What the medieval birth of science tells us about medieval attitudes toward creation


Celestial SpheresFinishing up the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I am looking by turns at medieval science and the world of medieval arts, to see what they reveal about that era’s attitudes toward the natural world. Here is the bit on science. Next, the bit on the arts.

Religion and science: the Aristotelian impact on scholastic theology

Despite Gregory’s much more physical approach, the underlying platonic suspicion of the bodily did continue to hamper a fully world-affirming spirituality and theology. That would await the time of Anselm and Francis, and the flourishing of some seeds planted by Augustine – seeds of trust in the human gift of reason (as we saw in the “Passion for theology” chapter).

As we have seen in the theology chapter, what happened in the 12th and 13th centuries was that a recovery of Aristotelian science helped bring the powerful and useful discourse of science to bear in the deliberations of theology, both revolutionizing theology and laying the groundwork for the scientific revolution of the 16th– 18th centuries.

Essentially, the schools of the 12th c. were invigorated by a new interest in the scientific exploration of the universe. Marie-Dominique Chenu talks about a “hunger of spirit” among the scholars of the 12th century—a real desire to know what makes things tick.

In a sense, the students of the 12th c. were just beginning to discover nature itself, as something that was real, present, active, and above all intelligible. It was like they suddenly found another being on earth (and in fact they often personified Nature in their allegories of this time), who had power, and handed down decrees which must be obeyed or challenged. At the same time, they discovered that they themselves were caught up within the framework of nature, as bits of this cosmos they were ready to master.

One medieval image that captures this awareness was that of the “celestial sphere”—an imaginary, infinite sphere with the earth at its center, and the stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies appearing to be located on its imaginary surface. In 11th-century illustrations of the spheres, one can see a great deal of mythical illustration being used, with the heavenly bodies personified, as in astrology. This mixing of the material and the spiritual captivated Lewis, who used the personified planets again and again in his imaginative writings. We can take the spheres to represent a continuity with the older Neoplatonic sacramental view of the world.

Representing the new, more rigorous Aristotelian science of the scholastic era was the astrolabe, used to measure the positions and altitude in the sky of celestial bodies such as the sun. Astrolabes were first developed in the Islamic world, and came to the West in the same cultural transfer that brought Aristotle’s scientific works. The fascination with which they were greeted in that time is hinted in an odd fact: Peter Abelard (1079-1142) gave the device’s name to the son born of his illicit romance with Heloise. The point is that, compared to the mystical and personal quality of the celestial spheres, the astrolabe takes a much more mechanical, analytical approach to heavenly bodies.

Development of science, technology

Other major technological developments in the 12th c. included the windmill, the water-wheel, the use of keel and rudder, and the mechanical clock. With every new invention, people grew more aware that the world operated by orderly, natural laws. Suddenly the world was understandable, predictable. Order was no longer just an aesthetic or religious concept—you could see it all around you. And you could harness its power to your own ends.

Now, the new scientists of this time still saw the laws of nature as subservient to God, but they also understood that nature often contained its own causal explanations. That is, in seeking the causes of events, one no longer had to leap to the final, divine cause. Perhaps the nun’s stomach-ache was caused, after all, by some natural property of the cabbage she ate – not by the devil hiding in its leaves. In fact, this is a good litmus test: what did the medievals think caused illness? Did they, per the stereotype, assume that all illnesses came from devilish or demonic sources, or from some hidden sin in the sick person?

Perhaps the key case here is mental illness and suicide. But even these, perhaps surprisingly, were rarely attributed to demonic or spiritual causes: Rather, “‘mental and spiritual illnesses were attributed as much to overwork, overeating, and overindulgence in sexual activity as to climatic conditions, magic spells, and demonic possession.’” Nor was the individual’s sin usually adduced as the cause of their illness: It is easy to become confused here, since in general, “sin was certainly regarded by early medieval authors as the cause of sickness in the sense that without sin there would have been no [188] material evil.” However, the linking of a person’s sickness to some specific sin in their lives “is very seldom encountered.” [1]

Scholastics were themselves pious Christians, and certainly did not intend to deny God’s creative, providential activity. They simply wanted to highlight the more and more evident fact that nature operated according to its own mechanisms, describable in naturalistic terms.

Opposition, complexity

The first responses of many in the church, however, were often not positive. Many got their first looks at Aristotle through the eyes of Arabic scholars, who interpreted him in very anti-Christian ways, implying that God had no knowledge of anything other than himself, that there was no afterlife, and that all human beings had only one intelligence. Thus the University of Paris repeatedly, from 1210 to 1277, banned the study of Aristotle’s works of science and their use in theology. Its leaders saw, quite reasonably, that there could be some problems with applying particular aspects of the scientific thought of the revered pagan philosopher to theology.[2]

The bans were however ineffective. The study of Aristotle continued informally, and the philosopher’s all-embracing system stimulated much fresh theological thinking. By the end of the 13th c., Aristotle was in wide use by the scholastics.

This robustness of Aristotelian presence in the universities illustrates the generally harmonious relationship between faith and science in those centuries. However, modern commentators have grabbed hold of monastic rhetoric, which pushed back against the dialecticizing and philosophizing of theology, and said “Aha! See, here is the ages-old inherent conflict between science and theology.” But in fact this conflict, while real, was peripheral to the real story of harmonization. It just happened to be a story congenial to university scholars around the turn of the 20th century who found themselves frustrated by the tendency of certain “religious types” in their university boards and administrations to repress facets of scientific research in the name of religion.[3] “This is what happens,” they said, wagging their fingers, “when you get your science and your religion mixed. It suppresses science—and probably perverts your theology, too.”

It is fair to say that the monastic and scholastic theological styles did indeed differ, quite widely. But the bone of contention was not so much the intrusion of science into the theological task as the intrusion of logic in the realm of love. That was the pushback of the monastics – not against science and for faith, but against unwarranted overreaching logic and for intimate knowledge of love.


[1] Amundsen, 186 – 8.

[2] Some of the propositions of Aristotle deemed heretical and condemned in 1270 by the bishops of Paris: “That there is numerically one and the same intellect for all humans”. “That the soul separated [from the body] by death cannot suffer from bodily fire”. That God cannot grant immortality and incorruption to a mortal and corruptible thing”. That God does not know singulars”. “That God does not know things other than Himself”. “That human acts are not ruled by the providence of God“. That the world is eternal”. “That there was never a first human”.

[3] in such books as Cornell president Andrew Dickson White’s 1896 A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

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