History of Space Exploration

| |

The moon, for early modern Englishmen , was comfortingly familiar yet achingly distant. Countrymen looked to the moon, “the queen of heaven,” to understand “alterations and changes of humors, times, seasons,” and perturbations of “man’s body, the air, and all other things under her orb.” The moon and its phases helped regulate mundane activities, from the planting of crops to the letting of blood, as well as governed the washing of the tides. [1] Lunar light facilitated nighttime journeys. Lunar features stirred the imagination. From ancient times to the age of the telescope, sky-watchers speculated about the “face in the moon” or the “man in the moon,” and occasionally wondered whether lunar eyes were looking down on them.

The Roman Greek Plutarch (ca. 45–125) had written “of the face appearing in the roundel of the moon,” and his work was available in English by 1603. Plutarch’s moon was most likely inhabited either by creatures “light, active and nimble of body” or by “daemons” or departed souls.[2] The poet Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) wondered, “what if within the moon’s fair shining sphere, what if in every other star unseen, of other worlds he happily should hear?” Rhetorically, for Spenser, the moon was a bridge from the newfound lands of America to the undiscovered world of “faerie land.”[3] The new global geography and the new astronomical science of late Renaissance Europe brought fresh attention to the lunar sphere. Churchmen, philosophers, and creative writers became fascinated with the properties of the populated moon. Their earnest inquiries were sometimes tinged with merriment and scorn, and jokes about “the man in the moon” became standard early modern fare.[4]

English churchmen and virtuosi of the reign of Charles I (1625–1649) drew on ancient and medieval speculations about the plurality of worlds and toyed with the possibility of travel to the moon. With their continental counterparts, they explored notions of space travel and struggled to accommodate imagined extraterrestrial beings to Christian history. Rather than treating these musings in terms of the history of science, as is common among the few scholars who have noted them, my purpose is to locate these texts within the cultural and religious context of Stuart and Revolutionary England.[5] While taking seriously the works of early modern lunar enthusiasts, I have tried to be attentive to their sometimes playful tone.

A series of publications in the late 1630s put the moon and it inhabitants, and the likelihood of traveling to meet them, into the national conversation. The key texts, which were available together at London bookstalls, were John Wilkins, The Discovery of a World in the Moone; or, A Discourse Tending to Prove, That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in That Planet (1638); Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither, by Domingo Gonsales (1638); and Wilkins’s revised and expanded edition of A Discourse Concerning a New World & Another Planet (1640).[6] All were published anonymously, though their authorship rapidly became known.

Wilkins argued that the moon was inhabited, but the nature of its inhabitants remained uncertain. Godwin gave an account of a Spanish adventurer who harnessed migrant birds to take him to the moon. There he found a kind of paradise with peace and plenty, and lunar creatures instinctively inclined toward Christianity. Wilkins’s revised edition took note of Godwin and gave more attention to the possibilities and benefits of space travel.

These works, along with the literary, cosmological, and religious treatises that preceded them, and the disputations, entertainments, and translations that followed, were inspired both by the geographical discoveries of the age of Columbus and by the heliocentric discourse of the Copernican revolution. They were also energized by the soteriological concerns of Christianity, refracted and intensified by the Reformation. They raised important questions about humanity’s location within the universe, and the interplay of science and the imagination with the truths of revealed religion. Had God in his plenitude created one world or many? Was humankind the unique focus of divine attention, or were there creatures on other planets enjoying God’s love and suffering his anger? If there were inhabitants on other worlds, were they, like us, the seed of Adam and participants in original sin, and did they benefit from Christ’s atonement and enjoy the prospect of eternal life? Or did Christ die only for us, leaving any other creatures to a kind of limbo or perdition? Supposing the moon to be inhabited, among a plurality of populated worlds, what kind of society prevailed on that planet, and what could we on earth learn from it? Was there any means to resolve these questions by actually traveling there and back? These were ancient questions, revived in the Middle Ages, but they received new stimulus from the new astronomy, and from recent discoveries with the telescope and the compass.

To these contemporary questions we can add others that emerge from modern scholarship. What was the cultural and religious context of these seventeenth-century writings, and what did they owe to earlier discussions? In what manner or tone did the authors present their positions, and how did readers react to them? How did religious, scientific, and literary voices collide in the fractured worlds of post-Copernican, post-Reformation Europe, and in the contested cultures of early modern England? Who were the participants in these discourses, what other texts had they read, and who was saying what to whom?

The conversation in Stuart England about the inhabited moon was part of a larger European discussion about the mechanics and population of the universe that went back to ancient Greece. It was stimulated by Renaissance voyaging and geography, with frequent comparisons to America, which had been unknown before Columbus, and to the Antipodes, most of which remained undiscovered. It was propelled by the sixteenth-century configuration of the solar system, and by refinements and popularizations of the new astronomy. And it was further shaped by traditions of literary satire, from Lucian to Ariosto, by way of More’s Utopia, that invented worlds or islands that reflected human frailties or follies.

The findings and theories of the new astronomy reinvigorated ancient and medieval notions of the plurality of worlds. Seventeenth-century theorists became increasingly willing to contemplate an infinite and populated universe, assuring their readers that this conjecture was compatible with revealed Christian religion. The acceptance of such beliefs involved rejection of the authority of Aristotle, and rejection, too, of a narrow literalist reading of Holy Scripture.

Pre-Socratic Pythagoreans had put forward the notion that the moon was “terraneous,” a kind of “celestial earth.” Followers of Epicurus, Lucretius, and the ancient Greek atomists imagined the seeds of life spread through innumerable worlds.[7] Despite having been denied by Aristotle and rejected by mainstream theologians, a Christianized variant of the belief in plural worlds reappeared in medieval Europe. The thirteenth-century St. Bonaventure believed that God could have created other worlds, although there was no evidence or revelation that he did so. The doctrine of “the plenitude of God” encouraged fifteenth-century thinkers such as William of Vorilong and Nicholas of Cusa to conceive of life on other planets.[8]

William of Vorilong (1390–1463) imagined a plurality of worlds, all redeemed in principle by the sacrifice of Christ. “If it be inquired whether men exist on that [other] world, and whether they have sinned as Adam sinned, I answer no,” he wrote, “for they would not exist in sin and did not spring from Adam … As to the question whether Christ by dying on this Earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world, I answer that he is able to do this even if the worlds were infinite, but it would not be fitting for him to go unto another world that he must die again.”[9]

Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) likewise posited a boundless universe whose inhabitants owed their origin to God, “who is the centre and circumference of all stellar regions.”[10] John Wilkins read Cusanus as saying that lunar inhabitants, although not “infected with Adam’s sin, yet perhaps they had some of their own, which make them liable to the same misery with us, out of which, perhaps, they were delivered by the same means as we, the death of Christ.”[11]

Post-Copernican advocates of divine plenitude and the plurality of worlds included the renegade Dominicans Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and Tomasso Campanella (1568–1634) and, with some reservations, the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). Bruno’s work, including his account of an imaginary journey to the moon, was absorbed into the Englishman Nicholas Hill’s Philosophia Epicurea, Democritiana, Theophrastica (1601).[12] French intellectuals in the 1630s hedged their bets by arguing that while God’s omnipotence allowed him to create an infinite abundance of creatures, “his immense goodness seems to be restrained in the creation of but one world, and of but one kind.” (In other words, he could have, but he didn’t.) These ideas circulated as part of the international traffic in lunar and celestial cosmology that connected Paris and Padua to Oxford, Cambridge, and London. Belief in the plurality of worlds did not go against faith, these thinkers concluded, and was in “no way dangerous of itself, but only in the consequences the weakness of human wit would draw from it.”[13]

For most of Christian history, the idea of the plurality of worlds was regarded as mistaken, eccentric, or blasphemous. Saints Augustine and Aquinas had developed a localist terrestrial theology, and this was reiterated by the sixteenth-century Lutheran Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560): “God is a citizen of this world with us, custodian and server of this world, ruling the motion of the heavens, guiding the constellations, making this earth fruitful, and indeed watching over us; we do not contrive to have him in another world, and to watch over other men also … Our master Jesus Christ was born, died, and resurrected in this world. Nor does he manifest himself elsewhere, nor elsewhere has he died or resurrected. Therefore it must not be imagined that there are many worlds, because it must not be imagined that Christ died or was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life.”[14]

This was a European debate that cut across confessional divisions, and it did not depend on belief in a Copernican solar system. Protestant reformers were not necessarily enthusiasts for the new astronomy or for the plurality of worlds; nor were early modern Catholics necessarily against it. “Fie upon this infinity or multitude of worlds. There is one and no more,” insisted the French Calvinist theologian Lambert Daneau, whose work appeared in English in 1578 as The Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World. Any talk of “many and sundry worlds” was at best “foolish and childish,” at worst “blasphemous,” Daneau insisted, for Scripture records “the special visible works of God” in “this one world only.”[15] Aristotle’s position, “Non plures mundi sunt,” “There are no more worlds, nor more can be,” was endorsed by the early Stuart author Thomas Heywood: “Manifest it is, that there is but one world.” The idea of the solitary uniqueness of our world was linked to understandings of the immobility of the earth, and both were upheld by cosmological conservatives.[16] The conviction that our world alone was inhabited still had many adherents, but by the middle of the seventeenth century they were generally in retreat.

Several convergent traditions gave shape to Stuart English discussion of the populated moon and planets, only some of which have been noted in the specialist literature. The works of Godwin and Wilkins are well known in histories of science and astronomy, and they are sometimes mentioned in histories of travel.[17] But the religious and ethnographic implications of space exploration are hardly ever mentioned. Although this was the aspect of the lunar encounter that most exercised contemporaries, the linkage of the plurality of worlds to questions of sin and salvation remains terra incognita. Just as religion in history may be too important to be left to historians of the churches, so there may be more to say about the cultural history of the man in the moon than is claimed by historians of astronomy. The history of science was mostly a twentieth-century invention, whereas most of the writers discussed here regarded themselves as participants in the work of religion.[18]

The strand most often commented upon in modern scholarship locates these works from Caroline England within the European history of science, as part of the popularization of the heliocentric astronomical system.[19] They are seen as part of the path to modernity, part of the Scientific Revolution. Early Stuart England, no less than the rest of late Renaissance Europe, took part in the processing, refining, and absorption of the observations and calculations of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler—the canonical figures of the new astronomy. The Roman Catholic condemnation of Copernicanism only drew more attention to its theories, and may have recommended them to Protestant Europe. Galileo’s telescopic discoveries of 1609 had been made available internationally in the Sidereus Nuncius (1610), followed in 1632 by his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Tomasso Campanella’s Apologia Pro Galileo had been published in 1622. Kepler, the mathematician of planetary motion, had died in 1630, but his Somnium on lunar astronomy and lunar voyaging circulated in manuscript and was published in Frankfurt in 1634. The new experimental philosophy of Francis Bacon also made headway among English cognoscenti, with four editions of Sylva Sylvarum between 1627 and 1639, and New Atlantis republished in 1635. Those with a taste for French philosophical novelty could also turn to René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method appeared in 1637, the same year as Claude Mellan’s engravings of Pierre Gassendi’s maps of the moon. Seeking practical benefit as well as philosophical illumination, many Europeans at the time believed that lunar observations could unlock the mystery of longitude.[20]

English readers of the 1630s could also turn to a variety of literary work that featured lunar adventures. They could draw on ancient and modern traditions, satires and speculations, available in recent editions. Francis Hicks’s English translation of Certaine Select Dialogues of Lucian Together with His True History, originally in second-century Greek, was published at Oxford in 1634. It included two accounts of trips to the moon, one involving sailors beyond the Pillars of Hercules who were carried aloft by a whirlwind to the “shining island” of the moon, which they found “to be both inhabited and husbanded.” Another relates the exploits of “the lofty traveler” Menippus, who outdid Icarus in equipping himself with wings and, leaping “directly towards heaven,” was able to look back at the earth from the surface of the moon.[21] Also appearing in 1634 was a new edition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (translated by Sir John Harington), in which the English knight Astolfo is transported to the moon in Elijah’s fiery chariot, and finds there everything lost on earth, including the hero’s wits. John Milton was sufficiently impressed by this passage to cite it in his 1641 pamphlet Of Reformation. A later-seventeenth-century reader would refer to this episode as “one of the most pleasant fooleries in all Ariosto.”[22] Adding to the mix in 1634 and 1635 were new editions of John Donne’s Ignatius His Conclave (originally published in 1611), which imagined Lucifer and the Jesuits establishing “a church in the moon” to “reconcile the lunatic church” with the Church of Rome.[23] Christopher Grienberger (d. 1636), a Jesuit mathematician sympathetic to Galileo, had reportedly already “found out a way of flying,” and an English follower, the instrument maker William Gascoigne, allegedly commenced aviation experiments in 1635.[24] Was it amusing or horrifying to imagine the Jesuits winning the space race?

By 1638, the year of publication of Wilkins and Godwin, a wide range of modern scientific treatises were available in English and in Latin, alongside satires and entertainments about the man in the moon. The same year saw the fifth edition of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621), in which the author, like Godwin and Wilkins a cleric of the Church of England, displayed his evolving currency with the new astronomical literature.[25] It was in that year, too, most likely, that the young John Milton, traveling in Italy, visited the aging Galileo and beheld the plains of night through the Tuscan astronomer’s “optic glass.”[26] The year 1638 could well be considered England’s lunar moment. There was a quickening interest not just in the mechanics and mathematics of planetary motion, but also in what we might call the ethnography or cultural geography of outer space.

The twenty-four-year-old John Wilkins (1614–1672) burst onto the scene that year with a bombshell, arguing vigorously that the idea of a populated moon “doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith.”[27] Wilkins was an Oxford-educated Puritan, a grandson and protégé of the godly John Dod, a young man at odds with the Laudian ascendancy. His publisher, Michael Sparke, was a religious radical who had been punished for his association with the Puritan controversialist William Prynne.[28] Recently ordained in 1638, Wilkins had found employment as private chaplain to Lord Saye and Sele, a Puritan nobleman with transatlantic as well as oppositional political interests. But Wilkins’s Puritanism was determinedly moderate, a precursor of his famed latitudinarism. He would go on to a spectacular career as a philosopher and preacher, thriving under changing regimes as warden of Wadham College, Oxford; master of Trinity College, Cambridge; brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell; a founder of the Royal Society; and eventually bishop of Chester. Wilkins is a celebrity in the history of science, and his early views on the moon were never repudiated and were frequently republished.[29]

Although it was introduced as a discourse for the reader’s “leisure hours” and “the fruit of some lighter studies,” Wilkins’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone was a serious work, steeped in Renaissance astrophysics and Christian scholarship. The claim of slightness gave it cover in case anyone raised objections. Wilkins acknowledged that when he first began to think of the moon world, “it seemed such an uncouth opinion that I never durst discover it for fear of being counted singular and ridiculous. But afterwards, having read Plutarch, Galileo, Kepler, with some others, and finding so many of my own thoughts confirmed by such strong authority,” he launched into his lunar propositions.[30]

Just because it sounded strange was no reason for the idea of an inhabited moon to be rejected. After all, Wilkins reminded readers, Columbus’s contemporaries had laughed “when he promised to discover another part of the earth.” “Other truths have been formerly accounted as ridiculous as this,” including the existence of the Antipodes, “which have been denied and laughed at by many wise and great scholars.” (It was only a few years since enterprising English investors had petitioned Charles I to discover and colonize “the lands in the south part of the world called Terra Australis incognita.”) Like the modernist Francis Bacon (whom he calls “judicious Verulam”), Wilkins was confident that “many secret truths which the ancients have passed over … are yet left to make some of our age famous for their discovery.” If not us, then perhaps “our posterity” will discover “truths … which we now desire, but cannot know,” including an invention “for a conveyance to the moon.”[31]

The bulk of Wilkins’s tract was a popularization of Copernican cosmology, explaining the motions of the planets. But its most arresting conjectures dealt with the “inhabitants in this other world,” and the possibilities of lunar travel. The moon and other planets were populated, Wilkins argued, although “of what kind they are is uncertain.” He named the moon-dwellers “Selenites” but refused to speculate about their characteristics. “Whether they are the seed of Adam, whether they are there in a blessed estate, or else what means there may be for their salvation” were “difficult questions” that could not be addressed at the time by an author who was studiously avoiding both fiction and theological controversy.[32]

When Wilkins published his conjectures, he did not know that another English book on lunar exploration was almost simultaneously to appear in print. The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither reports the fanciful extraterrestrial adventure of Domingo Gonsales, a Spanish merchant who managed to harness large birds or “gansas” (Spanish for “geese”) to fly him between islands, and ultimately to transport him to the moon. Published anonymously, it was immediately identified as the work of “a late reverend and learned bishop,” Francis Godwin. Godwin (1562–1633) was the moderate Calvinist bishop of Hereford, a somewhat slack diocesan and an industrious if unoriginal ecclesiastical historian. There remains some controversy about when his moon voyage was written, but it seems to have been influenced by Kepler and Galileo, whose work circulated in England in the 1620s.[33]

