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Science and Church in the Middle Ages


(Citations should appear when you hold your cursor over the word [NOTE])

Natural philosophy, or natural science as it was sometimes called, was one of the key subjects taught at medieval universities and also something that exercised the minds of such esteemed doctors of theology as Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Nicole Oresme who all wrote commentaries on Aristotle that excluded religious ideas [NOTE]pp 191ff, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001). This runs contrary to the popular view of the Middle Ages being something of a dark age for science, dominated by the rule of faith rather than the light of reason. More sophisticated critics have followed the lead of early humanists like Erasmus in mocking the ‘concepts, relations, instants, formalities, quididities and ecceites’ [NOTE]p 88, Erasmus, In Praise of Folly, Betty Radice (trans.) (Harmondsworth, 1993) of scholastic logic and rationalism. Thus the period has been damned for putting both too much and too little emphasis on reason. The Church has received much of the blame for the alleged deficiencies in medieval intellectual life, most influentially by the nineteenth century writers John Draper and Andrew Dickson White. The arguments against their simplistic account of a great conflict between science and religion are now well rehearsed and were recently summed up:

Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship [NOTE]p 15 Colin Russell, "The Conflict of Science and Religion" in Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion (New York, 2000).

In the mid-twentieth century, Lynn Thorndike was so keen to correct the impression given by Draper and White that he sometimes descends into hyperbole, accusing his predecessors of holding ‘the old view, or rather assumption, that every medieval scientist was persecuted by the church’ [NOTE]p 949 vol II, Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York, 1934 - 58). But today the historical relationship between science and religion is essentially an open question. The various answers depend on the factors found in particular periods and cultures and, as far as the Middle Ages are concerned, to what extent the Church limited or encouraged academic scientific thought and what, if any, the effects have been. If we analyse the situation closely, we might find that creative tension would be a more accurate picture of the relationship between science and religion, not only in this period, but also in many others.

During the Middle Ages, the education infrastructure of Europe was overseen, if not managed, by the Church. That role, which meant acting as both the guarantor of academic freedom and arbitrator of its boundaries, tended to be carried out with a light touch and by ensuring the right people were placed in the key positions. Combined with their status as self-governing corporations of scholars, this gave the universities independence from local influence and the freedom to speculate in a wide range of fields which also meant their declarations were highly valued.

The universities

The previously unknown notion of the university as a self-governing academic institution did not appear until the Middle Ages and it can be argued that it was one of the most important advances in the history of ideas. Previous models of education and research establishments had existed, such as the Museum of Alexandria answerable to the king, the schools of Athens answerable to a single scholar and the madrasas of Islam whose activities were rigidly limited by religious law and the wishes of their founders [NOTE]p 75, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995), but none of these cases are equivalent to the new concept of the European university.

Once cathedral schools moved beyond just training the clergy, they found themselves needing to hold on to respected teachers in order to attract fee-paying students. The result of this was a shift in power from the cathedral chapter to the scholars themselves. By the late eleventh century they were using new developments in civil and canon law to form a universitas or corporation (the actual term for an academic university was studium generale) in a similar manner to the craft guilds also appearing at this time [NOTE]p 134, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995). The vital concept was that a corporation had a distinct legal personality separate from its members that allowed them to show a single face to the outside world while independently being able to govern the workings of the corporation from within.

A city or state was willing to make considerable allowances for a whole group of scholars so the university was granted legal immunities and privileges, which could later be recognised internationally by the Pope who, for example, bestowed his benediction on Oxford in 1254 [NOTE]p xlii, Strickland Gibson (ed.), Statvta Antiqva Vniversitatis Oxoniensis (Oxford, 1931). Furthermore, the masters needed students and they could form a universitas of their own. Thus Bologna, usually recognised as the first university, was a corporation of students (universitas scholarium), while Oxford and Paris were corporations of masters (universitas magistrorum). No foundation documents exist for these earliest institutions but later in the Middle Ages universities were specifically set up by localities or rulers with charters that give a good idea of what was considered the usual form. Of the earliest universities, Bologna began as a secular law school for the study of the newly rediscovered Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian [NOTE]p 123, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995) while Oxford and Paris both grew out of a loose association of clerical private teachers [NOTE]p 125, Pearl Kibre and Nancy Siraisi, "The Institutional Setting: The Universities" in Science in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1978). Later disputes led to an exodus from Bologna of students and masters to Padua [NOTE]p 10 vol II, Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (Oxford, 1936) among other places, while Cambridge was founded after a similar migration from Oxford.

By the fourteenth century, the university had become the centrepiece of European intellectual life with new foundations appearing as kings and bishops attempted to enhance their own prestige. They were even willing to try and lure away scholars in established universities with the promise of safety and privileges such as when Henry III tried to tempt the masters of Paris over to England [NOTE]p 278, Richard Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1990). As antiquity leant further authority, the earliest universities claimed mythical foundations. Alfred the Great was said to have endowed Oxford, Charlemagne to have founded Paris and, most ancient of all, the Roman Emperor Theodosius II to have given a charter to Bologna [NOTE]p 142 vol I, Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (Oxford, 1936). Universities founded later needed to earn their position by the quality of their scholars and recognition by a pope or emperor. Not all of them, such as the short lived Piacenza [NOTE]p 38 vol II, Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (Oxford, 1936), succeeded. As for the students themselves, they were already moaning regularly about tuition fees [NOTE]p 277, Richard Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1990) and had given rise to the popular perception, reproduced by Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale, of being pranksters or, according to Alvarus Pelagius [NOTE]p 173, Lynn Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1971), good-for-nothing layabouts or violent thugs. The extremely long time away from home it could take to gain a degree, the need for funds or benefices to pay the fees and, probably, sheer boredom, meant the drop out rate was very high, with only a low proportion of students even completing a degree, let alone a doctorate in law, theology or medicine. On the other hand, the number who stayed for a year or two and left with a modicum of higher education to aid in finding a good career was quite great. It is estimated that the number of people gaining some sort of university experience in Western Europe before the Reformation is as high as 750,000 and they thus formed a substantial literate population [NOTE]p 37, Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1996).

Another important factor in the development of the universities was their adoption by the mendicant orders. Both the Franciscans and Dominicans saw their mission as preaching and for this they required well-educated brothers who could engage difficult subjects with ease. An intellectual rivalry grew up between the two orders, which led to competition between them to get their brothers into the choicest university appointments. The interest that these rich and powerful orders had in the success of the universities further enhanced all parties’ prestige and provided a useful way for individual scholars to continue in their chosen careers. For, although an individual mendicant could have no money himself, he was looked after as a valued member of his order who furthermore paid the substantial tuition fees. Hence, for the student struggling through the many years of study required to finally gain the doctorate in theology, joining the friars might be a very good idea [NOTE]p 294, Richard Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London, 1990).

The power of the mendicants did cause some difficulties, as their priorities did not always coincide with those of the universities. The orders wanted trained preachers with theology degrees and were not too concerned that they should receive the Master of Arts (the ‘MA’) degree first as regulations required. The universities, on the other hand, not least because they needed the students, tried to insist that an MA was an essential prerequisite for studying in the theology faculty. Hence the relationship between the mendicants and the universities was not easy and led at times to serious strife [NOTE]p378 vol I, Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (Oxford, 1936).

The state of scientific knowledge

By the beginning of the thirteenth century much of the surviving work of the ancient Greeks had been recovered in the Latin West, as well as the commentaries and advances made by the Arabs who were much more than simple transmitters. The supremacy of Aristotle as ‘the Philosopher’, firmly established in Western Europe by 1300, did not come without some resistance, especially to the way his ideas had been adapted by his Arab Commentator, Averröes. Innocent III condemned Aristotle’s natural philosophy in 1210 [NOTE]p 27, Lynn Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1971) and, when this had little effect, a committee was set up at Paris in 1231 to expunge the Aristotelian corpus of heretical ideas so that they would be suitable for teaching [NOTE]p 39, Lynn Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1971). Whether this plan came to fruition either is not clear as certainly, by 1255, his works were back on the syllabus [NOTE]p 71, Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1996). The crisis came when, following the teaching of Siger of Brabant at Paris around 1270, many theses derived from Aristotle and Averröes were declared heretical both at Paris and at Oxford following a papal sponsored investigation by Bishop Stephen Tempier [NOTE]p 40, JMMH Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris, 1200 - 1400 (Philadelphia, 1998). The Averroists had allegedly tried to insist on the doctrine of the double truth whereby philosophy and theology were kept in separate boxes but this was roundly condemned [NOTE]p 199, Edward Grant, "Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution" Journal of the History of Ideas 23:2 1962. The 219 theses condemned by Tempier at Paris in 1277 have become a fetish in the study of scholastic natural philosophy, either being held up both as an example of ecclesiastical censorship or, after Pierre Duhem, as science breaking free from the dead hand of Aristotle [NOTE]p 244, Pierre Duhem, Essays on the History and Philosophy of Science (Indianopolis 1996).

