Marvelous Inventions: Roger Bacon, the Middle Ages, and the Making of Modern Science
2023-2024 (September - December)
Elly R. Truitt is an associate professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies the circulation of scientific knowledge and objects throughout Christendom and Islamdom in the long medieval period. She is the author of scholarly articles on the history of automata, timekeeping technologies, astral knowledge and divination, pharmacobotany, and courtly science, as well as the monograph Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art (2015). Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Huntington Library, and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.
Marvelous Inventions uses Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1292) as a case study to critique periodization in the historiography of science, specifically the divide between “medieval” and “modern.” The terms of scholarship on Bacon—precocity, influence, and anticipation—were set in the nineteenth century alongside the institution of modern science as a set of practices and objectives, the codification of “the Middle Ages” as a period defined in opposition to modernity, and an efflorescence of medievalism in culture. An analysis of Bacon’s later representations alongside his works, influences, and historical context, demonstrates how “The Middle Ages” as an invented historical period is conceptually important to understanding modern science as an analytical category. In particular, the emergence of the Renaissance heralded the start of the tripartite historical periodization that we know as ancient, medieval, and modern. This periodization, especially centered on the Renaissance and early modern period, strongly influenced later authors writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the development of science. At the same time, ideas from the Renaissance about Arabic authors and Arabic natural philosophy facilitated the erasure of Arabic authors on whom Bacon relied. The orientalization of Arabic authors and Arabic knowledge in the early modern period was often entwined with humanist polemic about the unreliability of Arabic translations of earlier Greek texts. Taken together, they worked to reinforce a notion that the works of Arabic authors from the medieval period were conservative, unreliable, and superfluous to the development of science. Victorian philosophers of science enthusiastically adopted this mistaken idea and further erased Bacon’s engagement with and reliance on Arabic authors, instead depicting Bacon as a visionary genius whose brilliant, precocious ideas proved that science only emerged in a Christian, European context, and in the service of European—mostly English—Christian nationalism.