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 C. S. 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?'