Post-classical history

The Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford

Among the earliest memories of Richard of Wallingford (1292– 1336) would have been heat and flames from his father’s forge. As the blacksmith of a small town, Richard’s father had been an essential part of the community, producing horseshoes, repairing ploughshares and hammering iron utensils into shape. It was hard physical work, but also highly skilled. The young boy inherited a keen interest in the mechanical arts and an appreciation of craftsmanship.

The family of a smith would be reasonably well-off, but there was very little in the way of insurance if tragedy struck. This meant that on his father’s death when Richard was only ten, too young to take over the trade, he could have been left destitute. As often happened, though, it was the church that acted as a medieval welfare state. Richard was adopted by a local Benedictine monk who saw to it that he received a proper education in reading and writing Latin.1 Richard turned out to be a precocious student far more suited for a clerical career than his father’s trade. When he came of age, he was sent to study at the college that the monks maintained at Oxford.

Oxford University and the Foundation of Cambridge

Studying at a university during the Middle Ages was not for the faint-hearted. The congregation of so many young men in a single town without parental authority was a recipe for trouble. Drunkenness, violence and prostitution were facts of life, with the students acting as both the victims and the instigators. The records show frequent complaints about riotous students from the put-upon townsfolk. In 1269, we hear that

a frequent and continual complaint has gone the rounds that there are in Paris some students and scholars … who under the pretence of leading the scholarly life, more often perpetrate unlawful and criminal acts relying on their weapons, by day and night, to atrociously wound or kill many persons, rape women, oppress virgins, break into inns, also repeatedly commit robberies and other enormities hateful to God.2

At Oxford, the students did not stop at oppressing the local virgins. In 1209, the murder of a young woman by a member of the university sparked a major crisis. The circumstances are obscure and it is not clear whether the victim was her killer’s mistress or had denied him her favours. The attack happened on the outskirts of the town and the guilty party quickly made good his escape. A mob of outraged residents converged on his lodging and, finding the culprit gone, contented itself with stringing up his housemates. The university was up in arms at this lynching and demanded that the ringleaders be brought to justice.3

The dispute was exacerbated by an ongoing conflict between King John (1167–1216) of England and the Pope, Innocent III, over who should be archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope wanted Stephen Langton (1154–1228), a formidable politician and churchman, to get the job. King John required someone altogether more amenable to his will and refused to allow Stephen into the country. In response, the Pope excommunicated the king and placed England under an interdict. Even if John was not worried about his own excommunication, his subjects were horrified at the effects of interdiction. This was the papacy’s ultimate weapon and effectively excommunicated an entire territory. Church services were cancelled, the holy sacraments withdrawn and the festivals that punctuated the calendar abandoned. Only the monks in their monasteries, who claimed they had nothing to do with King John’s religious policies, received any sort of concession. They were allowed to perform divine service behind closed doors once a week, as long as they were quiet about it.

The crisis at Oxford became mired in the larger dispute. The interdict meant that most clerics had already left the town by the time of the murder, and the hostility of the locals drove the rest away shortly afterwards. For five years, there was no teaching at the university. A group of the masters and their students migrated to another town to the east called Cambridge. It was not a very prepossessing place, being quite small and located in the middle of a bog. But the scholars were welcomed and set up shop there. The resulting university never matched Oxford’s prestige during the Middle Ages, but in the sixteenth century royal patronage enabled Cambridge to achieve parity of esteem with the older foundation. During the Reformation, Cambridge enjoyed such prominence that scholars came from as far away as Hungary to hear lectures there. The universal language of Latin meant that this kind of intellectual cross-pollination was common, but misunderstandings were still possible. Our Hungarian found himself wandering around Canterbury in Kent in search of the lecture hall. The Latin word for Cambridge is Cantabrigia, so his confusion is understandable.4

In 1212, Innocent III declared King John deposed and invited the king of France to invade England. With his people clamouring for the churches to be reopened, John capitulated to the Pope’s demands. He handed over his entire kingdom to the Pope who graciously installed him as its monarch. Stephen Langton finally took up residence in Canterbury and promptly sided with the barons in the movement that culminated in John signing the Magna Carta two years later.

