Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.


The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.


Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.


Appreciating nature in the 6th Century: From “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius

It is sometimes argued that an argument often made that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial societies. It is implied that nature is something that intellectuals and city folk appreciate – not people living in times where survival is more of a struggle.


One contra example is the nature poetry of the Irish monks which Flann O’Brien wrote about for his MA Thesis. Another seems to be this passage from Boethius (obviously an elite source, but nevertheless a contra example to the idea that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial society alone:

Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun.

(trans. Victor Watts

The passage in the context of The Consolation of Philosophy implies that these are common sentiments of the time. It goes on to somewhat throw cold water on consolation from the natural world:

However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.

Of course, quite aprat from responding to this passage int he context of the book and of the philosophy fo the time, one could ask whether “nature is content with few and little” is in fact a reasonable reason to give for deriving consolation from it.

Via Philosophers.co.uk

Leandro Herrero: Never Sell Your Time

I have blogged quite a few posts featuring the work of Leandro Herrero on my other, more medical blog. His observation that a team is not a meeting. And that “inspirational” leadership can be a cover for less than enlightened management. And lessons from monks. And the hype associated with the prefix “neuro”

Anyhow, here is a post on how time is the greatest resource we have:

Time is man’s last asset. Sell time, you will be depleted soon. It’s a finite asset. As a consultant I have professional fees, but not daily or hourly rates. I never charge per days or per hours. I respect others to do so. Some do, from psychoanalysts and lawyers, to plumbers and locksmiths. Other people don’t. Executive search firms usually charge a percentage of the salary of the appointee. Private schools don’t charge by the number of hours the kids are in the place. Brand and advertising companies don’t charge by the number of creative directors or principles or assistants involved, or the number of days taken until the concept is created.

In my Consulting and Speaking engagements, I provide value and I am paid for it. My advice, thought leadership, speech, consultation, collaboration, or hands-on-deck project execution has a value and a fee. My time is unaffordable.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”

There are quotes – like “Let them eat cake” and an awful lot of things supposedly said by Mark Twain – which are indestructibly associated with the wrong person, or the completely wrong context. This post on the the blog Engage the Fox is an interesting reflection on some reasons why quotes are misattributed. However, the post is focused on why wise or witty sayings are misattributed to celebrities, or better known figures in general (something like this happened with the Mary Schmich column that became the Baz Luhrmann Sunscreen Song which was falsely reported to be a speech by Kurt Vonnegut)

There is another species of misattributed quote – the one that, rather than reflecting the supposed wisdom of the person falsely cited, makes them look foolish or hopelessly out of touch.  And one specific subspecies is the False Prediction – the boldly confident claim that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks totally absurd.

Seven supposed predictions from the world of technology are collected here in a PC World article. My confidence in this article, as will become clear, is pretty low. However it is a useful example of the kind of “prediction” that gets mocked in later years. We allow ourselves a little rather self-congratulatory chuckle at the fools of the past with their nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners and failure to see why anyone would want to own a home computer. Of course, our turn will come.

The very first “Foolish Tech Prediction” highlighted in the PC world article is this:


Foolish Tech Prediction 1

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

At the dawn of the computer industry, nobody really knew where this new technology would take us. But the explosion of desktop computing that put a PC in nearly every American home within 50 years seems to have eluded the imagination of most mid-century futurists.
After all, when IBM’s Thomas Watson said “computer,” he meant “vacuum-tube-powered adding machine that’s as big as a house.” It’s fair to say that few people ever wanted one of those, regardless of the size of their desk.

(IBM did stay in the business, of course.)

This, of course, does acknowledge that predicting that devices as big as house would ever have a popular appeal would not have seemed reasonable when Watson made his statement.

Except, Watson said no such thing. From Wikipedia:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” is often attributed to Thomas Watson; Senior in 1943 and Junior at several dates in the 1950s. This misquote is from the 1953 IBM annual stockholders’ meeting. Thomas Watson, Jr. was describing the market acceptance of the IBM 701 computer. Before production began, Watson visited with 20 companies that were potential customers. This is what he said at the stockholders’ meeting, “as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”[7]

Aviation Week for 11 May 1953 says the 701 rental charge was about $12,000 a month; American Aviation 9 Nov 1953 says “$15,000 a month per 40-hour shift. A second 40-hour shift ups the rental to $20,000 a month.”

So there you go – something quite different and in context entirely reasonable thing was conflated with various other speculative comments by others (there is more on the Wikipedia page on Thomas Watson) One wonders how many of the rest of PC World’s “foolish tech predictions” were quite so foolish after all