This course introduces key developments in medieval science through a direct engagement with primary sources. We consider how the scientific texts and authorities of antiquity (Plato and Aristotle, most notably) were assimilated, adapted and transformed in the context of the three great cultures of Islam, Judaism and of Christian Europe, respectively, up to the 14th century CE. Special attention is given to medieval Christian debates about the limits of natural philosophy and its relation to contested areas of knowledge, like magic, astrology and alchemy.
The approach taken, both in terms of texts studied and how they will be taught, will generally speaking be that of intellectual history, in the sense that we will focus on fundamental concepts articulated by the authors and on careful textual exegesis. We will, however, be attentive to the wider historical and cultural contexts in which science was pursued in the medieval world. Especially given that this course’s authors, texts and contexts are quite foreign to us—quite distant in time from our contemporary world—there will also be occasions for us to reflect on the challenges facing the modern inquirer into pre-modern conceptions of nature and scientific knowledge. Many of the sources studied in the course may not appear initially to be very relevant to an understanding of “science,” but we must remember that our familiar distinctions between science and magic, astronomy and astrology, or chemistry and alchemy, only emerged with full clarity in modern times.