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Medieval Book Culture February 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Reposted from the History 174 class blog:

Here I’d like to address the background question of what all this has to do with science. I got today’s lecture largely from Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s book, published in 1998, called Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. This is a really clever book, and demonstrates just what we have to gain from abandoning whig notions of history. Rather than try and reach back into the soup of books that come to us out of the middle ages and either brush it off entirely, or to try and pick out things that look like science, Daston and Park take all of these books as part of a unified intellectual culture. Literate people used to read devotional texts, bestiaries, and travel narratives all together, and they assembled knowledge indiscriminately from them–they didn’t relegate knowledge about the natural world to one defined set of books and read another set for entertainment. They all participated in a “model” of the universe, to use Lewis’ term, that informed and was informed by poetry, hagiography, philosophy, etc… Daston and Park choose to trace changes in this bookish culture not by trying to pick “science” out of it, but by tracking changing attitudes toward “wonder”–was it something that created a simple admiration for God’s creation? was it something that suggested the need for a preternatural or supernatural explanation? or was it something that was supposed to be expunged through rational explanation (as, they argue, happened with the rise of science).

Next lecture we’ll talk about astronomy, which was an extremely technical profession, but we have to understand that “natural philosophy” as it began to cohere in the 1600s, encompassed all kinds of non-technical subjects like natural history and geography as well as astronomy, and we have to understand where interest in those subjects came from. The answer is medieval book culture.

(For the super-interested, also check out William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture)



1. Michael Barton, FCD - February 5, 2008

Hi Will – I read this book last semester and enjoyed it, as well as ‘Possessing Nature’ by Paula Findlen. Here is my post I did about ‘Wonders and the Order of Nature’:

2. Michael Barton, FCD - February 5, 2008

Oh, and thanks for linking my blog on yours…

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