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Science in the early Middle Ages

Page history last edited by Garry Polley 15 years, 1 month ago





     The view that science ceased to exist from the period of the Greeks until the scientific revolution is a myth.  During the period from the 2nd century BC to the 11th century AD, science mainly took to preserving and popularizing works of prominent Greek philosophers. From the conquest of Greece to the end of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, the Romans preserved and commented on Greek philosophical achievements. The Romans, a more practical minded people who were not so much interested in philosophy for philosophy's sake, still admired the Greek philosophers and found their work worthy of being read, copied, and translated.  In fact, the Roman writer, Horace, noted that while Rome conquered Greece militarily and politically, the artistic and intellectual conquest belonged to the Greeks.  Starting in the 3rd century the Empire was divided into its Western and Eastern halves. The western portion of the Roman Empire was much less stable from this period and much of the preservation of scientific knowledge and scientific advancement was left to the eastern part, which came to be referred to as the Byzantine Empire.  When the Western Empire finally succombed to its barabarian invaders in 476 AD, what was left of Greek knowledge in the West could only be preserved by the educated clergy and monks of the Christian Church.  



The Roman Republic and Empire


     As Rome became secure and wealthy through its conquests, its leisure class took great interest in Greek literature, philosophy, politics, and art.  Any Roman wishing to pursue these topics did so through imitation of the Greek method and any Roman scholar who wished to proceed at the highest level of education would do so in Greek.  Natural philosophy, as did other Greek learning, became a form of intellectual entertainment for wealthy Romans and so it was most often written in a popularized form. Which works became popularized and to what degree depended upon what the Roman aristocracy found useful or interesting and so logic, rhetoric or medicine would certainly suffer a better fate than cosmological theories for example. This popularization movement was the source of encyclopedias, handbooks, compendias and commentaries. In fact, the encyclopedia was a product of a Roman citizen named Pliny the Elder, whose work included 37 books in which he attempted to gather all of human knowledge.



Natural Philosophers Under the Roman Republic:


Posidonius (ca. 135- 51 B.C.) :

     Posidonius was the head of a Stoic school on Rhodes and a teacher of Cicero. He wrote about history, geography, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy.  He commented on both Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Meteorology.  Though his works have not survived, it is known that he made an estimate of the circumference of the Earth different from Eratosthenes'.  This estimate of 180,000 stades was picked by other authors such as Ptolemy and eventually used by Columbus to calculate the distance from Spain to the Indies. Posidonius also postulated theories regarding the origin and cause of the tides.


Varro (116- 27 B.C.) :

     Varro (116-27 B.C.), having studied in Rome and Athens, produced an enormous body of works (about seventy-five in all) on a variety of topics. The most influencial of these works was the Nine Books of Discipline which became a reference for many future Roman encyclopedists. The Disciplines became most widely known for its organization of nine fields of study into the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture. Almost all of Varro's works are lost, the Disciplines survived in the work of Martianus Capella.  


Cicero (106- 43 B.C.) : 

     Although Cicero is best known as a great politician and orator, he also worked in the field of natural philosphy.  He wrote The Dream of Scipio which is an outline of Aristotelian cosmology.  In this work, Cicero describes the "music of the spheres" that is created due to the motion of the heavenly bodies. He also advocated that the human body is a reflection of the universe (the microcosm-macrocosm relationship). Cicero also translated Plato's Timaeus and The Phenomena of Aratus, which did not survive to today. Cicero was influenced by skeptical tendencies. He believed that probability is the most one could achieve in philisophical matters and decided that the best way of learning the truth was through critical sifting of past opinions. For knowledge of these past opinions Cicero consulted handbooks.


Lucretius (ca. 99 B.C. -ca. 55 B.C) :

     Lucretius, an Epicurean poet, is most famous for De Rerum Natura, also known as On the Nature of the Universe or On the Nature of Things.  This work is a defense of Epicurean philosophy, most notably atomism. It is encyclopedic in scope, but at times shows Lucretius' lack of proficiency in the subject matter. He discusses all matters from creation to means of leading a happy and fulfilling life. The work survived.



Under the Roman Empire:


Pliny the Elder (AD 23- AD 79):

     Pliny the Elder was lawyer and prolific reader.  He collected information about the natural world and compiled it in his Natural History. The work survived to today. This encyclopedia of sorts consisted of seven books that detailed nearly every aspect of natural philosophy: cosmology, mineralogy, botany, biology, and astronomy. The descriptions were very qualitative and constituted bare essentials. Pliny was not discriminate and included folk tales, myths, beasts, and monsterous races as well. He cited 473 sources including Varro.  Natural History later became a primary source for other works, such as Solinus' A Collection of Facts, basically a condensation of Pliny's work. 

Macrobius (4th, early 5th century):

Macrobius wrote a Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, which later becam the leading source of neoplatonic theory.


