(NOT to be confused with the royal dynasty of the Ptolemys)

c.150 – Alexandria, Egypt

‘The Earth is at the centre of all the cosmos’

This erroneous belief dominated astronomy for 14 centuries.

‘The Earth does not rotate; it remains at the centre of things because this is its natural place – it has no tendency to go either one way or the other. Around it and in successively larger spheres revolve the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all of them deriving their motion from the immense and outermost spheres of fixed stars’. Ptolemy wrote in the thirteen-volume Almagest (Arabic for ‘The Greatest’), in which he synthesised the work of his predecessors. It provided a definitive compilation of all that was known and accepted in the field of astronomy up to that point.

Almagest’s eminence, importance and influence can only be compared with Euclid’s Elements. A major part of Almagest deals with the mathematics of planetary motion. Ptolemy explained the wandering of the planets by a complicated system of cycles and epicycles. Starting from the Aristotelian notion that the earth was at the centre of the universe, with the stars and the planets rotating in perfect circles around it, the Ptolemaic system argued for a system of ‘deferents’, or large circles, rotating around the earth, and eighty epicycles, or small circles, which circulated within the deferents. He also examined theories of ‘movable eccentrics’. These proposed just one circle of rotation, with its centre slightly offset from the earth, as well as ‘equants’ – imaginary points in space that helped define the focal point of the rotation of the celestial bodies. Ptolemy’s texts were written with such authority that later generations struggled for a thousand years to convincingly challenge his theories and they remained the cornerstone of Western and Arab astronomy until the sixteenth century.

Ptolemy’s theory was challenged by COPERNICUS and demolished by KEPLER. Ptolemy supported Eratosthenes’ view that the Earth is spherical.

Ptolemy’s other major text is his Tetrabiblos, a founding work on the then science of astrology.

Despite that Ptolemy’s ideas of a geocentric universe have been shown to be erroneous by modern researchers it must be remembered that at the time the observable phenomena would support this view of the cosmos. Without a more informed understanding of the mechanisms involved it can appear that heavenly bodies do in fact move according to the Ptolemaeic model and mathematical evidence was available to provide verification and vindication.

 Medieval Astronomy from Melk Abbey Credit: Paul Beck (Univ. Vienna), Georg Zotti (Vienna Inst. Arch. Science) Copyright: Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229  Explanation: Discovered by accident, this manuscript page provides graphical insight to astronomy in medieval times, before the Renaissance and the influence of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. The intriguing page is from lecture notes on astronomy compiled by the monk Magister Wolfgang de Styria before the year 1490 at Melk Abbey in Austria. The top panels clearly illustrate the necessary geometry for a lunar (left) and solar eclipse in the Earth-centered Ptolemaic system. At lower left is a diagram of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system and at the lower right is a chart to calculate the date of Easter Sunday in the Julian calendar. Text at the upper right explains the movement of the planets according to the Ptolemaic system. The actual manuscript page is on view at historic Melk Abbey as part of a special exhibition during the International Year of Astronomy.

Library of Melk Abbey, Frag. 229

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Ideas on ‘impetus’ and the motion of the heavenly spheres.

Diversity of opinion on what keeps the heavenly orbs moving.

The recipe literature – craft manuals outlining recipes for manufacture of alchemical materials. For example, glass production had died out in the Latin West, but remained important in the Arab world.

ROGER BACON suggests that alchemical power can surpass nature (human artifice may exceed nature, i.e. technology), compared with Aristotle, who suggests that artifice may only mimic nature, or complete that which nature has failed to finish.

Suma Perfectionis’, Gaber – Latin Franciscan text (passed off as Arabic). Underpinned by the sulfur-mercury theory and by Aristotle’s ‘minima naturalia’ (smallest of natural things)– the idea of a minimum amount of matter to hold a form – hence a smallest particle of any given substance. This differs from atomism but the ideas were not developed by Aristotle.

Thus, in the middle ages came the belief that metals are created by the coalescence of minima of the metals.
Particles may be tightly or lightly packed (density). Matter may be contaminated.
Noble metals (gold) are tightly packed small particles, unaffected by fire or corrosion.
Lead turns to powder (oxidised) in fire as it is composed of larger, less tightly packed particles.
Sublimation is explained by smaller, lighter particles being driven upward by fire, and so on.


Texts become more secret, written in code and disguised. Latin texts are written in such a style so as to appear to be derived from ARABIC.

1317 – The Pope outlaws transmutation.

Moral questions: ‘is alchemical gold as valuable as real gold?’

Quintessences’: the refined essences of metals.

The discovery that lead cannot be turned to gold has important consequences. It is a strong indication that some substances are truly permanent and indestructible.



bust said to depict a likeness of Socrates

The speculative Greek philosophers, considering the great overarching principles that controlled the Cosmos, were handicapped by a reluctance to test their speculations by experimentation.
At the other end of the spectrum were the craftsmen who fired and glazed pottery, who forged weapons out of bronze and iron. They in turn were hindered by their reluctance to speculate about the principles that governed their craft.

WESTERN SCIENCE is often credited with discoveries and inventions that have been observed in other cultures in earlier centuries.
This can be due to a lack of reliable records, difficulty in discerning fact from legend, problems in pinning down a finding to an individual or group or simple ignorance.

The Romans were technologists and made little contribution to pure science and then from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance science regressed. Through this time, science and technology evolved independently and to a large extent one could have science without technology and technology without science.

Later, there developed a movement to ‘Christianise Platonism’ (Thierry of Chartres).

Platonism at its simplest is the study and debate of the various arguments put forward by the Greek philosopher PLATO (428/7-348/7 BCE).
The philosopher Plotinus is attributed with having founded neo-Platonism, linking Christian and Gnostic beliefs to debate various arguments within their doctrines. One strand of thought linked together three intellectual states of being: the Good (or the One), the Intelligence and the Soul. The neo-Platonic Academy in Greece was closed by the Emperor Justinian (CE 483-565) in CE 529.
During the early years of the Renaissance, texts on neo-platonism began to be reconsidered, translated and discoursed.

Aristotle’s four causes from the ‘Timaeus’ were attributed to the Christian God, who works through secondary causes (such as angels).

Efficient Cause – Creator – God the Father

Formal Cause – Secondary agent – God the Son

Material Cause – The four elements: earth, air, fire & water.
Because these four are only fundamental forms of the single type of matter, they cannot be related to any idea of ‘elements’ as understood by modern science – they could be transmuted into each other. Different substances, although composed of matter would have different properties due to the differing amounts of the qualities of form and spirit. Thus a lump of lead is made of the same type of matter (fundamental form) as a lump of gold, but has a different aggregation of constituents. Neither lead nor gold would contain much spirit – not as much as air, say, and certainly not as much as God, who is purely spiritual. ( ALCHEMY )

Final Cause – Holy Spirit

All other is ‘natural’ – underwritten by God in maintaining the laws of nature without recourse to the supernatural.
Science was the method for investigating the world. It involved carrying out careful experiments, with nature as the ultimate arbiter of which theories were right and which were wrong.

Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253) Bishop of Lincoln (Robert ‘Bighead’) – neo-platonic reading of Genesis – emanation of God’s goodness, like light, begins creation. Light is thus a vehicle of creation and likewise knowledge (hence ‘illumination’), a dimensionless point of matter with a dimensionless point of light superimposed upon it (dimensions are created by God). Spherical radiation of light carries matter with it until it is dissipated. Led to studies of optical phenomena (rainbow, refraction, reflection).

stained glass window depicting Robert Grosseteste (created 1896)

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ALBERTUS MAGNUS (c.1200- 80)

Graf von Bollstaadt – ‘The Universal Doctor’

Middle ages – Europe

‘The study of the natural world leads to a glorification of God’

portrait of Albertus Magnus


Bavarian philosopher, theologian and alchemist.
Wrote a paraphrase on ARISTOTLE and the Arabic comments on it. Responsible for a revival in Aristotelian thought.

Albert of Cologne was the eldest son of the Count of Bollsaadt. He studied in Padua and Paris, taught in Cologne and became a Dominican monk in 1223. He was made Bishop of Regensberg in 1260 but resigned two years later and spent the rest of his life teaching in Bavaria and the surrounding districts.
He died in 1280, was beatified in 1622, canonized as St. Albert the Great in 1931, and in 1941 was declared patron saint of all who cultivate the natural sciences.
His fame is due in part to the fact that he was the forerunner, guide and teacher of St.Thomas Aquinas; but Albert of Cologne was known as Albertus Magnus even in his own lifetime because of his prolific scientific writings and his great influence on the study of philosophy and theology.
His encyclopaedic compilation of all knowledge as understood at the time included his works Physica; Summa theologiae and De natura locorum and contained scientific treatises on alchemy, astronomy, mathematics, physiology, geography, economics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, phrenology, metaphysics and all branches of natural science.

detail from a portrait of ALBERTUS MAGNUS ©

Wrote on three realms of nature, De Animalibus, De Vegetablibus & De Mineralibus.
Concluded that fossils were phenomena or ‘games of nature’. Compiled a list of Aristotle’s errors.

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ROGER BACON (1214- 94)

(Doctor Mirabilis) ‘The Marvelous Doctor’

(Franciscan friar) Oxford – 1257

‘Mathematics (The first of the sciences, the alphabet of philosophy, door & key to the sciences), not Logic, should be the basis of all study’

Converted from Aristotelian to a neo-Platonist.

Etching of ROGER BACON Franciscan friar (1214- 94)


The Multiplication of Species; the means of causation (change) radiate from one object to another like the propagation of light.

‘An agent directs its effect to making the recipient similar to itself because the recipient is always potentially what the agent is in actuality.’

Thus heat radiating from a fire causes water placed near the fire,
but not in it, to become like the fire (hot). The quality of fire is multiplied in the water (multiplication of species).

All change may be analysed mathematically. Every multiplication is according to line, angles or figures. This thinking comes from the ninth century al-Kinde and his thoughts on rays and leads to a mathematical investigation into light.

Fear of the Mongols, Muslims and the Anti-Christ motivated the Franciscans. Franciscan neo-Platonism was based on Augustinian thought with a mathematical, Pythagorean, approach to nature. Bacon subscribed to this apocalyptical view, suffered trial and was imprisoned.
The Dominicans chose Aristotle – with a qualitative, non-mathematical approach to the world.

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(Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, Doctor Universalis)

St Thomas Aquinas


‘A theological need to explain a cause becomes the basis for a specific scientific explanation of the world’

Established by Christians and Muslims in order to confound the dualist philosophies coming out of Persia.

Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. Called the Doctor Angelicus (the Angelic Doctor,) Aquinas is considered one the greatest Christian philosophers to have ever lived. Two of his most famous works, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles, are the finest examples of Christian philosophy.

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