The distinguished Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, after writing his own history of the origins of modern science, was moved to write that the Scientific Revolution marked ‘the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality’. Its historical significance was so great, he went on, that it outshone ‘everything since the rise of Christianity’ and reduced the Renaissance and the Reformation ‘to the rank of mere episodes’ [33: viii]. Given the overwhelming importance of science in modern Western culture, it is easy to see what he meant (although some decades on from Butterfield, when science no longer seems quite such an unequivocally ‘good thing’, we might be less enthusiastic about this than he obviously was). But it is also easy to see that when he went on to say that the Scientific Revolution made ‘our customary periodisation of European history … an anachronism and an encumbrance’, he certainly went too far. Historically speaking, Butterfield was clearly in danger of putting the cart before the horse.
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