Science in Medieval Western Europe

Science in Medieval Western Europe

Science in Medieval Western Europe consisted of the study of nature, including practical disciplines, the mathematics and natural philosophy. During the Middle Ages Western Europe would see a virtual collapse of civilization at the era's outset leading to a period of intellectual stagnation. By the end of the Medieval period, however, the West had reorganized itself and was on its way to taking the lead in scientific discovery.

According to Pierre Duhem, who founded the academic study of medieval science as a critique of the Enlightenment-positivist theory of a 17th century anti-Aristotelian and anticlerical scientific revolution, the various conceptual origins of that alleged revolution lay in the 12th to 14th centuries, in the works of churchmen such as Aquinas and Buridan.

In the context of this article "Western Europe" refers to the European cultures bound together by the Roman Catholic Church and the Latin language.


Scientific inquiry was never particularly strong in the Latin side of the Roman Empire, especially when compared with its Greek (Hellenistic) counterpart. With the end of Roman civilization, Western Europe entered the Middle Ages with great difficulties that affected the continent's intellectual production dramatically. Most classical scientific treatises of classical antiquity (in Greek) were unavailable, leaving only simplified summaries and compilations. Notwithstanding, with the beginning of the Renaissance of the 12th century, interest in natural investigation was renewed. Science developed in this golden period of Scholastic philosophy focused on logic and advocated empiricism, perceiving nature as a coherent system of laws that could be explained in the light of reason. With this view the medieval men of science went in search of explanations for the phenomena of the universe and achieved important advances in areas such as scientific methodology and physics, among many others. These advances, however, were suddenly interrupted by the Black Plague and are virtually unknown to the lay public of today, partly because most theories advanced in medieval science are today obsolete, and partly because of the stereotype of the Middle Ages as supposedly "Dark Ages".

Early Middle Ages

"See also: Medieval medicine, Medieval philosophy"The Western Roman Empire, although united by Latin as a common language, still harbored a great number of different cultures that were not completely assimilated by the Roman culture. Debilitated by migrations, barbarian invasions and the political disintegration of Rome in the 5th century, and isolated from the rest of the world by the spread of Islam in the 7th century, the European West became a tapestry of rural populations and semi-nomad peoples. The political instability and the downfall of urban life had a strong, negative impact on the cultural life of the continent. The Catholic Church, being the only institution to survive the process, maintained what was left of intellectual strength, especially through monasticism.

In the ancient world, Greek was the primary language of science. Even under the Roman Empire, Latin texts were mainly compilations drawing on earlier Greek work; while advanced scientific research and teaching continued to be carried on in the Hellenistic side of the empire, in Greek. Late Roman attempts to translate Greek writings into Latin had limited success. [William Stahl, "Roman Science", (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Pr.) 1962, see esp. pp. 120–33.]

As the knowledge of Greek declined during the transition to the Middle Ages, the Latin West found itself cut off from its Greek philosophical and scientific roots. Most scientific inquiry came to be based on information gleaned from sources which were often incomplete and posed serious problems of interpretation. Latin-speakers who wanted to learn about science had access to only a couple of books by Boethius (c. 470–524) and the works of other Latin encyclopedists. Much had to be gleaned from non-scientific sources: Roman surveying manuals were read for what geometry was included.cite book|title=The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages|author=Edward Grant|year=1996|publisher=Cambridge University Press|id=ISBN 0-521-56137-X]

Deurbanization reduced the scope of education and by the sixth century teaching and learning moved to monastic and cathedral schools, with the center of education being the study of the Bible. [Pierre Riché, "Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century" (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Pr., 1976), pp. 100–29.] Education of the laity survived modestly in Italy, Spain, and the southern part of Gaul, where Roman influences were most long-lasting. In the seventh century, learning began to emerge in Ireland and the Celtic lands, where Latin was a foreign language and Latin texts were eagerly studied and taught. [Pierre Riché, "Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century" (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Pr., 1976), pp. 307–23.]

