An Introduction to the Mechanical Arts in the Middle Ages

Originally presented at the International Congress for Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, in 1993.

This introduction is meant to be neither ground-breaking nor earth shattering; rather I plan to present the mechanical arts as they stood in medieval intellectual thought. The following papers in this session and the next† will deal with “how things move and work,” but here I want to give a brief overview of where these “mechanical arts” fit into the scholastic world. The thesis of the “Dark Ages” often suggests that there was a discontinuity in knowledge between Antiquity and the Renaissance, and perhaps nowhere so obviously as in the mechanical arts. This is certainly false; the mechanical arts thrived throughout the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, they didn’t enter philosophy as an object of analysis until the twelfth century, coincident with the birth of the scholastic movement. It might be too ambitious to say that the emergence of the mechanical arts into philosophy was caused by scholasticism, or conversely, to say that it was independent of scholasticism. The evidence shows that they were coincident, and that some of the same forces drove both endeavors. It is fair to say, however, that scholastic thought helped justify the mechanical arts, though was not necessary for their justification. Here we will look at Hugh of St. Victor, Dominicus Gundissalinus, and Robert Kilwardby as characteristic of the scholastics who accepted the mechanical arts, but first, let’s consider what they had to work with. …

To continue reading (2800 words, total), please download the PDF: Walton_MechArts.pdf

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