Me Talking About Medieval ‘Science (& Belief)’

Yesterday I gave a short talk about my new project to the Late Antique Work In Progress seminar in the School of Classics at St Andrews. You can hear me burbling here:

The two manuscripts I discuss are both available online if you want to play along:

Bamberg, Msc.Patr. 61.

Bern, MS 611.

Some good issues were raised in response:

Q: ‘How will you deal with magic? Will that be ruled out of the analysis?’ A: I wouldn’t rule ‘magic’ out in principle. One person’s magic might be considered science by someone else and vice versa. As the project looks to explore the intersections of religion and knowledge about nature, I want to keep categories open until I have to make cuts for space.

Q: ‘Why use the word “science” if it’s not a word people used at the time?’/ ‘Could you identify an appropriate term from the time and bring it forward?’ A: Pragmatically, ‘science’ immediately evokes a rough intellectual territory that non-specialists would understand. The common banner-term in the sources is ‘philosophy’ (philosophia), which either evokes something different to a modern audience, or else leads to the term ‘natural philosophy’ which itself brings some historiographical baggage that needs unpacking.

Q: ‘Why not build things around more focused case studies [e.g. Isidore or Bede]?’ A: I want to get away from building analysis around the four or five famous individuals, when that has led us thus far to ignore or undervalue the vast majority of evidence for late-antique or early-medieval sciences, which is anonymous and unedited. I do, however, want to have focused studies of individual manuscripts and, where possible, intellectual centres (ie cathedral or monastic schools, maybe royal courts where possible).

Q: ‘Should you really have ruled out talking about the grammar and law sections of Bern Burgerbibliothek MS 611?’ A: Only because of time and space on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon! It is a good point – I do want to situate science and belief, together, within wider intellectual habits. The logic of grammar and law certainly did affect the way that people understood the natural world and biblical text. Part of the point of ‘science-as-philosophy’ is that it is about ‘the whole industry of ancient knowledge ordering’ (as Jason König noted in König & Woolf, Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture 2017. Jason was in the audience and the question was asked by Jill Harries, who contributed to that volume on law).

Q: ‘The talk is very much slanted towards discussion of science. How does belief fit in?’ A: This is my strategic failing in the talk, because I being drawn towards the field I know least well after writing three books on different aspects of medieval religion. Fundamentally, I don’t accept that there was a blanket conflict between science and belief in the (early) Middle Ages. Not at the level we have sources for, at least. People interrogated, quantified, and rationalised the natural world – not simply with ‘magic evidence’, but with mathematics and (admittedly not always perfect) logic. They did the same with biblical texts, if you look at medieval exegetical traditions. Indeed, those traditions are intimately linked, because people sought to understand Creation, rationalise biblical stories, and establish a basis for differentiating between miracle, omen, and natural occurances. Scientific knowledge also fed back into religious practice, most notably through computus and the calculation of the liturgical calendar using astronomy and mathematics. Ultimately, then, I want to analyse the demonstrable interplay between what we would call religious and scientific thought to gain a better understanding of how they shaped each other.

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