Like Wilkins, who deflected criticism from his essay by referring to it as “the fruit of some lighter studies,” Godwin described his account as “an essay of fancy, where invention is showed with judgment.” He too invoked Columbus’s “espial of America,” which brought “the then unknown” into knowledge, as an analogue for lunar discovery. “That there should be an Antipodes was once thought as great a paradox as now that the moon should be inhabitable,” he continued, “but the knowledge of this may seem more properly reserved for this our discovering age.” For Godwin as much as Wilkins, the “new discovery of a new world” was among the projects of modernity.[34]

Unlike Wilkins, who lamented his ignorance of the lunar inhabitants and could not immediately imagine how anyone could go to meet them, Godwin plunges into a fanciful Utopian travel narrative. Observing the migration of swan-like birds in the South Atlantic, Godwin’s hero Gonsales wonders where they go out of season and concludes that it must be to the moon. Devising a kind of armature or frame to distribute his weight, he rigs up a harness to twenty-five of these “gansas,” who carry him aloft and away. A charming and much-reproduced illustration shows him airborne. Freed from the earth’s gravitational pull, the journey to the moon takes eleven or twelve days.

Arrived on the lunar surface, Gonsales finds it vegetated with trees and shrubs, and populated with colorful long-lived giants in a commonwealth of order and beauty, peace and plenty. This is an extraterrestrial world of delight and wonder, not the menacing society of later science fiction. Its inhabitants he finds “most strange, both for their feature, demeanor and apparel.” The “Lunars,” as Godwin calls them, are apparently disciplined and devout in their religion, and intuitively receptive to Christianity. On first encountering the inhabitants, says Gonsales, “being stricken with a great amazement, I crossed myself, and cried out Jesus Maria. No sooner was the word Jesus out of my mouth, but young and old fell all down upon their knees … holding up both their hands on high, and repeating all certain words which I understood not.” Later, at the lunar court, “hearing the name of our savior, they all … fell down upon their knees.” Theirs is a fairly mechanical form of religion (as most of Godwin’s Protestant contemporaries judged Roman Catholicism), but, like native inhabitants of the terrestrial new world, they would seem good candidates for missionary work, to be brought to knowledge of salvation. Their behavior also exemplified St. Paul’s assertion to the Philippians “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.” The work was a great success. It was translated into French, German, and Dutch, and appeared in more than a dozen editions.[35]

Godwin’s The Man in the Moone prompted Wilkins to revise and reissue his treatise. “Having thus finished this discourse,” he wrote in 1640, “I chanced upon a late fancy to this purpose under the fained name of Domingo Gonsales, written by a late reverend and learned bishop: in which … there is delivered a very pleasant and well contrived fancy concerning a voyage to this other world.” Wilkins’s 1638 text offered to prove the probability of a habitable world in the moon, but now he added “a discourse concerning the possibility of a passage thither.” A new conclusion expanded the proposition “that ’tis possible for some of our posterity, to find out a conveyance to this other world; and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them.” Providence, he was confident, would “lead us on by degrees, from the knowledge of one thing to another,” even if it turned out to be something other than harnessed “gansas.”[36]

Godwin’s “fancy” led Wilkins to more thoughtful conjectures about “what means there may be … for ascending beyond the sphere of the earth’s magnetical vigor.” In 1638 he had expressed the hope that such things might one day be possible, but two years later his speculation had more range and force. How to get to the moon? Perhaps with human-powered wings, perhaps with the assistance of giant birds. “Or if neither of these ways will serve, yet I do seriously and upon good grounds affirm it possible to make a flying chariot; in which a man may sit, and give such a motion unto it, as shall convey him through the air”; or perhaps some other mechanical “engine … contrived from the same principles by which Archytas made a wooden dove and Regiomontanus a wooden eagle.” (Other mechanisms for lunar travel imagined in the seventeenth century included dream trance, wing power, explosives, supernatural escorts, and elevation with heaven-seeking dew.) Wilkins’s revised treatise ends by considering “the great benefit and pleasure to be had by such a journey.” The “pleasure and profit” of encountering “the persons, language, arts, policy, religion of those inhabitants, together with the new traffic that might be brought thence,” thought Wilkins, are likely to go “inconceivably beyond” the “discoveries in America.”[37] Similar arguments are still heard today among enthusiasts for space exploration.[38]

Actual lunar observations were assisted by printed almanacs, which in 1638 predicted two lunar eclipses. The first, in June, “will not be seen here in England, because it happeneth in our day time; but in the parts lying westward from us it will be seen either in part or wholly,” predicted the almanac-maker Arthur Sofford.[39] It was in fact seen at Plymouth Colony in New England, and is reckoned the first astronomical event to be recorded in English America. The second lunar eclipse, “a very great one,” was predicted for the night of December 10, 1638, promising a spectacular display “if the clouds shadow her not from our sight.”[40]

Dr. William Gilbert (1597–1640), another astronomically adept clergyman, rector of Orsett, Essex, set out to observe this 1638 eclipse, but reported that it was obscured by bad weather. Undismayed, he launched into an astro-religious “meditation” on the Copernican and Galileian revolution, “that Hysteron Proteron of opinions in translating the sun into the center and making it stationary, in advancing the earth up into an orb and making it ambulatory.” Gilbert, like many educated churchmen, had no quarrel with the new mathematical astronomy, or “what the world (now come to spectacles) hath by her optic eyes of glass lately discovered.” The problem, or question, was what it meant for revealed religion, and for humankind’s special relationship with God.[41]

READ MORE: Early Humans

“What all these things may import, I spare to speak,” Gilbert wrote to Archbishop James Usher, “that this earth may enjoy her own opinion, to have been the only work of God in his creation in this kind; yet of Saturn and Jupiter and others of that kind, with that rich and fair furniture about them [the recently discovered rings and moons], I only say, as upon the discovery of some sumptuous richly hung house and all shining with lights and torches, surely that house was not so made and furnished for rats and mice to dwell in.” Could there be Saturnians and Jupiterrians (or Selenites or Lunars), amid an infinite number of stars and lights, all made by God? If so, where did that leave us? “What great share enjoy we of those fathomless fountains of heat and light, those many glorious suns send out? Yet we must be (by our own account) the only creatures of excellency, for whom all these things were made? So might the spider, nested in the roof of the Grand Seignior’s Seraglio, say of herself, all that magnificent and stately structure set out and embellished with all antiquity and mosaic work was only built for her to hang up her webs and toils to take flies. We the glorious ants of this earth magnify ourselves upon this molehill here, to be the great and sole end of the world’s workmanship, whilst we consider not how little and nothing we are of it.” Gilbert’s “meditation” came dangerously close to displacing humans from the center of God’s attention (as well as likening humankind to ants, rats, or spiders), but he told Usher that he found it strangely calming to be persuaded of “God’s omneity and his own nothing,” and “the almost infinity of these creations.” He ended by assuring the archbishop, “you shall not further need to fear that I will find out new worlds where God hath made none.”[42]

These were extraordinary words from an otherwise obscure clergyman who was moved to meditate on the plurality of worlds. They reveal some of the circulation of Galilean science alongside ancient notions of the populated heavens. They were exactly contemporary with the similar but more succinct formulations of John Wilkins, and part of a long tradition. It is remarkable, and well worth remarking, that many of the participants in this discussion were Church of England ministers—Wilkins, Godwin, Burton, Gilbert, Alexander Ross, and others. Between them they represented much of the spectrum of devotional style and practice within the divided Caroline church. Their cosmological speculations proceeded from their churchmanship, divinity, and theology, and may best be understood by reference to the religious culture they inhabited. Those inclined toward Puritanism were more likely than Laudians to espouse the new astronomy, although there was no robust cosmological division between religious radicals and conservatives.[43]

The Oxford cleric Robert Burton (1577–1640) shared this fascination with “infinite habitable worlds,” but he recognized that we could do little more than “calculate their motions” or visit them “in a poetical fiction, or a dream.” Burton worried that if Kepler and his contemporaries were right, “that the moon is inhabited … that the earth is a moon, then are we also giddy, vertiginous and lunatic within this sublunary world.” If indeed the planets are inhabited, “what proportion bear we to them, and where’s our glory?” which was exactly William Gilbert’s problem. “Who shall dwell in these vast bodies, earths, worlds, if they be inhabited,” Burton persisted, “rational creatures, as Kepler demands? Or have they souls to be saved? Or do they inhabit a better part of the world than do we? Are we or they lords of the world? And how are all things made for man? Difficile est nodum hunc expedire,” these are hard questions to determine. Few propositions could be so worrisome, and so unfathomable. In 1621, Burton had been skeptical of the theory of infinite worlds, but by 1638 he had come to accept it.[44]

Wilkins, the heir to this tradition, was at pains to point out that a belief in the plurality of worlds “doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith.” But he offered no answer to the question “whether [the inhabitants] are the seed of Adam, whether they are in a blessed estate, or else what means there may be for their salvation.”[45] Wilkins had cautiously limited his speculations. Indeed, as an author of the 1630s, familiar with the reins of censorship, he was skilled at proceeding by feints and hints.[46] Writing in 1638, Wilkins deemed it “probable there may be inhabitants in this other world, but of what kind they are is uncertain.” Broaching the topic of the social or spiritual condition of the moon-dwellers, he repeatedly used the word “perhaps.” For Wilkins, as we have seen, the matter of lunar soteriology remained a “difficult question,” not yet capable of resolution. Rather than recruiting his lunar inhabitants for Christ, or denying them the benefits of the Atonement, Wilkins opted out from these “uncertain enquiries, which I shall willingly omit, leaving it to their examination, who have more leisure and learning for the search of such particulars.”[47]

Wilkins is artfully reticent here, not unlike Godwin, whose Domingo Gonsales seems to censor his report of flying machines and signaling systems: “I must be advised how I be over liberal in publishing these wonderful mysteries till the sages of our state have considered how far the use of these things may stand with the policy and good government of our country.”[48] How did lunar speculations sit with the “sages” of the early Stuart state? Perhaps it was significant that Godwin left his work unpublished.

When the young Puritan Wilkins turned away from “difficult questions” and left off “uncertain enquiries,” was he alluding to contemporary inhibitions on theological disputation? Should we be hearing a code word, or perhaps a hint of satire? James I’s “Directions for Preachers” (1622) had restrained discussion of “unprofitable, unsound, seditious and dangerous doctrines,” especially “the deep points of predestination, election [or] reprobation.” Archbishop Abbot’s accompanying letter warned ministers away from “points of divinity too deep for the capacity of the people,” and “idle fancies which … boil in the brains.”[49] Charles I similarly declared his distaste for “unnecessary disputes which may trouble the quiet of both church and state,” and attempted to cool down religious controversies caused by overly subtle “wits.”[50]

Laudian divines in the 1630s preached against “perverse disputings,” “cobweb divinity,” and “the frothy agitations of unquiet heads” who would probe “the secrets and infinitude of God.” Even at Oxford there was disapproval of too much thinking.[51] The sages warned clerics to avoid “scriptures that are obscure or dark, of ambiguous and doubtful meaning.”[52] There was no profit to be had in striving “about abstruse mysteries,” for “God doth not bring men to heaven by difficult questions,” declared the Laudian apologist Christopher Dow in 1637.[53] “God leadeth not his people unto eternal life by knotty and inextricable questions,” preached Edward Reynolds in 1638, arguing that “weak Christians” should not be “perplexed with impertinent disputations.”[54] Absorbing these lessons, Wilkins may have recognized the soteriology of the man in the moon to be as problematic as predestination, another of the mysteries that were best regarded as unfathomable. Perhaps it was most safely wrapped up in the high-minded wit of “convivium philosophicum, or convivium theologicum,” as practiced by his nearby contemporaries in the Great Tew circle outside Oxford.[55] Wilkins may have thought it prudent to provide a ludic framing, although opponents would protest that he jested too much about serious matters.

Wilkins wrote initially to rebut the anti-Copernican minister Alexander Ross (1591–1654), whose defense of Aristotelian cosmology in 1634 was dedicated to Archbishop Laud.[56] In 1646, the year of Laud’s execution, Ross retaliated in The New Planet No Planet; or, The Earth No Wandring Star: Except in the Wandring Heads of Galileans. This was a lengthy, learned, and ultimately futile rant against the entire Copernican conspiracy, which particularly attacked Wilkins’s work on “the new found world of the moon.” Ross charged Wilkins with manufacturing ridiculous fictions. “Your world in the moon, your moving earth, your standing heavens, your figures and characters, what are they else but pleasant dreams and idle fancies? … You have found out that which God never made, to wit, a rolling earth, a standing heaven, and a world in the moon; which indeed are not the works of God, but of your own head.” The fundamental objection was not that these astronomical theories were observationally or mathematically flawed, but that they were “dangerous and pernicious to divinity.” Wilkins’s suggestions of a world in the moon went against “scripture, sense, reason, and the church’s authority,” Ross insisted. They were “both absurd and dangerous for men’s souls, and the peace of the church.”[57]

Peter Heylyn (1599–1662), yet another English clergyman with astronomical enthusiasms, was circumspect about the possibility of “another world in the moon, inhabited as this is by persons of divers languages, customs, polities and religions.” Heylyn’s misfortunes in the English Revolution, when he lost his livings, his estates, and his library, persuaded him that “geography is better than divinity.” In his massive 1652 Cosmographie (a revision of his 1621 Microcosmos), he expressed “stronger hopes of finding a new world” in Terra Australis than on another planet.[58] A generation later, the French savant Bernard de Fontenelle compared the population of the moon to “the inhabitants of that great land of Australia, which is still completely unknown to us,” arguing yet again that the discovery of the Antipodes, “contrary to all expectation,” allows us to believe that “we may come to know somewhat more of the moon.”[59]

By the middle and later decades of the seventeenth century, the idea had become common among Christian rationalists that “the almighty and infinite power of the creator” had created an infinite plurality of worlds that were at least accessible to the imagination. The Platonist Henry More (1614–1687) and the dramatist Aphra Behn (1640–1689) shared a belief in an infinite number of worlds, made possible by the “inexhausted” goodness of God.[60] By 1650, the Elizabethan Oxford examination question “an sint plures mundi?” (“can these be many worlds?”—to which the correct Aristotelian answer was “no”) had been replaced by the disputation thesis “quod Luna sit habitabilis” (“that the moon could be habitable”—which might be answered “probably” if not “yes”).[61] “The probability that there is a world in the moon” had been “most ingeniously discoursed by the late Reverend Dr. Wilkins,” wrote the physician Robert Wittie in 1681, so “why … may not the other planets be worlds too, and have inhabitants to exalt the great name of their and our creator?” Astronomy and Christianity were not incompatible, he concluded, so when St. Paul wrote that “things in heaven, and things in earth” should bow at the name of Jesus, it could be taken to describe religious devotions on other planets.[62] Savants of the Royal Society and their counterparts at Paris wondered whether sufficiently powerful telescopes could be constructed to see “the reputed citizens of the moon.”[63]

French treatises on this topic from Cyrano de Bergerac and Fontenelle led to further conversations on the world in the moon, including its implications for Christianity.[64] The rapid translation of these works testified to contemporary interest on both sides of the Channel. Pierre Borel wondered in the 1650s “whether those men in the stars are better than those that are in this world, whereof Satan is called the prince,” and therefore did not need the death of Christ to save them.[65] Behn, translating Fontenelle in the 1680s, recognized that “in regard of religion, there may be danger in placing inhabitants anywhere but on this earth … If you are a little of the theologican,” she continued, “you will then be presently full of difficulties.” It would be “a great perplexing point in theology” to imagine men on the moon who were not the sons of Adam, but the difficulty could be resolved, or at least alleviated, by claiming that the moon, although inhabited by rational beings, was not inhabited by humans. Fontenelle took the view that the moon-dwellers were not men but “some other odd sort of creatures,” presumably outside of Christian history.[66]

By the end of the seventeenth century, it was widely believed by the likes of the philologist Richard Bentley (1662–1742) that “the infinite majesty and boundless beneficence of God” had populated a multitude of planets, and that such a belief involved no “quarrel with revealed religion.” Delivering the 1692 Boyle Lectures on the theme of “A Confutation of Atheism,” Bentley, like Wilkins before him, found nothing in Holy Scripture to “forbid him to suppose as great a multitude of systems, and as much inhabited, as he pleases.” Nor was there any need to worry “about the condition of those planetary people, nor raise frivolous disputes how they may participate in the miseries of Adam’s fall or in the benefits of Christ’s incarnation.” For although God, “by the inexhausted fecundity of his creative power, may have made innumerable orders and classes or rational minds” throughout the universe, the inhabitants of other planets lacked “human nature” and were therefore not “involved in the circumstances of this world.”[67] Christiaan Huygens’s Kosmothereos, published in English in 1698 as The Celestial Worlds Discovered, similarly imagined endless planets inhabited by rational but nonhuman “Planetarians.”[68] John Dunton’s The Athenian Mercury, a popular late Stuart “notes and queries,” deemed it probable that there were worlds beyond ours, but “as for sinning or not sinning in them, we need not enquire,” for that belonged to the unsearchable wisdom of God.[69]

Some of the finest minds of seventeenth-century Europe became exercised about “Selenites,” “Planetarians,” and the possibility of a plurality of worlds. Their work appeared in as many languages as genres, in astronomical and theological treatises, romances, travelogues, dialogues, poems, and plays. A question may arise about the manner and mode or tone of these writings on space travel. How seriously were they intended, and can we distinguish their important business from rhetorical jeux d’esprit? The man in the moon was a standard trope in early modern humor, a marker of preposterous absurdity, so any reference to the lunar encounter risks being quarantined with ridicule.

Plutarch, with whom we began, acknowledged that “many things have been said as well merrily and by way of laughter, as seriously and in good earnest” about the population of the moon, and he applauded “the quick and pregnant wit” of those who advanced the discussion.[70] The second-century author Lucian, through his Caroline translator, claimed the poetic “liberty of lying” while relating lunar adventures. These were “matters which I neither saw nor suffered, nor heard by report from others,” he disarms the reader; “let no man therefore in any case give any credit to them.” Enlisting scholarly expertise, he speaks wryly of his consultation with philosophers: “I made my choice of the best among them … by the grimness of their countenances, the paleness of their complexion, and the profoundness of their beards; for such men, I was persuaded, could best speak deep points of learning.”[71] The invitation, surely, is to be amused as much as to reflect.

John Donne labeled his early Stuart account of the lunatic church “a satire” so readers would know how to react.[72] Ben Jonson also set out for laughs when he reported “news from the new world discovered in the moon” in his court masque of 1620. Audiences from Shakespeare to Behn understood that they were engaged with a comedy whenever there was mention of “the man in the moon.”[73]

Robert Burton, adopting the voice of Democritus Junior in The Anatomy of Melancholy, invited the reader to “suppose the man in the moon or whom thy wilt to be the author.” Burton’s disquisition “of infinite worlds” would not be “a pasquil, a satire, some ridiculous treatise … or paradox,” he promised, but rather a serious treatment of an important topic. Like Kepler, who “in sober sadness” upheld “that the moon is inhabited,” Burton was intrigued by the possibility of infinite worlds, although he took Kepler to have written on this subject “betwixt jest and earnest.”[74]

Godwin presented his tale of The Man in the Moone as “an essay of fancy, where invention is showed with judgment.” Godwin’s outlandish travel narrative, like Lucian’s, allowed the lunar encounter to be read as a fable. Wilkins, as one of Godwin’s first readers, commended it as “a very pleasant and well contrived fancy concerning a voyage to this other world.”[75] Many of Wilkins’s contemporaries regarded “fancy” as a dangerous mistress, the path “to unyoked passion,” but here the word was discharged of its disparaging connotations, in commendation of wit and imagination.[76] Fancy, to men of stern disposition, was the fruit of unbounded curiosity and undisciplined passions, but creative thinkers were now willing to credit fancy as a legitimate mode of speculation.

Wilkins acknowledged that his own Discovery of a World in the Moone might seem to some readers “ridiculous.” He commended it as “the fruit of some lighter studies” intended for “thy leisure hours.” Yet what could be more serious than the Copernican solar system and the likelihood of other inhabited planets? Wilkins acknowledged that his writings were “conjectural, and full of uncertainties,” rather like the astronomer Huygens half a century later, who presented his work on “celestial worlds” as “probable and ingenious conjectures” rather than “true … mathematical demonstrations.”[77]

Anti-Copernican conservatives and critics of the plurality of worlds often derided their opponents as “foolish and childish” (Daneau, 1578), “childish and ridiculous” (Heywood, 1635), or given to “ridiculous suppositions” (Ross, 1646).[78] The notion of the plurality of worlds was based on neither “sense, nor solid reason, nor judicious authority,” but rested instead on “the fragile reed of wild imagination,” charged the royalist physician Walter Charleton in 1654. Such “extramundane curiosity” exhibited “a high degree of madness.”[79] It became a standard tactic to laugh such ideas to scorn. “I perceive … that you are a merry gentleman, indeed you cannot answer for laughing,” Ross charged Wilkins. Derisively associating him with Burton’s Anatomy, Ross diagnosed Wilkins as “troubled with a hypochondriac melancholy, or with the spirit of blind Democritus, take heed of risus sardonis” [scornful laughter]. “Your whole book is nothing else but a heap of fictions,” he charged, just “pleasant dreams and idle fancies.”[80]

A self-conscious lightness of tone often governed treatments of this topic in the later seventeenth century. The Cambridge Platonist Henry More confessed that his essay on “the infinity of worlds” was shaped by his “sportful fancy.”[81] When Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, produced her Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World in the 1660s, she described it as “a work of fancy” joined to “my serious philosophical contemplations.”[82] The French libertine Cyrano de Bergerac’s space adventure was billed as an “histoire comique”—a “comical history” of the world in the moon.[83] Fontenelle’s “conversations on the plurality of worlds” aired more “fancies,” provoking the marquise in the dialogue to protest against the “frivolous arguments” and “chimerical opinion” of the astronomical savant. It is clear, however, that the “philosophical entertainment” in which they were engaged was no joking matter. Behn offered her translation of Fontenelle as “but a trifle,” although also “something … out of the way of ordinary wit.” She too challenged her readers to distinguish “between what is truly solid (or at least probable) and what is trifling and airy.”[84]

Taking the topic to the stage in her 1687 farce The Emperor of the Moon, Behn renders the principal character as “whimsical, romantic, Don-quick-sottish” or “rather mad” for his notion of the man on the moon. Poor Dr. Baliardo, who “discoursed gravely” on the moon’s “people … government, institutions, laws, manners, religion and constitution,” discovers that his discourse is “lunatic … the phantoms of mad brains to puzzle fools withal—the wise laugh at ’em.”[85] But laughter, Keith Thomas long ago assured us, is a mask for serious discussion.[86] As the early Stuart poet John Taylor insisted, “mirth and truth are good companions.”[87]

In conclusion, to bring this down to earth, we need to reconsider the cultural context of the lunar conversation. Rather than tracing the history of moon travel forward into subsequent centuries, or associating it primarily with the advancement of science, let us re-root the subject in the early modern era, in what could be called England’s lunar moment. This was shaped by the convergence of three traditions or conversations: one about the cosmos, one about the planet, and one about the path to salvation.

The often-used argument that Columbus’s discovery of America, and the subsequent mapping of the Antipodes, betokened new discoveries in space may have appealed especially to readers of Renaissance voyaging. The European encounter with the Atlantic, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific stimulated both the economy and the imagination. Early-seventeenth-century Europe saw the fruits of this exchange in a new cartography, new species, commodities, and peoples. English readers in 1625 were treated to the massive compilation of Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes,[88] relating travels across a previously unimagined terrestrial world.

The near-simultaneity or overlap of this voyaging literature with the new discoveries of astronomy may also have quickened interest in the plurality of planetary worlds. For even without a telescope, the moon was more familiar than America or the Antipodes, although less accessible. The early-seventeenth-century work of Thomas Harriot, Galileo, Campanella, and Gassendi literally put the moon on the map. Mapping the moon and naming its features was a means to domesticate the lunar sphere and to prepare it for appropriation.[89]

Early modern Europe still had to cope with the religious problems posed by the discovery of people in the Americas. Whether they too were the seed of Adam, and whether they were covered by Christ’s atonement, were initially difficult questions for Renaissance theology.[90] So too were the practical considerations of missionary activity, and the rivalries within and between Catholicism and Protestantism to harvest souls, after indigenous inhabitants were acknowledged to be human. The Jesuits were established from Japan to Canada, although not yet on the Mare Tranquillitatis, and it was no accident that Godwin’s Domingo Gonsales ended up among Jesuits in China after his lunar adventures.[91] Dozens of English ministers during the reign of Charles I subscribed to the missionary undertaking, “to make God known where he was never spoken nor thought of, to advance the scepter of God’s kingdom” overseas. Petitioners to Parliament in 1641 promoted this enterprise to win the souls of “those silly seduced Americans.”[92] Behind this program lay the confessional divisions and competitive soteriological conflicts that followed the European Reformation.

