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"Medieval Science," Oxymoron? Think Again - Part 1 of 3


Unlike the popular impression, the European Middle Ages, especially from the 12th century onwards, were an era of impressive scientific progress and innovation.

medscienceA friend of mine raised an eyebrow when I told him I was writing on the primary scientific developments during the Middle Ages in Europe.  He wondered if anything of significance to science had indeed taken place during this "dark" period in history.  After all, he asked, isn't it a well-known "fact" that the "dark ages" engulfed Western Europe for a thousand years following the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the subsequent collapse of its Western part? 

Didn't the Catholic Church, as the dominant religious and intellectual force in the Latin West at the time, pose a barrier to scientific progress and systematically smother free enquiry?  Didn't medieval scientific activity provoke a harsh theological backlash from the "irrational" champions of Christian orthodoxy who insisted on burning at the stake scientists daring to pry into the secrets of the universe?  My friend's impressions are egregiously in error, as this essay shall demonstrate, but representative of the prevailing opinion. 

As British historian James Hannam has pointed out, the "achievements of medieval science are so little known today that it might seem natural to assume that there was no scientific progress at all during the Middle Ages.  The period has received bad press for such a long time.  Writers use the adjective 'medieval' as a synonym for brutality and uncivilized behavior…Even historians who should know better, still seem addicted to the idea that nothing of consequence occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance" (xiii-xiv). 

Unlike the popular impression, the European Middle Ages, especially from the 12th century onwards, were an era of impressive scientific progress and innovation.  Medieval Europeans were responsible for a number of significant advances in optics, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and mechanics, without which the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries would have been inconceivable.  The establishment of the university, a unique Western invention, as a corporate institution where the sciences were incorporated into the curriculum, is one of medieval Europe's lasting achievements. 

The university, in many cases established under the auspices of the Catholic Church, provided science with an institutional home and created an atmosphere congenial to the sustenance of scientific study.  No wonder that the eminent American historian of medieval science Edward Grant has described the Middle Ages as "one of the most innovative periods in human history," during which "the foundations of Western civilization were laid and the way prepared for uninterrupted advancements over the next 500 years" (Science and Religion 12, 13).  In a similar vein, Grant's distinguished colleague David C. Lindberg has argued that during the Middle Ages "distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made – contributions that deserve fair and unbiased investigation and appraisal without prior depreciation" (Beginnings of Western Science 193).  The following passages shall throw some light on some of these contributions, particularly in natural philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. 

Early Middle Ages, Tough Times

While professional historians have already knocked down the myth that medieval Europe was submerged in the "dark ages" for a whole millennium, there is no doubt that the first five hundred years of the European Middle Ages, specifically 500-1000 A.D, did indeed witness a marked decline in literacy rates, the deterioration of living standards, the virtual disappearance of facility in the Greek language, political instability, economic collapse, the loss of urban vitality, etc.  Western Europe was cut off from its Classical legacy when it lost knowledge of the Greek language and direct access to the Greek corpus following the permanent partition of the Roman Empire into a Greek East (the Byzantine Empire) and a Latin West.  These developments spelled the end of Classical antiquity and the onset of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and had far-reaching repercussions for the level of education.  Lindberg explains: 

"As the Western Roman Empire declined, so did its educational program.  Invasion, civil disorder, and economic collapse brought deterioration of the conditions that had favored schools and education.  Particularly critical were the loss of urban vitality and decline in the size, affluence, and influence of the upper classes from which the schools had always drawn their support.  Disinterest and neglect by the Germanic tribes that overran the Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were significant contributing factors" (Beginnings 151).

Christianity has often been held culpable for the collapse of the Roman Empire and the decline of the Classical tradition.  The legendary American historian and philosopher Will Durant, however, has absolved Christianity and the church from blame, stressing that "[t]he basic cause of cultural retrogression was not Christianity but barbarism; not religion, but war.  The human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or scientist.  Perhaps the destruction would have been worse had not the church maintained some measure of order in a crumbling civilization" (79). 

