Throughout the Middle Ages in Western Europe, intellectual thought was dominated by the Catholic Church. Prior to about the tenth century the Church was, by and large, opposed to scientific endeavour, not unnaturally since the early Christians had had to fight for the survival of their religion by emphasizing the importance of its theology at the expense of pagan learning. One of the more liberal early Christian thinkers, St Augustine, wrote in his handbook for Christians:
When, then, the question is asked what we are asked to believe in regard to religion, it is not necessary to probe into the nature of things, as was done by those whom the Greeks called physici; nor need we be in alarm lest the Christian should be ignorant of the force and number of the elements,- the motion, and order, and eclipses of the heavenly bodies; the form of the heavens;... It is enough for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, whether visible or invisible, is the goodness of the Creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him.46
By the time Christian Europe came back into contact with ancient learning in the tenth century, things had changed. The authority of the Church was now complete, and provided that it maintained control over it, pagan learning was no longer a threat. Indeed, many churchmen devoted considerable time toward the rediscovery of ancient knowledge. Schools of higher learning attached to cathedrals and monasteries began to appear and eventually these developed into universities - Bologna in 1088 being the first - the universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge being founded a little later, around 1200. The universities produced an elite with an education in such subjects as law, medicine and theology, and the study of mathematics became codified into the standard format of the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
By the twelfth century, the study of cosmology and natural philosophy once again became acceptable and, by the thirteenth century, educated Christians were familiar with the basic principles of the Aristotelian cosmos. The conflicts between Aristotle and the Scriptures still existed, of course, and the study of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics was not always welcomed, but over a period of time Christian theology and ancient Greek ideas about the Universe gradually were melded together into a unified whole, known as 'scholasticism'.
Perhaps the person most influential in determining the ultimate nature of this Christian cosmology was St Thomas Aquinas, who believed that a complete
St Augustine Works. Quoted from Kuhn (1957), p. 107.
understanding of the world could be obtained only through both revelation and reason. Many of Aristotle's ideas were taken over unchanged, including the perfect circular motion of the heavens, but others (e.g. the continual existence of the Universe) were opposed so fundamentally to Christian thinking that they had to be discarded. In other cases, the inherent contradictions between Scripture and Aristotelian philosophy were removed by the device of claiming that the actual words used in the Bible had been simplified deliberately so that they would be understood by ordinary people. Through his compendium of Christian knowledge, the Summa theologica, Aquinas enabled Aristotle's world view to become a constituent part of Christian thought.
This medieval view of the Universe was enshrined in poetry by the Italian Dante Aligheri, whose writings contain many references to astronomy. Dante revered Aristotle, whom he described as the supreme and highest authority, but he did not feel the need to follow him when it came to matters of astronomical detail. Here, he would turn to al-FarghanT's description of Ptolemaic astronomy. Dante's Divine Comedy follows the author on his journey as he passes through the centre of the Universe and then from planet to planet until he reaches the outermost sphere of the stars. He begins by descending into Hell, which is an inverted cone situated directly beneath the centre of the inhabited world -Jerusalem - and whose apex is the centre of the Earth (and, hence, of the Universe). He emerges in Purgatory, an island diametrically opposite Jerusalem on the Earth's surface, and on this island is a mountain that extends to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. From here, Dante enters Paradise, which is made up of the planetary spheres of medieval astronomy. The journey has a very precise chronology, beginning on the vernal equinox and lasting 8 days. At each stage, Dante marks his progress by the positions of the heavenly bodies as they would have appeared from his current position, and it is through these descriptions that the author displays his knowledge of technical astronomy.47
Throughout the Middle Ages the belief that the heavenly bodies influence what happens on Earth was almost universal; St Augustine had described astrology as impious superstition and, in the early Middle Ages, the study of astrology was frowned upon by the Church, as it had been by Islamic religious leaders. But by the end of the fourteenth century, astrology was practised so widely that it could no longer be resisted. 'Practical astronomy' became very important; there were chairs of astrology at several major universities, and astrologers were appointed to high offices in the courts of kings and princes. Many arguments against the validity of astrology were put forward but largely they were ignored, and astrology became a major stimulus for astronomy, particularly in encouraging people to construct tables of planetary positions.
The details of Dante's astronomy are described in Orr (1956).
One of those who spoke out against astrology was Nicole Oresme, an advisor to Charles V of France and then tutor to Charles VI. Together with Jean Buridan and Albert of Saxony at the University of Paris, Oresme mounted a powerful attack on Aristotelian physics, particularly his theory of motion, but their influence waned when France was ravaged by the Hundred Years War with England.48
Following ideas of William of Ockham, Buridan developed an 'impetus theory' of motion in which, contrary to Aristotle's teaching, it was not necessary
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