“Facts ought to be discovered, not made or constructed. But the etymology of facts refers us to human action, performance, indeed, to human feats. . . the etymology of fiction refers us once again to human action, to the acts of fashioning, forming, or inventing, as well as to feigning.”
(Donna Haraway, Primate Visions, pp. 3-4)

Knowledge must be well constructed. It needs the right situation, expression, and medium. As science scholars observe, what many take to be solid facts are “historically mediated” and “situated” (Haraway), “contingently formulated” and “path-dependent” (Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice), and produced by so many inscriptions, translations, and alliances (Bruno Latour, Science in Action). Knowledge is articulated across evolving sites and systems of representation.

Each of you is responsible for taking stock of one medieval scientific formula, technique, or term. Focus on a single influential finding and track down authors, manuscripts, illustrative examples and use-cases, preparing to make a short blog post followed by a seminar debriefing. Aim to show, to whatever extent you can, how knowledge was situated and represented over time.

In your post and presentation, please begin by describing and illustrating your item for the benefit of non-specialists (i.e., diagram, model, or demo). Next, give a brief sketch of the transmission and reception history (e.g., Euclid in Greek to al-Kindi in Arabic to Gerard in Latin). Identify changes in such things as applications and media (technical, linguistic, or other), tracing the vector of your item through scientific cultures and translations. The idea is to burrow into a small corner of knowledge, not to explain a complete system or science (e.g., take up the sine function and not trigonometry). Be specific and concrete. Do not just crib from modern encyclopedias. Go through manuscript collections to find available illustrations, tables of contents, or info about how treatises circulated. Take a deep dive into digitized holdings, exploring DMMapp, British Library, among others (see the list maintained by Prof. Siân Echard).

Please sign up for one of the following recommended topics:

  • epicycles / deferent
  • conic sections (e.g., parabola)
  • corpuscles (i.e., atoms)
  • chord or sine function
  • base-10 place-value system
  • sexagesimal fractions
  • zero
  • alhabor (sirius)
  • gnomon
  • radix
  • precession
  • plurality of forms
  • elixir
  • impetus
  • climates
  • abacus
  • pi
  • world soul

The post is due February 9 before the start of the seminar devoted to sharing and comparing findings. I suggest you run a draft by me first.

Here’s the schedule — let me know if you wish to make a change: 

alhabor: Brooke
gnomon: Reuben
radix: Luke
elixir: Heidi
climates: Hector
abacus: Catriona
zero: Natalie

Leave a Reply