The leading scholars of the early centuries were clergyman for whom the study of nature was but a small part of their interest. They lived in an atmosphere which provided little institutional support for the disinterested study of natural phenomena and they concentrated their attention on religious topics. The study of nature was pursued more for practical reasons than as an abstract inquiry: the need to care for the sick led to the study of medicine and of ancient texts on drugs, [Linda E. Voigts, "Anglo-Saxon Plant Remedies and the Anglo-Saxons," "Isis", 70(1979):250–68; reprinted in M. H. Shank, ed., "The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages", (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000).] the need for monks to determine the proper time to pray led them to study the motion of the stars, [Stephen C. McCluskey, "Gregory of Tours, Monastic Timekeeping, and Early Christian Attitudes to Astronomy," "Isis", 81(1990):9–22; reprinted in M. H. Shank, ed., "The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages", (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000).] the need to compute the date of Easter led them to study and teach rudimentary mathematics and the motions of the Sun and Moon. [Stephen C. McCluskey, "Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe" (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1998), pp. 149–57.] Modern readers may find it disconcerting that sometimes the same works discuss both the technical details of natural phenomena and their symbolic significance. [Faith Wallis, "'Number Mystique' in Early Medieval Computus Texts," pp. 179–99 in T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans, eds. "Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study" (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005).]

Around 800, the first attempt at rebuilding Western culture occurred (see: Carolingian Renaissance). Charles the Great, having succeeded at uniting a great portion of Europe under his domain, and in order to further unify and strengthen the Frankish Empire, decided to carry out a reform in education. The English monk Alcuin of York elaborated a project of scholarly development aimed at resuscitating classical knowledge by establishing programs of study based upon the seven liberal arts: the "trivium", or literary education (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the "quadrivium", or scientific education (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). From the year 787 on, decrees began to circulate recommending, in the whole empire, the restoration of old schools and the founding of new ones. Institutionally, these new schools were either under the responsibility of a monastery, a cathedral or a noble court.

However, the 840s saw renewed disorder, with the breakup of the Frankish Empire and the beginning of a new cycle of barbarian raids. The significance of Charlemagne's educational measures would only be felt centuries later. The teaching of dialectic (a discipline that corresponds to today's logic) was responsible for the rebirth of the interest in speculative inquiry; from this interest would follow the rise of the Scholastic tradition of Christian philosophy. Moreover, in the 12th and 13th century, many of those schools founded under the auspices of Charles the Great, especially the cathedral schools, would become universities.

High Middle Ages

"See Also: Renaissance of the 12th century, Medieval technology"

By the year 1000 AD, Europe remained a backwater compared to other civilizations, such as Islam. While Constantinople's population exceeded 300,000, Rome had a mere 35,000 and Paris only 20,000. [] [] However, Christianization of the continent was making rapid progress and would eventually prove to be the long-term solution to the problem of barbarian raiding. Western Europe became more politically organized and would see a rapid increase in population during the next centuries, which brought about great social and political changes.

The cultural scenario started to change after the Reconquista and during the Crusades, as interaction with the Arabs brought Europeans into contact with preserved copies of Greek and Roman manuscripts. During the 800s and 900s, a mass of classical Greek texts were translated by Muslim scholars into Arabic, followed by a flurry of commentaries by Islamic thinkers. Around 1050, further translation into Latin had begun in Northern Spain, and the recapture of Toledo and Sicily by the Christian kingdoms near the end of the century allowed the translation to begin in earnest by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Scholars came from around Europe to aid in translation.

Gerard of Cremona is a good example: an Italian who came to Spain to copy a single text, he stayed on to translate some seventy works. [cite book|author=Howard R. Turner|title=Science in Medieval Islam:An Illustrated Introduction|year=1995|publisher=University of Texas Press|id=ISBN 0-292-78149-0] His biography describes how he came to Toledo: "There, seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language, in order to be able to translate."

