Kalamazoo Sessions 1: How to think about science…including liturgy

IMG_2327IMG_2314Kalamazoo, a medium sized mid-western city, the original home of Gibson guitars (established here in 1902), famous for a book-keeping system, the subject of a Glenn Miller song, home of an increasing number of excellent microbreweries, and the place to which over 3000 medievalists return each year for the International Medieval Congress. The rooms on campus may be rudimentary, but the company more than compensates. Amongst the hundreds of sessions, were science-orientated ones…

The first continued theme of what science might be thought to be, by offering a very wide range of examples and circumstances in which to think about the suppleness and severity of the distinctions to be made. Helen showed the use and re-use of computistical compilations in the south-west of England, from the later 10th century through to the post-conquest period, into the 1070s. The compilations are not random collections, but specific bodies of material related to date calculation, time, and other material connected to the natural world. While this might not quite be science in the sense of demonstration by proof of the certainty of a thing, although that is an arguable proposition, the focus and interest in a phenomenon local and cosmic, such as time, bound up with the key events in a created universe, beginnings, endings and redemption is pursued in a highly disciplined manner. Mathematical learning of a high order is needed within these texts and the mental models they conjure. Sam’s paper moved the session from the English south-west, to northern climes, with a consideration of scientific learning in the Nordic regions, principally in the 13th century. Exploring historiographical tradition which downplay theoretical learning, explicit in the founding narratives of Norwegian and Icelandic professional history of the 19th century, and implicit in a great deal of subsequent writing on the subject, Sam gave examples of texts in which observation of nature from theoretical as well as practical perspectives can be adduced. Again, while not opening up a debate about the nature of science from an Aristotelian basis, the importance of observed natural phenomena within a range of texts, geographical, and texts of advice to kings, was made clear. How nature is to be used and respected, and the analogy of human kingship to the cosmic are important themes. Records of experiment can be found too, of a practical nature: the calculation of latitude, and more theoretical, the demonstration that the earth was round with an apple and a candle.

IMG_2317IMG_2316Eileen took the final paper to reflect on Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292) and Albert the Great (c.1200-1280) on mathematics (meaning Geometry and Arithmetic, mathematics itself is a later term in a subject specific sense) were contrasted as well, with speculation as to the effects of Aristotle on a more holistic attitude towards knowledge, and the place of mathematics, in the 12th century and earlier. How Averroes’s commentaries affect the view taken of science were also of considerable importance. The question of experiment, or the repetition of classical descriptions of experiments, remains another central, and contested issue. How far any of the authors who describe an experimentum in the early or high Middle Ages inhabit a mental space with any proximity to modern notions of experiment is open to question. Experimentum as analagous to experience further complicates the picture, and it is clear that the majority of discussion of ‘experiment’ within 13th century authors is within the conceptual framework of experience.

IMG_2315IMG_2326While the first two papers indicate a wider sense of what science might be thought to include, the context and specificity were emphasised too. The Old Norse scholars did not identify themselves as scientists, though we make think that their attitudes towards natural phenomena merit consideration in this vein. Computistical collections equally had a specific place in religious communities and their intellectual life. Bacon and Albert operate within an environment debating actively of what the curriculum should consist and how knowledge should be categorised and defined, within a period in which new meanings had been added to old vocabularies, for example, scientia itself. Although too broad a use of ‘science’ as a description of intellectual activity, has as much capacity to confuse as much as an insistence on definitions which become overly prescriptive, thinking about its use highlights the importance of understanding the context in which contemporaries thought and wrote.  From a methodological point of view the fusion of texts on time and Easter calculation indicate a widespread use of mathematics, and a continuous regard for creation as a valid means through which to investigate the divine purpose, as well as an attempt to locate this within liturgical acts at the centre of Christian life.

The extent to which this liturgical understanding of science undergoes strain with the influx of Aristotelian logic in the late 12th an early 13th century is a question worth holding in mind. How a fission between reason and liturgy affects a figure like Grosseteste is a subject well worth consideration. Recent work by Phillipa Hoskins examines some aspects of how Grosseteste’s intellectual works impact on his pastoral literature. Where Grosseteste might, in part, resolve the issues, within his consistent focus on preaching, pastoral care and the description of creation with reason and authority, the question remains as to the effect of Aristotelian distinctions of knowledge on the framing of Christian experience, as well as on the paradigms of high medieval intellectual life, its antecedents and successors.

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