To mark the end of the first year of the medieval science project, we’ve written up this brief report of what we’ve been up to, and where things are progressing:

The Medieval Science project is an interdisciplinary research project based at TORCH, and Pembroke College, Oxford, under the guidance of the diverse expertise of Professors Hannah Smithson (Psychology), Clive Siviour (Engineering), Carol Harrison (Theology), and Dr Giles Gasper (Medieval History and Theology). The research is led by two DPhil Students, Tim Farrant (Theology) and Joshua Harvey (Engineering and Experimental Psychology), who are seeking to explore and understand thirteenth-century science through collaborative efforts. Joshua provides much-needed scientific insight into the sophistication of medieval naturalistic observations and philosophies. Through topics of sound, vision, and multi-sensory perception, Joshua is developing experiments and scientific models to enhance understanding of the medieval scientific world-view, distinguishing it from modern developments and theories. Along-side Joshua’s work, Tim aims to realise the reception of Augustinian theology in the natural observations of both twelfth- and thirteenth-century scholars. This approach places scientific observation and philosophy in its High-Medieval theological context, and proposes a new definition of scientific enterprise in the Middle Ages. Together, both approaches will reveal the diversity and complexity of medieval scientific thought, challenging simplistic approaches to medieval science, which are often based upon modern presuppositions.

One year into the truly interdisciplinary project, and a solid foundation has been established for novel research in both the humanities and the sciences. Involvement in the project has already seen Joshua and Tim attend numerous academic and public events. An integral component to the project is public engagement, which serves not only as an intended output, but also directly informs the direction and research of the project through conversations reflecting on science, faith, and their interactions in culture. Early in the academic year both students attended the AHRC-associated Being Human festival, the UK’s festival in the humanities, which provided an ideal opportunity for a two-way dialogue with the public. There they presented posters exploring Robert Grosseteste’s thirteenth-century treatises on colour (the De colore) and on light (the De luce), and performed hands-on demonstrations, examining the use of colour in medieval illuminations and re-enacting a fourteenth-century optics experiment.

A key relationship has been fostered with the Ordered Universe Project, with both Tim and Joshua attending symposia in Durham and Rome, and Joshua delivering a presentation on the acoustic and perceptual analysis of vowels at the latter. In collaboration with academics in a diverse range of disciplines and institutions, they will be making substantial contributions to the research of the Ordered Universe Project, forming an unprecedented understanding of Grosseteste’s scientific works. Both Tim and Joshua will contribute to the first volume, due in Spring 2017[1], and Joshua is a contributing author on two scientific publications in preparation[2] [3].

Future work will build upon the methodologiesthey have developed over the past year, by exploring the scientific sophistication of medieval thought on sound, vision, and perception, as well as its theological significance. An appreciation of Augustine’s Christianisation of platonic philosophy will explore the complex relationships of the senses, perceptions, and souls of mortal creatures, which feature in Grosseteste’s Creation commentary. As well as being theologically significant these writings are, in some ways, homologous to modern understandings of perception and cognitive science. The relationship between a creature’s environment, its senses, and integration of sensory information are central questions in experimental psychology, neuroscience, and modern philosophy. Intricate medieval descriptions of the soul and the senses, then, can provide new perspectives and hypotheses for novel scientific research when approached in partnership with the humanities.

The project will culminate with an exhibition engaging the public with the findings and results of their collaboration. An online presence is being developed in the form of a website (, blog, and twitter account (@medievalscience), providing access to the project’s progress. The prospect of a video documentary is being drafted, which would provide a permanent record of the exhibition and offer exposure of the project’s key findings.

[1] Knowing and Speaking: Robert Grosseteste’s De artibus liberalibus ‘On the Liberal Arts’ and De generatione sonorum ‘On the Generation of Sounds’. Edition, Translation and Interdisciplinary Analysis, eds. Gasper, McLeish, Panti, Smithson, Oxford, OUP (The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste, 1)

[2] Howard, D., Harvey, J., Coleman, J., Sonnesyn, S., Panti, C., Gasper, G. E., McLeish, T. C. B., and Smithson, H. E., (in prep.) Vowels, Vocal Tracts and Graphemes: 13th Century Phonetics from Robert Grosseteste’s De generatione sonorum

[3] Harvey, J., Siviour, C., and Smithson, H. E. (in prep.) Schlieren Imaging of Sound Sources

Categories: The project

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *