This book analyzes the relationship between theology, philosophy and medicine in Western Middle Ages, from three cases of extraordinary reproduction: spontaneous reproduction (le ver), diabolical reproduction (le démon), and the virginal conception of Christ (la Vierge). From these questions, which we can consider anecdotal, medieval theologians examined the notion of reproduction and introduced embryological conceptions of ancient science into the intellectual debate of their time.
The first part presents the theories about reproduction in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when a series of translations from Greek and Arabic introduced, first of all, Galen (who would have a big influence on the thought of the Salernitan physicians), then Avicen and Aristotle (who, in the framework of the Universities and the studia of mendicant orders, would allow scholasticism to develop. Medieval theologians had, then, the two great embryological theories of Antiquity: that of Galen, in which the man and the woman equally contribute to the constitution of the embryo with their respective seeds, and that of Aristotle where the male seed informs the menstrual blood (Avicen is an example of a conciliation of both). The second part presents some borderline cases of natural reproduction: conception without coupling, with a seed come from elsewhere (the wind, the water of a bath), and conception without either seed or coupling (parthenogenesis, spontaneous reproduction). The third part develops the scholastic explanations of diabolical reproduction (incubus and succubus; seed made by demons, or stolen from a man). The fourth part analyzes questions discussed by theologians in order to take into account the virginal conception of Christ according to the embryological theories they had at their disposal. The value of this book, besides the interest of the questions brought up (which suggest comparisons with contemporary questions about filiation, extra-corporeal procreation, and the status of the embryo as an independent being), essentially lies in the mastering of varied sources by the author, who succeeds in problematizing a lot of varied documents, and in tracing chronological evolutions. Among the most interesting developments, let's point out the changing of cosmological paradigms with the successive arrival of Galen, Avicen and Aristotle, so that the explanation of mysterious phenomena by surnatural causes becomes an exception; the attempts to reconcile the data of Scripture and the Fathers (mostly Augustine) with those of natural sciences; the wide range of opinions (Dominicans adopt the Aristotelian theory (the seed of the male, which is form, acts on the blood of the female, which is matter) while Franciscans prefer the Galenic theory (the two seeds of the male and the female cooperate in building the embryo), which better highlights Mary's co-operation in the incarnation.[]
About the relations between theology and sciences, let us notice that, while the Eastern Christians, following Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor, predominantly favor the notion that life begins at conception, the thesis of life beginning later for the embryo, which Thomas of Aquin will develop from Aristotelian embryology, is the more common position in the West from the twelfth century on, for mostly theological motives. For example, for Anselm of Cantorbury and Anselm of Laon, considering the aborted as complete human beings would lead to an absurd multiplication of damned souls, because these beings afflicted by original sin cannot be baptised. The Greeks, who did not adopt Augustine's theory of original sin, did not have to overcome this kind of obstacle.
Each part of the book is followed by a conclusion which summarizes the main contributions. From the general Conclusion, we will retain two essential ideas: first, that in secondary questions (spontaneous and diabolical reproduction), theologians adapted the belief to scientific principles, while for the central dogma (the virginal conception of Christ), they inversely adapted the scientific theories to the dogma. Second, scholastic theology played a central role in the reception of Greek and Arabic embryological theories, and therefore in the development of the sciences of life. This book is as important as it is fascinating.
[] Cf. Bernard Pouderon, "La conception virginale au miroir de la procréation humaine: Libre réflexion sur les rapports entre la christologie et les connaissances physiologiques des premiers Pères," in Regards sur le monde antique. Hommages à Guy Sabbah, Lyon, 2002. This author suggests the possibility that the dogma of virginal conception influenced many Fathers of the Church to adopt Aristotelian embryology, in order to preserve the primacy of God's action in the incarnation.