It is commonly assumed that the creation story of Genesis and its chronology were the only narratives openly available in medieval and early modern Europe and that the discovery of geological time in the eighteenth century came as a momentous breakthrough that shook the faith in the historical accuracy of the Bible. Historians of science, mainstream geologists, and Young Earth creationists alike all share the assumption that the notion of an ancient Earth was highly heterodox in the pre-modern era. The old age of the world is regarded as the offspring of a secularized science.
In this book, Ivano Dal Prete radically revises the commonplace history of deep time in Western culture. He argues that the chronology of the Bible always coexisted with alternative approaches that placed the origin of the Earth into a far, undetermined (or even eternal) past. From the late Middle Ages, these notions spread freely not only in universities and among the learned, but even in popular works of meteorology, geology, literature, and art that made them easily accessible to a vernacular and scientifically illiterate public. Religious authorities did not regard these notions as particularly problematic, let alone heretical. Neither the authors nor their numerous readers thought that holding such views was incompatible with their Christian faith. While the appeal of theories centered on the biblical Flood and on a young Earth gained popularity over the course of the seventeenth century, their more secular alternatives remained vital and debated. Enlightenment thinkers, however, created a myth of a Christian tradition that uniformly rejected the antiquity of the world, as opposed to a new secular science ready to welcome it. Largely unchallenged for almost three centuries, that account solidified over time into a still dominant truism.
Based on a wealth of mostly unexplored sources, On the Edge of Eternity offers an original and nuanced account of the history of deep time that illuminates the relationship between the history of science and Christianity in the medieval and early modern periods, with lasting implications for Western society.
Ivano Dal Prete is a senior lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine Program at Yale University. He has published a book on the scientific culture of eighteenth-century Venice in Italian.
"Calling upon a massive reservoir of evidence that has been hiding in plain sight, this deeply researched and engrossing book not only overturns a long held historical narrative that deep geological time was discovered in the eighteenth century, but also chronicles the formation of that narrative in the crucible of intellectual and political change at the end of the eighteenth century. Dal Prete brilliantly reveals the peaceful coexistence of multiple theories about the age of the earth from the Middle Ages up through the seventeenth century, then their politicization as the new ideology of science asserted eternal war between science and religion, a fable, as Dal Prete lays bare, that has endured up to the present."
– Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University
"On the Edge of Eternity is an ambitious and provocative rethinking of our understanding of the earths history from the Middle Ages till the age of Darwin. This superb account of the history of the earths eternity and the biblical Flood compellingly argues that the earths antiquity is a very old idea. Widely discussed and debated in medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was an Enlightenment rediscovery rather than discovery. In this engaging and erudite history, Dal Prete invites us to reflect on why we have forgotten the complexity of the past in the invention of deep time in favor of stark and often polemical narratives of science and religion."
– Paula Findlen, Stanford University
"In this beautifully argued and accessibly written book, Ivano del Prete shows that not only were discussions of earth history a complex and multifaceted affair throughout the millennia before an imagined Enlightenment emancipation, but in actuality it was the new science of the Scientific Revolution that invented Biblical literalism and young earth creationism, not the religious enthusiasts. This brilliantly fresh and insightful history is a must read for anyone wanting to subject our contemporary battle between science and religion to a historical reality check."
– J.B. Shank, University of Minnesota
"In this erudite and elegant book, Ivano Dal Prete rewrites the history of Western views on the age of the earth. He works as deftly on ancient traditions in philosophy and chronology as on the practical culture of Tuscan miners and merchants, shows that scholars and craftsmen came into active intellectual contact, and brings lost worlds of speculation and exploration back to life. Medieval and Renaissance ideas about earth history were rich and varied, and geological evidence often supported arguments for an eternal world. Before this context, the debates of later centuries, with their multiple efforts to salvage a biblical chronology, take on a radically new meaning. The warfare of science with theology, Dal Prete argues, is not a medieval but a modern phenomenon, born of new commitments, Protestant and Catholic, to biblical authority."
– Anthony Grafton, Princeton University