World-Building and the New Astronomy in Seventeenth-Century Prose Fictions of Cosmic Voyage

by Evelyn Koch (Author)
©2022 Thesis 246 Pages


The book looks at ways of world-building in prose fictions of cosmic voyage in the seventeenth century. With the rise of the New Astronomy, there equally was a resurgence of the cosmic voyage in fiction. Various models of the universe were reimagined in prose form. Most of these voyages explore imagined versions of a world in the moon, such as the cosmic voyages by Johannes Kepler, Francis Godwin and Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac. In Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, an eponymous imaginary planet is introduced. The book analyses the world-building of cosmic voyages by combining theories of world-building with contemporary concepts from early modern literature. It shows how imaginary worlds were created in early modern prose literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Research Survey: The New Astronomy, World-building, Cosmic Voyages and Early Modern Prose Narratives
  • 2.1 The New Astronomy
  • 2.1.1 The Aristotelian-Ptolemaic Universe
  • 2.1.2 The New Astronomy
  • 2.2. Concepts of Early Modern World-building
  • 2.2.1 Concepts of Medieval World-building
  • 2.2.2 Concepts of Early Modern World-building
  • 2.3 The Development of Cosmic Voyages within the Context of Early Modern Narrative Prose Fiction
  • 2.3.1 Travel Narratives
  • 2.3.2 Utopias
  • 2.3.3 Cosmic Voyages
  • 2.4 Theories of World-building
  • 2.4.1 Possible Worlds Theory
  • 2.4.2 World-building Theories
  • 3 Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634): Transition to the New Astronomy
  • 3.1 Invention
  • 3.1.1 Changes in the Nominal Realm
  • 3.1.2 Changes in the Cultural Realm
  • 3.1.3 Changes in the Natural Realm
  • 3.1.4 Changes in the Ontological Realm
  • 3.2 Completeness and Consistency: Creating Harmony
  • 3.3 Ellipsis, Extrapolation and Speculation
  • 4 Cosmic Voyages and World-building after the New Astronomy
  • 4.1 Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638)
  • 4.1.1 Invention
  • Changes in the Nominal Realm
  • Invented Languages
  • New Names
  • Changes in the Cultural Realm
  • Changes in the Natural Realm
  • Changes in the Ontological Realm
  • 4.1.2 Ellipsis, Extrapolation and Speculation
  • 4.1.3 Completeness and Consistency: Creating Harmony
  • 4.2. Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac’s Selenarhia, or, The Government of the World in the Moon: A Comical History (1659)
  • 4.2.1 Invention
  • Inventions in the Nominal Realm
  • Inventions in the Cultural Realm
  • Inventions in the Natural Realm
  • Inventions in the Ontological Realm
  • 4.2.2 Ellipsis, Extrapolation and Speculation
  • 4.2.3 Completeness and Consistency: Creating Harmony
  • 4.3 Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666)
  • 4.3.1 Building Worlds within Worlds: Cavendish as World-builder
  • 4.3.2 Invention
  • Inventions in the Nominal and Cultural Realms
  • Inventions in the Natural Realm
  • Inventions in the Ontological Realm
  • 4.3.3 Completeness and Consistency: Creating Harmony
  • 5 Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Series Index

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1 Introduction

When we learn from the sciences the probable nature of places or conditions which no human being has experienced, there is, in normal men, an impulse to attempt to imagine them. Is any man such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowed sky? (Lewis 1982: 59, emphasis mine)

It has almost become a reflex for scholars as well as writers of popular works who write about the relationship between the New Astronomy and literature in the seventeenth century to quote from John Donne’s An Anatomy of the World1 (1611) lamenting the mutability of the heavens:

And new Philosophy cals all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sunne is lost, and th’ earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him, where to looke for it.
And freely men confesse, that this world’s spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out againe to his Atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all cohærence gone;
All iust supply, and all Relation: (1611: B1r)2

This part of the poem is often seen as the embodiment of the “skepticism and bewilderment” (Koyré 1957: 29) that Copernicus’ ideas in particular and the New Astronomy in general induced in seventeenth-century thought and imagination. After the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium (1543), the discovery of Tycho’s star in 1572 and the publication of Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia nova (1609) – which gave the New Astronomy its name – the Aristotelian–Ptolemaic cosmos was slowly but surely discarded. But which model would replace this universe? Since the stellar parallax that would ←15 | 16→prove Copernicus’ heliocentric model could not be calculated in the seventeenth century, Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric model was accepted by many astronomers as the best alternative (Schofield 2009: 33). But the Tychonic model was just one among many models of the universe that were proposed by astronomers in the seventeenth century based on different observations and calculations (Schofield 2009). The “coherence” missed in the heavens by some contemporaries was not derived from the loss of the Aristotelian–Ptolemaic universe, but by the addition of numerous other theories about the universe. The post-Copernican heavens became a space of renegotiation of how the universe can actually be imagined.