The effects of the condemnation of 1277 took several decades to work themselves out as it was not only the Averroists who were included in its prohibitions but also some of their opponents. It had been realised that, while Aristotle held the solution to many problems, he also needed to be Christianised and this work was perfected by Thomas Aquinas, who, in rejecting extreme Averroism, rehabilitated Aristotle’s ideas so as to make them safe for Christian consumption. Thomas Aquinas was already dead when the condemnations of 1277 were promulgated, and not only were several of his opinions included, but also one of his pupils, the highly esteemed Augustian canon Giles of Rome, found fifty one articles from his commentary on book one of Peter Lombard’s Sentences condemned by Tempier. Giles, who had attacked the radical doctrines of the Averroists and felt he was being strictly orthodox, defended himself and refused to recant [NOTE]p 98, JMMH Thijssen, "1277 Revisited: A New Interpretation of the Doctrinal Investigations of Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome" Vivarium 34, 1997. The case seems to have been suspended after Giles left Paris of his own accord but in 1285 Pope Honorius IV asked the university to reconsider, even though there is no record of Giles actually making an appeal, and he was rehabilitated [NOTE]art 633 Denifle H and Chatelain E (eds.), Chartularium universitatis parisiensis (Paris, 1889). This episode does not appear to have had a negative impact on Giles’ future career which ended with him installed as Archbishop of Bourges. Aquinas himself was canonised by John XXII in 1323 which resulted in his work being declared free of heresy and the 1277 condemnations were interpreted accordingly. It appeared that the synthesis between moderate Aristotelianism and Christianity was victorious although this did not prevent numerous other philosophical ideas from being supported in the years that followed and Aquinas himself did not enjoy the reputation as a ‘Universal Doctor’ of the Church until the Counter Reformation when Pius V bestowed the title on him.

That Aristotle is fallible was realised early. Ptolemy found he needed to enhance his cosmology of pure circles with epicycles and other additions even while keeping to a geocentric system [NOTE]p 6, Brian Stock, "Science, Technology and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages" in Science in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1978). In sixth century Alexandria, John Philoponus noted that heavy objects do not fall faster than light ones as the Philosopher claimed that they must do [NOTE]p 11, Brian Stock, "Science, Technology and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages" in Science in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1978). When Aristotle was rediscovered in the West, it was soon established that when there were clear conflicts between his philosophy and the Christian faith, the latter should always prevail. This was not much of a handicap, as on the subject of physical science, faith did not really have a lot to say. The bible could be read non-literally where necessary, as Augustine himself allowed, so William of Conches could even call the creation account in Genesis figurative [NOTE]p 104, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995). Nearly everyone agreed that the earth was a sphere even though the Bible implied a flat earth. But where Aristotle and faith were in clear conflict, such as his claim that the world was uncreated and eternal, it weakened his authority and allowed his ideas to be challenged. This opened the door to the idea of a developing body of knowledge, which is often assumed to have been absent from the medieval outlook [NOTE] AG Molland AG "Medieval Ideas of Scientific Progress" Journal of the History of Ideas 39:4, 1978. While there was certainly no sense of the Baconian project of human improvement, the fact that ideas were being discussed, criticised and rejected does suggest a desire for new knowledge rather than just commenting on an existing corpus that was supposed to contain all the answers, if only they could be extracted. In the main, however, it was the schoolmen’s propensity to put the authorities before observation, parodied by Galileo [NOTE]p 308, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001) and vividly demonstrated by the inability of anatomists before Nicolaus Vesalius to note the deficiencies in Galen’s schema, that held sway.

