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Ordered Universe

Francis Sayer,
The King's Academy


"Consider the difference between modern scientific textbooks, which are obsolete after a few decades, and medieval texts, which were copied and read for centuries after they were written. "

What does that suggest about the nature of medieval science?


The differing lengths of time these texts were functional for could indicate differing approaches to the conduct of science. The modern scientific method ensures hypotheses and theories are continually and consistently tested. No such method existed for the medieval texts, at least not on a worldwide scale. Many texts acted as a compilation of ideas with intuition as a source of evidence. Testing was not an integral part of the process, so validation was not either. Effort may not have been taken as frequently to challenge propositions.


Alternatively, the perception of science may have been different. Science could have served different purposes besides for the sole pursuit of knowledge and understanding. One such purpose could be religion. Medieval Christian thinkers believed the messages of the Bible were often mysterious, so learning to interpret them were key. If the Bible talks about the natural world, understanding the natural world will enable you to understand the Bible better.


Context also matters. Technological limits to mass production of texts would place constrictions upon the distribution of knowledge, placing greater value on the books containing the text beyond the value of the work itself. Science would not become a priority under these medieval conditions.


How can these books help historians to understand scientific and medical knowledge in circulation during the medieval period?


The medieval period ranges about ten centuries. During this time, scientific and medical knowledge was not stagnant, so it is preferable to assign knowledge more precisely to years than periods of time. Books can act as records for when new understanding started to emerge.


These books can also act as records for where this knowledge originated. Map this with a timeline and it is possible to understand the spread and distribution of knowledge.


Not only can the content of the books tell us directly the ideas and thoughts circulating at the time, but the frequency of which these ideas appear. The number of surviving copies of a certain book could tell us which ideas were more common or were more valued at a given time. Ideas were varied, but not all ideas were influential.


From this, it can be determined who had the most influential voice. Not only can this contribute to modern understanding of the history of science, but if a personal profile exists for these people, it can be implicitly understood by which method this information was obtained, or the possible influences that would contribute to the derivation of such knowledge.


What role(s) did images play in these books?


Like the written word, images could possess information to be understood by the reader. If writing was not enough to clearly convey meaning, especially with low levels of literacy, then images could be used as an aid to understand the text. Geometric diagrams were often employed as visual representations for descriptions made in writing.


Images also act as sources of information. In one case, Ripley’s Wheel exemplifies ideas and images already circulating in fifteenth century England, but it can be argued that it was used to encode alchemical ingredients, and how they should be used, as celestial bodies and how they moved.


In other cases, they can be used to store information. Tables recorded data, and the data could be reused for further calculations. This serves a practical use. They could also be used as a medium to gather information. The data in tables would be updated to include more recent works and works from across Europe, compiled into one place.


These uses could record understandings of the world. It was known that books could last longer than a lifetime. Images help readers to understand what people of the past thought of the world, a universally understood form of communication.


Besides medical and scientific ideas in circulation during the Middle Ages, what else can the above-mentioned books tell us about the medieval period?


If authors knew their books were going to be used in education, how they structured them, linguistically and in format, could indicate how education was taught and structured. The geographical distribution of educational books may highlight the academic centres used in educating the populace.


For this to be possible, the books must have been distributed. This establishes the flow of information across Europe and locates the effective trade routes.


It may also highlight the lack of distribution of knowledge. Different cultures have distinct ways of presenting information. It is safe to assume distinct styles were consistent across territories they belonged to. Recognising the geographical limits of these styles helps to determine national borders at a given time, and the movement of these borders, recognised via cultural transmission and diffusion.


Moreover, the content of these books can indicate the nature of these societies themselves. If books use religious language or references, it could indicate the presence of a theocratic society. The status or political orientation of authors could indicate the distribution of power in teaching or knowledge. Scientific ideas relating to the structure and mechanics of the universe could correlate to how those societies operated, such as a fixed hierarchical system.


What evidence is there that science and religion were not entirely separate during this time?


