The Advancement of Learning: Science in the Middle Ages

The title of this piece is taken from one of the great works of Sir Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan scholar who introduced the modern scientific method of experiment and induction. Bacon was advocating and looking forward to a new era of scientific progress in contrast to the Aristotelian system of the Middle Ages. This system was increasingly criticised and rejected by European philosophers and scientists during the 17th century in the period of the Scientific Revolution. This saw the creation of the modern scientific method, ‘the mechanical philosophy’, by scholars such as Bacon, Descartes and Galileo. The Middle Ages have a popular reputation as an age of religious faith where intellectual inquiry and particularly science were rigidly controlled and kept within strict limits by the Roman Catholic church, with much philosophical speculation and scientific research prohibited and suppressed. Many popular treatments of the history of science duly give detailed descriptions of the theories and inventions of the ancient world. These then often pass quickly to the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, devoting only a few pages, if at all, to medieval science. These generally note that much ancient science was lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire, and what science was taught during the Middle Ages was Aristotelian.

It is of course true that scholarship and intellectual research was in the hands of the church, which would attempt to ban any religious, philosophical and scientific doctrines it considered a threat. Nevertheless, the idea that the Church was opposed to all intellectual inquiry is untrue. It is the creation of a number of hostile writers and movements from the early modern period up to the 19th century. These included the 16th century Humanists, who criticised the Middle Ages for its poor classical scholarship, to Enlightenment philosophers and historians such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon. It was the Humanist Petrarch, who first used the term medius tempus with the sense of a dark age lasting from the Fall of the Roman Empire to his own time. They attacked the Middle Ages for its religious intolerance and supposed ignorance and believed that proper scientific knowledge and endeavour had only begun with the Scientific Revolution of the preceding century. More recently historians have increasingly viewed the Middle Ages as a period of scientific and technological advance comparable to that of the 19th century. One of the first scholars who led the positive reappraisal of medieval science was Pierre Duhem, the French Roman Catholic physicist and philosopher of science. Duhem’s aim was partly to attack the views of the French Positivists, who accepted the view of Auguste Comte that society moved from a stage of magic, through theology to a final age of science. Other scholars since Duhem have followed him in viewing the Middle Ages positively as an age of philosophical innovation and scientific achievement. Medieval science has also benefited from the positive appreciation of medieval philosophy generally by historians. The French historian Jean Gimpel subtitled his book, The Medieval Machine ‘The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages’. While this is an extreme view, nevertheless the Middle Ages did see considerable scientific and technological research and progress.

It is impossible to present a detailed description of the medieval scientific worldview and its physics, biology and cosmology in a short talk. I will instead try to present an overview of the progress of medieval scientific and technical knowledge. Although much medieval science, such as the theory of the four humours and Earth-centred ptolemaic view of the universe was wrong, nevertheless it was an age when many European scholars took an active interest in questions of natural philosophy. Natural science in its turn inspired and was celebrated by writers and poets such as Jean de Meun and the anonymous author of the 15th century English work, The Court of Sapience. In addition to describing some of the advances and developments made in science during the Middle Ages, this paper will also discuss the theological and metaphysical views, that allowed the acceptance of natural philosophy in the monastic schools and universities and encouraged its further development.

Much ancient knowledge was lost during the chaos of the barbarian invasions. Even before the Roman Empire fell, Pliny complained that there was less scientific research under the Empire than when its constituent countries were separate, independent states. The Romans themselves largely left science and literature to the Greeks, the main intellectual centres of the Roman world were further east, in Alexandria, for example. Many of these areas were thus lost when the Middle Eastern and north African provinces were conquered by Islam. During the Middle Ages manuscripts were preserved and copied in monastic libraries and then in the new universities.

Medieval scientific works following the fall of the Roman Empire consisted of:

Natural History of Pliny
Boethius’ works on geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music, and translations of Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione. However, Geometry of Boethius only dates from 9th century.
Etymologies of Isidore of Seville
Cassiodorus in Institutio Divinarum Litterarum, urged study of herbal medicine.
Dioscorides’ Materia Medica
Lucretius, fragments of De Rerum Natura
Plato’s Timaeus, trans. Chalcidius 4th century, 5th century commentary by Martianus Capella..
Physiologus – ancestor of medieval bestiaries. Written in Alexandria and translated into Latin in 5th century.
Seneca, Quaestiones Naturales
Macrobius, In Somnium Scipionis
Vitruvius De Architectura.

The Seven Liberal Arts in the monastic schools: 1st stage consisted of two stages, the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. From this, students passed to the 2nd stage of the Quadrivium. This was composed of the more scientific subjects of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Music was considered a science because of its basis in mathematical harmony. The texts used for scientific study were Pliny, Boethius, Cassiodorus and Isidore.

Despite the very limited number of scientific texts surviving from ancient Rome, the early Middle Ages did see the composition of new scientific works. In Anglo-Saxon England,astronomy and medicine were taught in 7th century Kent. The great Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede, wrote a book on natural philosophy, De Rerum Natura, based on Isidore’s book of same name, and Pliny. He also wrote several other scientific works, including De Temporibus and De Temporum Ratione. These dealswith time, and the calendar, date of Easter and the nature of the tides. There was also a medical manual, Bald’s Leechbook, and a work on herbal medicine, the Herbarius, attributed to Apulaius Barbarus or Platonicus. The 10th century also saw a textbook on arithmetic composed by Helperic.

In addition to translations of Arabic and Greek texts, the 12th Century was also a period in which original scientific works were produced. These included the Quaestiones Naturales of Adelard of Bath and Thierry of Chartres, De Septem Diebus et Sex Operum Distinctionibus. Adelard’s books was a question and answer lesson on the nature of universe between Adelard and his nephew.
The De Septem Diebus et Sex Operum Distinctionibus was a rational explanation of Creation.

12th Century Onwards: Period of Translation of Arabic Texts

Medieval Islam had preserved and expanded on the ancient knowledge that had been lost in the West. As a result scholars were active translating their works into Latin from the 12th century onwards. Toledo was an important centre of the new Arab science in the west, and scholars such as Daniel de Morley travelled there to enjoy the new learning. The authors translated into Latin included works on chemistry, arithmetic, physics, geology, alchemy, anatomy, optics, medicine, astronomy, botany, meteorology and mathematics by al-Battani, al-Fargani, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Al-Khwarizmi, Alkindi, Thabit ibn Qurra, Rhazes, Alfarabi, Haly Abbas, Pseudo-Aristotle, Alhazen, Avicenna, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Aristotle, Euclid, Apollonius’ Conica, Alhazen’s, Archimedes, Diocles, Nicholas of Damascus, Pseudo-Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Alpetragius, Averroes, Hero of Alexandria, Proclus, Ptolemy, Archimedes, Simplicius, Galen. It was also the period when Arabic numerals began to be introduced to the west. The first description of them is the Liber Abaci of Leonardo Fibonacci. In astronomy, the tables of al-Zarqali, known as Toledan Tables or Canones Azarchelis, were used before these were replaced in the 13th century by Alfonsine Tables, compiled under Alfonso the Wise.

This interest in natural philosophy was encouraged by the views of some of the early Church Fathers. St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen believed that all knowledge was good, as it led to the perfection of mind. They believed that the study of philosophy and natural science was not incompatible with Christianity. St. Clement compared the fear of pagan philosophy with a child’s fear of goblins. St. Augustine believed that before the fall Adam and Eve had practised all the lawful arts and sciences, and so recommended the study of nature and the sciences as a way of returning to the state of primeval innocence. He was followed in the Middle Ages by Hugh of St. Victor. In a universal history Hugh traced the restoration of God’s image in humanity through the development of arts and sciences.

The 12th century also saw the formulation of the conception of a lawful cosmos, based on ancient Stoic and Christian concepts of the Logos innate in and ordering the universe. St. Augustine in the De Genesi ad Litteram IX. 17, stated ‘The most customary course of all this nature has certain natural laws of its own according to which both the spirit of life, which is in a creature, has in some way certain settled desires of its, which even malevolence cannot overcome, and the elements of this corporeal world have their settled power and quality, what any one of them may or may not effect and what may or may not come from what’. Herman of Carinthia in the 12th century referred to a ‘law of a certain universal condition’ was involved in the definition of nature and the nature of things:

