Natural Law v Natural Science

Natural Law v Natural Science

By John Sibbald, Lyon & Turnbull

Work in an auction house can provide fascinating opportunities for research into items which are not always immediately straight forward. This is the first article in a new series of examples where further investigation has helped the item achieve a value that was not at first sight apparent.

The item in this case is a work by Georg Blumnau entitled Dissertatio de vacuo: qua, experientiis, & rationibus physicis, vacuum in nautura non dari, probatur. In appearance a small and rather insignificant little book (12o), not well printed and on poor paper, it was published in 1648 in Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, but then in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was something of an odd man out in a large collection of books on art history and travel belonging to the late Dr John B. Bury, but further research managed to lift interest and its price to a very successful £3,750 (including buyer’s premium) in the firm’s January book sale.



Research, however, failed to find any trace of his book in obvious sources such as the Lithuanian National Bibliography, the Polish National Library, the University of Vilnius Library, the Jagiellonian University Library, the Bibliografia Esteichera or the USTC (the Universal Short Title Catalogue online). The only copy found was in the Bibliotheca Stoschiana sive Catalogus selectissimorum librorum quos collegerat Philippus Liber Baro de Stosch, Florence, 1759, where as item no 2052 it was offered at half a paoli or the equivalent of the price of ten artichokes. En passant, Baron Philipp von Stosch (1691-1757) provided Lyon & Turnbull with one of its most exciting finds, the bound collection of drawings of Roman buildings, known as the ‘Codex Stosh’. Formerly attributed to Raphael and latterly to Giovanni Battista da Sangello (1496-1548), it had been discovered by the firm in the library of a Northumbrian country house. It was sold in 2005 for £261,350 (with buyer’s premium) and acquired by the RIBA British Architectural Library.

Information about Blumnau himself appears also elusive. He is described on the title page as a Master of Arts and Philosophy, and of Theology an alumnus of the Jesuit Academy of Vilnius, then one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Commonwealth. He may possibly be the same Georg Blumnau, doctor in theology and pastor at Mehlsack (fl. 1649-71), but there is no reference to any of his writings.


Does Nature Abhor a Vacuum?

Interest in whether Nature truly abhorred a vacuum had been growing in the 17th century following Galileo’s demonstration that air had both weight and density. His conclusions led to further experiments performed in 1640 by Gasparo Berti and by Evangelista Torricelli, a professor in Florence in 1644. Torricelli’s experiment, using tubes filed with mercury and immersed in a mercury reservoir, was the first successful attempt to produce a vacuum and subsequently convinced the scientific community. Berti’s earlier attempt using water was less successful. Pascal repeated the experiment and, in addition, tried other types of liquid. He found that the maximum height was exactly inversely proportional to the used liquid’s density.

Despite these experiments, the discussion between those who maintained no vacuum is possible (plenists) and those who believed that a vacuum was possible (vacuists) continued until Otto von Guericke of Magdeburg’s famous demonstration of 1657 using two hemispheres with a diameter of 40 cm, known as the Magdeburg hemispheres, which two teams of eight horses on either side were just barely able to separate after the enclosed volume had been evacuated. (K. Jousten, The history of vacuum science and vacuum technology, pp. 2-6)


The Doubts of Learned Men

Georg Blumnau entitled Dissertatio de vacuo qua, experientiis, & rationibus physicis, vacuum in nautura non dari, probatur. Blumnau’s volume describes the various experiments along with illustrations of the apparatus employed, by which, as he puts it “most learned men in Italy France had dared to doubt.” His work, such as two others published by the Jesuit Academy at Vilnius, Albert Wijuk Kojałowicz’s Oculus ratione correctus, sux refutatio demonstrations ocularis de Vacuo and Oswald Krüger’s Dissertatio de vacuo, both also published in 1648, were in response to the first publication of Torricelli’s mercury experiment by the Polish Capuchin Friar Valeriano Magni in 1647. In the course of his famous demonstration at Warsaw in the presence of Wenceslas VII, Magni claimed the discovery as his own and as being inspired by Galileo. In philosophy Magni was a vehement anti-Aristotelian and an admirer of Galileo and Descartes. In his fight with the Aristotelians, he made great use of this experiment. The Jesuit responses to the vacuum experiment were without exception attacks ad hominem on Magni and the Jesuits’ role in the void debate was preoccupied by the Torricellian experiment. Magni’s interpretation of the experiment was radically anti-Aristotelian, and contrary, of course to the teachings of Aristotle to which the Catholic Church, and hence the Jesuits, so stubbornly adhered.

Galileo wasn’t the only early scientific investigator to have been threatened by the Church for unorthodox propositions: Giordano Bruno’s, whose views on the vacuum were also unorthodox, had been burned at the stake in 1600; and as late as 1624, the French Parlement threatened with death all who taught anything contrary to the doctrine of Aristotle. In 1655 the combative Magni’s long-standing feud with the Jesuits led to his arrest in Vienna at the end of 1655, which, but for the intervention of the Emperor, would have led to an uncomfortable encounter with the Inquisition.

For an account of the confrontation between Aristotelianism which the Jesuits were obliged to teach and the new sciences emerging in the 17th century see M.J. Gorman, “Jesuit explorations of the Torricellian space: carp-bladders and sulphurous fumes” in Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, tome 106, n°1. 1994, pp. 7-32.

Meanwhile, a record of this apparently unique surviving copy will be added to the USTC.


John Sibbald is a consultant to Lyon & Turnbull’s Rare Books, Manuscripts & Maps Department and is editor of the Firm’s Valuations News.




Rare Books, Manuscripts & Maps


Lyon & Turnbull’s dedicated team of Rare Books, Manuscripts & Maps specialists have established an international reputation for their auctions, selling both through our UK auction house, and via live online auctions. Our specialists are experts not only on books and manuscripts, but also on current market conditions, an essential combination to the successful sale of fine antiquarian books, modern first editions, folios, autographed letters and important archives.


Learn More ⇒








Recent Articles