This period also saw the birth of medieval universities, which aided materially in the translation, preservation and propagation of the texts of the ancients and became a new infrastructure for scientific communities. Some of these new universities were registered as an institution of international excellence by the Holy Roman Empire, receiving the title of "Studium Generale". Most of the early "Studia Generali" were found in Italy, France, England, and Spain, and these were considered the most prestigious places of learning in Europe. This list quickly grew as new universities were founded throughout Europe. As early as the 13th century, scholars from a "Studium Generale" were encouraged to give lecture courses at other institutes across Europe and to share documents, and this led to the current academic culture seen in modern European universities.

The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle through medieval Jewish and Muslim Philosophy (Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes) allowed the full development of the new Christian philosophy and method of scholasticism. By 1200 there were reasonably accurate Latin translations of the main works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes and Galen, that is, of all the intellectually crucial ancient authors except Thucydides. During the thirteenth century the natural philosophy of these texts began to be extended by notable Scholastics such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Duns Scotus.

Scholastics believed in empiricism and supporting Roman Catholic doctrines through secular study, reason, and logic. The most famous was Thomas Aquinas (later declared a "Doctor of the Church"), who led the move away from the Platonic and Augustinian and towards Aristotelianism (although natural philosophy was not his main concern). Meanwhile, precursors of the modern scientific method can be seen already in Grosseteste's emphasis on mathematics as a way to understand nature and in the empirical approach admired by Roger Bacon.

Grosseteste was the founder of the famous Oxford franciscan school. He was the first scholastic to fully understand Aristotle's vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning. Concluding from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again: from universal laws to prediction of particulars. Grosseteste called this "resolution and composition". Further, Grosseteste said that both paths should be verified through experimentation in order to verify the principals. These ideas established a tradition that carried forward to Padua and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.

Under the tuition of Grosseteste and inspired by the writings of Arab alchemists who had preserved and built upon Aristotle's portrait of induction, Bacon described a repeating cycle of "observation", "hypothesis", "experimentation", and the need for independent "verification". He recorded the manner in which he conducted his experiments in precise detail so that others could reproduce and independently test his results - a cornerstone of the scientific method, and a continuation of the work of researchers like Al Battani.

Bacon and Grosseteste conducted investigations into optics, although much of it was similar to what was being done at the time by Arab physicists such as Ibn al-Haytham. Bacon did make a major contribution to the development of science in medieval Europe by writing to the Pope to encourage the study of natural science in university courses and compiling several volumes recording the state of scientific knowledge in many fields at the time. He described the possible construction of a telescope, but there is no strong evidence of his having made one.

Late Middle Ages

The first half of the 14th century saw the scientific work of great thinkers. The logic studies by William of Occam led him to postulate a specific formulation of the principle of parsimony, known today as Occam's Razor. This principle is one of the main heuristics used by modern science to select between two or more underdetermined theories.

By the time, some scholars, such as Jean Buridan, started to question the received wisdom of Aristotle's mechanics, he developed the theory of impetus which was the first step towards the modern concept of inertia. Buridan anticipated Isaac Newton when he wrote:

...after leaving the arm of the thrower, the projectile would be moved by an impetus given to it by the thrower and would continue to be moved as long as the impetus remained stronger than the resistance, and would be of infinite duration were it not diminished and corrupted by a contrary force resisting it or by something inclining it to a contrary motion.

Thomas Bradwardine and his partners, the Oxford Calculators of Merton College, distinguished kinematics from dynamics, emphasizing kinematics, and investigating instantaneous velocity. They first formulated the mean speed theorem: "a body moving with constant velocity travels distance and time equal to an accelerated body whose velocity is half the final speed of the accelerated body". They also demonstrated this theorem -- essence of "The Law of Falling Bodies" -- long before Galileo is credited with this.

