Tag Archives: Medieval Science

The fallacious misunderstanding of the medieval world and why it matters

The medieval world has been characterised as the Dark Ages, a misconception that remains current today. One example that comes to mind is the television presenter and historian who on describing the fall of Constantinople, said that the siege was of little concern to the monks of St.Sophia who would be spending their time debating such unworldly issues as to how many angels could dance on a pin head. What the presenter did not realise was that he was repeating the black propaganda used by the Protestants to discredit there Catholicism. In fact if he had read William of Ockham, he would have discovered that the thinking of medieval theologians was both pragmatic and sophisticated. In fact David Hume cited William as one of key thinkers that influenced his philosophy. His essay the ‘Treatise on Human Nature’ echoes William’s scepticism about the limitations of human reason. Although separated by five hundred years and starting from different intellectual standpoints, there conclusions are remarkably similar. Seb Falk a historian decided to turn this thinking on its head by writing a book about medieval science, that he called ‘The Light Ages’.

Seb Falk’s contention is that despite its mischaracterisation, this time was a period of remarkable scientific and mathematical advance. Sun dials he states that despite their rudimentary construction could be sophisticated means of measuring time. He gives as evidence of this sophistication the astrolabe. A flat disc that when used with a sighting device for checking the position of the stars or sun could determine the viewer’s latitude and longitude. They knew that there location could affect their astronomical reading, as position of the stars the sky would change according to their latitude. John Westryk a monk from St.Albans knew that when he was relocated to Tynemouth could still use an astrolabe made for use at the southern location of St.Albans, because the small variation in latitude would only effect a minimal change in the position of the stars.

Despite their wrongful belief that earth was at the centre of seven concentric circles of heaven, each one being ever closer to God, they were remarkably accurate in their charting of the night sky.

Sailors in the open sea would use the cross staff or astrolabe to find their position. By the fourteenth century sailors were using compasses and charts marked with rhumb lines. The latter were lines leading to various ports. Despite what appears to be the rudimentary nature of their navigational aids, they were capable of accurately navigating the seas. British and other fishermen by the end of this period were beginning to use this technology to find the fisheries located off Newfoundland. Manuscripts suggest that St.Brendan (an Irish monk) of the early medieval period may have been the first European to discover America.

What Seb Falk establishes is remarkable scientific understanding and practice existed within the learned clerical class.

This class also displayed a remarkable openness to non Christian thinking. The Arab philosopher Avicenna was significant, it was through familiarity with his writings that medieval theologians became familiar with the works of Aristotle. It was through the writings of these theologians that Aristotle was reintroduced into the Christian world. Such was the sophistication of their philosophical reasoning, that later philosophers made use of their findings. In fact the use of Avicenna in their writings was controversial, it was the two path controversy. Christians believed that truth could only be found through faith, now Avicenna was saying that truth could be found through philosophy. In fact he believed that only the philosopher could truly know the truths of God. Theologians would accuse their rivals of being adherents of the two truth theory, which was anathema to the church. This and other contentious issues ensured that medieval universities were lively and stimulating centres of learning. Often earning the censure if the church authorities, as happened to the university of Paris.

There is the intriguing story concerning St.Francis of Assisi. He took time out from his reforming work to travel to Spain. Idries Shah believes that he was hoping find the master, a man he made many references to. Shah thinks the master was Rumi the great muslim thinker and poet. Speculation perhaps, but the medieval church was more open to new ideas that is usually thought.

Medieval universities could be lively places of intellectual discovery, but there was a dark side to the medieval university. William of Ockham a particularly controversial thinker was accused of heresy by the master Oxford university, and had to flee to the continent.

I am aware that in describing medieval England as a time of enlightenment and intellectual advance, is painting as partial a picture as that of the Victorians who described it as the dark ages. How should we judge or characterise this period? By its monsters and the crimes they committed or by its best and most enlightened and their achievements? If the former it should be noted that the twentieth century regarded as a time of progress and advance, was a time when there were men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot who committed far worse crimes than there medieval predecessors.

At my last school my colleague taught the ‘Wars of the Roses’, as it was he said, an interesting period of history. Perhaps if we view education as a making a positive contribution to the students development, we should not glorify a group of arrogant, brutal men, who gloried in the butchery of their rivals.

I have always thought we neglect teaching what is best from the past. Once Erasmus’s’ ‘Adages’ was regarded as essential reading for statesman. Now a book only read by the intellectually curious. I value from that book the essay entitled ‘War is sweet only to those who have never tried it’. I think this should be required reading for any aspirant politician on a PPE course.

When we reflect on the achievements of the medieval period, does it not undermine the theory of human history as a constantly upward progressive movement? There are a group of Anglican theologians who think the high Middle Ages represent the peak of human civilisation. These radical orthodox theologians have among their adherents, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.


Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.