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Stanley L. Jaki
THE MIDDLE AGES have long been a favorite whipping boy for most admirers of modern times. They do not suspect that whenever they do this in print or in lectures in a university context, they provide three evidences on behalf of the striking modernity of the Middle Ages. We moderns take it for granted that almost all our activities, among them lectures, are scheduled for an exact time. We also take it for granted that we have the tools-clocks-that make this possible. We hardly ever think that clocks were first made in the Middle Ages. There were, of course, tools to measure time well before the Middle Ages such as the sundial and the hour-glass. They had one thing in common: they were not reliable enough to set a punctual schedule. They could regulate life to the hour and perhaps to the half hour, but hardly to the quarter hour, let alone to the minute. The essentially unregulated lifestyle of pre-medieval times is given in a capsule form in that wedding invitation sent out on a piece of papyrus about 1,900 years ago in Alexandria, the great capital of the Hellenistic world. In that invitation a certain Dionysius requested his friends to share the wedding dinner o his daughter f and son-in-law “in Ischuron’s restaurant on the 30th o the month from the ninth f hour on,” that is, from 3 pm on. f This setting o the time as “from the ninth hour on” tells a world of difference between ancient life and modern life. In the absence of steadily running and widely available clocks, it was impossible to set an exact time for a wedding or for anything else. The expression “from the ninth
hour on” simply meant that from midafternoon on the wedding dinner would be available to those invited. Today no caterer or clergyman would be part of such a wedding although brides, apt to arrive late, would just love it. Whether we like it or not, or whether some brides love it or not, our entire modern life is run by clocks. They often make life a bit mechanical but they save us from chaos and assure the kind of productivity without which life would collapse. All this modernity started sometime in the very middle of the High Middle Ages, or around 1250, when the first mechanical clock was most likely constructed. The oldest o such clocks that survived is the f clock of the Salisbury Cathedral in England, a clock made around 1300. Any visitor there can see it in the left nave. There are a fair number of cathedral clocks that are only a hundred years younger and some of them are very elaborate such as the famed clock o the f Strasbourg Cathedral. About the clock of the Salisbury Cathedral two things are to be noted. One is the extraordinary measure of inventiveness that went into its construction. The problem to be solved was to transform the gravitational force, which makes bodies fall at an accelerated rate, into a force acting at a steady rate. The solution consisted in the combination of two pieces of machinery which regulate each other’s motion or, to use the modern idiom, control one another by a mutual feedback mechanism. The two pieces of machinery (see Figure
As a result peg 2 moves toward the position formerly occupied by peg 3 and is ready to oppose palette B in the same way as this was done earlier by peg 3. soon clocks in belfries began to strike the hour and the quarter hour in an ever growing number of medi- eval towns. shops. This helped develop the timber f industry and the pulping o linen for paper. the rotary motion o mills could be used to operate hammers f and saws. which is still the mainstay of all locomotives and automobiles. Those aware of the importance of feedback mechanism in countless modern instruments will immediately recognize the stunning modernity of that medieval invention. its peg 1 moves forward (out of the plane in counterclockwise direction) and pushes in the same direction the upper (A) of the two palettes of the vertical axis (at the same time peg 4 moves beyond the plane of the diagram). For all the exact mathematics available to modern scientists. . there had already been many experiments with movable type. Once this is done the main weight (W) can again move (Phase 2) the wheel whose peg 5 is now moving forward against palette A (which is being rotated back toward its original position). Combined with cams. Once cams were available. Life began to be regulated more and more in anticipation of the pace set by modern factories. Once paper made o linen could be f produced in large quantities it was natural to think about producing books in a way much more efficient than copying them by hand. it was possible to use to full advantage not only watermills but also windmills. Among those innovations was the cam. There were in fact so many medieval innovations in technology that as late as the eighteenth century they formed the basis of all industrial skill. and w2) on its two ends that turns on a vertical axis or verge. Elaborate printing of entire pages by blocks was flourishing by 1400. It still has to sink into modern consciousness what Pierce Butler wrote on this point in his The Origin of Printing in Europe almost half a century ago: The bulk of early printed material actually represented by surviving specimens is SO great that one must believe many men in many places contributed to their production. Clocks were not the only technological invention for which our modern times owe a great debt to the medievals. Cams make possible the transformation of the linear motion of the piston in the cylinder of a car engine into a rotational motion of the wheels. At any rate. The secret o sustaining that process is a f proper coordination of the three weights. The other thing to note about it is that it was not the fruit of a systematic engineering. This is also an evidence of its modernity. The perfection of the Gutenberg Bible is a proof that it was a late stage of a long development that must have been going on for at least two or three generations before Gutenberg came onto the scene. As the weight (W) at the end o the f rope makes the wheel rotate (Phase l). and wq) spends its counterclockwise momentum through the opposition of palette B to peg 3. This slows down and stops the rotation o the wheel but only as long f as the horizontal bar with two weights (w. they still do their best work through intuition. 