Europe in the 1630s was racked by religious wars. By 1638, the combat had gone on for twenty years. England mostly stayed out of the Thirty Years War and congratulated herself on her peaceable condition, but religious friction with Scotland brought rebellion and the threat of war in 1638. Wilkins and his contemporaries that year would have been familiar with stresses within the Church of England, but they could not have known that they were in for a generation of civil war and revolution. Nonetheless, they might have concluded, to paraphrase Peter Heylyn, that “cosmography is safer than divinity.”

One of the publishers of the 1650s explained, “I see the world so shuffled here below that I thought it safest to present the government of a world above,” offering Cyrano de Bergerac’s comical history of the moon as relief from the troubles of the English revolution.[93]

Writing about the moon and its people may have been a deflection from some issues, but it involved a direct grappling with others. Like the Utopian tradition, to which it was related, the literature of lunar voyaging was part parodic but mostly sober, combining earnestness and jest. Imagining a world on the moon was perhaps a response to a shuffled world, a world turned upside down, in which systems of hierarchy, authority, religion, and gender, as well as planetary revolutions, were called into question. As John Donne famously put it, reflecting on the consequences of Copernicus, “the new philosophy calls all in doubt.”[94] This was the challenge for Godwin and Wilkins, and their French counterparts and contemporaries, whose speculations in the 1630s constituted Europe’s first space program.

READ MORE: Sputnik and the dawn of the space race

I am indebted to Mordechai Feingold, Matt Goldish, and Robert Westman, and to the AHR’s anonymous readers, for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

David Cressy is Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640–1642 (Oxford University Press, 2006), Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford University Press, 1997)

1 Edward Pond, A President for Prognosticators: MDCIX (London, 1609), sig. C4.

2 Plutarch, The Philosophie, Commonlie Called, the Morals … Translated out of Greeke into English, and Conferred with the Latine Translations and the French, by Philemon Holland (London, 1603), 1159, 1179, 1184.

3 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen [1590], ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (New Haven, Conn., 1981), 204, Proem to book II.

4 See, for example, John Lyly, Endymion, ed. David Bevington (Manchester, 1996), 78; “The Man in the Moon’s Almanack,” Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ms. Rawlinson D. 398, fols. 237b–238; W. M., The Man in the Moone, Telling Strange Fortunes (London, 1609). “Selenicus,” the man in the moon, was equated with “Tom-a-Bedlam” in Endymion 1663; or, The Man-in-the-Moon His Northern Weather-Glass (London, 1663). The Man in the Moon, Discovering a World of Knavery under the Sunne, a scurrilous and subversive serial publication of 1649–1651, is discussed in David Underdown, A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1996), 95–99. Another Interregnum satire written “between jest and earnest” wondered “whether it be not expedient to employ an ambassador to the man in the moon, to procure habitations for our new courtiers,” and proposed that Dr. Wilkins, “in regard he hath the greatest knowledge in that new plantation,” be engaged “to conduct them thither”; Democritus Turned States-Man (London, 1659), title page, sigs. A2–A2v. See also A Tragi-Comedy, Called New-Market-Fayre (London, 1649), purportedly written by “the man in the moon,” and The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret (London, 1660?). For London taverns named for “The Man in the Moon,” see John Taylor, Taylors Travels and Circular Perambulation (London, 1636), sig. A3v, and Taylor, A Preter-Pluperfect Spick and Span (Oxford, 1643), 12.

5 Pioneers of this subject include Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Voyages to the Moon (New York, 1948); Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge, 1982); and Scott L. Montgomery, The Moon and the Western Imagination (Tucson, Ariz., 1999). See also Karl S. Guthke, “Nightmare and Utopia: Extraterrestrial Worlds from Galileo to Goethe,” Early Science and Medicine 8 (2003): 173–195.

6 [John Wilkins], The Discovery of a World in the Moone; or, A Discourse Tending to Prove, That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in That Planet (London, 1638), licensed by the bishop of London’s chaplain, March 29, 1638, entered in the Stationers’ register on March 30; [Francis Godwin], The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales (London, 1638), registered on August 1, 1638; [Wilkins], A Discourse Concerning a New World & Another Planet (London, 1640).

7 Many of these early theorists are cited in Walter Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletoniana; or, A Fabrick of Natural Science upon the Hypothesis of Atoms (London, 1654), and Pierre Borel, A New Treatise, Proving a Multiplicity of Worlds (London, 1658). See also Grant McColley, “The Seventeenth-Century Doctrine of a Plurality of Worlds,” Annals of Science 1 (1936): 385–387; Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 1–11; Milton K. Munitz, “One Universe or Many?” in Philip P. Wiener and Aaron Noland, eds., Roots of Scientific Thought: A Cultural Perspective (New York, 1957); Paolo Rossi, “Nobility of Man and Plurality of Worlds,” in Allen G. Debus, ed., Science, Medicine, and Society in the Renaissance, 2 vols. (New York, 1972), 2: 131–162.

8 Grant McColley and H. W. Miller, “Saint Bonaventure, Francis Mayron, William Vorilong, and the Doctrine of a Plurality of Worlds,” Speculum 12 (1937): 386–389; Pierre Duhem, Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and Plurality of Worlds (Chicago, 1985), 431–510; Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middles Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, N.J., 1986), 141; Edward Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200–1687 (Cambridge, 1994), 150–168.

9 William of Vorilong, Quattuor librorum Sententiarum (Basel, 1510), quoted in McColley, “Seventeenth-Century Doctrine,” 402; McColley and Miller, “Saint Bonaventure,” 388.

10 Nicholas of Cusa, Idiota de sapientia, de mente, de staticis experimentis [Of Learned Ignorance], quoted in Dick, Plurality, 41; McColley, “Seventeenth-Century Doctrine,” 399, 402.

11 Wilkins, Discovery, 189.

12 Giordano Bruno, De l’infinito universo et mondi (London, 1584); Campanella, Apologia pro Galileo (Frankfurt, 1622); Nicolaus Hill, Philosophia Epicurea, Democritiana, Theophrastica (Paris, 1601, and Geneva, 1619). For Hill’s influence, see Daniel Massa, “Giordano Bruno’s Ideas in Seventeenth-Century England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977): 227–242.

13 Théophraste Renaudot, comp., “Recueil général des questions traitées es conferences du Bureau d’adresse,” in George Havers, trans., A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France (London, 1664), 537; Kathleen Wellman, Making Science Social: The Conferences of Theophraste Renaudot, 1633–1642 (Norman, Okla., 2003), 125. Gabriel Naudé warned in 1640 of the dangerous heresies “that the astronomers want to introduce with their worlds, or rather lunar and celestial earths”; quoted in Rossi, “Nobility of Man,” 131.

14 Phillip Melanchthon, Initia Doctrina Physicae (Wittenberg, 1550), quoted in Dick, Plurality, 89.

15 Lambert Daneau, The Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World (London, 1578), 25–27.

16 Thomas Heywood, The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (London, 1635), 153–154. See also John Swan, Speculum Mundi; or, A Glasse Representing the Face of the World (Cambridge, 1635), 210–228; George Hakewill, An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1635); Andreas Tacquet, Opera Mathematica (Antwerp, 1669), section on astronomy.

17 Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (Lexington, Ky., 1983), 261, 275; A. G. H. Bachrach, “Lunar Mendax: Some Reflections on Moon-Voyages in Early Seventeenth-Century England,” in Dominic Baker-Smith and C. C. Barfoot, eds., Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia (Amsterdam, 1987), 70–90; Mary Baine Campbell, “Impossible Voyages: Seventeenth-Century Space Travel and the Impulse of Ethnology,” Literature and History, 3rd series 6 (1997): 1–17.

18 The journal Isis was founded in 1912, the History of Science Society in 1924. In 1936, the first issue of Annals of Science (“an international review of the history of science and technology since the Renaissance”) included Grant McColley, “The Second Edition of The Discovery of a World in the Moone,” 330–334, and McColley, “The Seventeenth-Century Doctrine of a Plurality of Worlds,” 385–430.

19 John L. Russell, “The Copernican System in Great Britain,” in Jerzy Dobrzycki, ed., The Reception of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory (Dordrecht, 1972), 189–239.

20 Most of these works feature in standard histories of astronomy. The Englishman Thomas Harriot preceded Galileo’s observations with the telescope by several months, but did not describe his discoveries in print. Ewen A. Whitaker, Mapping and Naming the Moon: A History of Lunar Cartography and Nomenclature (Cambridge, 1999), 25–32; Montgomery, The Moon and the Western Imagination, 29, 151–153, 165. See also Eileen Reeves, Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton, N.J., 1997).