Theoretical work to improve explanations gave rise to impetus theory from the likes of John Buridan, Nicole Oresme’s considerations about possible rotation of the earth, and eventually Copernicus who moved the sun to the centre of the universe. But none of these men, least of all Copernicus, ever did any experiments or observations that could verify their hypotheses. Furthermore, the connections between these ideas are far from clear and we must beware of simply pushing back a few centuries the positivist or ‘great men’ version of the history of science. Science during the Middle Ages was essentially a theoretical subject and a branch of philosophy, hence the usual term of natural philosophy. Although Roger Bacon, Albert the Great and Nicole Oresme praise the concept of experience, controlled observation, experimentation and technological work were not matters the academic natural philosopher involved himself in. They did not like to get their hands dirty and instead used thought experiments to analyse situations while apparently never seeking to repeat the process in the real world [NOTE]pp 168ff, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001). Indeed, the exact relationship between natural philosophy and physical reality remains puzzling. Following the ancient Greeks, the schoolmen practiced instrumentalism in order to save the appearances of phenomena meaning that they wanted to construct conceptual explanations without being too concerned over whether or not reality corresponded closely to them. With the empirical scepticism of William of Ockham of the 14th century, all natural science was reduced to hypotheses which reason alone could not distinguish. This lends an extremely rarefied character to much of scholastic natural philosophy. The issue became most acute in the Renaissance during the debate as to whether Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a useful fiction or, as Copernicus implied in a step said to be a vital break from medieval thought [NOTE]p 212, Edward Grant, "Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus and the Scientific Revolution" Journal of the History of Ideas 23:2 1962, the ways things really are. The experimental method has been put down to the alchemical and hermetic traditions rather than the natural philosophy of the universities [NOTE]p 588, John Henry, "Magic and Science" in Companion to the History of Modern Science (London, 1990). Other advances like the mean speed theory of the Merton calculators (which describes motion under uniform acceleration and was applied to all sorts of situations we might consider inappropriate) do not appear to have been the object of experimentation either. The mean speed theory described the motion of a free falling body but no one seems to have realised this.

Teaching science in the university

Typically new students arrived at university at the age of fifteen and were matriculated into the university Arts Faculty. Here, they would be taught the subjects viewed as essential to tackle everything else: logic and natural philosophy based on the works of Aristotle. After three or four years of study the student had to settle a disputation and, if successful, became a Bachelor of the Arts. Then, after another year or two, he took part in a final disputation with his Master and was incepted as a Master of the Arts. This meant the student could now do two things to continue his academic career, either become a teacher (a Regent Master) in the Arts Faculty at any university as allowed by the ius ubique docendi (the right to teach anywhere) or start to study for a doctorate at one of the higher faculties of Medicine, Civil and Canon Law or Theology. Whereas most universities had an Arts Faculty, few could boast all of the higher subjects, which tended to be more specialised. For instance, Bologna and Padua were renowned for their law schools, Paris for its theologians and Salerno for medicine. Oxford, at least, seemed to have possessed faculties in all subjects before 1268. After many more years of study in the higher faculty, the student could finally be admitted to the degree of Doctor that meant they could join the faculty and start practising. Prior to achieving the relevant professional degree, many jurisdictions forbade an individual to practice, write or research on the topic. For example there was a prohibition against anyone other than a Doctor of Theology making pronouncements on that subject [NOTE]p 85, Lynn Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1971) and many unsuccessful attempts to ensure medical work was carried out only by qualified physicians [NOTE]p 200, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995).

University students studied natural philosophy by listening to a lecturer read them texts and then explain them. Again, practical work was unheard of (at least outside the medical faculty) although the actual methods of teaching remain too obscure to make a sound judgement as to the extent that students were encouraged to think critically about what they were taught. Aristotle himself was wisely considered just too difficult for beginner students and so a variety of textbooks such as John Sacrobosco’s De sphera and John Peckam’s Perspectiva communis were produced for pedagogical purposes. The extent to which the syllabus developed during the later Middle Ages can be judged by the documents from Oxford and similar specifications at Paris [NOTE]p 440 vol I, Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (Oxford, 1936). The earliest version dates from 1268 and includes the old logic (that had been translated into Latin by Boethius in the sixth century) and the new logic (which was not available until the twelfth century) as well as grammar from Priscian and Donatus. By 1409, Porphyry’s Isagoge (a commentary on Aristotle’s categories) has been added as well as De sphera. The late Renaissance syllabus of 1564 sees the inclusion of the Latin classics as well, especially Virgil and Cicero, probably under the influence of the humanists [NOTE]p xcii, Strickland Gibson (ed.), Statvta Antiqva Vniversitatis Oxoniensis (Oxford, 1931). We should not get the impression from this list that the program was only updated every 150 years but the fact that the same books were studied for hundreds of years does not suggest a rapidly changing body of knowledge.

