Today, a brief bright era in medieval Europe. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In AD 1277, the Bishop of
Paris issued a condemnation listing the 219
"execrable errors" students were being taught at
the University of Paris -- the intellectual center
of the world in those days. For two centuries,
Europe had been open and freewheeling. A technology
of water wheels, windmills, cathedrals, and
manuscript book production had leapt forward.
Universities had grown up.
Historian Jean Gimpel says the Bishop's edict was
the beginning of the end of that glorious age. The
Church had led intellectual and technological
change for a long time. Now a chill passed over the
land. Philosophy and religion began taking separate
paths. No great movement ever reaches an
enduring equilibrium, and medieval advances
needed time to settle in before they could emerge
in different forms and different places. But, for
now, Europe had come halfway from a wilderness to
In 1085 Spain's Islamic City
of Toledo had fallen to Christians who'd
occupied it without a fight. Western Christianity
suddenly had access to the vast library of
classical books preserved in Toledo by Islamic and
Jewish scholars. It was a literature they'd known
only as vague echoes of a vanished past up to then.
Christian scholars were astonished to see that one
of those ancients, Aristotle, offered a whole
philosophical system. Aristotle's system brought
two powerful elements to the table: his method of
using logic, and a science based on observation.
Pierre Abelard, who was
only six when Christians got into the Toledo
Library, became first in a line of scholars who set
about rebuilding education so as to combine
Aristotle with Christianity.
But when the acquisition of knowledge rests on
detached logic and observation, you have little
latitude for deciding outcomes ahead of time. That
inevitably removed any guarantee that scholars
would continue to support specific interpretations
It'd be centuries before Aristotle's observational
science evolved into modern scientific method. His
mathematical logic was another matter. For people
like Robert Grosseteste and
his student Roger Bacon math was a new toy.
They used geometry to correct ideas about optics.
Bacon not only set the stage for the invention of
eyeglasses, he also
used math to reform the Christian calendar.
Church fathers weren't concerned at first. They
didn't see how this was chipping away at Church
teachings. Rumblings of worried clerics weren't
heard 'til the mid-1200s. Then that Bishop's edict!
It was damaging, all right, but the genie was out
of the bottle.
Abelard named that genie when he said, "By
doubting we are led to questions, by questioning we
arrive at truth." Of course that eventually brought
reactionaries out of the woodwork. It always does.
Abelard had clearly seen that honest doubt is the
rock upon which every revolution in human thinking
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds