Mary Thomas Crane, Losing touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in Sixteenth-Century England

Mary Thomas Crane, Losing touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in Sixteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2014) 248 pp. Hb, EPUB, Mobi, PDF $49.95. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1531-4

Losing touch with Nature focuses on the reception of new scientific views in sixteenth-century England, a changing period during which the Aristotelian, Galenic, and Ptolemaic systems were both explained and regarded as ancient and intuitive approaches. Crane argues that by detaching ourselves from the worldview of modern science, it is possible to understand the intuitive approach to science represented by Aristotelian philosophy. In the introduction, she notes that loss of certainty and faith during this period led to the practice of direct empirical observation.

In Chapter Two Crane discusses the basis of the treatises on ideas from antiquity and the Middle Ages, but highlights the failure of this Aristotelian view adequately to explain key facts. Crane bases her discussion on the observation of new phenomena such as the supernova of 1572 and the emergence of the Copernican system. She explains that references to “Aristotle” as a term synonymous with understanding the natural world were nebulous and found in different sciences. Thus, scientists used esoteric theories to explain new ideas like magnetism. In medicine, Crane notes that the Galenic view diagnosed illnesses based on the fluids in the body; in contagious diseases, however, the causes were not easily observable. Crane uses the examples of Shakelton and Harvey to show how different people responded to the new ideas. The priest Francis Shakelton regarded the scientific discoveries as a symptom of the world growing old; he also believed it was wrong to search into the secrets of God. Gabriel Harvey compared the new scientific ideas with the old ones, but in his discussion he was more concerned about with rhetoric rather than explanation. Harvey also predicted the end of the world, explaining earthquakes both as a natural phenomenon and as a warning from God.

Chapter Three addresses views of science during the sixteenth century. Writers thought they needed signs and tokens in order to have access to nature. For instance, John Rastell thought facts that could not be observed could not be reliable, and Thomas Elyot also argued that what was visible in the body gave information about diseases, although for Elyot, it was essential to interpret that information. Robert Recorde also argued that the human body’s urine leaves traces that can be observed. For Thomas Digges, “meteorological events can predict changes in human affairs” (63), although he separated prognostication from personal experience. Crane explains that between 1560 and 1571 there was an interest in optics. John Dee thought that there were rays that could give information about secret characteristics of nature, anticipating Galileo’s telescope. William Fulke shared Dee’s ideas, but thought that astrology was not observable, and therefore, not scientific. For Fulke, optics showed that the secrets appeared “to be illusory” (74). Finally, the new star of 1572 changed the idea that stars were stable or that the sky was an illusion. Thomas Digges and Francis Shakelton believed it was a sign from God, although Digges insisted on performing calculations. Later, in 1580-1600, secret practices such as alchemy became more popular. The implication is that this change may have helped to foster what Crane presents as a moment when Aristotelian ideas were replaced by experimental practices.

Chapter Four introduces Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene where he gives a gloomy view of a declining world. Spenser uses the category of weight as an index that reveals truths about the secret aspects of nature, such as, for instance, when a giant questions, “the stability of the universe” (103). Crane argues that in The Faerie Queene, Spenser seeks to interpret the signs nature gives, but insists that astronomical discoveries, pieces of machinery, and magical practices were also regarded as furnishing information. Spenser tried to model this idea of reading natural signs through the process by which the reader interprets the complicated signs in his book. Spenser also believed that signs of temperament explained what was happening inside the body, although these signs sometimes were not clearly legible. He associated the body with the planets, numbers, and symbols, and questioned the reliability of memory. Spenser’s Cantos also discuss nature’s hidden truths. Crane concludes that Spenser emphasizes the need to experiment by highlighting appearances through which the truth about nature is questioned.

In Chapter Five, Crane shows that Shakespeare was aware of forms of value related to mathematics and abstraction by drawing attention to the value of numbers in his sonnets, and identifying the presence of concepts like exponential growth. For Crane, Shakespeare's King Lear presents a world made of different properties related to visibility. For instance, weight which is not observable can be presented by metaphors related to feeling, as in the description of burdens as weighing like pain, making the reader think about the nature of matter. Other questions are related to love, such as where the character of Cordelia sees love as infinitely divisible, although limited, introducing a sense of the void. Finally, Crane studies smell in King Lear as an alternative to sight or touch, less personal, and showing features of matter as well.

The following chapter on matter and power (Chapter Six) compares the work of Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare. Crane shows how Marlowe’s Tamburlaine explores a world that is new and exposed to human ambitions. Marlowe also rejected the realm of the fixed stars, and attacked them. In Shakespeare, Crane uses Anthony and Cleopatra to examine opposition between scientific views. The difference between Egypt and Rome expresses this opposition and the tension generated in the changing of ideas. Egypt represents “earth” and the natural world, and Rome appears as a force that ignores the natural world and attempts to control it. Thus, Egypt exemplifies Aristotelian naturalism, whereas Rome portrays the new science as a project of conquest. Crane argues that this was because Copernicus’s ideas were known in England, but were not completely accepted. Crane shows that Shakespeare does not offer a final defintive explanation, but attempts to register the process of passing from one idea to the other.

In the final chapter, “What about Bacon?” Crane notes that the inductive and empirical approach proposed by Bacon was rather controversial. He put forward an optimistic approach to social advance by propounding a new method that would give access to truth. However, Bacon ignored previous ideas and was opposed to the use of optical instruments. In addition, although he claimed to propose an inductive method, his ideas seem more like the product of intuition. Nevertheless, Crane recognizes that Bacon was an important influence in advancing scientific methodology.

Crane’s work is not without merit. It is a carefully researched book that provides an original overview. One of Crane’s great strengths is the clarity of her explanations of philosophical, scientific, and literary meanings. For instance, she makes a very good argument explaining why Shakespeare uses metaphors to explain concepts related to the void and numbers. Crane’s synchronic approach to multiple contexts related to science and literature resonates with current interdisciplinary views. She discusses ideas by exploring different texts in the sixteenth century, giving an overview of science in England, and showing how literature was affected by the flow of new ideas. Crane’s approach to her material is comprehensive and represents an important resource for research. However, to achieve this the amount of annotation has become overwhelming in a way which interrupts the flow of reading. Considering that the focus of Crane’s work is on cognitive science and literature, one expects greater analysis of the concepts of mental perception and intuition as means of explaining scientific approaches during this time. Nevertheless, Crane’s account of literature and science during the sixteenth century constitutes a useful and carefully realized piece of interdisciplinary research that will inspire future analysis, as well as representing a thoughtful and brilliant work of analysis in its own right.

Angela P. Pacheco, Purdue University