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Alternatives to Ptolemy: Astronomy in Carolingian Schools

Alternatives to Ptolemy: Astronomy in Carolingian Schools

By Wesley Stevens

Humanities Research Group, Vol.8 (1999)

Introduction: As a humanist, I wish to discuss astronomy and some other aspects of science in Europe during the middle ages. But was there any real science in those tumultuous times?

Actually, my studies focus on perhaps the worst of times, the sixth to eleventh centuries after Christ in the Latin West. Well-educated people always ask whether the Dark Ages were a bad time for science. Of course it was a bad time! After all, it was the period after the Roman soldiers and lawyers and tax collectors had withdrawn and before the new universities arose in estern Europe. I believe that we might do without tax collectors, but we cannot do without universities. Figure 1 will suggest how the world looked in the early middle ages, yet that is not the same way that contemporary maps of Asia/Europe/Africa appear. This evidence suggests that the world was round in A.D.800, but that about 1900 it must have been flat! That conclusion is only preliminary and must be reviewed. The part which interests us here is western and central Europe, especially the Carolingian Empire.

The public knows with unwonted certainty that the dreadful Germans invaded Western Europe and destroyed all good things, the Roman Empire fell, and then came many wars. This opinion is often offered by research professors in our universities. Historians however do not usually agree with the public, including some of their vociferous colleagues. Today, historians throughout the world recognise that wars and taxes, plagues and famines occur in every period, and the darkest age is usually the current one. They emphasize that in the sixth century most of the new immigrants came into the western lands peacefully, and that many had been invited because of the skills they could bring.

Goths, Alemanns, Bavarians, Burgundians, Franks, Angles, and Saxons came West in order to settle and farm. They built houses, barns, mills, and bridges. Together with earlier local inhabitants, they created markets and new cities like Munich and Paris which did not exist before. A good and healthy life was possible for them at that time. The population increased steadily in all areas of Europe from the sixth to the thirteenth century. A part of the increase and the well being in the early middle ages came with the new immigrants. From the sixth to eleventh century, 90 percent of the people of all races were peasants who raised grain, herded cattle, shovelled manure, and dug their gardens. In Europe the origin of schools came specifically from the demands and the support of farmers.

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