Cambridge Illuminations

26 July to 11 December 2005
At Cambridge University Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum




The Medieval Encyclopaedia: Science and Practice

At the University Library

Imagination, memory, and other mental powers, from an account of the human head, one of many treatises gathered in a one-volume encyclopaedic Library. England, West Midlands, c. 1330. CUL MS Gg.1.1, f. 490v.

The story of the Creation, Temptation, and Fall lamented the loss of harmony between God, nature, and man. Medieval science sought to restore this harmony by encouraging a wholistic view of the world. The all-embracing knowledge of physical and spiritual realities was advocated in encyclopaedic volumes as well as in highly specialised texts.

Bestiaries presented information about animals, real and imaginary, in the light of Christian moralisation. Treatises on music and arithmetic focused on the harmony of creation. History inspired prognostication. Maps combined geography with mythology. Medicine drew on astrology and alchemy. Scientific manuscripts reveal the multifaceted use of images as text markers, paedagogical illustrations, incentives for careful reading, mnemonic aids, and visual interpretations.