believes about the
nature of the universe and one's own place in it is not a trivial
matter, and it has profound consequences for how an individual thinks
about all aspects of life. Through the teaching that I have done
over many years at Knox College (especially in the now defunct
First-Year Preceptorial course on "Nature and Culture" and in "History
& Systems of Psychology"),
I have developed a strong interest in the history of cosmologies,
especially the worldview of Medieval
Europeans. I am especially interested in how their beliefs about the
nature of the physical universe evolved from earlier Greek philosophies
and how these beliefs became entangled with Christian Theology through
a series of historical coincidences. [See Plato,
Aristotle, Christianity, & Knowledge for
From the early through the late
Middle Ages, Europeans moved from a disorganized, almost mystical way
of thinking about the universe to an acceptance of a well-ordered,
geocentric universe based upon the ideas of Greek philosophers such as Ptolemy
In this universe, the Earth was at the center and other
rotated around it in a series of concentric spheres (see the diagram to
the left). The entire system was powered by the
"Prime Mover," which was the outermost sphere set in motion directly by
It took some very creative
to make this universe work well. For example, the retrograde
motion of the planets in which they sometimes seemed to be changing
directions and moving backwards was explained by way of "epicycles"
(see the diagram on the right below). Specifically, it was
proposed that the planets rotated around a center point fixed in place
on the sphere of that planet, causing the apparent change in the
direction of planetary motion.
Since medieval Europeans had
conception 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 sustaining the motion of the planets.
Furthermore, all of this motion created a beautiful
the spheres" which could not be detected by humans (at least
not until after they died and went to heaven), but which provided
pleasure for angels and other supernatural beings.
change in European thinking about the nature of the universe was
accomplished by way of contact with the Islamic World, where scholars
such as Ibn
Rushd (Averroes) had preserved much from ancient Greece that
had been lost to Western
Europe. It was primarily through the work of Christian scholars such as
that these ancient Greek views about the nature of the universe became
to Christian Theology in a way that would cause great problems for
scientists such as Galileo
a few centuries later. Dante,
in his "Divine Comedy," put the finishing touches on this Medieval
Universe by providing such detailed descriptions of it (including maps
that people knew that things just had to be as Dante had described
Just as the physical universe was thought to
the Earth, the psychological universe of Medieval Europeans revolved
around humans. Any understanding
of the psychology and behavior of individuals at that time requires a
consideration of the person's desire for eternal salvation. [Not to be
confused with the "eternal salivation"
once written about in a paper by
one of my students . . . ] For
Medieval European Christians, time had essentially two divisions: The
brief and insignificant one in which they lived out their sinful lives,
and the cosmically enduring one in which the suffering or joy of their
souls would occur.
In Medieval Europe, there was no room for
abnormality or nonconformity, as ANY deviation was considered to be the
work of the devil. A hierarchy was everywhere in all things. People
accepted their place in the social order no matter how lowly it might
have been, and everything in the world had the potential for
symbolizing something supernatural. People perceived messages from God
in virtually every natural and human event.
A good insight into this
worldview can be acquired by reading some of the works of The Venerable
Bede, especially his "History
of the English Church and People."
How this worldview affected the lives of the people of the time, and
how its influence can still be felt by those of us living in the 21st
century makes an intriguing story.
Check out some of the links listed
below for more information on medieval worldviews and related topics.
of Heaven (A wonderful book about the first crusade, written