Friday, November 20, 2020

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The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery, by Seb Falk. Science and sphericity.

No, no one in the Medieval era believed that the Earth was Flat. Don't be ignorant.

by Ferdinand III


Secularists and Atheists, under the rubrics of various absurd philosophical categories such as ‘rationalism’, ‘humanism’, or ‘post-modernism’, words which mean nothing, engage in the most lurid examples of calumny when attempting to discredit Medieval Christianity.  They portray the era from 500 A.D. when their beloved pagan, slave-society, war-ridden, static, technology-deficient, artless, plutocratic, largely illiterate empire of Rome, ‘fell’ to Germanic occupation and the light of world civilisation flickered off until magically in 1500 A.D. the ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘Reformation’ popped up, out of nowhere, and ushered in the age of science, with such scientific luminosities as abiogenesis, witch-burnings, and revisionist history where such wondrous constructions as 12th century cathedrals are disparaged as ‘Gothic’ i.e. post Roman barbarities.  This is the basis of ‘Enlightenment’ propaganda.


Back in the real world, what was life really like in the Medieval period?  In reality, science, technology, mechanical clocks, polyphony, the violin and string instrumentation, art, book making (and printing), book translations, accounting, blast furnaces, flying buttresses, eye glasses, naturalism, international trade, banking, agricultural revolutions, windmills, watermills, metal saws, water pumps, exotic jewelling, military armaments, all whilst fighting Muslims, Magyars, Mongols, Avars, Vikings and heretical movements, probably indicates a pretty advanced, intelligent, confident, society, one based across Europe on Christian ideals and civilisation.


As Falk points out, science was built in the Medieval era.  Flying machines:

At Malmesbury Abbey, forty miles south and around eighty years earlier (ca 1250), a young monk named Eilmer had carried out an experimental flight. Inspired by the myth of Daedalus, he fastened wings to his hands and feet and leapt from a tall tower. According to the abbey chronicle, he flew more than two hundred metres, before a gust of wind caused him to fall and break his legs. He was lame for the rest of his life but survived well into old age.

So if we can believe the somewhat disapproving chronicler – who was one of the most reliable historians of his age – Eilmer piloted an experimental glider, not wholly without success, almost five hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci sketched a similar flying machine.


Computations and proper Calendaring:

And develop they did. Far from the stereotype of a stagnant scientific environment which did no more than preserve the ideas of the ancients, computists in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries continued to refine their astronomical models, with ever more accurate estimates of the solar and lunar cycles. Scholars became more outspoken in their criticism of the increasingly unrealistic ecclesiastical calendar. In the 1260s the Franciscan friar and proponent of empirical science Roger Bacon wrote, at the Pope’s request, a series of wide-ranging tracts on educational reform. In the third of these he condemned ‘the corruption of the calendar’. It was, he thundered, ‘intolerable to any wise person, horrible to any astronomer, and ridiculous to any computist’. Bacon accepted that only the Pope could change the centralised calendar but urged him to take action on this score. For Bacon, reform of the sciences was an essential part of defending Christendom against existential internal and external threats.


Monastic sciences:

the cloister itself was decorated to reflect the breadth of monastic learning, with windows depicting leading figures of the liberal arts. The windows included classical philosophers and poets, of course, but also medical thinkers, mathematicians like Pythagoras and Boethius, and Guido of Arezzo, the monk thought to have designed the hand mnemonic for musical theory. Geometry and astronomy were represented by the totemic Greek masters Euclid and Ptolemy, … symbolising the agriculture so important to the life of the monastery. Significant recent thinkers in law and theology – Jewish as well as Christian theology – had their own windows, showing that the monks could appreciate both new ideas and the achievements of non-Christians.