Most authors of medieval scientific texts were religious, often being monks. The Church founded universities, resulting in religious people being the most educated, especially since the best libraries were often monastic. Clerical figures, like Grosseteste, never aimed to contradict the texts in the Bible, so pioneers in science generally did not stray from religious roots.


However, religion may have had influences in these works. In ‘On the Sphere’, Grosseteste uses Christian terminology, ‘soul’, ‘heavens’. These terms do not necessarily refer to Christian concepts; ‘heavens’ refers to the superlunary rather than the place of paradise as described in the Bible, but reflect the idea that divinity is an integral part of the universe. This may instead emphasise linguistic conventions of the time, but it shows that religion is at the forefront of thinking.


Discussions about God and the nature of science are also apparent. William of Conches, in his ‘Philosophy of the World’, opposes people who turn to divine intervention without first investigating natural causes. He advocates that God primarily works through natural laws, and it is our duty to explain those processes through investigation. This does not diminish God’s power or magnificence, as everything finds their origin in the divine.


How does the medieval view of the world as found in 'On the Sphere' differ from the modern?


‘On the Sphere’ is a treatise written by Robert Grosseteste between 1215 and 1220. The focus is on astronomy, from the shape of the cosmos to the movement of its celestial bodies relative to the Earth in a geocentric model of the universe. The intended audience is unclear, as is its purpose, however, Grosseteste has written twelve other known shorter scientific works, so the ideas expressed in the treatise are scholarly in nature.


Grosseteste attributes the movement of the heavens to the ‘world soul’ [1]. The concept of energy did not emerge until the late seventeenth century [2], but the ‘world soul’ is, in effect, a source of energy. It acts as a spiritual cause for the workings of the universe, without the requirement of mechanical laws to describe its motions. This suggests that the material universe being studied is part of a larger system. Since all observations are taken within the material universe using immanent methods, the ‘world soul’ should be considered as an intrinsic property of the universe.


Current understanding of the universe disregards mechanics that transcend testability. The universe can exist solely on the basis of mechanical laws. Due to the scientific method, no law is certain, so the understanding of the universe is never regarded as being absolute and true intrinsicality cannot be achieved. Therefore, the only considered system is the material universe, as any other system is absolute resulting from a lack of applicability to the scientific method. However, like Grosseteste, modern understanding makes assumptions. The scientific and mathematical axioms cannot be proven and are regarded as the basic assumptions for all understanding. Despite having no spiritual influences, the modern world is not without unproven properties.


Grosseteste describes the shape of the celestial bodies as spherical, as well as describes the universe as a collection of nested spheres [3]. He proves this is the case with Earth through a series of observations [4], indicating that the properties exhibited by Earth will correlate to the properties exhibited by other celestial bodies. He reasons this by expressing that form relates to nature, and the natural shape is exclusively the sphere [3]. The process by which spheres are formed is not explained, but the universe tends towards uniformity due to all bodies consisting of the same four elements, with a fifth permeating through them [5].


Modern understanding agrees to an extent with Grosseteste; the shape of celestial bodies tend towards spheres. Spheres have the lowest surface area to volume ratio. It is not fully understood, but it is accepted that systems will try to achieve the lowest energy state possible as it is the most stable. For celestial bodies, minimising the surface area makes this possible. Gravity, although not the only factor, causes this to happen as the strength of the field is equal in all directions at a given distance, and all the points on the surface of a sphere are the same distance from the centre [6]. For the modern perspective, the shape of planetary bodies and the universe is a result of a complex system of forces and energy. For Grosseteste, the shapes observed result from the innate nature of the constituent parts of the universe, the elements.


Grosseteste keeps to the idea of uniformity by describing the motion of the sun and moon almost entirely in circular orbits. To account for apparent motions of the moon uncharacteristic of circular orbits, Grosseteste follows Ptolemy in devising a system containing eccentric circles and epicycles [7, 8]. Elliptical orbits would have made for simpler geometry that satisfies the apparent motion of the moon, but Grosseteste does not attempt to address this approach. Ptolemy’s works were based on Aristotle’s, and in Greek tradition, the heavens were a place of perfect circular motion [9]. Circles are a uniform shape for Grosseteste, so its use would compliment the works of Ptolemy and Aristotle. It would also maintain a perfect universe, as suggested by Greek traditions, complimenting Christian notions of a perfect creator in a designed creation.


However, elliptical orbits are just as stable as circular orbits. Kepler published the laws responsible for this in the seventeenth century and Newton later proved them mathematically [10]. The orbit of the moon around the Earth is elliptical, as is the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Circles are not required to describe the closed orbits of planets.


For Grosseteste, the universe is comprised of nested spheres. The most visible sphere is the celestial sphere, referred to as ‘the sphere of fixed stars’ in the treatise [11]. All the stars are positioned on the inner surface of the sphere, such that the difference in distance between each star and the Earth is almost negligible. The most important property of this sphere is the fixed relative positions of the stars to one another.


No such sphere exists in modern understanding. The stars occupy the entire three-dimensional space of the universe, with varying distances relative to the Earth. For many current applications of the stars, the celestial sphere is still in use for the stars’ apparent fixed relative positions. In these cases, the sphere is instead considered to be entirely abstract. However, the relative position of the stars are not fixed. The distance between the Earth and the stars are so large that the movement of the stars to an observer on Earth would be insignificant, though not impossible to detect with sensitive instruments [12].


In writing ‘On the Sphere’, Grosseteste would have had a purpose for his treatise in mind. Since the treatise is a commentary on astronomy, its use could be found in aiding with the calculation of Easter as per the Christian calendar. The movement to educate the clergy at the time would support this idea [13]. Regardless, modern understanding of the world may not have helped Grosseteste. Navigation and, in some cases, measurement of time relied on the fixed relative position of the stars for example. The medieval and modern view of the world differs, but each serves as a foundation for understanding, building upon previous works, and encouraging the development for new ideas.


[1] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §10

[2] Energy Fundamentals. (no date). The History of the Word "Energy" [online]. Available at:,used%20in%20English%20to%20refer (Accessed April 08 2021)

[3] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §5

[4] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §7-8

[5] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §6

[6] Alderson, E. (2019). Why Are so Many Objects in the Universe Round? [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

[7] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §56

[8] Schombert, J. (2020). Ptolemy [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

[9] Library of Congress. (no date). Ancient Greek Astronomy and Cosmology [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

[10] Stern, D. (2014). Kepler's Three Laws of Planetary Motion [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

[11] Grosseteste, R. (c. 1215 – c.1220). On the Sphere. §50

[12] Baird, C. (2013). Why are all the stars fixed in space? [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

[13] Gasper, G. (2020). On the Sphere: Historical Contexts [online]. Available at: (Accessed April 08 2021)

runner up:
Thady Fox,
Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School


"Consider the difference between modern scientific textbooks, which are obsolete after a few decades, and medieval texts, which were copied and read for centuries after they were written. "

What does that suggest about the nature of medieval science?


This textual inertia suggests a deep philosophical essence in medieval science. Whilst the pure empiricism of the modern scientific method drives perpetual evolution, philosophy is more ambiguous; thus, it requires arduous argumentation and pristine logic for progression. Philosophy does not simply become obsolete. Therefore, these medieval scientific texts are suggestive of a form of philosophy: natural philosophy. This brought a distinct nature to medieval science when compared to the modern. It was more theoretical rather than practical, using reason over experimentation. It was broader, exploring the whole of nature, at times uniting it with spirit. It held a more interconnected, harmonious role in the medieval academic world, joined to the contemporary arts, and rarely in conflict with theology. Natural philosophy was not a unique field. It was the application of the already developed intellectual tradition of philosophy to natural phenomena. Within this application, the ideas and principles of the scientific method could be nurtured and grown. Medieval science was but the fledging science. Thus, this difference suggests that medieval science held a deep philosophical nature as science’s own independent nature had not yet flourished.


How can these books help historians to understand scientific and medical knowledge in circulation during the medieval period? 


