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"Medieval Science," Oxymoron? Think Again - Part 2 of 3


The second part shall focus on the crucial change in the way 12th-century Christian scholars viewed the universe and on the translation movement that came in the wake of the liberation of Toledo in the late 11th century.

medscienceThe first part of the essay has dealt with the state of science in early medieval Europe, showing that notwithstanding the major economic and political difficulties the continent was struggling with at the time, a number of groundbreaking agricultural techniques laid the groundwork for the West's recovery and several Christian scholars did an invaluable job in preserving a portion of the Greco-Roman corpus.  The second part shall focus on the crucial change in the way 12th-century Christian scholars viewed the universe and on the translation movement that came in the wake of the liberation of Toledo in the late 11th century.

12th-century Renaissance

The 12th-century Renaissance constitutes one more step in the West's gradual ascent to scientific and technological supremacy.  The natural philosophers associated with this intellectually fertile period include Adelard of Bath, Thierry of Chartres, William of Conches, Honorius of Autun, Clarenbald of Arras, Hugh of Saint Victor, and others.  These scholars were intimately linked to the Cathedral or urban schools whose emergence during this period as major intellectual centers in cities like Paris, Orleans, Toledo, Chartres, and Cologne reflected the West's renewed urbanization following centuries in which it had been no more than a rural backwater.  Natural philosophers like Thierry of Chartres or William of Conches who taught at these urban schools may not have made original scientific discoveries but they did set forth a distinctly Christian view of nature that proved to be immensely instrumental in sanctioning and encouraging scientific activity in the West.

Drawing on Christian theology, these natural philosophers conceived of the universe as imbued with order and permeated with rationality.  Nature operates not randomly or arbitrarily but according to immutable and consistent physical patterns that are discernible to rational inquiry and amenable to observation.  God is a good and rational creator and as such He has endowed His handiwork with lawfulness, harmony, purpose, and design.  He is the primary or ultimate cause of all that occurs in nature but there are secondary causes (the laws of nature) that operate autonomously and without any divine intervention.  Nature, in other words, is a self-operating and self-sufficient machine, and objects are endowed with the ability to operate according to their nature, to act upon one another, and to cause effects.  God's intervention was confined to the initial act of creation, and since then the universe has operated according to the fixed and regular natural laws the creator had decreed.  God works through natural powers and refrains from actively intruding upon the world.  Miracles, which are the temporary suspension of natural laws, do take place but only once in a while and only against the backdrop of fixed order.  Put differently, miracles are not a regular occurrence because otherwise they would render scientific activity futile.

Just as importantly, man, according to 12th-century scholars, is created in God's image and therefore he is a rational creature who possesses the intellectual capacity to unlock the secrets of the universe and to spell out the laws of nature in earthly language.  Seeking out an understanding of the natural operations of the universe does not affront God or detract from His sovereignty.  Rather, it glorifies Him because the more man studies the natural world, the further he deepens his understanding of God and His magnificence. 

Moreover, scholars of the 12th-century Renaissance advocated a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible so as to avoid any potential conflict between the findings of natural philosophy and revelation.  They sought to exhaust naturalistic and rational explanations of biblical events and only if none was found, should the powers of God be invoked as explanatory devices.  As Andrew of St. Victor advised, "in expounding Scripture, when the event described admits of no natural explanation, then and only then should we have recourse to miracles" (Lindberg's Beginnings 212).  Adelard of Bath extended this approach to the study of nature in general.  He stressed "I will detract nothing from God, for whatever is is from Him," but insisted that "we must listen to the very limits of human knowledge and only when this utterly breaks down should we refer things to God" (Woods 87).  William of Conches propounded a similar view: "I take nothing away from God.  He is the author of all things, evil excepted.  But the nature with which He endowed His creatures accomplishes a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created this very nature" (87).  While today we take such metaphysical assumptions for granted, these ideas marked "a remarkable change of attitude" and a "new spirit of inquiry" (Grant's Foundations 20-21); they were destined to create separate spheres for science and religion and to pave the way for the scientific developments of the late Middle Ages.

I shall say a word or two about Thierry of Chartres, one of the icons of the 12th-century Renaissance.  In his function as Chancellor of the Cathedral School of Chartres, he enthusiastically advocated the study of the liberal arts, namely the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy).  He believed the study of the disciplines of the quadrivium enabled students to discern the patterns with which God had ordered the universe and to appreciate the universe as God's work of art.  The disciplines of the trivium, for their part, allowed students to articulate the insights gained from the study of quadrivium

More importantly, Thierry's views of the universe revolted against the Greek pagan thought current at the time.  First, the ancient Greeks embraced an animistic view of the universe, transforming inanimate objects into living beings capable of emotions, motives, and aims.  Plato, for example, described the cosmos as a living creature pervaded with a world soul responsible for all motions and movements.  Aristotle claimed that celestial bodies moved in circles because of their affection for this action and that objects fell to the ground because of their love for the center of the world.  Broadly speaking, the ancient Greeks attributed change and motion not to natural causes but to the motives or intentions of objects.  Second, Greek philosophers assigned divinity to celestial bodies, with Plato insisting that the planets moved circularly because circularity was the most perfect motion and as such it befitted the divine sun, moon, and other planets.  Third, Aristotle divided the universe into the two diametrically opposed terrestrial and heavenly spheres.  While the earthly region is made up of four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), the celestial domain is composed of a fundamentally different matter called Quintessence.  Aristotle regarded the latter as divine, eternal, incorruptible, weightless, and, above all, immune to any form of change.  He further held that radically different laws governed terrestrial and heavenly motions, and hence different principles ought to account for the motions here on earth and in the celestial region. 

How did Thierry of Chartres deal with these ideas which appeared to run counter to Scripture? In a clear break from the received opinion of his day, he de-animated or depersonalized the universe, ruling out the conception of objects as animate or living beings.  He rejected, in defiance of Plato and Aristotle, the idea that the planets were divine or made up of an imperishable substance subject to laws radically different from those prevalent on earth.  He insisted that all things, including the planets and the matter out of which they were composed, "are subject to change and can perish" (Woods 88).  The stars and the sky, he charged, comprised of water and air rather than the divine Quintessence Aristotle had posited.  We should keep in mind that it was Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the greatest scientist in history, who eventually united terrestrial and planetary physics with the law of universal gravitation.  To conclude, Thierry's groundbreaking insights are believed to have been "positively crucial to the development of science" (88).

Massive Translation Movement

The translation of Greco-Arabic scientific and mathematical texts into Latin from the middle of the 10th century through the 13th and the influx of Greco-Arabic knowledge into the West constituted another important episode in the story of the West's rise to scientific and technological preeminence.  In fact, these supremely seminal developments prepared the ground for the Scientific Revolution.  Translations had begun as early as 10th-century Catalonia.  They continued with Constantine the African (d. 1087) who made Arabic medical texts available in Latin and with Plato of Tivoli who, in cooperation with an Andalusian Jewish scholar named Savasorda, translated, in Barcelona from 1116 to 1138, astronomical and astrological writings. 

The translation process, however, accelerated following the Christian capture of the Spanish city of Toledo from the Arabs.  Recognizing their intellectual inferiority to the Arabs at the time, avid Latin scholars, such as Gerard of Cremona and Dominicus Gundisalvi, flocked to the liberated city to avail themselves of its rich libraries and repository of precious Arabic manuscripts.  They learned Arabic, teamed up with Arabic-speaking Jewish and Christian Spaniards, and together undertook the ambitious project of rendering Arabic texts in science, philosophy, and mathematics into Latin.  The most eminent translator was the Italian Gerard of Cremona (1114-87) who single-handedly put no less than 70 writings into Latin, including valuable texts like Euclid's Elements, Ptolemy's Almagest, Al-Khwarizmi's Algebra, Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine, as well as Aristotle's Physics, On the Heavens, and On Generation and Corruption.  Other Latin translators of Arabic writings include the two Englishmen Adelard of Bath and Robert of Chester.  In addition to Abu Ma'shar's Shorter Introduction to Astronomy and Euclid's Elements, Adelard provided a Latin version of Al-Khwarizmi's Astronomical Tables – a translation "of crucial importance, for through it Western astronomers first learned how to use astronomical tables" (Lindberg's "The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West" 62-63)

