In her new book Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in Sixteenth-Century England, Boston College English professor Mary Crane explores the Scientific Revolution’s anthropological effects on society, referring to both works of literature and scientific treatises of the day to reconstruct the existential crisis experienced by the people of the 16th century.
The inspiration for this work, coincidentally, came from a revolution within Crane’s own life. Born and raised near Fredericksburg, Va., Crane relocated to the northeast to receive her undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate degrees at Harvard University, where she studied English Renaissance litewrature and culture. “I’ve always been interested in intellectual history, the relationship between literature in the 16th century and how people in the period thought about thinking and reading,” she said.
Crane’s decision to write a book illustrating the relationship between science and society arose from her unwillingness to accept what she was taught in school. “Ever since I was in graduate school, I had been skeptical about what literary scholars taught about the intellectual changes that led to the new science, especially about the characterization of people in the 16th century,” she said, vowing to provide future scholars with a more realistic portrait of the people who comprised Renaissance life.
This eventually led to her first two publications, Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory and Framing Authority: Sayings, Self, and Society in Sixteenth Century England. The topics of cognitive and literary theory are both discussed in Losing Touch with Nature.
“This book is a convergence of insights from cognitive science and linguistics to understand how literature works,” Crane said. “I’m interested in the Scientific Revolution that happened in the 16th and 17th centuries and how that influenced literature, and I’m also interested in the concept of intuitive science.”
Crane puts the societal mentality of the 16th century into perspective. “I ran across the idea proposed by other historians that the people’s view of science inherited from classical antiquity had coincided with ‘intuitive science,’ beliefs on how the world works based on ordinary experiences of the world, similar to a child’s understanding of the world before learning anything,” she said. “Intuitive science was so fundamental and compelling to people that it coincided with ‘official science.’ They later diverged as science became increasingly counter-intuitive. As we gained control over nature, science has become more specialized.”
Crane spent many years researching primary sources in order to reconstruct the progression of scientific recognition accurately, describing the change in social conscience during the Scientific Revolution when scientists began proposing ideas about the universe that were radically different from socially accepted facts. “My book focuses on how people came to terms with the realization that what they had been taught and what they observed about the world wasn’t true,” Crane said. “I looked at popular science of the day, when people were writing trying to explain these things and describe them to people. I looked at literary works and how they reflected people’s anxieties and this period of confusion.”
The people of the 16th century came to accept that they had to be as dynamic as their ever-changing universe, developing tools of observation and measurement and applying a systematic method to replace misinformation with scientific fact. The Scientific Revolution was undoubtedly important in creating modern society, but the stories of the people who lived through this exciting time are often lost in the annals of history or are neglected compared to giant, contemporaneous scientific advances. Crane’s book seeks to enlighten readers with a snapshot of a society that lacked the modern technology and knowledge taken for granted today. “I think it provides a more accurate sense of what came before the Scientific Revolution, how people lived through it, and how it had an important influence on writers,” she said.
Crane currently teaches classes on Shakespeare, Introduction to British Literature and Culture I, and a graduate class on 16th-century writers at the University, eager to share her passion with other interested individuals. “My interest is what ordinary, educated people in the 16th century could understand about changing ideas in the period about the natural world,” she said.
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