Europeans: With Prejudice Against Our Own Ancestors
September 9, 2008
People of European origins are constantly accused of harboring prejudice against people of other cultures. But the more I read of European history, the more I believe that some of the worst prejudice actually targets our own ancestors, particularly during the Middle Ages.
Virtually any young Westerner you ask will reply that the Muslims, the Chinese…(fill in the blanks) were vastly more sophisticated than the backward Europeans in medieval times. This is true in some cases, but not in others.
In his interesting book Technology in World Civilization,
Arnold Pacey claims that the Song Dynasty was "an especially creative
period for Chinese technology. In 1100,
Indeed, the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was one of the most
dynamic periods in Chinese history, and
the most significant developments in Asia were the technical books published in Japan during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a handful of Chinese scientific works, and very occasional episodes in India such as the use of models in the design of the Taj Mahal in the 1630s, and the systematic use of scale drawings by some shipbuilders by the end of the eighteenth century. But such examples are few and isolated. The great preponderance of new technological potential generated by increased ability to conceptualize technical problems was accruing in the West.
Even Joseph Needham in his monumental Science and
Many Westerners to this day are convinced that medieval Europeans thought the earth was flat. They never did, at least not the educated ones. Here is David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science:
It must be emphasized that the arrangement of the elements is spherical. Earth collects at the centre to form the earth, and it too is spherical. Aristotle defended this belief with a variety of arguments.
Arguing from his natural philosophy, he pointed out that since the natural tendency of earth is to move toward the centre of the universe, it must arrange itself symmetrically about that point. But he also called attention to the observational evidence, including the circular shadow cast by the earth during a lunar eclipse and the fact that north-south motion by an observer on the surface of the earth alters the apparent position of the stars.
Aristotle even reported an estimate by mathematicians of the earth's circumference (400,000 stades = about 45,000 miles, roughly 1.8 times the modern value). The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin.
And here is the leading scholar Edward Grant in Science and Religion:
Perhaps the most powerful illustration of bias against the
Middle Ages concerns Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery to the
This is utterly false. No educated person in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth (Russel 1991). They all knew it was round. Their authority was Aristotle.
In his major cosmological treatise, On the Heavens, Aristotle emphatically declared the earth a sphere and even presented an estimate of its circumference. All who were educated in the universities of the Middle Ages would have read that passage. But it could be found in many other treatises they might also have read. No one would have doubted it.
And yet, nineteenth-century authors were able to construct a
falsehood still widely believed that everyone in the Middle Ages believed in a
flat earth until
The ancients Greeks knew about the sphericity of the earth
at least from the fourth century BC. In the third century BC, Eratosthenes, a
mathematician who headed the library in
There were several different stades in use in antiquity, but his estimate was nevertheless in the right range. Eratosthenes' value never dropped completely out of sight. It reappears, for example, in the influential Sphere by the English astronomer Johannes de Sacrobosco/ John of Holywood, a thirteenth-century introduction to astronomy that was widely used in medieval European universities.
In the early Middle Ages, a number of Muslim astronomers, following translations of Greek scientific works, made measurements of the circumference of the earth. According to James Evans in The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy:
One motive for making new measurements was that the Arabic astronomers of the ninth century had no idea (any more than we have) of the length of the stade used by Eratosthenes or Ptolemy.
In the later Middle Ages, both Greek and Arabic estimates of
the size of the Earth were in circulation in
That made the western ocean as narrow as possible and the
voyage as attractive as possible. By sheer luck, it turned out that
One of the most famous geographical mistakes in history was
when Columbus and his crew arrived in the
The idea that the earth is round was also known among Muslims in medieval times, but maybe not accepted by everybody. Ibn al-Haytham (965– ca. 1039), or Alhazen as he was known in Europe, had written the best optical treatise in the world in the eleventh century, while relying heavily on Greek mathematics and natural philosophy.
Yet his work was carried on more in
A disciple of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, relates
that he was in
In the Indian caste system, the Brahmins monopolized
Unlike astronomy in
From the fourth through the seventh centuries various Indian astronomers produced a series of high-level textbooks (siddhanta or 'solutions') covering the basics of astronomy: the solar year, equinoxes, solstices, lunar periods, the Metonic cycle, eclipses, planetary movements (using Greek planetary theory), seasonal star charts, and the precession of the equinoxes. Aryabhata I (b. 476 CE) lived in Pataliputra, composed a siddhanta, trained students, and held the unorthodox view that the earth rotates daily on its axis….
