Interpreting the Flood in the 16th and 17th Centuries

Margaret Jones-Davies (Sorbonne Université)

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More is to be found in the literature of the times on the Flood than on the actual contemporary instances of flooding [C.E.P. Brooks & J. Glasspoole, British floods and droughts, 1928]. Sir Thomas Browne however, though fascinated by the Biblical Flood, makes a passing allusion to the flooding of the Netherlands in a letter to his son Edward: “Observe how the Dutch make defences against sea inundations” (Patrides, 1977, p.35). This shows how the interest in technology is not in contradiction with giving an allegorical or moral interpretation of the phenomenon. The vision of the world through “the enchanted glass” (The Adv. Of L., 1605, II.xiv.9) is still current even though the questioning of the microcosm/macrocosm fallacy and the separation of faith and reason which will ultimately break the glass, are well under way.

Avenues for analysis:

Consequences of the belief in a finite world on the interpretation of the Flood

Aristotle’s “scientific” description and interpretation of floods in his Meteorology are adumbrated for Renaissance thinkers by his theory of an eternal world as, according to the New Testament & Revelation: (Matth, xxiv, 37; Luke, xvii, 26) the world is finite and  doomed to an apocalyptic fire that will come as suddenly as the Flood at the time of Noah. Aristotle’s accounts of floods depend on his theory of an eternal world -there are continual revolutions in time in an eternal world which explain that some lands are now dry that were once flooded (I, xiv, 18, 24, 31). His explicitly non theological approach (Meteorology. II i; iii )allows him to propose explanations due to the height of mountains (I, xiv, 23) or the action of contrary winds leading to the overflowing of the sea- an explanation taken up by Pliny the elder (Natural History II, lxxxvi, 86).

The Flood seen through an “enchanted glass”

For Francis Bacon, the belief that the world is an image of God and that man is “an exact or compendious image of the world” (the microcosm/macrocosm theory) is “a heathen opinion” taken up for instance by Paracelsus and the alchemists. It is opposed to the “sacred truth” of the Scriptures which consider the world merely as the “work of His hands” (Psalms 8, 3) (Adv. Of L. II, iv 1). Alchemy has to do with “the imagination of man” (Adv.of L. I, iii, 11) one of the three parts of man’s understanding along with memory  & reason which have reference to the parts of human learning (history, poesy, philosophy) (Adv of L. II, I, 1).

For the alchemists, the alembic or vessel is compared to Noah’s Ark and the flood is a symbol of the dissolution and putrefaction of the matter of the stone in the nigredo stage of the Great Work. For ex: in the engravings of Johann Mylius (1585-1630) the dissolution of the body takes 150 days (the flood lasted 150 days: Gen, 6,7, 8) and the Ark can be seen sailing on the waters. Sir George Ripley (1490?-) The Compound of Alchemy: same image. Also emblem 2 by Goosen van Vreeswijk, (1624-1674?) De Goude Leeuw (1675) [See illustration of the Ark, Annex]. But in the alchemical vision, the dangerous waters can be turned into life giving water, like baptismal water. For a positive symbolism of the flood see also Rev. 19.6: “The noise of a great multitude, like the noise of water in flood, as they cried “Alleluia”; & I, 15-16: “His voice like the sound of water in deep flood”.

Shakespeare’s Pericles “Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me/O’erbear the shores of my mortality/ And drown me with their sweetness”. (V, 1, 194).

As a consequence of the microcosm/macrocosm theory which holds man’s sin responsible for the world’s decay (T of Athens I, 1, 2-3: “How goes the world?/ It wears, sir as it grows”), the Flood is a turning point in the history of the world. In his Commentary on Genesis (1535), Luther  writes that “the effect of the curse was not felt till the Flood, which destroyed paradise and the whole human race, and swept them from the face of the earth (quoted by V. Harris, All Coherence gone, 1949, 1966, p. 90).

Godfrey Goodman’s The Fall of Man or the corruption of nature 1616 sums up the hypotheses that underlie his description of the Flood (the macrocosm is ordained only for man’s use, the decay of the world is proved by reason (V. H p.14), implying that reason can prove the tenets of faith p.59): ex: the state of the earth nowadays is a proof of the damage done by the Flood and reveals rationally the decay of the world : “the losses sustained at the Flood were never recovered and the pits, layers, and poor soil of today is attributed to the confusion of the elements which then existed” (V. H p.44-45). In the same way, the 1572 comet is a proof of the corruption of the heavens.