208 Surnrner/Fall1987 . and wq) on the horizontal axis. The range of technological differences exhibited by this material indicates a progressive development which would imply that many minds were occupied in trial-anderror experiments over a long period. and transportation. offices. and of the respective separations o the pegs and f palettes. of the position of the two weights (w. the spread of which during the twelfth century throughout Western Europe was a part of the medieval technological revolution. . At that time. Once this is achieved. . But the same action also moves the lower axial palette (B) into the path of peg 3. the acceleration of the main weight is turned into the source of a steadily acting energy by which clocks or other mechanisms can be driven at a steady rate. but of a procedure known as trial-anderror in which intuition plays a crucial role.1) are a weightdriven wheel mounted on a horizontal axis and a horizontal bar with adjustable weights (w.
Figure 1 The Double-Feedback Mechanism of Medieval Clocks i I PHASE 2 Modern Age 209 .
it reveals a feature very f characteristic of the spirit o the times. which may not even be true about spoons and forks as they are not found in all old human settlements. but also to what deserves to be called the technological explosion in the Middle Ages. That literature contained little in the way of technology which the medievals did not already know or know much better than did the Greeks. Duhem did not share the Comtean bias that there was nothing of importance in medieval philosophy and theology. The modernity of the Middle Ages is nowhere more telling than in the rnedieuul birth of modern science. he found an obscure reference to a certain Jordanus. the chief pride o our modern f age.’ In other words. printing press. Modern life is inconceivable without universities. Technological inventions are often attributed to material needs. Yet the medievals were able to absorb those markedly philosophical Greek writings. They succeeded for almost three decades. to know the universe of things and of truth. either in print or in a lecture scheduled for a specific hour. began to write a history of the basic principles o mechanics. which had just been noted by two historians of science among 210 Summer/Fall1987 . in a way which led in the mid-fourteenth century to the birth o f science. would have never been tempted to build such daring constructions as the medieval cathedrals which embody several important architectural innovations. That such needs are the sole source of inventions is the claim of Marxism. many of them written by Aristotle. When a newly founded institution spreads rapidly. partly from Arabic. This may seem a provocatively novel statement. That claim is even less valid about the vast medieval program of translating into Latin. let us not forget. While he studied the works of Galileo’s immediate predecessors. The least objectionable aspect of that perspective was that no subject is properly understood until it is investigated in its historical development. that world went on a cultural counterattack against what may be best called the Duhem thesis. Duhem felt that there was no science to be looked for in the Middle Ages. The Greeks. and universities. but this was no less true of medieval life which saw their rise in the first place. The same claim is obviously not true about cams. Then. universities do. he then wanted to go straight to Galileo. When first proposed with a vast historical evidence in the early twentieth century. but there is nothing really new about it. a world authority on thermodynamics. The reference. This gives a clue not only to the medieval foundation and spread of universities. the philosophical and scientific literature produced by the Greeks of old. If anything bears witness to the modernity of the Middle Ages.2 Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) was a French theoretical physicist educated in the Comtean perspective of intellectual history. the credit for the discovery of printing with movable type should go to an unknown technological genius o the late 1300s and to a medieval f culture which provided a most fertile soil for the seed of a great invention. A very good Catholic. Such an antagonist would further undercut his credibility if in addition he were to use a university lecture hall as his forum. but there is little warrant except late tradition for ascribing to him a higher honor. clocks.Gutenberg may have originated the first idea of a successful method for printing initial letters in color. The spirit in question was a high-keyed eagerness to know everything possible. from the 1940s on. Part of that attack took the form of a conspiracy of some important academics to prevent the publication of the second half of a ten-volume masterpiece of Duhem. But like all other Catholics of his time (and unfortunately like almost all Catholic intellectuals of our time). So Duhem. the modern intellectual world received it for a while with stunned disbelief. jumping about two thousand years. Very naturally he f began with the Greeks (Archimedes in particular). So much for the unwitting evidence which is provided on behalf of the modernity of the Middle Ages by anyone who claims the opposite.
