to be it was morally wrong of the Catholic Church to enforce a theodicy of (rather strict) governance of permissible theorization.

    Others have made the point to you that while your moral point is valid, the way that the entire Galileo situation is painted today is false in many details, especially one sub-point being made in that Galileo was largely being judged for his as-seen-then-intemperate forcing of a theological issue, an active attempt to bypass the normal channels, not a judgment on scientific issues as we see them now.

    Your response back amounts to that it was also – in consequence – a scientific issue, others have responded that that still evades how the Galileo affair issue is often presented today and how it is partly mythical.

    No-one else seems to have commented yet on a rather amusing and ironic sub-story to all this, and that is, Galileo himself was no stranger to using the Church to enforce his own opinion, as in the case where he used his Church hierarchy friendships to bugger up a Jesuit theologian — in a case where that Jesuit theologian had ventured a speculation as to the nature of comets. It was a big case in that Galileo actually in that different affair made a broadside which can be seen as beginning to provide a good grounding of modern, metaphysically naturalist science. Ironically, in that affair, the Jesuit theologian in question was halfway right about comets, and Galilieo dead wrong.

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  2. I’ve posted one long comment here, it’s not displayed yet. While I wait on that, two more comments:
    “My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted ….”
    Again, the historical anachronism and category mistake. You criticise the Church there for not acting like a modern scientific panel of judgment; others have pointed out to you that that criticism of yours rather begs the point.

    Additionally, second point: I agree with you that theodicy of any kind is wrong, and that heavy censorship of scientific / philosophical enquiry just because that enquiry also constitutes theological judgment (in practice) is also wrong. I don’t see anyone disagreeing with you. No-one at all as yet.

    But you seem to regard any disagreement with how the Galileo affair is portrayed as also being a justification of the Church, which it most certainly is not, and you went as far as to write a previous blog post in a way that seemed to heavily cast @rmathematicus as a “religious apologist”, which he most certainly is not. You did say in answer to me that that was not your intention; but it was how you came over, strongly. That was very off-putting indeed.

    I do have some criticisms of some on the other side, am writing blog posts on all this and that at present.

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  3. g.gray mcvicker

    Historical Fiction; by a good and responsible author. What are you trying to say? How does responsible fit into that equation? If I write Romantic Fiction must I be responsible? What part of fiction don’t you understand? The problem is when we write historical fiction most everyone puts the empahasis on historical and that just denotes a period of time.I detest someone telling me that I must be responsible when I write fiction… who in the world reads fiction for details.

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  4. My response to some of your points Gurdur:

    1: The Church was morally wrong. I think that is obvious to all and haven’t bothered arguing that point.
    2: You say “the way that the entire Galileo situation is painted today is false in many details,” and I couldn’t agree more. Since the 400th anniversary I have had frequent debates with local theologians and philosophers of religion attempting to rewrite the history. And also attempting the naively find Galileo scientifically wrong. Quite incredible. So many people seem to have agendas which influence their presentations of facts.
    3:You say I “seem to regard any disagreement with how the Galileo affair is portrayed as also being a justification of the Church.” Completely wrong. I am well aware that different people have different motives and agendas. So you misrepresent me here.
    4: Re Thony C – I have never accused him/her of being a religious apologist. He made quite clear in his/her first reaction when he/she was dissing Richard Carrier that he/she was not religious. I accepted that. Your preoccupation with this issue is more to do with your sensitivity or obsession than anything to do with me.

    5: Thony C and I have disagreed on some issues of fact and science. He/she has acknowledged at least one mistake. I have asked for documentary evidence for one of his/her claims. No problems there.

    I really don’t see anything of substance here to respond to Gurder. As I explained to Yemon I don’t take a position of sides. I wish to discuss the evidence and facts. That is why I have tried to supply quotes or documents on each issue.

    I think it is silly to claim ““extreme-nesses” going on on both sides here.” Why not deal with the facts of history and science. That is what I am, trying to do.

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  5. You have a valid point g.gray mcvicker. But in answer to your question: “who in the world reads fiction for details” – some people do in some situations. Its quite OK to fictionalise completely the story of Kepler, for example, as long as I as a reader understand that. In the case of this book Stuart Clark described his research and authorities. That is why I felt some confidence in the details – in this case.

    But I understand that one can read fiction for pure escape, not wishing to understand the history or science involved.

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  6. “2: … . So many people seem to have agendas which influence their presentations of facts.”

    We agree. :-D See below.

    “3:You say I “seem to regard any disagreement with how the Galileo affair is portrayed as also being a justification of the Church.” Completely wrong. I am well aware that different people have different motives and agendas. So you misrepresent me here.”

    I chose my words with great care; I can only recommend you do so too. I do not and did not represent what you are actually saying; I said how it seemed, which you must realise is something completely different. If you want to disagree on how you seemed to be coming over, fine; but I think others might well have had quite the same reaction as me. Bollocks on the misrepresentation bit.

