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  • Before Copernicus: The Cultures and Contexts of Scientific Learning in the Fifteenth Century ed. by Rivka Feldhay and F. Jamil Ragep
  • Matthew Stanley
Before Copernicus: The Cultures and Contexts of Scientific Learning in the Fifteenth Century. Edited by rivka feldhay and f. jamil ragep. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017. 344 pp. $120.00 (hardcover); $39.95 (paper); $39.95 (ebook).

Once your name is on a revolution, you become special—uniquely worthy of attention, while your predecessors fade in importance. This has been the case for Copernicus for a long time. While historians of science have certainly tried to understand and explain his context for the last half-century or so, Before Copernicus represents a new, singular attempt to solve the "Copernicus problem" by focusing completely on the era before him—fifteenth century astronomy and how it was formed.

This book is an attempt to reject efforts to find a single explanation for Copernicus, instead assembling a methodologically diverse group of [End Page 645] scholars to talk about him in a multicultural and multidisciplinary way. The introduction by Feldhay and Ragep provides an excellent review of the Copernicus historiography, against which they explicitly contrast themselves. They take as their point of departure the assumption (based on good evidence) that Copernicus was originally only interested in reforming the geocentric system of astronomy. And to do that, heliocentrism was not a necessary step. He chose to use that solution. Why did he do so? They do not accept "genius" as an answer. Rather, they contend that historians should think of knowledge in a dynamic way, as something that accumulates in communities and around problems. In particular, they say, there is increase in production of knowledge wherever there are boundaries crossed (language, discipline, or culture). In a highly unusual and refreshing move, they lay out all the historical assumptions and guideposts they are working with, and the conclusions they draw from them. The most important assumption is that they take the similarities between Copernican and Islamic hay'a astronomy seriously, and demand explanations for them.

The book concludes that the Copernican system came from what the editors call multiple transformations along multiple paths—most importantly of the practices of Ptolemaic astronomy and of the social and epistemic status of astronomy. The eight chapters are divided into three categories: fifteenth century European social and political contexts, fifteenth century European intellectual and scientific contexts, and the multicultural background to the Copernican revolution.

The individual authors try to establish what it was like to be a scholar of astronomy in that era, particularly in the specific locales where Copernicus would be learning and working. The core question that all the chapters touch on is: which Islamic astronomy texts likely laid the foundations for the Copernican system, and how did the ideas and practices in those texts arrive in Latin Europe?

A crucial part of this puzzle is that, if Copernicus and his predecessors were indeed indebted to these Islamic astronomers, why did they never say so? None of those figures or texts were explicitly named by contemporary European astronomers. Nancy Bisaha's chapter is extremely helpful for making sense of this. She explains how contemporary European ideas about their own identity and their relationship with Ottoman civilization made it eminently reasonable that Islamic astronomy was brought to Italy by people either who did not know its origins or who deliberately obscured it out of social discomfort. As ideas traveled west they were changed or cloaked, consciously or unconsciously. [End Page 646]

Chapters by Edith Dudley Sylla and Jamil Ragep make detailed cases for a technical genealogy between Islamic astronomy and the Copernican system, presenting the most concentrated and focused arguments available on this issue. Perhaps the most valuable chapter is the one written by Raz Chen-Morris and Rivka Feldhay on an essential epistemic foundation for Copernicus—the idea that astronomical observations do not necessarily speak for themselves, but should be interpreted according to the conditions of the observer.

This volume's significance for world history is best exemplified by essays such as Sally Ragep's careful exploration of exactly what astronomy looked like in the fifteenth century Islamic world. These...


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