Chaucer and the Scientific Method

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The Middle Ages are traditionally considered to be a time of intellectual stagnation, especially in regard to developments in science. Many thinkers in the centuries following the Middle Ages are quick to dismiss the period as a dark age dominated by derisory pseudo-sciences and overshadowed by the achievements of Antiquity. The brooding, medieval alchemist-priest rendered by Victor Hugo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame perfectly illustrates these common conceptions of the age: bizarrely supernatural and afflicted with reckless superstitions. In the book, the scientist’s great learning earns him a reputation as a sorcerer, and Hugo cant resist adding that this was “a frequent occurrence in those days.”

Despite these assumptions, medieval scientists laid the foundations for future developments, notably in the areas of astronomy, optics, medicine and surgery, botany, chemistry and the philosophy of science. As a friend of scholars and aristocrats, Chaucer was well-versed in the scientific pursuits of his period, and he even wrote a technical treatise on a scientific instrument (astrolabe), which was widely acclaimed in his day. The medieval period is not usually praised for its scientific discoveries, but the scientific method, grounded in reason and experience, is evident in the works of Chaucer.

The Scientific Method

In the 13th century scientific treatise Opus Majus, Roger Bacon explains that “there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience.” This principle of “reason and experience” is clearly evident in medieval thought and has remained at the core of the scientific method through centuries of revision. After all, the beginning of scientific reasoning is the ability to draw conclusions from tangible, observable and repeatable experiments. The definition of the scientific method is best understood in light of Hegelian thought regarding experience. Briefly, Hegel’s philosophy stipulates that true knowledge is only gained through reason and experience; therefore, all reason regarding phenomena must be verified by experimentation.

“Reason and Experience” in 3 of Chaucer’s works

The House of Fame

This concept is reflected throughout the House of Fame, which begins with the narrator reasoning about the causes of dreams. From the beginning of the narrators dream sequence, the character of an eagle-guide explains that this experience is for the narrator’s instruction and profit: “And this caas that betyd the is/ is for thy lore and for thy prow.” The eagle discourses about the method by which sound travels through the atmosphere, and explains that his reasoning will be proved true by tangible data gained from experimentation: “I preve hyt thus—take hede now—Be experience. . .”

The experiment involves throwing rocks in a pond and considering the rings produced by the water. Furthermore, the eagle then uses the experimental data from the circles in the water to deduce that the same phenomenon must also occur in the air. The narrator and the eagle then engage in a discourse regarding the legitimacy of the eagle’s conclusions. The narrator believes the eagle has come to a good conclusion solely based on the verbal proofs, but the eagle assures him that it will also be proved by experience: “Thou shalt have yet, or hit be eve/ Of every word of thys sentence/ A preve by experience.”

Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde

In two other works Chaucer alludes to the importance of knowledge gained by experience. This is accomplished by his narrators in the Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde. Both narrators are great readers and have an interest in knowledge, but lack experience with love. Again, reason is not enough to produce true knowledge; it must be combined with experience. In the Parliament of Fowls the narrator states: “of usage-what for lust and what for lore-of bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde.” Unfortunately, his reasoning from books is not supplemented with experience. For he also admits: “for al be that I knowe nat love in dede.” Likewise, the narrator in Troilus and Criseyde admits that he needs help in writing his narrative because he is inexperienced in love.

Alchemy

A discussion of scientific trends in Chaucers works would not be complete without touching upon the study of alchemy. The most complete description of alchemy by Chaucer is found in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. The narrator states: “of waters corosif, and of lymaille/and of bodies mollificacioun/and also or hire induracioun/oilles, ablucions, and metal fusible.” Here, the yeoman records some of the original experimentation that forms the basis of modern chemistry. Two of the most influential scientists of the Middle Ages, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, experimented with alchemy and firmly wrote about its merits. Surprisingly, Chaucer’s alchemist dissents from the accepted medieval worldview. He describes alchemy as a foolish science and laments the poverty it has caused him: “a mannes myrthe it wol turne unto grame, and empten also grete and hevye purses.”