What the two others did not do. By this. which is an act of producing something out of nothing. He expected anything but that. Buridan and Oresme. Thomas Aquinas and many other medievals before Buridan had also read Aristotle’s statements that the universe was eternal. Maker of Heaven and Earth. there was a largely unexplored field of manuscripts written mostly in Latin shorthand.” In other words. the sphere of the fixed stars. Is not creation. who had been remembered only as curious figures in the history of philosophy. then what? It is at that point that Buridan’s genius asserted itself. They all rejected it on the ground that it contradicted revelation. although they were professional historians o science. The manner or way could not be the one which Aristotle proposed in terms of his pantheism. the Creed begins with the statement that the universe is a creation of God. the Church also solemnly defined an age-old Christian conviction that the universe was created in time. Duhem discovered two scientific geniuses. A universe created by God freely in time could not be imagined as being necessarily in contact with the divine. was in a sort o contact with the divine motor or the f Prime Mover. it was practically impossible for him to keep that notion of contact as a source of motion. a theologian with little interest in the scientific aspects of physical reality. Thus when Buridan claimed against Aristotle that the world had a finite past. Beyond that. If no contact. Since Buridan the Christian had to postulate an absolute beginning for physical motion. which varied from region to region and from century to century. in the Fourth Lateran Council held in 1214. In two Sorbonne professors. because its highest part. Unlike Aquinas. a genius obviously motivated by his Christian convictions. It was with such convictions that Buridan read Aristotle. Most important. for whom the universe was uncreated and therefore eternal. First Duhem was led from sixteenth-century printed books to the incunabula. unsuspected field. one of the great if not the greatest of medieval universities.Duhem’s contemporaries. Within four or five years Duhem also found that the first intimations o Newton’s f first law o motion were also tied to medif eval Sorbonne. As always happens. the law of virtual velocities. a gioing and imparting in the deepest possible sense? And was not God’s giving something so solid and reliable as to stay with the thing to which it was given? Thoughts like these must have been in Modern Age 21 I . in Aristotle’s opinion. unadulterated Christian creed and theology. No one was more surprised than Duhem on finding that Jordanus was part of the fourteenthcentury Sorbonne. The reason was genuine. Duhem undertook an intensive search for Jordanus. an idea very much a part of the Christian notion of creation. Duhem did. and in a way which f in the long run turned him into the most original historian of science of all times. one breakthrough quickly opened up a vast. Buridan did the same but with a difference. All the short and long creeds or credal formulas begin with the words: “I believe in God. It was through that eternal contact with the divine that. a search that ultimately led him to his heroic discovery of the origin o f modern science in the Middle Ages. the Church meant that the past history of the universe was finite. The basis of Christian religion is belief in revelation as it is guaranteed by the teaching authority o the Church and codified in f the various creeds. he discovered a very medieval reason for their historic breakthroughs in science. In the beginning of the High Middle Ages. was all the more enigmatic because in that message the mysterious Jordanus was credited with the discovery of the most fundamental law of mechanics. he naturally thought about the physical manner in which the motion of the universe may have started. Buridan was very much interested in them. He resorted to the idea of giving or imparting. According to Aristotle. the universe had been moving (rotating) since eternity and would keep moving forever. the universe moved. the Father Almighty.
