German Culture and Society 1600 – 1750

At the beginning of the 17th century, theology, law, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and music were favored subjects of interest.  An exemplary German astronomer of this period was Johann Kepler. It was Kepler who, following the writings of Giordano Bruno, coined the phrase The Music of the Spheres. The works of the Polish astronomer Coperinicus (1473-1543) on the motion of the planets, of the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo (1564-1642) and his telescopic observations of the moon and of the planet Jupiter and the discovery of its moon, and of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe were of great but controversial and risky influence. One could still get imprisoned, tortured or put to death for heresies if one was captured in the wrong city or by the different factions of the competing court and church views of orthodoxy.  In 1600 the Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the Campo Fiori in Rome and his ashes scattered in the Tiber River because his defense of Copernican heliocentric system of the solar system and philosophy made him question the dogma of the Catholic Church.  Bruno was singled out for trial and execution by the Inquisition because he was a member of the clergy, a Dominican friar. Bruno was a fascinating figure, who wrote tracts that claimed special techniques and powers of memorization, but his personality was strong and probably quite arrogant and earned him more enemies than friends.

German intellectual life was integrated into the needs of the court, the princes and the competing interests of differences between the Catholic Church, which still held strong influence in Bavaria and Southern Germany, and the Lutheran areas where the local princes variously supported research into mathematics, medicine, science and military arts. In the aftermath of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) Prussia was reorganized along the lines of this pre-war configurations of pincipalities and aristocratic privileges of the landed elite.  The Prussian states were also pressured and aware of the continuing struggles for share and profit in the Baltic trade that led to episodic wars through the later 17th century, and waves of popular religious movements, of Anabaptists in Bavaria and the continued positioning for power and compromise between Lutheran based towns and principalities and the more Catholic region of Bavaria.

This was also a period in which German intellectual life benefited and shared in the accomplishments of mathematics, science and technology.  Copernicus, the great Polish astronomer influenced the later work of Johann Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler earned fame for his observations in 1604 of a bright star’s appearance, or what is now known as Kepler’s Super Nova (SN 1604).  It was a unique event as it may be the only known instance of a Super Nova event that was visible to the naked eye without use of a telescope.

Figure 1 Kepler’s Super Nova (SN 1604)

He left Germany for a period to work in Prague up until 1612 when he moved back to Linz in Austria, where he developed further the idea eliptical orbits of the planets in the solar system and the Third Law of Planetary Motion. He supported Tycho Brahe’s theories and astronomy where he worked in Prague as the Imperial Mathematician for Emperor Rudolf II.  The Cartesian system of thought allowed for a rational system that had immediate ramifications for measurements and military uses, including the eventual development of calculus (Hall 1961).   Galileo’s report on his telescopic observations, led to a series of pamphlets and a correspondence with the Emperor Rudolph II, who asked Kepler to eamine Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger in a pamphlet, entitled A Discussion with the Sidereal Messenger (Gailei and Kepler 1610).

Figure 2 Galileo’s drawing of his observations of mountains on the Lunar surface (circa 1610) Source:  Project Gutenberg

In 1611 Kepler wrote his report of his review of Galileo’s observations.  He wrote them in Augsburg, Germany, the site of the important Augsburg Confession of 1530, and the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which guaranteed the rights of minority religious, whether Protestant or Catholic of free practice of religion and freedom from persecution.  The Augsburg Confession is one of the essential documents of Lutheran faith for it details and compares Lutheran practice and belief against that of Catholic orthodoxy.

Kepler confirms the value of Galileo’s telescopic observations and methods for it confirms the physical nature of the moon, its distance, and the magnitude of observable stars that are now visible in a quantity of ten to twenty times what had been estimated in the older Ptolemaic system. Kepler also elaborates on the importance of Galileo’s observations of moons that circulate Jupiter and Saturn. But Kepler also goes a step further and diagrams out the beginnings of proofs of why the sun and the earth must be placed as the center of the known solar system. He leaves us with this conclusion of the effect of Galileo’s method of telescopic observation:

You see then, studious reader, how the subtle mind of Galileo, in my opinion the first philosopher of the day, uses this telescope of ours like a sort of ladder, scales the furthest and loftiest walls of the visible world, surveys all things with his own eyes, and, from the position he has gained, darts the glances of his most acute intellect upon these petty abodes of ours—the planetary spheres I mean,—and compares with keenest reasoning the distant with the near, the lofty with the deep.

Figure 3 Augsburg in 1550

By 1612 conditions in Prague were changing and he moved his family to Linz in Germany. These were difficult times for a self-confessed Calvinist Protestant and Kepler’s own mother was accused of witchcraft imprisoned for 14 months at the outbreak of the Thirty Years War.  The Thirty Years War brought the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire and its impact on Prussia and Central Europe was profound.  For some the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 marked a transition to a period of relative peace that lasted more or less until the Napoleonic Wars of 1806 (Carsten 1961).  Others cite to a much more contentious period in which the Treaty of Westphalia was a failure as numerous conflicts ensued.  An anthology of historical writing on this period illustrates a number of the prevalent methodological and theoretical approaches (Neugebauer, Wolfgang; Büsch, Otto 2017).

Impact of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

Contemporary accounts of the crisis and aftermath of the Thirty Years War are found in the divergent approaches of Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen’s satirical novel, Simplicissimus and of a political philosophy tract by Pufendorf.  Johann Joachim Becher, a scientist whose phlogiston theory of combustion would be discredited, but who wrote A Political Discourse on the real Causes of the Rise and Decline of Towns,Countries and States, (1668) that analyzed the comparative advantage of the United Provinces of Netherlands in securing a position in the Baltic and North Atlantic trade, a position that was superior to the Prussian states. Samuel Von Pufendorf’ of Leiden was a  conservative dissident who criticized the Holy Roman Empire but also the taxing powers of the aristocratic state. His writings included An Introduction to the History of the Principal Kingdoms and States of Europe (1695).  By comparison Germany in the 1660s suffered from deflation in prices and depopulation forced by desperate postwar conditions. A shortage of peasants and farmworkers also impoverished some of the nobility who relied on their produce and extraction of profit from their production (Carsten 1961, 435).  During the 1660s price deflation created a conflict between the nobility and the religious foundations and weakened land prices enabled a slightly stronger position for the better-off Bavarian peasants who increased their landholdings (Carsten 1961, 436).  While in Saxony the peasants appear to have been better off, in Brandenburg the demesnes or holdings of the nobility increased.  However, in Bohemia and Moravia, where the first conflicts of the Thirty Years War broke out the nobility remained in power and held oppressive power although some historians conclude the position of the peasantry improved from the general problem of depopulation (Carsten 1961, 437).

Academies of Art and Science:  Leibniz, Wolf and Euler

In 1700 the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (Königlich-Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften) was established in Berlin, Germany, four years after the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste). The importance of these academies may be seen in their corollary role in supporting and linking the universities with the upper class emphasis on the mixture of culture and political sponsorship or patronage. Entry and membership into the academies was exclusive and required political connections with the ruling aristocrats.  In the second half of the 18th century the academies took on practical roles and members were used in conducting surveys of mines, canals and other projects (Johns 2012).

Gottfried  Leibniz, the co-inventer of modern calculus,  represents the late 17th century method of mathematics as an exclusive field of study in relative isolation, then his later career shows the role and rise in importance of the academy, where he had been instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Brandenburg Society of Sciences in Berlin in 1701 as well as the Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences,  The mathematician Leonard Euler (1707-1783) who is credited with the development of calculus and its notation system, including the use of the Greek letter Ʃ Sigma for summations, shows the Enlightenment’s mid-to-late 18th century integration of academies, and court patronage and sponsorship that was more or less independent of the modern university. As a young man of 20, Euler visited St. Petersburg, Russia and the Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences founded by Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) with the advice of the German mathematician Christian Wolf, who also met and advised the young Euler (Calinger 2015, 42). For Christian Wolf it was preferred to base oneself within the University of Halle where he was better protected from controversy and criticism from conservative religious orthodoxy, and the Royal Brandenburg Society of Sciences appears to have been less secure and appealing.  In 1723 he incurred the wrath of the authorities and was forced into exile by Frederick William I who threatened him with hanging.  Wolf immediately fled to the University of Marburg where he was given safety  (Calinger 2015, 43).  Euler however remained as a scholar at the academy in St. Petersburg until 1741 when left during political turmoil for the Academy in Berlin. In old age he returned to St. Petersburg where he worked until his death.


Calinger, Ronald S. 2015. Leonhard Euler. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Carsten, F.L. 1961. The Empire after the Thirty Years War. Vol. V, in The New Cambridge Modern History: The Ascendancy of France 1648-88, edited by F.L. Carsten, 430-467. London: Cambridge University Press.

Gailei, Galileo, and Johann Kepler. 1610. The Sidereal Messenger. Online edition by Project Gutenberg. Translated by Edward Staffa Carlos. Florence.

Hall, A.R. 1961. The Scientific Method. Vol. V, in The New Cambridge Modern History: The Ascendancy of France 1648-88, edited by F.L. Carsten, 41-71. Cambridge University Press.

Johns, Karl. 2012. “Alexander Conze, On the origin of the visual arts, lecture held on July 30, 1896 in the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences.” Journal of Art Historiography 7: 1-11. Accessed 5 3, 2017.

Neugebauer, Wolfgang; Büsch, Otto. 2017. Moderne Preussische Geschichte 1648 – 1947 : Eine Anthologie. Berlin: De Gruyter.