Nicholas of Oresem

Nicole Oresme

1320 - 1382
by David F. Coppedge

Nicole Oresme, or Nicholas of Oresme, is a little-appreciated precursor of the scientific revolution. A medieval scholar at the University of Paris, he strongly opposed astrology and superstition, took issue with Aristotle on key points, and argued for mathematical and observational proof. Called one of the most original thinkers of the middle ages, he developed methods later borrowed and developed by Descartes, Galileo and others.

Dan Graves said in Scientists of Faith, “Modern science did not spring full blown from the minds of Zeuslike creators; it was God-fearing scientists, such as Oresme who set the table for them.” The Nicole Oresme website states that “In medieval thought, everything was anticipated,” then lists numerous “modern” ideas, from information theory to music to psychology, that have roots in medieval scholarship. The site also calls Oresme the “Einstein of the 14th century” and describes his findings as “spectacular” that would appear “incredible” to the layman – presumably those laymen envisioning medieval scholars debating the number of angels that could stand on the head of a pin or how far one would have to travel to fall off the edge of the flat earth.

In his excellent article on Oresme (to which we direct the reader for further information), Dan Graves lists some of the original ideas that were to bear fruit in the scientific revolution:

  • The universe resembles a clock wound up by God.
  • All matter, even from other planets, is similar.
  • An object falling inside the earth would oscillate around the center.
  • The speed of a falling body is proportional to time, not to distance.
  • Astrology is scientifically flawed.
  • A sun-centered system would be simpler than an earth-centered one.
  • Algebraic and geometric ideas can be graphed.

Oresme held to some ideas now considered absurd by today’s standards, but for someone in the 14th century, these ideas are remarkably modern. Graves says that Galileo borrowed Oresme without attribution, and that Descartes may have gotten some of his ideas for analytic geometry from Oresme.

Could such original, practical, scientific, knowledge-based thinking spring from the mind of a creationist? Oresme did not question the truth of the Scriptures. He had more of a humility and distrust of human knowledge more than many secular scientists today. Dan Graves ends by saying, except for the knowledge of faith, Oresme said, “I indeed know nothing except that I know nothing.”

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