Contestations of Religion and Natural History in the Atlantic World (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2013 seminar led by Nicholas Canny.

This seminar proceeded from the assumption that the writing of natural history is as old as humanity itself. All peoples, in all times, have had to explain their own origins both as human beings and upholders of civil order, and the origins and diversity of plants and animals that were available to them but not necessarily to other peoples. The so-called “discovery” of the new world proved profoundly challenging for traditional European ways of thinking. It revealed the existence of diverse peoples, civilizations, and commodities for which European intellectual and religious systems had made no previous provision. This seminar commenced with the explanations offered by Spanish scientists and natural historians for these unexpected discoveries. It then considered how Protestant authors—especially those from countries like England and France that were usually politically opposed to Spain—revisited and sought fresh explanations for the same questions and phenomena that had been resolved by the Spanish authors, if only to challenge their conclusions from a different religious perspective. The seminar was devoted particularly to natural history texts produced by English and French authors and ranged from the sixteenth through the early eighteenth centuries.

Director: Nicholas Canny is Professor Emeritus of History at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Past President of the Royal Irish Academy, he currently serves on the European Research Council. Author of many books, his most recent is Making Ireland British, 1580–1650 (2001). He has co-edited (with Philip Morgan) The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850 (2011). His current work compares English and French writing on the natural history of the Atlantic World, 1550–1720.