Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World before Columbus

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World before Columbus

Article excerpt

Rudolf Simek, Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World before Columbus, trans. Angela Hall (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 996). xii + 164 pp.; 32 illustrations + 4 maps. ISBN o-85ii5-6o8-8. z5.oo.

In this lively and informative study, translated from the original German edition of 1992, Rudolf Simek surveys the medieval view of the world, the Weltbild, before Columbus. Simek limits himself to the inanimate creation (excluding the social environment) of both heaven and earth. His is a holistic approach. He notes that the Middle Ages did not distinguish between the spiritual and material as we do, and he is always aware of both academic and popular learning.

In his opening three chapters Simek insists (perhaps unnecessarily) that the Middle Ages accepted that the world was round (even though it is sometimes represented as a disc), and makes the corollary and less familiar point that the earth was put at the centre of the universe not because of its importance but because it was the furthest away from the primum mobile. Although the Ptolemaic explanation for the complexity of the planetary orbits is found in astronomical textbooks, most non-specialist texts presented the universe as a series of simple concentric circles or, even more popularly and symbolically, like an egg.

The next four chapters are a fascinating summary of the medieval understanding of what the earth contained, especially in its more distant and exotic regions. Only three continents were known before Columbus, all in the northern hemisphere: Asia (by far the largest and most important), Africa, and Europe, though there was debate about the possible existence of a fourth inaccessible continent in the southern hemisphere. …

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