From these books, the historian can develop depth in their understanding of medieval science and medicine. The content itself immediately provides comprehensive, detailed explanations of ideas and theories, which follow coherent logic. However, the sources provide so much more. The relative importance attributed to various theories can be inferred from the marginalia and the quantity of surviving copies. The interrelationship of concepts can be drawn from these texts, which often integrate various fields in their writing. Upon analysing these books and their provenance, the historian can also develop an academic map of Europe, revealing regional differences in knowledge but also similarities. Further scrutiny of these common elements might reveal shared Classical roots in medieval scientific knowledge, such as the ideas of Aristotle or Galen. Widening the perspective might allow the historian to find Islamic influences and cross-fertilisation in academia. Shifting analysis to the author proves as insightful; the historian might note the clerical authorship of many texts and thus the requirement for harmony between science and theology. From these books, the historian can delve so much deeper than the descriptive, can gain a true understanding of medieval science and medicine.


What role(s) did images play in these books?


The images held a symbolic role, portraying ideas and thoughts rather than simple observations of reality. This distinct lack of naturalism manifested as odd proportions, as masklike faces and as a flat, static feel. Yet among this was precision; the lines were sharp yet flowing and the patterns satisfyingly exact. The skilled creators of these images were accurate in what they were portraying; they simply were not portraying reality but the abstract. By approaching a medieval image open to symbolism, one can allow it to fulfil its role. One such image is the title page of the Sphaera Mundi of John of Sacrobosco below. The artist depicts the noble astronomy elevated above a chaotic earth, reflecting the order of the heavens. Thus, the artist symbolises the theological aspect of the discipline. The image embodies the story of astronomy with its mythical roots, its champion, its technology and its goal. It allowed the reader to understand the essence of astronomy and how to frame the ensuing text. The role of these images surpassed visual aid. They allowed the reader to go beyond sharing in the author’s sight to sharing in their thoughts through the vivid ideas and feelings generated by symbolism.


Besides medical and scientific ideas in circulation during the Middle Ages, what else can the above-mentioned books tell us about the medieval period?


These books tell the story of the society that created them. They hold its mark, its imprint. Thus, with enough resolve, the historian can draw out the characteristics of this society and remodel its structure. The mere quantity of these books is insightful as a revival in learning can be associated with urbanisation and political stability. Charlemagne’s educational reforms of the Carolingian Empire are an example of the latter. The Catholic sway over medieval societies can be derived from their sway over its academia. Authorship illuminates the patriarchal. The unique marginalia and the vibrant colours give a feel for the culture itself. Each book provides a vivid image of their author’s world and thus, by putting them in their chronology, the historian can animate history, watch the evolution of these societies. The historian can see academia’s gradual shift towards the secular. They can see the interactions of societies through the transmission of their ideas. They can see the rise of the university and the rise of literacy. These books colour the medieval map of Europe. They tell a story of medieval change.

What evidence is there that science and religion were not entirely separate during this time?


Religion nurtured medieval science, providing a drive for its exploration and fertile minds for its growth. Medieval science lacked the practical applications of modern science and so lacked a clear cause. However, the Church provided a reason: to explore nature was to explore God’s creation. It allowed for an appreciation of his work and a deeper understanding of Genesis. Science brought one closer to God. Thus, religion pushed science forward when there was no other force but curiosity. Furthermore, religion facilitated this drive. It provided its greatest minds, whether monastic or papal, to the pursuit. Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and Pope Sylvester II are among the many clergy who furthered the study. The Church was also behind the founding of many educational institutes where they held astronomy and mathematics in high esteem. For centuries, these monastic and cathedral schools remained the sole source of higher education in Western Europe. The universities that followed were themselves initially influenced by religion. The Church provided the drive, the minds and the environment for science to flourish. Religion and science are entwined throughout medieval history, never truly antagonistic, only ever answering different sides of the same question.

What would Grosseteste make of modern understanding of the universe?


