In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scientific Revolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Papers
  • Journals
  • Historiography of Revolutions in Science
  • Social Issues
  • Women and Gender
  • Places of Study and Activity
  • Experiment
  • Books and Print Culture
  • Philosophical Foundations
  • Religion
  • Literature and the Arts
  • Beyond Europe

Renaissance and Reformation Scientific Revolution
Sheila J. Rabin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0006


The developments in science during the 16th and 17th centuries have traditionally been called the “Scientific Revolution.” The era that began with Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473–d. 1543) and ended with Isaac Newton (b. 1642–d. 1727) saw not only a change from an earth-centered to a sun-centered cosmos and a resultant mechanical universe but also advances in experimental method and changes in the life sciences. The traditional formulation saw all this as the beginnings of modern science. Yet not all was new. As scholars looked more deeply, many found that the science of the previous period looked more sophisticated, and that of the later period seemed less modern than had been acknowledged. The line of demarcation between “medieval” and “modern” science blurred. The study of nature, even among the most famous thinkers of the era, such as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, included subjects that today would be considered unscientific: astrology, alchemy, and magic. Though experiments were carried out, there was no professional class of scientists; most practitioners were dilettantes. Many historians are now reluctant to use the phrase “scientific revolution” when referring to this period in science. Nonetheless, important changes did occur in the physical and life sciences even if no total rupture occurred between the older and newer approaches. This entry lists works by subject and does not include monographs on specific individuals or their works, which will appear in separate entries.

General Overviews

The works of Burtt 2003 and Butterfield 1997 were instrumental in establishing the idea of the scientific revolution as a major break from the past. Duhem 1985 shows the creativity and influence of medieval thinkers and practitioners. Westfall 1971 is a traditional overview emphasizing mechanization and mathematics. Recent scholars tend to either reject the idea of an early modern revolution in science or modify it, in works such as Dear 2009 and Shapin 1996, or emphasize the developments as nonlinear and complex, such as Gal and Chen-Morris 2013.

  • Burtt, Edwin Arthur. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. 2d rev. ed. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003.

    Sees scientific revolution as a major philosophical shift in Western intellectual tradition from medieval to modern caused by appeal to mathematical elegance of Neoplatonic ideals. Originally published in 1932.

  • Butterfield, Herbert. The Origins of Modern Science. Rev. ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

    From Butterfield’s Cambridge lectures in 1948. Popularized the view of the scientific revolution as the beginning of modernity brought about by specific forward-looking individuals. Originally published in 1957.

  • Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500–1700. 2d ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-08958-8

    For general audiences. Covers material chronologically from 1500 to 1800. Greater emphasis on mathematics and physical sciences over life sciences and medicine. Good for classroom use. Originally published in 2001.

  • Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    Part of Cambridge History of Science series for general audiences; intellectual history. Combines the idea of the progress of the exact sciences with the occult disciplines of the period.

  • Duhem, Pierre. Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and the Plurality of Worlds. Edited and translated by Roger Ariew. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Abridgement of author’s Le système du monde: Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic, 10 vols. (Paris: A. Hermann, 1913–1959). Looks at medieval thinkers and shows that their cosmological thinking was often more sophisticated than given credit for. Suggests that the scientific revolution was not so revolutionary.

  • Gal, Ofer, and Raz Chen-Morris. Baroque Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    Shows developments by major players in optics and optical instruments and the mathematization of the physical sciences in the 17th century as paradoxes and results of leaps of the imagination.

  • Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226750224.001.0001

    For general audiences. Shapin declares, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” Focuses mostly on England and social history; useful bibliographical essay.

  • Westfall, Richard S. The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics. New York: Wiley, 1971.

    Cambridge History of Science Series for general audiences. Sees 17th century science as a resolution of the conflict between mathematical principles of order and mechanical philosophy. Includes development of chemistry and life sciences as well as physics and astronomy. Reprinted 1977.

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