10 May 2015


Mary Thomas Crane. Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

This book surprised. From the title I was expecting an academic study of the way in which Elizabethan literature was influenced by new scientific discoveries; perhaps of passing interest for those, like me, with a special interest in the scientific revolution, but hardly earthshattering.
But what Mary Thomas Crane presents is something much more significant and with a relevance far beyond its apparent niche.

For me, Losing Touch with Nature didn’t just hold personal interest, but also some satisfaction. In our last book (The Forbidden Universe) Lynn Picknett and I suggested that veiled references to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory in Hamlet – references more readily acknowledged by astronomers, such as the American Peter Usher, than by literary historians – represent more than just Shakespeare playing an intellectual game, but are fundamental to the play’s central themes. We proposed that they reflected the deeply disturbing uncertainty into which Copernicus’ theory had plunged natural philosophers, an uncertainty mirrored in Hamlet’s doubts and vacillation.

But if Mary Thomas Crane is right it’s much bigger than that; such concerns weren’t confined to Shakespeare or the controversy over heliocentricity. From a solidly academic position, Crane, Professor of English at Boston College, argues that many literary and dramatic works of the period intentionally reflected the ‘mingled elation and horror’ generated by a flood of discoveries and theories that ‘seemed to threaten the stability and intelligibility of the universe.’ In her own words, her book is concerned with ‘the period of ferment, confusion, and angst between around 1530 and 1610 in England, when the settled Aristotelian, Galenic, and Ptolemaic accounts of how the universe worked began to fall apart and the new ideas that would replace them were still inchoate and in flux.’

What makes her study really important, and gives it its far wider relevance, is that, in order to show just how that ‘ferment, confusion and angst’ influenced the literature of the period, she first has to establish that it was there – a vital aspect of the cultural and social impact of the scientific revolution that, she argues, has been entirely missed not just by literary historians but by historians in general

Consequently, just over half the book is devoted to the ‘new science’ and reactions to it, exploring the impact of those unsettling new ideas and the ways in which different groups within English society tried to deal with them. 

Much of Crane’s study focusses on the circle centred on John Dee and what she describes as the 'educated Londoners’ who were familiar with its members’ work, a group that included important writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe.

Crane first challenges the oft-repeated assertion that, at the beginning of the period in question, science (or natural philosophy as it was then known) was based on Aristotle’s theories simply because he was regarded as the unquestionable authority on all things natural. Rather, she argues, it was because Aristotle’s theories made sense from the perspective of everyday experience and observation. But then came a series of discoveries that didn’t fit into that framework: ‘the intuitive certainty of Aristotelian natural philosophy was being rendered uncertain.’

It wasn’t just Copernicus’ heliocentric theory; improved astronomical observations were undermining other core elements of the old Ptolemaic system. A key event was a supernova that appeared in the heavens in 1572: new methods of observation (by the Dee circle) established the ‘shocking fact’ that it was in the realm of the fixed stars (and not, as initially assumed, between the Earth and the Moon), a region that theory said was eternal and unchanging. The same challenge was presented by growing acceptance of the reality of the precession of the equinoxes.

Then there were new mathematical ideas due to the arrival of the Hindu-Arabic number system, which introduced the concept of zero, along with other radical notions. The theory of atomism was on the rise. In medicine, new discoveries were undermining the traditional Galenic view (itself derived from Aristotle) that all maladies were explicable in terms of the four humours.

One consequence of all this was the loss of the sense of an intuitive connection to the natural world (hence the book’s title), and it was this that was reflected in the literature of the time.

Unlike today, these challenges were not taken as merely showing that traditional theories were incomplete and needed revision or extension. They were seen rather as showing that the established order was changing – Aristotle’s laws had been right up to then, but the universe itself was being re-ordered, or thrown into chaos. It might even presage the end of the world. Therefore understanding what was behind these new phenomena was vital.

The uncomfortable fact was gradually admitted that not everything about natural phenomena lay on the surface: hidden laws and forces were also at work. Thinkers – such as Dee and his circle – tried to find way to ‘bridge the increasing split between the manifest evidence provided by the world and the things that could not be explained in terms of that evidence.’

One approach was the use of experiment to probe the hidden secrets of nature, an approach that paved the way for the modern scientific method. Another – which also encouraged experiment – was to turn to metaphysical and occult traditions that claimed to have identified those hidden principles: ‘This tradition focused on the “secrets” of nature and found different ways to establish some body of knowledge or practice as providing access to those secrets: Platonism, alchemy, Hermeticism, Paracelsanism, Cabala, Geometry and optics were also threads in this tradition, which held that the universe was only intelligible to those who were adept in some specific practice.’ Early science and the occult therefore sprang from the same concerns, and were much closer than science historians would have us believe. (Crane prefers the term ‘secrets traditions’ rather than ‘occult’ to avoid confusion with the modern usage of the latter.)

Having established her ground, Crane then shows how these themes and concerns were incorporated into the period’s literature.

There’s a chapter on The Faerie Queen, demonstrating that Copernican astronomy and new theories of matter were central themes of Spenser’s epic. Crane then passes on to Shakespeare, concentrating on King Lear and the sonnets. Of the former she writes, ‘The dark universe of King Lear is based at least in part on new concepts of nothingness, arising from the introduction of zero and also from the idea that matter is composed of atoms separated by void space, the fabric of the universe literally riddled with nothingness.’ It is, after all, a play in which the plot literally turns on different understandings of the word ‘Nothing.’ Similarly, the sonnets ‘reflect the promise and danger of a newly abstract mathematics.’

Another chapter is devoted to showing how the new science was associated with social and political issues - ‘the projection of power and colonial domination in terms of changing ideas about the cosmos and the elements’ – using as examples Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.


Surprisingly – and for me ironically - Crane doesn’t, however, accept the Copernican allusions in Hamlet, which she dismisses in a single sentence and a brief note, on the grounds that there are no ‘unambiguous and direct references to the heliocentric model of the universe’ in the play. True, but, as she herself writes, ‘If we’re going to look for signs of the new science in Shakespeare’s plays, we should not expect to see them dramatized explicitly.’

On her own argument, Shakespeare must have been aware of the Copernican controversy, as she includes him among the ‘educated Londoners’ who were interested in the work of Dee’s protégé Thomas Digges, England’s first champion of heliocentricity. The Bard knew Digges personally – Digges’ son even worked at the Globe – and there’s a very specific allusion to his cosmology in one of Hamlet’s speeches. Crane argues that Shakespeare used kingship as a metaphor for the scientific and mathematical theories in Lear, which is exactly what Lynn and I suggested that he did, this time for the astronomical ideas, in Hamlet.

But it hardly matters, since Crane firmly establishes that such concerns were widespread among the intelligentsia and literati of the period.

Ironically, the book’s main point – the literary analysis to demonstrate the presence of these themes in poems and plays – isn’t what makes Losing Touch with Nature important. The truly ground-breaking material is in the foundation that Crane lays for that analysis. She overturns conventional understanding of what the new science meant to those alive at the time, and adds a whole new dimension to the history of the scientific revolution in England.

She also creates a new direction for future research. It would be fascinating, for example, to see if her interpretation, both of the reaction to the new science and its reflection in literature, applied elsewhere in early modern Europe.

Losing Touch with Nature is a stimulating read. Crane gives clear explanations of complex philosophical and scientific subjects – particularly those which are unfamiliar to the modern mind - and sets out her argument lucidly. The view she advances is genuinely ground-breaking, providing a new perspective on an important period of history. Her book deserves a wider readership, both within academia and more generally, than just among literary historians. 
  • Clive Prince.

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