Universities first developed in Europe in the 11th century:

The universities did not appear out of nowhere but evolved after centuries of gradual development in monastic and cathedral schools, catalysed by the flood of translations … philosophical and scientific works in the twelfth century. We have already stepped into the monastic schools through the work of Bede, Hermann and others. The monks in those schools studied the seven liberal arts.


rhetoric and logic; and the quadrivium of mathematical sciences: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. They were further popularised in the following century by Isidore, the long-serving bishop of Seville. Isidore gave a summary of the by-then-standard liberal arts at the opening of his encyclopaedia, The Etymologies. An ambitious attempt to summarise all human knowledge, The Etymologies was probably the most popular and influential book after the Bible throughout the Middle Ages.


Bologna, we have just seen, was a centre for law, while Padua and Montpellier rapidly acquired a reputation for medical training, especially as the pioneering school of Salerno declined in importance. Paris, true to its outgrowth from the cathedral schools, specialised in the third and greatest of the higher subjects: theology. Oxford, too, focused on theology, but there the lower faculty of liberal arts was more influential than in other universities. That helped it to attract leading masters of the trivium and, especially, the mathematical quadrivium.


No one believed the Earth was flat.

In a beautifully simple text, whose four chapters together are about the length of one chapter of this book, Sacrobosco set out the basics of medieval knowledge of the universe. He drew on a range of sources…but also quoted classical poets like Ovid and Virgil. He began with Euclid’s geometry, defining what a sphere is, and then described the spheres of the heavens and Earth. A consummate teacher, he built up layer on layer of complexity, explaining the varied motions of the stars and planets, the ways that day-lengths and stellar visibility depended on your location and the season, and how eclipses work.

All a myth:

We shall focus on Sacrobosco’s explanation that the Earth is round. Today it is widely assumed that medieval scholars thought the world was flat, but that is a myth largely invented in the nineteenth century. It was popularised in a work by Washington Irving that can be charitably called ‘imaginative history’, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828. Irving pictured his hero, inspired by ‘natural genius’, arguing that it was possible to sail westward to the Indies, against fierce objections from ignorant churchmen at the Spanish court. Irving’s story was picked up by anti-religious writers and used as an emblem of a general conflict that they imagined was being waged between science and religion, in which a few brave individuals struggled against the suffocating power of the Church.  No such simplistic conflict existed. In fact, Columbus’ geographical assumptions were based on the work of a contemporary of John Westwyk, the Paris master and later cardinal Pierre d’Ailly, who himself drew heavily on Sacrobosco’s Sphere.


Evidence for sphericity:

As evidence for the earth’s roundness, Sacrobosco pointed out that the stars rise and eclipses occur at different times as you travel east or west. And as you travel north or south, he added, you see different stars altogether. If the earth was flat, he explained, the same stars would rise at the same time for all observers. It only seems flat, he said, ‘because of its great size’. Yet compared to the firmament, it must be infinitesimally small, since exactly half of the sky and stars are always above the horizon. The seas, like the earth, must also be round, since a lookout stationed at the top of a ship’s mast can see further than someone standing on deck. Also, Sacrobosco suggested logically, just as water droplets form beads on leaves, so the seas ‘naturally seek a round shape’. Aristotle had one more argument, which Sacrobosco did not use: whenever we watch a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow on the Moon is always round


Based on sphericity one can measure circumference.

When Sacrobosco described, with his characteristic pithy clarity, how any student could carry out the calculation on a clear starry night, he cited Eratosthenes as an authority for his own estimate: 252,000 stades. Those 252,000 stades are extremely close to the correct value. Where did they come from? Not from precise measurement, but by a chain of educated guesses – that was all the Greek astronomers wanted.


There was plenty of intellectual activity in the middle ages, leading to the modern conceptions of education, astronomy, computations, geography, art, music, mechanics, and much, much more.  Denigrating the past because you hate Catholicism, or cannot stand Christianity, or truly believe rather mindless and baseless propaganda, is a sure way to deracinate the present from the past and extinguish your current civilisation.  Ignorance is just ignorance.