Posts Tagged ‘A Goat and a Cabbage’’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.

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