The Flood as a supernatural event for the Moderns

George Hakewill contests Goodman’s arguments in An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the government of the world 1627. For Hakewill, the end of the world cannot be deduced on rational terms: belief in a finite world is an act of faith. There is no decay. Natural catastrophes are not a proof of decay. The destruction of Paradise and the Flood are supernatural events, a direct operation of God’s will (V. H, p.63) and must be described as such. Paradoxically this leads to a much more scientific approach to the natural phenomena. And he uses similar arguments to Aristotle’s rational ones to describe floods: there are laws of compensation not deterioration: when in one place the water invades the land, in another the land encroaches upon the water (V. H, p.67). The Flood is therefore not a sign or cause of decay, or “a losse without a reparation” but simply a confusion of the elements (Hakewill, V, 55-117).

John Ray (1627-1705) a botanist, wrote that “though the length of life decreased precipitately for some generations after the flood,” there is no decay.

What appears as a paradox is the result of the growing influence of Aristotelian Averroism which led to the need to separate Faith from Reason. The authority of the Scriptures is not questioned but belongs to the realm of Faith. The world is finite (a belief) but this doesn’t imply that it is in a process of decay. For example, Francis Bacon doesn’t hesitate to speak of the biblical Flood as an undeniable fact on the authority of the Scriptures, but he uses the story rhetorically  to justify the importance of his empirical theory of Learning  (I, vi, 8): before the Flood, men were musicians & metal workers, after the Flood, because of the confusion of tongues, “open trade & intercourse of learning was chiefly imbarred” (I, vi, 8). In the same way in The New Atlantis 1624, Aristotle’s arguments are used poetically to show that the destruction of Atlantis was due to a flood not to earthquakes, as there were older mountains in the old world than now & water flowed down from high mountains. (U.Eco, Histoire des Lieux de légende 2013 on the legend of Atlantis )

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), a physician, was influenced by Aristotelian averroism in Padua, Montpellier & Leyden, where he studied. Like Bacon, he makes a distinction between reason and faith (“not to free science from the restriction of dogma as Bacon did, but to preserve religion from the corrosive influence of the new philosophy” V. Harris p.153). [Bacon structured his study of human learning in The Advancement…according to the triple parts of human learning, memory, imagination, reason while Browne structured Religio Medici (1642) according to the 3 theological virtues, faith hope (part I) and charity (part II).]

No belief in decay: “though the world nears its end, it is neither old nor decayed, nor will ever perish upon the ruins of its own principles” (RM, I, 45). So the interpretation of natural phenomena is open. As for the problem of the end of the world, he relies on the patience of God: “He who cursed the Earth in the first days of the first Man and drowned it in the tenth generation after; should thus lastingly contend with Flesh and yet defer the last flames.”(Christian Morals. III, 26). Here again, the belief in the end of the world is just a matter of faith which doesn’t exclude a scientific attitude: “Let Intellectual Tubes give thee a glance of things which visive organs reach not” (Christian Morals,  III,14, Patrides, p.460).

Browne’s method: his reading of the Flood, RM ,22 is a case in point. It exemplifies the way natural phenomena were analyzed in the transitory period of the 17th c. The separation between reason and faith goes so far as to allow for a doubt as to the cause of the Flood. It could very well be not entirely “penall” but it could have been a “necessity” considering Browne’s deduction that there was a multitude of beings that peopled the earth before the flood: he even imagines what would have happened if Adam had not sinned and the race of man had remained upon earth immortal” (Pseudodoxia Epidemica VI, vi) – a contemporary concern!

Browne’s  texts related to the Flood

 RM (I, 22) which will be expounded on in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646): complete text:

More particularly: Bk VI vi Concerning the vulgar opinion that the earth was slenderly peopled before the flood.

Bk VII iv That there was no rainbow before the Flood

Bk VII vi That the Tower of Babel was erected against a second Deluge.

In RM 22, Browne a) defends the idea that there was ONE general flood (Noah’s) that destroyed the whole of humanity and could not be assimilated with Deucalion’s which was particular to the Greeks only. (An argument founded on the authority of the Scriptures).

Against the opinion that it was impossible for all the creatures to fit in ONE Ark, Browne picks up St Augustine’s answer based on a rational and arithmetical study of the architecture of the ark: City of God: xv 27 “The account of the flood is neither merely historical nor purely allegorical”.

  1. b) Then he deals with the 2nd question suggested by Augustine “Whether the remotest island received all kinds of animals from those preserved in the Ark” City of God, xvi 7: “more hard to understand” and “not contained in the Scripture”: how is it that if the idea of a general flood is founded, that noxious animals that men could not have brought over with them to these distant islands could have found their way there after the Flood. Browne respectfully brushes aside Augustine’s suggestion that angels may have flown them over.
  2. c) If the flood was general it would have destroyed the whole of humanity except those in the Ark. But the Bible speaks only of a small number of people inhabiting the earth before the flood. (The debate is pursued at long length in PS VI,vi.) After a comparative study of historical periods and the hypothesis that people like Methusaleh lived up to 900 years old and therefore had time to multiply (like conies…), Browne draws the arithmetical conclusion that before the flood, there were 1 347 368 420 human beings.
  3. d) another opinion under consideration is the reason why the tower of Babel (See also PE VII, vi) was built after the Flood: to avoid a second deluge or the reason given by Gen 11.4: “lest we be scattered abroad”. “These are no points of Faith, and therefore may admit a free dispute”.

This discussion on the Flood brings out the characteristics of his method separating  Reason from Faith,  when one must ever be on guard against the “Rhetorik of Satan” (RM 20).

In PE (VII, iv), An interesting distinction between arguments of Faith & those of Reason , is that although there was no rainbow before the flood as Gen 9 seems to suggest  “we cannot conclude the non-existence of the rainbow” since “by the decree of Reason and Philosophy, the rainbow hath its ground in Nature, as caused by the rayes of the Sun falling upon a roride and opposite cloud: whereof some reflected, others refracted, beget that semi-circular variety we generally call the Rain-bow.”

Browne distinguishes between points of discussion which are a waste of time (“I can read the history of the pigeon that was sent out of the Ark, and returned no more, yet not question how she found out her mate that was left behind” ( RM I, 21), “niceties that become not those that peruse so serious a mystery (RM I, 22), an echo of the famous “I love to lose myself in a mystery to pursue my reason to an oh altitudo RM I, 9 ). In RM concerning the Flood (I 22), he sorts out what can be proved by no man and yet remain an act of faith. (“Tis a postulate to me that Methusalem was the longest lived of all the children of Adam”) from those arguments “which are no points of Faith, and therefore may admit a free dispute”. “There are other assertions and common tenents drawn from Scripture, and generally believed as Scripture; whereunto, notwithstanding, I would never betray the libertie of my reason”. Some points “not contained in Scripture” are so hard to understand that they put the great Augustine “to the refuge of a miracle” (City of God  xvi 7) .

His conclusion to Bk VI vi of PE, is that his enquiry into such questions leads him to “expect no further belief than probability and reason induce”.  His aim is to encourage his readers not to “swallow dubiosities for certainties”. He may have been influenced by Montaigne when he says that it is “reasonable for every man to vary his opinion according to the variance of his reason, and to affirm one day what he denied another, wherein , although at last we miss the truth, we die notwithstanding in inoffensive errors”.


In Le Roman de la Rose (xvi), Nature denies the part played by demons when tempests and winds combine to flood the earth and when fishes swim in fields and vineyards among forest animals (circa 1278. ) Such a secular approach to Nature’s ill doings had receded in the ages of the wars of religion when it was useful to blame catastrophes on one’s enemies. But the questioning of the theory of decay and the gradual separation of Faith and Reason paved the way to a more scientific reading of such terrors as floods and earthquakes. The end of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) is a poetical reminder of past readings of what floods represented (a lasting destruction of the world but also the hope of a reconstruction).

[Télécharger l’annexe : Noah’s Ark 1676]

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