Robert Grosseteste would embrace the modern understanding. He would see its order built on mathematical laws, precision, unity and beauty. These are the same foundations upon which he built his own model of the universe in his treatise De Sphera circa 800 years ago. Grosseteste would draw out these mutual principles, uncover this shared essence. He would find these similarities, yet he would also find the order that he sought fully realised. The modern universe is one he would understand and one he would want to exist. Thus, he would accept the current model with relish and deep satisfaction.


Grosseteste would, of course, be startled. His earth has been thrown from the centre of the universe into the orbit of one of countless stars on an outer spiral arm of one of countless galaxies. Furthermore, the accelerating expansion of the universe (Riess et al., 1998) is far removed from the permanence of his spheres with their “immobile diameter” (DS §9). The models are undoubtedly distinct. Yet, at a greater depth, Grosseteste would find four mutual pillars.


The first similarity that Grosseteste would discover is a mathematical founding. Grosseteste understood the primary nature of mathematics. He followed the dependency argument of Boethius, holding arithmetic as the pure study of quantity and the highest of the sciences. Arithmetic was positioned before any of the other liberal arts of the quadrivium in his concept of subalternation (Sønnesyn, 2020). This perspective is applied to his treatise De Sphera where he establishes “what a sphere is” prior to his exploration of the movements and details of the universe (DS §1 - §2). Astronomy has long been built upon mathematics. Grosseteste understood the fundamental mathematical nature of the universe. He sought the underlying mathematical laws that brought order to his world: a pursuit shared by the modern astrophysicist.


Following this is precision. Like his modern successors, Grosseteste is exact and unwavering in his numerical values. In describing the line of the ecliptic, he uses DMS notation, providing an angle of “23 degrees and 33 minutes” from the equinoctial circle (DS §13). This exactness is repeated in his exploration of the fixed stars and their movements (DS §51). In each case, Grosseteste gives permanent, specific quantities, which are reflective of the modern physical constants. Grosseteste establishes an unchanging precision in his cosmos. The modern understanding is equally prescriptive.


Another mutual aspect is unity. Immediately, Grosseteste demonstrates the unity of his universe by referring to it as the “world machine” (DS §1). The mechanical metaphor, with its imagery of cogs and gears, introduces the ideas of organisation and interconnection that he later builds upon. The treatise elaborates on this organisation, describing the nested spheres (DS §2 - §4) and the structure of the universe. It also develops the idea of interconnection, detailing how the “movement of the firmament” causes the orbit of the sun (DS §27), revealing the linkage and oneness of the celestial spheres. Grosseteste did not treat any phenomenon of his universe as separate. He went further, finding the deeper, uniting principles, resembling the modern physicist and their fundamental forces, their theory of everything.


Finally, there is a shared satisfying beauty. For Grosseteste’s universe, this is partially due to its sphericity. The sphere has perfect symmetry unmatched by any other shape, and symmetry has long been associated with beauty; in fact, it is natural to find symmetry beautiful (Enquist and Arak, 1994). The uniformity of the spheres, with their “single nature” (DS §5), emphasises this symmetry and thus beauty. However, there is something else to the satisfying beauty of Grosseteste’s universe. The wholeness of his vision, with its balanced structure and permanence, has something akin to a fine mechanical watch. His model almost feels right. It holds a satisfying beauty stemming from its order.


Grosseteste would not have to look far for these four mutual aspects. Their discovery would be achieved with exposure to one simple equation, albeit the most famous: Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence.



E = mc²


This equation is undoubtedly integral to the modern understanding of the universe. It reveals why the stars above us, the stars Grosseteste himself looked to, shine (Mill et al., 2016). Yet in it, Grosseteste would find similarities. There is a clear mathematical founding given this is an equation. It is a mathematical law of the universe. There is also precision; the speed of light in a vacuum, c, is a physical constant forever holding a value of 299,792,458 ms-1 (NIST, 2019). This is true for any observer in any state of motion (Einstein, 1905). It is unchanging, just like the angles of Grosseteste’s universe. The equation also has an incredible unity, stating that “energy and mass are but manifestations of the same thing” (Einstein, 1948). It holds a unity that would fascinate Grosseteste. Finally, there is a satisfying beauty to it. It has an elegance in its profound simplicity.

