«They were right to be afraid»

Interview by Leonie Rohner and Giorgio Scherrer, August 17, 2018


A new way of thinking, the emergence of modern science and the emergence of the free marketplace: Medieval historian Joel Kaye on a change from below, the fear it instilled – and on what this has to do with the world today.

[Eine deutsche Version dieses Beitrags findet sich hier.]

Despite owning no cell phone, Joel Kaye has no problem with communication. On a recent afternoon at the University of Zurich, where he was presenting a paper, Kaye, a professor at Barnard College in New York, excitedly lifted his hands and with glowing eyes exclaimed: «Aristotle!». The Greek philosopher is a favorite of Kaye’s, whose research focuses on the entangled history of science and economy, and his excitement is catching. Before starting his academic career he worked as a carpenter for more than a dozen years and the experience, it seems, has helped him in crafting clear and graspable arguments from the very abstract intellectual material he works with. Rather than about himself, however, he prefers to talk about his main hypothesis: that the emergence of a dynamic market economy in the Middle Ages was a crucial foundation for the emergence of modern scientific thought.

Etü: When we think of modern science, we tend to set its origins in the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Your research suggests otherwise. Should we think of the Middle Ages as the origin of modern science?

Joel Kaye: Historians have become very leery to think about the past as pointing to the present. By doing this we are reading a telos, a fixed goal, into history that is probably not there. History could have gone in many directions. But: we somehow got from the Middle Ages to here and it’s not accidental. When we look back to the medieval period, we indeed can see almost in a nutshell the formation of concepts that would be worked out in science in the 17th to 19th century.

So there are traces of medieval thought in today’s culture of science.

In the middle ages something developed that I call the “new relativism”, which is a capacity to think and to sense the way the world works in terms of a relativized system. The medieval period before the late 13th and 14th century was one very much organized around a unidirectional access from god down to the creatures. Humans, other animals, plants, rocks – everything was conceived of as a hierarchy that God created according to a plan. Somehow, by the mid-13th century, thinkers began to conceive of the cosmos as a relativized system rather than a hierarchical system.

This sounds very abstract. What did this shift mean in practice?

For example, many ancient authorities had said that the earth was the very center of the universe, surrounded by the spheres of the planets and the sun. The notion was that the earth remains absolutely fixed. One of the basic ideas behind this notion was that if the earth were really moving, we would feel it. We would feel the air against our face and we would see if we shot something up the air it would not come down straight. Medieval thinkers then begin to ask themselves: Doesn’t it make more sense for the little tiny thing in the center to turn than for the entire heavens to revolve? The stars would, after all, have to move unimaginably fast to circle around the earth in twenty-four hours. The most important reason for them being able to do such a leap of mind was that they were capable of imagining looking from the heavens down to the earth – and of making judgements from this perspective instead of their own. This capacity to change perspective is one of the monumental achievements of the medieval Christian culture. But it’s important that we don’t associate these achievements only with individual thinkers. It’s always the culture.

family2015_053-min     «Now you think like a historian!»

What was so special about medieval culture? What made this change possible?

The economy and particularly the marketplace is the sine qua non of this kind of relativistic thinking. Since the unidirectional universe was so deeply embedded in Christian thought, it took something rather extraordinary to break it apart. The influence for that came from the marketplace. According to Christian thought every being on earth has a fixed place in God’s plan. In the market place, however, nothing has a fixed value. When you are dealing with agricultural products, things change in value from day to day. In the marketplace all is dependent on context. Scholastic thinker understand that value is purely relative to human need. So, suddenly, the scholastic thinkers live day by day in this world, where human need is the determinate of value and where this need shifts constantly.

It’s interesting that this idea of a new relativity developed in a clerical environment, although it directly contradicted the Christian idea of the absolute.

It is weird! One of the great statements of this principle is in a fabulous text called the «Cosmographia», which is an entirely naturalistic story about the creation of the universe. It is written by a twelfth-century cleric and read before the pope in Rome. And yet, Genesis is almost nowhere; on the surface at least, it is a story advanced by pagan gods and goddesses. Clearly, there was room for this kind of thinking and writing in this period, and in the period before the Counter-Reformation, we often find a surprising openness in clerical society to new ideas. Take Aristotle! He became the most important influence in medieval universities, when the university was the jewel in the crown of the Church. Can you imagine a Christian or Jewish university today adopting a pagan thinker into the center of its curriculum?

So there was a real marketplace of ideas back then? The best ideas prevailed?

No doubt about it. Aristotle’s ideas weren’t just the best, they were so far the best that once intellectuals got hold of them they said: I can’t give this up, I have to find a way to make this work with Christianity. Other cultures – Islam, Judaism – tried to do the same, but they got a pushback from reactionaries and got squashed.

So it might have been Europe’s internal weakness that allowed for this openness.

Good, exactly! Now you think like a historian.

«The professors did the administrative work – all of it! Including collecting taxes, accounting and even feeding their colleges.»

In your book Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century you argue that the fundamental changes in the scientific thought of the 14th century were a product of the monetization in Europe. What role did money play in this new way of thinking about the world?

It played multiple roles. The process of urbanization is definitely behind the shift towards this new relativity. The expansion is part demographic, part climactic and part attitudinal. Where in the 10th century in Europe there is not one city worth its name, by the 11th century you have a dozen and by the 13th century you have hundreds. This is what historians today call the commercial revolution of the 13th century.