University discipline

The greatest privilege of being a student or teacher at university was that of being treated as a clergyman under law, which meant they had a high level of immunity to secular justice and were instead tried by the much gentler ecclesiastical courts [NOTE]p 36, Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1996). Furthermore, an advantage of being self-governing corporations was that a university was responsible for its own disciplinary arrangements and rarely had to deal with outside authorities. Hence, university discipline was largely in-house and followed the forms of canon law as set out by Gratian in his Decretum.

Students were subject to discipline under university statutes and, needless to say, most cases heard at this level involved drunkenness, fornication and revelry of the sort that students have been indulging in since they were first gathered together away from home. Less common today is the problem of students carrying weapons [NOTE]p 151, Strickland Gibson (ed.), Statvta Antiqva Vniversitatis Oxoniensis (Oxford, 1931). Under certain circumstances, one could appeal to the court of the local bishop who had responsibility for the university and then ultimately to the curia.

Another form of discipline was exerted by examinations and it appears that in the theology faculty at least, a test of orthodoxy was one of those to which the candidate’s work was subjected. Examinations for the MA involved an oral disputation on set texts in which required the candidate to defend a given position while also enunciating opposing views. But for a Doctorate of Theology there is evidence that written work had to be produced which could then be carefully scrutinised by the examiners for orthodoxy as well as signs of scholarly aptitude [NOTE]p 178, William Courtenay, "Inquiry and Inquisition: Academic Freedom in the Medieval Universities" Church History 58, 1989. If heretical opinions were found in the candidate’s work, it did not make them a heretic themselves but they did need to make corrections. This did not have to lead to any permanent disadvantage and as I have mentioned, among many other examples [NOTE]p 180, William Courtenay, "Inquiry and Inquisition: Academic Freedom in the Medieval Universities" Church History 58, 1989, Giles of Rome ended his career as an Archbishop despite been accused of heretical opinions in his student days [NOTE]p 923 vol II, George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Baltimore, 1931). So, not only were most disciplinary matters dealt with by the university, also the consequences rarely made themselves felt outside it.

Once a list of errors had actually been extracted from the work of a scholar, often his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he had the chance to reply and there were a number of defences open to him. In the case of the nominalist theologian, Jean de Mirecourt, we possess the original list of 63 theses extracted by the theological committee at Paris from his Sentences commentary, Jean’s reply and the final amended list of 41 theses that he agreed to recant [NOTE]p 85, JMMH Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris, 1200 - 1400 (Philadelphia, 1998). Jean’s rebuttals were of a similar type to those used by Giles of Rome and other defendants. Jean gave either a flat out denial, with no further explanation, that he had said what he was accused of saying (this defence was successful in all five cases he used it), an explanation of what he really meant, an insistence that the alleged error was not in fact heretical at all or an appeal to the authority of the Church fathers. He was successful in having half the articles struck out but it was also open to the prosecution to add more errors at this stage. So, whereas Jean was able to deflect about thirty accusations, he found himself faced with an additional fifteen of them. The end result was an agreed list that was promulgated with Jean’s retraction attached as well as instructions from the Chancellor of the university forbidding the opinions to be held, asserted or defended publicly or privately [NOTE]p 190, William Coutenay "The Condemnation of John of Mirecourt: its Original Form" Recherches de Theologie Ancienne et Médiévale 1986.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the universities found that they had largely preserved their autonomy and their reputations were such that others wanted to make use of their expertise. This was especially so for the Theology Faculty of the University of Paris which came to be regarded almost as the very font of orthodoxy and was frequently consulted about related matters. The case of Simon de Phares from the end of the fifteenth century is illustrative of this. Simon was the proprietor of an up market astrology practice in Lyons that was so successful that even the King himself came to call. This led to friction with the local clergy, who were usually in a state of armed truce with astrologers, so that Simon was hauled before the court of the Archbishop. Here, he was probably found to have been using magic, forbidden to practice and had his library confiscated. Simon appealed to the Parlement in Paris rather than to the Pope in order to get his books back and they turned the case over to the Theology Faculty as they probably had no idea what any of the books were about, let alone if they should be condemned. The theologians ruminated for some time before declaring a few of Simon’s books were suspect even if the rest were permissible [NOTE]p 335 vol 2, J-P Boudet, Le Recueil des Plus Celebres Astrologues de Simon de Phares (Paris, 1999). Simon had his appeal rejected with costs but does not appear to have got into any more serious trouble.

