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Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies

The Ordered Universe

The International Astronomical Union has recently named Minor Planet 36169, a member of the main asteroid belt, after Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253). Grosseteste was chosen because he was a scientist, theologian, philosopher, and statesman of the medieval period whose commentary on Aristotle played a crucial role in the foundation of the scientific method. Detailed information on this planet can be found here.

Interdisciplinary Readings of Medieval Science in England, 1100-1400

It is generally agreed that the period from 1200 to 1400 was a time of great intellectual energy - the so-called "twelfth-century Renaissance" and its aftermath. The inheritance bequeathed to the West by late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (i.e. the writings of the early Church Fathers and the competing philosophical traditions inspired by Plato and Aristotle) was being challenged and stretched to its limits. At the same time, an influx of new learning from Greek and Arabic sources translated into Latin opened up completely new ways of studying the natural world and natural phenomena.

That this period saw the roots of modern science is an argument sometimes acknowledged, but only rarely investigated in any detail. Medieval science has a general historiography of its own;[1] but much can still be done to integrate it with studies of medieval literature and medieval culture more generally, and with the history of science since the Middle Ages. For example, the importance of Neoplatonic thought on medieval literature and philosophy is well established;[2] but the extent of its influence on medieval science could be examined more deeply. Here the contribution of scholars with a training in modern cosmology might be particularly valuable, since only they are really properly qualified to assess just how precisely or perceptively Neoplatonic ideas were used. At the same time, there has been a tendency to underestimate the extent to which medieval culture in general was permeated by the terms and concerns of medieval science. It seems to us no coincidence that both Adelard of Bath and Geoffrey Chaucer happen to have written treatises on the use of the astrolabe.

In short it is our assumption that medieval ideas about the shape of the universe were not only much more sophisticated and insightful than is generally recognized, but also that they had a much deeper impact on the intellectual life of the Middle Ages.

Research Questions and Considerations

This resarch project thus aims to develop and apply a new methodology for the interpretation of medieval scientific thought in England between 1100 and 1400.

Without an awareness of intellectual developments in this period, modern science risks radically misunderstanding its own foundations; and it underestimates the extent to which medieval scientific thought emerges out of (indeed is an integral part of) the literary and theological movements of the period. Readings of medieval texts that are fully informed by modern scientific concepts can potentially move the study of medieval thought into different dimensions, and compel us to make new assessments of the perceptiveness and inventiveness of the texts under scrutiny. Hence, it is the premise of this project that the development of medieval scientific thinking about the structure of the universe is most effectively studied by taking a strongly interdisciplinary approach, applying the skills both of scholars trained in modern physics and of scholars trained in textual and historical studies. From this concept emerge several fundamental lines of enquiry which are forming the basis for a series of workshops and research dialogues.

1. What are the most productive ways in which such interdisciplinary dialogue might clarify both the continuities and discontinuities between medieval and modern scientific thought? This is not simply an excuse for 'presentism'. We are interested not just in a 'teleological' reading of medieval science as leading to or pointing towards modern science, but also in an 'aetiological' understanding of modern science as a product of the cultural assumptions and specific vocabulary of medieval thinkers.

2. How can interdisciplinary readings of particular medieval texts change our understanding of the development of thinking about the physical world between 1100 and 1400? This question will be asked in relation to three particular, but interlinked case-studies (see below), in each of which there will be a particular focus on ideas about the building-blocks of the universe - especially matter, light, energy and motion. These ideas will be examined both as literary or theological topoi, and as propositions assessable in terms of modern science.   

3. In what ways is the "scientific" thinking of this period conditioned by particular cultural and institutional contexts? To what extent could the work of men like Adelard of Bath, Robert Grosseteste and the Oxford Calculators be said to represent a continuous, distinct and distinctively English intellectual tradition?

4. Is it possible for modern scientific thinking to provide us with new perspectives on the way in which medieval people in general understood their universe - and particularly the extent to which, and the reasons why, they believed it to be an ordered universe?

These questions are being taken forward in a series of workshops at Durham that have brought together specialists in the arts, humanties and sciences. A series of publications are planned, a wider research network and a larger grant-funded project. For further details please contact Dr Giles Gasper (Durham) 


[1]   Alistair C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science, 2 vols (Cambridge, 1961); Edward Grant, ed., A Source Book in Medieval Science (Cambridge, 1974); David C. Lindberg, ed., Science in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1978).

[2]   W. Wetherbee, Platonism and poetry in the twelfth century: The literary influence of the school of Chartres (Princeton, 1972); B. Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century: A Study of Bernard Silvester (Princeton, 1972).

The Ordered Universe