Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Peiresc and Censorship: The Inquisition and the New Science, 1610-1637

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Peiresc and Censorship: The Inquisition and the New Science, 1610-1637

Article excerpt

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) worked to transform ideas about natural philosophy by communicating information, patronizing research, and demonstrating the utility of scientific investigations. Although he did not achieve the status of contemporaries like Galileo and Kepler, he made significant contributions. He stressed practical applications of telescopic observations, developed a research program, and used persuasive strategies to ensure compliance for astronomical work. He did not want these efforts, some of which held implications for the traditional world view, to be obstructed by the Roman Catholic Church, and he actively involved the Church in projects requiring telescopic observations at the time of Galileo's sentencing. Peiresc fully understood the need to insulate research from the external controls of the Church and state. At the same time he needed the authority and patronage of these groups to carry out many of his investigations.1


Recent studies2 have suggested that the contributions of Peiresc as an innovator and organizer of science were embellished by his contemporaries and later historians. But even though Peiresc did not publish any scientific works and his investigations often lacked synthesis,3 he left a "legacy" of correspondence, an estimated 10,000 letters, of which half are extant.4 Approximately 3,200 of these exchanges have been published,5 most of which were sent to Paris and Rome, where correspondents likely had ties with the crown and the Church.6 These individuals kept Peiresc informed of policy and official views toward the New Science of observation and inquiry, and they often helped organize observation stations for work on longitude.7 Peiresc's central position in correspondence networks enabled him to manage a vast information retrieval system.

Past research has focused on Peiresc's role in astronomical investigations8 and his ability to patronize scholarship9 and procure information and artifacts.10 The purpose of this study is to examine Peiresc's role in transforming ideas and attitudes about the new astronomy in the context of censorship and the Inquisition. More specifically I will document his development and extension of communication networks to obtain specific astronomical information, his use of persuasive techniques to legitimize telescopic observations to various publics, and his strategies to ensure the involvement of the Catholic Church in these endeavors.


Prior to the publication of Copernicus' book On Revolutions of Heavenly Orbs in 1543, the texts of the scriptures, Aristotle, Plato, and Ptolemy provided the foundations for the conception of a finite and geocentric world. When Copernicus' lengthy text was circulated in clerical, literary, and university circles, it posed little threat to the traditional world view. The disclaimer in ad lectorem implied that Copernicus described a hypothetical system rather than a true system.11 Things changed, however, with the publication of The Sidereal Messenger (1610), in which Galileo detailed his telescopic observations of the pitted lunar surface, the moons of Jupiter, and the stars of the Milky Way.12 These observations were met with skepticism by some members of the emerging scientific community. Telescopes were rare and difficult to use; there was no optical theory to explain the operation, and lenses were thought to distort, not enhance the senses.13 While astronomers like Kepler accepted Galileo's observations on the basis of his reputation, some Jesuit astronomers still attempted to reconcile data with church dogma.14 In Rome Cardinal Robert Bellarmine asked Jesuit mathematicians to determine if these discoveries were "apparent and not real."15 Until empirical proof could be furnished, the Church maintained that the Copernican world view should be classified as a hypothetical system.16

The Injunction of 1616 stated the Church's prohibition of teaching and support of the Copernican opinion in universities and Jesuit schools, and it placed Copernicus' book and a related text on the Index of Prohibited Books pending changes. …

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