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Medieval Popularization Of Science

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 k
nds, 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


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 be 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. His 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 Teutonicus, the German monk of St. Gall, and

its influence may be traced in Beowulf, in Chaucer, in High German

poetry, in Anglo-Norman and Provencal 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 Boethius 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

case. 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 recently

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. He

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 ecclesiastical 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


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. He 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

scibili 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 heterogeneous creatures are brought under a common

heading. Among the fishes, for instance, are classed all living things

that are found in water. The whale and the dolphin, as well as sponges,

and oysters, and crocodiles, and sea serpents, and lobsters, and

hippopotamuses, all find a place together, because of the common watery

habitation. The early Spanish Churchman would seem to have had an

enthusiastic zeal for complete classification that would surely have

made him a strenuous modern zooelogist.

The next link in the tradition of encyclopedic work is the Venerable

Bede, whose character was more fully honored by the decree on November

13, 1899, by Pope Leo XIII declaring him a Doctor of the Church. Bede

was the fruit of that ardent scholarship which had risen in England as a

consequence of the introduction of Christianity. It had been fostered by

the coming of scholar saints from Ireland, but was, unfortunately,

disturbed by the incursions of the Danes. While Bede is known for his

greatest work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which

gives an account of Christianity in England from its beginning until his

own day, he wrote many other works. His history is the foundation of all

our knowledge of early British history, secular as well as religious,

and has been praised by historical writers of all ages, who turned to it

for help with confidence. He wrote a number of other historical works.

Besides, he wrote books on grammar, orthography, the metrical art, on

rhetoric, on the nature of things, the seasons, and on the calculation

of the seasons. These latter books are distinctly scientific. His

contributions to Gregorian Music are now of great value.

After this, Alcuin and the monks, summoned by Charlemagne, take up the

tradition of gathering and diffusing information, and the great

monasteries of Tours, Fulda, and St. Gall carry it on. Besides these,

in the ninth century Monte Cassino comes into prominence as an

institution where much was done of what we would now call encyclopedic

work. After his retirement from Salerno Constantine Africanus made his

translations and commentaries on Arabian medicine, constituting what was

really a medical encyclopedia of information not readily available at

that time.

After this, of course, the tradition is taken up by the universities,

and it is only when, with the thirteenth century, there came the

complete development of the university spirit, that encyclopedias

reached their modern expression. Three great encyclopedists, Vincent of

Beauvais, Thomas of Cantimprato, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus, are the most

famous. Vincent consulted all the authors sacred and profane that he

could lay hold on, and the number was, indeed, prodigious. I have given

some account of him in The Thirteenth Greatest of Centuries (Catholic

Summer School Press, New York, third edition, 1910).

It would be very easy to conclude that these encyclopedias, written by

clergymen for the general information of the educated people of the

times, contain very little that is scientifically valuable, and probably

nothing of serious medical significance. Any such thought is, however,

due entirely to unfamiliarity with the contents of these works. They

undoubtedly contain absurdities, they are often full of misinformation,

they repeat stories on dubious authority, and sometimes on hearsay, but

usually the source of their information is stated, and especially where

it is dubious, as if they did not care to state marvels without due

support. Books of popular information, however, have always had many

queer things,--queer, that is, to subsequent generations,--and it is

rather amusing to pick up an encyclopedia of a century ago, much less a

millennium ago, and see how many absurd things were accepted as true.

The first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, issued one hundred

and fifty years ago, furnishes an easily available source of the

absurdities our more recent forefathers accepted. The men of the Middle

Ages, however, were much better observers as a rule, and used much more

critical judgment, according to their lights, than we have given them

credit for. Often the information that they have to convey is not only

valuable, but well digested, thoroughly practical, and sometimes a

marvellous anticipation of some of our most modern thoughts. There is

one of these encyclopedias which, because it was written in my favorite

thirteenth century, I have read with some care. It is simply a

development of the work of preceding clerical encyclopedists, and often

refers to them. Because it contains some typical examples of the better

sorts of information in these works, I have thought it worth while to

quote two passages from it. The author is Bartholomaeus Anglicus, and the

quaint English in which it is couched is quoted from Medical Lore

(London, 1893). The book is all the more interesting because in a dear

old English version, issued about 1540, the spellings of which are among

the great curiosities of English orthography, it was often read and

consulted by Shakespeare, who evidently quotes from it frequently, for

not a little of the quaint scientific lore that he uses for his figures

can be traced to expressions used in this book.

The first of the paragraphs that deserves to be quoted, discusses

madness, or, as we would call it, lunacy, and sums up the causes, the

symptoms, and the treatment quite as well as that has ever been done in

the same amount of space:

Madness cometh sometime of passions of the soul, as of

business and of great thoughts, of sorrow and of too great

study, and of dread: sometime of the biting of a wood hound,

or some other venomous beast; sometime of melancholy meats,

and sometime of drink of strong wine. And as the causes be

diverse, the tokens and signs be diverse. For some cry and

leap and hurt and wound themselves and other men, and darken

and hide themselves in privy and secret places. The medicine

of them is, that they be bound, that they hurt not themselves

and other men. And namely, such shall be refreshed, and

comforted, and withdrawn from cause and matter of dread and

busy thoughts. And they must be gladded with instruments of

music, and some deal be occupied.'

The second discusses in almost as thorough a way the result of the bite

of a mad dog. The old English word for mad, wood, is constantly used.

The causes, the symptoms, and course of the disease, and its possible

prevention by early treatment, are all discussed. The old tradition was

already in existence that sufferers from rabies or hydrophobia, as it is

called, dreaded water, when it is really only because the spasm

consequent upon the thought even of swallowing is painful that they turn

from it. That tradition has continued to be very commonly accepted even

by physicians down to our own day, so that Bartholomew, the Englishman,

in the thirteenth century, will not be blamed much for setting it forth

for popular information in his time some seven centuries ago. The idea

that free bleeding would bring about the removal of the virus is

interesting, because we have in recent years insisted in the case of the

very similar disease, tetanus, on allowing or deliberately causing

wounds in which the tetanus microbe may have gained an entrance, to

bleed freely.

The biting of a wood hound is deadly and venomous. And such

venom is perilous. For it is long hidden and unknown, and

increaseth and multiplieth itself, and is sometimes unknown to

the year's end, and then the same day and hour of the biting,

it cometh to the head, and breedeth frenzy. They that are

bitten of a wood hound have in their sleep dreadful sights,

and are fearful, astonied, and wroth without cause. And they

dread to be seen of other men, and bark as hounds, and they

dread water most of all things, and are afeared thereof full

sore and squeamous also. Against the biting of a wood hound

wise men and ready use to make the wounds bleed with fire or

with iron, that the venom may come out with the blood, that

cometh out of the wound.