Byzantine science: where to start and where to look

Where do we start, if we want to know about Byzantine science?  Well, you start here!

The history of science in the Byzantine empire is a neglected field of investigation, even more so than the same subject in the ancient world. It has suffered because few scholars with the language skills also possess an understanding of the scientific area. In addition Byzantine studies was neglected until recently because the subject matter was considered as merely derivative of ancient work. But this was always an over-simplification, not least because only 5% of Byzantine scientific works extant in manuscript have been published.

Byzantine science may be defined as the study of the history of knowledge of subjects which today mainly form part of the science faculties, in the period from 500 AD to 1453. This consists mainly of working with authors and sources transmitted in manuscripts, as few scientific instruments have been preserved from the period. The sources consist both of practical handbooks of “how to do stuff”, and also more theoretical treatises.

Introductory articles

  • Karl Vogel, “Byzantine Science”, in: The Cambridge Medieval History, volume 4, part 2 (revised ed. J. Hussey), 1967, p.264-305.  Online here (PDF, 11mb).[1]  This is 40 pages, and gives a massive overview of the main Byzantine scientists and their work.  Unfortunately it was written in a period when Byzantine studies as a whole tended to be dismissed as derivative and of no special interest.  But the material presented by Vogel actually contradicts the received wisdom of his day, as may easily be seen.  Not a lot of bibliography tho.
  • H. Hunger, Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. 2 vols., Series: Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, XII.5 (Munich, 1978). Volume 2 is the one of interest to us.  It contains chapters on mathematics and astronomy (astrology), natural sciences (zoology, botany, lapidaries, alchemy), and medicine, and gives a bibliography for each.  Unfortunately this is in German.  But I find that it can be understood OK with Google Translate.
  • Anne Tihon, “Numeracy and Science”, In: Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, 2009, p.803-819. Brief introduction. Includes a useful bibliography.
  • Anne Tihon, “Science in the Byzantine Empire”, in: Lindberg D.C., Shank M.H. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 2: Medieval Science, Cambridge University Press (2013), p.190-206.  Brief introduction.
  •  M. Mavroudi, “Science, Byzantine”, in: Roger Bagnall &c (eds), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell (2013), pp. 6063-6065.  Brief two-page overview of current views on the field, plus useful bibliography.

Let’s finish by quoting Anne Tihon from her Cambridge History of Science article:

In the field of Byzantine science, so many texts remain unedited or simply ignored that one cannot claim to give a complete account of Byzantine scientific achievements. Nevertheless, we can say that the scientific efforts of Byzantium have often been underestimated by modern historians of science. Although Byzantine scholars were deeply concerned with the preservation of the priceless scientific inheritance from antiquity, they were also receptive to the progress made by their nearest neighbors, especially Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew scientists. The European Renaissance owes to the efforts of the Byzantine scholars the preservation of major scientific texts from antiquity. But they did much more than just copying the ancient inheritance in many manuscripts. They kept it alive, attempting to understand the texts exactly, making new editions, training themselves in mathematical procedures or geometrical demonstrations, and commenting on and explaining endlessly mathematical treatises, astronomical tables, and musical theories. This is especially true in astronomy.

A Byzantine sundial
  1. [1]The original Cambridge Medieval History volumes, edited by H. Gwatkin, are now public domain and appear online.  However volume 4 was reissued in two volumes in 1967, edited by J. Hussey.  These volumes are offline, as far as I know.  A new edition was issued more recently as The New Cambridge Medieval History, which is also freely accessible online.  However it contains no article on “Byzantine Science”.  The Vogel article therefore languishes in an obscure volume of a now superseded encyclopedia, and is not at all easy to obtain.  My thanks to the kind gentleman who tracked down a copy for me.

7 thoughts on “Byzantine science: where to start and where to look

  1. Thanks Roger,
    I found Vogel’s article fascinating. He mentions a wide variety of authors, a number of which I have never heard of. I notice he has a ‘broad’ definition of science. Perhaps he was trying to be comprehensive. I think few people would classify Geography as science. Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Mathematics and Agriculture are only loosely linked.

    Observation, Vogel doesn’t distinguish very well between the retention/ reworking of Classical works and Byzantine innovation. What exactly was new?

    Also, rhetorical works on animals by grammarians for entertainment can hardly be thought of as serious works of science!

  2. The scope of the field is a problem, I agree, until we realise all these are “philosophy”. The tendency to talk about ancient survivals obscures what is new and our lack of information. Vogel is still the best article, unbelievably. Most are worse.

  3. You’re right Roger.

    Hard to believe a 50 year old article is still the best on Byzantine science!

    It is clear that Byzantine science was uneven. Lots of works on areas like maths, astronomy and medicine but little on zoology, botany, optics. More development on immediately practical science than theory. Do you think a lack of rich patrons investing in ‘scientists’, the constant military instability of the Byzantine Empire or cultural values played a role in this?

  4. I wonder (perhaps quite wildly) how much zoological and botanical matter might be found in Biblical and other commentaries, and what if any interplay this would entail – e.g., collecting and digesting of such matter from commentaries, and commentators making use of ‘scientific’ sources?

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