Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Medieval Cosmology and the Church

There is a new lecture out from the Faraday Institute entitled 'Medieval Cosmology and the Church' from the brilliant (and somewhat eccentric) Allan Chapman, author of 'Gods in the Sky: Astronomy from the Ancients to the Enlightenment'. It's a great listen and it gives a good insight into the richness of Medieval Culture. It covers the development of crucial internal structures in the Middle Ages, the universities, the town councils, cathedrals, merchant corporations and academic fellowships and highlights the role of 'personal authority exclusion zones' (such as the city of London) and the system of dual authority between the secular powers and the church. These helped create an environment in which intellectual culture could thrive and the inheritance of antiquity could be built upon.

I found two things of particular interest. One was the way in which Chapman highlights the scientific details in Chaucer, which would assume some knowledge on the part of the readership. The prologue to the physician's tale, for example, is a complete treatise on Galenic medicine. The story of the rapscallion alchemists goes into their apparatus and the texts they relied upon. The Miller's Tale features the devious student Master Nicholas and his attempts to get into bed with his masters wife. In his room this young scallywag owns a copy of Ptolemy's Almagest (probably the condensed John of Saccabosco version) and an astrolabe. Having talked about Medieval astronomy, Chapman remarks that 'the popular idea of a persecution of scientific interests simply become laughably silly at the fact that the church, the universities and the great monasteries taught this stuff relentlessly for centuries'.

Another interesting detail was how Medieval scholars thought almost proto-relativistically in certain matters. One problem was whether you might get bored in heaven; after all, singing hymns and playing the harp with the elect might get extremely tiresome after the first million years. Similarly, if you happened to end up in hell with a sentence of eternal punishment, you might get used to the heat after a while and it wouldn't be so bad. Would Satan have to keep turning up the temperature?. This wouldn't be a problem because you would be outside of space and time. Hence if you were in hell, it would always be the same instant and it would be horrible because you could only look back on what you had done in your life. In heaven, you would have no expectation of anything better because you would be in the presence of God, the elect and the apostles in one supremely glorious moment. It would be like watching Johnny Wilkinson's winning drop goal in the final minute of the 2003 World Cup on loop for all eternity.

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unkle e said...

" Johnny Wilkinson's winning drop goal in the final minute of the 2003 World Cup on loop for all eternity."

One Pom's meat is an Aussie's poisson!

Humphrey said...

Did I mention what hell for Australians is like?. Well, I guess it's kinda similar to the Englishman's heaven; Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal on loop, soccer on the TV all the time and warm beer. Oh and we always win the Ashes.

jamierobertson said...

There was an advert for Tennent's Lager a few years ago where the innocent protagonist is led down a shady corridor, with many doors, by a devil-like figure. In passing one of the doors he spots a man gagged and bound to a chair, shaking around looking panic-stricken and producing muffled screams, as a television plays scenes from Argentina '78 ("...disaster for Scotland... and it's disaster for Scotland...") on loop.

A more accurate depiction of hell I have yet to come across.