In this period in the Western world, literature and science were aligned in many questions and struggles. How do I disseminate my work (or keep it secret, as the case may be)? Should I write in Latin or the vernacular; should I follow the style and content of the “ancients” or the “moderns”? Does my work teach properly? How do I reconcile what I observe in the natural world and in human nature with Church doctrine? Is my “new” idea a discovery of what was already there/ known, or an invention? If I can invent, is the “new” a good thing, or dangerous? Is the contemplative life of scholarship (vita contemplativa) as important to society as the active life (vita activa) of civic duty? Does my work reﬂect the ideal proportions and harmonies – a Pythagorean/Platonic harmonia mundi – I see (or wish to see) around me? How do I present my work such that it pleases a patron and garners support? Why not say what I want to, how I want to? When thinking about the links between literature and science in these
centuries, a good place to start is with Martianus Capella’s ﬁfth-century treatise on the liberal arts, De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. A reasonable place to end is with the ﬁrst decades of the 1500s, before Copernicus literally turns the world on its head with his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 and Vesalius revolutionizes anatomical study with his De humani corporis fabrica in that same year. This is the period in which the arts and sciences began to become the disciplines we know today, developing subﬁelds, new literary genres, and countless new technologies; when (beginning in the eighth century) Islamic learning migrated to Europe and contributed signiﬁcantly to scientiﬁc and literary thought; when schools moved out of the Church and into studia, universities, as well as court workshops (even though the Church’s hand in controlling the production and dissemination of knowledge continued to be ﬁerce); when transmission of information took a revolutionary leap with the advent of the printing press; when the “new world” was discovered and ignited literary and scientiﬁc imaginations and study; and when new technologies led to increased global trade and enlarged markets, the development of banking, a growing merchant class, an
augmented pool of educated people, and men (and a few women) of learning being celebrated for their genius and virtuosity. The sciences and the arts were building their identities, and, to a great extent, they did so in step and in dialogue with one another. The very richness of their conversation marks this period of Western history as remarkable. The trajectory of science from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance can
be – and nowadays is, more frequently than not – seen as a continuity and precursor to later scientiﬁc developments. A similar trajectory can be traced in the history of literature. The energy devoted to the recovery, assimilation, commentary, translation, and promulgation of earlier authorities in both literature and science was accompanied by empirical and experimental work in the sciences, and active re-examination and reinterpretation of established sources in both science and literature. What is more, as we shall see, both ﬁelds had major shifts in thinking about the world and the self. “Science,” scientia, in this period generally referred to “theoretical knowledge”
of the physical world (sapientia was knowledge of the metaphysical, divine world). Debates around the Aristotelian distinction between scientia quia (knowledge of the fact) and scientia propter quid (knowledge through the cause) characterized scientia throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. It even questioned its ultimate purpose as ancillary to theology, how much God wished to reveal to our minds, and when to use faith instead of Aristotelian syllogistic reasoning in thinking about the natural and divine worlds. “Art,” ars, on the other hand, was practiced or applied (and more reﬁned than the craftsman’s technê). Both scientia and ars were part of “natural philosophy.” Medicine, for example, would have been considered a science and an art, because it required both theoretical knowledge and skill (surgery, on the other hand, was considered primarily a trade). Other ﬁelds of inquiry, such as mnemonics, alchemy, astrology, and magic were most often called arts, but in many contexts they were also thought of as sciences (not, as has been ascribed to them by some, as pseudo-sciences), and as part of natural philosophy. “Literature” comprised not only epic, romance, love lyric, comic verse, short
prose works, drama, and the like, but much religious, political, and philosophical writing. Generally, a work of “high” literature would have been penned for the educated elite, and often in Latin; “low” would have been designated for the masses, often in the vernacular, and often recited or performed, especially in the Middle Ages. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and other authors began to challenge these norms with new ideas about the nature and purpose of literature. However, the general acceptance of the vernacular in works of high literature as well as science happened slowly. The reasons for this are many, such as low literacy rates; feudal culture’s lack of a merchant middle class (although by the ﬁfteenth century this class begins to emerge with court culture) educated and rich enough to aﬀord hand-copied books; the elite’s desire to keep learning for the educated few; and an innumerable number of regional dialects that made
Latin – the lingua franca – a much more sensible choice for communicating to an audience beyond one’s province. What is more, the writer of any text – literary or scientiﬁc, in Latin or in the vernacular – was informed, and often constrained, by other factors, such as the Church’s tight control of all circulating information through censorship and various edits, and the scholastic interpretations of Aristotle and a select group of ancient sources that dominated the day. Let us turn to some examples of the conversations between literature and
science, noting the strikingly similar issues with which both grappled in this 1,000-year period. We will look at the following major categories: liberal arts and the encyclopedia; mathematics; astrology/astronomy; physics and technology; medicine; and natural history. The sciences/arts of magic, alchemy, and music will be referred to only in passing. Readers will note a majority of Italian sources referenced. This is due to the extraordinary amount of production from the Italian peninsula in these centuries, but also to the author’s area of expertise.