University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, October 9th 2009
Speaker: Thomas Mayer, Department of History, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Augustana College-Rock Island, Ill.
Subject: Trying Galileo
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Galileo did himself in. True, he had help, whether from Paul V and Urban VIII, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Congregation of the Index or even the Inquisition, but his fate was still largely his own fault. This talk focuses on his two trials before the Roman Inquisition, first in 1615–16 and again in 1632–33, the second leading to his condemnation for violating an order given in 1616 to abandon the belief that the sun was the center of the universe. Unlike most previous approaches, mine does not assume that the outcome was inevitable. Nor does it assume that philosophical, scientific or even theological issues were necessarily determinative. Instead, it takes a legal and political approach beginning from the fact that Galileo arrogantly rejected a legal way out of his second trial. Since both of his investigations contained lots of legal oddities, examining the Inquisition’s procedures (which have almost been ignored until very recently) leads to a much different picture than the still dominant view that Galileo was a victim of intolerance and superstition. Unfortunately, the Vatican’s recent proposal to reopen the case (including yet another publication of its acts) rests on at least two fundamental misunderstandings of Inquisition procedure: the fact that three cardinals and the pope did not sign Galileo’s sentence is insignificant. Popes never signed sentences and at least some of the cardinals often did not. Some sentences were signed only by the Inquisition’s commissary. Despite Urban’s missing signature, in both trials the pope’s role turns out to be vital. But equally, in both cases Paul and Urban had to at least bend if not break the rules in order to bring Galileo to book. He gave them both plenty of provocation.

Cosponsored by the Center for Early Modern History.

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