What did it mean to be a person in the Middle Ages who had a ‘profound ignorance of nature’?


Neil deGrasse Tyson recently commented about how the word ‘disaster’ was ‘prescientific’ and pertained to a time when ‘misfortune was commonly blamed on cosmic events’. This was illustrated by the famous image of people standing amazed and pointing at Halley’s Comet in 1066 as an omen of the bad things to come. How typical of those medievals that they blamed a comet!

Comets are actually a bad example of ‘bad pre-science’ (not that he actually said otherwise). Comets are a bit random. Okay, Halley’s Comet swings by every 75-6 years, so it is almost predictable, but it’s not easy to monitor at that interval. In general, comets fall outside the regular rhythms of the cosmos. Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville both mention that comets might presage some kind of disaster, usually the death of a king or an outbreak of plague. They do not say that comets CAUSED disaster. In Gregory’s case, he links a comet witnessed in 575 to the murder of King Sigibert I afterwards, but he was pretty sure that Sigibert was killed by assassins sent by Queen Fredegund (Histories IV. 51). Unpredictable events in nature often work as commentary rather than explanation. Earthly events were messed up and so was the cosmos.

Gregory’s attitude was not rooted in a straight-up ‘profound ignorance of nature’. In his Histories, most of his descriptions of nature tend to be when nature is out of balance. The summer is too humid, the winter is too warm, there were unprecedented floods, there were roses in January. Nature was best and most reassuring when it behaved – but of course, you need to have at least a basic understanding of nature to appreciate that. Might it be surprising that people in largely rural premodern societies were probably much more in-tune with nature than people living in modern urban worlds now?

In another work, Gregory wrote about how to chart the course of the stars through the year to structure liturgical night offices. His intention was religious, sure, but it shows that he knew enough astronomy to do this and expected his audience to be able to cope with precise observations. The natural world was full of rhythm and complexity that could be witnessed, modelled, and understood. God’s creation was rational and comprehensible.

Some people understood ignorance and limits. In his encyclopaedic Etymologies, Isidore made a distinction between wisdom (scientia) and opinion (opinatio), stressing that opinion was that for which there was no firm foundation (Etym 2.24.1). What counted as opinion? To illustrate the issue, he picked on the matter of whether the stars floated or whether they were attached to some kind of firmament. One could laugh but, without telescopes and satellites and computers, one has to appreciate that what Isidore was stressing was that there were limits to what could be known, because they were limits to what could be verified by observation and reason.

The seventh-century Irish cosmology, On the Order of Creation, provides a nice illustration of Isidore’s point in action. The author describes the cosmos, starting with the heavens, and moving to the earth and the seas. When discussing theories of the nature of the stars, he is cautious, and explicitly cites different models from his reading as opinions that are worth considering. He drops the equivocation when it gets to the mathematical modelling of luni-solar cycles or things like movement of the tides, because those were things that behaved predictably and thus bowed to reason, number and observation. There was no room for opinion there.

Did this mean all medievals were completely rationalistic in their approach to nature? Of course not. But, writing this during the coronavirus pandemic, it is not as if there isn’t plenty of evidence for the co-existence of scientia and opinatio now either.

There are interesting presentist angles to NdGT’s ‘profound ignorance of the profound ignorance of medieval nature’. He keeps on bringing the subject up after all, but he doesn’t seem much interested in studying it in any detail. Why? Because it is not about premodern sciences and rationality. It is all about defining modern science and its attendant sensibilities. It is very strange to condemn ancient and medieval societies for being ‘profoundly ignorant’ of scientific knowledge and methods that hadn’t been invented until later. But of course he is (usually pretty explicitly) attacking people now who should know better. It isn’t about the past.

This has been fundamental to the history of science since its modern beginnings. William Whewell, in his seminal 1837 History of the Inductive Sciences, started out with a lengthy condemnation of the indistinct thinking of premodern societies before the Scientific Revolution. And he is credited with inventing the term ‘scientist’ so this really goes Back to the Beginning. (He also denied that superstitious non-Europeans could ever have invented sciences, but that is another dark story). There are still many eminent historians of science who firmly believe that premodern sciences are no sciences at all because they do not conform to the epistemologies and methods of the present. Fine. There isn’t a lot to gain by arguing endlessly that medieval science was more sophisticated than people often imagine if they are just going to proclaim the Achievements of Modernity as an unbeatable counterargument. Modern science has always been dogmatically defined by the perceived otherness of its premodern history.

But the simple binary of modern and premodern science is still too crude. Sciences are pursued differently relative to time and space, with different value systems attached to them as practioners navigate money, politics, technical limitations, and crazy. There are always curious and informed investigators, and people happy that their uninformed opinion will suffice. Science does not exist outside history and society, especially not science-as-technology. Science comes in many guises and will only change again to meet new demands and challenges. Appreciations of the many ways in which sciences have intersected with other worlds of knowledge and belief will always be useful to reimagining what it could and should do.