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The Nature of West European Science in the Late Middle Ages (1200-1500)

The Nature of West European Science in the Late Middle Ages (1200-1500)

By Edward Grant

Lecture given at the International Symposium on Traditional Sciences in Seoul, Korea (1993)

Detail of a miniature of Beatrice explaining some scientific theories to Dante, including the appearance of the moon.  Photo courtesy British Library

Introduction: By the twelfth century, western Europe had developed a hunger for new secular learning. Up to that time, what scholars knew about the physical world was derived from traditional Latin handbooks that contained the remnants of a popular science that went back to the Greeks of the Hellenistic period. The knowledge they sought has been appropriately characterized as “Greco-Arabic” science because it consisted of works written in Greek within a Greek cultural orbit going back as far as the 5th century B.C., and also of works written in Arabic that had been either translated from Greek or were original compositions. The number of works translated from Arabic into Latin far exceeded those translated from Greek into Latin. These translations were made by scholars from all parts of Europe, who went to Spain, Sicily, and northern Italy, or were already inhabitants of these places. Most of those who translated from Arabic to Latin had to learn Arabic, which was not their native language. Without their extraordinary achievements, late medieval science in Europe might never have occurred.

 

This vast amount of new learning that entered western Europe, and which had never before known in the Latin language, is appropriately divisible into two categories: the first includes treatises that were devoted to technical science, such as Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest; the second embraces those that were classifiable as works of natural philosophy, especially those written by Aristotle (along with commentaries on Aristotle’s treatises by the Arabian commentators, Averroes [1126-1198] and Avicenna [980-1037]).

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Although both of these divisions of Greco-Arabic science were important for the development of the history of science, I will argue that what medieval scholars did with natural philosophy and the role they assigned to it in intellectual life was ultimately more important than what they did with the technical sciences. In this lecture, I shall focus on the role of natural philosophy.

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