Age of Invention: Trusting the Ancients

Why bizarre beliefs were trusted

Welcome to my regular newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. If you enjoy it, please share it with someone who might be interested. You can subscribe here:

Last week, I described how sixteenth-century alchemical experiments actually sometimes worked. (If you missed it, you can read it here). But the fact that the experiments worked also led people astray in terms of explaining why. Observation and experience seemed to confirm the theories that had been passed down from the ancient world.

It is difficult for us, today, to take some of the teachings of the ancients seriously. The ancient Greeks believed, for example, that peacock flesh did not rot, and that various small creatures - think mice, maggots, and clams - spontaneously generated from inanimate matter like wheat, meat, and sand.

These seem, today, to be so obviously wrong that our ancestors seem stupid. But they were not. Have you, for example, ever actually observed a mouse being born? And if you’d never seen a peacock, might you not also believe that its flesh really does not rot? We generally do, even now, take our facts on authority, trusting that somebody, somewhere, has observed them or performed the relevant experiments and found them to be true. In fact, things can get all the more convincing when we try the experiments ourselves. I described last week how the rapid “growth” of metals in certain solutions seemed to confirm the theory that they also grew, albeit much more slowly, underground. Or take Jan-Baptiste van Helmont, who in the early seventeenth century reported that, having placed some wheat and a sweaty shirt in a barrel, lo and behold, a few days later there appeared some mice. Spontaneous generation confirmed! (He also, somehow, found that small scorpions spontaneously generated from placing basil under a brick in the sun.) In fact, the persistence of spontaneous generation as a theory should give us pause - although it was tested from the seventeenth century onwards, it was only finally completely debunked by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s.

How could the authority of the ancients be so potent for so long? Well, consider the context. Today, in a world of skyscrapers, indoor plumbing, and the widespread use of horse-less metal chariots, we rarely think that the ancients were in any way more advanced than us. We would, automatically, question them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, in a world of wooden houses, dirt floors, and carts, then the still-standing achievements of the ancients must have been mind-blowing: centuries-old pyramids, aqueducts, amphitheatres, and arenas, not to mention the written accounts of technologies long lost. Archimedes had allegedly set fire to Roman ships at the siege of Syracuse in the 3rd century BCE, using only mirrors focusing the sun’s beams. Archytas had apparently made a flying pigeon out of wood, and Daedalus had achieved human flight. Perhaps Vulcan’s legendary army of iron men might have been real automata.

The writings of the ancients were thus, to the scholar of the sixteenth century, a potential goldmine of technologies to be rediscovered. And they were a time when inventors had apparently received the highest social status imaginable: that of a god. The writer Polydore Vergil, in 1499, traced the origins of the ancient gods and goddesses to prehistoric inventors: thus Ceres was probably just the person who had invented agriculture, Pallas weaving, and Neptune navigation. As the sixteenth-century mathematician Robert Recorde put it, the ancient world had been a “golden age”. His own time, by contrast, was “this iron world now ungrateful in rage”. He and his fellow innovators were justifiably jealous (though as Christians they did not go so far as to argue for bringing back the deification).

Thus, given the context of long-lost technologies, and the pining after a golden age in which inventors had been lauded and rewarded, it is unsurprising that when the ancient sources said something, the default position would have been to trust them. We have seen that the inventors and scientists of the sixteenth century were generally led by experimentation and observation, and indeed they often pointed out any minor errors committed by the ancients - even Aristotle wasn’t perfect. But it would take a systematic testing of all existing knowledge, let alone new discoveries, to really break free of the ancient theories. That would take time, effort, and above all organisation.

More on that another time.