Galileo Galilei’s Sidereus nuncius (1610) containing his drawings of the Moon as seen through the newly developed telescope popularised the New Astronomy throughout Europe (van Helden 2015: 89). A new World in the Moon appeared to have been discovered, with mountains, seas and valleys; a world that was Earth-like in essence (Grant 1996: 353). If the Moon turned out to be another Earth, how would the mountains and seas on the Moon look like? Would there also be life on the Moon as on Earth? Robert Burton, in his “Digression of Ayre”, muses on this very problem that “some new-fangled wits, me thinkes, should some time or other find out: or if that may not be, yet with a Galilies glasse, or Icaromenippus wings in Lucian, command the Spheres and Heavens, and see what is done amongst them” (1638: 252). The Scientific Revolution advanced the emerging experimental natural philosophy to new levels, but the subject of astronomy, the heavenly bodies, poses a serious problem, as Burton’s passage shows. Whereas Blaise Pascal and Otto von Guericke, for example, were able to perform practical experiments to demonstrate the existence of the vacuum, astronomers had great difficulties proving their hypotheses, since they cannot just travel to the Moon and look whether there are actually mountains and seas or not. The introduction of the telescope at the beginning of the seventeenth century may have made observation considerably easier than before – but the issue remained, because the telescope cannot reveal everything.3

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The proof that the Moon was another planet, another Earth-like world, and not part of the incorruptible and eternal translunar realm had other implications too. With the New Astronomy, the concept of world started to change too. Single celestial bodies were now seen as a world of their own (Dick 1982: 2) and gave new impetus to the ancient idea of a plurality of the worlds (Dick 1982). If there were even more worlds than the Earth and the Moon in the universe, how would they look like?

The discovery of a World in the Moon also incited considerable interest in fictional voyages to the Moon. It is no coincidence that Lucian’s True History was translated for the first time into English in 1634 (Nicolson 1948: 14). Ben Jonson’s masque News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1620) lampooned the craze for the Moon in contemporary popular culture by inhabiting the Moon in this masque with so-called Volatees, creatures that are half human, half bird. On the English stage, the idea of a World in the Moon was mocked (Sugar 2016), but the beginning of the seventeenth century saw the start for a new European tradition of prose fictions of cosmic voyage. The year 1634 not only saw Lucian’s English publication of the True History, but also Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, which was posthumously published, a dream narrative that provides an account of how the Earth might look like from the perspective of lunar inhabitants. Four years later, The Man in the Moone by the Bishop Francis Godwin imagined a theocratic, utopian civilization on the Moon that could be reached by a flying vehicle drawn by so-called gansas, a fictitious species of birds that migrate to the Moon during winter. In 1659, the first English translation of Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac’s Selenarhia, or, The Government of the World in the Moon: A Comical History was published, a satire that nevertheless seriously proposes a heliocentric model of the universe and also participates in the imaginary world of The Man in the Moone. All these works re-imagined what a World in the Moon would look like, and they wanted to provide fictional evidence in favour of proposed models of the universe. Both Kepler and Cyrano propose a heliocentric model in their narratives, whereas Godwin favours a semi-Tychonic model. To “prove” their assumptions, these texts create Worlds in the Moon that are to some extent ←17 | 18→plausible and believable. In 1666, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World as an addition to her philosophical work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666). In this work, the Moon is not the destination for the cosmic voyage anymore, but another planet near the Earth’s North Pole that forms a kind of parallel world. My corpus of primary texts also includes two works that are not associated with English Literary Studies immediately. Kepler’s Somnium is a text by a German astronomer written originally in Latin and Cyrano’s Comical History is originally a French text, first published in 1657 as Histoire comique par Monsieur de Cyrano Bergerac, Contenant les États & Empires de la Lune. However, early modern literature did not think in the categories of “national literatures” yet, and furthermore, the texts have a relationship with each other. If I were to consider only texts by English authors, I would miss many connections and associations between these works (Aït-Touati 2011: 9). Kepler’s Somnium was written in Latin, at the beginning of the seventeenth century still the lingua franca of scholarship and “science”, and could be widely received in Europe accordingly. It is also the first cosmic voyage of the seventeenth century, and forms a model for further fictions of cosmic voyage to be measured against. In this study, I will also include the first English translation of Cyrano’s Les États & Empires de la Lune, translated by Thomas Sydserf. Cyrano used the imaginary world of The Man in the Moone as a model and included elements of it in his own imaginary world, and consequently participated in the same world. The English translation of Cyrano’s work was published in the wake of a literary appetite for cosmic voyages in the English book market, and was particularly advertised to readers who already enjoyed The Man in the Moone (Cottegnies 2019: 327). Cyrano’s text became immensely popular in Europe and acted as an indirect medium for ideas of Godwin’s world. Margaret Cavendish was certainly influenced by Cyrano (Cottegnies 2016: 110). In this way, it makes sense to include non-English texts too.4

To return to John Donne’s poem, if the findings of the New Astronomy really discarded all coherence in the heavens, why was there at the same time such a fashion for prose fictions of cosmic voyage that depicted detailed accounts of journeys through space? Imagining a convincing World in the Moon needs a considerable amount of coherence. It has been proposed that fictions of cosmic ←18 | 19→voyage helped to popularise the ideas of the New Astronomy (Knight 1986: 72) by performing an epistemological function (Aït-Touati 2011, Lambert 2002, Spiller 2004). Studies like Frederique Aït-Touati’s Fictions of the Cosmos (2011) and Elizabeth Spiller’s Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580–1670 (2004) analyse the epistemological functions of some of the aforementioned cosmic voyages from a narratological perspective. Although their contributions have been valuable to the understanding of how fiction can imagine fact, they have neglected the changing concept of worlds and imaginary worlds in seventeenth-century fiction. Studies on early modern literature have noticed the emergence of “second worlds”, “green worlds” or “heterocosms” during the Renaissance (Berger 1988, Blumenberg 2017, Campbell 1999, Frye 2010, Lobsien & Olejniczak Lobsien 2002, Lobsien 2003) and have investigated the abstract relationships between these imaginary worlds.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 246 pp., 2 fig. b/w, 1 tables.

Biographical notes

Evelyn Koch (Author)

Evelyn Koch holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Bayreuth and is currently working as a lecturer in British literature and culture at the Philipps University of Marburg. Her research interests include early modern and 19th-century literature, as well as fantasy and horror fiction.


Title: World-Building and the New Astronomy in Seventeenth-Century Prose Fictions of Cosmic Voyage