That drive produced a technological revolution which was not surpassed until the coming o the steam engine in the late eighteenth f century. There the Creator is spoken of as one “who arranges everything according to measure. they had to be relatively few and very expensive. Since that law is the founf dation of Newton’s second and third laws. Rather. It witnessed the introduction of the breast harness which greatly increased the effectiveness of the use of horses as a main source of power. For all his drive to subdue the earth. . which in fact it did. . a foremost Protestant specialist on medieval literature. But he was not a cultivator of irresponsibility. these impetuses which He impressed in the celestial bodies were not decreased nor corrupted afterward. One of the results was the introduction of the art of latitudes. the proper idea of creation secures the notion of a nature acting consistently with the laws given to it. The importance of that science for modern life is well known. f one of the last books o the Old Testament. not even medieval scholars. He moved each of the celestial orbs as h e pleased. the forerunner of the use of coordinate systems. That medieval drive produced the intellectual revolution through the establishment of universities. It was that drive which produced an agricultural revolution in the Middle Ages that witnessed the introduction o crop f rotation. and in moving them He impressed in them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them any more except by the method o general influence whereby He f concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place. and the most obvious. o waste disposal. The historical significance of that statement cannot be emphasized enough. The ecological threat 212 Surnrner/Falll987 . The source of that drive was the Christian consciousness of man’s purpose and responsibility.” The phrase is not just another phrase from the Bible. one must not picture medieval men. He was driven by a biblical sense of mission. Yet the medieval intellectuals knew their Bible very well because they were well instructed in catechism and in theology. He felt that God’s words addressed to the first man and woman to “multiply and subdue the earth” were also addressed to him. It is this consistency which is presupposed by all physicists as they do their research. of wood burning. Of course the medieval man did not know enough about the ecological dangers of deforestation. an idea which came straight out of the Book of Wisdom. The quality o that instruction can be gathered from the fact that the medieval intellectual was a man with a drive which derived from the Bible’s very first chapters. The efforts to treat processes quantitatively were numerous from the fourteenth century on. The passages and stories of the Bible were part f of a broad oral instruction. it was the most often quoted biblical passage during the Middle Ages. In speaking about that phrase from the Bible. The second feature to be noted about Buridan’s statement is that it implies the notion of autonomous laws of nature. as noted by Ernst Curtius. the medieval man knew that he was not nature’s owner but God’s steward placed in nature. and often not even suspected. The idea was part of a broader notion about the universe. is the statement’s substantial equivalence to Newton’s first law o motion. and weight. as running around with Bibles in their pockets. of pollution of f air and water.because there was no resistance which would be corruptive or repressive of that impetus. . Much less known. First. number. In other words. Once God gives motion to the universe. the universe keeps it and keeps acting in accordance with it. Since Bibles were handwritten. is the medieval origin of that modernity. The third feature of the modernity of Buridan’s medieval statement relates to the quantity of motion given to the universe. Such a phrase can readily form a climate of thought. in Buridan’s statement one has at hand the very basis of the science of physics.the back of Buridan’s mind as he made his statement about the beginning of all physical motion: When God created the world. It includes three all-important features.
