Category Archives: Medieval Science

Medieval Science

The meaning of “science” was different in the Middle Ages than it is now. The Latin term scientia was more broadly conceived as knowledge that could combine philosophy and theology as readily as medicine and astronomy. Unlike modern science with its protocols and procedures, its disciplinary boundaries and regulations, medieval science (and its scientists) experimented with the intermingling of otherwise diverse categories of things, often to startling effects. Rational thought and scholastic initiatives brought the macrocosm (that vast place beyond planet earth) and the microcosm (the material human body) into sharper focus, integrating virtual explorations of the outer spheres of the universe with an empirical knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Inventions such as eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, blast furnaces, windmills, agricultural implements, engineering and building equipment, astrolabes and compasses, to name a few, contributed to the advancement of scientific thought long before 1543, the date traditionally cited as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Observation, experimentation, and the premodern shaping of scientific methodologies made possible a more comprehensive understanding of the natural world. Medical treatises, herbals, lapidaries, encyclopedias, health books, diagrams and charts enabled pragmatic diagnoses and treatments of psychological-physiological disjunctions, traumatic injuries, illnesses, and pain.

What do Gower’s poetics (or any other premodern literary work, for that matter) have to do with medieval science? After all, he didn’t write a Treatise on the Astrolabe or any overtly scientific study as some of his contemporaries did. To answer that question, Gower scholars have begun to revisit early studies such as The Medieval Sciences in the Work of John Gower (1966) by George G. Fox, to map out the sciences noted above in conjunction with those “other” sciences—astrology, alchemy, dreams, and magic—more difficult for a twenty-first century audience to accept. An updated rediscovery of the scientific past—one that includes literature as part of the equation—promises to take us places we’ve never gone before. Two sessions sponsored by The Gower Project—one at ICMS in Kalamazoo (Gower and Science) and one at the III JGS conference in Rochester (Gower and Medicine)—anticipate the launching of such an enterprise.   2012-04-workshop-medieval-divination-grafik