‘All movements of secondary generation are administered by a certain relationship of nature (by the decision, of course, of the Author of all things, and since every order of things which are living is perpetuated by a law of a certain universal condition which in common speech is called “nature”, from nature itself it seems most appropriate to begin … It is customary for the term “nature” to be used for two concepts … [I] [as] Seneca … says “What is nature other than God and divine reason inserted into the whole universe and its parts” … [ii] But the other is that by which Plato composes the soul of the universe … By taking up this “mature” natural scientists can attempt to describe individually the natures of all bodies – both of the heavens and of the lower world … ‘

There was conflict between the Latin Averroeists, who derived their doctrines from Aristotle, and Christianity on major theological issues of the nature of God, humanity and free will. Averroeism denied free will, and stated that God could not create a different universe to this one. They also argued that there was no individual soul, only single active intellect common to everyone. Some Averroeists, such as Jean de Jandun and Siger of Brabant, rejected Christian theology.
Prohibitions against teaching Aristotle were issued in Paris in 1210 and 1215. However, these did not forbid them from being privately studied, and lectures on Aristotle were still announced in the university of Toulouse. In 1231 Pope Gregory IX appointed a commission to revise some of Aristotle’s natural philosophy. By 1255 examinations on Aristotle had been established at the university of Paris. By the end of the century Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, had completed their expositions on Aristotle, and their attempts to reconcile it with Christianity.

Albertus and Aquinas rejected Aristotle when it conflicted with Christian theology. However, they also recognised that religion and philosophy frequently discuss the same subjects from different viewpoints, and so separated theology from science. In Chapter 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles St. Thomas Aquinas argued ‘That the Philosopher and the theologian consider creatures in different ways’. Aquinas also argued in the Summa Contra Gentiles ‘That the consideration of creatures is useful for instruction of faith’ (chapter 2); and ‘That knowledge of the nature of creatures serves to destroy errors concerning God’ (chapter 3). Despite this, in 1277 219 Aristotelian and Averroeist doctrines were condemned by Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris.This clearly was an attempt to limit philosophers’ freedom to think and speculate. Pierre Duhem considered that the condemnation of 1277 had a positive effect by forcing natural philosophers to consider non-Aristotelian explanations based on the notion that God could do anything He wished, so long as it did not involve a logical contradiction. For Duhem, the condemnation of 1277 was a positive advance which led to the birth of modern science.

The 13th and 14th centuries also marked the point at which mathematics was introduced into science through the work of Grosseteste and other philosophers.. The use of sophismata – argumentation – created a methodological unity between philosophy and theology. There was no sharp distinction in the later Middle Ages between theology and Natural Philosophy as theologians had developed natural theology, which, like natural philosophy, depended on experience. There was also no strict separation of science and magic, as both the Aristotelian and Neoplatonist systems suggested how magic could work through astral influences from stellar rays and the correspondences between the microcosm of humanity and the macrocosm of the world, and the occult properties of plants and minerals. Thus the fashioning of amulets, for example, and certain forms of astrology could be considered scientific. While magic, miracles and the actions of demons and angels were accepted in the Middle Ages, there was also considerable scepticism about how far the actions of demons and witches were possible. By the 13th century some philosophers were able to keep magic largely out of their scientific works, such as Albertus Magnus, Petrus Peregrinus and Rufinus. Thus William of Auvergne attributed some experiences of demonic possession not to demons themselves, but to the sufferer having eaten too much and the weight of the food in their stomach blocking the correct operation of their nerves, so giving rise to terrifying hallucinations.

The establishment of the new Aristotelian science at Oxford, as well as the study of mathematics, logic, languages and Biblical scholarship was due to Robert Grosseteste in his capacity as Magister Scholarum or University Chancellor. The medieval universities were not universities in the modern sense of research institutions, but rather vocational schools designed to prepare their students for a career in the church or in the bureaucracy of government.

Medieval philosophers were particulary interested in optics as St. Augustine and the Neoplatonists had viewed them as symbols of divine grace, It was also a subject that could be investigated mathematically. Robert Grosseteste was the first important medieval philosopher interested in optics, as he believed that light had been the first corporeal form, and was responsible for dimensions and space itself, and was the first principle of motion and efficient causation. As part of this interest, Grosseteste and other scientists investigated the rainbow, which they knew was produced through refraction. Spectacles were invented later in the 13th century, c. 1286, and were popularised by the Dominica Friar, Alessandro della Spina. Jean de Meun refers to this research into optics in the Roman de la Rose:

