Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like


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Comet in the sky, 1340. Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Carl Kears, King’s College London and James Paz, University of Manchester

Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.

These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.

The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem.

Origins

Amazing Stories, April 1926, Volume 1 Number 1.
Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is particularly troublesome when it comes to matters of classification and origin. Indeed, there remains no agreed-upon definition of the genre. A variety of commentators have located the beginnings of SF in the early-20th-century explosion of pulp magazines, and in the work of Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), who proposed the term “scientifiction” when editing and publishing the first issue of Amazing Stories, in 1926.

“By ‘scientifiction’,” Gernsback wrote, “I mean the Jules Verne, H G Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive.”

But here Gernsback was already looking backwards in time to earlier writers to define SF. His “definition”, too, was one that could also be applied to literary creations from much further into the past.

Science and fiction

Another longstanding idea is that the “science” in science fiction is key: SF can only begin, many historians of the genre proclaim, following the birth of modern science.

Alongside histories of SF, histories of science have long avoided the medieval period (over a thousand years in which, presumably, nothing happened). Yet the Middle Ages was no dark, static, ignorant time of magic and superstition, nor was it an aberration in the neat progression from enlightened ancients to our modern age. It was actually a time of enormous advances in science and technology.

The compass and gunpowder were developed and improved upon, and spectacles, the mechanical clock and blast furnace were invented. The period also laid the foundations for modern science through founding universities, advanced the scientific learning of the classical world, and helped focus natural philosophy on the physics of creation. The medieval science of “computus”, for instance, was a complex measuring of time and space.

Use of medieval abacus and counting board.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Scholars have started to reveal the convergence of science, technology and the imagination in medieval literary culture, demonstrating that this era could be characterised by inventiveness and a preoccupation with novelty and discovery. Take the medieval romances that feature Alexander the Great soaring heavenwards in a flying machine and exploring the depths of the ocean in his proto-submarine. Or that of the famous medieval traveller, Sir John Mandeville, who tells of marvellous, automated golden birds that beat their wings at the table of the Great Chan.

Like those of more modern science fictions, medieval writers tempered this sense of wonder with scepticism and rational inquiry. Geoffrey Chaucer describes the procedures and instruments of alchemy (an early form of chemistry) in such precise terms that it is tempting to think that the author must have had some experience of the practice. Yet his Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale also displays a lively distrust of fraudulent alchemists, sending up their pseudo-science while imagining and dramatising its harmful effects in the world.

Alexander in his ‘submarine’.
British Library, Royal MS 15 E. vi f. 20v, Author provided

The medieval future

Modern science fiction has dreamt up many worlds based on the Middle Ages, using it as a place to be revisited, as a space beyond earth, or as an alternate or future history. The representation of the medieval past is not always simplistic, nor always confined to “back then”.

William M Miller’s immensely detailed medieval future in A Canticle of Leibowitz (1959), for instance, dwells on the way the past consistently reemerges in the fragments, materials and conflicts of a distant future. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), meanwhile, follows a time-travelling researcher of the near-future back to a medieval Oxford in the grip of the Black Death.

Although “medieval science fiction” may sound like an impossible fantasy, it’s a concept that can encourage us to ask new questions about an often-overlooked period of literary and scientific history. Who knows? The many wonders, cosmologies and technologies of the Middle Ages may have an important part to play in a future yet to come.The Conversation

Carl Kears, Lecturer in Old and Middle English before 1400, King’s College London and James Paz, Lecturer in Early Medieval Literature, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Once upon a time … ‘sleeping beauties’ and the importance of storytelling in science



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Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Jennifer Byrne, University of Sydney

I’m a regular biomedical scientist, although in one sense I’m perhaps a bit different, in that I really like the process of writing.

From speaking with colleagues and teaching postgraduate students about the process of scientific writing for more than ten years, I estimate that eight or nine of every ten biomedical researchers would say they don’t like writing.

Now, while I do like writing, that’s not to say I find it easy. When I’m in the thick of getting my thoughts onto the page, terms such as “bloodbath” and “fight to the death” flood my mind.




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I have images of fighting a slippery dragon, trying to break its back. I feel as if I’m fighting my own ideas or whatever I’m trying to write, and there’s only one possible outcome: breaking these ideas down, whatever the cost.

And remember, I like writing, so imagine what it’s like for the majority of scientists who don’t.

To illustrate what can go wrong with the writing process, I’m going to refer to an old fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty.

A fairy tale

This is the story of a princess who was cursed to fall into a deep sleep, along with her family and everyone else living in the castle. They sleep for 100 years, and during this time a thick thorny forest grows up around the castle, shielding it from view.

One day, a prince who has heard about the sleeping beauty arrives on horseback, with a sword. With great difficulty, he cuts his way through the forest to eventually reach the castle. He finds the princess, wakes her up, and they presumably live happily ever after.

So what has this got to do with scientific writing? Well, scientific results and ideas can be viewed as something valuable, and yet they can be wrapped up in forests of words that lack structure and overuse complex language.




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Sometimes this just reflects a lack of training, but there can also be an assumption that scientific ideas deserve to be discovered by those who are clever enough.

This means readers are expected to hack their way through the word forest, if they’re really committed to understanding the results.

The only problem with this approach is that it doesn’t consider the sheer number of papers that scientists need to read. Most researchers and academics can’t keep up with their fields, so if a paper is hard to understand, or unclear, researchers may simply put it down and pick up the next one in the pile.

Expecting too much of the reader can lead to a paper sinking within the literature and effectively falling asleep.

The ‘sleeping beauties’ of science

In fact, a “sleeping beauty” is now a recognised type of academic paper. A sleeping beauty experiences what is also termed “delayed recognition”, sleeping within the literature for up to 100 years until another paper known as the “prince” recognises its value.

The sleeping beauty goes on to be highly cited and influential, sometimes in a different field. Researchers now study sleeping beauties and their princes, as a kind of extreme example of how science works – or doesn’t, depending on your perspective.

It’s generally assumed that sleeping beauties describe ideas that were ahead of their time. But I wonder whether some of these papers might have also been asleep in their forests of words.

After all, we only know about these scientific sleeping beauties through their awakening, in the same way that without the prince’s determination, the story of Sleeping Beauty may never have been told. It is very difficult to know how many other ideas may be lying dormant in the literature, wrapped in their forests of words.

What can we do about this? We need to recognise that to avoid the word forest, the research team needs to hack through their ideas and lay these out as clearly as possible.

This is really difficult, and learning how to do this takes years of practice and effort. As researchers and academics, we need to talk about this process and embrace it.

We expect that professional sportspeople will push themselves to the limit, and be supported to do this. Scientists are essentially intellectual athletes, so we need to talk about the virtue of pushing ourselves to the limit when writing, how to do this, and what kind of support we need.




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Many features of scientific life, such as crowded work environments, and generally measuring quantity over quality, do not favour the truly difficult process of hacking through our ideas so others can understand them.

It’s important to remember that in the story of Sleeping Beauty, many people fell asleep in the castle. Also, scientific papers are not just about their authors, but also about the public funds and the many supporting resources that make them possible.

We can’t afford the risk that our results and ideas fall asleep. Humanity doesn’t have the next 100 years to wait.The Conversation

Jennifer Byrne, Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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