Martianus Capella (5th century):

     Martianus's Capella's most notable work, The Marriage of Philology to Mercury was derived from Varro and Pliny the Elder.  In this text, seven bridesmaids survey seven liberal arts, which were based on Varro's Nine Books of Discipline.  He removed architecture and medicine as disciplines. The work became a popular school text in the Middle Ages. Grammar, rhetoric and logic became known as the trivium and astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and music as the quadrivium. Martianus' geometry was largely adopted from Euclid's Elements and contained a dicourse on geography derived from Pliny, which included a discussion of a spherical Earth at the center of the universe, 5 climatic zones, 3 continents, and Eratoshtenes' figure for the circumference, although a faulty account of the measurement was given. In his arithmetic, the numbers one to ten are given virtues and connections with deities. They are also classified mathematically as prime, composit; even, odd; plane, solid; perfect, deficient or superabundant. Astronomy was based on Varro, Pliny and others, and describes the motion of the seven planets (this included the Sun and the Moon). Mercury and Venus are described as orbiting the Sun, however, fixed orders of the planets were also given (contradictory information).



Decline of Learning


     After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, the period known as Pax Romana ended and the Roman Empire plunged into political turmoil characterized by civil wars, urban decline and the resulting economic disaster(Lindberg p.148). Barbarian invasions became an increasing threat. The empire was divided politically, economically and culturally into its eastern and western halves. The Latin West gradually lost contact with the Greek East. Bilingualism and the knowledge of Greek became more and more rare. Literacy among the public in general suffered. The decline was not precipitous - intellectual life continued in Rome, northern Italy, southern Gaul, Spain and North Africa (Carthage, Egypt), but the quality was decreasing. There were those who attempted to save Greek learning through translating it for the Latin audiences.


     A decline of learning was also a necessary outcome of the handbook tradition, which began with the Greeks (Posidonius) and was continued in the time of Rome and during the Middle Ages. Each next compiler or commentator would claim knowledge of the original sources (works of Plato, Aristotle or Euclid) but in reality draw upon other handbooks, encyclopedias or commentaries in which the theoretical substance already suffered distortions (see Macrobius as a source of Platonism for example). Thus each progressive work or translation would be necessarily inferior. Isidore of Spain (below) would define a quadrilateral as a square composed of four straight lines, and a cube as a solid contained by length, breadth and width (E. Grant, "Physical Science in the Middle Ages"). Martianus Capella in turn writes of Mercury and Venus orbitting the Sun, but then gives the fixed order of the planets without noticing the contradiction. The works of these authors were very popular and used as school texts.


Calcidius (late 4th century) translated Plato's Timaeus, which survived along with his lengthy commentary. It was through this work that Plato would be known in the Middle Ages.


Boethius (480-524) lived in Rome after its fall. He translated Aristotle's logical works (referred to later as the "old logic"), Euclid's Elements, Nicomachus' Introduction to Arithmetic and  Porphyry's Introduction to Aristotelian Logic. He also wrote handbooks on arithmetic and music, commentaries on philosophical treatises and On the Consolation of Philosophy. He realized that there was a decline of learning in his time, and wrote of possible causal relationships thereof in an attempt to highlight it. Boethius was killed in 524 under suspicion of treason by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric.



Early Christianity


     After Rome was taken over by barbarian hordes, Christianity became the major patron of education and borrower from the Greek intellectual tradition. Of course the Church preferred intellectual effort that supported its mission. For example, logic was used in apologetics and development of doctrine, while Plato's language could be easily adopted to discuss Chrisitian philosophy. Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean region slowly over about 600 years.  This gradual diffusion allowed for it to mix with pagan ideas, including the natural philosophy of Plato. There was no consensus, however, on what to do with pagan philosophy.


Tertullian (ca. 155-230):

     Tertullian opposed Pagan learning. He thought philosophy to be a source of heresy. He saw no need for modernity to concern itself with Pagan ideology and research because of this fact. His views were atypical of the times, however.


Augustine (354-430):

Augustine used Greek ideas in his philosophic works, but did not mention them specifically. His view was the philosophy should be a handmaiden of religion. He thought of it as a useful and reliable instrument for pursuing truth. Augustine stressed reason and believed God's creative work ended with the formation of the World - everything is subject only to natural law. After this creation, Earth simply progressed along the framework of natural laws. Therefore, science was actually a subsidiary of religion and a pivotal part to his ideology. He wrote Confessions and Literal Commentary on Genesis, in which he gives a Platonic interpretation of Christianity.


Cassiodorus (480-575):

     Cassiodorus founded a monastery in Vivarium, in which a wider range of secular studies  and a fairly numerous collection of pagan authors was promoted. Expanding one's knowledge was an important part of the rule.


John Philoponus (6th century):

John wrote extensive commentaries of Aristotle's works. He criticized Aristotle's theory of motion and the heavens (introduced the idea of impressed force and believed a medium unnecessary for motion) and thought the celestial realm could not be different from the terrestrial. To counter the theories, John did not use dogmatic arguments but based his critique on observations. He noted for example, that the stars have different colors or that air agitated behind a stone does not cause it to move.


