Philosophy and science


Philosophy and science

In the 8th century, the British scholars Bede and Alcuin of York produced works on grammar and on calendrical computation, as did Ælfric of Eynsham, Abbo of Fleury, and Byrhtferth of Ramsey in around 1000. Otherwise, though, the first half of our period, down to the Conquest, has left us with few texts that are obviously academic besides biblical commentary.

As Europe became urbanized in the 12th and 13th centuries, however, higher education began to flourish like never before, and the intellectual output of the new universities of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in particular was prodigious. The second half of our period, from the Conquest down to the Renaissance and beyond, is accordingly much more fertile.

In theology, the discursive meditations of Anselm of Canterbury (c1100) began to give way to ‘scholastic’ works with a resolutely systematic structure. This change was cemented by Peter Lombard's Sentences (c1157), which provided a standard framework for theologians from Alexander of Hales (c1225) onwards. Scholastic theology was also distinctive for its engagement with Aristotelian philosophy, an increasing amount of which was being translated into Latin after 1120; a fascinating witness to the early stages of this process is John of Salisbury's Metalogicon (1159). Among the many outstanding British scholastic theologians, the most important were John Duns Scotus (c1300) and William of Ockham (c1325).

Philosophy increasingly overlapped with theology in this period. Writing about the location of angels, for instance, a typical 12th-century theologian might muster various scriptural and dogmatic authorities before concluding that angels were created in the highest heaven rather than the firmament; a typical 14th-century theologian might instead use angels' lack of spatial extension as a pretext for a philosophical discussion of the continuum. But there were also works of philosophy per se, especially commentaries on the newly-translated works of Aristotle. In the 14th century, the contribution of Oxonians like Thomas Bradwardine to logic in particular was outstanding, leading Richard de Bury to portray Paris as having to catch up: ‘our English subtleties, which they denounce in public, are the subject of their furtive vigils’ (Philobiblon, 1344).

Science, too, overlapped with theology, the thought being that one could study God via His creations. Following in the footsteps of the Greeks and the Arabs, though, a succession of British authors also produced texts that were purely scientific, including Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, and Alfred Shareshill in the 12th century, Michael Scot, Robert Grosseteste, and Roger Bacon in the 13th century, and Thomas Bradwardine, Richard of Wallingford, and Richard Swineshead in the 14th. Among British Latin works we find one of the greatest medieval encyclopaedias, the De proprietatibus rerum of Bartholomaeus Anglicus (c1245). Areas of interest to the medieval scholar ranged widely, including such fields as mathematics, optics, zoology, and botany. 

For medicine, a practical subject often closely associated with the study of plants, two major British Medieval latin sources are Gilbert the Englishman's Compendium medicinae (c1250) and John Gaddesden's Rosa anglica medicine (c1313). We also have the anonymous Prose Salernitan Questions (c1200), a miscellany that answers questions like ‘Why are drowned women found face-up?’ (The answer, of course, is because of the hollowness of the womb and the sponginess of the breasts.)

Musical theory provides us with some of our most challenging texts in the form of treatises by John of Garland and Walter Odington in the 13th century, Robert Handlo and John Hanboys in the 14th, and John Hothby in the 15th.

We find important linguistic texts, on grammar, spelling, and use of vocabulary throughout the medieval period.

Finally, we have several legal treatises, from the 12th-century canonistic writings of Richard de Morins (an Englishman abroad in Bologna) to the common-law works of Henry of Bracton (c1250) and John Fortescue (c1470).