Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages

Lynn White Jr.

American Historical Review, 52:3 (April), 1947, 421-435

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"The later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages lived not in a world of visible facts but rather in a world of symbols. The intellectual atmosphere was so saturated with Platonic modes of thought that the first Christian millennium was scarcely more conscious of them than it was of the air it breathed. Behind every object and event lay an Idea, a spiritual entity or meaning, of which the immediate experience was merely the imperfect reflection or allegory. The world had been created by God for the spiritual edification of man, and served no other purpose. ... For our regeneration God has given us two sources of spiritual knowledge: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Each is filled with hidden meanings to be searched out. In the most literal sense the men of that age found 'sermons in stones and books in running brooks.' They believed that the universe is a vast rebus to be solved, a cryptogram to be decoded. ... The effect upon science of such a view of nature was of course disastrous. The Physiologus literature, moralized bestiaries, herbals and lapidaries, handbooks for the interpretation of the creation conceived as symbol, appeared century after century. Allegorical interpretation was developed with the greatest subtlety and utilized acutely by the ablest minds to explore and discover hidden truth. Indeed, allegory was, in a sense, a critical method designed to unearth the sort of truth which that age wanted. ... Modern science, similarly, as it first appeared in the later Middle Ages, was more than the product of a technological impulse: it was one result of a deep-seated mutation in the general attitude towards nature, of the change from a symbolic-subjective to a naturalistic-objective view of the physical environment. The new science was a facet, and not the most brilliant, of an unprecedented yearning for immediate experience of concrete facts which appears to have been characteristic of the waxing third estate. The study of late medieval technology may indeed furnish the most direct approach to an understanding of many problems in early modern science. Nevertheless the evidence from the history of the visual arts serves to guard us against an oversimplified economic determinism which neglects the more indirect but powerful ways in which social ambience influences the constitution of science and the unconscious motivations of scientists." - author

Language: English


Last update December 6, 2021