Medieval Popularization Of Science
( Originally Published 1911 )
The idea of collecting general information from many sources, of bringing it together into an easily available form, so as to save others labor, of writing it out in compendious fashion, so that it could readily pass from hand to hand, is likely to be considered typically modern. As a matter of fact, the Middle Ages furnish us with many examples of the popularization of science, of the writing of compendia of various kinds, of the gathering of information to save others the trouble, and, above all, of the making of what, in the modern time, we would call encyclopedias. Handbooks of various kinds were issued, manuals for students and specialists, and many men of broad scholarship in their time devoted themselves to the task of making the acquisition of knowledge easy for others. This was true not only for history and philosophy and literature, but also for science. It is not hard to find in each century of the Middle Ages some distinguished writer who devoted himself to this purpose, and for the sake of the light that it throws on these scholars, and the desire for information that must have existed very commonly since they were tempted to do the work, it seems worth while to mention here their names, and those of the books they wrote, with something of their significance, though the space will not permit us to give here much more than a brief catalogue raisonne of such works.
Very probably the first who should be mentioned in the list is Boethius, who flourished in the early part of the sixth century. He owed much of his education to his adoptive father, afterwards his father-in-law, Symmachus, who, with Festus, represented scholarship at the court of the Gothic King, Theodoric of Verona. These three--Festus, Symmachus, and Boethius—brought such a reputation for knowledge to the court that they are responsible for many of the wonderful legends of Dietrich of Bern, as Theodoric came to he called in the poems of the medieval German poets. The three distinguished and devoted scholars did much to save Greek culture at a time when its extinction was threatened, and Boethius particularly left a series of writings that are truly encyclopedic in character. There are five books on music, two on arithmetic, one on geometry, translations of Aristotle's treatises on logic, with commentaries; of Porphyry's " Isagoge," with commentaries, and a commentary on Cicero's " Topica." Besides, he wrote several treatises in logic and rhetoric himself, one on the use of the syllogism, and one on topics, and in addition a series of theological works. Ills great " Consolations of Philosophy " was probably the most read book in the early Middle Ages. It was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred, into old German by Notker Teuto, the German monk of St. Gall, and its influence may be traced in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in High German poetry, in Anglo-Norman and Provençal popular poetry, and also in early Italian verse. Above all, the " Divine Comedy " has many references to it, while the " Convito " would seem to show that it was probably the book that most influenced Dante. Though it is impossible to confirm by documentary evidence the generally accepted idea that Bothius died a martyr for Christianity, the tradition can be traced so far back, and it has been so generally accepted that this seems surely to have been the ease. The fact is interesting, as showing the attitude of scholars towards the Church and of the Church towards scholarship thus early.
The next great name in the tradition should probably be that of Cassiodorus, the Roman writer and statesman, prime minister of Theodoric, who, after a busy political life, retired to his estate at Vivarium, and, in imitation of St. Benedict, who had re- cently established a monastery at Monte Cassino, founded a monastery there. He is said to have lived to the age of ninety-three. His retirement favored this long life, for, after the death of Theodoric, troublous times came, and civil war, and only his monastic privileges saved him from the storm and stress of the times. He had been interested in literature and the collection of information of many kinds before his retirement, and it is not unlikely that his recognition of the fact that the monastic life offered opportunities for the pursuit of this, under favorable circumstances, led him to take it up.
While still a statesman he wrote a series of works relating to history and politics and public affairs generally. These consisted mainly of chronicles and panegyrics, and twelve books of miscellanies called Variae. After his retirement to the monastery, a period of ardent devotion to writing begins, and a great number of books were issued. lie evidently gathered round him a -number of men whom he inspired with his spirit, or, perhaps, selected, because he found that, while they had a taste for a quiet, peaceful spiritual life, they were also devoted to the accumulation and diffusion of knowledge. A series of commentaries on portions of the Scriptures was written, the Jewish antiquities of .Josephus translated, and the ecelesiastical histories of Theodoric, Sozomen, and Socrates made available in Latin. Cassiodorus himself is said to have made a compendium of these, called the " Historia Tripartita," which was much used as a manual of history during succeeding centuries. Then there were treatises on grammar, on orthography, and a series of works on mathematics. In all of his writings Cassiodorus shows a special fondness for the symbolism of numbers.
There is a well-grounded tradition that he insisted on the study of the Greek classics of medical literature, especially Hippocrates and Galen, and awakened the interest of the monks in the necessity for making copies of these fathers of medicine. The tradition that he established at Vivarium is also found to have existed at Monte Cassino among the Benedictines, and, doubtless, to this is to be attributed the foundation of the medical school of Salerno, where Benedictine influence was so strong. It is probable, therefore, that to Cassiodorus must be attributed the preservation in as perfect a state as we have them of the old Greek medical writers.
His main idea was, of course, the study of Scriptures, but with just as many helps as possible. He thought that commentators, and historians, not alone Christian, but also Hebrew and Pagan, should be studied to illustrate it, and then the commentaries of the Latin fathers, so that a thoroughly rounded knowledge of it should be obtained. He thus began an " Encyclopedia Biblica," and set a host of workers at its accomplishment.
Every country in Europe shared this movement for the diffusion of information during the early Middle Ages, and the works of men from each of these countries in succeeding centuries has come down to us, preserved in spite of all the vicissitudes to which they were so liable during the centuries before the invention of printing and the easy multiplication of books. To many people it will seem surprising to learn that the next evidence of deep broad interest in knowledge is to be found in the next century in the distant west of Europe, in the Spanish Peninsula. It is a long step from the semi-barbaric splendor of the Gothic court at Verona, to the bishop's palace in Seville in Andalusia. The two cities are separated by what is no inconsiderable distance in our day. In the seventh century they must have seemed almost, at the other end of the world from each other. Those who recall what we have insisted on in several portions of the body of this work with regard to the high place Spanish genius won for itself in the Roman Empire, and how much of culture among the Spaniards of that time the occurrence of so many important writers of that nationality must imply, will not be surprised at the distinguished work of a great Christian Spanish writer of the seventh century.
Indeed, it would be only what might be expected for evidences of early awakening of the broadest culture to be found in Spain. The important name in the popularization of science in the seventh century is St. Isidore of Seville. Ile made a compendium of all the scattered scientific traditions and information of his time with regard to natural phenomena in a sort of encyclopedia of science. This consisted of twenty books—chapters we would call them now—treating almost de omni re seibili et quibusdam aliis (everything knowable and a few other things besides). It is possible that the work may have been written by a number of collaborators under the patronage of the bishop, though there is no sure indication of this to be found either in the volume itself or even contemporary history. All the ordinary scientific subjects are treated. Astronomy, geography, mineralogy, botany, and even man and the animals have each a special chapter. Pouchet, in his " History of the Natural Sciences During the Middle Ages," calls attention to the fact that, in grouping the animals for collective treatment in the different chapters, sometimes the most.