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This introductory chapter provides broad overviews of science, religion, and magic, placing them in historical contexts and establishing some preliminary connections between them. After a brief summary of European society around the year 1400, including the effects of the Black Plague on urbanization and feudalism, the chapter outlines four major themes that run throughout the book: the influence of classical antiquity; the relationship between God and nature; the problem of occult or hidden causes; and the interconnectedness of the premodern world.
During the Renaissance, medical practitioners embraced both magic and astrology in their efforts to heal the sick and wounded. They believed that the planets affected human health in profound but mysterious ways, and physicians routinely cast the horoscopes of their patients as part of their healing regimens. Some went so far as to harness the power of the heavens with astrological magic, crafting talismans to draw down beneficial influences from particular planets. These practices were rooted in ancient beliefs that the human body was the microcosm or “little world” that mirrored the structure of the wider universe, or macrocosm. These same ideas also informed the teachings of the medical reformer Paracelsus (1493-541), who advocated for the inclusion of astrology, alchemy, and magic in the practice of medicine. Rejecting the standard medical education, he advised instead that the physician should wander the world, seeking the hidden secrets implanted in plants and minerals by God. Nature itself was the divine apothecary, offering everything required to heal the sick, and for Paracelsus the discovery of medical properties in natural things was an act of piety and veneration.
When Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) translated the ancient Corpus Hermeticum in 1460 and unlocked the secrets of the mysterious figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, he discovered a wellspring of knowledge that promised to transform humanity’s understanding of both the world and its Creator. He and many others believed that the writings of Hermes conveyed the prisca sapientia, or ancient wisdom, once vouchsafed to Adam in the Garden but then lost after humanity’s fall from divine grace. The philosophical tradition known as hermeticism quickly spread across Renaissance Europe, alongside renewed interest in the mystical Judaic practice of the Kabbalah, another source of wisdom that sought to reveal the hidden traces of God in the universe. These traditions of learned magic inspired the archetypal Renaissance magus, the English philosopher John Dee (1527-608), in his quest for knowledge. He conversed with angels and advised some of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, but like the fictional figure of Faustus, who dabbled in dark arts and damned himself for eternity, Dee had to contend with the distrust and fear of contemporaries who believed that magic was the work of demons.
Historians consider the “Scientific Revolution” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the period in which the foundations of modern scientific practice and methodology first took shape. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), sometimes known today as the creator of the scientific method, inspired the formation of the first scientific societies, including the Royal Society of London and the French Académie Royale des Sciences, and their members made experiment and empiricism central to the study of nature. More recently, however, historians have had to wrestle with an interesting conundrum: some of those long hailed as pioneers of scientific experimentalism, such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727), were also committed alchemists. Their dedication to this mysterious and misunderstood art led some modern biographers to deny or even suppress evidence of their alchemical pursuits. Yet, alchemical ideas were central to how Boyle, Newton, and others understood nature. In fact, Newton’s groundbreaking scientific achievements owe a particular debt to alchemical theories, without which his revolutionary vision of the cosmos would not have existed.
The Enlightenment was the defining cultural and intellectual movement of the eighteenth century. Also known as the Age of Reason, it is generally viewed by historians as the emergence of the modern West. Enlightenment thinkers championed rationality and upheld Newtonian science, with its emphasis on natural laws, as the preeminent description of the natural world. The rise of religious tolerance across Europe, challenges to the cultural authority of organized religion, and the emergence of rational forms of religion such as deism all combined to produce a more secular mindset among the educated classes. Those same individuals also dismissed magic as a delusion of the ignorant and superstitious, but more recent scholarship has challenged the narrative of “disenchantment” in which magical beliefs and practices supposedly disappeared as rationality increased. In fact, occult philosophies and traditions from hermeticism to alchemy had already put their indelible stamp on the development of “scientific” disciplines long before the Enlightenment began. By 1750, the complex relationships between science, religion, and magic had assumed a configuration familiar to many people today.