21 [Lucian], Certaine Select Dialogues of Lucian, Together with His True History, trans. Francis Hicks (Oxford, 1634), 109–111, 9–16.

22 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso in English Heroical Verse, by Sr. Iohn Harington (London, 1634), book 34; John Milton, Of Reformation (London, 1641), 31; Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Paris, 1686), trans. Aphra Behn as A Discovery of New Worlds (London, 1688), reprinted in Janet Todd, ed., The Works of Aphra Behn, 7 vols. (Columbus, Ohio, 1992–1996), 4: 118.

23 John Donne, Ignatius His Conclave; or, His Inthronisation in a Late Election in Hell (London, 1611), 118. New editions appeared in 1626, 1634, and 1635. See also William Empson, “Donne the Space Man,” The Kenyon Review 19 (1957): 337–399, for Donne’s early interest in space travel.

24 Pasquale M. D’Elia, Galileo in China: Relations through the Roman College between Galileo and the Jesuit Scientist-Missionaries (1610–1640) (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 8; Oliver Lawson Dick, ed., Aubrey’s Brief Lives (Harmondsworth, 1982), 280.

25 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 5th ed. (Oxford, 1638), 254–255; Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1989), 2: 53; Richard G. Barlow, “Infinite Worlds: Robert Burton’s Cosmic Voyage,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973): 291–302. Robert Burton (1577–1640) was a cleric at Christ Church, Oxford, with ecclesiastical livings in Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, and Leicestershire.

26 John Milton, Areopagitica (London, 1644), 24. Milton later wrote of “other worlds” and “imagined lands and regions in the moon”; Paradise Lost, book V, l. 263, book VIII, l. 175, in H. C. Beeching, ed., The Poetical Works of John Milton (Oxford, 1900), 278, 338. See also Derek N. C. Wood, “Milton and Galileo,” Milton Quarterly 35 (2001): 50–52.

27 Wilkins, Discovery, 24.

28 Dod (with Robert Cleaver) was the veteran nonconformist author of A Plaine and Familiar Exposition of the Ten Commandments (19th ed. by 1635). Sparke, the author of Crumms of Comfort (10th ed. by 1629), had been pilloried and fined for publishing Prynne’s ill-fated Histriomastix (1633).

29 Wilkins was at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, from 1627 to 1637. For his career, see The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right Reverend John Wilkins (London, 1708); Barbara J. Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614–1672: An Intellectual Biography (Berkeley, Calif., 1969); Allan Chapman, “‘A World in the Moon’: John Wilkins and His Lunar Voyage of 1640,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32 (1991): 121–132. His work was in French by 1656 as Le Monde dans la Lune … De la traduction du Sr de la Montagne (Rouen, 1656). Fourth and fifth English editions appeared in 1684. See also John Wilkins, Mathematical and Philosophical Works (London, 1708).

30 Wilkins, Discovery, A3, 22.

31 Ibid., A4, 1, 3, 6, 208–209 misprinted as 107. For the enterprise of Terra Australis in 1625, see British National Archives, SP/16/14/33.

32 Wilkins, Discovery, 24, 185–186, 207. Kepler had named his moon island “Levania,” from the Hebrew, but commented, “I could have called it Selenitis”; Kepler, Kepler’s Somnium: The Dream; or, Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy, trans. Edward Rosen (Madison, Wis., 1967), 14—based on the 1634 Frankfurt edition. Cf. Thomas Blount, Glossographia; or, A Dictionary Interpreting All Such Hard Words (1656): “selenites … lunary men, or people that are held by some to inhabit the moon.”

33 Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone and Nuncius Inanimatus (Northampton, Mass., 1937); H. W. Lawton, “Bishop Godwin’s Man in the Moone,” The Review of English Studies 7 (1931): 23–55. On the identification of the author, see Wilkins, Discourse, 240. Godwin may have attended Giordano Bruno’s Oxford lectures on the infinity of worlds; Anna Marie E. Roos, Luminaries in the Natural World: The Sun and the Moon in England, 1400–1720 (New York, 2001), 135.

34 Godwin, Man in the Moone, 2.

35 Ibid., 18–28, 31. It was published in French in 1648 as L’Homme dans las Lune, and in German in 1659 as Der Fliegende Wandersmann nach dem Mond. With at least twelve Continental editions by 1718, the English authorship of The Man in the Moone was easily forgotten. The Flemish lunar cartographer Michiel van Langren indirectly honored Godwin in 1645 by naming one of the lunar features “gansii”; Whitaker, Mapping and Naming, 41, 196. For extraterrestrial bowing, see Philippians 2:10.

36 Wilkins, Discourse, 240, 203. This expanded edition was printed by John Norton, who had earlier printed Godwin’s The Man in the Moone.

37 Wilkins, Discourse, 237–239, 242. The reference to flying engines recurs in John Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick; or, The Wonders That May Be Performed by Mechanicall Geometry (London, 1648), book 2, chap. 6, “Of the volant automata”; chap. 7, “Concerning the art of flying”; and chap. 8, “The possibility of a flying chariot.” Wilkins’s reference to “the earth’s magnetical vigor” evokes the work of William Gilbert, De Magnete (London, 1600).

38 See, for example, NASA’s “Vision for Space Exploration”; SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; interest in inhabitable planets; and the emerging field of astrobiology.

39 Arthur Sofford, A New Almanacke and Prognostication, for the Yeere of Our Lord God, 1638 (London, 1638).

40 Ibid.; John White, A New Almanacke and Prognostication, for the Yeere of Our Lord God 1638 (London, 1638).

41 Dr. William Gilbert to Archbishop of Armagh James Usher, Dublin, December 11, 1638, in Richard Parr, ed., The Life of the Most Reverend Father in God, James Usher … With a Collection of Three Hundred Letters (London, 1686), 492. William Gilbert was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge (B.A. 1617, M.A. 1620, B.D. 1627, and D.D. 1632). Step-nephew of William Gilbert of Colchester, the author of De Magnete (and possibly inheritor of his papers), he was rector of Orsett from 1626 until his death in December 1640. He dedicated his sole publication, Architectonice Consolationis; or, The Art of Building Comfort (London, 1640), to Viscount Edward Conway, Marshal of Ireland, thanking him for fourteen years of favor. Usher’s interest in cosmography extended back at least to 1610, when he corresponded with Henry Briggs about Kepler and astronomy; Feingold, Mathematician’s Apprenticeship, 138–139.

42 Parr, Life of the Most Reverend Father in God, 492–494. Acknowledging that “we cannot know God’s purpose,” Descartes in 1641 similarly thought it “absurd to think He created the universe solely for the praising of men, or the sun simply to provide mankind with light”; René Descartes to Endergeest August, in Paolo Rossi, “Nobility of Man and Plurality of Worlds,” in Debus, Science, Medicine, and Society in the Renaissance, 2: 152.

43 Richard Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn., 1958), 17, noted that many of the scientific virtuosi were “deeply religious” clergymen. Evoking the debate on the relationship of Puritanism and science, Charles Webster, “Puritanism, Separatism, and Science,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley, Calif., 1986), 198, 213, noted that “a long line of leading figures in science were ordained clergymen,” and concluded that “any truly historical account of the Scientific Revolution must pay due attention to the deep interpenetration of scientific and religious ideas.” See also Adrian Johns, “Prudence and Pedantry in Early Modern Cosmology: The Trade of Al Ross,” History of Science 35 (1997): 23–59; Mordechai Feingold, “Science as a Calling? The Early Modern Dilemma,” Science in Context 15 (2002): 79–119.

44 Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1: 66, 297; 2: 53; Barlow, “Infinite Worlds,” 301.

45 Wilkins, Discovery, 24, 185–186.

46 Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison, Wis., 1984). See also A. B. Worden, “Literature and Political Censorship in Early Modern England,” in A. C. Duke and C. A. Tamse, eds., Too Mighty to Be Free: Censorship and the Press in Britain and the Netherlands (Zutphen, 1987), 45–62; Anthony Milton, “Licensing, Censorship, and Religious Orthodoxy in Early Stuart England,” Historical Journal 41 (1998): 625–652; Anthony Hadfield, “The Politics of Early Modern Censorship,” in Hadfield, ed., Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England (Basingstoke, 2001), 1–13; and David Cressy, “Book Burning in Tudor and Stuart England,” Sixteenth Century Journal 36 (2005): 359–374.

47 Wilkins, Discovery, 185–186.

48 Godwin, Man in the Moone, 6–7, where, besides the mysteries of flight, he offers to describe how “to send messages in an instant many miles off, and receive answer again immediately.”