Grosseteste would see the same four pillars upon which he built his own universe. The difference is the ground upon which they are raised; the modern universe has a stronger basis of technology and ideas from which to progress. Both models approach the universe in the same way by extracting order from the seeming chaos as best as their situation will allow. Confronted by this shared essence, Grosseteste would have to accept the modern universe. In fact, Grosseteste would want to accept the modern universe. Grosseteste had a strong desire for order, which he pursued via science and theology. This desire is intrinsic. Every culture, as put by Octavio Paz (1961, p.26) “stems from the conviction that man the intruder has broken or violated the order of the universe”. It is natural to defend against chaos, to strive for order. The modern universe provides this order.


The modern understanding of the universe would receive a warm welcome from Grosseteste. With his analytical mind, he would go beyond the glaring surface differences and find the shared essence. He would find the mutual pillars and the order they uphold. He would embrace our ordered universe.


Reference List


Einstein, A. (1905) ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’, Annalen der Physik, (17), pp. 891–921.

Einstein, A. (1948) Atomic Physics. Available at: (Accessed: 8 April 2021).

Enquist, M. and Arak, A. (1994) ‘Symmetry, beauty and evolution’, Nature, 372(6502), pp. 169–172. doi: 10.1038/372169a0.

Mill, T. et al. (2016) ‘Beautiful equations: E=mc2 explained in two minutes – video’, The Guardian, 23 November. Available at: (Accessed: 7 April 2021).

NIST (2019) CODATA Value: speed of light in vacuum. Available at: (Accessed: 2 May 2021).

Paz, O. (1961) The Labyrinth of Solitude. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Riess, A. G. et al. (1998) ‘Observational Evidence from Supernovae for an Accelerating Universe and a Cosmological Constant’, The Astronomical Journal, 116(3), pp. 1009–1038. doi: 10.1086/300499.

Sønnesyn, S. (2020) The structure, shape, design, and purpose of the On the Sphere. Available at: (Accessed: 7 April 2021).

runner up:
Jonah Vos,
Eaton Bank Six Form


"Consider the difference between modern scientific textbooks, which are obsolete after a few decades, and medieval texts, which were copied and read for centuries after they were written. "

What does that suggest about the nature of medieval science?


By this, the nature of medieval science is portrayed as being very individual. What I mean by this is that every book written by a medieval scholar would only be read by a very select number of people. These mainly being religious theologians. The latter being incredibly significant because as long as a medieval scientific text supported the religion of the country, Christianity in England for example, it would be supported. Not only did these strict guidelines of religion prevent new knowledge, that disobeys the “god”, it also meant that people of different religions would refuse to read these texts. These restrictions also meant that scientific progress was awfully slow and so there was no need for new texts to be written as new ideas which would disturb the religion would immediately be removed. And so, the old texts, and medieval texts, would not significantly change the nature of science, and so the ancient texts were as significant as the new ones, making them significant for an exceedingly long time. In the modern times, due to the high level of freedom, new ideas are able to flow freely, and so old textbooks will continuously be replaced by the new discoveries.


How can these books help historians to understand scientific and medical knowledge in circulation during the medieval period?


These medieval books can impactfully aid historians to understand scientific knowledge during the medieval period through their accurate, let us say, medical texts. For example, Avicenna’s “the[1]canon-of-medicine”, gave a great insight into the level of middle eastern advantage in medical developments to the west. From this, historian can infer that the eastern belief was far more lenient on the development of scientific knowledge, which gave rise to the Islamic golden age. In comparison, if we understand the western scientific texts, historians can understand how most of western medieval science was based on Greek ideas. For example, in the medieval period, many books were still dependant on the “theory-of-4-humours” and “theory-of-opposites”, which were very primitive ideas created by Hippocrates and Galen. Again, these ideas were the main focus of medieval texts due to the restrictive nature of the church. It is also important to emphasise that historians can actually learn from these medieval texts despite their restrictions. Due to the the religious restrictions, the ideas that did exist, would often be heavily explored to find the best solutions. And the accumulation of these ideas is what actually led to the publishing of “notes-on[1]nursing” which significantly aided the world.


What role(s) did images play in these books?


Images were hugely significant in medieval texts as they allowed peasants to learn from the books. During the medieval ages, peasants would often not be taught how to read, and were even less likely to learn how to read in Latin, which most books were written in. With the usage of images, it would allow peasants to understand some of the written knowledge and so learn new medicinal techniques and scientific knowledge. An incredibly significant example of when this happened was in the “book of Kells”, which contained only images on Iona. The island was a destination for many peasants, and the book of Kells led to many successfully learning new, medieval medicinal methods. Furthermore, it was not until the late renaissance that the importance of science was highlighted and so many learned how to read. This made the release of the Gutenberg Printing Press that much more significant, as it allowed the printing of pamphlets with images, such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian man”, to be seen, and understood by many peasants. From which they could infer new ways to treat people and much more.


Besides medical and scientific ideas in circulation during the Middle Ages, what else can the above-mentioned books tell us about the medieval period?


Medieval texts are also able to give great insight into the cultural differences, and interaction of different cultures, in the middle ages. Often, as in the Iberian Peninsula, the uncontested areas would continuously change its conqueror and therefore change both its religion and scientific ideas. Pre 711, the Christian Visigoths ruled the Iberian Peninsula, and thereby, their scientific books and journals were often dominated by the ideas of Galen and Hippocrates as the above mentioned. However, following the invasion of the Umayyad in 711, the Iberian Peninsula now came to be dominated by Islamic belief. This was the first large scale example of when two religions intertwined, and the combination of Christian and Islamic knowledge, led to an extremely intellectually rich environment. And with this, came many books which finally combined the ideas previously hostile to one another. In addition to successfully explaining the mixture of different cultures, the books also gave a clearer idea of how people of different religion behaved towards one another. Whilst the invasion of the Umayyad was portrayed as a “murderous rampage”, by the continental Christians, the books gave a completely different perspective of peaceful negotiations between the peoples. And sometimes even conversion of religion.


What evidence is there that science and religion were not entirely separate during this time?


As mentioned in my above discussed answers, science and religion were always very closely entangled during the medieval ages. The country was almost always dominated by a religious king, giving the church almost even more power than the king himself. This meant for western science, that any ideas produced which did not covert to the religion, mainly Christianity in this context, would be committing both treason and heresy. The most historically romanticised example of this would be Galileo and his, correct, proposal of the heliocentric system of the solar system. Not only did this not comply with the religion, but he was also made an example of by being executed for proposing this new idea, hindering many other theologians from proposing any newer scientific discoveries. This is only further highlighted by the contrasting development in scientific discoveries in Islamic science. While the Christian religion mainly prevented discoveries, Islam encouraged It, springing forth an era of wealth for them. Therefore, it is only possible to infer that religion and scientific discoveries were intricately linked in nature due to the control that religion possessed over the civilizations it inhabited.


How does the medieval universe work?


From the early and through the late Middle Ages, western civilizations moved from a disorganised, almost completely mythological way of thinking about the universe, to a unified and well ordered, geocentric universe based on the early ideas of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy. While nowhere near the advancement of our modern universe, with the equipment they had in combination with the power of medieval religion, it was inevitable that the model of the early universe would be extremely primitive. The first thing we need to understand about the medieval universe is that the earth was at the centre and other heavenly bodies rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres (as in the diagram on the right1 ). What often puzzled theologians, and would ultimately only be solved by Einstein in the early 20th century, was the complex system that allowed these planets to orbit? Due to the unknown composition of a vacuum, they believed that for an object to orbit without stopping, there needed be a “Prime Mover”2 . Theologians explained that this “Prime Mover” was god, and it was him who set the outermost sphere in motion. Not only did this “Prime Mover” allow the universe to spin, but it also set a fixed boundary to the universe, outside of which there would be “nothingness”. Found within this outermost sphere, called the firmament, are fixed stars which also spun around the earth.