In his siddhanta in the following century the astronomer Brahmagupta (b. 598 CE) repudiated Aryabhata's notion of a moving earth on the grounds that it violated common sense and that, were it true, birds would not be able to fly freely in every direction. Brahmagupta's estimate of the circumference of the earth was one of the most accurate of any ancient astronomer.
So, all the civilizations that were exposed to the learning
of the ancient Greeks – Europe, the Middle East and to some extent
The general consensus among Chinese scholars well into the
seventeenth century AD, more than two thousand years after the Greeks had
demonstrated that the earth is spherical, was that the earth is flat. The error
wasn't corrected until the Chinese were confronted with European astronomy. As
Benjamin A. Elman puts it in his largely pro-Chinese book A Cultural History of
Modern Science in
Since the early Han period (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), two ancient Chinese models had shaped Chinese thinking about their place in the cosmos. According to one, the 'vaulted heavens' (gaitian) cosmology, the heavens arched over a flat, square earth like a hemispherical dome, or an umbrella-like canopy.
Its classical alternative, beginning in the transition from
the early to later Han, was called the 'spherical heavens' (huntian) cosmology.
In this view of the universe, an egg-white-like cosmos surrounded the yellow
yolk-like earth. This view became influential between 100 and 180 C.E. but was
not further elaborated. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Copernican
system replaced the Tychonic system in Protestant European astronomy, but in
The Jesuits failed to introduce the Copernican system in a timely fashion, even though, for example, a few of Galileo's discoveries (albeit not his support of heliocentricity) were noted in Ming Jesuit translations. Nevertheless, the Tychonic age in the Astrocalendrical Bureau meant that by the 1630s Chinese specialists had available to them a rich toolkit of new computational techniques, more accurate observations, a new view of the cosmos, and the latest precision instruments.
Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), born in Scania (Skåne) in what is today southern Sweden but was then a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, was the last of the great astronomers of the pre-telescopic era. Brahe never accepted the heliocentric model of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). He was influenced by some technical elements of the Copernican system, but developed an alternative geo-heliocentric system in which the planets all went around the sun, while the sun moved around a stationary earth.
Yet even though the Jesuits brought an understanding of
astronomy that was already outdated in
For instance, the first translated edition of Matteo Ricci's
map of the world (mappa mundi), which was produced with the help of Chinese
converts, was printed in 1584. A flattened sphere projection with parallel
latitudes and curving longitudes, Ricci's world map went through eight editions
between 1584 and 1608. The third edition was entitled the Complete Map of the
Myriad Countries on the Earth and printed in 1602 with the help of Li Zhizao.
The map showed the Chinese for the first time the exact location of
In addition, Ricci's maps contained technical lessons for Chinese geographers: (1) how cartographers could localize places by means of circles of latitude and longitude; (2) many geographical terms and names, including Chinese terms for Europe, Asia, America, and Africa (which were Ricci's invention); (3) the most recent discoveries by European explorers; (4) the existence of five terrestrial continents surrounded by large oceans; (5) the sphericity of the earth; and (6) five geographical zones and their location from north to south on the earth, that is, the Arctic and Antarctic circles, and the temperate, tropical, and subtropical zones.
According to Toby E. Huff, "Geometry as a systematic
deductive system of proofs and demonstrations was virtually nonexistent in
Calculus, developed by the German philosopher Gottfried
Leibniz (1646-1716) and the Englishman Isaac
Despite the adoption of Chinese terminology borrowed from traditional mathematics, the introduction of the calculus shocked Chinese literati because traditional mathematics contained nothing similar. Some scholars tried to show that many essential ideas of the calculus came from Chinese mathematical classics by building on earlier claims about the Chinese origins of algebra.
From the Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, after Europeans had assimilated external advances such as the Indian
numeral system, which arrived via the
I would claim that the axis which developed what was to
become global mathematics (prior to Renaissance Europe) consisted of
Millennia before the movement of Chinese silk to the West, there was certainly a long-distance trade in prestige goods, principally semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, nephrite, and turquoise. Whether this constituted a Bronze Age 'world system,' an extended network of interactive economic exchange, is now being debated.
More conventionally, scholars have argued that regular exchange came much later, with Alexander the Great's campaigns or with Chang Ch'ien's mission to the Yueh-chih. Most would agree, however, that the so-called 'Silk Route' was in operation by the century before Christ and that it reached an early peak during the period from 50 - 150, when the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires dominated the political landscape of Eurasia. In addition to the commercial goods, mainly silk, coming west, many cultural wares, from folklore motifs to alphabets and religions, moved eastward.
Almost all of the major religious movements originating in
the Middle East - Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeanism, and
Islam - reached
In the long line of history, it is tempting to conclude that
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