External Discipline of Academics

It was the potentially dangerous subject of theology that concerned the Church far more than natural philosophy and most examples of discipline relate to the former. These systems were essentially the internal disciplinary procedures of the universities and, as we have seen, the usual sanction was little more than having to recant the error and amend ones work to correct it. Matters would only usually leave the auspices of the university if there was an appeal or if the matter became notorious and widely known as, for example, in the case of the Amalricians of Paris where the teaching of a university theologian threatened to produce a heretical sect [NOTE]TMMH Thijssen "Master Amalric and the Amalricians: Inquisitorial Procedure and the Suppression of Heresy at the University of Paris" Speculum 71:1 1996. As mentioned above, many academics were also members of the mendicant orders so they were also under the governance of their order and could face disciplinary proceedings from this direction. The most famous case of this is Roger Bacon who appears to have been imprisoned by his superiors in the Franciscans for not having his work vetted by them before publication [NOTE]p 952 vol II, George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Baltimore, 1931).

The most infamous agents of medieval church discipline, the inquisitors, do not appear to have had a major role in dealing with academics but could become involved in certain cases. Word that someone had been teaching heretical opinions could reach the ear of the local inquisitor who would investigate and, on finding the allegations to be true, get the teacher to admit and recant his error before handing down his penance. As the inquisitor was not part of the university it is likely that the case would already have acquired a degree of notoriety, perhaps due to public disputations or lectures, before he heard of it and having done so he would be obliged to act.

The well known case of Cecco D’Ascoli illustrates how this might occur but it also shows many of the difficulties in working out exactly what happened. The facts are set out in the condemnation of Cecco who was burnt at the stake in Florence on 15th December 1327 [NOTE]p 14 note 3, G Boffio, "Perchè fu condannato al fuoco l'astrologo Cecco d'Ascoli?" Studi e Documenti di Storia e Diritto 20, 1899. Three years previously, he had been found guilty of “utterances against the Catholic faith”, by the inquisitor Lambertus of Cingulo in Bologna where Cecco was a professor, with the result that he was fined, had his books confiscated and was banned from teaching or practising astrology. Unfortunately, the condemnation does not tell us what the offending utterances were, although later authorities, such as the fifteenth century inquisitor, Franciscus Florentinus, mention that he had taught and written that Jesus lived and suffered the way he did because he was born under a special star which had also led the magi from the East [NOTE]p 690 vol IV, Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York, 1934 - 58). Contrary to what Franciscus insists, Cecco does not mention any such thing in his extant books (even those that were burnt with him) so his utterances were in all likelihood verbal and made in lectures. As Cecco was not more severely punished we can also assume he confessed to and repented of his errors. However, his was clearly a serious heresy as he did not get away with a simple recantation such as required of Blasius of Parma in 1396 when he was also convicted of “utterances against the Catholic faith” [NOTE]p 258, Lynn Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages (New York, 1971). Cecco left Bologna and made his way to Florence where he promptly flouted the inquisitor’s strictures and became court astrologer to Jacob of Brescia. This wilful disobedience immediately marked him out as a recalcitrant heretic and when he found himself before the Florentine inquisitor, Accursius, it is no surprise that the he was handed over to the secular arm. As burning was the expected fate of a re-offender the judicial machinery seems to be working as expected.

The boundaries set by the church pertinent to natural philosophy and science appear to have been quite well defined and mainly involved avoiding matters that might have theological significance. In astrology, it was forbidden to claim a completely deterministic model where the influence of the stars overrode free moral choice or, like Cecco was supposed to have done, to start casting horoscopes for Jesus. Alchemists had to avoid fraud and not become too engrossed in some of the allegedly diabolical additions to their subject while conforming to John XXII’s bull, Spondent quas non exhibent. In physics, it was fine to put most things down to secondary natural causes but not to claim that miracles were impossible. Neither the eternity of the world nor the existence of other worlds could be espoused in cosmology and metaphysics as an actual fact. Finally, it was never acceptable to claim that the natural world had to be the way it is and that God could not have created it differently if he wished to, or could not upset the natural order if he so pleased [NOTE]p 189, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001).

