In short: The claim mentioned above is not based on a real historically traceable incidence.
As revealed by Yisela's excellent inquiry from W. Starbuck, mentioned above in a comment, the argument stems from
"Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution”,
authored by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch. The story appears near
the top of page 78 (or Chapter 7
the authors do not provide a historical reference
More correct answer: Within the original work (Watzlawic et al.) the claim conveys something true.
First, the above story appears in a chapter that is dedicated to the formation of mythologies. The chapter also discusses subjective origins of mythologies.
This is what happened to me when reading the above story in this context:
- At first it sounded somewhat plausible to me
- Given the context of the chapter, I would however be even more skeptical, whether this might be an intellectual joke with some basic underlying truth.
- Rather than providing a reference (like for other examples in the same book), the paragraph ends with a rather lengthy footnote without much meaning. In the middle of this footnote the authors however state:
Conversely, many gifted writers are astounded and even annoyed at the deeper meanings that others read into their works. Thus while the former believe they know, but apparently do not, the latter seem to know more than they are willing to acknowledge
- With this in mind I would re-read the chapter, and note that one paragraph before the story on 13th century scholars, the authors use an argument that seems to run at odds with the story on 13th century scholars (and relates to an aspect recognized by Obie 2.0's comment on original question):
... if anybody had bothered to look at the most obvious source for the understanding of change, he didn't not leave a written record.
- Continuing to read (and reflecting the above comment of Avery that something should be known in other records), the story sounds even more exaggerated, as it is introduced (without a reference) as:
In more than one way, this absurd situation reminded us of a famous piece of scholastic enquiry into the nature of things; at some point during the thirteenth century...
In short, Watzlawic et al. are somewhat funny, and have a justified point.