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Help with course design - Medieval Science

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Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Bruce N H » Tue Jun 02, 2009 6:10 pm

Hey all,

I'd like to draw on the collected expertise of people in this group and ask for suggestions. I've accepted a faculty position at Richard Stockton College. They really value the liberal arts tradition, and they strongly encourage their faculty to develop cross-disciplinary courses as part of their general studies program. This can include topics that are not part of our areas of professional expertise. Anyway, I'm going to combine my expertise as a chemist with my general interest in history and literature, particularly in the medieval era, to make a class called Medieval Science. My idea is to go through what the medievals understood of science (I'll probably focus largely on the late medieval period) and interweave it with history, things taken from literature, and a look at how we do science today. Right now I'm digging through background material to find sources. Anyway, I'd be interested in any suggestions you may have on:
-Modern sources that would be good for me to use as background (e.g. Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages and Lewis' Discarded Image)
-Sources from the medieval era that I might have students read (e.g. Dante's Paradiso, which not only walks through the heavens and describes their view of the planets, but also has several mini essays embedded on topics like the reflection of light and the relation between plants, animals and people)
-Individual scientists I could focus on (Albertus Magnus, Da Vinci, Roger Bacon)
-Specific scientific topics
-Any other ideas

Below I have my rough course outline with some ideas sketched in. I'm not teaching this in the fall, so I've got a lot of time to fill in the blanks - maybe spring 2010.
Medieval science

A brief history - from the fall of Rome (476) to the Protestant Reformation (1517)
Scholarship then and now - methods of science, theory of knowledge, history of the great schools(?)
Role of the church
Dark ages?

Go through earth-centered universe, discuss roles of planets
How this model matches observations
Examples of this model in literature – Dante’s Paradiso, for instance
Discussion of the transition to heliocentric model – Galileo

Hmm, not exactly sure where to go with this section

Alchemy vs chemistry
Role of the apothecary
Maybe have them read from Albertus Magnus?

Biology and Medicine
Again, need development in here

Nature of man
Biological and philosophical discussion of man
How does he relate to creation
How does he relate to God
Somewhere in the Pardiso there is a description of this

Military – there have got to be a lot of resources on how different siege engines work, development of explosives, etc
Architecture – good place to look at great cathedrals and other structures, discuss the physics of arches and domes, how they made them – look at the Regius Poem – hmm, this raises the question of whether I should have a separate section on math/geometry/etc
Technology related to daily life – go through the development of a mill, maybe
Other? Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe – oldest English work on a scientific instrument

How’d it all end?
Transition to the Rennaissance
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Re: Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Maedhros » Tue Jun 02, 2009 7:34 pm

This sounds really interesting, and at least partly ties in with things I've studied before. Unfortunately I can't really point you to many modern sources because of our differences in language but older sources as well as general topics and thoughts I can probably come up with. It's been a while since I worked with these topics and it's really not quite my field of expertise but here are a few thoughts and names to get started:

Bruce N H wrote:-Individual scientists I could focus on (Albertus Magnus, Da Vinci, Roger Bacon)

There are of course quite a bunch to choose from but I would at least suggest Ibn Sina (Avicenna). You also have to consider how much the medieval "science" leaned on the ancient traditions (mostly traded down from the Greek via Arabic) so at least familiarizing oneself with persons such as Aristoteles, Galenos, Ptolemaios, Eratosthenes and others would in my opinion be a good idea.

Scholarship then and now - methods of science, theory of knowledge, history of the great schools(?)

When discussing method and theory of knowledge Scholasticism is a topic that can't be avoided, you've already mentioned Albertus Magnus but a man such as William of Ockham and above all Thomas ab Aquino (Thomas Aquinas) needs mentioning as well.

Most important might be Ibn Rushd (Averroës) though, for his idea on how philosophy and religion could be two ways to the same truth, the founder of secular science you might say.

I would also say a comparison between the views of the Christian and Islamic spheres would be really interesting, as well as studying how much the Islamic thinkers, despite being "heathen", actually came to influence the Western traditions of learning
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Re: Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Stephen » Wed Jun 03, 2009 4:49 am

Congratulations on your new faculty position, Bruce. As a college professor myself, I know the thrill of teaching, as well as the challenges of new course development. I like your topic, it will probably have to be like a humanities course - looking at several different disciplines simultaneously and finding how they relate.

