Yet More on Scholarship in Medieval Science

The ISIS Critical Bibliography should, perhaps, be supplemented with a look at recent dissertations. While the ISIS Critical Bibliography includes some, I turned to ProQuest for what I assume will be a more complete picture (and crosschecked ProQuest against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Humanities Dissertations, which would really benefit from a search function).

Over the last decade—actually, the last two years are not readily available, so they are not included—58 students at 40 different institutions completed MA or PhD theses. Although training at the graduate level is spread across a wide number of institutions, Chicago, Harvard, and Yale account for 12 of the theses produced. To arrive at these numbers I considered the categories “medieval” and “science” or “medicine” or “technology” very broadly (a number of theses included here would not be classified as “medieval” in the ISIS Critical Bibliography but would be considered “non-Western knowledge”). While students worked on all sorts of topics, religion, medicine, and astronomy/astrology attracted considerable attention.

A totally useless graph showing the number of theses completed each year from 2002-2010.
A totally useless graph showing the number of theses completed each year from 2002-2010.

58 theses in a decade seems promising enough, but I wonder if that number misleads us about the health of History of Science as opposed to the interest in history of science. Most of these theses were produced by students in neighboring departments—e.g., literature, religion, philosophy, political science. On the one hand, I see that as a positive development—it indicates that past sciences are both interesting and considered relevant. On the other hand, as a historian of science, I worry that it does not bode well for the future of the history of medieval science—I don’t want to see the history of science colonized or cannibalized by other disciplines. I, perhaps naively or mistakenly, think training in the history of science as a discipline brings with it an expertise that is not equivalent to and therefore cannot be exchanged for other forms of expertise.