Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Adelard of Bath; Conversations with His Nephew: 'On the Same and the Different', Questions on Natural Science', and 'On Birds'

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Adelard of Bath; Conversations with His Nephew: 'On the Same and the Different', Questions on Natural Science', and 'On Birds'

Article excerpt

Adelard of Bath; Conversations with his Nephew: 'On the Same and the Different', 'Questions on Natural Science. and 'On Birds', ed. and trans. Charles Burnett, with the collaboration of Italo Ronca, Pedro Mantas Espana, and Baudouin van den Abeele, Cambridge Medieval Classics 9 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Iii + 287 pp. ISBN 0-521-;9471-6. 50.00.

Discussing the nature of animals with his nephew, Adelard exclaims in his Quaestiones naturales: 'I have learnt one thing from my Arab masters, with reason as guide, but you another: you follow a halter, being enthralled by the picture of authority. For what else can authority be called other than a halter?' This remark has often been cited as a prime example of the new rationalistic approach with which nature was investigated in the twelfth century. The traditional learning of the Latin north (the Gallicarum sententiarum inconstantia as Adelard writes) was left behind and the wisdom of the Arabs was sought out in faraway countries where Arabic and Greek were spoken. Guided by the light of reason, this generation of natural philosophers wanted to study the nature of things, the phenomena themselves, not the bookish learning of the schools. It is easy to misinterpret these words. Like the study of grammar and logic, the study of nature was a bookish affair, based on a close study of recently discovered authors such as Euclid, Galen, and Aristotle. Experimentation remained a rare phenomenon. The reference to the Arabs likewise cannot be taken at its face value, as it has proven very difficult to detect Arabic sources in the Quaestiones naturales.

The works presented in this fine edition confirm these points. The first, De eodem et diverso, is a treatise on the liberal arts, which gives a good picture of what was taught in the schools at the beginning of the twelfth century. The importance attached to authority is considerable: the doctrines of each art are explained by allegorical figures or the alleged founders of that discipline. The famous sculptures on the Portail Royal of Chartres Cathedral come to mind (Donatus for grammar, Aristotle for logic, Pythagoras for music, and so forth). …

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