In the Middle of Things
As a graduate student in literature, I have been taught to read carefully, think critically, and to synthesize my interpretations with other critical perspectives on a given topic or text.
This is often more difficult than it sounds.
While the capacity that humans possess for understanding and analysis is vast, these abilities are also often hindered by an individual’s own subjective inclinations—particularly in the humanities, where objectivity is in short supply.
For example, this may come as a surprise to some but the term “medieval”, used colloquially to refer to something that is closed minded, antiquated, or static actually stems from such a “subjective” perspective. This common usage is largely owed to a flawed interpretation of a comment made by the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, who remarked that the literature and culture of the later (i.e. Medieval) Roman Empire was “dark” in that it lacked the “light” of any cultural production from the earlier Classical period.
Petrarch was simply noting stylistic attributes, however—not making any evaluative distinctions.
Yet in subsequent centuries, the millennium falling (roughly) between 500-1500 B.C. was referred to as “The Dark Ages”. In addition, since many in the following period (c. 1453-1789) were actively engaged in a recovery project to reintroduce classical literature and culture, they decided that the era sandwiched in between wasn’t terribly important. It was, therefore, in the middle of things.
Thus the term “medieval” (from the Latin medium aevum) was coined in the late 15th century by early Renaissance historians to suggest that the preceding period was in the middle of things—as history was only understood at this point as having three epochs, bookended by the ancients and the early moderns. These essentially neutral coinages, based on subjectivities, served to negatively characterize an era for later centuries.
In reality, though, the medieval period was one of great cultural achievement and inquiry—not only in terms of science, but also in other areas of intellectual thought and composition, including theology and literature.
Scientific advances of the period included the systematizing of what we now know as the Scientific Method. Many classical mathematical texts that were temporarily “lost” in the early part of the millennium were recovered, expanded, and made applicable by a number of eastern mathematicians including Bhaskara, who applied the principles of ancient Greek mathematicians to develop the method of differential calculus. The Islamic scientist Alhazen is often referred to as the “father of modern optics” after his Book of Optics proved the theory of vision. The list of those who made important contributions to scientific thought is long and varied.
In the world of theology, biblical hermeneutics was further systematized to approach sacred texts on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (mystical). This liberation of biblical interpretation from scholastic (that is, literalist) interpretations allowed for the proliferation of non-literal biblical commentaries. Which, incidentally, accounted for the largest percentage of texts in print by the 17th century in England.
Further, theologians like Thomas Aquinas typified this spirit of interpretation when he emphasized that truth is known through reason and faith—but not through one without the other. The notion, then, that intellectual inquiry was discouraged (or prevented) by the church is another misconception of the Medieval period.
Contemporary historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led. There was no warfare between science and the church.”
In addition, historian Edward Grant writes: "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities".
In my field of literature, works of the medieval period engaged with debates on science (or cultural advancement) and religion in varied ways. Many of them also helped shape our modern tendencies to accept and encourage open discourse and debate.
During the medieval period, the study of literature was also expanded and developed to include aspects of scholarly inquiry found in science and theology. In fact, Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (1321) evidences the cooperative nature between these three disciplines. Dante’s poem takes the reader on a journey through his vision of the afterlife that begins in hell (Inferno), moves through purgatory, and finally ascends to heaven—or Paradise. Modeled on the three places Dante visits in the text, the poem’s system of order, terza rima, uses three verse stanzas with a complicated rhyme scheme which has the first and third lines in the tercet rhyming and the last word in the middle line providing the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next stanza. Thus, “threes” are emphasized throughout the structure in a way that readers cannot help but notice.
As if that were not enough complexity, Dante also intends the structural geometry to emphasize other (thematic and symbolic) concepts in the poem—most obviously the Holy Trinity, but the number three has additional significance as well. For example, as I mentioned above, there are three worlds represented in the complete poem (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) and within these three worlds, there are also three levels.
Throughout the poem, other instances of threes abound: Satan has three heads and chews on three sinners, three holy women provide the narrator with a guide, and each of the poem’s sections has thirty-three cantos (which alludes to the age of Christ). Beyond its structural geometry, the Divine Comedy also includes a number of scientific themes, such as a spherical earth and the importance of the experimental method.
Dante also has his narrator encounter Adam in the final section of the poem (Paradiso, 26.80), where he answers questions that medieval Christians had wondered about—including the length of his stay in Eden (7 hours); the number of post-Eden years that he lived on Earth (930); and how long he had spent in Limbo (4302 years). In this passage, Adam also talks about language and maintains that it was his own creation (not God’s) and that it was extinct before the Fall of Babel. In making this claim, Dante’s Adam is not only validating Dante’s use of a Florentine vernacular form in writing his poem (i.e. by suggesting there is no such thing as “normative” speech) but his claim also suggests that any human creation is flawed—or at least subject to change when it is not created by the Creator.
As we can see in these examples from three different fields—science, theology, and literature—during the medieval era, people were interested and engaged. They were not shrouded in darkness and anti-progression, yet for centuries the period was characterized in this way.
In our contemporary times, we should also embrace this spirit of cooperation and dialogue between the disciplines, recognizing that it is science that supplies us with data, while theology and literature—such the Bible—provide us with narrative and analytical tools to further contextualize that information in a way that laypeople can understand. As such, though science and religion are independent entities (as each has a different function), they can be interdependent—as each enriches the work of the other.
At least one critic suggests that “[Dante] envisages a God who wishes to be known in and through his creation by those who are moved, in intellectual love, to admire the wisdom of God’s creation” and so we too should follow on this path. After all, as the modern poet Robert Frost once said, “Thinking is not to agree or disagree. That is voting.”
Amy Carleton received a bachelor's degree in English from Simmons College in Boston and master's degree in literature from Northeastern University. She has worked as a manuscript editor in the North American offices of the Journal of Physics and Chemistry of Solids, has taught at several Boston-area universities, and run several short-term study abroad programs.