The Trial of Galileo: A First-Year History Seminar Re-enactment


Students in Assistant Professor of History Meghan Roberts’ first-year seminar, Reacting to the Past, spent September immersed in a fraught period, during early modern Europe, when science was rising up to challenge the church’s ultimate authority.

Slipping into the roles of Catholic cardinals, the students reenacted the Roman inquisition of Galileo. In intense discussions, they debated the appropriate punishment for a man who had been accused of heresy for his notions that the earth revolved around the sun.

After wrapping up their month-long inquisition, the students have turned their attention to King Henry VIII and his Reformation parliament. Again they will each assume the role of a historical character and determine if the king should be able to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. Galileo’s trial and the Reformation parliament happened at roughly the same time, albeit in different parts of Europe, and both reveal how traditional society was under siege during this period. This led some in the church, the academy, and elsewhere to embrace the changes, and others to fear and oppose them.

Roberts’ course Reacting to the Past is one of more than 35 seminars designed specially for first-year students. These required classes challenge incoming students to meet Bowdoin’s rigorous academic standards. The small seminars stress critical thinking, reading, writing, and discussion.

Before Roberts’ students began reenacting Galileo’s trial, they prepared in a more conventional fashion, reading and discussing primary historical sources on Aristotelian cosmology, Galileo’s theories and how they related to Copernicanism, and the extent to which these controversial new ideas bolstered the threat of Lutheranism and the spread of heresy throughout Europe.

“We talk about what the sources say, what they mean, why they are historically significant,” Roberts said. “That is to make sure the students are well grounded in the material. Then they get their roles, which give them a sense of how their person historically would have interpreted what they just read.”

For the Galileo trial, Roberts assigned the students to one of four factions: the conservatives, the moderates, the Linceans (proto-scientists defending Galileo), and the indeterminates, or the trial leaders. The student-cardinals debated Galileo’s ideas in class, grounding their arguments in the primary historical sources. Meanwhile, outside of class, they engaged in a lot of “wheeling and dealing, secrecy and back-room deals,” Roberts said.

“The way the game is set up is to emphasize that there are broad historical forces pushing events along,” she explained. “It’s to show that things didn’t have to happen the way they did. In other words, it shows that yes, historical forces matter, but so does historical contingency, so do individual choices and individual strategy.”

Roberts said that teaching history through role-playing games not only familiarizes students with historical texts, but also has a surprising side effect. “It teaches empathy, because the students don’t argue from their own perspective,” she observed. “There are students who are arguing quite heatedly that the earth does not move. They don’t believe that, they might even think it’s silly, but it forces them to articulate something they don’t agree with. And to take that position seriously is really good for them to appreciate how someone else might think differently, how they might reach those conclusions.”