Biohorrors of Scholasticism

Notes toward a history of intensity

Henry of Hesse (1325–1397) was one of the schoolmen of 14th Century Paris who, together with those of Merton at Oxford, began seriously—albeit by stealth—to challenge Aristotelian doctrine. As Pierre Duhem has shown, in questions such as the latitude of forms which proposed quantitative and comparative treatment of ‘virtues’ or ‘forms’ such as heat, brightness, etc. many of the concepts of early modern science developed ‘under cover’ of scholasticism. They are difficult to recognise as such since they often appear in the guise of horrendously convoluted and apparently fatuous debates on Christian virtues: Does a person’s charity increase by one charity being added to another, or by a single charity increasing, or by an infinite series of charities each of which disappears to make way for a greater?

Henry of Hesse advocated the view that the indwelling ‘occult virtues’ of things must be dispensed with altogether and that an infinite number of variations in form (intensity), combination and variable proportions of four primary qualities could account for all things in nature; thus each part of a body would have its degree of heat or cold, dryness and wetness, etc. and the whole could be described as a complex (complexio) of measurable elements in certain ratios with each other.

This not only anticipated a science for which meaning and proper place would be subordinated to position and measure (just as the mathematical treatment of movement by ‘The Calculator’ (Suisset) at Merton challenged the Aristotelian idea of moving objects having inbuilt tendencies) but also opened the possibility of infinite new, unknown combinations occuring within nature: Nature would thus no longer be a bounded, taxonomically-delimitable field but a combinatorial pool itself composed of sub-individual elements varying continuously along multiple parameters.

According to this incipient substitution (anticipative of the violence of scientific reason) of ‘functional’ criteria for the Aristotelian categories descended from banal intuition, rather than being explained by indwelling properties the nature of an object or creature would be referred to its characteristic complexio or proportional combination of elements each with a certain latitude of form (i.e. the range of heat and cold, or wet and dry, that it could withstand without being corrupted). Medicine would be the ‘art of latitudes’, the art of knowing the range (latitude) of forms (qualities) that each organ of the body could tolerate: and different creatures would be defined by their particular complexio of such latitudes:

Man, because of the lesser latitude of his complexio, is more liable to disorders than a beast, and the beast is more easily put out than a plant. When the latitude of the complexio is exceeded, recovery is impossible.
Thus the supposed fact that the poisonous herb mandragora has a figure and material organization like that of man, and yet its form differs in species from that of man, raises the question whether the soul of man can have a like proportion and intensive configuration of elemental qualities to that of the form of the mandragora. It is suggested that during the corruption of the human body the first qualities might be altered to the proportions in which they occur in some other living being, although it would seem that the vast number of possible permutations and combinations would render this very unlikely. That a fox might be generated from a dead dog is also seriously considered. This in its turn soon merges into a discussion of the relation between the form of the living man and of his corpse, and the question whether, and if so how soon, a plant or animal of another species can be generated from a dead body, human or animal. Henry furthermore credulously tells of the body of a dead saint in England that has to be shaved regularly. His explanation of the marvel is that some vital form, only vegetative in character however, has been introduced into the matter of the corpse, and has kept the hair growing. In the twentieth chapter he discusses the difference between substance and accidental forms. It is asserted that another living substantial form never immediately succeeds to the corruption of a living being, and that between the complexio of a living man and that of his corpse there intervene innumerable species, and yet in fact there is always made immediately the jump from the one extreme to the other.1

If this doesn’t yet disabuse you of the notion that scholasticism is so much arguing about angels, read on: for this new conception had even greater psychedelic horrors to unveil…

corpses which had been of the same species when living might differ in species from one another when corrupted.2
  1. L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science. Vol III (New York:Columbia University Press, 1934.)
  2. Ibid. Emphasis mine.