Matthew Klemm

Associate Professor, History


HIST 291: Early Science and Medicine in the West

Link to Luminotes:

Note that I have added an explanation of the group assignment on the right.


This course will examine science and medicine in western civilization from their roots in the ancient Near East and Greece, where the general framework of scientific and technical knowledge and practice was first articulated, until the breakdown of this system—largely Aristotelian—in the lead-up to the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We will examine how these ideas were transmitted to and adapted by Romans, Muslims, and the Christian West in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Throughout the course, we will devote time to ideas in primary texts and to the shifting cultural, religious, and institutional contexts in which these scientific and medical ideas were formed. These contexts often affected scientific thought in substantial ways. 

We will often return to two fundamental themes:

First: How do the different authors define “science?”  What are the appropriate objects of scientific “knowledge?” Is science useful?  How does the realm of the scientific differ from technical or practical fields? By these definitions, is medicine a science? Finally, is pre-modern science anything like our modern understanding of science?

Second: What is the relationship between scientific and religious truth? How did different cultures reconcile the respective aims of these spheres? Was science in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic) essentially theological in orientation?

Many of the sources in this class are short, but rather difficult. They will require very close attention if any sense is to be made of them. Therefore, we will sometimes closely read sections of the texts together in class.

Course goals:

1. Gain an understanding of different ideas about the natural world in their respective cultural and institutional contexts.

2. Learn to analyze historical sources critically, taking into account the historical contexts in which they were created. 

3. Learn research and writing skills appropriate to the discipline of history.

4. Appreciate the connections between pre-modern ways of understanding nature and thier contemporary counterparts.  


David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 2007)

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996)

Other primary sources will be found on-line


Participation and potential quizzes 20%

Short source analyes (4) 20%

Midterm exam 15%

Paper 15%

Group topic presentation and explanation 15%

Final exam 15%

Class attendance, participation and quizzes: Regular attendance is expected; if you must be absent, it is your responsibility to contact me beforehand. In class, everyone will be expected to have completed the day’s reading and be prepared to discuss it. The format for the class will range from lectures, to discussion, to close analysis of primary sources. Even during days that are primarily lecture, you are encouraged to raise questions and offer your own thoughts on the reading. Quizzes will be used if at any point I feel that you are not completing the reading.

Source Analyses: Four times during the semester, you should turn in a 1-2 page (double spaced) analysis of the primary source* we are reading that day.  You may turn in additional papers in order to erase the lowest grade on an earlier paper.  You should use the secondary sources to help compose your analysis.  Appropriate sources are marked with an asterix on the syllabus. A good analysis might address one or more (depending on space constraints) the following:

  • What are the important questions or themes involved?  In other words, why did I select this text?
  • What are some of the details involved in the author's discussion of these questions or themes?
  • What form does the author's argument take: does the author rely on a series of empirical examples, argue primarily on the basis of logic and reason, or something else?
  • What assumptions does the author make that you do not necessarily share?
  • You can also provide your own critique of the author's claim and compile a list of things that are puzzling to you to use in class discussion. 

*A "primary source" is a reading by one of the authors in the period we are studying. E.g., on Jan. 27, Hesiod is a primary source and Lindberg is not.

Exams: Exams will consist of one or more essay questions and several identifications.

Group Projects: Small groups will prepare an explanation of a particular topic with visuals, videos, additional texts, or any other relevant materials and present the topic to the class.

Paper: This should be c. 4 pages.  For your paper, choose an item of particular interest to you from this class.  Papers can be explanatory rather than a true argument.  Situate your scientific topic in its historical context, taking into account cultural, institutional, or religious factors that inform or explain the meaning of your topic.  I will be happy to suggest possible topics.  The papers must use at least 1 additional scholarly source beyond what we are reading in class and should use primary sources.

Late papers and make-up exams: Late papers will be marked down one third of a grade for each day late. Advance permission to extend a deadline or post-pone an exam will only be given in compelling cases. 

Academic Integrity: It is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the guidelines concerning plagiarism and academic conduct. These can be found in the IC Policy Manual 7.1.4 ( Note that plagiarism need not be intentional. We will review proper methods of documentation before the paper is due, and if you ever have questions about proper methods, you can ask me or go to the writing center.

Students with disabilities that need modification(s) to class circumstances should speak to me after class or during office hours, so that we can make suitable arrangements.


Week 1

Jan 25: Introductions.

Jan 27: What is Science?

Lindberg, chapter 1, pp. 1-20; Hesiod, "Works and Days"*

Jan 29: Babylonian and Egyptian Science

Toulmin and Goodfield, "Celestial Forecasting,"in The Fabric of the Heavens. (coursepack)

David Pingree, “Hellenophilia versus the History of Science,” Isis 83 (1992), 554-563. (coursepack)

Week 2

Feb 1: Presocratics and the components of nature

Lindberg, Chapter 2, pp. 21-33.

Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes fragments.* (coursepack)

Feb. 3 Change in nature

Heraclitus fragments.* (coursepack)

Feb. 5: Plato's theories of knowledge and the nature of the cosmos

Lindberg, Chapter 2, pp. 33-44

Plato, Timaeus, (sections 1-7) 17a-39e and the "Allegory of the cave" from the Republic* (coursepack)

Week 3

Feb. 8: Magic and natural causes

D. Collins, "Nature, Cause and Agency in Greek Magic," Transactions of the American Philological Association 133 (2003), 17-49 (jstor)

          Hippocrates, "The Sacred Disease"* (coursepack)

Feb. 10: Aristotle: Nature and scientific knowledge

Lindberg, Chap. 3, pp. 45-52

Aristotle, Physics Book 2, parts 1-3 (on-line)*

Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, Book 2, parts 1-5 (on-line)*

Feb. 12: NO CLASS

Week 4

Feb 15: "Meta"-biology and the classification of the sciences

Lawson-Tancred, pp. 68-75 (coursepack)

Aristotle, On the Soul (or On Life) Book 2, parts 1-3 (on-line)*  You also might skim some of Book 1, to get a sense of his method.