I think. the Christian ideal as promoted by Saint Francis was a revolution but never a call to revolt. The result is the imprisonment of modern life in sheer relativism. Whether he will be ready to turn to the medievals for a much-needed medicine remains to be seen. But no wizardry with quantities. but in a more subtle way than generally assumed. But begging on a large scale-the number o friars grew by f leaps and bounds-was possible only if goods were produced in sufficient quantity to be distributed to beggars. so many verbal shields to make us see mere patterns and not moral disasters in realities denoted by such words as lesbian and homosexual. he came to the aid of Professor Donald Kagan. a very logical result because there can be no essential difference among patterns. He was that quintessence. That slavery supports the fashionability of such new-fangled expressions as bi-sexual and hetero-sexual. His spiritual children were supposed to own little or nothing and to obtain their livelihood through begging. If he does avail himself of that medieval medicine. high-minded and otherwise. This portrayal of medievals as paragons of modernity will sound very jarring t o that secularist pseudo-learnedness which f banks heavily on the alleged darkness o the Middle Ages. But it may also rankle those pious people who take Saint Francis f for the quintessence o the medieval spirit. they must first be credited with the creation of a technology that could be abused on a large scale. and even some cognitive patterns-are always quantitative. Saint Francis enjoined on his spiritual children above all a complete loyalty to ecclesiastical authority and to the Pope in particular. Second. Failure to recognize this is what constitutes the modern slavery to relativism through pattern worship. social. His f ideal o poverty is a case in point. and statistics is going to yield so much as a drop of value and purpose. There should indeed seem to be a glaring inconsistency in the charge which blames the Christian drive to subdue the earth for our ecological crisis. No pattern as such can be better in the valuational sense than any other pattern. economical. Pearce Williams of Cornel1 University. and wants to see patterns where they simply cannot exist. All such patterns are nowadays socially and legally justified as soon as they are acted out by a statistically significant number of people. In that respect Saint Francis or the medieval man was not modern at all. modern man may also find a cure for his most serious sickness. The matter was put a few years ago with fearsome bluntness by Professor W. Modern man simply does not want to see that anarchy looms large behind the relativization of all values in terms of patterns of behavior. was arguing was that Modern Age 213 . In a letter (December 21. in his maddening resolve to raze to the ground almost everything in every forty or fifty years. But since the hierarchy is the principle of continuity. numbers. by stressing loyalty to it. The charge rarely goes together with the recognition that if medievals are to be blamed for the abuse of technology. who warned against any resort to higher moral law in such burning social questions as civil disobedience in support o civil rights: f What Kagan. Patterns-physical. 1983) to The New York Times. In his contempt for tradition. It is his mastering of the realm o quantities to the f extent of losing his sense of purpose and values. But it is precisely that non-modernity of the medieval man which should be most helpful to modern man. in his craving for novelty for novelty’s sake. Saint Francis wanted a firm tie with the past in order to have a safe future. for continuity.came upon us in the same measure in which modern man came to think o himf self as his own master with no responsibility to anything or anyone higher than himself. modern man is obviously destroying the ground under his very feet. Modern man is so much a slave of quantities that he recognizes only patterns. psychological. in principle at least.
The point. and the result is not freedom but anarchy-a condition which the United States seems rapidly approaching. a sense of purpose ought to be recovered. I find it strange that liberals. or even think are wrong. a thorough appreciation of patterns or quantities as well as o qualities f and values. . demia. 1940. who insist upon the ultimate relativism of all moral values. . . Destroy that argument. 4 1-49. because we have agreed to abide by majority rule. as Kagan clearly f stated. 2A preliminary presentation of that intellectual and cultural scandal is given in my article on “Science and Censorship: H6l&neDuhem and the Publication of the S y s f m e du monde. InfercollegiafeReuiew (Winter 1985-86). ‘Chicago. That sense of balance the medievals possessed to a high degree because they were steeped in Christian faith. The chief recommendation of that faith is not that it may be as useful for modern times as it was for medieval times. Rather. o course. ” This steady approach to anarchy is fueled by modern man’s lopsided preoccupation with patterns. is. and we now inhabit a society in which all moral opinions seem equally valid.pp. In order to move back from the edge of anarchy.there is no “moral” universe to which citizens can now appeal that provides an adequate basis for disobedience to the law. that we live in a consensual society in which we often have to do things we don’t want to do. 138. All that went out with the Victorians.pp. 143. a preoccupation fomented by most members of the aca- 214 Sumrner/Fall1987 . suddenly appeal to a “higher” morality (which they are careful not to define) when it suits them. but rather that it is indispensable for all times. What is needed in modern times is a sense of balance. it is not attention to patterns that ought to be discarded.
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