There were certainly controversialists who would have liked the boundaries to have been drawn much tighter, but the points mentioned above seem to have been roughly the position for much of the period concerned. This does not mean that all cases when the boundary was crossed resulted in prosecution or even a warning, but that one could expect to stay out of trouble by keeping within them. Furthermore, a wide variety of formulae existed that allowed ostensibly forbidden topics to be discussed at length. For instance, while it was prohibited to claim different universes actually existed, one could say God could create such universes if he wished and then discuss them at length. Likewise, the Question, a common format in academic writing at the time and the written equivalent of the Disputation, required one to give the arguments for both sides before settling on an answer that did not contradict the faith [NOTE]p 107, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001). In the meantime one could air as many heretical opinions as desired and give all the arguments in favour of them. Finally, a work could be written in such dense and obscure language that a censor would never have the faintest idea what was actually being claimed. Arguments over what the alleged heretical work really meant were common, with the defendant claiming he had just been misunderstood [NOTE]p 30, JMMH Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris, 1200 - 1400 (Philadelphia, 1998).

The legacy of medieval science

Traditional positivist histories of science have tended to either ignore or denigrate the achievements of medieval natural philosophers and, to be fair, there certainly seems to be a radical difference between the scholastics and the proponents of the new philosophy of the seventeenth century. Historians have yet to agree on how this change came about but there is an increasing awareness that its roots can be found in the Middle Ages. The analogy of the universe as a machine, typical of the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, appears in Western Europe as early as Hugh of St Victor in the eleventh century [NOTE]p 104, Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 1995). As we saw above, Pierre Duhem saw in the condemnations of 1277 the rejection of the idea that the universe had to be the way Aristotle thought it had to, and the birth of the realisation that the workings of the universe had to be empirically determined. The neo-Platonism of Copernicus and Kepler had developed in Italy through the late Middle Ages while the insistence on an intelligible and rational universe is found throughout scholastic natural philosophy.

As is the often the case, the debate has been characterised as polarised between two positions - the continuity of science through the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and the scientific revolution marking a decisive break from the earlier traditions. AC Crombie is a leading member of the continuity school, tracing the experimental method back to Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. Edward Grant sees modern science built on the solid medieval foundations of the separation of science from religion, rationality and university education. The great temptation for the proponents of continuity, which not all of them successfully resist, is to read modern scientific ideas into the work of earlier ages. For instance, Grant perhaps sees too much in Gregory of Rimini’s work on infinity and tries to make it a precursor of the nineteenth-century Georg Cantor’s theories of transfinite numbers [NOTE]p 244, Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001). The comments of Roger Bacon on experiment have also tended to be overemphasised, especially as there is little evidence he ever did anything much in that direction himself. One does not want to take these criticisms too far, however, as the academic framework of the universities certainly produced most of the individuals who worked on science in the early modern period even with the essentially medieval syllabus [NOTE]p 209, John Gascoigne "A reappraisal of the role of the universities in the scientific revolution" in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990).

Despite the huge volume of modern scholarship on the scientific revolution, there is no agreed answer to the question of why it happened in Western Europe in the seventeenth century and not elsewhere or earlier. Some theories include: sociologist Robert Merton’s suggestion of Puritanism provided the conditions for science, Thomas Kuhn’s system of normal science and revolution, Frances Yates claiming credit for hermetic magic, Duhem and Stanley Jaki for Catholic theology and Lynn White’s contention that the driving force was provided by technological change. No single theory has proved entirely satisfactory or convincing, as they tend to look either at internal or external causes rather than a combination. For the external environment, the medieval contribution might have come from the institution of the university, the reception of Greek and Arabic thought and the worldview of a rational creator God. Internal to medieval science, there is the work of developing, criticising and discarding hypotheses begun by scholastic natural philosophers and still ongoing.


Natural philosophy, as taught in the Arts Faculties of the universities, was seen as an essential area of study in its own right and for moving onto higher subjects. It was an independent field, separated from theology, which enjoyed a good deal of intellectual freedom as long as it was restricted to the natural world. Although there would be action if natural philosophers stepped outside these limits, the Church’s disciplinary procedures were mainly aimed at theologians who were involved in a much more dangerous area. In general, there was religious support for natural science by the late Middle Ages and a recognition that it was an important element of learning. The extent to which medieval science led directly to the new philosophy of the scientific revolution remains a subject for debate, but it certainly had a significant influence.


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© James Hannam 2007