Medicine, Science and a Porto Perspective

En route to Porto – lay-over in Lisbon Airport…

I first heard about The Ordered Universe Project in a seminar led by Giles Gasper and Tom McLeish at Durham last autumn. As someone who specialises in medieval medicine and gender, I was initially fascinated by their willingness to combine medieval science with modern physics, yet I was unaware of what contribution (if any) I could ever bring to such a combining of minds. Medieval medicine, though within the same frame of understanding as medieval science, was a very different thing to what Grosseteste was trying to do. Or at least that is what I originally thought.

When Giles asked me to participate in the project and travel to Porto, I was simultaneously excited and terrified to be part of such an undertaking. What, as a master’s student, could I possibly know about Grosseteste? How would I ever be able to prove myself as a knowledgeable contributor for such a project? And, most importantly, why as someone studying medieval reproductive health was I chosen to embark on this adventure?

I must admit that upon my arrival in Porto I was still searching for the answers to these questions. After reading and re-reading the three main treatises we would encounter I still felt hesitant to provide any feedback or critical analysis of the texts, especially when faced with so many experts in the field. So, like all good students, I chose the route of observation and reflection to help me understand my place within Robert Grosseteste’s universe.

After witnessing a rather engaged, yet scholastically exhilarating, debate over the use of the word ‘matter’ and ‘mass’ in the De Luce I knew that these people meant business. The passion with which they defended and scrutinized every word in Grosseteste’s treatise showed me the depth of historical understanding and mathematical sympathy that needed to be exercised when trying to understand something like the medieval universe. Both sides of the argument were trying to fully comprehend the works of Grosseteste through valid scientific and philosophical reasoning. Though the De Luce debated lingered on and gradually faded to questions of translation and meaning, I noticed a real concerted effort of all sides to fully recognize just what it was that Grosseteste was thinking, observing and recording. Authenticity and creativity were the main facets at work here.

IMG_1900When we began to tackle De Iride I really got to see the magic happen. A wonderful collaboration between scientists and novices took place to understand visually what Grosseteste was observing about the rainbow. Although Phil Anderson is a meteorological expert, he warmly invited opinions and explanations from any and all participants to help put into visual aids what Grosseteste saw without the assistance of graphs or mathematical language. The result was truly captivating.

After all this I have been able to resolve some questions, but mainly I began to ask many more. I have learned that The Ordered Universe Project should help me to have a greater grasp of the medieval world as a whole. Understanding the medieval scientific mind significantly contributes to my understanding of the medieval medical mind. Subsequently, humoralism is linked directly to an ordered universe, as each place in Grosseteste’s theories are ideological copies to their bodily counterparts. In its simplest form, Grosseteste was doing the exact same thing as medieval medical writers by trying to recognise patterns and establish order to comprehend the world around him.

What The Ordered Universe has taught me for my own research has been rather eye-opening. Now I am eager to see how I can take these various revelations and apply them to a much larger understanding of science, the cosmos and the human experience. After all this, I am still continually amazed to see what man has been able to discover just by looking up.


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