49 Neil Rhodes, Jennifer Richards, and Joseph Marshall, eds., King James VI and I: Selected Writings (Aldershot, 2003), 379–384; David Cressy and Lori Anne Ferrell, eds., Religion and Society in Early Modern England, 2nd ed. (London, 2005), 164–165.

50 Larkin, Stuart Royal Proclamations, 2: 218, 91–92.

51 Edward Boughen, Two Sermons: The First Preached at Canterbury (London, 1635), 15; Thomas Lawrence, Two Sermons (Oxford, 1635), 17, 18, 19, 23; Johns, “Prudence and Pedantry,” 32.

52 Nehemiah Rogers, A Sermon Preached at the Second Triennial Visitation (London, 1632), 10.

53 Christopher Dow, Innovations Unjustly Charged upon the Present Church and State (London, 1637), 40–41.

54 Edward Reynolds, A Sermon Touching the Peace and Edification of the Church (London, 1638), 2–3, 25, 26.

55 Hugh Trevor-Roper, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans: Seventeenth Century Essays (Chicago, 1988), 166–230.

56 Alexander Ross, Commentum de Terrae Motu Circulari (London, 1634). For Ross’s career, see Johns, “Prudence and Pedantry,” 28–37, and David Allan, “Ross, Alexander (1591–1654),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

57 Alexander Ross, The New Planet No Planet; or, The Earth No Wandring Star: Except in the Wandring Heads of Galileans … In Answer to a Discourse That the Earth May Be a Planet (London, 1646), 13, 83, 105, 113, 118. Parts of this may have been written as early as 1641; Johns, “Prudence and Pedantry,” 45, 47, 58.

58 Peter Heylyn, Cosmographie (London, 1652), “to the reader,” 196. Half a lifetime earlier, Heylyn had given a celebrated series of lectures on cosmography at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was tutor and fellow from 1618 to 1629, overlapping with the young John Wilkins. See Heylyn, Microcosmos: A Little Description of the Great World (Oxford, 1621); Mordechai Feingold, The Mathematician’s Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England, 1560–1640 (Cambridge, 1984), 53, 63, 68.

59 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (Berkeley, Calif., 1990), 33; Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds, 124–125.

60 Henry More, Democritus Platonissans; or, An Essay upon the Infinity of Worlds out of Platonick Principles (Cambridge, 1646), A2, stanzas 19, 26, 51; Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds, 77.

61 Russell, “Copernican System in Great Britain,” 210, for the question of 1588; Christopher Potter, sive Theses Quadragesimales In Scholis Oxon (Oxford, 1650), title page.

62 Robert Wittie, Ouranoskopia; or, A Survey of the Heavens (London, 1681), 26–27.

63 John Lowthorp, ed., The Philosophical Transactions and Collections to the End of the Year MDCC, 3 vols. (London, 1749), 1: 298–299, referring to discourses of 1665; Le Iovrnal Des Scavans Du Lundi IV: Lanvier MDCLXVI (Paris, 1666), 34.

64 Cyrano de Bergerac, Histoire Comique ou Voyage dans las Lune (Paris, 1650), trans. Thomas St. Serf as Selenarchia; or, The Government of the World in the Moon (London, 1659); Fontenelle, Entretiens (Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds).

65 Pierre Borel, Discours Nouveau Prouvenant la Pluralité des Mondes (Geneva, 1657), translated into English as A New Treatise Proving a Multiplicity of Worlds (London, 1658), 139.

66 Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds, 90–91, 1 See also Fontenelle, The Theory or System of Several New Inhabited Worlds … Made English by Mrs. Behn (London, 1700).

67 Richard Bentley, “A Confutation of Atheism,” in Alexander Dyce, ed., The Works of Richard Bentley, 3 vols. (London, 1838), 3: 175–176.

68 Christiaan Huygens, The Celestial World Discover’d; or, Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets (London, 1698), 37, 66.

69 John Dunton, The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of All the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercury, 3 vols. (London, 1704), 3: 470–472.

70 Plutarch, Philosophie, 1159, 1177.

71 Lucian, Certaine Select Dialogues, 12, 107–108. Ladina Bezzola Lambert, Imagining the Unimaginable: The Poetics of Early Modern Astronomy (Amsterdam, 2002), 11, discusses “Lucian’s playful fantasies” and their seventeenth-century reception.

72 Donne, Ignatius His Conclave, title page. Satire, for Donne’s contemporaries, was “a sharp, biting kind of verse, wherein men’s vices were laid open”; John Bullokar, An English Expositor (London, 1616), sub “satyr.”

73 Ben Jonson, “News from the New World Discovered in the Moon” [a court masque of 1620], in C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925–1952), 7: 513–525. For Shakespearean examples, see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, sc. 1; The Tempest, Act II, sc. 2. See also sources in n. 4, above.

74 Burton, Anatomy, 1, 53, 66. On the playful seriousness of Kepler’s work, see Raz Chen-Morris, “Shadows of Instruction: Optics and Classical Authorities in Kepler’s Somnium,” Journal of the History of Ideas 66 (2005): 223–243. Campanella referred to the “philosophical comedy” of Galileo’s 1632 Dialogue; Jean Dietz Moss, Novelties in the Heavens: Rhetoric and Science in the Copernican Controversy (Chicago, 1993), 301.

75 Godwin, Man in the Moone, 2; Wilkins, Discourse, 240.

76 Johns, “Prudence and Pedantry,” 31–34; William Strode, The Floating Island: A Tragi-Comedy, Acted before His Majesty at Oxford, Aug. 29. 1636 (London, 1655), sig. B4. Wilkins may very well have attended this university entertainment for the court, which dramatized the clash between fancy and prudence.

77 Wilkins, Discovery, A3–A3v, 22; Wilkins, Discourse, 203; Huygens, Celestial Worlds, iv.

78 Daneau, Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World, f. 26v; Heywood, The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels, 154; Ross, New Planet No Planet, 83.

79 Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletoniana, 13, 15.

80 Ross, New Planet No Planet, 79, 105.

81 More, Democritus Platonissans, sig. A2.

82 Margaret Cavendish, “The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World,” in Gregory Claeys, ed., Restoration and Augustan British Utopias (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000), 55. The purpose of “fancy,” Cavendish continued, was “to recreate the mind, and withdraw it from its more serious contemplations.”

83 Cyrano de Bergerac, Histoire Comique (Selenarchia); Cyrano de Bergerac, The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and Sun, trans. A. Lovell (London, 1687). Campbell, “Impossible Voyages,” 8, describes this as a “libertine comedy … structured by paradox rather than plot.”

84 Fontenelle, Entretiens (Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds, 72, 77, 124, 125). On Behn’s “double tone” using parody for serious matter, see Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (New Brunswick, N.J., 1996), 398.

85 Behn, “The Emperor of the Moon,” in Todd, The Works of Aphra Behn, 7: 163, 205. First published in London in 1687, this work is based on the farce by Nolant de Fatouville, Arlequin, Empereur dans la lune (Paris, 1684), although “much altered and adapted to our English theatre and genius,” according to Behn.

86 Keith Thomas, “The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England,” TLS 21 (January 1977): 77–81.

87 John Taylor, “The Praise of Hemp-Seed” [1620], in Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578–1653 (Oxford, 1994), 79.

88 Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes, 5 books in 4 vols. (London, 1625; repr., 20 vols., Glasgow, 1905–1907). Purchas (1577–1626) was yet another minister of the Church of England, with livings in Essex and London.

89 Whitaker, Mapping and Naming the Moon.

90 Anthony Grafton, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 148–149, 153, 205–207; Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge, 1986), 22–23; Pagden, European Encounters with the New World from Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven, Conn., 1993), 11–12; Lewis Hanke, “The Theological Significance of the Discovery of America,” in Fredi Chiappelli, ed., First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 vols. (Berkeley, Calif., 1976), 1: 363–389.

91 Godwin, Man in the Moone, 44.

92 [William Castell], A Petition of W. C … for the Propagation of the Gospel (London, 1641), 6–7.

93 Cyrano de Bergerac, Selenarchia, epistle to Lord George Douglas and General Andrew Rutherford. “The world i’th moon too lately is found out, It will with lunatics join, we need not doubt,” rhymed the disaffected royalist John Collop in 1655; Conrad Hilberry, ed., The Poems of John Collop (Madison, Wis., 1962), 68–69.

94 John Donne, “The First Anniversary,” in Sir Herbert Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne (Oxford, 1957), 213. On disruptions of the Caroline established order, see David Cressy, England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640–1642 (Oxford, 2006).


Leave a Comment