In the 1630s, two different men proposed new and potentially powerful ways of understanding the natural world. Pierre Gassendi (1592-655) and René Descartes (1596-650) each devised a system that sought to explain all natural phenomena as the result of the movement of matter. Historians now call these the mechanical philosophies of nature, and they represent an important shift in early modern ideas about the world. Gassendi revived the ancient atomism of Epicurus (341–270 BCE) while Descartes envisioned a cosmos filled with swirling vortices of tiny particles, but despite the many differences between their philosophies, both struggled to answer the same question: How can we explain God, the human soul, and life itself in a mechanical universe? This was not a small problem, as many in the seventeenth century worried that reducing all things to the movement of matter could lead to doubt, skepticism, and even outright atheism. Both Gassendi and Descartes found ingenious ways to establish proofs for the presence of God in their philosophies, and also reconciled the very essence of what it means to be human — to them, the immortal soul — with a purely material universe.
Witch hunts raged for almost 300 years across Europe and its colonies, claiming the lives of some 50,000 women, men, and children. At their height, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, magistrates and inquisitors tortured those suspected of witchcraft in desperate attempts to uncover their confederates and prove their fealty to the Devil himself. Many people believed that their friends and neighbors had made wicked pacts with Satan and practiced harmful magic that destroyed crops, sickened livestock, and murdered the innocent. Lurid tales of secret gatherings, where witches worshipped the Devil and ate the flesh of unbaptized infants, combined with widespread economic hardship, famine, and war to produce unprecedented levels of paranoia and anxiety that lasted for generations. Theologians and philosophers accused witches of engaging in sexual intercourse with demons, the ruling classes led brutal purges of rebels and heretics, and practitioners of folk magic — healers, midwives, soothsayers — went from respected members of their communities to suspected witches.
In 1632, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-642) was placed on trial by the Roman Inquisition for daring to claim that the Earth moved. Since then, many people have interpreted this encounter as a battle between science and religion. The story of how Galileo arrived in front of the Inquisition, however, is both more complicated and more interesting than one of simple conflict. When Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-543) suggested that the Earth moved around the Sun in his De revolutionibus of 1543, he launched a debate about more than the structure of the universe. His work called into question the legitimacy of traditional beliefs, and ultimately led Galileo to argue that he, not the theologians of the Catholic Church, had the right to study and interpret the natural world. It was a far more radical position than those taken by other astronomers, like Tycho Brahe (1546-601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-630), who proposed models of the cosmos inspired by religious faith. More than anything, Galileo’s story centers around a single question: Who should have the authority to proclaim the nature of reality?
From the recovery of ancient ritual magic at the height of the Renaissance to the ignominious demise of alchemy at the dawn of the Enlightenment, Mark A. Waddell explores the rich and complex ways that premodern people made sense of their world. He describes a time when witches flew through the dark of night to feast on the flesh of unbaptized infants, magicians conversed with angels or struck pacts with demons, and astrologers cast the horoscopes of royalty. Ground-breaking discoveries changed the way that people understood the universe while, in laboratories and coffee houses, philosophers discussed how to reconcile the scientific method with the veneration of God. This engaging, illustrated new study introduces readers to the vibrant history behind the emergence of the modern world.
The Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey (RACS) is the first large-area survey to be conducted with the full 36-antenna Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope. RACS will provide a shallow model of the ASKAP sky that will aid the calibration of future deep ASKAP surveys. RACS will cover the whole sky visible from the ASKAP site in Western Australia and will cover the full ASKAP band of 700–1800 MHz. The RACS images are generally deeper than the existing NRAO VLA Sky Survey and Sydney University Molonglo Sky Survey radio surveys and have better spatial resolution. All RACS survey products will be public, including radio images (with
15 arcsec resolution) and catalogues of about three million source components with spectral index and polarisation information. In this paper, we present a description of the RACS survey and the first data release of 903 images covering the sky south of declination
made over a 288-MHz band centred at 887.5 MHz.