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APPENDIX II SCIENCE AT THE MEDIEVAL UNIVERSI
With the growth of interest in science and in nature study in our own day, one of the expressions that is probably oftenest heard is surprise that the men of preceding generations and especially university men did not occupy themselves more with the world around them and with the phenomena that are so tempting to curiosity. Science is usually supposed to be comparatively new and nature study only a few generations old. Men are supposed to have been so much interested in book knowledge and in speculations and theories of many kinds, that they neglected the realities of life around them while spinning fine webs of theory. Previous generations, of course, have indulged in theory, but then our own generation is not entirely free from that amusing occupation. Nothing could well be less true, however, than that the men of preceding generations were not interested in science even in the sense of physical science, or that nature study is new, or that men were not curious and did not try to find out all they could about the phenomena of the world around them.
The medieval universities and the school-men who taught in them have been particularly blamed for their failure to occupy themselves with realities in
The material for this chapter was gathered for a paper read before the Medical Improvement Society of Boston in the spring of 1911. In nearly its present form it was published in The Popular Science Monthly for May, 1911, and thanks are returned to the editor of that magazine for permission to reprint it here. The additions that have been made refer particularly to the estimation of Aristotle in the Middle Ages.
stead of with speculation. We are coming to recognize their wonderful zeal for education, the large numbers of students they attracted, the enthusiasm of their students, since they made so many handwritten copies of the books of their masters, the devotion of the teachers themselves, who wrote at much greater length than do our professors even now and on the most abstruse subjects, so that it is all the more surprising to think they should have neglected science. The thought of our generation in the matter, however, is founded entirely on an assumption. Those who know anything about the writers of the Middle Ages at first hand are not likely to think of them as neglectful of science even in our sense of the term. Those who know them at second hand are, however, very sure in the matter.
The assumption is due to the neglect of history that came in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have many other similar assumptions because of the neglect of many phases of mental development and applied science at this time. For instance, most of us are very proud of our modern hospital development and think of this as a great humanitarian evolution of applied medical science. We are very likely to think that this is the first time in the world's history that the building of hospitals has been brought to such a climax of development, and that the houses for the ailing in the olden time were mere refuges, prone to become death traps and at most makeshifts for the solution of the problem of the care of the ailing poor. This is true for the hospitals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it is not true at all for the hospitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Miss Nutting and Miss Dock in their “ History of Nursing”i have called attention to the fact that the lowest period in hospital development is during the * New York, Putnam, 1908,
velopmemost of us * and thinked medical st time
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Hospitals were little better than prisons, they had narrow windows, were ill provided with light and air and hygienic arrangements, and in general were all that we should imagine old-time hospitals to be. The hospitals of the earlier time, however, had fine high ceilings, large windows, abundant light and air, excellent arrangements for the privacy of patients, and in general were as worthy of the architects of the earlier times as the municipal buildings, the cathedrals, the castles, the university buildings, and every other form of construction that the late medieval centuries devoted themselves to.
The trouble with those who assume that there was no study of science and practically no attention to nature study in the Middle Ages is that they know nothing at all at first hand about the works of the men who wrote in the medieval period. They have accepted declarations with regard to the absolute de pendence of the scholastics on authority, their almost divine worship of Aristotle, their utter readiness to accept authoritative assertions provided they came with the stamp of a mighty name, and then their complete lack of attention to observation and above all to experiment. Nothing could well be more ridiculous than this ignorant assumption of knowledge with regard to the great teachers at the medieval universities. Just as soon as there is definite knowledge of what these great teachers wrote and taught, not only does the previous mood of blame for them for not paying much more attention to science and nature at once disappear, but it gives place to the heartiest admiration for the work of these great thinkers. It is easy to appreciate, then, what Professor Saintsbury said in a recent volume on the thirteenth century:
And there have even been in these latter days some graceless ones who have asked whether the science of the nineteenth century after an
equal interval will be of any more positive value whether it will not have even less comparative interest than that which appertains to the scholasticism of the thirteenth.
Three men were the great teachers in the medieval universities at their prime. They have been read and studied with interest ever since. They wrote huge tomes, but men have pored over them in every generation. They were Albertus Magnus, the teacher of the other two, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. All three of them were together at the University of Paris shortly after the middle of the thirteenth century. Anyone who wants to know any. thing about the attitude of mind of the medieval universities, their professors and students, and of all the intellectual world of the time towards science and observation and experiment, should read the books of these men. Any other mode of getting at any knowledge of the real significance of the science of this time is mere pretence. These constitute the documents behind any scientific history of the development of science at this time.
It is extremely interesting to see the attitude of these men with regard to authority. In Albert's tenth book (of his “ Summa"), in which he catalogues and describes all the trees, plants, and herbs known in his time, he observes : “ All that is here set down is the result of our own experience, or has been borrowed from authors whom we know to have written what their personal experience has confirmed; for in these matters experience alone can be of certainty.” In his impressive Latin phrase “ experimentum solum certificat in talibus." With regard to the study of nature in general he was quite as emphatic. He was a theologian as well as a scientist, yet in his treatise on “ The Heavens and the Earth” he declared that “in studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles
and thereby show forth His power. We have rather to inquire what nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.” 1
Just as striking quotations on this subject might be made from Roger Bacon. Indeed, Bacon was quite impatient with the scholars around him who talked over-much, did not observe enough, depended to excess on authority, and in general did as mediocre scholars always do, made much fuss on second-hand information-plus some filmy speculations of their own. Friar Bacon, however, had one great pupil whose work he thoroughly appreciated because it exhibited the opposite qualities. This was Petrus we have come to know him as Peregrinus—whose observations on magnetism have excited so much attention in recent years with the republications of his epistle on the subject. It is really a monograph on magnetism written in the thirteenth century. Roger Bacon's opinion of it and of its author furnishes us the best possible index of his attitude of mind towards observation and experiment in science.
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I know of only one person who deserves praise for his work in experimental philosophy for he does not care for the discourses of men and their wordy warfare, but quietly and diligently pursues the works of wisdom. Therefore what others grope after blindly, as bats in the evening twilight, this man contemplates in their brilliancy because he is a master of experiment. Hence, he knows all of natural science whether pertaining to medicine and alchemy, or to matters celestial or terrestrial. He has worked diligently in the smelting of ores as also in the working of minerals; he is thoroughly acquainted with all sorts of arms and implements used in military service and in hunting, besides which he is skilled in agriculture and in the meas. urement of lands. It is impossible to write a useful or correct treatise in experimental philosophy without mentioning this man's name. Moreover, he pursues knowledge for its own sake; for if he wished to obtain royal favor, he could easily find sovereigns who would honor and enrich him.
Similar expressions might readily be quoted from Thomas Aquinas, but his works are so easy to secure 1" De Cælo et Mundo,” 1, tr, iv., x.