Its Monastic not Christian!

In the comments to my last post Lorax who is Angry by Choice wrote the following:

Alright Ill be the fuel for the philosophical fires. The supposition here, is that Christianity saved “science” as much as possible from the ravages of political and cultural upheavals occurring during this time period. While this may be completely accurate at some level, I find the implicit idea that christianity was a friend of science (as we know it) disingenuous. Science is a relatively new field, however Christianity was using “sciency” approaches to demonstrate god, not to understand reality

I like a good burn and I’m a fan of high flames so pour on the fuel. Actually what Lorax says here is important but also displays more than one misconception. The supposition here is not that Christianity saved “science” but that the science that was preserved/conserved in Europe in the Early Middle Ages was conserved in the Christian monasteries. In order to explain the difference another analogy of Lorax’s is rather to the point:

Also, I would argue that the defense of scientific learning in Europe by Christianity is true and problematic. It seems akin to the argument that Christianity gave us all those wonderful works of art without noting that the Roman Catholic church was the only one paying ergo….

Before explaining however I will quickly deal with the science in scare marks and the ‘sciency’. Of course to use the word science in this context is anachronistic and wrong but I am using it, and shall continue to do so, as short hand for knowledge of the natural world as in an Aristotelian ‘episteme’ or ‘scientia’, although not restricting myself to the Peripatetics but meaning any of the Greek schools who offered such knowledge, Stoics, Neo-Platonists etc.

The production of such knowledge is only possible in advanced literate cultures, it is book knowledge that can be published, disseminated, taught, discussed, criticised and so forth. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire the only institutions within Europe that were capable of maintaining at least some of this knowledge were the monasteries, which retained a literate culture when this had disappeared within the rest of Europe. Here the important point is that this culture was literate not that it was Christian but it is also important that it was a culture that was not hostile to this knowledge. In this context Christianity did not use science “to demonstrate God”, whatever that might mean, but to solve practical, for them, everyday problems. They used a knowledge of astronomy, heliacal rising, to tell the time at night or also to construct calendars. The used astronomy and arithmetic to calculate the date of Easter (computus). The used a basic knowledge of medicine to treat and care for the sick and so on and so forth. The science kept alive during this period was practical science that made life a bit simpler in hard times but it also carried with it the awareness that there was a higher more abstract level of science that had been known and could be known again. When the situation improved in Europe, starting around 1000 CE, the more adventurous of the monastic scholars went out in search of that more advanced and abstract knowledge. They were perforce, Christian clerics because only they had the necessary literate culture to acquire that knowledge and again it is important to stress that there was no hostility towards this acquisition at the beginning. Some opposition did develop in Paris in the thirteenth century  but this even can be interpreted as positive, something I will deal with in another post.

Lorax also wrote:

Im not an expert in islamic history, but if the impetus was competition with the Indians and Europeans then their “sciency” approaches were for a different purpose/goal (the end result was not already formulated).

Here again in the first place the important fact in that Islam turned a non-literate culture, on the Arabic peninsular, into a literate one and they acquired science in the first place to solve practical problems in the exercise of their religion. The making of calendars, the telling of time, the development of burning mirrors and lenses and so on and so forth. Within this culture individual practitioners then took the practice of science to new abstract levels that rivalled the achievements of the Greeks and once again in an atmosphere that was not antagonistic to science.


Filed under Mediaeval Science

6 responses to “Its Monastic not Christian!

  1. * Pats out cinders on singed clothes*

    Just a couple of quick points, I used “” and sciency strictly because “science” as we know it is such a modern construct. Even a angry bastard like myself wouldn’t hold an 11th century monk to a 19th century concept.

    I will also admit that many of my thoughts regarding the preservation of knowledge comes from the work of monks and their attempts to understand god and god’s creation. Almost all of this work occurred after the Early Middle Ages and so represents an unfair comparison on my part.

    For the record, I would recommend Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought for some description of the history of evolution (and earlier ideas) among others.

  2. ckc (not kc)

    …knowledge of the natural world…

    …production of such knowledge is only possible in advanced literate cultures…

    Hmm… I think you might get an argument on this from the record of some less “advanced” or “literate” cultures (aboriginal/native knowledge). Even though there is/was a different level of understanding of underlying processes, the knowledge is significant, and impressive.

  3. ckc (not kc)

    (though I guess the argument could be that folk knowledge – verbal and unrecorded – is not science; not sure that I agree entirely)

  4. Jeb

    Lorax, you want to look at some of the rules of the game set down in the 11th century for the study of human culture in the Arabic world. The methodology is far stronger than say early attempts at ethnology in the late 17th cen. in Europe I’ve seen so far.

    But you can’t offer a comparison between what is going on in the modern world with the Middle Ages. Blaming what we would view as a lack of development on one factor i.e. religion, seems a bit unsophisticated and as it’s a part of modern politics somewhat problematic as a historical or Ethnological theory.

    These are complex societies, no less sophisticated than our own, just very different and our knowledge of them is not exact given the distance in time and sources for study.

    One of the problem for the ‘Doctor’ as urban development grew was he had to sell his art. In the market place or at the court. Science had to be entertaining or it did not sell and the ‘Doctor’ could not practice his art. Funding is an issue.

    Philosophy in the middle ages and beyond also simply reinforced a “folklore”; a 17th century traveller to Ireland could rule out the fact that he thought Irish werewolves were a fairy tale, but could not exclude the theoretical possibility of such a creature as medical practice and the four humours supported the possibility.

    Even when you do start to see a separation there still appears to be a difficult in separating individual subjects from the ethnological beliefs that surround them and they are not simply religious. Secular practical information has also been competing in this space for a considerable time.

    Burning you’re own identity is not an easy task. But when faced with something that makes a difference, ethnology and identity does have a habit of changing. But for much of the Middle Ages ‘science’ did not just support god it reinforced folk beliefs as philosophical theories fitted certain types of folk belief rather neatly.

  5. “One of the problem for the ‘Doctor’ as urban development grew was he had to sell his art. In the market place or at the court. Science had to be entertaining or it did not sell and the ‘Doctor’ could not practice his art. Funding is an issue.”

    As pertinent today as it has ever been. “Sexy” science sells, and all that.

    It’s all too easy for us to smugly dismiss the ignorance of the alchemists, priests, and assorted quacks of yestercentury, but we need to bear in mind that we have our own elixirs, holy grails, pixies and werewolves. We just give them names like “string theory”, MRI, and “flu vaccines” ; )

    Alright, that was a bit offside. But we’re often as easily blinkered by the biases that flow from our presuppositions – our “common sense”, which is certainly the former, but not always the latter – about this and that, as our predecessors. As Jeb suggests, such presuppositions merely reflect the social and cultural environment of the time; they are getting more complex and refined, but they are still there.

    This doesn’t justify bias, but it should cause us to look on our forbears with a more sympathetic eye and consider how we can try and avoid falling into the inductive holes they couldn’t quite climb out of. Better that than, “Bloody hell, what a gullible bunch of old so-and-sos! Good thing religion is on the decline now, eh!?”, and so forth.

  6. I spot 2 missing vectors: the Arabic transfers of a number of lost Greek texts and the Jewish knowledge of other sources in the Byzantine east, which we’ve still only just started to scratch the surface of, in my opinion. It’s a bit like the so-called new discovery of the Testament of Judas a couple of years back: anyone with a knowledge of Orthodox sources would have known that the Copts held this overtly since it was written. It echoes your own comments about the unknown detective.

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