To paraphrase what is possibly the most infamous opening sentence in a history of science book, there was no such thing as Renaissance science, and this is the is the start of a blog post series about it. Put another way there are all sorts of problems with the term or concept Renaissance Science, several of which should entail abandoning the use of the term and in a later post I will attempt to sketch the problems that exist with the term Renaissance itself and whether there is such a thing as Renaissance science? Nevertheless, I intend to write a blog post series about Renaissance science starting today.
We could and should of course start with the question, which Renaissance? When they hear the term Renaissance, most non-historians tend to think of what is often referred to as the Humanist Renaissance, but historians now use the term for a whole series of period in European history or even for historical periods in other cultures outside of Europe.
Renaissance means rebirth and is generally used to refer to the rediscovery or re-emergence of the predominantly Greek, intellectual culture of antiquity following a period when it didn’t entirely disappear in Europe but was definitely on the backburner for several centuries following the decline and collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The first point to note is that this predominantly Greek, intellectual culture didn’t disappear in the Eastern Roman Empire centred round its capitol Constantinople. An empire that later became known as the Byzantine Empire. The standard myth is that the Humanist Renaissance began with the fall of Byzantium to the Muslims in 1453 but it is just that, a myth.
As soon as one mentions the Muslims, one is confronted with a much earlier rebirth of predominantly Greek, intellectual culture, when the, then comparatively young, Islamic Empire began to revive and adopt it in the eight century CE through a massive translation movement of original Greek works covering almost every subject. Writing in Arabic, Arab, Persian, Jewish and other scholars, actively translated the complete spectrum of Greek science into Arabic, analysed it, commented on it, and expanded and developed it, over a period of at least eight centuries. It is also important to note that the Islamic scholars also collected and translated works from China and India, passing much of the last on to Europe together with the Greek works later during the European renaissances.
Note the plural at the end of the sentence. Many historians recognise three renaissances during the European Middle Ages. The first of these is the Carolingian Renaissance, which dates to the eighth and ninth century CE and the reigns of Karl der Große (742–814) (known as Charlemagne in English) and Louis the Pious (778–840).
This largely consisted of the setting up of an education system for the clergy throughout Europe and increasing the spread of Latin as the language of learning. Basically, not scientific it had, however, an element of the mathematical sciences, some mathematics, computus (calendrical calculations to determine the date of Easter), astrology and simple astronomy due to the presence of Alcuin of York (c. 735–804) as the leading scholar at Karl’s court in Aachen.
Through Alcuin the mathematical work of the Venerable Bede (c. 673–735), (who wrote extensively on mathematical topics and who was also the teacher of Alcuin’s teacher, Ecgbert, Archbishop of York) flowed onto the European continent and became widely disseminated.
Karl’s Court had trade and diplomatic relations with the Islamic Empire and there was almost certainly some mathematical influence there in the astrology and astronomy practiced in the Carolingian Empire. It should also be noted that Alcuin and associates didn’t start from scratch as some knowledge of the scholars from late antiquity, such as Boethius (477–524), Macrobius (fl. c. 400), Martianus Capella (fl. c. 410–420) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) had survived. For example, Bede quotes from Isidore’s encyclopaedia the Etymologiae.
The second medieval renaissance was the Ottonian Renaissance in the eleventh century CE during the reigns of Otto I (912–973), Otto II (955–983), and Otto III (980–1002). The start of the Ottonian Renaissance is usually dated to Otto I’s second marriage to Adelheid of Burgundy (931–999), the widowed Queen of Italy in 951, uniting the thrones of Germany (East Francia) and Italy, which led to Otto being crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 962.
This renaissance was largely confined to the Imperial court and monasteries and cathedral schools. The major influences came from closer contacts with Byzantium with an emphasis on art and architecture.
There was, however, a strong mathematical influence brought about through Otto’s patronage of Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 946–1003). A patronage that would eventually lead to Gerbert becoming Pope Sylvester II.
A monk in the Monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac, Gerbert was taken by Count Borrell II of Barcelona to Spain, where he came into direct contact with Islamic culture and studied and learnt some astronomy and mathematics from the available Arabic sources. In 969, Borrell II took Gerbert with him to Rome, where he met both Otto I and Pope John XIII, the latter persuaded Otto to employ Gerbert as tutor for his son the future Otto II. Later Gerbert would exercise the same function for Otto II’s son the future Otto III. The close connection with the Imperial family promoted Gerbert’s ecclesiastical career and led to him eventually being appointed pope but more importantly in our context it promoted his career as an educator.
Gerbert taught the whole of the seven liberal arts, as handed down by Boethius but placed special emphasis on teaching the quadrivium–arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy–bringing in the knowledge that he had acquired from Arabic sources during his years in Spain. He was responsible for reintroducing the armillary sphere and the abacus into Europe and was one of the first to use Hindu-Arabic numerals, although his usage of them had little effect. He is also reported to have used sighting tubes to aid naked-eye astronomical observations.
Gerbert was not a practicing scientist but rather a teacher who wrote a series of textbook on the then mathematical sciences: Libellus de numerorum divisione, De geometria, Regula de abaco computi, Liber abaci, and Libellus de rationali et ratione uti.
His own influence through his manuscripts and his letters was fairly substantial and this was extended by various of his colleagues and students. Abbo of Fleury (c. 945–1004), a colleague, wrote extensively on computus and astronomy, Fulbert of Chartres (c. 960–1028), a direct student, also introduced the use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals. Hermann of Reichenau (1013–1054 continued the tradition writing on the astrolabe, mathematics and astronomy.
Gerbert and his low level, partial reintroduction into Europe of the mathematical science from out of the Islamic cultural sphere can be viewed as a precursor to the third medieval renaissance the so-called Scientific Renaissance with began a century later at the beginning of the twelfth century. This was the mass translation of scientific works, across a wide spectrum, from Arabic into Latin by European scholars, who had become aware of their own relative ignorance compared to their Islamic neighbours and travelled to the border areas between Europe and the Islamic cultural sphere of influence in Southern Italy and Spain. Some of them even travelling in Islamic lands. This Scientific Renaissance took place over a couple of centuries and was concurrent with the founding of the European universities and played a major role in the later Humanist Renaissance to which it was viewed by the humanists as a counterpart. We shall look at it in some detail in the next post.
 For any readers, who might not already know, the original quote is, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it”, which is the opening sentence of Stevin Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1996