Saturday, February 16, 2008

Francis Bacon and Horse's Teeth

Here is a famous story you might have heard, taken from here:

In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition such as was never before heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceeding wroth; and, joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him, hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. For, said they, surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth, contrary to all the teachings of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife, the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.

When I was going through my phase of arguing on the Internet Infidels discussion board, a lady using the screen name of Sojourner was one of my common debating partners. She was very bright and quite knowledgeable which meant talking with her was always fun. She had gone as far as to write an entire book on her internet site which told the story of Western civilisation (without irony) from the point of view of a nineteenth-century positivist. That is to say, her theme was of mankind’s progress towards liberalism through reason and the defeat of superstition. Like many amateurs, she had read most of the standard popular histories but none of the primary sources. Sadly her effort os no longer on-line. I hope I didn't help drive it away.

The result was a hodgepodge of fact, fantasy and misinterpretation through a liberal lens. Everyone was judged with perfect hindsight and no contemporary context at all. St Augustine and St Paul were baddies, Roger and Francis Bacon were goodies and people were always getting into trouble with the Church for thinking too much. Sojourner thought she was a critical thinker but her book revealed that she had happily swallowed anything that agreed with her prejudices without ever considering it. For example, she quoted Ammianus Marcellinus on the libraries of Rome being “shut up like tombs” and assumed this was the fault of Christians. She had not bothered check the context which clearly blames pagans for not caring about their intellectual heritage.

She also quoted the horse story given above as a typical example of medieval obscurantism, claiming it came from the works of Francis Bacon. Leaving aside the fact that Bacon was far too late to give any sort of accurate picture of medieval thought, I challenged her for a reference to Bacon’s works. All I got was the secondary source she had mined the quotation from. Now Bacon’s works are voluminous, partly in Latin and ideal for hiding a story to which you want to give a famous providence. More recently, there have been other attempts to track down the horse story, none of which are able to push it back past 1900. Interestingly, there is a variation of the myth that it came from a chronicle of an ancient monastery and dates from 1425!

I present this as yet another myth about the Middle Ages that has been doing the rounds. If anyone has any idea where it originates from, I would be most interested.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Bjørn Are said...

Hi James!

I guess you are well aware of a possible connection to Aristotle at, where he insists that horses have 40 teeth.

And the discussion at

Which may be the one you mentioned failed to take it longer back than 1900?

Brandon said...

The earliest I've ever been able to trace it is to The Basis of Passional Psychology (1901), by "Dr. Jacobus X****" who attributes it to "The Chronicle of an Ancient Monastery," with no further information.

Anonymous said...

I recently had need to mention the debate in question. But, what was of the greater interest for me was your encounter with the "online author" whose research came into question ... repeatedly. I came into contact with someone, not long ago, who was maligning another without offering reason(s)and giving definitive conclusions. If the person had used a pseudonym, it might have been "Non Sequitor." It was only later, after excuses, that a claim to have evidence was made ..., but not given. The individual was quite upset with me for not just accepting their derogatory views about someone. I think James 3:1-10 was applicable. I doubt if mention of it would have made any difference. BTW, I have ordered the tomb mentioned (with link) at the end of your post.

James said...

Thanks Anon. I hope you enjoy the book. I'm still looking for the source of this story.

Best wishes


Virtual Population Laboratory said...

I may be slightly off topic but it might be interesting to consider why we accept a count, derived for a single empirical observation (find a horse and count the teeth) sufficient to answer a question about the (I assume the original intent of the story) class of horses?

How is an answer to a question regarding "universals" - all horses - to be given?

Consider - horses with broken and lost teeth, malformations, genetic variance, etc.

Perhaps if the question were understood as as "how many teeth do the majority of horses have" an empirical approach might be indicated. If the question is raised in a "circumscription logic" frame, "How many teeth does a horse have if the horse is not an abnormal (with regard to teeth) horse." a single observation, subject to revision, might be appropriate.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of genetics is insufficient to suggest whether such an approach would be helpful.

Perhaps the debate was more sophisticated than we appreciate.
I am not convinced

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the myth should be maintained if it helps promote the legitimacy of the Scientific Method over the current wave of Creationists, Romanticists and Denialists who would undermine Science and its standing in modern society through political and other means.

David Donaldson said...

Amused at the irony of people trying to prove or disprove the truth of the parable by searching for the identity of the author in ancient texts.

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