Cathedrals and Universities: Crash Course History of Science #11

Cathedrals and Universities: Crash Course History of Science #11

October 20, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Hi, I’m Hank Green, this is Crash Course,
and today I wanna explore two sites of knowledge production in Europe during the medieval period. This is the story of the cathedral and the
university. [INTRO MUSIC PLAYS] First, let’s agree to call the general time
period in Eurasia and North Africa after the birth of large states but before colonial empires the medieval:
a “middle age” that lasted from roughly CE 500 to 1400. So we’ve got our working definition established! Across a large part of the medieval world,
people traded knowledge, and many folks practiced different forms of humoral medicine and alchemy. The majority of these explorations of nature
were conducted by individual elites—nobles and other rich people who happened to take
an interest in the world around them. In a few places, however, knowledge production
was highly centralized. As we’ve seen in Baghdad, Delhi, Beijing,
and Bologna—lots of medieval people were making knowledge systematically. The north of Europe was a different story. Until roughly 1100, there were relatively
few places of knowledge-making. Monasteries and abbeys had special rooms called
scriptoria where monks copied manuscripts by hand. But the biggest places where knowledge was
made were the Gothic cathedrals. Cathedrals were great stone churches that
took years, sometimes many decades to build. They weren’t simply places to go on Sunday
to worship. A cathedral was the seat of a bishop, or regional
church leader, and the administrative, spiritual, and educational
center of the bishopric or diocese—the district under the bishop’s control. And if you wanted to go to one of these places,
that didn’t make you a christian, just like going to taco bell doesn’t make you a taco. And, unlike castles, cathedrals are still
used today for their original purposes. Choosing a site for a cathedral was high stakes. While secular rulers paid for cathedrals,
bishops often chose where to build them. This redrew the map of Europe and made some
cities vastly more important: once a cathedral was there, a city grew economically. As populations grew, bishoprics split. New cathedrals were needed. While the first cathedrals date back to Constantine
the Great, the high age of cathedral building lasted from roughly 1000 to 1500. This was an era of frantic economic growth
in Europe. The French, for example, built eighty cathedrals
between 1050 and 1350, moving more stone for these projects, in total,
than was moved to build the great pyramids! The construction of these vast, soaring spaces
required immense technical knowledge. What made a cathedral such a technical wonder? Help us out, ThoughtBubble: The height of the cathedral was important:
narrow and tall, cathedrals drew the eyes of worshippers up, inside and out. Inside, a Gothic cathedral generally featured
spacious arched vaults, lots of narrow windows casting light muted by stain glass, and a big round “Rose” window in the front. Stained glass was not only an artistic achievement,
but a highly technical one. Medieval artisans discovered through alchemical
experimentation that adding gold chloride to molten glass resulted in a red tint, and
adding silver nitrate turned the glass yellow. Recently, scientists analyzed stained glass
from this era and discovered that this technique, possibly dating back to the tenth century,
worked because of nanotechnology! Analysis of the stained glass revealed that
gold and silver nanoparticles, acting as quantum dots, reflected red and yellow light, respectively. Historians still have no idea how medieval
artisans made this glass. Outside, towers and spires, guarded by gargoyles,
stood tall above the small buildings of the medieval city. Perhaps the most striking architectural feature
of the cathedral were its flying buttresses— arches leaping off the side of the building,
distributing weight down, allowing the great stone mass to move up and up. The physics of flying buttresses reveals how
innovative they were. High, stone-ceilinged cathedrals generated
heavy outward thrust, a force that had to be directed safely down to the ground. Added to this was the problem of strong winds,
which presented a danger to the tall, skinny bodies of cathedrals. One solution would have been to make the walls
of cathedrals gigantic and thick and ugly. But that’s not what the cathedral builders
did! To move thrust out and down and resist the
wind, buttresses were connected to the main building with arms, making them look as though
they were “flying.” Capped by intricately carved pinnacles, these
arched supports allowed much light to stream in through the stained-glass windows. They also used less stone, reducing the cost
of materials and labor. Thanks Thought Bubble! This strategy worked pretty well for many
cathedrals… Although the one at Beauvais—with an incredibly
tall choir and a slightly misaligned arched vault—partially collapsed in 1284. For the most part we do not know who designed
the cathedrals. But we know that economic opportunities in
cathedral cities attracted many skilled artisans. Each cathedral project was led by a master
builder. Rough masons cut, mortared, and laid the heavy
stones. Freemasons completed the more intricate work,
such as the tracery around the rose windows. These artisans were the engineers of medieval
Europe. And having large numbers of them move from
location to location was very unusual for a time when most people died in the same village
they were born. These flying-buttressed monumental spaces
didn’t only motivate earthly activity. They were representations of Paradise on earth. This Paradise was part of a complex theoretical
system for answering the question “where are we?” The medieval Christian cosmos looked a lot
like the Aristotelian–Ptolemaic one: an earthly sphere bounded within a series of
planetary spheres, and beyond that, an ultimate heavenly sphere. But this heaven was literally Paradise, the
home of God. And below the earth was Hell. (Dante strikingly detailed this Christianized
model of the Aristotelian cosmos in his Divina Commedia.) You might wonder why the medieval Christians
were so obsessed with death and Hell… Well, we don’t want to accuse medieval Europe
of having been some uninteresting “dark age.” But it could be a pretty rough time and place
to be alive. A striking example of this grimness is the
Black Death, a plague that swept across Europe from 1348 to 1350. Perhaps spread by flea-ridden merchants traveling
