Ordering the Heavens: Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance

  • Eastwood, Bruce (PI)

Grants and Contracts Details


In the Carolingian Renaissance (ninth-tenth centuries) was there any place for natural science, especially astronomy and cosmology, and did any notable innovation occur? Answering "yes" to this question, the project expands the cultural and institutional motivations of that renaissance and accords importance to the study of the natural world order. The revival and use of a set of four texts on astronomy and cosmology from the Roman Empire by Carolingian scholars, teachers, and students initiated a new stage in scientific awareness, advancing well beyond the focus of the previous three centuries upon time-keeping and the construction of calendars. New concepts of celestial order were more elaborated when using numbers and were distinctly novel and inventive in their attention to space. Routine studies of the heavens came to include diagrams, both for clarity and for instruction in new themes, during the ninth century. Both commentary and diagrams added to the four Roman texts provided not only explanations but also questions and alternatives to their contents. Diagrams especially were used to clarify, question, and redirect doctrines in these texts. Diagrams were a tool for the creation of hypotheses and models in Carolingian astronomy. Teaching and research on astronomy and cosmology was enabled by the lending, copying, excerpting, and glossing of the ancient texts. Many Carolingian institutions participated, making the activity an essential part of the renaissance. Each of the texts stimulated a somewhat different set of interests and questions. Study of the many Latin manuscripts from the period shows attention to the following few among a large group of topics: planetary order, circumsolar planets, the different lengths of the four seasons, retrograde motion of planets, eccentric and epicyclic models of planetary motion, and the force of the sun as a planetary influence. These topics received discussion and diagrams by Carolingian scholars. Over the course of the ninth and early tenth centuries a tremendous body of new knowledge was created, a body of knowledge characterized primarily by qualitative models and complemented by subordinate quantitative data. The Carolingian Renaissance created anew an awareness of forms of planetary order and motion that had disappeared in late Antiquity. This understanding was an essential basis for further inquiry and development in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as Greco-Arabic astronomy was encountered and then actively sought. The project is a library research topic, designed to study of medieval Latin manuscripts. Among the many copies of each text the variations in text, scholarly comments in margins, and varying diagrams added as explanations or questions reveal the different understandings of these texts by different Carolingian scholars at different times. As a result, the project will significantly advance knowledge in the history of science, the philosophy of science, the study of knowledge-transfer across cultures, and the historical study of the Carolingian Renaissance.
Effective start/end date5/1/014/30/04


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