Early Medieval Science is Changing

One of the many accepted assumptions about the end of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages is that Roman science died, suppressed by belief and ignorance until at best the twelfth century and the rise of ‘reason’.[1] There were a few exceptional figures capable of relatively sophisticated natural philosophy, notably Isidore of Seville and Bede. But, treated as exceptions, they are not taken to reflect much on wider intellectual culture.

Scientific knowledge was at best derivative and restricted to a limited subset of monastic milieux. For modern sensibilities, there was too much God, not enough knowledge for knowledge sake. Even in David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science, in which he tries to be as positive as possible about the period, it is concluded that there is not much to be said.

The Grand Narrative of Progress, however, runs into difficulties with more focused scholarship on the period. I would like to say it is ‘recent scholarship’, but actually it isn’t: it has been a long, steady and careful building up of new material and ideas. The latest volume of the journal Peritia illustrates some of the key issues well with three interesting essays. (There are other interesting essays on other subjects – it is an amazing volume).


New Material

The first essay in Peritia 28, by Jacopo Bisagni (Galway), announces a newly uncovered treasure-trove of early computistica from Ireland and Brittany, copied into an eleventh-century Catalonian manuscript (now Vatican, Reg. lat. 123). Mostly, this material has been excerpted from known texts such as the seventh-century De ratione conputandi, once edited by Daíbhí Ó Cróinín. It also contains material from an Irish text of 754 for predicting eclipses, recently uncovered by Bisagni and Immo Warntjes (TCD).

There is a wealth of scientific material like this in early medieval manuscripts. Much of it is highly technical and anonymous, however, and therefore it has not received the attention that the works of Isidore and Bede have had. Indeed, much of it has sat unidentified and ignored because few researchers have had the requisite knowledge to make sense of the difficult texts. Any time you see a text marked as ‘Isidore’ in a library’s manuscript catalogue, check the manuscript: it might well not be Isidore.

Fleury Mappa Mundi
Mappa Mundi in BAV Reg Lat 123

Work by Bisagni, Warntjes, Ó Cróinín has transformed the field by actually bothering to identify and understand difficult texts, along with work by Borst, Stevens, Cordoliani, Jones and many others. Isidore and Bede, it transpires, were far from alone in being able to write sophisticated, technical works on the natural world. Studies of the dissemination of these texts also reveal much about lost intellectual networks – in the case of Bisagni’s essay, between Ireland, Brittany, and the Loire Valley.


New Strategies for Reading

Prof. Faith Wallis, McGill University, Montreal.
Faith Wallis

New texts and evidence is great, but we also need strategies for reading it. This is precisely what Faith Wallis offers in her contribution to Peritia 28. Wallis has undoubtedly had a transformative impact on early medieval science, with several volumes of translations and commentary on medical, cosmological, theological, and computistical works that make the subjects more accessible than they were 20 years ago. Her essay here concerns what she calls ‘albums of science’ – a common kind of anthology of medical and astronomical material, in which there is no obvious arranging structure (‘as if they were photographs pasted into an album’).

Wallis has long advocated reading manuscripts in their entirety like this, particularly with medical texts.[2] This is because we lose the sense of how people read and used texts if we only use texts in manuscripts to reconstruct the original source material. By reading a single manuscript (her example is Glasgow, Hunter MS 100) one can see ‘science as a kind of wisdom literature, filled with puzzles, dialogues, prophecies, analogies and enumerations, but also intimations of transcendent meaning, for those who meditate on them’. Here, science and medicine are not in tension with religious belief, but part of an evidence-based approach to understanding the world.


New Contexts

A strong point to take away from Wallis’s work is that science is not always just about science in the most limited sense. We do not, however, often see any discussion of it in even the most sophisticated accounts of the period. Work needs to be done on the contexts and impact of scientific knowledge. This is where my contribution to Peritia 28 comes in (as, admittedly, the least of the three contributions). It is also the starting point for my project on ‘Science and Belief in the Making of Early Medieval Europe‘, to be funded by the Leverhulme Trust for 2018-21.

St Willibrord’s Easter Table

In my essay, I look at some of the possible factors that may have affected the dissemination of the Dionysian Easter in the Frankish kingdoms in the eighth century. Easter calculations were one of the great drivers of early medieval science, because they required good technical knowledge of lunar and solar cycles – something for which one needed a grasp of astronomy, maths, and logic. Accuracy, however, did not always determine the models that people ultimately used.

Why did people adopt the Dionysian Easter in the eighth century? Some possible reasons: 1) that was the model used by the monks sponsored by the Pippinid/ Carolingian family at the point when they were extending power elsewhere, 2) there were many new monastic foundations connected to that milieu who needed books and tables, and so adopted the fashionable new models without any baggage from tradition, and 3) the framing of computistical points of principle as points of canon law gave them particular authority.

The important take-home thing here is this: early medieval science was at the heart of a major shift in the way the liturgical cycle was organised in the Frankish kingdoms at the crucial point when Carolingian power eclipsed Merovingian power. But perhaps more than that: I was forced to revisit the age-old debate about whether this shift affected the very structures of historical writing with the introduction of AD-dates… and I still think it did. The science is deep in our records of the period.


Early Medieval Science is Changing

So, our understanding of early medieval science is changing drastically. As researchers find and analyse new texts, we have so much more data than we used to have. We cannot rely on quick nods to Isidore and Bede to characterise the period any more. We also have better ways of reading the evidence to interrogate how texts were used. It is not that case that monks simply archived derivative material: they actively shaped it, thought about it, and yes even applied it. And finally, we can start to look at the bigger pictures, too, in which ‘the stories of science and medicine’ are not just stories about progress of those disciplines, but rather they have important crossovers into the political, cultural and religion histories that early medievalists are more accustomed to write.

Early medieval sciences: they were not the marginal subjects you might have thought.

[1] ‘Reason’ as defined by twelfth-century texts, presumably. It is not as if people before the twelfth century were irrational and confused.

[2] F. Wallis, ‘The experience of the book: manuscripts, texts, and the role of epistemology in early medieval medicine’, in D. Bates (ed.), Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions (Cambridge, 1995), 101-26