the Silk Road, the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, killed anywhere from 75 to 200 million people—which
was 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s total population, in two years. aaaaahhhhh… And the plague came back periodically until
the nineteenth century… when cholera pandemics arrived! Before the Black Death, Europe had grown a
lot. And it was during this pre-plague period that
universities took off. Between 1100 and the mid-1300s, population
growth and urbanization led to rise of the university: there were more secular conflicts,
so they needed more lawyers. There were more religious arguments, so they
needed more theologians. And there were more people—and more were
sick!—so they needed more physicians. The proto-university in Europe was Charlemagne’s
palace at Aachen or Aix, in what is now Germany. Charlemagne and his successors centralized
knowledge production at the palace. From around 800 until about 855, Aachen was
an important site for the production of manuscripts including religious and legal texts. The first true European universities included
Salerno, Bologna, Padua, and Naples in Italy; Oxford and Cambridge in England; Paris and
Montpellier in France; and Valencia in Spain. Still looking good, U. Salerno! Eleven hundred is the new thirty. Although they all feature impressive old buildings
today, medieval European universities started off as self-governing associations of people
with a common function. The places where those people taught and learned
could change, but the legal entity of the university stayed the same. In fact, the Latin word universitas even means “Corporation.” Which is… maybe… accurate today? Joining this corporation required swearing a Christian oath. University curricula, or book lists, had to
approved by the Church. This was paradoxically freeing, though, because
it meant that cities and kings had to recognize universities as self-governing: if the Pope said that the faculty of a university
were cool with him, then kings and nobles couldn’t boss them around so easily. They could teach and research what they wanted
to, as long as it was vaguely Catholic enough. Plus, universities became tax exempt! Let’s say we are well-off medieval students
ready to make campus visits. First, our medieval parents lay out our options:
doctor, lawyer, or priest. Those are real jobs. If we can’t hack it at one of those, we
can instead study something called the “liberal arts.” Again, here we ware! Traveling around, we encounter two kinds of
university: in the “Northern” model, such as at Paris, the most important discipline
is theology. The University of Paris was incorporated as
an association of these “masters,” or teachers. In the “Southern” model, at Montpelier
and the Italian universities, medicine and law are the most important subjects. These universities were incorporated as associations
of students, who had to pay the salaries of their teachers. No matter which school we choose, we’ll
need books. Our Scholastic curriculum revolves around
a few core texts, including some names we’ve already encountered: the famous physicians, Aristotle—especially
the Physics—Euclid, Ptolemy, and Archimedes. And did I mention Aristotle? Which books we buy depends on what we’ll
study. The artis liberalis, or liberal arts, are
divvied up into a group of three, the trivium— or tools for thinking, which are grammar,
rhetoric and logic—and a group of four, the quadrivium—or specific subjects, which are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy,
and music. If we decide to study medicine, we’ll read
and reread sayings attributed to Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, Ibn-Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn-Rushd and a few Latin writers— maybe Trota and an amazing abbess named Hildegard
of Bingen. She taught about human health as connected
to the “green” health of the living environment. Hildegard was way ahead of her time! Our teachers’ lectures serve as commentary
on the canonical texts. And there is also some emphasis on learning
from experience—by visiting apothecaries, shadowing doctors on their rounds, and attending
anatomical dissections… of criminals. Dissection is everyone’s favorite class! Although our liberal arts or medical curricula
are taught as more or less finished sets of knowledge, this is not to say that no one
can make new knowledge. It just has to enter the classroom as part
of an ongoing discussion with the long-dead “masters.” And enter it does. By 1200, translations of classical Greek works
lost to the Latin- and Romance-speaking northwest of Eurasia came back into the libraries of
universities and monasteries. These were Latin translations of the Arabic
translations we mentioned back in episode seven. What was the result of all this book learnin’? For one, medieval Christians had to work harder
and harder to reconcile scientific works by their favorite Greek and Arabic masters with
a Christian worldview. Increasingly, the faculty—thinking systematically
about thinking as separate from the Bible—ran afoul of the Church. In 1277, the bishop of Paris officially condemned
219 Aristotelian “errors,” meaning that anyone teaching certain ideas
from Greek philosophies would be excommunicated. Historians are split on how this affected
science: on the one hand, the suppression of Aristotle’s ideas sounds bad. But on the other, this condemnation freed
up medieval thinkers in continental Europe to look beyond the so-called “masters.” Thought experiments about how Nature might
really work, regardless of the Bible or Aristotle, flourished. Separating the study of a thing called “Nature”
out from that of a perfect God, even hypothetically, helped set the stage for a secular scientific
program. Nature became God’s delegate, an intermediary
force between God and humanity—something to study… and, ultimately, control. Control of nature meant first putting it in
the right order: head before toes, first causes before final ones, universals
before specifics, and abstractions before particulars. This neat Aristotelian order, married to a
Christian interpretation of the world based on scripture, would soon come up against theories drawn
from meticulous record-keeping regarding natural phenomena… such as astronomical data… such as how heavenly bodies move… But that’s for next time, when we’ll meet
a certain mathematician who attended four great universities— Krackow, Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara—Nicolaus
Copernicus! Crash Course History of Science is filmed
in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney studio in Missoula, Montana and it’s made with the help of all
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