The Future of Medieval Science?

In my continuing survey of the history of medieval science, I turned to the recent and incredibly expensive Handbook of Medieval Studies, edited by A. Classen. Relying on just the Handbook of Medieval Studies, you would think that current scholarship pays little attention to medieval science. Only a handful of topics rank among the “Main Topics and Debates of the Last Decades:”

Main Topics and Debates

  • Natural Sciences in the Islamic Context (a subcategory under “Arabic and Islamic Studies”)
  • Astronomical Instruments—David King, History of Science, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität:
    King underscores a point he has made forcefully: medieval instruments and the texts that describe them offer rich sources for understanding medieval science and society more broadly. He calls for a “catalogue of the entire corpus of surviving medieval insturments … and a survey of the related literature.” Part of his catalogue has been realized by Catherine Eagleton’s book on navicula.
  • Botany (Alain Touwaide, Department of Botany, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
  • Byzantine Science (Alain Touwaide, Department of Botany, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
  • Metrology
  • Technology in the Middle Ages—Thomas Glick, History and Gastronomy, Boston University:
    He lets Lynn White’s three theses—technological roots of the agricultural revolution, the possibility of a medieval industrial revolution using water power, the origins of feudalism in the stirrup—structure his survey.
  • Time Measurement & Chronology

I was surprise not to see, inter alia, magic, medicine, and occult sciences. The “Textual Genres” section again gives the impression that only a few of the sciences occupy only a small place in medieval studies. Maybe bestiaries, charms, cookbooks, and lapidaries are trendy. Griffin’s entry on scientific texts approached them as either artes liberales (theoretical) or artes mechanicae (material). It is unclear why these poles were chosen to characterize texts. It is equally unclear how all sorts of other texts, e.g., astrology, demonology, encyclopedias, instruments, magic, medicine (which are not explicitly the topic for other entries), fit into this scheme.

Two other items struck me:

  • Most of the authors called for more and better critical editions.
  • Most of the authors were not historians of science.

The first of these issues seems incredibly traditional, if completely defensible. The second seems to reflect what I noted yesterday—that scholarship on medieval science is moving out of traditional history of science and into all sorts neighboring disciplines.

Important “Textual Genres” according to Handbook of Medieval Studies

Textual Genres

  • Bestiaries, Aviaries, Physiologus (Renee Ward, English, University of Alberta)
  • Charms & Incantations (Russell Poole, English, University of Western Ontario)
  • Cookbooks (Timothy Tomasik, French, Valparaiso University)
  • Lapidaries—Rosmarie Thee Morewedge, German & Russian Studies, SUNY Binghamton:
    She classifies lapidaries as either allegorical or scientific-magical-medical. Both approaches owe much to traditional scholarship, such as George Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science (1927-1948), William Jones, Precious Stones: Their History and Mystery (1880) and Hans Stäubli, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (1927-1942). Recent work has tried to understand lapidaries as a marker for “secular, scientific thinking.”
    She characterizes Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages as descriptive rather than analytical. Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine (1990) is also cited as useful for understanding the shift in medical practice after the “reception of Greek science, Ptolemaic astronomy, Aristotelian logic, epistemology, cosmology and physics.” I wonder if she is expecting too much from textbooks—Kieckhefer is less interested in providing a monograph on lapidaries than a handy text on all of medieval magic aimed at undergraduates.
    Isabelle Draelants work on encyclopedias and lapidaries is held up as exemplary: I. Draelants, “Encyclopédies et lapidaires médiévaux: La durable autorité d’Isidore de Séville et de ses Étymologies” Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes 16 (2008).
  • Pharmaceutical literature—Alain Touwaide, Department of Botany, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History:
    Touwaide notes a dearth of scholarly attention directed at pharmaceutical literature. As an area of interest, he notes that it doesn’t fit neatly into academia as its currently organized. So little work has been produced, that he shies away from drawing generalizations. He calls for proper inventories of manuscripts, production of editions based on “an exhaustive heuristic of the manuscripts, their accurate examination and description, and a systematic comparison of the text under study in all of them.”
    He surveys a wide range of types of pharmaceutical literature that awaits scholarly attention (some of which don’t seem initially like pharmaceutical literature): amulets, animals, antidotarium, Arzneibuch, astrological herbals, calendars, compendia, compound medicines, diet, electuary, formulary, herbals, materia medica, pharmacopoeia, poisons, recipes, theriac.
  • Scientific texts—Carrie Griffin, English, University College Cork:
    Griffin stresses the continued need for more and improved catalogs and critical editions of texts. She cites the enduring value of Lynn Thorndike’s and Thorndike and Pearl Kibre’s A Catalogue of Incipits of Medieval Scientific Writing in Latin.
    She also highlights need for additional textual studies on medieval technology.
  • World maps—Jens Eike Schnall, Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies, University of Bergen:
    Connects the history of world maps to traditional scholarship, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. He discusses classification schemes, periodization, the geographical framework, and the function. Particularly for the last two topics, Schnall situates his discussion in modern scholarship. He summarizes the last three decades as a shift toward symbolic and narrative functions as well as towards a theory of cartography.

This picture can be contrasted with David Lindberg’s survey, Science in the Middle Ages from 1978. That book contained the following chapters, all written by historians of science:

  • Science, Technology, and Economic Progress
  • The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West
  • The Philosophical Setting
  • The Institutional Setting
  • Mathematics
  • The Science of Weights
  • The Science of Motion
  • Cosmology
  • Astronomy
  • The Science of Optics
  • The Science of Matter
  • Medicine
  • Natural History
  • The Nature, Scope, and Classification of the Science
  • Science and Magic

These chapters were often dense and technical, e.g., Edward Grant’s chapter on cosmology includes a table showing the radius, circumference, distance of convex and concave surfaces of planetary spheres from the center of earth, and the thickness of the spheres—fyi, it’s 73,387,747 miles to the concave surface of the sphere of the fixed stars (ugh). Clearly, scholarship on the history of science has changed.