If you define science as "how people understand the world" then medieval science will be very different since the scientific method and logic did play as big a role as they do today. Yet there is no doubt that there were technical improvements and advances in knowledge throughout the middle ages. They definitely learned from their mistakes, but I don't think they used any sort of structured system of investigation, which is the basis of all science today.

And they did it all with roman numerals (try calculating the diameter of an arch using roman numerals!)

I found these books after a quick browse of my bookshelves:

Connections by James Burke, 1978, Little, Brown and Company ISBN 0-316-11681-5
There may be a more recent edition. This whole book traces the development of several different technologies from ancient time to the present and emphasizes how knowledge builds on other knowledge. You'll get a lot of how solving a problem in one area leads to a breakthrough somewhere else.

The Year 1000, What life was like at the turn of the millenium by Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger, 1999, Little, Brown and Company ISBN 978-0-316-51157-5
Most of this book is about everyday life in general, but the chapter titled August discusses disease, hygene, and the state of medicine in the year 1000.

The Medieval Underworld by Andrew McCall, 1993, Barnes & Noble Books ISBN 0-88029-714-X
This is another book about medieval life in general, but focuses on things like prositution, crime and punishment, etc. The Chapter on Sorcers and Witches discusses how science and magic come together and how society of the time reacted to things it didn't understand. This gave me a good insight into how the medieval world worked from a different set of expectations than we do today.

I hope this helps. I'll post more if I come across any others.

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Re: Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Bruce N H » Wed Jun 03, 2009 1:20 pm

Cool! Thanks for those.

What happened to Maehdros' response, btw? I was going to look up some of the things you mentioned and now it's not here. :spin:

Edit - aha! Somehow I double posted this thread, and so Maehdros responded to the first iteration and Stephen to the second. I've merged the threads now (hadn't done that before, btw, that's a new feature in the new forum software).

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Re: Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Evil Ben » Wed Jun 03, 2009 8:14 pm

Many congratulations on your appointment! :D

This sounds like a really interesting course, and I'd love to know how it eventually turns out. It's a later period than I'm really familiar with, but if you follow Maedhros' suggestion of a glance back at classical antiquity then I can provide plenty of suggestions for bibliography in English (especially on Plato, Aristotle and medical writers; on Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy I'd have to ask around for anything more than the most basic things).

In terms of topics, would mathematics be a possible addition? Leonardo of Pisa/Fibonacci is surely too good to leave out, and I know that in a (first-year) course taught by one of my colleagues they had fun with the golden ratio. Burton's The History of Mathematics: an introduction seems to be a decent textbook.

Oh, and another vote for Averroës!
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Re: Help with course design - Medieval Science

Postby Formendacil » Wed Jun 03, 2009 11:35 pm

I will add my reinforcing vote, insofar as it's worth anything, to Maedhros, regarding mention of Aristotle.

"The Philosopher" as he was known in the Middle Ages, was THE expert on... well... pretty much everything. His work formed the basis of much of what the Arab philosophers/scientists (Averroës has been mentioned) worked on, as well as all the later European thinkers (my undergrad is in philosophy, so I'm thinking of Aquinas et al, but there was little distinction between philosopher and scientist pre-Renaissance, and even later there was a lot of overlap. Descartes did a treatise on optics, and Berkeley wrote extolling the virtues of tar-water. It wasn't until Immanuel Kant, c. 1800, that philosophers ceased to be either Theologians or Scientists in their "day jobs).

Ptolemy has also been mentioned, and he's also good.

The thing about Aristotle (less so Ptolemy, simply because Astronomy doesn't lend itself to experiment) is most of his scientific theories, for all that we kibosh them today as "unscientific" make empirical sense, in the absence of experiments. Aristotle was revolutionary as "the first scientist" insofar as his goal for knowledge was quite different from Plato's: Plato believed in reasoning things out from overall theories, whereas Aristotle always believed in reasoning out theories from the observations--Neo-Platonists tended to try and reconcile these positions, but the fact remains the reason Aristotle was THE authority once he was rediscovered by the West (thank you very much, Arabia!) is that he pretty much did examine every question, and propose a coherent answer.

*cough* So, I'm getting wordy... but I think it should be clear, that while I am no scientist, as a philosopher I can say a lot, at least tangentially, about "science" in the Middle Ages. Of course, there's always alchemy (not a subject I know much about), and I would also add Astrology. While we normally think of Astrology today in terms of being completely non-scientific in comparison with scientific Astronomy, in Ancient (and I believe in Medieval) times, it was very much a science, given the understanding of the world as pre-destined and teleological.
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