Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quote of the Day

If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating -- to say nothing of supporting -- the university. In this new institution, Greco-Arabic science and medicine for the first time found a permanent home, one that -- with various ups and downs -- science has retained to this day. Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. Even students who did not complete their degrees gained an elementary familiarity with natural philosophy and the mathematical sciences and imbibed the naturalism of these disciplines. This was a cultural phenomenon of the first order, for it affected a literate elite of several hundred thousand students: in the middle of the fifteenth century, enrollments in universities in Germanic territories that have survived to this day (places like Vienna, Heidelberg, and Cologne) reached levels unmatched until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But, some would argue, weren't most students monks or priests who spent most of their time studying theology, the queen of the sciences? If all scholars were theologians, doesn't that pretty much say it all? This is another collection of myths. Most students never got close to meeting the requirements for studying theology (usually a master of arts degree). They remained in the faculties of arts, where they studied only nonreligious subjects, including logic, natural philosophy, and the mathematical sciences. In fact, as a result of quarrels between faculties, students in the arts faculty were not allowed to treat theological subjects. In short, most students had no theological or biblical studies at all.

Moreover, not all universities had a faculty of theology. Very few had one in the thirteenth century, and the newer foundations initially were not allowed to have one. By the later Middle Ages, the papacy permitted more faculties of theology. During  the Great Schism, when two popes who had excommunicated each other were competing for the allegiance of the various political rulers, they granted faculties of theology to some universities, like Vienna, that had not had one before. Even so, only a small minority of students ever studied theology, which was the smallest of the three higher faculties in the northern universities. By far the most popular advanced subject was law, which promised careers in the growing bureaucracies of both the church and the secular rulers. ...

Finally, most students and masters were neither priests nor monks, which required special vows. They did have clerical status, however, at least in northern universities like Paris. This was a hard-won legal category that carried almost no formal obligations, religious or otherwise (students could marry, for example), while conferring one important privilege: the right, resented by the city folk, to be tried in a more lenient university or ecclesiastical court instead of a secular one. This status came in very handy when a student killed a townsman in a barroom brawl. (At Paris, students won this right after going on strike following just such an incident.)

Michael H. Shank
"Myth 2: That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science"
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (ed. Ronald L. Numbers)

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