And money wasn’t really important in people’s lives before this commercial revolution?

People always needed money, but rarely. What’s particularly interesting is that when they needed it rarely, money had a good reputation. Wealth was seen as God shining upon you. But when you look at the explosion of bitter venality satire, which begins in the late 11th century, almost at the same time that the commercial revolution begins to take off, you see people saying things like: “money turns everything upside down”, “money puts the liar above the honest man”, “avarice is the root of all evil.” There is an incredible fear of the power of money. The economy functions, after all, on principles in direct contradiction to Christian ones.

This idea that the economic reality influences our way of thinking has a somewhat Marxist feel.

Every historian is a Marxist! (Laughs) On some level there are strong elements of Marxist thought in what I’m saying. It is important to see that the intellectuals I talk about were not separate from the world. The university is in the city. And all of the people I associate with this new way of thinking were also employed as administrators of their universities. The professors did the administrative work – all of it! Including collecting taxes, accounting and even feeding their colleges. So they had to be aware of changing prices and values…

…and if you see that you don’t need Marx to tell you that there is an influence of economic life on scientific thought.

Precisely. But of course this is a Marxian idea – that experience influences the formation of ideas.

«What is key to me is the hunger for knowledge that characterized medieval Christian culture.»

In your research you only investigate European history. But the history of science has always been a history of transfers across regions and through networks. Does it, therefore, suffice to do European history to really understand the emergence of scientific thought – or is there the need for a global history of science, even in the middle ages?

If you go back to when this culture begins to wake up scientifically, the impact of Islamic thought is huge. Especially in what we call science – in astrology, geology, medicine, etc. The translation project from Arabic into Latin is hugely important to what happens in the 12th and 13th century. On the other hand, what is key to me is the hunger for this knowledge that characterized medieval Christian culture. I always ask my students: When Toledo falls during the Reconquista, what do you think the Christian soldiers did when they discover the city’s library with its thousands of volumes? And they always say: they burned it down – simply assuming the culture was inherently anti-intellectual. In fact, Christian scholars almost immediately started translating the texts from Arabic into Latin. And over the course of the twelfth century, they translated hundreds of the greatest works of Pagan Greek and Islamic science. That is the incredible thing to me. I once taught a seminar with a great historian of Islamic science and I asked him: How many works were translated from Latin into Arabic after things started shifting in the 12th to 14th century? He answered that he knew of none.

So you argue that Europe was a special place at this time because there was this hunger?

I don’t even want to say a special place. Clearly, Europe is the place where these ideas developed, and the development took on a certain characteristic within this culture in the following centuries. So I feel fairly comfortable talking about modern science as a product of European culture – with the recognition that its beginnings were influenced by Islamic thought.

«The question is: why did European culture prevail?»

To something different: What role does European medieval history play in the curricula of North American universities?

It’s much bigger than people think. Not only at the major universities and liberal arts colleges. You also have all the catholic universities in America, where medieval history is an important subject.


Because if you study history, it doesn’t make any sense to study the 20th century without knowing anything about the time before that. You would have a completely distorted view of how you got to where you are.

In the beginning, you cautioned us not to ask teleological questions. But it seems that this primacy of European history is itself a result of teleological thought. European culture prevailed and therefore we study its history.

But the question is: why did it prevail? What gave it the power over much older and much wiser cultures and civilizations? That’s a question you really need to ask. At least up until the mid-20th century you can look at European culture to see where science is coming from and where it’s going. When you get outside of science and to the 21st century, other cultures come into the picture. But historians are limited. I can barely grasp a hundred years of intellectual development. And with that grasp I can begin to make arguments. If I had to know Islamic and Chinese history as well, I would never be able to do that in the same degree. When I retire I’d rather want them to hire a medieval historian of China, Islam, South Asia or Europe than somebody who tried to do it all. Because you can’t.

«We still think technology is always good. But at some point, it starts turning against us.»

When we look at the world today, are there any recent economic transformations that could have a similarly fundamental effect on how we see the world as the shift you find in the Middle Ages?

Absolutely. There are present-day developments in the marketplace, where, for instance, most technological change is basically being directed by around twenty corporations. Remember: In the Middle Ages, the scholastics become absolutely stunned by the fact that the free market place works. Because they recognized that there is no one directing it! It is a system that works without a center, without a ruler, just by a community interacting.

And you say that today we might again return to a more ordered, hierarchical system?

I am saying that. Take artificial intelligence: it’s going to put millions of people out of work. And its development is so clearly being directed from the top. It’s not a community deciding what it needs. We still think technology is always good. But at some point, it starts turning against us.

In summer 2019 you are going to attend the Swiss History Days, which will focus on the topic of wealth. What did it mean to be rich in the middle ages?

At one point to be rich was good – pure and simple. The powerful justified their own riches by saying that they were a reward from god for their virtues. And then, all of a sudden, you see merchants and low-born people getting rich. And not just rich, but rich enough to buy the estates of the aristocrats. And suddenly, wealth is a problem. There is a fear that this new desire is really going to tear the society apart. And it does. They were right to be afraid.

Picture: Suddenly, a change of perspective was possible. The philosopher Nicole Oresme, in his «Livre du ciel et du monde» of 1377, imagined the view on earth from space. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


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