Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From "Questions on Nature" by Adelard of Bath, written in the early twelfth century (via The Portable Medieval Reader, eds. James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin, Penguin):
A certain nephew of mine who had come along with the others, being more involved in the causes of things than able to explain them, asked me to relate something new from my Arab studies. When the others agreed I had the following discussion with him, which I know was profitable to its hearers, but I do not know if it was pleasant. For this generation has a gigantic vice, that it considers nothing discovered by moderns worthy of being accepted. Thus it is usual that if I should wish to make public my own discovery, I should attribute it to another, saying, "This person says it, not I." Therefore, lest I should be altogether unheard, I say that a certain lord discovered my ideas, not I. But enough of this. Now, since it is fitting that I should say something at the request of my friends, I wish to be more certain that it is rightly said by having you [Bishop Richard of Bayeux, to whom this work is dedicated] consider it. For nothing in the liberal arts is so well discussed that it can not shine more splendidly through you. Be present, then, in spirit! For in order to present things succinctly, I set down the chapter headings first. Then I shall reply to my nephew on the causes of things.
(What follows is a selection of those chapter headings.)
  • Why certain beasts chew the cud, and certain others not at all.
  • Why certain animals have a stomach, and others do not.
  • Why men are not born with horns or other weapons.
  • Why those who have good intelligence are lacking in memory and vice versa.
  • Why the nose is located above the mouth.
  • What opinions should be held concerning vision.
  • Why the fingers were made unequal.
  • Why women, if they are more frigid than men, are more wanton in desire.
  • Why men universally die.
  • If the sphere of the earth were perforated, where a stone thrown into it would fall.
  • How springs burst forth on a mountain top.
  • Whether there may be other true springs.
  • Whence the winds arise.
  • Whether the stars fall, as they seem to fall.
  • What food the stars eat, if they are animals.


  1. "Moderns"!!

    This is really great, thanks.

    Word verification for this post was "kingsm" - I like that, too.

  2. My favorite is the one about the wanton desires of women, natch.

  3. A detail that caught my attention is that he refers to the "sphere" of the earth. This in the early 12th century.

    I've known for a long time, of course, that Columbus wasn't the first person, or even the first European, to perceive that the earth is round. But interesting to see an actual instance of someone in the middle ages taking the roundness of the earth as an ordinary fact.

  4. Wikipedia has an article usefully titled "spherical earth": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth

    The Greeks convinced themselves the earth was round by studying lunar eclipses etc. Plato and Aristotle were round-earthers so the belief survived into the Middle Ages (even in Scandinavia, per W'pedia); it is implicit in the entire music-of-the-spheres business which is hard to make geometrical sense of if the earth is an endless disc. ("Music of the hemispheres"?) Here's Bede (c. 700 AD) on the topic:

    "for not without reason is it called 'the orb of the world' on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, set like a sphere in the middle of the whole universe."