Update: the Mental and Material Laboratory of 13th Century Science

The mental and material laboratory of 13th century science: an update from Clive

Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, Christ Church
Clive Siviour, Engineering Science, Pembroke College
Hannah Smithson, Experimental Psychology, Pembroke College
Giles Gasper, Department of History, Durham University

P1020639IMG_4635The overwhelming misconception of modern science graduates is that prior to the development of the scientific method during the 16th century, natural philosophy was dominated by dogma, religious authority and superstition. On the other hand, Crombie [1] has made the bold and widely propagated claim that the father of western experimental science was Robert Grosseteste, who in the 13th century wrote magnificent works on topics including light, colour, the rainbow, sound and the movement of the celestial spheres, describing an ambitious framework for understanding natural phenomena using all the resources available to him [2]. In this project we will seek a deeper appreciation of 13th century accounts of natural phenomena by understanding the interplay between the intellectual and material environments of the period.

Screenshot 2014-11-27 15.24.14AstrolabeIn order to experience these environments through the same lens as the contemporary scholars, this project will develop an integrated understanding of inherited frameworks of knowledge and the available material world. This will be done through an interdisciplinary approach led by students with a background in science (Joshua Harvey) and Medieval Theology (Tim Farrant). We will complement textual analyses with physical reconstructions of the materials and observational tools available in the 13th century, recreating and analysing relevant phenomena with careful consideration of those resources which may have been available to the medieval scholar, supplemented where appropriate by more modern techniques (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Chladni plates allow visualisation of the production of sound, using sand to outline the motions of a vibrating plate: (a) Demonstration using a metal plate, sand and a violin bow; (b) Computer reconstruction, plotting solutions to the governing equations of motion.


20140320_105531The Medieval CosmosAn important aspect of the research will be to understand the balance between inherited knowledge and original observation, exploring what might be termed the mental ‘laboratory’ of 13th century scientific writers. The influence of Aristotle and his Islamic and Jewish commentators takes the bulk of attention in this field, but we will also consider the important contributions of Augustinian influences, which are often undeservedly forgotten. By combining this with the physical reconstructions, we will develop a deeper appreciation for the intellectual processes that led to the medieval explanation of natural phenomena as explained in the texts, allowing us to interpret the discussions as they would have appeared to contemporary scholars. Thus, we will not judge the content of the texts in modern terms, but gain a deeper appreciation of the logic and thought processes of the authors and their contemporaries.

The supervisory team will consist of Carol Harrison (Theology), Giles Gasper (Medieval History, University of Durham), Clive Siviour (Engineering) and Hannah Smithson (Experimental Psychology), combining an understanding of the intellectual framework of the period, practical manufacturing resources and modelling expertise, and the ability to objectively quantify human sensory discriminations, which would have been the primary measurement tool available at the time. The project presents outreach opportunities through engagement with organisations such as Oxford Archaeology and publications for a more general audience. We will also interact closely with the Ordered Universe Project [2-5], which deals more specifically with the work of Grosseteste. The project will culminate in a public exhibition that will immerse the visitor in the medieval scientific world, where the story is told through parallel presentation of relevant texts and hands-on demonstrations, with broader descriptions of the intellectual inheritance of the age. Without the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, a project of this nature would have been almost inconceivable, and we are eagerly looking forward to the unique opportunities afforded by such highly interdisciplinary research.

[1]       A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100–1700 (Oxford University, 1953).
[2]       https://ordered-universe.com/
[3]       McLeish, T. C. B., Bower, R. G., Tanner, B. K., Smithson, H. E., Panti, C., Lewis, N., & Gasper, G. E. M. (2014). A medieval multiverse. Nature, 507(7491), 161-163.
[4]       Smithson, H. E., Gasper, G. E. M., & McLeish, T. C. B. (2014). All the colours of the rainbow. Nature Physics, 10(8), 540-542.
[5]       http://theconversation.com/medieval-bishops-theory-resembles-modern-concept-of-multiple-universe-25460.

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