Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 4.  Preservation and Modification.

Transmission of Ancient Knowledge:
Preservation vs. Modification (12th-15th c)
Differing Views of the Scholar's Task:

Greatest happiness comes from contemplation of knowledge already derived.

Differences between what is written and what is seen today may be due to current inability to fully understand either what is written or what is seen.

Task of the scholar is to find ways to reconcile these differences.

  • What are acute and obtuse angles?
  • What are interior and exterior angles?
  • What is a degree?
  • What does it mean to "square a circle"?

"By doubting we come to inquiry; by inquiring we perceive the truth."--Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

  • Use systematic doubt and question everything.
  • Learn the difference between statements of rational proof and those merely of persuasion.
  • Be precise in the use of words; expect precision from others.
  • Watch for error, even in Holy Scripture.

"You will find more in forests than in books.  Woods and stones will teach you more than any master."--St. Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153)

  • The written and spoken words of others are just so many likely stories.
  • Knowledge of the real world is possible only through direct personal experience.
Preserving and Modifying Old Knowledge
in the Medieval Community of Scholars
The Case of Aristotle in the European University


  • logical works condemned as opposed to Scripture
  • banned from curriculum of University of Paris
  • ban is difficult to enforce
  • prohibition extended to include metaphysics and natural works
1220 - 1225
  • complete works recovered and rendered into Latin
  • Pope Gregory IX appointed commission to bring Aristotle's writings into accord with Christian beliefs
Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) argued that:
  • theologian studies natural world through scripture
  • scientist uses reason
  • both theologian and scientist seek same Truth
  • both should come to same conclusions
  • Thomas Aquinas urged translation of all Aristotle's works
  • all avenues toward truth are legitimate to pursue
  • Aristotle once again considered appropriate material for scholarly consumption
  • included in curriculum at University of Paris
  • William of Moerbeke began his translation of Aristotle to make it compatible with Christian dogma
  • Pope John XXI identifies 219 heresies in Aristotle, including:

92. The heavenly bodies are moved by an intrinsic principle, a soul.
147. If something is established as contrary to nature, or physically impossible, then not even God can bring it about.
152. Theology is based on fables.
207. In the hour of a man's birth there is present in his body ... a disposition which inclines him towards particular acts or events....

Emerging Interest in New Knowledge
in the Community of Scholars
Condemnation of heresies in Aristotle (13th c):
  • prompted Christian philosophers to explore possibilities that dogmatic Aristotelians had ruled out;
  • allowed them to consider and discuss alternative notions.
Technological advances from East and local labor shortages (14th c):
  • increased interest in tinkering and machinery;
  • led some to pursue hands-on experimental inquiry.
Rise of humanism (15th c):
  • set new goals for scholars
  • to rescue ancient manuscripts, translators must:
    • strictly adhere to original text;
    • identify true intention of ancient authors; and
    • purge old errors of interpretation and translation
Three Intertwined Intellectual Traditions:
Magic (Hermes Trismegistus/Plato)
Mechanical (Archimedes)
models based on... living organisms cosmos machines
change in nature involves... visible patterned processes hidden processes matter in random motion
to know is... to identify and understand causes of change to intuit parallels between microcosm and macrocosm to measure and quantify underlying design
knowledge is available to... everyman only elite few those with proper training and instruments
participant is... methodical observer adept craftsman
Magic Tradition
in Medical Theory and Practice
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541)
a.k.a., Paracelsus

from the writings of Paracelsus--

Mercury is imperfect as a metal:  it is semi-generated and wanting in coagulation, which is the end of all metals.  Up to the half-way point of their generation, all metals are Mercury.  Gold, for example is Mercury; but it loses the Mercurial nature by coagulation, and although the properties of Mercury are present in it, they are dead, for their vitality is destroyed by coagulation....

Any one can at pleasure learn this art in Alchemy, since it is so simple and easy; and by it, in a short time, he could make any quantity of silver and gold.

It is tedious to read long descriptions, and everybody wishes to be advised in straightforward words.

Do this, then; proceed as follows, and you will have man.

Wait awhile, I beg, while this process is described to you in a few words, and keep these words well digested, so that out of Saturn (lead), Mercury, and Jupiter (tin) you may make Sol (gold) and Luna (silver).

There is not, nor ever will be, any art so easy to find out and practice, and so effective in itself.

The method of making Sol and Luna by Alchemy is so prompt that there is no more need of books, or of elaborate instruction, than there would be if one wished to write about last year's snow.

Paracelsus followed the doctrine of "two lights":
  • two ways to illumination:  nature and scripture:
    • Book of Scripture is revealed knowledge
    • God has also placed secrets in nature for the adept to find
  • these two routes lead to same end; are not contradictory
  • not a scholar; wrote in German, not Latin
He believed chemistry to be equal to all other philosophical subjects from antiquity
  • practiced iatrochemistry--chemical medicine
He emphasized correspondence between macro- and microcosm:
  • individual reflects the universe in miniature
  • forces causing change in body are analogous to those operating in world at large
  • to understand cosmic forces, study astrology, not astronomy
  • no need to dissect--study body as a whole
  • no need for books--study nature directly
Paracelsus was opposed to the notion of disease as systemic humoral imbalance:
  • disease is characterized by a natural (and usually localized) chemical dysfunction
  • God has made remedies for each disease in the world
  • minerals and metals lie hidden from our view; their silence indicates that these are the most potent of curative agents
He viewed the good healer as an artist or craftsman:
  • learns by doing, not interpreting theory
  • meets patient's needs on an individual level

Zodiac Man
Go to:
  • the "cave parable"  from The Republic (c. 360 BCE), by Plato (428-348 BCE);
  • Quaestiones Naturales [Natural Questions] (c. 1116), by Adelard of Bath (c. 1075-1160);
  • De Naturis Rerum [On the Nature of Things] (c. 1190), by Alexander Neckam (1157-1217); and
  • The Letter of Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294) Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and of Nature and Concerning the Nullity of Magic (c.1248).
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes