Science and the Medieval University

Science and the Medieval University

By Edward Grant

Rebirth, reform, and resilience: universities in transition, 1300-1700, edited by Kittelson, James M.; Transue, Pamela J. (Ohio State University Press, 1984)

Introduction: Prior to the monumental research on medieval science by Pierre Duhem in the first two dec­ades of this century, the title of this article would have evoked laughter and/or scorn. Any juxtaposition of the terms “science” and “medieval” would have been thought a contradiction in terms.­ Since Duhem’s time, however, and largely because of him and a series of brilliant successors, we have grown accustomed to the concept of medieval science, which has even developed into a significant research field. But now that historians of science have grown accustomed to the idea that there was indeed science in the Middle Ages, the time has come to risk laughter and/or scorn once again by proposing the prima fadae outrageous claim that the medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and direct descendant. It is no exaggeration or distortion to claim that the curriculum of the medieval university was founded on science and largely devoted to teaching about the nature and operation of the physical world. For better or worse, this is surely not true today. This paper will attempt to describe not only the origins of this incredible development, but to present the details that will substantiate the claim that the medieval university provided to all an education that was essentially based on science.

That science became the foundation and core of a medieval university education is directly attributable to the unprecedented translation activity of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. From approximately 1125 to around 1230, a large portion of Greco-Arabic science had been translated from Arabic and Greek into Latin. Prior to this activity, only a miniscule portion of Greek science had ever been made available in Latin. From the Roman Empire period to the twelfth century, western Europe subsisted on a meager scientific fare that had been absorbed into handbooks and encyclopedic treatises associated with the names of Chalcidius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Cas­siodorus, and Venerable Bede. When not merely repetitive, the sum total of science embedded in these treatises was frequently inaccurate, contradictory, and largely superficial. Nothing illustrates the sorry state of affairs better than the virtual absence of Euclid’s Elements. Without the most basic text of geometry, the physical sciences of astronomy, optics, and mechanics were impos­ sible. Although a cosmological picture of the world was available in Chalcidius’ partial translation of Plato’s Timaeus, the latter trea­tise in and of itself did not provide a detailed natural philosophy with adequate physical and metaphysical principles. Despite the lack of geometry and technical science and an inadequate natural philosophy, twelfth century scholars at Chartres, such as Adelard of Bath, Bernard Silvester, Thierry of Chartres, William of Conches, and Clarenbaldus of Arras, had begun to interpret natu­ ral phenomena, and even biblical texts, with critical objectivity. Whether, if given sufficient time, this bold intellectual venture would have generated new insights and theories about the physical world will never be known. For the influx of Greco-Arabic science into western Europe had already begun and would soon over­ whelm the incipient rational science that had been evolving within the context of the old learning.

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