The least progressive medieval science was geology. The earth was the chosen home of Christ, and the shell of hell, and weather was the whim of God. Moslem, Jew, and Christian alike covered mineralogy with superstition, and composed “lapidaries” on the magical powers of stones. Marbod, Bishop of Rennes (1035–1123), wrote in Latin verse a popular Liber lapidum, describing the occult qualities of sixty precious stones; a sapphire held in the hand during prayer, said this erudite bishop, would secure a more favorable answer from God.36 An opal folded in a bay leaf rendered its holder invisible; an amethyst made him immune to intoxication; a diamond made him invincible.37

The same eager curiosity that spawned superstitions upon the minerals of the earth sent medieval men wandering over Europe and the East, and slowly enriched geography. Giraldus Cambrensis—Gerald of Wales (1147–1223)—roamed over many lands and topics, mastered many tongues but not his own, accompanied Prince John to Ireland, lived there two years, toured Wales to preach the Third Crusade, and wrote four vivacious books on the two countries. He weighed down his pages with bias and miracles, but lightened them with vivid accounts of persons and places, and lively gossip of the trivial things that make the color of a character or an age. He was sure that his works would immortalize him,38 but he underestimated the forgetfulness of time.

He was one of thousands who in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made a pilgrimage to the East. Maps and routes were drawn to guide them, and geography benefited. In 1107–11 Sigurd Jorsalafare, King of Norway, sailed as a crusader with sixty ships via England, Spain, and Sicily to Palestine; after fighting Moslems at every opportunity he led his lessened band to Constantinople, and thence overland through the Balkans, Germany, and Denmark to Norway; the story of this adventurous journey forms one of the great Scandinavian sagas. In 1270 Lanzarotte Malocello rediscovered the Canary Islands, which had been known to antiquity. About 1290 Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldo, acording to an unverified tradition, set out from Genoa in two galleys to sail around Africa to India; all hands, it appears, were lost. A famous hoax took the form of a letter from a mythical “Prester John” (c. 1150), who told of his dominions in Central Asia, and gave a fantastic geography of the Orient. Despite the Crusades, few Christians believed in the antipodes; St. Augustine considered it “incredible that a people inhabits the antipodes, where the sun rises when it sets with us, and where men walk with their feet toward ours.”39 An Irish monk, St. Fergil, had suggested, about 748, the possibility of “another world and other men under the earth”;40 Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon accepted the idea, but it remained the daring concept of a few until Magellan circumnavigated the globe.

The chief contributions to European knowledge of the Far East were made by two Franciscan monks. In April 1245 Giovanni de Piano Carpini, sixty-five and fat, was sent by Innocent IV to the Mongol court at Karakorum. Giovanni and his companion suffered in the enterprise every hardship this side of death. They traveled for fifteen months, changing horses four times a day. Pledged by the Franciscan rule to eat no meat, they almost starved among nomads who had hardly any other food to give them. Giovanni’s mission failed, but after his return to Europe he compiled an account of his journey which is a classic in the literature of geography—clear, impersonal, matter-of-fact, without a word of self or complaint. In 1253 Louis IX sent William of Rubruquis (Wilhelm van Ruysbroeck) to the Creat Khan to renew the Pope’s suggestion of an alliance; William brought back a stern invitation to submit France to the Mongol power;41 and all that came of the expedition was William’s excellent account of Mongol manners and history. Here, for the first time, European geography learned the sources of the Don and the Volga, the position of Lake Balkhash, the cult of the Dalai Lama, the settlements of Nestorian Christians in China, and the distinction of Mongols from Tatars.

The most famous and successful of medieval European travelers in the Far East were the Polo family of Venetian merchants. Andrea Polo had three sons—Marco the elder, Niccolò, and Maffeo—all engaged in Byzantine trade, and living in Constantinople. About 1260 Niccolò and Maffeo moved to Bokhara, where they remained three years. Thence they traveled in the train of a Tatar embassy to the court of Kublai Khan at Shangtu. Kublai sent them back as emissaries to Pope Clement IV; they took three years to reach Venice, and by that time Clement was dead. In 1271 they started back to China, and Niccolò took with him his boy Marco the younger, then seventeen. For three and a half years they traveled across Asia via Balkh, the Pamir plateau, Kashgar, Khotan, Lop Nor, the Gobi Desert, and Tangut; when they reached Shangtu Marco was almost twenty-one. Kublai took a fancy to him, gave him important posts and missions, and kept the three Poli in China for seventeen years. Then they sailed back, through three years, via Java, Sumatra, Singapore, Ceylon, and the Persian Gulf, overland to Trebizond, and by boat to Constantinople and Venice, where, as all the world knows, no one would believe the tales “Marco Millions” told of the “gorgeous East.” Fighting for Venice in 1298, Marco was captured, and was kept for a year in a Genoese jail; there he dictated his narrative to a fellow prisoner. Nearly every element in the once incredible story has been verified by later exploration. Marco gave the first description of a trip across all Asia; the first European glimpse of Japan; the first good account of Pekin, Java, Sumatra, Siam, Burma, Ceylon, the Zanzibar coast, Madagascar, and Abyssinia. The book was a revelation of the East to the West. It helped to open new routes to commerce, ideas, and arts, and shared in molding the geography that inspired Columbus to sail westward to the East.

As the orbit of commerce and travel widened, the science of cartography crept laboriously back toward the level it had reached in Augustus’ days. Navigators prepared portolani—guides to the ports of trade, with maps, charts, itineraries, and descriptions of the various harbors; in the hands of the Pisans and Genoese these portolani reached a high degree of accuracy. The mappae mundi drawn by the monks of this period are by comparison schematic and incomprehensible.

Stimulated by the zoological treatises of Aristotle and the botanical classic of Theophrastus, the awakening mind of the West struggled to graduate from legend and Pliny to a science of animals and plants. Nearly everyone believed that minute organisms, including worms and flies, were spontaneously generated from dust, slime, and putrefaction. “Bestiaries” had almost replaced zoology; since monks did almost all the writing, the animal world was considered largely in theological terms, as a storehouse of edifying symbolism; and additional creatures were invented in playful fancy or pious need. Said Bishop Honorius of Autun in the twelfth century:

The unicorn is a very fierce beast with only one horn. To capture it a virgin maid is placed in the field. The unicorn approaches her, and resting in her lap, is so taken. By the beast Christ is figured; by the horn his insuperable strength…. Resting in the womb of a virgin, he was taken by the hunters—i.e., Christ was found in the form of a man by those who loved him.42

The most scientific work of medieval biology was Frederick II’s De arte venandi cum avibus, a 589-page treatise on “the art of hunting with birds.” It was based partly on Greek and Moslem manuscripts, but largely on direct observation and experiment; Frederick himself was an expert falconer. His description of bird anatomy contains a great number of original contributions; his analysis of the flight and migration of birds, his experiments on the artificial incubation of eggs and the operations of vultures show a scientific spirit unique in his age.43 Frederick illustrated his text with hundreds of drawings of birds, perhaps from his own hand—drawings “true to life down to the tiniest details.”44 The menagerie that he collected was not, as most contemporaries thought, a whim of bizarre display, but a laboratory for the direct study of animal behavior. This Alexander was his own Aristotle.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!