Lindberg, Chap. 3, pp. 52-66

Feb. 17: Biology

Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book 1, parts 1-3 and 17.  And either part 18 (male contribution) orparts 19-20 (female contribution). 

Feb. 19: Zoology

Aristotle, Parts of Animals, Book 1, part 5 and Book 3, parts 4-9.

Aristotle, History of Animals: Choose one book and read a few parts to tell the class about.

Week 5

Feb. 22: Peripatetics after Aristotle

Lindberg, Chapter 4

Ps.-Aristotle, Problems, book 10 (coursepack)*

Feb. 24: Epicureans and Stoics

Selections from Stoics (handout)

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book 2 (read the first section after the proem entitled, "atomic motions" in the on-line version, OR there is a better translation to pick up by my office).

Feb. 26: Developments in Astronomy and Math

Lindberg, Chapter 5

Week 6

Mar. 1: Healing cults and beginnings of rational medicine

Lindberg, chapter 6

Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places, Sections 1-5*

Hippocrates, Aphorisms, Section 1*

Mar. 3: Physiology and anatomy

Herophilus (fragments and reports on his work)*

Galen, On the Natural Faculties Book 1, sect. 13*


Mar. 5: Diagnosis and treatment

Hippocrates, Prognostics, parts 1-10*

Galen on Dreams*

Essay on Dreams

Week 7

Mar. 8: Roman Natural Philosophy

Lindberg, chapter 7 (start)

Pliny, Natural Histories, Book 7.2*

Mar. 10: Early Medieval Natural Philosophy

Lindberg, chapter 7 (finish)

(we are skipping Isidore)


Week 8:

Mar. 22: Arabic Science

Lindberg, chapter 8

Hunain ibn Ishaq, Isagoge (e-reserve)

Mar. 24: Science and Islam

Sabra (source book)

Al-Ghazali, selection from the "Incoherence"* (e-reserve)

ibn-Rushd (Averroes), "On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy"* (read the opening and Sect. 3 on predestination)

Mar. 26: Astrology and Occult Forces

Thorndike* (source book)

Week 9:

Mar. 29: Schools and Curriculum in Medieval Europe

Lindberg, Chap. 9

Look at a few different animals in a medieval bestiary*

Hugh of St. Victor, “Classification of Sciences”* (e-reserve)

Mar. 31: Translation from Greek and Arabic

Lindberg, chapter 10 (begin)

Gerard of Cremona and William of Moerbeke, “List of Translations” (e-reserve)

Adelard of Bath, “Natural Questions"*

Apr. 2: Magic

Bert Hanson, "Science and Magic" (source book)

*Presentation: Medieval Magic

Week 10

Apr. 5: Science and Christianity

Lindberg, Chapter 10 (finish)

Condemnation of 1277*

*Presentation 2: Condemnation of 1277

Apr. 7: Medieval Cosmos

Lindberg, Chapter 11

Roger Bacon, "Compendium Studii Philosophiae"*

Apr. 9: Physics and Chemistry

Lindberg, Chapter 12 (begin)

Albertus Magnus, “On Alchemy”* (e-reserve)

*Presentation 3: Alchemy

Week 11

Apr. 12: Physics and Math

Lindberg, Chapter 12 (finish)

Oresme (e-reserve)*

*Presentation 4: Optics

Apr. 14: Medical schools and Basic theory

Lindberg, Chapter. 13 (begin)

Avicenna, "Canon"* (e-reserve)


Apr. 16: Practice

Lindberg, Chapter 13 (finish)

*Presentation 5:  Surgery


Week 12

Apr. 19: Diagnosis and Treatment

Giles of Corbeil, "On Urines" (e-reserve)*

Arnald of Villanova, "On Precautions" (e-reserve)*

*Presentation: Diagnosis


Apr. 21: Finish Medicine

Lindberg, Chapter 13, pp. 343-351

Anatomy of a pig (e-reserve)*

*Presentation 7: Anatomy and Dissection


Apr. 23: Late Scholasticism and the Scientific "Revolution"

Lindberg, Chapter 14

Shapin, Introduction

Francis Bacon, New Atlantis* (Read the part after Note 66 in the text -- Bacon's vision of future science)

Some big names and dates of the Scientific Revolution


Week 13:

Apr. 26: Astronomy and Cosmology

Shapin, Chapter 1, pp. 15-30

Copernicus, Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies*

Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess* (Read down to where the indented quotes begin, about a quarter of the text)


Apr. 28:Mechanical Philosophy

Shapin, Chapter 1, pp. 30-64

Newton, Principia Mathematica

* Presentation 8: Decartes and Mechanization


Apr. 30: New Methods

Shapin, Chapter 2, pp. 65-96

Decartes, Discourse on Method



Week 14:

May 3: Experiment/Experience

Shapin, Chapter 2, pp. 96-117

Francis Bacon, New Organon (read the preface and the first 15 or so aphorisms)


May 5: Uses and Contexts

Shapin, Chapter 3

John Wallis and Voltaire on the Royal Society


May 7: Review and Catch-up

Final Exam is due in my office, 5 pm, Wed., May 12