‘One may learn the cause
Why mirrors, through some subtle laws,
Have power to objects seen therein –
Atoms minute or letter thin –
To give appearance of fair size
Though naked unassisted eyes
Can scarce perceive them. Grains of sand
Seem stone when through these glasses scanned…
But to these matters blind affiance
No man need give: they’re proved by science…’

Other medieval natural philosophers researched and discussed problems in a range of sciences including astronomy, meteorology, mechanics, geology, chemistry, and biology and agriculture. The lodestone was first described in the west in the De Naturis Rerum of Alexander Neckham, while the first description of the compass is the Epistola de Magnete of Petrus Peregrinus of Maricourt in 1269. Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme before Copernicus suggested that it was the Earth that revolved, not the sun. Richard of Wallingford built an astronomical clock in 1320, while in Italy the clockmaker Giovanni de’ Doni built planetaria showing the movements of the stars. Jordanus Nemorarius, who may have been the second Master-General of the Dominican Order, Jordanus Saxo, analysed rates of motion. In Geology, Albertus Magnus argued that the Earth had originally been covered entirely in water. Dry land had been created through underwater volcanoes that pushed land above sea level. Those creatures that had been trapped in the mud became fossils. Jean Buridan and Albertus Parvus, by contrast, believed that dry land had been exposed through gradual changes in the Earth’s centre of gravity. The waters had receded as the Earth’s centre of gravity changed. Medieval chemistry remained largely based on that of the ancients and Arabs. Distilling was introduced to the west during the 12th and 13th centuries. The 12th century Mappa Clavicula is the first western account of the preparation of alcohol. By the end of the 13th century alcohol was used to produce drugs and perfumes, and by the 15th century the distillers had formed their own guild.

Albertus Magnus discussed plant morphology and biology in his De Plantis. Influenced by the ancient writer, Theophrastus, Albertus believed that new species could arise from previous varieties. He demonstrated this with examples from the domestication of wild plants, and domestic varieties that had run wild. In the 14th century his speculation was continued by Henry Hesse, who discussed the emergence of new diseases and the new drugs that would be needed to treat them. From the 12th century onwards human anatomy was seen as vital to medicine. Beginning with Salerno in the 12th century, a number of universities included the dissection of human and animals as part of the medical courses. Other inventions in medicine included improved forms of bandaging and the use of pulleys and weights to extend fractured limbs. Anaesthetics for surgery were also known. The Antidotarum Nicolai, written some time before 1150, recommended spongia soporifera. This was a mild anaesthetic composed of opium, mandragora and henbane soaked in water. John Mirfeld described the use of the tornellus for certain dislocations. In 15th century Italy the Brancas developed a form of reconstructive surgery to restore noses, lips and ears. Some medieval doctors had also been aware of the need to keep wounds clean. Medieval doctors used unguents on wounds to generate pus, which they associated with the healing process. This was rejected by Hugh and Theodoric Borgognoni and Henry of Mondeville. They instead recommended that wounds should be cleaned with wine, then stitched and left to heal naturally. Unfortunately the great French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac rejected their methods and under his influence doctors and surgeons returned to encouraging wounds to suppurate. A more positive development was the use of trepanation to drain fluid from the heads of hydrocephalic children. This process was described at the end of the 13th century by William of Saliceto. One of the earliest medieval surgical manuals was the Chirugia of Roger of Salerno, assembled from his students’ lecture notes c. 1180. This was translated into Anglo-Norman in the mid-13th century. The ancient Roman author, Soranus, was used by mid-wives. In the 14th century a manual of obstetrics was published, The Knowing of Women in Chylding, or the Science of Women in Childbirth.

Guy de Chauliac also described a number of dental techniques, such as the use of a powder from the bones of cuttlefish for cleaning teeth. He also described how piece of ox bone or human teeth could be fastened to the remaining teeth to replace those the patient had lost. Later in the Middle Ages other physicians described the use of a drill to remove the decayed parts of a tooth. Gold foil was then used for fillings.

The Middle Ages also saw the introduction of a number of important technological inventions. Agricultural productivity was raised by the introduction of the modern horse collar and the heavier medieval plough. Agricultural land was reclaimed from the sea using pumps, sluices and dykes. Lock gates were introduced to canals in the 14th century, and roads improved by the construction of surface of stone cubes on a bed of loose earth or sand. In the 15th century Konrad Kyeser and Jacopo Mariano Taccola drew ships with paddle wheels.

Printing appeared in Europe before Gutenberg perfected the use of metal type in the 15th century. Presses were developed for wine and to print cloth. The monastery of Engelberg used woodcuts to print the initial letter in its manuscripts in 1147. Block printing appeared in Ravenna in 1289, and became common throughout Europe by the 15th century. Movable metal type first appeared in Limoges in 1381. By 1417 its use had spread to Antwerp and then to Avignon in 1444.

Watermills were known in the ancient world and China, although their use in the Roman Empire was actually very limited. By the 5th century they were in general use across Europe, and there were a range of different types. During the Middle Ages they were adapted to mechanise the fulling, iron smelting and wood-processing industries. Triphammers had been added to watermills to full cloth, and crush woad and oak bark and tan leather by the end of the 12th century. The 14th century the mechanism was used to drive the bellows in forges. The treadle hammer was introduced to create the stamping mill for metal ore in the 15th century. By the 14th century there were sawmills driven by waterwheels. By the 15th century this mechanism was used to power iron-rolling and wire-drawing mills, pump mines and salt pits, and used on cranks and windlasses for hoists in mines. Indeed, in the Netherlands and Germany the use of such devices were so efficient for pumping mines that they were not overtaken by steam until the 19th century. Iron smelting was also improved through the used of a head of water to force air into the furnace under pressure in Italy and Spain before the 14th century. This, and the use of horse- and waterwheel-driven bellows created the first blast furnaces, which allowed the mass production of cast iron for the first time.

These Discoveries and innovations were also incorporated into general surveys of the sciences, and university courses. Hugh of St. Victor, in his Didascalion de Studio Legendi, including some practical subjects in the seven liberal arts. He divided the mechanical sciences into the manufacture of cloth and weapons, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine and the theatre. The Arts course at Paris university in the 13th century at the beginning of the 13th century included not only the seven liberal arts, but also the three philosophies of Natural Philosophy, ethics and metaphysics.

Apart from the Roman de la Rose, the sciences were also celebrated in the late 15th century poem, The Court of Sapience.In this story the narrator loses a game of chess with the World and Dame Fortune. Reason rebukes him for his stupidity, and he prays to God to find the way to Dame Sapience before falling asleep. In a dream he meets Dame Sapience and her companions Intelligence and Science, who takes him to her castle. This has seven towers, each occupied by the seven virtues, while Sapience, Intelligence and Science have separate courts. Also welcoming Sapience and the dreamer is Dame Philosophy. In the plan of the castle, the first courtyard is Science’s, and is where Scripture teaches. The second courtyard is the home of Intelligence with a parlour of theologians. Sapience’s own courtyard has a great hall, a chapel and parlours for each of the seven liberal arts. It is the most splendid of the courtyards.

The poem states

‘There was al natural philosophye
And in a goodly parlour see I syt
The philosopher with his companye
Tretyng of kynd, and what longeth to it;
There was clerk note, there was konnyng and wyt
They poynt, they wryte, they dyspute, they depure,
They determyne eche thyng that hath nature.

The philosophers include

‘Arystotyl, Averous, Avycenne,
Good Algazel, Galyene, Appollynus,
Pyctagoras, and Plato with his penne,
Macrobius, Cato, Boecius,
Rasus, Isake, Calyxte, Orbasius,
Salusius, Theophyl, Ypocras –
With many mo whoos names I lete pas.

These had delyte to serven Dame Scyence,
And to have knowledge in phylosophye;
They worshypped her, they dyd hir reverence,
They hole desyre was to her soveraynly;
They wake, they work, they study besyly,
Whiles that they ben with Dame Scyence expert;
Theym to byholde myght ravysshe every hert!’

C.P. Snow once referred to the ‘two cultures’ of the arts and sciences, and lamented how their members did not interact with their counterparts in the opposing group. This is a problem in contemporary culture, now being tackled by projects to link science and the arts. There have been plays like Copenhagen written about scientific concepts, in this case, quantum physics and its theory of indeterminacy. The ancients did not attempt to solve the problem of the two cultures. The first attempt to do so was in the Middle Ages, as this poem demonstrates. It failed, but shows the problem was taken seriously and there were attempts to tackle it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: