Thursday, 1 December 2011

Questioning habits: monastic science in the medieval period

It’s not usual for a single book to inspire me to write a post, but on seeing a double page spread in Australian science writer Surendra Verna's The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories and Things I knew I had to investigate further. Published in 2006, this small book does just what it says in the title, being a concise chronological history of science from Ancient Greece to the present. So far, so good, except that after a fair few BC and early first millennium AD entries, I found that the article for AD150 was followed by one dated AD1202! Having double-checked there weren't any pages missing, I realised that the author had followed the all-too-common principle of 'here's the Dark Ages: nothing to see here; better move along quickly'. Therefore I thought it might be time to look into what exactly what, if anything, was happening science-wise during this thousand year gap, and why there appeared to be a sudden growth in scientific thought at the start of the thirteenth century.

Although much is known of the contemporary Muslim practitioners of natural philosophy such as Alhazen and Avicenna, I want to concentrate on Europe, as the era seems to contrast so profoundly with the later periods of scientific growth in the West known as the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Although historians have recently reappraised the Dark Ages, rebranding it 'early medieval', it's fairly obvious that post-Roman Britain and mainland Europe rapidly fell behind the scientific and technological advances of Middle- and Far-Eastern cultures. An obvious example can be shown by the Crab supernova of AD1054, which despite being recorded in non-Western literature (hardly surprising, since for some weeks it was four times the brightness of Venus) it has not been positively identified in any contemporary European chronicles. Is it feasible that no-one was observing the night sky over Europe, or was the 'guest star' simply too frightening to fit into their world picture?

The Catholic Church is considered the usual suspect for the lack of interest in scientific thought, but if anything the problem seems to have been on the horizon several centuries earlier. Although there were Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus and Empedocles whom we might consider experimenters, early Christianity adopted much of the mysticism and philosophy of thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato. Therefore the culture of the early medieval period was ingrained with notions of archetypes and ideals: with a pre-arranged place for everything within a stultifying hierarchy, there was no need to seek deeper understanding of the physical world. What little astronomical observation there was had predominantly timekeeping and calendric purposes, such as for finding the date of Easter, whilst being at the same time completely intertwined with astrology. Therefore any attempt to understand developments in natural philosophy of the period must take into account various facets of human thought that are today considered completely separate from the scientific method.

However, this isn't to say that the era was completely devoid of intellectual curiosity. The eighth century English mathematician (and a deacon with decidely monastic habits) Alcuin of York could be said to have discussed ideas in the proto-scientific mould, who in addition developed a teaching system intended to propagate rational thought. What led to the pan-European interest in the methodologies we would recognise as key to science, such as detailed observation and careful experimentation, is usually traced to the translation of long-forgotten Ancient Greek texts from Arabic to Latin by such figures as the twelfth century Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona. Although Gerard wrote mathematical treatises and edited astronomical tables (no doubt at least in part for astrological use), the rapid dissemination of Ptolemy and other classical giants led to a chain reaction that should not be underestimated.

An early pioneer of the empirical process was Gerard's English near-contemporary and Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste, whilst the thirteenth century produced such luminaries as Dominican friar Albertus Magnus in Germany and the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, followed in the fourteenth century by fellow Franciscan William of Ockham, and so on. The fact that the translations of ancient texts made a rapid journey around Europe shows that Rome was not opposed to new ideas, although the arrest of Bacon in later life, possibly for writing unauthorised material, suggests that thought censorship was still very much the order of the day.

As can be noted, most of these men were either monks or senior clergy. The obvious point here is that nearly all of secular society was illiterate, which combined with the cost of books in the age before printing meant that only those within the Church had access to a wider world. I assume that this is an irony not lost on those who consider Western religion as antithetical to intellectual novelty (eat your heart out, Richard Dawkins!) Counter to this stereotype, there does seem to have been a form of academic competition between monastic orders, in addition to which chemical and biological experimentation was conducted in fields ranging from the production of manuscript pigments to herbal medicine.

Binham Priory, Norfolk, England
The eleventh century equivalent of a scientific laboratory: the remains of Binham Priory in Norfolk, UK

Of course by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the notion of formally inculcating knowledge, including elements of natural philosophy, was dramatically enhanced via the first universities. Starting in Italy, the new foundations removed the monopoly of the monastic and cathedral schools, thus setting into motion, if somewhat hesitantly, the eventual separation of scientific learning from a religious environment (and of course, Church decree).

So how much could it be argued that from a scientific viewpoint the European Dark Ages weren’t really that dark after all? Compared to the glories of what was to follow, and to a lesser extent the tantalising fragments we know about Ancient Greek thought, the period was certainly a bit grey. But there were definitely a few candles scattered around Europe, whilst such hoary old clich├ęs as everyone believing the Earth to be flat should long since have been consigned to the dustbin of history, Monty Python notwithstanding. So if you are planning to write a history of science, why not undertake a bit of original research and find out what was happening during that much-maligned millennium? The truth, as always, is much more interesting than fiction.