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Literature, Logic and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century

An illustration depicting the ‘wolf, goat, cabbage’ puzzle, in the Ormesby Psalter (Oxford,  Bodleian Library MS Douce 366, fol. 89r ).Literature, Logic and Mathematics in the Fourteenth Century

By David Philip Baker

PhD Dissertation, Durham University, 2013

Abstract: This thesis assesses the extent to which fourteenth-century Middle English poets were interested in, and influenced by, traditions of thinking about logic and mathematics. It attempts to demonstrate the imaginative appeal of the logical problems called sophismata, which postulate absurd situations while making use of a stable but evolving, and distinctly recognisable, pool of examples. Logic and mathematics were linked. The ‘puzzle-based’ approach of late-medieval logic stemmed in part from earlier arithmetical puzzle collections.

The fourteenth-century application of the ‘sophismatic’ method to problems concerned with what might now be called ‘Physics’ or ‘Mechanics’ sustained the symbiotic relationship of the two disciplines. An awareness of the importance of this tradition is perhaps indicated by the prominence of logical and mathematical tropes and scenarios in the works of three authors in particular: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the Gawain-poet. It is argued that, in the poetry of all three, what may loosely be called ‘sophismatic tropes’ are used to present concerns that the poets share with the logical and mathematical thought of their time. Certain themes recur, including the following: problematic promises; problematic reference to non-existent things; problems associated with divisibility, limits and the idea of a continuum; and, most importantly, problems focused on the contingency, or otherwise, of the future.

The debate over future contingency was one of the fiercest scholastic controversies of the fourteenth century, with profound implications for both logical and theological thought. It is suggested here that the scholastic debate about future contingency has a visible impact on Chauntecleer’s prophetic dream in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Troilus’s apparent determinism in Troilus and Criseyde, Gower’s presentation of causation in the Confessio Amantis, and the Gawain-poet’s treatment of covenants. The conclusion reached is that fourteenth-century logical and mathematical texts had a significantly wider cultural effect than is generally recognised.

Introduction: There lies hidden, as if through a low door in the wall of late-medieval scholasticism, an enchanted world, a paradise of all things imaginary and absurd. The landscape seems ordinary enough at first, but on closer inspection one might find unlikely features, such as mountains of gold and uncrossable rivers. Roses used to grow plentifully here: but they have all died, and the people of that world struggle to remember them. The inhabitants themselves are even stranger than the landscape. The land is populated by a breed of chameleon men, who change colour over time and depending on their actions. Some of the men remain sedentary, some walk, but most seem to spend their time running as fast as they can, turning white in the process. Socrates lives there, as does Plato, but they squabble incessantly and sometimes even fight. Aristotle also drops by occasionally, to walk his dead horse. Many of the other inhabitants are less well known and bear common medieval names: Richard, William, Walter, Robert, John and Peter. Yet, quite conventionally, presentations of this bizarre society focus on the upper echelons, and the Pope and the King are frequent protagonists in any action. Some inhabitants have very unusual names: an imaginary visitor to this world might witness a child being christened ‘Baf’, just to see if that would make the word mean anything. Family relations are important, but often problematic. One might encounter one’s father or brother at every turn, yet never recognise them: perhaps because one’s father is down on all fours, parading around in a donkey skin, or because one’s brother actually is an ass.

Click here to read this thesis from Durham University

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