Could there be medieval science fiction?

Tumblr user raised a really interesting question:

here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.

not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Knowing me only too well, nickjbarlow subtly suggested that I might have some thoughts on this, with reference to a certain Duchess of Newcastle. I do.

Margaret Cavendish was not medieval, but she was an early modern natural philosopher writing at the dawn of science and she was the first (European) science fiction writer.

The main reason you don’t get medieval science fiction is because there was no science. There was natural philosophy, but the specific way of thinking that we identify as science – the scientific method for acquiring knowledge – simply didn’t exist. (In Europe – it would be very easy to say ‘in the world’ and Europeans do tend to view Europe as the birth place of science, but the truth is I have neither the world history nor the world history of science background to comment on that.)

The early modern period and the birth of science is generally dated to Galileo’s The Assayer, published in 1623.

What was regarded as known prior to this was dominated by the Church. I can’t stress that enough. What Galileo did that was so scandalous was not saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he proved it with the scientific method and said that human beings could gain knowledge via this method and not solely from the Church and the Bible. More: humans could gain knowledge that showed the Church and the Bible to be wrong.

The Royal Society, England’s oldest scientific body, was founded in 1660.

Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World in 1666.

That’s why you can’t really get actual science fiction that dates from the medieval period. The (early) modern period is kind of defined by the shift in thinking that allows people to think scientifically and therefore write science fiction – fiction based on the possibilities enabled by scientific discovery or possible scientific discovery. Margaret Cavendish extrapolated from a whole bunch of scientific theories that she was aware of and posited another Earth (an alien world) attached to our Earth at the North Pole. She posited a different ecology for that different world (aliens and xenobiology) based on the different plants and animals found in the so-called New World (full-disclosure, it’s a bit imperialist; she was a duchess writing in seventeenth century England). She posited new and incredible machines created by the natives of that world. This is hard science fiction. The scienciest science fiction.

Now. Can we coherently imagine Bede or Chaucer writing science fiction and what that tale would be like?

Urgh… it kind of breaks my brain a bit, because you probably have to deviate significantly from how they would have been likely to think. There’s a reason people from these periods who wanted to write speculative fiction wrote Arthurian tales or about fairies and other fantastical folk traditions. Partly it’s that it would have been sacrilegious, but partly it’s that Galileo’s achievement was a massive shift in perspective with regard to how people thought. How we think about the ways in which we can gain knowledge has a knock-on effect for how they think about their entire world, including the ways in which they imagine. The very way we defined the possible and the impossible or fanciful changed. It wasn’t defined by the church anymore – knowledge was democratised, but also systematised.

Not that there hadn’t been other ways of thinking about what was known or unknown. That’s one of the oldest discussions in philosophy and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, whose theology was very different. Logic played a significant role, but logic can’t actually tell you very much about what is known about what we now think of as the physical or material world (although those are themselves are modern and early modern concepts – they wouldn’t mean much to Socrates, for whom true reality was the world of the forms). There was also natural philosophy, which Aristotle was a champion of. A Christianised understanding of Aristotle’s teachings dominated the way we thought about what could be known about the natural world (the world we know via our senses) for over a thousand years.

The dominant way of thinking about learning in the medieval period was scholasticism. Scholasticism was characterised by dialectical reasoning – using inference to resolve contradictions. (Note: scholastics were particularly Christian; there was interesting stuff going on in Islamic and Jewish scholarship at this time, too. I don’t know that it was that different for the purposes of our current question – Al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic philosopher, was saying stuff that Descartes was still drawing on in the 17th century – but it’s notable that Islamic alchemy was well ahead of what English, Christian scholars knew.)

Could this be used to inspire science fiction… I just… it’s just not very scientific, OK? It’s very a priori (before experience) and based on reasoning from things already regarded as ‘known’. The scholastics got into maths and geometry, and they liked Aristotle to the extent that they could make him seem Christian. Which he wasn’t. So a lot of the natural philosophical thought that we can find in Aristotle and see as a precursor to scientific thinking… just wasn’t there. I am not a medieval scholar, and I’m sure that there were monks studying nature and making observations. But by and large they were looking to reason from those observations in ways that harmonised with Church teaching. Some of that thinking is still genuinely interesting. But it’s not scientific.

It’s not interested in creating new knowledge on the basis of our observations of the world in the way that is central to science fiction.

So… to imagine someone writing proto-science fiction in the medieval period, you really need to imagine a heretic. Chaucer would never have written science fiction. I don’t want to poo-poo the thought – it’s exciting! – but if you want to do it, I’d advise reflecting carefully on who might possibly be thinking in such a controversial way at that time.


If you liked this post, please consider buying me a coffee.

This entry was posted in History of science fiction, Medieval science fiction, The Blazing World and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Could there be medieval science fiction?

  1. Nick says:

    Actually, I was suggesting someone else…no,just kidding. Glad the Rhube-signal worked as this is really interesting!

  2. Heath John Graham says:

    Cosmologically, space opera would be tricky as well, in universe of crystal spheres and a fixed firmament.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.