We will now trace what went on mostly in Europe during the period between 1500 and 1700 AD, a period that is sometimes called the early modern period. This era overlaps with what has traditionally been called the Renaissance, with the Renaissance being situated somewhere between the 14th and 17th centuries.
At the outset of this early modern period Italian cities such as Naples, Genoa, and Venice were flourishing centers of trade between Europe and the Middle East. Arab scholars who had preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks in their libraries traded those ideas and materials along with other goods. These classical ideas, preserved from the ancient past, served as an intellectual and inspirational basis of the early modern thought.
When the Byzantine empire fell to Muslim Turks in 1453, many Christian scholars left Greece for Italy. They found themselves in a place with a new secular spirit that focused more on the natural world for inspiration than on religious texts or sacred beliefs. Rather than assuming the stance of the scholastics, who worked to synthesize ancient writings with the Christian beliefs, scholars in this period used ancient texts to discover more about the material world and how humans fit into it. The movement came to be called humanism.
These humanistic, secular changes in Italy were reflected not only in the reemergence of classical ideas but also in shifts in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Paintings, such as those of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Leonardo Da Vinci, were more realistic than medieval paintings. They focused less on religious themes and more on the emotions and activities of human subjects. These changes in the arts in Italy spread throughout Europe. In Britain, there was a flowering in literature and drama, a context within which William Shakespeare wrote his plays. Later in the era, paintings and literature represented not only the rich and famous but also common people in everyday life settings.
Humanism also had a profound impact on religion and religious practices. Humanist notions feeding the reformation were a newfound sense of individualism, the idea that humans can be their own priests, and the feeling that the authority in religious teachings should come directly from reading and studying the bible rather than from the interpretations provided by the Pope. Religious figures such as Erasmus and Martin Luther proposed reforming the church based on their critical textual analysis of the New Testament.
This critical approach to religion, along with perceived corruption in the Catholic church led to the Protestant Reformation that started around 1517, when Martin Luther disseminated his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The reformation continued for 131 years of religious wars between the Catholic supporters and the contending Protestants until 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia (Hooker, 1996).
Crowning the events and accomplishments of this early modern period were its many scientific discoveries. These began with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and continued with the 17th century inventions of the telescope and microscope. These the technological advances led to watershed discoveries in scientific fields that we now call physics, astronomy, and biology.
The philosophic and experimental science in this period was to become foundational for later generations. Representative of these were the 16th and 17th century contributions of (alphabetically) Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Rene Descartes (1596-1650William Harvey (1578-1657), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), John Locke (1632-1704), Ambroise Pare (1510-1519) and Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564).
Francis Bacon, a 16th century British statesman and philosopher, is said to be the father of experimental science. He set out principles of induction that became an important turning point in western scientific studies. Bacon developed a research method in which he observed and enumerated events and their characteristics, tracking their association with one another and, from this, deriving general laws of nature.
There also arose in this period the revival of a classic debate between rationalists and empiricists about the mind and body and how they fit with reality. The seminal writings of Rene Descartes helped form the rationalist school of thought in which the activities of mind were seen as separate from those of the body. Descartes held that we are born with innate ideas, and that we use these ideas in sensory and perceptual processing to construe reality—what today would be seen as a “top-down” theory of cognition. His was a philosophic dualism.
An alternative to this rationalist view was that of John Locke who was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the empiricist school of thought. Locke postulated that the mind was a blank slate at birth, what he called a tabula rasa. Reality, in Locke’s theory existed in pure form in the real world and came to be known through the senses—a “bottom-up” approach to cognition. It was a sensationist theory that was foundational for later educational programs that began with sense training.
Another set of revolutionary discoveries and distinctions taking place were in the field of astronomy. Nicolaus Copernicus concluded from his detailed studies of the planets that it was the sun that they revolved around and not the earth, shifting scientific thought from a geocentric to a heliocentric theory of planetary rotation. Galileo, a generation later, used the telescope to confirm the findings of Copernicus and advancing further the heliocentric theory of the movement of the planets.
The microscope also opened up new areas of observation such as that of Robert Hooke who, in 1665 discovered and named the cell, and of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who, in 1674, discovered and studied micro-organisms.
Another key contribution to the scientific revolution was William Harvey’s 1628 discovery of the nature of circulation. Harvey’s ideas replaced those of Galen who portrayed the arteries and veins as separate systems and as part of a general theory of body humors.
In conclusion, those in the early modern period emphasized humanism and empiricist science and took critical stance toward established classicism. These trends provided a congenial context for the following sea changes in art, religion and science:
- Shift from depicting religious topics to depicting human activities and emotions
- Shift in painting people as two dimensional objects to using three dimensions to provide volume and realism to the human body
- Shift from depicting important religious figures in ornate settings to depicting less wealthy in their everyday contexts
- Shift from an authoritarian view of God to a critical view of religion
- Shift from a focus on the worship of God to a focus on analyzing biblical text
- A development of the idea that humans can be their own guide to religion
- The Protestant Revolution that challenged traditional Catholic practices religious practices and that accused the pope and priests in the Catholic church of corruption
- The Religious wars between Protestant and Catholics
- Copernicus’s 1543 discovery that the sun was the center of the solar system, rather than the previous view that the planets revolved around the earth.
- William Harvey’s 1628 discovery that blood circulates from the arteries to the veins "impelled in a circle, and is in a state of ceaseless motion", replacing Galen’s treatment of the venous and arterial systems as separate.
- Robert Hooke’s 1665 discovery of the cell, working with the broader notion paradigm shift of matter. This promoted the idea that matter is made up of particles replacing the ancient cosmology that matter is made up of earth, water, air, and fire.
- Newton’s 1687 discovery of gravity, replacing earlier ideas that objects in space moved toward their assigned natural places.
These developments in this early modern period reverberated throughout Europe, leading to changes in a number of other arenas including medicine, rhetoric, and disability and education/rehabilitation. I discuss each of these areas of development in separate articles (see sidebar links). There is also a link to a summary of the key players and their accomplishments.