In February of the year 1616 a group of advisers to the Holy Office met in Rome to consider the Copernican teaching that the Earth moved around a stationary Sun. They concluded that this theory was ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy’, and that it explicitly contradicted many passages of Holy Scripture ‘according to the literal meaning of the words’. For the latter reason the doctrine was declared formally heretical. While it was the name of Copernicus that appeared in the official decree of the Holy Office, and Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543) that was then placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, the chief target of the decree was the brilliant astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). The famous Florentine, who for several years had openly championed the motion of the Earth, was specifically warned at this time against teaching or defending this controversial theory – a theory that was deemed to be at odds with the biblical witnesses. At first Galileo seemed content to comply with the wishes of the ecclesiastical authorities, but eventually, in 1632, he published his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems which, in spite of its dialogue form, set out a relatively unambiguous case for Copernicanism. In the following year Galileo was tried in Rome and convicted of ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’. On 22 June 1633, in a room adjoining the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, he read a humiliating retraction of his views concerning the motion of the Earth. He was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life and his Dialogue was added to the Index, where it stayed until 1835.
The well-known story of Galileo lends a certain credence to the idea that throughout history there has been a perennial struggle between a rational and enlightened scientific world-view on the one hand and the forces of religious oppression on the other. It must be said that, amongst historians of science, the myth of an ongoing conflict between science and religion now finds few, if any, adherents. Nevertheless, on the face of it the Galileo affair does suggest that the victories of the new seventeenth-century science – ‘natural philosophy’ as it was then known – were won only against a determined opposition from those who believed that the literal words of Scripture were the sole authority in scientific matters.