Cecco D’Ascoli and Church Discipline of Natural Philosophers in the Middle Ages

Cecco D’AscoliCecco D’Ascoli and Church Discipline of Natural Philosophers in the Middle Ages

James Hannam

University of London: Master of the Arts in Historical Research at Birkbeck College (2003)


Probably the only natural philosopher of the Middle Ages to be burnt at the stake at the behest of the Church was one Francisco degli Stabili (c. 1269 – 1327) in Florence in late 1327. Francisco, who usually went by the diminutive of Cecco, was the son of one Simon, a man from the central Italian province of Ascoli, where it is likely that Francisco was also brought up as he was most commonly known as Cecco D‟Ascoli. He was a Master of the Arts at the University of Bologna, a career that his father too probably followed as both are called „Magister‟, and where he lectured on astronomy.

Cecco‟s fate once made him a much better known figure than he is today. The Middle Ages have had a bad press and no more so than in the treatment of the period‟s intellectual achievements. In the nineteenth century, the myth took shape that medieval people had no conception of science and essentially lay crushed under the thumb of a church that insisted the Earth was flat. The story of how religion held back the advance of science was given credibility by the work of Andrew Dickson White whose two volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) remains probably the most influential book ever written on the history of science. Its central thesis of a fundamental fissure between scientific and religious thought, that saw the later dominate prior to the Renaissance when reason finally asserted itself, remains the popular view to this day. Cecco makes a cameo appearance in chapter two of this work wherein White attempts to document the efforts of the Church to enforce a view of a flat earth and that the antipodes are consequently a nonsensical idea. Reading carefully, it is by no means clear exactly what the situation was, as White struggles with the near complete lack of evidence for his thesis, but he does seem to imply that Cecco was executed for, among other things, claiming the antipodes existed. In the academy, however, this conflict hypothesis did not long survive Lynn Thorndike‟s massive History of Magic and Experimental Science (1934 – 58) which effectively debunked most of White‟s specific examples. Thorndike also successfully attacked Cecco‟s reputation and after an examination of his life, death and work reported that his name was “better known than the writings and actual achievements of its owner deserve”.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of London

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