Nicole Oresme – Polymath of the Late Middle Ages

Portrait of Nicole Oresme: Miniature from Oresme’s Traité de l’espere,
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France, fonds français 565, fol. 1r.

On July 11, 1382, significant philosopher of the later Middle Ages Nicole Oresme passed away. As for many historic people of the middle ages, his actual birthdate is unknown and can only be fixed to a period between 1325 and 1330. Nicole Oresme besides William of Ockham or Jean Buridan — a French priest who sowed the seeds of the Copernican revolution in Europe — is considered as one of the most influential thinkers of the 14th century and he wrote influential works on economics, mathematics, physics, astrology and astronomy, philosophy, and theology. Besides his duties as clergyman and counselor of the king, he was very much interested in natural scientific problems. He was an decisive and eager opponent of astrology, which he attacked on religious and scientific grounds. Moreover, he also was a gifted teacher, who was able to communicate science to his contemporaries in a popular way.

We do not know very much about Nicole Oresme’s life. He was born c. 1320-1325 in the village of Allemagne in the vicinity of Caen, Normandy, in the diocese of Bayeux. Practically nothing is known concerning his family. The fact that Oresme attended the royally sponsored and subsidized College of Navarre, an institution for students too poor to pay their expenses while studying at the University of Paris, makes it probable that he came from a peasant family. Oresme studied the “artes” in Paris, together with Jean Buridan, and there received the Magister Artium. He was already a regent master in arts by 1342 and was probably teaching philosophy, during the crisis over William of Ockham’s natural philosophy. In 1348, he was a student of theology in Paris, in 1356, he received his doctorate and in the same year he became grand master of the College of Navarre. In 1364 he was appointed dean of the Cathedral of Rouen. Around 1369 he began a series of translations of Aristotelian works at the request of Charles V, for whom he already served, when Charles was the dauphin of France, who granted him a pension in 1371. At Charles’s instance, too, Oresme pronounced a discourse before the papal court at Avignon, denouncing the ecclesiastical disorders of the time. Furthermore, with royal support, Oresme was appointed bishop of Lisieux in 1377, where he passed away in 1382.

Nicole Oresme is best known as an economist, mathematician, and a physicist. His economic views are contained in a Commentary on the Ethics of Aristotle and a “Treatise on Coins“. These writings are considered among the earliest manuscripts devoted to an economic matter and account Oresme as the precursor of the science of political economy. In the middle ages, at a time when Aristotle’s ideas were accepted almost without question, Oresme did indeed question them. He rejected Aristotle’s definition of time, which was based on uniform motion, and proposed an original definition independent of motion. Similarly he rejected Aristotle’s definition of the position of a body, which was the boundary of the surrounding space, and replaced it with a definition in terms of the space which the body occupies.

In mathematics, Oresme invented a type of coordinate geometry before René Descartes, finding the logical equivalence between tabulating values and graphing them in his manuscript De configurationibus qualitatum et motuum. He proposed the use of a graph for plotting a variable magnitude whose value depends on another variable. Oresme was also the first to prove Merton’s theorem, namely that the distance travelled in a fixed time by a body moving under uniform acceleration is the same as if the body moved at a uniform speed equal to its speed at the midpoint of the time period. Also he anticipated the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. In his “Livre du ciel et du monde” Oresme discussed a range of evidence for and against the daily rotation of the Earth on its axis. From astronomical considerations, he maintained that if the Earth were moving and not the celestial spheres, all the movements that we see in the heavens that are computed by the astronomers would appear exactly the same as if the spheres were rotating around the Earth. He rejected the physical argument that if the Earth were moving the air would be left behind causing a great wind from east to west. However, in the end he refused his own argument. He concluded that none of his arguments were conclusive and “everyone maintains, and I think myself, that the heavens do move and not the Earth.

At yovisto, you can learn more about the work of Nicole Oresme as a mathematician in the lecture of Prof. John D. Borrow from Gresham College on ‘Maths with Pictures‘. There, Prof. Borrow speaks about the use of illustrations in ancient mathematics books, the invention of the first graphs and also the representation of probabilities.

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