Throw the term “medieval cosmologies” into a cocktail conversation, and you’d expect eyes to start glazing over. Recite lines from the poetry of Peter of Blois, and you’d likely have a different response: “I fondle her soft bosom,/while the fortunate hand/goes on its wandering way/over the region of her breasts/and descends to her belly/with a lighter touch…” Whoa. Wait, these two things are related? How? And why?

Historian Mary Franklin-Brown, Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study, tackled these questions in a recent public talk titled “Rewriting the Human in the 12th Century: Matter and Form,” which creatively linked discussions of humanism with cosmological thinking, methodological interdisciplinarity, the body, and medieval poetry.

To Franklin-Brown, humanism valorizes a certain autonomy of the human person—even if that authority is circumscribed, and even if the human being is defined in relation to a deity. This approach works around the traditional opposition between secular “humanism” and religious “belief,” offering opportunities for far more productive conversations. So, for our discussion, let’s also assume the humanist/religion dichotomy is false.

Let’s instead take the quintessence of humanism to be an interest in education and cultivation of faculties. These characteristics didn’t magically manifest in fifteenth-century Italian city-states in order to drag Europe out of the Dark Ages. No, they were evident in earlier times and other places, as the work of countless scholars has shown. While medievalists in recent years may have been a bit label-happy in tagging something a “Renaissance,” the intellectual products—and the quality of the intellects at work—throughout twelfth-century Europe can certainly pass muster as “the Twelfth Century Renaissance.”


Franklin-Brown launched into the core of her talk with an impish grin, noting how her inherently interdisciplinary approach “trespasses” on the domain of history of science and philosophy.


However problematic, the term “Renaissance” serves as a reminder that revival was indeed underway. Not necessarily in the sense that Europe was “reborn” from political collapse and intellectual bankruptcy, but that classical texts—the collections of words themselves, sure, but more importantly their languages, philosophies, and modes of thinking—were given a new lease on life. And this process was hardly confined to the twelfth century alone. By learning ancient languages and “rediscovering” texts, medieval Europeans implicitly became humanists.

In this process, they also became intimately familiar with classical cosmologies—those accounts of the universe’s beginning, dating from Plato’s time and before. By their very nature, cosmologies touch on what we moderns would distinguish as “astro-physics,” “biology,” “theology,” “philosophy,” and a host of other disciplines. Clearly relishing her challenge to more orthodox, “silo-ed” methodologies—Franklin-Brown launched into the core of her talk with an impish grin, noting how her inherently interdisciplinary approach “trespasses” on the domain of history of science and philosophy.

By means of illustration: one prominent feature in classical and medieval cosmologies is the belief that an individual reflects the heavens—that man is a microcosm. Some privilege discussions of the soul, describing its accord with music of the heavens; others the formation of matter and its relationship to form; while still others focus on physical connections between man and the supernatural (i.e. humans’ heads are round like the celestial spheres; our limbs, as well as our visual and aural senses, supplement deficiencies acquired during our separation from heavenly perfection—“the Fall” in Judeo-Christian discussions). The point is: if scholars dissect medieval cosmologies using strictly theological analysis—“what is the role of [a] God?”—or strictly scientific analysis—“who thought up atomism first?”—we’re really missing the point, and the beauty, of cosmologies.


Poetry not only provided greater space—metaphorically—to work out knotty scientific and theological ideas, but it also moved—physically—away from marginalia to a wide open, free-form space.


Intrinsically multidisciplinary, cosmologies appear in a multitude of styles throughout the medieval period. For purposes of historical overview, the millennial threshold serves as handy demarcation device. Before the so-called “high middle ages,” commentary provided a space for new ideas. Far from passively receiving centuries-old ideas verbatim, medieval commentators thought through a given text, leaving a trail of their reflections in the margins. “What did that word mean? Could another have been used?” Or: “Does this concept jive with that other one I was reading last month? If not obviously so, how can I reconcile them?”

After 1000 C.E., for various reasons, poetic text became the preferred medium to address such questions. Poetry not only provided greater space—metaphorically—to work out knotty scientific and theological ideas, but it also moved—physically—away from marginalia to a wide open, free-form space. As any writer knows, the difference between editing and composing is massive: medieval poets, while grappling with the same issues as their commentating predecessors, did so by organizing and articulating their philosophies, questions, and observations in original and highly differentiated styles. Humanist styles.

To illustrate both the individuality of poetic authors and the sheer joy of reading medieval verse, Franklin-Brown introduced two twelfth-century poets: Bernard Sylvester and Peter of Blois during her talk. Bernard’s Cosmographia, written in Tours sometime before 1147, centers on the Platonic idea that a thing’s state is ambiguous, defined by a series of antipodal characteristics. However, it also emits a distinctly non-Platonic message that matter tends towards the more evil of these two opposites, and is imbued with an agency of sorts. Matter, in the hands (or pen) of Bernard becomes a discussion of what the world—and by extension—the individual, fundamentally is, both physically and morally, but expressed in a format and style uniquely his. In brief, Bernard puts a humanist spin on classic cosmographical issues.

Similarly, Peter of Blois’ contributions to the Codex Buranus (yes, the very thing which inspired Orff’s Carmina Burana) grapple with material agency, physical displacement, and man’s role in the universal order. Likely composed in the mid-twelfth century during his years as a student, Peter jauntily pokes fun at man’s ability to reason. Using first-person narrative and racy allusions, Peter proves himself a master of irony: “I transcend the condition of man/and boast that I am raised/to the number of the gods/as I fondle her soft bosom,/while the fortunate hand goes on its wandering way… I languish!”

On one level, these are the antics of a young student. On another, they are metaphysical musings on the interconnectedness of the world, new inquiries into the limits of what it means to be human and man’s relationship to the universe.

Allyssa Metzger is a doctoral student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the transmission of Arabic mathematics to Europe, particularly through Spain, in the late medieval and early modern period.

Image from Wikimedia Commons


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