As part of the deal between John and the Pope, the townsfolk of Oxford had to make restitution to the teaching masters and invite them back. This part of the agreement, which Robert Grosseteste probably helped to negotiate, gave the university the privileges and rights that were the foundation of its later success. The local people became second-class citizens in their own town and had to pay an annual fine to the university.5 Thus, by the time Richard of Wallingford began his studies in the early fourteenth century, the university effectively controlled the town of Oxford.

The Trivial Syllabus

Wallingford is only about fifteen miles to the south of Oxford, but Richard’s journey to Gloucester College (nowadays subsumed within Worcester College) on the edge of the town may well have been the furthest he had ever travelled. At sixteen, he was slightly older than many of the first-year students who would have begun their careers at fourteen. All of them were already treated as adults for most purposes and, when they joined the student body, they also become clerics governed by canon and not common law. This is why students were known as ‘clerks’ – a contraction of ‘clerics’. Chaucer put his Clerk’s Tale into the mouth of a virtuous Oxford student who diligently studied the books of Aristotle.6

The first step of Richard’s academic career was to gain a bachelor of the arts degree, which usually took three or four years. The syllabus he had to follow would have been similar no matter which university he attended. During the course, he would have covered three introductory subjects – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – together known as the trivium. This is the origin of the English word ‘trivial’. It is an unfortunate piece of etymology because all three subjects were vitally important.

Grammar involved developing a rigorous style of written Latin. As Richard had done, students were expected to have mastered reading, writing and speaking in Latin before starting their higher education. It was the only language recognised at the university, and the authorities could levy fines for talking in English even in private conversation. Universities tried to limit grammatical tuition on the grounds that new students should already be able to express themselves on parchment, but remedial teaching was often required.

Dialectic means ‘logic’ in everyday parlance and it is one of the facets of medieval intellectual life that seems most alien to us today. Far from being irrational, thinkers of the Middle Ages were obsessed by logic to an extent that seems completely unreasonable to their modern critics. Students had logical constructions called syllogisms hammered into them until they could repeat them by heart. As a learning aid there were plenty of mnemonics to help students along, but ultimately logic required a great deal of rote learning. The standard textbook was Peter of Spain’s Summulae Logicales, often called the Little Logicals. We first encountered Peter in chapter 6, because as Pope John XXI he had ordered the investigation into Averröism at Paris. During the sixteenth-century backlash against medieval scholarship, Sir Thomas More (1477–1535) could unfairly quip that the Little Logicals ‘was probably so-called because it contained little logic’.7 Like so much medieval learning, dialectic derived from the works of Aristotle but it was taken to extremes of which the ancient Philosopher could never have dreamed.

The third element of the trivium was rhetoric. This was a much broader subject than learning to speak well in public. As well as oratory, students learned how to construct arguments and the correct form for writing letters.

Once Richard had mastered grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, he was ready for the ‘determination’ of his bachelor of the arts degree. Determination is simply the term used for the oral examination he had to pass in order to earn the degree. The examination was a highly formalised debate or disputation with the examiner who would then report to the university authorities on his success. A certificate of good character and morals was also required for the bachelorship, something some students must surely have found more difficult to obtain than a pass in the examination.

The Scientific Syllabus of the Middle Ages

When he attained the rank of bachelor, Richard had another three years of study to look forward to before becoming a master of the arts. During this period, he covered the remaining four of the seven liberal arts, called the quadrivium, as well as the basics of the three branches of philosophy: ethics, metaphysics and natural philosophy. The seven liberal arts date from the late Roman period when they were regarded as the subjects fit for a free man, rather than a slave, to study. The quadrivium was the mathematical component, made up of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. This meant that all students who wanted take their studies beyond a basic level had to study maths.

Basic knowledge of calculations was derived from Arabic sources collectively known as algorismus, which is a Latin garbling of the name of the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi (c.780–c.850). The originality of his work is disputed, but it was through Latin translations of it that the principles of algebra reached the Christian West. The word algebra itself is a corruption of the title of his best-known book the Al-jabr.8

Al-Khwarizmi used what we call Arabic numerals (which actually originate from India) and introduced the vital concept of the number zero. Previously, most westerners had used the system of Roman numerals they inherited from the ancient world. This was fine for counting and for dates, but these numerals made it very difficult to do even simple sums. For basic arithmetic, it was far easier to use an abacus but this involved a completely different system of counting. There is some skill involved in efficient calculation with an abacus, as anyone who has been to a market in India will attest. As we have seen, Gerbert had first introduced Arabic numerals to the West in the tenth century to improve this device. However, it was not until the thirteenth century that al-Khwarizmi’s Al-jabr led to their use becoming widespread.

In recent years there have been persistent claims that the Church resisted the introduction of Arabic numbers and especially of zero. In fact, professional abacus users were the ones who really felt threatened by the new system, as it seemed to make their skills redundant. There was also a problem in agreeing which symbols should correspond to which numbers. As late as 1299, the Bankers’ Guild of Florence banned the use of Arabic numerals in official documents because they were causing too much confusion.9When a system was eventually settled upon, it was similar to that used in Muslim Spain. This differed markedly from the version used by other Arabs, and those differences remain today. For example, the European zero is the symbol for five in the Middle East. However, with the algorismus becoming part of most university syllabuses by 1300, Arabic numbers gradually came to predominate. Most university students were expected to handle addition, subtraction, division and multiplication as well as extract roots and perform basic algebra.

8. Eastern and western Arabic numerals compared to modern western numerals

In addition to learning to do calculations, medieval students mastered theoretical mathematics. This material came from the book Arithmetic by Boethius. It featured the properties of prime numbers, perfect numbers and what modern mathematicians call ‘number theory’. The idea was to give the student the equipment necessary to understand the mysteriousness of figures and provide him with a vision of logical perfection. Anybody trying to read this book today will find it heavy going. For a start, Boethius’s book does not tell you how to do sums and the word ‘arithmetic’ meant something quite different from what it does now. Rather, this subject dealt with the properties of numbers and ratios in a way that was supposed to train the mind for the higher philosophies. Arithmetic, Boethius said, ‘holds the principal place and position of a mother to all the rest’ of the arts.10 This was a Greek tradition that ultimately derived from Pythagoras (c.569–c.475BC) and Plato. To Platonists, a number was the best example of something that transcended the material world and existed on a higher plane. By contemplating numbers, a philosopher could comprehend eternal truths rather than sully his thoughts with the mundane. Closely related to arithmetic was the subject of music. We might think this involved learning to sing or play an instrument. Far from it. Students covered the theory of harmony and an appreciation of the rhythms of the universe, rather than anything as practical as holding a tune.

For geometry, the key text was the Elements of Euclid as translated by Adelard of Bath. Most students would probably only have had to make it through the first three books, but even these contain a great deal of elegant and inspirational material. What medieval scholars loved about Euclid was the way that each of his demonstrations derived logically from the previous ones without any possibility of error.

The last of the four subjects of the quadrivium was astronomy. For this, students had The Sphere, the excellent little handbook by the Englishman John Sacrobosco that Cecco D’Ascoli had used for his lectures. It contained all the essentials they needed in order to understand how the medieval cosmos worked – with the earth at the centre, then the seven planets (including the sun and moon) orbiting around it, thence to the sphere of the fixed stars and finally out to heaven itself. After the seven liberal arts, the prospective Master of Arts would learn something of ethics, metaphysics and natural philosophy. Aristotle was the main authority for all philosophy, although his works were so difficult that most students tackled them through a commentary.

Modern critics of medieval universities have accused them of concentrating too much on useless and obscure logic at the expense of real knowledge. Logic was certainly an important part of the syllabus and it became increasingly complicated through the later Middle Ages. As an intellectual exercise, scholars would invent absurd situations and try to reason their way out of them. Every now and again, the universities would host a special session where students could put their most fiendishly difficult questions to a senior professor. No doubt they went to considerable trouble to come up with the most convoluted riddles they could think of in order to tax the minds of their superiors. The professor gained a chance to show off his mental dexterity by dealing elegantly with whatever his students threw at him. The result was a very rarefied formed of intellectual entertainment. Questions preserved for posterity include ‘Should someone born with two heads be baptised as one person or two?’ and ‘Can a bishop who is raised from the dead return to his office?’ Even Thomas Aquinas had had to find an answer to the question ‘Is it better for a crusader to die on the way to the Holy Land or on the way back?’11 The medieval logical conundrum that everybody knows is ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ Sadly, this turns out to be the invention of a seventeenth-century Cambridge academic satirising the admittedly rather abstruse theology of Thomas Aquinas.12 If a medieval scholar had really asked this, he would have meant it as a joke.

Richard of Wallingford’s Career

Richard had entered the university of Oxford in 1308 and by 1314, before he had received his Master of Arts degree, the money ran out. It is not clear whether his studies to date had been financed by Benedictine charity or a legacy from his late father, but neither source was infinite. Without cash, Richard was faced with the same problem as Roger Bacon and he opted for a similar solution. He was intellectually very gifted and the Benedictines would be glad to pay for him to complete his studies if he would commit to joining them. With this aim in mind, the young scholar trekked to St Albans, one of the grandest and richest abbeys in England, and professed as a monk. Three years later, in 1317, he was ordained a priest. Adjudged to have shown sufficient devotion, he returned to Oxford to complete his studies.13

Before long, he incepted as a master of the arts. At this point he had to lecture undergraduates for a couple of years before he was allowed to proceed to the theology faculty. Several more years passed before he earned the title of bachelor of theology by composing a commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Although this is a theological textbook, substantial sections in its second book covered the creation of the world and other aspects of physics. This gave students ample opportunity to comment on natural philosophy if this was the subject that most interested them.14

We know that this was the case for Richard. While he was ostensibly studying the queen of the sciences, he found time to invent a new astronomical instrument called an Albion. This device is a calculator that allows its user to determine the positions of stars and planets more quickly than using the usual tables. Another advantage was that the Albion did not rely on its user possessing a set of tables that had been accurately copied out. Instead, he recalculated the positions from first principles each time he needed them. This did mean that considerable skill was required to operate the Albion, although mercifully a full understanding of the underlying mathematics was not necessary.15

The Albion is made up of brass disks that rotate around a common pivot. Engraved onto the disks are a large number of curved lines from which results can be read off as required. Silk threads hang from the pivot to help the user to take readings as accurately as possible.16 Richard must have been one of the most accomplished mathematicians of his generation to have had the ability to map out the necessary engravings. He would put these talents to even more spectacular use after he left Oxford in 1326.

Richard returned to the monastery of St Albans to begin his career as a priest and a monk. He had barely settled in when the old abbot died. In the subsequent election Richard, still only in his mid-thirties, was chosen as his successor. It was a huge surprise that, despite his humble origins and relative youth, the returning Oxford scholar had been elected. The abbey’s chronicle relates:

The newly elected lord abbot, Richard of Wallingford, having been led into the church with trembling and respect, as is proper, was made to stand before the high altar. The election was announced to the people by … the archdeacon. It was beyond the expectations of everyone, and especially of the laypeople.17

After he had travelled across Europe to have his appointment confirmed by the Pope (with a hefty fee payable in consideration), Richard took up the reins of managing the abbey of St Albans. Although it was ancient and endowed with a vast acreage of lands, profligate abbots had plunged the monastery into debt. The new abbot turned out to be a fearsome administrator. His humble origins did not lead him to deal leniently with the farmers and townsfolk under his rule. Unfortunately for them, he needed their money to fulfil his own ambition of building the most advanced clock the world had ever seen.

