Medieval Sci-Fi? Medieval Science and Medieval Fiction


In spite of our growing understanding of the intellectual sophistication of medieval science and technology, in many popular cultural representations the Middle Ages remains a period associated with darkness and ignorance, especially in scientific matters. But medieval science had ready answers to many of the ageless questions that humans have asked about their physical environment. For instance, the Middle English “textbook” known as the Lucydarye poses and answers questions such as the following: Why is the ocean salty? How can we explain the changing phases of the moon? “Howe farre is it to walke frome hence unto paradise and from hence into hell?” This course will explore some of the medieval precursors to modern experimental science but with special reference to how these protoscientific discourses influenced medieval literary texts, including those by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. We will see how mainstream medieval disciplines that modernity rejects as pseudoscience—astrology, alchemy, dream theory, and so on—in fact relied heavily on complex mathematical models and frequent experimentation and verification. As we read widely in the genres of the romance, dream vision, encyclopedia, bestiary, and more, we will discuss the possible differences between magic and science in the Middle Ages and, above all, examine the metaphysical implications of what C. S. Lewis famously called the “discarded image” of the medieval cosmos as an elegant and ordered whole. The medieval understanding of the universe, as we will see, was a powerful tool for meaning-making and deserves more attention than we usually grant to obsolete models of how the universe works. Reading medieval science and medieval literature in this way can also give us a better understanding of the relationship between contemporary fiction and science. After all, given enough time, our own scientific paradigms are likely to be superseded by others; but they are no less significant now for our understanding of our place in the universe.