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On the Edge of Eternity

The Antiquity of the Earth in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Ivano Dal Prete

14 November 2022

ISBN: 9780190678890

320 pages

In Stock

Price: £22.99



This revisionist work challenges the assumption that deep time was "discovered" during the Enlightenment by showing that the possibility of an old or even eternal Earth circulated freely in medieval and early modern Europe, even in popular works intended for a large public, and that it was common to deny any geological role to the biblical Flood.

  • This work shows that deep time was not discovered during the Enlightenment, but has a much longer history in Western culture
  • Entirely new perspective on the relationship between science and religion, the early history of earth science, and pre-modern popular science
  • Provides a fresh perspective on American Young Earth creationism

About the Author(s)

Ivano Dal Prete, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science, Medicine and Public Health Program, Yale University

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.

Table of Contents

    Note on Terminology
    Chapter 1 Footprints in the Dust: The Eternity of the World in the Middle Ages
    Chapter 2 The Medieval Earth
    Chapter 3 Vernacular Earths, 1250-1500
    Chapter 4 A "Pious" History of the Earth? 1500-1650
    Chapter 5 The Rise of Diluvialism, 1650-1720
    Chapter 6 The Invention of the History of Deep Time, 1700-1770
    Chapter 7 Political Fossils, 1740-1800


"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 earth's history from the Middle Ages till the age of Darwin. This superb account of the history of the earth's eternity and the biblical Flood compellingly argues that the earth's 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

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