Science and Society in England, 1640-1688

This module explores a breadth of issues that preoccupied the educated elite of seventeenth-century England. We look at religious, political, intellectual, social and economic and intellectual factors affecting the emergence of the ‘new natural philosophy’ in England.

A debated questions in the history of science is whether there was a ‘Scientific Revolution’ in early modern Europe. Mid seventeenth-century England underwent profound change, and makes an ideal test case. The achievements of Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton (“the last magician”) provide intriguing evidence, as do more co-operative ventures such as the founding in 1660 of the Royal Society and the earlier efforts of radical Puritans. Can we connect changes in thinking with the political crises of the English Civil War, The Restoration of the Monarchy, and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688? (We can!) What were the roles of religious conflict and of England’s emergence as a modern capitalist society? (Big!)

The module begins with overviews (helpful for those new to the subject) of the developments we will study. It goes on to consider what we might mean by a revolution in thinking, and examines four leading historical explanations. We turn to the influence of Francis Bacon and his New Atlantis, his vision of a pious scientific utopia. We ask whether he inspired Royalists like William Harvey, Cromwellians like Samuel Hartlib and, later, the moderate Fellows of the Royal Society like Robert Boyle. Recent reassessments of Boyle and Newton as alchemists lead us to ask how new was their “new philosophy” or “new science”. Likewise, although The Royal Society is a prestigious institution today, how did it fare when first founded by Charles II, and did it produce useful knowledge and inventions of the kind foreseen by Bacon?