One should also be careful not to make sweeping generalizations.  The Classical tradition did indeed disappear in areas like Roman Britain and northern Gaul, but intellectual life continued and even flourished in places such as northern Italy, southern Gaul, Spain, and North Africa.  Also, though science was certainly at low ebb during this turbulent period in European history, a number of significant technological and agricultural developments were introduced, marking the beginning of the West's gradual recovery and subsequent upward surge.  These developments include the introduction of the plough, the stirrup, the horse collar, the horseshoe, the three-field crop rotation system, and the watermill.  These agricultural and technological inventions eventually led to striking improvements in living standards, the revival of urban life, and an enormous population explosion.  On the impact of these advances, Hannam says: 

"Taken together, these improvements led to a population explosion, because better farming techniques meant that the same acreage could yield more food and support more people than before.  Estimates for the population of France and the Low Countries rise from 3 million in 650 AD to 19 million just before the arrival of the Black Death in 1347 AD.  For the British Isles, the equivalent figures are 500,000 people and 5 million.  In Europe as a whole, the population increased from less than 20 million to almost 75 million.  These figures are of course estimates, if not guessestimates, but the upward trend is clear.  For comparison, at the height of the Roman Empire about 33 million people lived in Europe.  Well before 1000 AD, the population far exceeded what it was when the continent had been ruled by Rome, and remained above the level even after the Black Death had killed a third of the inhabitants of Europe in the fourteenth century" (7).

Recognizing the creeping extinction of the Classical Greek heritage in the West, a set of European encyclopedists and translators, collectively known as the Latin Transmitters, set out to preserve for posterity at least a fragment of the Classical texts.  These writers (some Christian, others pagan) were by no means original thinkers but their Latin translations of Greek texts kept Classical thought partially alive during the most unstable and tumultuous period in Western history.  This group of textbook writers includes Martianus Cappella (a contemporary of St. Augustine), Chalcidius (the translator of Plato's Timaeus), Macrobius (author of Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, flourished in the first half of the 5th century), Boethius, and Cassiodorus.  The last two are of interest as far as early medieval learning is concerned.

Not much information is available on the education of the Roman Christian senator, aristocrat, and philosopher Boethius (480-524), but "his career bears testimony to the continuing existence of substantial fragments of the Greek intellectual tradition within the Roman senatorial class" (Lindberg's Beginnings 148).  Boethius served in the court of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, but was later convicted and put to death on charges of treason.  Alarmed by the decline of Greek studies in the West, he had taken upon himself the task of rendering the entire Platonic and Aristotelian corpus into Latin but his untimely demise precluded him from following through with his ambitious project.  He did manage, however, to translate some of Aristotle's logical treatises, Euclid's Elements, and Porphyry's Introduction to Aristotle's Logic.  He also penned a number of handbooks on the liberal arts, including arithmetic and music.  Boethius' fame rests almost entirely on his Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical composition he wrote in jail while awaiting execution, in which he tackles challenging issues such as the difficulty of reconciling the belief in an omniscient God with the idea of man's free will.

No less important is Cassiodorus (480-575), a contemporary of Boethius, who, upon retiring from public life, founded the monastery of Vivarium, where he spearheaded Latin translation of Greek writings and assimilated the study of Classical texts into the monastic curriculum.  In his handbook of monastic studies, Cassiodorus "recommended a surprisingly large collection of pagan authors and briefly discussed each of the seven liberal arts" (Lindberg's Beginnings 155).  He collected manuscripts of both pagan and Christian works, and believed that monastic education should focus on theology, biblical studies, and history of the church, but at the same time he emphasized the necessity of the liberal arts.  By the way, Cassiodorus rose to a high position in the government of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, and suggested to the pope that a Christian university be established in Rome, but his proposal got turned down due to political unrest. 

The early medieval period also saw the emergence of two important natural philosophers: Isidore of Seville (560-636) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735). Their importance lies not so much in the introduction of new scientific discoveries, as in the preservation of remnants of Classical knowledge.  Isidore, who rose to the position of Archbishop of Seville in the year 600, is regarded as "the outstanding scholar of the late sixth and early seventh centuries" (Lindberg's Beginnings 157).  His erudition speaks to "the relatively high level of learning and culture available" in Visigothic Spain at the time (157).  He wrote two scientific works: On the Nature of Things and Etymologies.  The latter ranges over the seven liberal arts, medicine, timekeeping, geography, cosmology, agriculture, the calendar, and other branches.  He adopted a geocentric model of the cosmos, but postulated a spherical earth.  He also studied planetary motions, the zones of the celestial sphere, the cause of eclipses, as well as the nature and size of the sun and the moon.  A fierce rejection of astrology is a prominent feature of Isidore's natural philosophy.

The Venerable Bede, "doubtless the most accomplished scholar of the eighth century" (158), devoted his life to studying and teaching at the monastery of Wearmouth in Northumbria.  In addition to Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he wrote On the Nature of Things and two textbooks on timekeeping and the calendar entitled On the Division of Time and On the Reckoning of Time.  These two texts deal primarily with calendrical calculations, astronomy, and the tides.  On Bede's unique observations regarding the tides, Grant says: "Although he borrowed heavily from his predecessors, especially Isidore, Bede was capable of adding intelligently to his meager inheritance.  For example, he formulated the concept of the 'establishment of the port' and recorded that the tides recur at approximately the same time at a particular place along the coast, although the times of occurrence vary from place to place" (Foundations 14). 

