Sarton and the Isis Files

Many myths about church and science have survived decades longer than they should have (see The Galileo Myths). Early historians of science may deserve some of the blame. Many had an open bias regarding the church's contributions to science ( sometimes known as the Conflict Thesis). This included the "Father of the Modern History of Science", George Sarton. If George Sarton did let his bias affect his work, it should show in his work as editor of the Isis. Isis was the most important journal of the History of Science at the time, and George Sarton was its editor from 1913 to 1952.

The (Not So) Dark Ages

Some of the most important advances during the Scientific Revolution were in the study of motion. Galileo and Newton, amongst others, made significant contributions in this area. They didn't start from scratch !

The Oxford Calculators and Parisian Doctors provided the groundwork for these advances in the fourteenth century. These philosophers are sometimes known as "the Calculators". When Galileo presented his concept of impetus, he was improving on the work of Jean Buridan, a Calculator from the fourteenth century. When the scientists of the seventeenth century used mathematics to represent physical concepts, they were continuing a calculatory tradition begun by Calculators. You wouldn't know this from reading the pages of Isis during Sarton's time as editor. And you wouldn't be able to learn much about the Calculators.

So what's the problem with Isis overlooking a few obscure medieval academics from Oxford and Paris. The problem is that they weren't obscure! By the time Galileo was born, the work of the Calculatores was widely published and widely taught. You can find references to the Parisian Doctors in Galileo's school notes. They were important to the discussion of the church and science since they were all Roman Catholic clergy. The image below is derived from a book by Walther Hermann Ryff (see W. H. Ryff) published in Galileo's teenage years. It illustrates a projectile trajectory based on Buridan's impetus theory.

Buridan's Impetus and Projectile Trajectories

The Calculatores were very well known. One Calculator, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, had even been mentioned in one of the classics of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In a sign of special respect from the church, Bradwardine had been bestowed the honorary title of doctor profundus. The calculatory tradition of Oxford and Paris had spread to what is modern day Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Poland. The map below shows some of the universities associated with the Calculatores. Notice that these include Pisa, where Galileo studied, and Padua, where Galileo taught.

Medieval Calculators

The Calculatores derived the Mean Speed Theorem, proved it geometrically, recognized that kinematics and dynamics should be studied separately, developed graphs to represent motion and proposed the equivalent of the odd number rule for uniformly accelerated motion. With this groundwork, it should surprise no-one that the first publication of Galileo's Law of Free Fall happened four years before Galileo was born. In 1560, Domingo de Soto, a Spanish calculator and priest, published a commentary on Aristotle's Physics, which outlines the correct law of free fall. It was already in its eight edition during Galileo's university days at Pisa [_1_] .

There was little mention of the Calculatores during Sarton's time as editor. There was one article (written in German) in Isis devoted to Thomas Bradwardine and none to Jean Buridan. Buridan was mentioned in a 16-page survey of physics that covered all physics over the entire middle ages [_2_] . The sparse mention might be due to George Sarton's poor opinion of them. This was voiced in his own writings on the history of Medieval Science.

The pieces were there to tell Sarton that ignoring the Calculatores was a mistake. They were laid out in detail by an early historian of science, Pierre Duhem. Pierre Duhem's reward was to be made a persona non grata.

Pierre Duhem - Persona Non Grata

If George Sarton had a bias against the church or Christianity it would not have been unusual. It was common amongst the English and French speaking historians of science in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As an editor, he would be expected to keep his biases in check. One test of his bias was the treatment of Pierre Duhem. Duhem was an important Thermodynamicist and Philosopher of Science who decided to investigate the history of science in later life. Duhem had discovered that Roman Catholic clergy (Calculatores) from the Middle Ages had made important advances in physics. These advances had been attributed to later scientists such as Galileo and Newton.

Duhem started with the same "dark age" bias as his colleagues. He expected to find nothing of importance from the middle ages. In studying the work of Leonardo da Vinci, he quickly stumbled upon the work of the Parisian doctors and realized that they had made some very important discoveries in physics. Showing that there was light in the 'dark ages' would prove disastrous.

Duhem's considerable body of work was referenced in barely one article per year while Sarton was editor. Shortly after Sarton founded Isis, Duhem submitted volume 1 of the Systeme du Monde, a 10-volume set on the history of cosmology from the Greeks to Copernicus. It received a positive review in Isis and Sarton let Duhem know he was looking forward to his other volumes. The first volume was the last one that would be reviewed. The first volume was focused on the Greek contributions to cosmology. Duhem's treatment of Medieval scholars in the succeeding volumes was a direct challenge to Sarton's views on the role of the church in the history of science. Duhem died in 1916. A proper appreciation of his work in Isis would have to wait until after Sarton stepped down as editor in 1952.

Sarton authored several large volumes of work on medieval science. In some of Sarton's works on science in the middle ages, Duhem and his work aren't mentioned at all and in others he is only very rarely referenced. Duhem's work is of more interest to historians today than that of his contemporaries; including George Sarton [_3_] .

One article that George Sarton approved for publication deserves special mention; a 1936 article by a graduate student on Pierre Duhem's work on a medieval scientist, Jordanus Nemorarius. It was a combination of hit piece on Duhem the man, and a criticism of one of his works.It was at times personal and condescending, even questioning Duhem's scientific acumen [_4_] . The publication of the article says as much about the editor and referees of the journal than it does about the author.

Duhem's discoveries must have been hiding in plain sight. He made them soon after starting his studies. It is difficult to believe that they would elude other historians for another four decades. More likely, there was little 'market' for such discoveries. Sarton had very pointedly dismissed the importance of the Calculatores in his own works.

Early Modern Science

The early modern period spanned from the late sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century. Roughly the time of the Scientific Revolution. During this time there were many important advances in many different disciplines of science. The disciplines quickly transformed living conditions in Europe, and underpin much of modern scientific research.The disciplines included physics, medicine, botany, zoology, ethno-botany, acoustics, chemistry, electromagnetism, hydrology mineralogy, cartography and astronomy. Church scientists were active in several of these disciplines and made both major and minor contributions. From reading the early volumes of Isis you would not have known this.

Looking at both the rich and poor, the most impactful disciplines of science during the Early Modern period were ethno-botany and breeding science. Ethno-botany is the scientific study of native use of botanicals. There was much to study during this period since Columbus's voyage to the Americas had just recently occured. Five discoveries would have huge geo-political importance going forward.The first was the Jesuit's Bark, a miracle cure for malaria that was derived from the bark of the cinchona tree (see The Jesuit's Bark). Malaria was a scourge in many areas of Europe, and the Jesuit's discovery of the efficacy of this potion against malaria would have dramatic effects on the future history of Europe and the rest of the world. The other four discoveries were superfoods from the Western Hemisphere, each capable of producing 2 or more times the calories per acre/hectare as wheat. Considering that famines were a common occurence in Europe at the time, this was a game changer. The potato, sweet potato, cassava and maize would play a central role in eliminating famines in Europe and eliminating or reducing their frequency elsewhere. The potato is also considered one of the key enablers of the Industrial Revolution.

Through Sarton's time as editor, there was not a single article specifically targeting the history of any of these five transformational events. There was some mention of maize, cinchona, and the potato in book reviews and more general articles. The church was involved in these events. Cinchona is not called the Jesuit's Bark, the Jesuit's Powder, and the Cardinal's powder for nothing (see The Jesuit's Bark). The church was also involved very early (1573) in trials to see if potatoes could be used to feed the poor (see Galileo Contemporaries Timeline). The most popular book on the ethno-botany, climatology and oceanography of the Americas from the time was Historia natural y moral de las Indias. It was written by a Jesuit priest, Jose Acosta.

Benefits to the public didn't seem to be important in deciding which articles were published in Isis. Neither did benefits to modern science, or even Early Modern science. A disproportionate number of articles dealt with astronomy. Astronomy has very little effect on other disciplines of science. Statistical analysis of citations between different disciplines will show this (see Going back a few centuries, you would still find that scientists had much broader interests than portrayed in the early volumes of Isis.

The problem with discussing the contributions of the church and church scientists to science during the Early Modern period is that there were so many contributions and they were spread out over many disciplines. A single article or book cannot do these contributions justice.

historian biasIsisGeorge SartonPierre DuhemsciencehistoryBuridande SotoBradwardinefree fallchurch and science

Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).

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Sant, Joseph (2019).Sarton and the Isis Files. Retrieved from


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1. Wallace, William, Ashgate, Domingo De Soto and the Early Galileo: Essays on Intellectual History, , 122-125
This book by historian William Wallace discusses De Soto's influence on Galileo and other scientists. De Soto's Physics, which contained the correct law of free fall, was published in 1560. It went through nine editions in the last half of the sixteenth century. He quotes from several original manuscripts showing that the law of free fall was discussed by various scientists across Europe before Galileo had graduated from university. This is a wide-ranging book that includes discussions of the influence of the medieval philosphers who discussed mechanics and forms of inductive reasoning very similar to the modern scientific method on Galileo.

2. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
A search was done of the Isis E-journal spanning 1913 to 1952 for keywords 'Bradwardine','Bradwardin','Bradwardina' and 'Buridan'. The was one German language article on Thomas Bradwardine written by Edward Stamm,'Tractatus de Continuo von Thomas Bradwardina', in 1936. There was one other German language article which mentioned his name, and one english-language article that lists him amongst many other names but doesn't discuss his work. Buridan's name was mentioned but his work was not discussed in two articles, one a review of a book and another a discussion of the disputed authorship of a manuscript. His only other serious mention in an English-language article was a survey of physics through the entire middle ages published in 1948, 'Some General Aspects of Physics in the Middle Ages' by Marshall Clagett. Buridan was mentioned in a french-language article in 1921.

3. JStor, JStor, JStor Search Engine, ,
The JStor search engine is a service available which allows you to search and retrieve a wide variety of academic e-journals. It allows a user to search 11 different journals on the History of Science and Technology including Isis. A search was done for articles between 1980 and 2005 for the keywords 'duhem', 'sarton', and 'thorndike'; all important historians from the early part of the twentieth century. Duhem was referenced in 204 articles, Sarton 91 and Thorndike 56.

4. Ginzburg, Benjamin, , Duhem and Jordanus Nemorarius in Isis, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Mar.,1936), , 341-362
Ginzburg uses phrases like 'what shall any scientifically-informed person say of DUHEM's attempt,'par une filiation qui n'a point subi d'interruption,' the principle of TORRICELLI with ALBERT OF SAXONY's speculations on the Aristotelian them of natural places'. This quote is representative of the tone of the entire article. Ginzburg did not go on to make any lasting contributions to the field. In a search of modern articles (issues between 1980 and 2005) from 11 journals on the History of Science and Technology covered by JStor, there was not a single article referencing Ginzburg.