, , , , , ,

The Britain of Arthur’s time was much more retrospective than a modern person could imagine.  Possibly the most educated person of the fifth century was Illtud, an abbot who taught Latin.  His best pupil was Gildas, whose Latin association is often sapiens, or “the wise”.  Gildas was an exceptional writer on par with the greatest Roman writers like Cicero.  There is no record that either men read any of the scientific works of the Greeks or Romans, nor are there any educated men in Britain known to have studied them. 

It’s important to understand that this is no anomaly of British history.  As far as the citizens of the former Roman Empire were concerned Rome was the epitomy of civilization; and they were still citizens of it.  Whether or not their philosophy was practical, the ability to read and write Latin and the training in logic which Gildas displays in his De Excidio Britanniae were considered essential to being an educated individual.  That legacy would continue through the Early Medieval period (roughly 400 until 1100); it developed into a standard basic education entailing the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  This was followed by the quadrivium – geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.

One reason why curricula never developed beyond those seven disciplines was the political nature of Europe.  When Rome fell, tribes were the dominant powers in Europe.  In time they would stabilize, develop monarchies, and eventually even places of learning.  But until that time, writings were preserved in monasteries and other religious houses.  They were accessed by religious men, or individuals whom religious men approved of.  These men would then read the work as they copied it for their own institution, thus the works that were of most interest were the ones most likely to survive.  

For a man of the Christian church, the trivium and quadrivium made perfect sense; Latin and writing were the only cultured means of communicating with one another – it was what the Bible was written in and therefore, on a continent with dozens of different languages, it was a language they already possessed.  Astronomy was necessary to calculate Easter each year, music to understand the works made in God’s name and to teach others, and math in all forms was considered a means of better worshipping God because it was believed that he had created the universe in a perfect geometric pattern.

Going beyond that, into works on biology, physics, chemistry, and even philosophy, was not within the purview of a religious man; it was not necessary in better communing with God.  for that reason it was less likely to be copied and preserved.  To make matters worse, Greek manuscripts were rare and often only to be found as excerpts of the original at the beginning of the period. 

Nor would the most intelligent people have known to look into these subjects critically.  As the Bible was the final word in religion, so to the Romans and Greeks, as the surviving bastions of culture, were the unquestioned experts in all subjects not covered in the Bible.  Science did not exist as we would understand it because the Greeks had employed logical thinking without observation, hypothesis, or experimentation.  Because of that handicap, most of the greatest minds of the period instead concerned themselves with the interpretation of previous thinkers.  The only persons who employed critical study in their works were historians of periods and places after the fall of Rome.