One of my favorite books ever is The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, by Alfred Crosby. The raison d’etre of this book, Crosby says, is to describe an acceleration after 1250 or so in the West’s shift from qualitative perception to, or at least toward, quantitative perception. The book devotes a separate chapter to each of several domains of life where this transition from the qualitative toward quantitative took place. He sets the stage with a chapter entitled “The Venerable Model,” in which he offers a glimpse of the qualitative mindset that predominated in medieval Europe.
Europe was a backwater then, sparsely populated by barbarians who lived far from the centers of Islamic and Far Eastern culture: a source of eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables, and swords, as Ibn Khurradadhbeh described it in the mid-ninth century. Crosby characterizes the European picture of the universe as clear, complete, and appropriately awesome without being stupefying. Reality was made up of essentially heterogeneous stuff: fire rises and rocks fall not because of gravity or different amounts of base elements, but because they just did: it’s what fire and rocks are like.
Time was a more-or-less sort of thing. Nothing was very old: maybe 300 human generations had passed since the very beginning. Augustine came up with a system for dividing history into ages based on the seven days of the Genesis 1 narrative: Each age began with a big event: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham, David, the Captivity of Judah, the birth of Christ, the Second Coming. In Daniel’s dream surely the fourth beast referred to the Roman Empire, which would persist until the end days – meaning that the Europeans still thought of themselves as living in that Empire. Hours weren’t equal in length: the day was divided into seven intervals by the church bells: matins, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, and compline. Because the length of the day depends on the time of year, the time between the intervals varied dramatically between summer and winter. Originally the none was rung in the midafternoon, but monks on fasts weren’t allowed to eat before none. So the none got earlier and earlier until finally, in England, it was chimed at midday: none = noon.
The earth was encircled by layers of transparent heavenly spheres on which the heavenly bodies were affixed and which moved in perfect circles. Nothing was very far away: Roger Bacon said that if a man walked 20 miles a day it would take him 14 years, 7 months, and 29 days to reach the moon. The earth was corrupt and not worth knowing much about. East was the most powerful direction because that’s where Eden is: the altar was always built at the east end of the church. Because the crucifixion was the pivotal event of all time, it followed that Jerusalem was the center of the earth (see Ezekiel 5:5). Europeans believed that no one lived in the tropics or the southern hemisphere. Maps were out of proportion, like those “New Yorkers’ view of the world” maps.
They weren’t very good at math in medieval Europe. There were no signs for plus or minus, divide or equal. They had complicated systems for “finger reckoning” – counting on your fingers. There was no zero. During Roman times the abacus made its way to Europe from Asia, but by the sixth century it had been forgotten, not to return for another 500 years. For the medievalists the meaning of numbers was more mystical than computational.
Sure they made mistakes. But, says Crosby,
…our real problem with the Venerable Model is that it is dramatic, even melodramatic, and teleological: God and Purpose loom over all… Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, like the shaman, like all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time, wanted immediately conclusive and emotionally satisfying explanations. They longed for a universe that, in Camus’s phrase, “can love and suffer.”