Early medieval science: the evidence of Bede

Early medieval science: the evidence of Bede

By Líam Benison

Endeavour, Vol. 24:3 (2000)

Introduction: The Venerable Bede used observable proofs and mathematical calculations in his early 8th-century treatise De temporum ratione to teach the astronomical principles that inform the calculation of the date of Easter. This suggests that the seeds of the modern scientific method might be found before the 12th century in the educational practices of the early medieval monasteries.

The contribution of the early medieval Church to the history of Western science is not widely recognized. The common perception is that little of scientific significance occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire around AD400 and the discovery of Arabic mathematics and the recovery of Aristotle’s works in the 12th century. The persistence of this perception is encouraged by referring to the period as a ‘scientific dark age’. One ‘survey’ of early medieval astronomy simply presents the reader with four blank pages. However, scholars have long recognized that elements of classical science and the rudiments of Ptolemaic astronomy were transmitted during the early Middle Ages. Empiricism, the use of experiment and observable proof to demonstrate a hypothesis, distinguishes modern scientific method from the largely theoretical science of the Classical Age. The nature of the rise of empirical science is, therefore, an important question to historians of Western science. Whether the seeds of empiricism are to be found in monastic science before the 12th century is a question often overlooked by those who refer to the period as the ‘dark ages’.

One of the earliest and most influential works of medieval science is De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time), written around AD 725 by the Venerable Bede (c. 673–735). Bede was a monk, teacher and writer of over 100 works on a variety of subjects including history, exegesis and philosophy. He lived most of his life at the monastery of Jarrow and Wearmouth in Northumbria. The Reckoning of Time is a manual of computus, the medieval study of time and astronomy. It explains the operation of the cosmos and the cycles of time, proposes a model for calculating the date of Easter within the framework of the Julian calendar, and ends with a narrative of world history according to Christian theology. Bede’s work was read widely throughout the Middle Ages and its calendrical model soon came to be regarded as authoritative. With a few adjustments, it remains the calendar that we use today.

Recent reception of Bede’s writings on computus has focused on his contribution to the development of science. Lindberg recognizes Bede’s ‘popularization and preservation’ of classical science, and Stevens regards Bede’s contribution to the calendar as his greatest scientific achievement. More recent studies have argued that Bede played a role in the re-formation of science between late antiquity and the 12th century. For McCluskey, Bede ‘added the natural learning of the continent to the older computistical tradition’ and introduced ‘into the curriculum of English monastic schools those concepts from which Ptolemy’s astronomy had grown’. In Wallis’s assessment, The Reckoning of Time ‘made computus into a science, with a coherent body of precept and a technical literature of its own.

It is perhaps not so surprising to find that Bede transmitted elements of classical scientific knowledge; other Christian writers did that and are among Bede’s many sources: Ambrose, Augustine, Isidore of Seville, Basil and Philippus Presbyter. What is especially interesting to discover in Bede’s work is evidence that he was able to revise and expand scientific knowledge and to use observational methods to demonstrate scientific ideas. However, this does not make Bede an ‘isolated genius’ as Whitfield claims. Although his work is exceptional in many ways, it is also a product of the political exigencies of his society and of the culture of Christian literacy and education within which he lived and wrote.

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