Saturday, December 4, 2010

Medieval Learning

Nancy Marie Brown has written a book about Pope Sylvester II.

"In the popular mind today," Brown writes, "the Dark Ages are wrongly considered a time of superstiti­on and hysteria, when the Christian church suppressed all scientific investigat­ion.

"Just the opposite is true."

No. The opposite of the Church suppressin­g ALL scientific inquiry would be the Church suppressin­g NO scientific inquiry. The Church most certainly did suppress some inquiry, and most certainly did foment some hysteria and superstiti­on -- even if one doesn't put Christiani­ty under the category of superstiti­on. I do, but for the sake of argument I'll accept Brown's definition -- and on the other hand it supported and encouraged some scientific work. So many people, on one side or another, seem to want to make black-and-­white statements about this or that historical period, in order to score this or that political point -- one reader of HuffPo, for example, responded to Brown's article with the flat statement "the Pope was never a scientist" -- as opposed to really trying to find out what happened, which in my humble opinion is difficult enough under the best of circumstan­ced with no preconceiv­ed notions clouding one's view. (Well... SOME preconceiv­ed notions will probably always cloud the view to some extent.)

Brown writes:

"Gerbert devised an abacus, or counting board, that mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It has been called the first computer."

(Called the first computer by whom?) I was worried that someone might think that Brown had said that Gerbert invented THE abacus, as opposed to AN abacus -- the first known abacus was made in Sumeria somewhere around 2500 BC -- but luckily that doesn't seem to have happened so far.

"In a chronology of computer history, Gerbert's abacus is one of only four innovation­s mentioned between 3000 B.C. and the invention of the slide rule in 1622."

That just makes me think: Wow, that's a pretty weak chronology. Where did you get it -- from a placemat in a diner on the Interstate somewhere?

Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Sylvester II in the last 4 years of his life, really was a very interesting man, and Brown lists off some of the high points from his resume, but she betrays the spirit of careful scientific inquiry exemplified by Gerbert, by Sylvester, with absurd statements like "A thousand years ago [...] our modern tension between faith and science did not exist."

As a corrective to such sweeping statements, I would like to recommend once again, as I did in another blog post recently, Lynn Thorndike's superb Chapter XXII: "Magic, Witchcraft, Astrology, and Alchemy," in The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. VIII: The Close of the Middle Ages. In the bibliography to this chapter ones sees that Thorndike consulted an extraordinary number of primary documents. Thorndike tries neither to exalt medieval thinkers nor to condemn them but to show them and their situation as they were: surprisingly advanced in some ways to modern eyes, and surprisingly limited, primitive and superstitious in others.

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