My Fellowship, ‘Medieval Meteorology in Context’, was conceived as a case-study of weather forecasting in medieval England. However, I have constantly found myself thinking of it as a mission to prove that meteorology really did exist in the middle ages. This is partly because there is at present no history of medieval meteorology, and also because of the entrenched belief that medieval religion and anything approximating to ‘real science’ were mutually exclusive. Even amongst medievalists, meteorology has received little attention, largely because it was not considered to be a separate area of knowledge by medieval scholars themselves. Instead, meteorological knowledge was divided between astronomy, geography, natural philosophy, mathematics, medicine and theology. The area of expertise which brought all these together was computus, the highly technical field of calculating the Church’s luni-solar calendar.
My project therefore began with the fundamental computistical work of Bede who, like his readers, was very clear that the earth was spherical, and that its surface was divided into climatic zones determined by the annual orbit of the sun around the earth. Each was also perceived as affected by the currents of air and water driven by the sun, the moon and variations in temperature. It will already be clear that the basic model of climate was considerably more complex than is often assumed. What made actual weather forecasting extremely hard in the early middle ages was the difficulty in making accurate calculations of the positions of the sun, the moon, and the other five planets which were believed to affect meteorological conditions. The great Alexandrian astronomer/astrologer, Ptolemy, had produced mathematical models of the planetary orbits, but these were available only in Greek and Arabic, and scholars in northern Europe had access only to shortened and simplified forms. This is the context for the texts known as ‘prognostics’, which offer various methods for making weather-related predictions. They have been treated as a form of magic rather than as attempts to make scientific judgements about the weather, but I believe they were very serious. Many of them are preserved in manuscripts made by or for prestigious individuals and institutions, where they are copied side by side with prayers and religious services. Rather than seeing this as evidence of the superstitious nature of medieval religion, I would argue that understanding the weather was part of understanding the complex interactions between humans and the rest of God’s Creation. This made it a highly serious area of expertise which the Church provided for secular society.
Looking at manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries brings home how quickly northern European scholars seized upon newly-translated texts in all the relevant fields as they became available. Often, only extracts and useful tools for making calculations were copied – which makes these books something of a challenge to editors and readers! What I have found fascinating is that the debate which emerges from the manuscripts I have been studying is not something as crude as a fight between religion and science or between the Christian Church and other faiths. Instead it hinges on the key questions of how the earth’s climate actually works, whether variations are predictable, and how responsible humans are for meteorological events.
What is taking shape out of what I have been reading is a compelling ‘conversation’ between different areas of expertise. Nor was this a purely academic issue. Weather forecasting had just as many agricultural, economic, military and political implications as it still does; and powerful people treated those who could make such forecasts very seriously. Since the Bible made it absolutely clear that God uses meteorological events to send messages to humans, there was the ongoing problem of when a flood, a drought, a thunderstorm or a rainbow was simply ‘weather’ and when it was a sign from God. Experts on natural philosophy constantly debated the causes of all such phenomena, just as interpreters of the biblical book of Genesis worked to determine the implications of its revelations. The arrival of new tools and technologies, including planetary tables, Hindu-Arabic numerals and the astrolabe, greatly increased the sophistication with which weather forecasts could be made – but it could not answer these great theological and ethical questions.
In July, it was possible to debate such questions with an interdisciplinary group of experts in a one-day Symposium on ‘Medieval Meteorology, Science and Divination’. An account of proceedings, in live-blog format, is given on the GCMS’ facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Graduate-Centre-for-Medieval-Studies-University-of-Reading/392238710870369 . Participants included: Dr Stephen Johnston, a historian of science, from the Museum of the History of Science (University of Oxford); Dr Karen Aplin, also from Oxford, who works on experimental atmospheric physics, and meteorologists from the department here at Reading and the Royal Meteorological Society. It was fascinating to find some common ground between medieval and modern debates on analysing short and long-term changes in weather and climate, and the factors which cause them. This will be followed up when I give a paper on my findings for the Meteorology Department at University of Reading in December.
I am also working, with a student researcher, on late-medieval Prognostications of weather and their influence on printed Almanacs. A preliminary report by the researcher (Aoife Lintin) can be seen here: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/2014/08/almanacs-astrology-and-the-origins-of-weather-forecasting/
This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about Dr Anne Lawrence- Mathers’ fellowship ‘Medieval Meteorology in Context’ is available here.
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