Unquestionably, Isidore and Bede should not be credited with exceptional discoveries in science, but they did preserve a portion of the wisdom of Classical antiquity at a time when it was on the brink of extinction.  On the legacy of these two natural philosophers, Lindberg observes: 

"Neither Isidore nor Bede was the creator of new scientific knowledge, but both restated and preserved existing scientific knowledge in an age when the study of nature was a marginal activity.  They provided continuity through a dangerous and difficult period; in so doing, they powerfully influenced for centuries what Europeans knew about nature and how Europeans thought about nature.  Such an achievement may lack the drama of, say, discovering the law of gravitation or devising the theory of natural selection, but to affect the subsequent course of European history is no mean contribution" (Beginnings 158).

My next figure is the talented French mathematician and astronomer Gerbert of Aurillac (945-1003), later known as Pope Sylvester.  Born to a family of small means, Gerbert rose through clerical ranks until becoming the Pope in 999.  Though "not an original thinker" in his own right (Grant's Foundations 19), he was indisputably "the most learned man in Europe" at the time (Hannam 17).  More importantly, he played a prominent role in introducing Arabic mathematical and scientific knowledge to the West.  In fact, he is reckoned to be "the first, or one of the earliest, and certainly the most important, initiators of fruitful intellectual contact between Islam and Latin Christendom" (Lindberg's Beginnings 199).  Having received his education at Aurillac, Gerbert travelled to Catalonia to study under Atto, Bishop of Vich, and became familiar, during his three-year stay there, with Arabic learning, possibly through the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll. 

Subsequently, he studied and taught at the Cathedral School of Rheims, and his students later passed on to scholars in Lorraine the Arabic science and mathematics he himself had introduced.  Gerbert is said to have introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals into the West, constructed models of the universe, and built an improved abacus, using beads with Arabic numbers inscribed on them.  He offered guidelines on how to solve various problems in arithmetic and geometry, and gave instructions on how to construct astronomical models or how to use the abacus for multiplication and division.  His astrolabe instruction manual is believed to have disseminated knowledge about this astronomical devise in Europe.  Incidentally, toward the end of the 11th century, an English monk by the name of Walcher used an astrolabe to conduct an observation of a lunar eclipse, "the earliest known case of observational astronomy in the Christian West" (Durant 991), and to reform the lunar calendar. 

To go back to Gerbert, he was no doubt a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, but he fell short of breaking fresh ground.  That said, his keen interest in science serves as a commentary on the positive changes Europe was undergoing at the time (particularly its efforts to catch up with the more scientifically advanced Islamic world) and heralds the major turning point that was to come centuries later.

Two other early medieval mathematicians were Ragimbold of Cologne and Radolf of Liege.  In around 1025, they sent each other eight letters in which they posed challenging mathematical problems.  Their correspondence is interesting, as it demonstrates their passion about mathematics, but reveals their scant mathematical knowledge; they did not know that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees (a fact to known to the ancient Greeks) nor did they make sense of the square root of two.  Radolf is said to have come into possession of an astrolabe and was excited about his acquisition, but he had no idea how the device worked.  Despite their conspicuous ignorance of basic mathematical concepts, the correspondence between Ragimbold and Radolf is indicative of a certain trend in the sense that it "signifies a growing interest in scientific questions, and it would probably not have happened one hundred years earlier" (Grant's Foundations 20).

Works Cited

Durant, Will. The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization – Christian, Islamic, and Judaic – From Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. Print. 

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

____________. Science and Religion 400 BC- AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004. Print.

 Hannam, James. The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. Print.

Lindberg, C. David. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Woods E. Thomas. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Washington: Regnery History, 2012. Print.


"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 1 of 3

"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 2 of 3

"Medieval Science," Oxymoron?  Think Again - Part 3 of 3 




Tamer Nashef. "'Medieval Science,' Oxymoron? Think Again - Part 1 of 3." Catholic Education Resource Center (2016).

Reprinted with permisison of the author, Tamer Nashef.

The Author

Tamer Nashef is an Arab freelance researcher and translator from Israel. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature from the University of Haifa. Nashef is interested in a broad range of topics, especially Western philosophy, intellectual history of civilizations, Christian and Islamic theology with particular emphasis on the relation between science/reason and faith, and English literature. He is planning to write a book on the intellectual, scientific, and legal developments in the Middle Ages that led to the scientific Revolution and the rise of the modern world, and on the status of reason in the Catholic tradition. Nashef speaks three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

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