Basil of Caesarea (ca. 330-379):

     Basil wrote Homilies on Hexaemeron. He incorporated Platonic philosophy from the Timaeus into the Genesis story.  He rejected the atomists, arguing that nature had a purpose, and accepted Aristotle's cosmology with modifications to make it compatible with Christianity.


Isidore of Spain (560-636):

Isidore was the bishop of Seville. He believed that classical knowledge was worth preserving. His works include On the Nature of Things and Etymologies, which became very popular in the Middle Ages. It is an etymological encyclopedia covering a wide range of topics.


Venerable Bede (d 735):

     The venerable Bede was an Anglo-Saxon monk who is best noted for his extensive work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  He added intelligently to borrowed texts and known for his establishment of our current dating system as evidenced by his On the Reckoning/Division of Time.


 Christian views of medieval natural philosophy


     Christianity did not actively impede or promote science, but in the end it was instrumental in its preservation. In fact, it encouraged learning and scholarship, and in many cases provided the only means of obtaining an education. Whatever work was available to build upon in the Renaissance survived through the efforts of members of the Church. Most of what we know today about the classical world survives because of the efforts of many medieval scholars acting upon religious volition.



 If we compare the early church with a modern research university or the National Science Foundation, the church will prove to have failed abysmally as a supporter of science and natural philosophy.  But such a comparison is obviously unfair.  If, instead, we compare the support given to the study of nature by the early church with support available from any other contemporary social institution, it will become apparent that the church was the major paton of scientific learning.  Its patronage may have been limited and selective, but limited and selective patronage is a far cry from opposition. (Lindberg 150)


Lindberg points out a common misconception, that the early Christian Church hindered scientific learning.  But this is based on a skewed, presentist viewpoint of what "supporting science" means.


Primary Sources


"What sound do I hear, so magnificent, so sweet, which fills my ears?"

"That is the music of the spheres," Africanus answered.


                                                       --Cicero, The Dream of Scipio

Key Terms and Definitions


encyclopedia - a compiling of all human knowledge, introduced by Pliny the Elder (Natural History)


Relevant Links

 A great interactive on the Roman Empire.  Check out the timeline and maps.


Pliny the Elder's Natural History online.


Some more on Varro's life and works.




Comments (16)

Kristy Carey said

at 11:56 pm on Sep 23, 2008

This lesson was heavy on individuals and not so much on terms, so I thought I'd let others flush out that part of it. Also, the links a really neat, check them out.

jgm829@... said

at 10:00 am on Sep 24, 2008

I added some information on Greek science within the Roman Empire and how it was valued.

liz mastroianni said

at 12:54 pm on Sep 24, 2008

didn't add anything just edited what was already there so it would make more sense

Grant Berry said

at 6:38 pm on Sep 24, 2008

Started a names/important facts section.

Mark Philippi said

at 7:01 pm on Sep 24, 2008

added Varro

Amanda Beattie said

at 10:30 pm on Sep 24, 2008

Added info about Pliny's encyclopedia and some on Varro

Garrett McCormack said

at 11:27 pm on Sep 24, 2008

I added Cicero and a few sentences here and there

Kristy Carey said

at 12:02 am on Sep 25, 2008

Did some editting with format and grammar changes.

Alyson Collins said

at 9:56 am on Sep 25, 2008

i added Pliny the Elder, changed a little grammar and added birth/death dates to all the ppl. up there now. Looks ok so far, still have a lot we need to add, so any one that hasn't addded yet, it shouldn't be hard for you to do so.

Keriann Collins said

at 11:50 am on Sep 25, 2008

The formatting was acting up, again. This site is really frustrating. Added a primary source (I don't actually think the Lindberg quote counts as primary) and two short sentences about Bede and Basil of Caesarea.

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 12:25 pm on Sep 25, 2008

Yeah, the formatting is acting weird. I edited a bit and added Martianus Capella. Basil of Casaerea is not showing up (for some odd reason), but the information is still in the editing portion for anyone who wants to take a stab at fixing it.

Kristy Carey said

at 1:18 pm on Sep 25, 2008

More formatting and editing.

Peter Ramberg said

at 3:45 pm on Sep 25, 2008

This looks good! Well organized.

Marek said

at 6:08 pm on Sep 27, 2008

Split it up and rearranged a little, added a few sentences here and there, something about Christianity, and Boethius.

Marek said

at 12:35 pm on Oct 14, 2008

Added some examples of distortions that occurred through the handbook tradition.

Larry_Crump said

at 10:10 am on Oct 21, 2008

I added some Boetheius stuff, Lucretian emphasis of atomism, Tertulian basis for de-emphasis of Pagan natural philosophy, and Augustine's idea that natural law is the actor that guides that world post-creation.

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