    “4: Re Thony C – I have never accused him/her of being a religious apologist.”

    Which part of “that seemed” is unclear? Same remarks as for (3). I was quite clear about why it seemed like you were implying it, and why I previously asked on your previous post as to that.

    Did anyone say you “accused him/her of being a religious apologist”? No. Here is what was actually said, again:
    “…you went as far as to write a previous blog post in a way that seemed to heavily cast @rmathematicus as a “religious apologist”, which he most certainly is not. You did say in answer to me that that was not your intention; but it was how you came over, strongly.

    So, who said you accused him of it? Well? Or what relevance does your answer have at all? Non-responsive.

    ” Your preoccupation with this issue is more to do with your sensitivity or obsession than anything to do with me.”

    Maybe you should first deal with the difference, between intention and how it comes over, before making personal accusations or slurs. It could be seen to be quite arrogant as well as factually wrong to seem to be airily dismissing how you come over to others in certain passages. I will also point out noting how something appears to come over has zero but zero to do with “obsession”. This is juvenile. Unless you actually have any evidence as to “obsession”, of course. By the way, I’m quite insensitive.

    “I really don’t see anything of substance here to respond to Gurder.

    Eh? After you’ve just spent some time responding to my points (well, in one case, spending time being non-responsive)? Is this last bit more mere juvenile tweaking of my tail, or do we have here some problem with definitions of “substance”?

    ” As I explained to Yemon I don’t take a position of sides. . I wish to discuss the evidence and facts”

    Bluntly, I find that disingenuous, and I don’t buy it, after all the words you’ve put in about “religious apologists” etc. Fine, you’re taking the side of evidence as you see it, and the side of reason against the controlling hand of authoritarian religion; but you are definitely taking sides, or drawing them.

    The personal remarks, whether to others or myself (e.g, “obsession”, or “emotional” and “irrational” in reply to beckyfh on a previous post), are a detraction from any impartial weighing of evidence, and certainly don’t belong in any such impartial analysis. Which is why I don’t buy that part either, as yet. Here’s hoping things improve. And by the way, also, you are forcing an interpretation on the evidence, something which I dealt with in my first long comment here. You did not respond to that. Cheers.

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  7. Gurder, you seem to agree that I am not guilty of accusing Thony C of religious apologetics. Excellent.

    That should put an end to any discussion around that issue. It really is a diversion and I would prefer to discuss the historical facts of the Galileo affair as I have presented them as well the scientific/philosophical issues that have been raised (I think those are interesting in themselves).

    As for the question of how I “come across.” I see that as a matter of how someone is reacting to me – a responsibility of theirs not mine. (Unless you can point me to an incorrect statement  of mine – I am always happy to admit to any mistakes).

    So, the only substance I can see here is your claim I am “forcing an interpretation on the evidence.” You don’t say how specifically.

    The only thing I perhaps should have taken up from your previous comment is reference to the word “scientist.” I made clear in my article it is an inappropriate word for the times. I was not the one who raised it – it came up in another blog where a commenter claimed the assessor theologians were a committee of “scientists.” Another commenter claimed they would have been informed by the “scientists” of the time.

    Well, I have provided the evidence, their actual report, and personally briefly inferred the degree of consultation and with whom. I made clear that the inferences were mine. If you disagree with me I am happy to hear your view and any evidence for it.

    Personally, the issue of substance I have been trying to get across is that the Galileo affair is an example of the break with religious philosophy which was a necessary condition for the scientific revolution. Thony C sort of disagreed but has not continued the discussion.

    The diversion into details of history and science really arose from Richard Christie’s request for Thony’s views on the way the Church banned Copernicus’s book.

    Do you have a different view of the assessor theologians report or of my comments on the scientific revolution?

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  8. isomorphismes

    Ken, it looks like you still haven’t answered Gurdur’s first comment where s/he said you are assuming a dichotomy between theologians and scientists (or “scientists” may not be the proper term since this is before Bacon not to mention all modern trappings of science).

    Someone(s) on Thony C’s blog said so as well and I didn’t see that you responded there either.

    Maybe I missed it.

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  9. Isomorphismes, I think it is a diversion to accuse me of “assuming a dichotomy”. This argument arose because the consultant theologians were described by others as a panel of scientists. Strange that some commenters have turned on me just because I have presented the actual document and affiliations of the theologians concerned.

    There is also the desperate use of that short document claim that the inquisition was on the side of the scientific consensus and Galileo was acting on faith. This ignores the important astronomical work done by Galileo as well as the moribund situation with the geocentric model requiring so many arbitrary ad hoc additions.

    Why am I the only commenter in Thony C’s blog to pick up the fib of descrbing the consultant theologians as a committee if scientists? And why am I being attacked for doing so?

    It is just simple srawmannery to lecture me about the obvious integration of natural philosophy and the church in Galileo’s time. I am not that naive.

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