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Abstract

The Theories of the Earth formulated by the English scholars Thomas Burnet, William Whiston and John Woodward at the end of the seventeenth century circulated widely within the continent of Europe during the first decades of the eighteenth century. These theories established a sequence of physical conditions of the Earth according to the chronology outlined in the Book of Genesis, emphasizing two main stages: the Creation and the Deluge. Although the authority of the Biblical account of the age and early history of the Earth was normally accepted at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the continental reception of English Theories of the Earth varied. This was due to the complexity of the European context which since the 1660s had produced the theories of René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Athanasius Kircher, as well as Nicolaus Steno’s dynamic view on the development of the Earth’s surface. Steno emphasized the importance of the interpretation of rock strata in the field for reconstruction of the Earth’s history. He also carefully avoided contradicting the Biblical account and associated the Deluge with one of the geological stages identified in his history. Nevertheless, the Stenonian heritage stimulated some Italian scientists – such as Antonio Vallisneri, Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, and later Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti and Giovanni Arduino – to presuppose, within the results of their researches, an indefinitely great antiquity of the Earth. Theoretical models linked to Biblical chronology included those of Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland, while in France, Benok De Maillet proposed a Theory of the Earth which was censured by the Church because of its possible implications regarding the eternity of matter. Among European scholars of the first decades of the eighteenth century, the Stenonian heritage (notably the necessity of fieldwork in a regional context) and the global Theories of the Earth were equally influential.

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