Chapter 15 A New Worldview in Europe, 1500-1750

In the spring of 1633, a frail, elderly man was ordered to appear before the Inquisitors General in Rome. So ill that he had to be carried in on a cot, Galileo Galilei answered the summons to defend himself against charges of heresy. It was not his first encounter with the Inquisitors. In 1616, they had ordered him to "forsake the opinion . . . that the sun is the center of the sphere and immovable, and that the earth moves." Galileo had accepted the order, but protested: "I do not . . . believe that . . . God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use. . . . He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds."

            Now, sixteen years later, Galileo had published a book that again dealt with Nicolas Copernicusís theory that the earth moved around the sun. This time, the Inquisitors convicted Galileo of heresy. Under threat of torture and death at the stake, on June 22, 1633, Galileo publicly admitted the error of his views. Everyone in Europe knew that he did so only to save his life. The story soon spread that as the old man rose from his knees before the Inquisition, he muttered, "yet the earth does move!" Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest, but the church could not stop the new ideas. A new world view had begun to unfold that would shake the foundations of Europeís conception of reality.


From the mid-14th century to the 18th century, Europeans confronted a rapidly and almost constantly changing social, cultural, and political environment. Two great movements, the Renaissance and the Reformation, challenged the old assumptions of the Middle Ages about the nature of the universe and humanity. As Europeans began to question long-cherished beliefs, a new Age of Discovery dawned. With new technology and a renewed interest in economic expansion, Europeans began to explore territories beyond their borders. At the same time, philosophers and scholars began to investigate the nature of the universe itself, both in the heavens and in the natural world around them. With the old certainties and authority of the church called into question, Europeans looked for new systems of authority on which they might rebuild their sense of purpose, identity, and security in an ever-changing world.