Ordering Knowledge in the Medieval World

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Ordering Knowledge in the Medieval World


During the Middle Ages in Europe, the perception and organization of knowledge underwent a significant transformation that helped make possible the ideas and accomplishments of the Scientific Revolution during the Renaissance and early modern period. As the works of Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) and other ancient philosophers were brought together with the teachings of Christianity and the mathematic and scientific contributions of the Islamic world, a diverse array of knowledge found its way into medieval university curricula and encyclopedias for the learned. The ideas and worldview presented in these institutions and volumes offer insight into how medieval scholars helped turn the ancient world into the modern one.


Science, or natural philosophy as it was better known for many centuries, flourished during the heyday of Greek civilization. The Greek conquests lead by Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) in the fourth century b.c. brought about a mixing of Greek and Roman culture that ultimately resulted in a decline in interest in scientific and mathematical pursuits. While Greek scholars had pursued the study of a wide range of philosophical and scientific subjects with a high degree of sophistication and technical detail, Roman readers and students had more practical and basic interests. As Rome's Latin culture gradually displaced the Greek scholarly tradition, scientific ideas and methods were distilled into encyclopedias or commentaries intended for the leisure reading of Roman gentlemen. From one of these encyclopedias, written by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 b.c.) in the first century b.c., came the model of organizing knowledge into nine liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic (these came to be known as the "trivium"), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music (these were known as the "quadrivium"), medicine, and architecture. The last two were dropped by later writers and scholars, leaving the seven liberal arts to form the framework of knowledge and education in the Roman Empire.

The years of the disintegration and collapse of the Roman Empire saw a decline in education. Schools and the spirit of education continued to exist in some regions of the empire, but in others all connections to the knowledge and traditions of the classical period were lost. As Christianity and its European institutions began to strengthen in the fourth century a.d., monasteries became new centers for learning. Monasteries ran schools for initiates (and sometimes for more affluent local children) and maintained libraries and scriptoria (rooms where manuscripts could be copied). The education offered in these schools was predominantly spiritual, relying mainly upon biblical texts, commentaries, and devotional writings. Classical learning was not entirely abandoned, however; encyclopedias written by seventh-century Christian scholars survive and reveal the use of both Christian and Greek sources to describe the natural and man-made worlds.

Christianity provided not only the institutions that perpetuated intellectual life during the Middle Ages, it was also the ideological underpinning of all scholarly work. From the fourth century onward, Christian writers and scholars were guided by Saint Augustine's (354-430) principle that the study of nature should serve as a "handmaiden" to religious devotion. By viewing, appreciating, and understanding nature, one could better appreciate God's works. While this subordinate position for science may seem oppressive to modern readers, it actually provided some justification and stimulus for the study of nature and eventually aided in the advance of scientific ideas and methods.

Monastic schools provided a limited context for the study of academic subjects during the early Middle Ages. During the reign of Charlemagne (742-814), however, social reforms brought new schools to monasteries and cathedrals throughout the Carolingian empire (which by then encompassed most of Western Europe). Within these schools the study of the seven liberal arts was revived, and for the first time scientific and mathematical subjects were enriched by some contact with texts produced in the Islam world. While Western Europe had ceased to advance the scientific subjects mastered by the Greeks—geometry, optics, astronomy, and other branches of mathematics—Islamic scholars preserved, studied, and improved upon these works during the ninth through thirteenth centuries. During the Western revival of interest in Greek scholarship in around the tenth century, and for the next 400 years, European scholars relied upon Islamic texts.

Charlemagne's schools were the first step in the establishment of a robust scholarly tradition in Europe. Thanks to political stability and increasing affluence due to technological and social innovations, the population of Europe grew rapidly beginning around 1000. Urban centers, which had withered in the early Middle Ages, once again held large portions of the population and provided a fertile ground for the development of culture and intellectual life. The schools that formed in these cities served a diverse group of students, whose needs were more practical than spiritual. The subjects of the "quadrivium" gained in importance, and along with law and medicine formed the core of the new curricula. Classical texts took a prominent place alongside Christian sources. As society became more complicated—for example, through the rise of commerce—attempts to rationalize and systematize affairs of all kinds prevailed. This had an influence on the organization of knowledge inside as well as outside the schools, and led to an intellectual ferment that, in a few hundred years, moved natural philosophy from the periphery to the center of not only the school curricula, but the world itself.


By the thirteenth century, major universities were flourishing in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, with student populations ranging from 500 to 2,500 young men. These were typically organized into four faculties: an undergraduate faculty of liberal arts and three advanced faculties for the study of law, medicine, and theology. The liberal arts curriculum had expanded from the classical pattern to include moral philosophy, metaphysics, and natural philosophy. The technical methods of arithmetic and geometry were touched upon in the basic curriculum, as were those of astronomy (emphasizing astrological principles and the important methods of calendar establishment and timekeeping). Of more central importance, however, was Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle's works on cosmology, physics, meteorology, and natural history were mandatory reading for all students. Because these subjects, then at the heart of the university curriculum, were learned by all through study of Aristotle's works and commentaries upon them, these ideas were universally understood and moved easily from one university to another, creating a cosmopolitan intellectual worldview that helped to unify scholars throughout Europe.

Universities subsequently became the seats of learning in medieval Europe. Scientific study, based on the texts being rediscovered and translated from the Greek and Islamic traditions, shared a place in the curriculum with Christian theology and Aristotelian logic. But while the subjects themselves remained organized into separate areas of study, methodological approaches began to be applied across disciplines. The critical evaluation of statements and ideas characteristic of Aristotelian logic was used to consider claims about nature, and even theological doctrine. This led to tensions between the Church and the universities, and several times during the thirteenth century the pope issued bans on the study of Aristotle. But Aristotle's works proved irresistible to scholars, and much effort was devoted to reconciling Aristotle's claims with those of the Bible. The "handmaiden" ideal motivated scholars who tried to bring Aristotle's scientific claims in line with Christian theology as they worked to show that this vast body of knowledge about the world could be put to use to serve man and the Church.

From the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century the outward organization of knowledge changed little. University curricula remained fixed, and tensions between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology persisted, with the latter maintaining supremacy in the work of nearly every scholar. However, within the separate areas of study, such as physics and astronomy, critical analysis and investigation of particular claims made in ancient texts led gradually to new ways of thinking about the natural world. Careful curiosity about the details of the physics of motion, for example, prompted fourteenth-century investigators to frame questions and attempt solutions that would later inspire Galileo (1564-1642). Astronomical observations and calculations made in the late Middle Ages made possible the groundbreaking work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

By name and definition, the "scientific revolution" of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries shows a strong break with earlier traditions. But it is undoubtedly true that without the organization of knowledge in the medieval universities—the high esteem given to critical judgment by Aristotelian philosophy, the importance of using such criticism to reconcile Aristotelian ideas with Christian doctrine, and the freedom to consider particular scientific claims without regard to contentious theological issues—the tools to make the revolution would not have existed.


Further Reading

Crombie, A.C. Medieval and Early Modern Science. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1959.

Dijksterhuis, E.J. The Mechanization of the World Picture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Grant, Edward. Physical Science in the Middle Ages. New York: Wiley, 1971.

Kelley, Donald, ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early-Modern Europe. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Lindberg, David, ed. Science in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Singer, Charles. A Short History of Anatomy and Physiology from the Greeks to Harvey. New York: Dover, 1957.

Siraisi, Nancy G. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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