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22.09.04 Etheridge/Campopiano (eds.), Medieval Science in the North

22.09.04 Etheridge/Campopiano (eds.), Medieval Science in the North

The second volume in the series “Knowledge, Scholarship and Science in the Middle Ages,” Medieval Science in the North, edited by Christian Etheridge and Michele Campopiano, offers nine engaging essays plus an introduction discussing the fundamental changes taking place in science and scholarship in north-western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Covering a variety of topics, texts, medieval scholars, and approaches, the articles in this volume form a coherent unit by their focus on the scientific revolution brought about by the availability of Latin translations of Greek and Arabic learning, and their influence on literature and scholarship.

As the title of the book indicates, the propagators of these intellectual changes were engaged in knowledge transfer. Students of the newly founded universities of Paris were spreading the Aristotelian canon; the new orders of mendicant friars, particularly the Dominicans and Franciscans, were using scientific examples and information knowledge in their sermons and educational activities; and lastly, as explained in the final contribution to this volume, craftsmen, smugglers and ironmongers fulfilled a remarkably similar role in the spread of technical knowledge. Travel and transformation of knowledge and learning is, therefore, the theme of this volume; its geographical focus, visualised in a convenient map (10), is Scandinavia and England. In an article-length introduction, Etheridge and Campopiano explain the focus on England and Scandinavia--a region characterised by cultural and linguistic similarities which, as the volume aims to show, was not merely at the down-stream end of the scholarly currents, but also played an important role in the transformation and development of newly available Greek and Arabic scientific ideas. While the focus on England and Scandinavia provides the book with a sense of coherence, the argument that these were not peripheral areas in matters of medieval science is somewhat of a truism which the book does not really need. Geographically, England and Scandinavia were on the periphery of the European mainland, a position from which they cannot be moved, while scientifically, a peripheral position might actually be an advantage and lead to interesting insights and positions, as, for example, the rich Irish computus tradition from the early Middle Ages has shown.

The interaction of the “old” computus tradition with Roger of Hereford’s five-book Compotus is the topic of Philipp Nothaft’s excellent contribution, in which Nothaft shows how Roger introduced the computus of the Chaldeans (Arabs) and Hebrews (Jews) to correct traditional computistical assumptions by means of observation. In his article, Nothaft sets the tone for the scientific aspect of this volume by showing how the newly available sources emphasised the importance of observation over textual and historical authority. Roger of Hereford’s work moved computus, astronomy, and mathematics closer together.

The importance of scientific observation also appears in the contribution on Robert Grosseteste’s treatise on the rainbow (De iride) by Giles E. M. Gasper, Brian K. Tanner, and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn and Nader El-Bizri. Titled “Travelling Optics,” the article shows how Grosseteste discussed optics as a “subalternation” (a situation “where one science adopts the principles of another” [48]) to the rainbow as a physical phenomenon. This contribution provides a challenging amalgamation of science and textual scholarship, showing not only the incredible breadth and depth of Grosseteste’s learning, but also the experimental side of his thinking. Readers should certainly try out the experiment of the appearing coin, as explained and visualised on p. 58. A slight downside of this article is that the Christological significance of the rainbow is mentioned only as a “concluding reflection” at the end. The beginning of the article would have been a better place.

Michele Campopiano’s study of Roger Bacon’s edition of the Secretum secretorum is meant to show how work on this enigmatic text affected Bacon’s understanding of mathematics and astronomy. In his thorough discussion, Campopiano shows how Bacon tried to get a Christian grip on a pre-Christian text by reconciling the influence exercised by the stars on earthly bodies with the concepts of divine predestination and free will, saving the reputation of “mathematics” from its traditional association with divination and prognostication.

With Sten Ebbesen’s “Wisdom’s Trips to Denmark,” the geographical focus of the book changes from England to Scandinavia. In a short but very learned and crisp article, Ebbesen illustrates the cases of two thirteenth-century Danish churchmen (archbishop Andrew Sunessen of Lund and bishop Gunner of Viborg) and their roles in the proliferation of Aristotelian learning in Denmark. As Ebbesen explains, these men carried wisdom not just in books, but mostly in their heads--an important idea (memoria as a vehicle of learning) that is all too often disregarded by modern scholars of manuscripts and texts. In his concluding synopsis of new learning in Denmark, Ebbesen looks ahead at “the ravage caused by the Lutheran reformation” as one of the causes of the loss of manuscript material from the Middle Ages in Denmark. These ravages are, indirectly, the theme of Christian Etheridge’s report on “Medieval Scientific Book Fragments Held in Swedish and Finnish Archives,” which are the spoils of 12,586 manuscripts that fell victim to the reformers’ destructive fundamentalism. In this important contribution Etheridge maintains that these medieval fragments are a relatively under-researched source, making a plea for proper cataloguing and, as this reviewer hopes, for digitisation.

The users of the scientific knowledge contained in these manuscripts included the order of the Dominicans, which spread out over much of Europe after their foundation in 1216. Johnny Grandjean Gøssig Jakobsen’s contribution analyses the Dominican transmission and usage of such knowledge during the time of their expansion. It appears that the Dominicans incorporated science in their sermons, using it to explain, by means of “semi-scientific similitudines,” the natural phenomena occurring in scripture. That science not only entered Dominican preaching but also secular literature is the topic of Marteinn Helgi Sigurðsson’s article on “Master Perus of Arabia,” a fictitious wise man and magician reputedly of Arabic origins who occurs in Icelandic saga literature. Sigurðsson traces the origins of this tradition in Iceland, making a case for the fourteenth-century bishop Jón Halldórsson, who, as a Dominican Friar of the convent of Bergen in Norway, went to Paris for his studies, and may have brought these tales or motifs from France. The association of the miraculous feats performed by Master Perus with his Arabic origin echoes the more general attribution of new wisdom to oriental influences, for which Paris was the hub. The influence of science on Icelandic Romance writing is also the topic of Florian Schreck’s essay, “Science in Medieval Fiction: The Case of Konráðs saga keisarasonar,” in which new ideas of mineralogy suggest the author’s awareness of a broad spectrum of scientific texts.

The final contribution to this volume, by Brad Kirkland on “Immigration and Trade Routes and Their Influence on the London Armourer’s Industry,” takes us back to England but away from the books, text, and Aristotelian ideas. Kirkland’s article is scholarly and interesting, and paints a picture of the international arms trade in the fourteenth century which not many readers of the type of scholarship presented in the other contributions will be aware of. Here, as in the previous contribution, knowledge travelled through the agency of its users. The change from intellectual and textual culture to material culture is, however, somewhat abrupt, and for all its unquestionable merits, the place of this article in this particular volume may be questioned.

Medieval Science in the North offers an interesting insight into the scientific changes produced by Europe’s renewed awareness of Greek learning in the twelfth century and thereafter. Its contributors rightly point to the profound influence of texts translated from Arabic into Latin, which circulated as a result of their significance for the curriculum at the new universities of Paris, Oxford and elsewhere (47). This was a world without “internet,” but one bustling with new and exciting ideas that were crying out to be promulgated and processed. The contributions to this volume expose the human internet that was, no doubt, slower than today’s electronic version, but which connected Scandinavia with Paris, and transmitted verbal communications as well as documents, varying from highly technical treatises to the entertaining accounts of Master Perus. This anthology adds to our knowledge and awareness of the intellectual climate in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and impresses on the reader the undeniable fact that these were interesting and exciting times.