Fossils during the Middle Ages, 1200–1500

Susanne Pickert

Other involved Scholars: 

Lorraine Daston


Fossilized Mammouth bone, gift by Emperor Frederick III. to the Stephansdom/Vienna in 1443. (picture courtesy of Geologisches Institut der Universität Wien)

Present-day paleontology in its self-description refers to fossils as “documents from the archives of the Earth” (C. Cohen). By means of those natural objects a history is narrated that reaches beyond human experience, and therefore all manmade historical sources. These artificial sources on the other hand form the basic “historical material” of the science of history as methodologically defined by the nineteenth-century German historian Johann Gustav Droysen: objects bearing the marks of the human hand, a “signature” that relates them to the course of the history of mankind.

While Droysen drew a sharp line between the realm of the science of nature and the science of history and their related material, late medieval historiography did not know about any distinction between "historical" naturalia and artificialia. Both were included within the historia sacra, the model of a universal history based on the Bible. "History" for the medieval Christian meant a process beginning with the creation of the world leading to its anticipated end. Nature was just like civilization bound to this process. Occurrences in the natural as well as in the human sphere inevitably had to be seen as expressions of the biblical message.

Therefore, certain fossils whose substance and outer appearance apparently referred to their ancient origin could be related to events linked to their place of finding. Not unlike charters or chronicles they could be "read," their mere materiality bearing the particular affirmative information about the past historiographers were looking for—or that was esteemed to fit a required explanation of the conspicuous natural object.

Whether huge fossilized bones were regarded as a proof for the existence of giant forefathers or stony shells found on a mountaintop were held to be visible remains of the Noachian deluge—interpreting fossils during the late Middle Ages meant above all integration into and confirmation of the accepted frame of biblical history. Furthermore, the perception of such natural objects contributed to the establishing of traditions that helped to define the place of a community, town or (later on) nation within this historical frame.

The materiality of the fossils, on the other hand, could predestine them as means of representation: in the setting of church interiors and town halls they appeared to the viewer not as mere curiosities but rather as historical exempla depicting local history as a legitimised and important part of biblical chronology. This project investigated the phenomenon of the perception and interpretation of natural objects as historical evidence. It raised the question of the medieval notion of these "solid sources of history": the estimation of their reliability, their relation to other forms of historical material (such as coins, ruins, charter seals, and other artefacts as well as to relics) and to the written word, and the intellectual context of the time that seems to have awarded a particular relevance to material evidence. (For instance, concerning the legal sphere the thirteenth century brought a discussion about the credibility of eyewitness accounts and the possibility of gaining information about past events from the visual experience of objects. At the same time modes for the scrutiny of charters were developed, linking reliability with the appearance and materiality of an object in question). In this way it was shown how “Fossils during the Middle Ages” contributed to the problem of knowledge and belief that would occupy humanists, antiquarians, and historians in the centuries to come.