The Mediaeval Heavens Part 1

We’re so used to thinking of the physical universe as obeying certain ‘laws’ that we can get muddled about the idea of it.

A ‘law’ suggests both a maker of the law and obedience to it, and that is in fact one of the origins of the idea. In modern times, these ‘laws’ are supposed to have sprung out of an original ‘Big Bang’ which created the universe as we know it - they are simply ‘the way things work’. But to a mediaeval mind, things looked a little different. As Lewis puts it:

In medieval science the fundamental concept was that of cer­tain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings inherent in matter itself. Everything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct.

References to this ‘kindly enclyning’, through which everything was trying to return to its natural ’home’, occur throughout the literature of the time: 'The see desyreth naturely to folwen' the Moon, says Chaucer (Franklin's Tale). ' The iron in particular sympathy moveth to the lodestone’ says Bacon.

Does this mean that mediaeval thinkers believed that inanimate objects like stones or water were possessed of some kind of intelligence? No, as Lewis explains:

On the common medieval view there were four grades of terrestrial reality : mere existence (as in stones) , existence with growth (as in vegetables) , existence and growth with sensation (as in beasts), and all these with reason (as in men). Stones, by definition, could not literally strive or desire.

If we could ask the medieval scientist ' Why, then, do you talk as if they did,' he might (for he was always a dialectician) retort with the counter-question, 'But do you intend your language about laws and obedience any more literally than I intend mine about kindly enclyning? Do you really believe that a falling stone is aware of a directive issued to it by some legislator and feels either a moral or a prudential obligation to conform?'

For the mediaevals, stones and vegetables and so forth had an inbuilt quality and this was the best way they could describe how matter behaved; for us, it is much the same, and we fall back onto immaterial physical ‘laws’ in much the same way. However this may be understood, the fact is that the ideas had an impact:

On the imaginative and emotional level it makes a great difference whether, with the medievals, we project upon the universe our strivings and desires, or with the moderns, our police-system and our traffic regulations. The old language continually suggests a sort of continuity between merely physical events and our most spiritual aspirations. If (in whatever sense) the soul comes from heaven, our appetite for beatitude is itself an instance of 'kindly enclyning ' for the ' kindly stede ' .

Mediaevals broke this down into very specific characteristics which were supposed to make up matter:

The ultimately sympathetic and antipathetic properties in matter are the Four Contraries. Chaucer in one place enumerates six : ' hoot, cold, hevy, light, moist, and dreye'(Parlement, 379).

In Paradise Lost, they are given as four, 'hot, cold, moist and dry', the raw material of the universe. God then combines them to form the four elements: hot and dry become fire; hot and moist, air; cold and moist, water; cold and dry, earth. A Fifth Element is known as the aether; but that is found only above the Moon, beyond our experience. The idea that matter is made up of invisible and essentially immaterial concepts is not far removed from quantum physics.

According to mediaeval physics, the Earth, being the heaviest, has formed the centre; water, being lighter, lies on top of it ; floating above it is the lighter air. Fire flies up and forms a sphere just below the orbit of the Moon.

Earth is surrounded by a series of huge hollow and completely transparent globes, one above the other, each larger than the one below it, called 'spheres', 'heavens', or 'elements'. In each of these spheres, fixed like a jewel in an immense snow globe, is a visible body: heading out from Earth, we have the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Out beyond Saturn is the Stellatum, in which the unmoving stars are fixed. What makes all of these things move? The final sphere, the largest object in the universe, the Prime Mover or ‘Primum Mobile’.

Mediaeval space, though, is not infinite as ours is supposed to be. Aristotle claimed that 'Outside the heaven there is neither place nor void nor time. Hence whatever is there is of such a kind as not to occupy space, nor does time affect it.' Christianity transformed this into Heaven. As Dante described 'We have got outside the largest corporeal thing (del maggior corpo) into that Heaven which is pure light, intellectual light, full oflove' (Paradiso, xxx, 38). Thus the concept that space would go on ‘forever and ever’ is dealt with by side-stepping the whole question: space itself is contained in something non-spatial.

Lewis points out that the mediaevals were under no misconceptions regarding the relative size of all of these things:

The dimensions of the medieval universe are not, even now, so generally realised as its structure… Earth was, by cosmic standards, a point-it had no appreciable magnitude. The stars, as the Sonmium Scipionis had taught, were larger than it. Isidore in the sixth century knows that the Sun is larger, and the Moon smaller than the Earth (Etymologies, III, xlvii-xlviii), Maimonides in the twelfth maintains that every star is ninety times as big, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth simply that the least star is ' bigger' than she.

Lewis suggests that rather than try to ponder abstract facts like this, one should go and look for oneself:

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern,you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous. And the fact that the height of the stars in the medieval astronomy is very small compared with their distance in the modern, will turn out not to have the kind of importance you antici­pated. For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this.

However, the big difference is that, whereas we try to picture our universe as infinite, for the mediaevals the world was clearly contained and finite:

The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite. And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt. In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything-and so what? But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison. The furthest sphere, Dante's maggior corpo is, quite simply and finally, the largest object in existence. The word 'small' as applied to Earth thus takes on a far more absolute significance.

When we as moderns look out into the night, we have no bearings, nothing to ‘ground’ us. In the Middle Ages, it was different:

To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The 'space' of modem astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.

So far, though, we have glimpsed an unmoving and quite static universe, basically looking at matter alone. For the mediaeval idea of ‘energy’, and what makes the universe go into motion, you’ll need to wait for Part 2.

-Grant P. Hudson is the founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.

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