Through the principles of how the universe spins, the theologians agreed that the shape of the word was spherical. As evidence to this, in chapter 1 of “De Sphera”, Sacrobosco cites that the observation that stars both rise and set sooner in the east than it does for the west; that stars near the north pole are visible to those further north and that those in the south can see different ones3 . Finally concluding that the earth is round by stating that “one can see further by climbing up the mast, as water seeks its natural round shape”.


It took some highly creative thinking to make this universe work well. For example, the retrograde motion of the planets in which they sometimes seemed to spontaneously changing directions and moving backwards was explained by the way of “epicycles” within “De Sphera Mundi”. To expand on this, it proposed that the planets rotated around a centre point fixed in place on the sphere of the planet, causing the apparent change in this planetary motion. Johannes de Sacrobosco explains this in his “De Sphera Mundi” by suggesting that the earth rotates around its Antarctic, causing this “inequality” of planetary motion. As often as such bizarre phenomena occurred, theologians were often quickly to find an answer.


Since medieval civilizations had no concept of a vacuum, it was believed that the heavens were filled with a celestial fluid that flowed as the spheres of the universe rotated, thus further supporting the concept of celestial rotation. And within all of this motion, the combination of its intricate system involving strange phenomena such as retrograde motion, it was believed that it all created a beautiful “music of the spheres” which could not be detected by humans (while they were alive anyway). But it provided pleasure for the angles and other supernatural beings within the heavens. This concept is what led to Sacrobosco developing his concept of the “Machina mundi”. The idea that the universe is a machine and that the reported eclipse of the sun at the crucifixion of Jesus was a disturbance of the order of that machine. This idea would later transform into the “clockwork universe” that became so infamous during the enlightenment.


The gradual change in European thinking about the nature of the universe was by contrast to the Islamic world, where scholars such as Avicenna had preserved much from ancient Greek knowledge that had been lost during the dark ages. It was primarily though the work of Christian scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas that these ancient Greek views about nature of the universe were welded into Christian theology in a way that would prove a great difficulty for scientists such as Galileo century later. Finally, Dante, made the finishing touches on the idea of the medieval universe by providing such detailed descriptions of maps, including hell, purgatory, and heaven. Purgatory is described as an island where “the human spirit purges himself and climbing to heaven makes himself worthy” as described in his “Purgatorio”4 . Described in the form of 9 spheres, Dante allocates every human into one of these concentric spheres around the earth. In the most utmost sphere, the “Primum Mobile”, is where the “Prime mover” lives who eternally pushes the earth, allowing time to pass and the universe to spin. From the primum mobile, a human will then ascend to a region beyond physical existence, the Empyrean, where you will spend the rest of time with god (as shown in the figure to the right5 )


 Now that we have discussed the physical universe, we need to understand that the psychological universe of medieval Europeans revolved around humans. For Christians, time had essentially two divisions: the cosmically enduring one in which the suffering or joy of their soul’s world occur, and the brief and insignificant one in which they lived their sinful lives. In addition to this, the medieval universe was based all around humans. It was the norm to believe that they were the centre of the universe because it was god who “made them in their own image”, and so the world was often seen as gods experiment. The belief that there could be any other life in the universe seemed impossible.


In medieval Europe, the universe worked all because of god. At every puzzling phenomenon, it was god who made it work, and it is because god was such a higher being that no one could understand his doings and so many accepted these views as fact without question. Despite the medieval universe’ shortcomings and superstitious explanation, it was a beautifully created universe for which every question, there was an answer.


1 (A.H, 1996)

2 (Sønnesyn, 2020)

3 (Sacrobosco)

4 (Alighieri, 1472)

5 (htt)


(n.d.). Retrieved from

A.H. (1996). Medieval Cosmology. Retrieved from Frank T. McAndrew, Ph.D.:

Alighieri, T. P. (1472). Dante Alighieri. Divine Comedy .

Sacrobosco, J. d. (n.d.). De sphaera mundi. 1230.

Sønnesyn, S. (2020). Robert Grosseteste On the Sphere

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