It is noteworthy that the translation activity had two channels: Arabic and Greek.  A number of Western scholars — such as William of Moerbeke, James of Venice, Burgundio of Pisa, and Moses of Bergamo — translated Greek texts that had been preserved in the libraries of Byzantium for centuries.  The Flemish Dominican scholar and archbishop of Corinth William of Moerbeke (d. 1286) deserves special treatment due to his enormous output.  His most important contribution was providing a Latin translation of the entire Aristotelian corpus from the original Greek rather than from an Arabic version of Aristotle.  He translated five of Aristotle's works that had never been rendered into Latin before, specifically Politics, Poetics, book 11 of Metaphysics, and two works on animals.  Furthermore, he produced Latin translations of 5 works of Aristotle that had been previously translated into Arabic: the first three books of Meteorology, books 3 and 4 of On the Heavens, and three works on animals.  He revised earlier translations of Aristotle by Boethius, Robert Grosseteste, and James of Venice.  This indefatigable scholar also translated commentaries on Aristotle by Themistius, Alexander of Aphrodisias, John Philoponus, and Simplicius.  He showed much interest in ancient Greek philosophy, studied the Greek language, collected manuscripts, and made almost word-by-word translations not only of Aristotelian texts but of the works of Archimedes, Galen, and Proclus as well.  It is worth pointing out that in his capacity as papal legate, William sought in 1274, albeit unsuccessfully, to realize the union of the Eastern and Western churches. 

By the end of the 13th century, "the bulk of Arabic (and therefore Greek) science and philosophy had been transmitted to Europe" (Watson 280).  This knowledge passed on to southern French towns (Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseilles, and Narbonne) and thence moved to Liege, Germany, and England.  Commenting on the impact of these translations on the future of science in the West, Grant says: "…I asked myself whether a Scientific Revolution could have occurred in the seventeenth century if the level of science had remained what it was in the first half of the twelfth century.  That is, could a scientific revolution have occurred in the seventeenth century if the massive translations of Greco-Arabic science and natural philosophy into Latin had never taken place? The response seemed obvious: no, it could not.  Without the translations, many centuries would have been required before Western Europe could have reached the level of Greco-Arabic science, thus delaying any possibility of a transformation of science" (Foundations xii-xiii).

Works Cited

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Lindberg, C. David. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

_________. "The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West." Science in the Middle Ages, edited by David C. Lindberg, The University of Chicago Press, 1980, 52-90.

Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

Woods E. Thomas. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington: Regnery History, 2012. Print.

Woods E. Thomas. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington: Regnery History, 2012. Print.


"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 1 of 3

"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 2 of 3

"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 3 of 3 




Tamer Nashef. "'Medieval Science,' Oxymoron? Think Again - Part 2 of 3." Catholic Education Resource Center (2016).

Reprinted with permisison of the author, Tamer Nashef.

The Author

Tamer Nashef is an Arab freelance researcher and translator from Israel. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature from the University of Haifa. Nashef is interested in a broad range of topics, especially Western philosophy, intellectual history of civilizations, Christian and Islamic theology with particular emphasis on the relation between science/reason and faith, and English literature. He is planning to write a book on the intellectual, scientific, and legal developments in the Middle Ages that led to the scientific Revolution and the rise of the modern world, and on the status of reason in the Catholic tradition. Nashef speaks three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

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