How has knowledge been figured and framed in the past? By trees, nets, wheels, eggs, seeds, mirrors, bows and arrows, and much else. And what fantasies attended scientific inquiry? A partial list would include sympathy among the elements, the prediction of the future, gender fluidity, cosmopolitanism, cultural distinctiveness, cross-species dialogue, divine order, wayward emergence, human dominion, and inhuman voids and vastness. As remains the case today, the expression of empirical fact quickly veers into fable, fabrication, and philosophical speculation.

This course explore fabricated figures (mental, textual, visual, and physical media) that constituted influential instruments of science in the later medieval period. It is in this sense that we are concerned with science fictions — i.e., how knowledge claims were made and mobilized. We will also look at how developments in the history of science registered in literary texts. Throughout we will examine moments where “arts and sciences” overlapped, resulting in effective ways of knowing that spanned disciplines and propagated encyclopaedic learning (e.g., cultivating literacy and numeracy, mental and mechanical facility, qualitative and quantitative forms of inquiry). Seminar discussions are likely to range across geometry, geography, astronomy, alchemy, botany, and zoology, showing how early knowledge practices could become sites of cultural and cross-species exchange. We will consider the influx of scientific terms and techniques in vernacular literature to understand how different branches of knowledge depended on manifold tongues, traditions, disciplines, and devices. Case studies will be drawn from speculative and practical writings (e.g., planetary theory and how-to manuals) and from prose and poetry in Middle English. Several readings are available on reserve or electronically (including Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Nicole Oresme, Macrobius, Hildegard of Bingen, Trotula), but you will need your own copies of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower and of The Book of John Mandeville. See syllabus for details about specific editions.

Contact Dr. Allan Mitchell


Tree of Knowledge. Ramon Llull (c. 1232-1315)