In his turn, Nicole Oresme showed that the reasons proposed by the physics of Aristotle against the movement of the earth were not valid and adduced the argument of simplicity for the theory that the earth moves, and "not" the heavens. In the whole of his argument in favor of the earth's motion Oresme is both more explicit and much clearer than that given two centuries latter by Copernicus. He was also the first to assume that color and light are of the same nature and the discoverer of the curvature of light through atmospheric refraction; even though, up to now, the credit for this latter achievement has been given to Hooke.

The historian of science Ronald Numbers notes that the modern scientific assumption of methodological naturalism can be also traced back to the work of these medieval thinkers:

By the late Middle Ages the search for natural causes had come to typify the work of Christian natural philosophers. Although characteristically leaving the door open for the possibility of direct divine intervention, they frequently expressed contempt for soft-minded contemporaries who invoked miracles rather than searching for natural explanations. The University of Paris cleric Jean Buridan (a. 1295-ca. 1358), described as "perhaps the most brilliant arts master of the Middle Ages," contrasted the philosopher’s search for "appropriate natural causes" with the common folk’s erroneous habit of attributing unusual astronomical phenomena to the supernatural. In the fourteenth century the natural philosopher Nicole Oresme (ca. 1320–82), who went on to become a Roman Catholic bishop, admonished that, in discussing various marvels of nature, "there is no reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God as if He would produce these effects directly, more so than those effects whose causes we believe are well known to us. [Ronald L. Numbers (2003). "Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs." In: When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, p. 267.]

However, a series of events that would be known as the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages was under its way. When came the Black Death of 1348, it sealed a sudden end to the previous period of massive scientific change. The plague killed a third of the people in Europe, especially in the crowded conditions of the towns, where the heart of innovations lay. Recurrences of the plague and other disasters caused a continuing decline of population for a century.

Renaissance of the 15th century

:"See also: History of science in the Renaissance"

The 15th century saw the beginning of the cultural movement of the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient texts was accelerated after the Fall of Constantinople, in 1453, when many Byzantine scholars had to seek refuge in the West, particularly Italy. Also, the invention of printing was to have great effect on European society: the facilitated dissemination of the printed word democratized learning and allowed a faster propagation of new ideas.

But this initial period is usually seen as one of scientific backwardness. There were no new developments in physics or astronomy, and the reverence for classical sources further enshrined the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the universe. Humanism stressed that nature came to be viewed as an animate spiritual creation that was not governed by laws or mathematics. At the same time philosophy lost much of its rigour as the rules of logic and deduction were seen as secondary to intuition and emotion.

It would not be until the Renaissance moved to Northern Europe that science would be revived, with such figures as Copernicus, Francis Bacon, and Descartes (though Descartes is often described as an early Enlightenment thinker, rather than a late Renaissance one).

Dark Ages?

The stereotype of the Middle Ages as a supposed "Dark Age" is reflected in the popular views regarding the study of nature during the period. The contemporary historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers discuss the widespread popular belief that the Middle Ages was a "time of ignorance and superstition", the blame of which is to be laid on the Christian Church for allegedly "placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity", and emphasize that this view is essentially a "caricature". ["When Science & Christianity Meet", By Donald R. Shanor, David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, p.8] Contrary to common belief, Lindberg say that "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led. There was no warfare between science and the church". [quoted in the essay of Ted Peters about Science and Religion at "Lindsay Jones (editor in chief). Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition. Thomson Gale. 2005. p.8182"] And Edward Grant, writes: "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century] , they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". [(p. 9) Edward Grant: God and Reason in the Middle Ages, Cambridge 2001.]

For instance, a claim that was first propagated in the 19th centuryJeffrey Russell. Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Praeger Paperback; New Ed edition (January 30, 1997). ISBN-10: 027595904X; ISBN-13: 978-0275959043.] and is still very common in popular culture is the supposition that the people from the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. This claim is mistaken, as Lindberg and Numbers write: "there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference." [Quotation from David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers in [ Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science] . Studies in the History of Science and Christianity.] Misconceptions such as: "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", and "the medieval Christian church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences", are all reported by Numbers as examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by current historical research. [cite video | people=Ronald Numbers (Lecturer) | year=2006 | date=May 11 | url= | title=Myths and Truths in Science and Religion: A historical perspective | medium=Video Lecture | location=University of Cambridge (Howard Building, Downing College) | publisher=The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion]

Great names of science

, and thus greatly influenced early medieval knowledge of the natural world.

was influenced by his work on optics and astronomy. [A. C. Crombie, "Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100–1700", (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)]

was his most famous pupil.

and, most of all, optics.

The optical research of Grosseteste and Bacon made possible the beginning of the fabrication of eyeglasses at the end of the 13th century. The same research would also prove invaluable for the later invention of such instruments as the telescope and the microscope.

Thomas Aquinas (1227–74), "Doctor Angelicus", was an Italian theologian and friar in the Dominican Order. As his mentor Albert the Great, he is a Catholic Saint and Doctor of the Church. His interests were not only in philosophy; he was also interested in alchemy, having written an important treatise titled "Aurora Consurgens". However, his greatest contribution to the scientific development of the period was having been mostly responsible for the incorporation of Aristotelianism into the Scholastic tradition, and in particular his "Commentary on Aristotle's Physics" was responsible for developing one of the most important innovations in the history of physics, first posited by his mentor Averroes for celestial bodies only, namely the notion of the inertial resistant mass of all bodies universally, subsequently further developed by Kepler and Newton in the 17th century. (See Pierre Duhem's analysis "The 12th century birth of the notion of mass which advised modern mechanics." from his "Systeme Du Monde" at [] )

John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), "Doctor Subtilis", was a member of the Franciscan Order, philosopher and theologian. Emerging from the academic environment of the University of Oxford. where the presence of Grosseteste and Bacon was still palpable, he had a different view on the relationship between reason and faith as that of Thomas Aquinas. For Duns Scotus, the truths of faith could not be comprehended through the use of reason. Philosophy, hence, should not be a servant to theology, but act independently. He was the mentor of one of the greatest names of philosophy in the Middle Ages: William of Ockham.

William of Ockham (1285–1350), o "Doctor Invincibilis", was an English Franciscan friar, philosopher, logician and theologian. Ockham defended the principle of parsimony, which could already be seen in the works of his mentor Duns Scotus. His principle later became known as Occam's Razor and states that if there are various equally valid explanations for a fact, then the simplest one should be chosen. This became a foundation of what would come to be known as the scientific method and one of the pilars of reductionism in science. Ockham probably died of the Black Plague. Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme were his followers.

Jean Buridan (1300–58) was a French philosopher and priest. Although he was one of the most famous and influent philosophers of the late Middle Ages, his work today is not renowned by people other than philosophers and historians. One of his most significant contributions to science was the development of the theory of Impetus, that explained the movement of projectiles and objects in free-fall. This theory gave way to the dynamics of Galileo Galilei and for Isaac Newton's famous principle of Inertia.

, an event that had a very negative impact in the intellectual life of the ending period of the Middle Ages.

ee also

*History of science
*Medieval technology
*Science in the Middle Ages



* Grant, E. "The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts". Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1996. ISBN 0-521-56762-9
* Grant, E., ed. "A Sourcebook in Medieval Science". Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1974. ISBN 0-674-82360-5
* Lindberg, David C., ed. "Science in the Middle Ages". Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1976. ISBN 0-226-48233-2
* Shank, M. H., ed. "The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages". Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2000. ISBN 0-226-74951-7
* Walsh, James Joseph. [ "The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time"] , Fordam University Press, 1908 — Google Books Reprinted 2003, Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0-7661-3646-9 Reviews: [ The Popes and Science] , [ NIH] .

External links

* [ Medieval Science Page] (a comprehensive set of links to Internet resources of medieval science)
* [ Medieval Science, the Church and Universities] by James Hannam
* [ Medieval astrology] - a learning resource from the British Library

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