Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Medieval Science Syllabus

If you were studying at, say, Cambridge, during the late Middle Ages, you would have been expected to master a fair amount of natural science and mathematics in order to gain an MA degree (which in those days was not a just freebie for those with BAs). But unlike today, you would have found everything you needed to know from books and lecturers rather than being expected to do any practical work. These books and lectures, of course, were all in Latin which was the only language students were allowed to speak at any time.

Mathematics and Geometry

Mathematics was broken down into four sub-subjects - arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – so it was known as the quadrivium. At Cambridge arithmetic meant learning how to do sums, extracting roots and solving equations. Surprisingly, though, it seems to have been very different at Oxford. There, you would have studied the properties of prime and perfect numbers with the aim of reaching a philosophical understanding of them rather than learning about practical applications. At both universities, music was devoted to the theory of ratios and harmony and consequently was not seen as a particularly useful subject. The evidence suggests many students paid no attention to it and the music lecturers sometimes asked to change their course because no one was turning up. Geometry was based squarely on the Elements of Euclid which is an ancient Greek textbook that can still be used with profit today. He starts from the simplest definitions and proceeds to erect the entire edifice of geometry onto this solid bedrock in logical and indisputable steps. So perfect was Euclid’s system that it was used as an analogy for the work of God when he produced the heavens.

Astronomy and Geography

The final of the four sub-subjects making up the quadrivium was astronomy. The greatest misconception about science in the Middle Ages is that people thought the earth was flat. In fact every educated person knew it was a sphere and they also believed that the whole vastness of the universe was the same shape. The most popular textbook for astronomy was by the Englishman, John Sacrobosco, who wrote a short treatise called The Sphere in the thirteenth century. This was especially for university students and it was still being used up to the scientific revolution as a basic introduction from which more advanced topics could be introduced. Sacrobosco, following the nearly unanimous opinion of the ancient Greeks, did place the earth at the centre of the universe but this made a lot of sense. After all, the earth is obviously not moving and if it were rushing through space as Copernicus required, presumably we would notice.

Geography was another subject, generally considered part of mathematics, that was becoming increasingly popular through the sixteenth century. Despite the discovery of the New World in 1492, the most popular textbooks had been written over a thousand years before by ancient Greeks and Romans. However, modern authors like the Germans, Peter Apian and Sebastian Münster, began to produce up-to-date books that made it part of their selling point to include all the latest details about Peru or Mexico. We find these being used side by side with the ancient authorities.

After mastering the quadrivium, students moved on to natural science proper. This was based almost entirely on the work of Aristotle, but after 1535 the English Government ordered the universities to stop using the old medieval commentaries and concentrate on the original texts or new works by humanists. Consequently, the scholastics, who had dominated philosophy for centuries, were hardly studied at Cambridge after this date. Instead the emphasis was on modern interpretations of Aristotle including a good deal of criticism of his thought. This meant that although Aristotle seemed to provide answers for everything about the universe, people realised that they were not necessarily the right ones.

Science and Religion

The influence of Christianity on Cambridge University in the Middle Ages was obviously profound, but it does not seem to have had a negative impact on the study of science. It was commonly believed at the time that by studying God’s creation and marvelling at his work, you were engaged in a religious duty. This meant that doing science was something that was of interest to even the most religious of men. As we have seen. the main effect of the Reformation was to give an opportunity for the syllabuses to be radically overhauled and most of the medieval texts removed from them. There is a famous story related by the antiquarian, Anthony à Wood, about the Protestant Reformers ransacking Oxford’s libraries for mathematical books they thought were Satanic. However, there is no evidence for that happening at Cambridge and the evidence from Oxford turns out to be pretty shaky as well. So, we should certainly dispose of the idea of religion holding back science even during a period when Christianity was the absolutely dominant social reality and the Reformation had heightened religious sensibilities even further.

In the end, the subjects being studied at Cambridge before the scientific revolution were nothing like modern science. But it was a period of rapid change when Platonic number theory was being replaced by practical arithmetic and algebra, when the classical view of the earth was being radically overhauled and when new knowledge and interpretations were often welcomed and studied. It was this that provided the foundations upon which the scientific revolution could be built.

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Tim O'Neill said...

"(Y)ou would have been expected to master a fair amount of natural science and mathematics in order to gain an MA degree (which in those days was not a just freebie for those with BAs).

If I'm reading this correctly, you're saying UK universities give away MAs as "freebies"? How does that work?

I spent three long years writing a thesis to get my MA. Does this mean people from the Uk who see I have an MA think I got it as a "freebie" with my BA? Why on earth would any university give away a post-graduate degree as a "freebie", especially if it's a research higher degree of some prestige in other parts of the world?

Sorry for the off-topic question, but did I read that correctly?

Anonymous said...

Don't panic. Your MA is safe and recognised as a proper research degree.
Tfe 'freebie MA only applies to Oxford (and I think Cambridge) That's why you see MA (Oxon) so people know it's not a 'real MA' I used to work with someone who had an Oxford BA. In the early 1980's you sent off £10 about two years after graduation.

James said...

Hi Tim,

As anon says, it's only Oxbridge who get a free MA. That said, those of us who earned an MA elsewhere make a a point of not picking up our free MAs. Sadly for an Oxbridge DPhil/PhD you do have to work quite hard...

There is some debate about the Scots system which awards MAs after four year undergraduate courses instead of BAs after three years as in England. That also appears to be a throwback to the Middle Ages.

TheOFloinn said...

Hm. I had to do 4 years for a BA and another two years for an MS.
+ + +

after 1535 the English Government ordered the universities to stop using the old medieval commentaries and concentrate on the original texts or new works by humanists.

It also indicates that after 1535 the Government was apparently telling the universities what they could teach, apparently part of the totalizing monarchs of the modern age.

Humphrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Humphrey said...

I went through the Scottish system at the University of St Andrews. Actually it's only the arts students which get a masters after 4 years. if you study science you only get a bachelors. It seems to be something of a halfway house between the English and the American system as you take 3 subjects in the first two years before specialising in one subject in the final two. My MA thesis is online here:

My brother went to Cambridge and if I recall correctly he got his MA just by attending a black tie dinner after two years.

My wife tells me that in the States (at least in the liberal arts system) they actually make you work for it, which sounds frightfully uncivilised.

Unknown said...

After I earned my BA I had to take an additional thirty-three credit hours of approved graduate work, then I had to undergo one standard comprehensive examination and finally I had to write two substantial research papers scoring a B or better to get my MA. If I had known that I could get an MA by just attending a black tie dinner at Cambridge I would have moved Britain before enrolling in college.

Brandon said...

That was new to me, too. It took me some time to figure out why one would do anything like this; but then I realized that the original idea must have been to use the MA to mark rank rather than accomplishment -- that is, it makes sense if at one time the assumption was that you'd be teaching and the like with your BA, and thus at some point you got the MA as a step up in rank -- a seniority upgrade, so to speak, showing your ability to stick around. Mixing it with an actual degree makes it a quirky sort of thing.

Weekend Fisher said...

Say, James, this subject is of particular interest to me. What are your original sources for finding out the old standard textbooks, the syllabus for each subject, the degree plan from back in the day?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Sue Sims said...

But not a 'freebie' - I had to pay £10 for mine, which in 1978 was Real Money. Well, fairly real money, anyway.

James said...

Hi Anne,

Good to see you again. I hope you are well.

There's lots of stuff including detailed analysis of the original syllabuses in my thesis available on line here:

See pp 25 and 47 for the medieval Oxford syllabus and pp 69 and 87 for Cambridge.

Best wishes