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Peter Gay on medieval science

August 17, 2009

It is a common misconception that the medieval Christians were unconcerned with all scientific inquiry. Peter Gay, in The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (New York: Norton, 1986), corrects this a bit:

Medieval science, then, like medieval philosophy, took its place, prominent but secondary, in the hierarchy of human activities: it was, like philosophy, guided by man’s search for holiness and salvation. And like philosophy, it called forth two responses; a Christian could justify either neglect or cultivation of science on religious grounds. There were some Christians who abhorred the preoccupation with natural causes as an impudent invasion of Divine privacy and a diversion of energies from the truly important. . . . Yet in the end, it was the scientists who won, aided in part by a metaphor that gained wide popularity: Vincent of Beauvais was only one of many to call nature a ‘book written by the hand of God.’ The study of nature was rationalized as a perusal of the divine writing.

Medieval science was thus doubly teleological: its purposes was knowledge for the sake of God; and its discoveries were discoveries of purposes–God’s intentions for his Creation. The well-known insistence on the part of medieval scientists that the earth is the center of the universe and that the planetary orbitsare circular are only the two most familiar symptoms of the crippling effect that the imposition of extraneous considerations had on scientific inquiry. But then, to put the matter this way is to impose modern criteria on medieval concerns: to the Christian of the Middle Ages, science, like ignorance, was part of a vast symbolic, holy tapestry. (248-49)

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