The Invention of Time

At roughly the same time as spectacles appeared in Italy, the mechanical clock was invented, probably in England. The earliest mention of such a clock is from 1273 in Norwich.18 They are recorded in several other documents dating from shortly afterwards, before the invention spread rapidly across Europe. Water clocks and other timekeeping devices had been built by the Romans and Chinese but the mechanical clock was something new. It was made possible by the development of the escapement. The Chinese had produced an escapement of sorts but there is no evidence that this knowledge passed to Europe. Instead it appears to have been independently invented in the West during the late thirteenth century.19

An escapement is a mechanism that allows a clock to keep time. Power is provided by a weight hung from a rope wrapped around a horizontal shaft. As gravity pulls on the weight, it tries to rotate the shaft. However, the shaft cannot turn freely because it is attached to a gear wheel whose teeth control its rate of rotation. The escapement itself is a weighted spinning crossbar that allows the gear wheel to turn by only one notch for each one of its rotations. Each time the gear moves on by one notch, there is one tick of the clock and the weight-driven shaft can turn by a very small amount. A series of other gears translate the turning of the gear wheel into the movements of the hands on the clock face.

Initially, mechanical clocks were extremely inaccurate and intended as astronomical models rather than as timekeepers. From these early devices, the idea that the universe itself might be a sort of clock quickly followed. The world as a machine was not a new concept, but because the mechanical clock could power an armillary sphere, which showed the relative positions of the planets, it made the analogy explicit. Before long, the idea that the heavens themselves were like a clock with their own divine inventor took root in the Christian imagination.

The first people to use the new invention to tell the time were probably monks. The divine office of prayers and psalms demanded that monks woke up in the small hours to attend the service of Matins in their church. They were summoned from their beds by the monastery’s bells but someone had to be awake to ring them. We still remember this in the French nursery rhyme ‘Frère Jacques’, a literal translation of which is:

Brother James, Brother James
Are you sleeping?
Sound the bell for Matins.
Ding, dang, dong.20

It was easy enough to include a chime on a mechanical clock that could rouse the bellringer but no one else. Before long, clocks spread into secular life and other applications for them soon became clear. Towns installed public clocks, which rang the hours and meant, for the first time, that everyone in the neighbourhood could agree about what time it was. More importantly, an hour became a fixed period of time. Traditionally, there had been twelve hours between sunrise and sunset. However, the duration of daylight varies with the seasons, so the period of one daytime hour was shorter in the winter than in the summer. A mechanical clock chimed the same hours regardless of the season. The modern practice of counting the hours from midday and midnight was introduced by an Italian clockmaker in the 1340s, who included the feature on a famous clock he built for the city of Padua.21 This is only sensible if all the hours are of an equal length through the day and night.

With the invention of the mechanical clock, time had ceased to be personal and had become a common fact that rules our lives.22 Now labourers could work to the clock and demand a constant hourly wage, but conversely their employers could insist on their time and not just their product. These developments took centuries to come to fruition but, like so many others, had their roots in the Middle Ages.

Richard of Wallingford built his clock for the abbey church at St Albans. Telling the time was the least of its functions. The face was a giant astrolabe and instead of hour and minute hands, it had an orbiting sun and moon. It also provided the timing of the tides at London Bridge, which was the nearest major port for the monks. Richard carefully wrote down how the clock was put together, and these manuals survive in the Bodleian Library in Oxford where they have been used to create a modern reconstruction. The original suffered neglect over the centuries because after Richard’s death, so few people had the ability to maintain it. Nor was its repair the highest priority for the cash-strapped monks. However, it was still in place in the sixteenth century, until it disappeared in the destruction of so much of England’s medieval heritage during the Reformation.

Abbot Richard himself did not live to see his clock in action for very long. On his return from visiting the Pope in 1328, he complained of a pain in his eye. Gradually he became more ill and the dreaded disease of leprosy was soon diagnosed.23 As an important man, Richard could not be exiled to a leper colony and he kept his position as abbot. Leprosy affected all strata of society. It killed King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in 1185 and perhaps Robert the Bruce of Scotland in 1329. Facing an early death, Richard threw himself into completing his great clock. When he died in 1336, he left a mechanical legacy without equal.24

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