Post-classical history


The Truth about Science in the Middle Ages

The most famous remark made by Sir Isaac Newton (1642– 1727) was: ‘If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’1 Most people assume that he meant his scientific achievements were built on the discoveries of his predecessors. In the same letter, he alludes to René Descartes (1596–1650), the French philosopher and mathematician, so presumably he was one of Newton’s giants. Few people realise, however, that Newton’s aphorism was first coined in the twelfth century by the theologian Bernard of Chartres (who died around 1130).2 Even fewer are aware that Newton’s science also has its roots embedded firmly in the Middle Ages. This book will show just how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins.

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 had a bad press for a long time. Writers use the adjective ‘medieval’ as a synonym for brutality and uncivilised behaviour. Recently, the word has affixed itself to the Taliban of Afghanistan whom commentators routinely describe as throwbacks to the Middle Ages, if not the Dark Ages. Even historians, who should know better, still seem addicted to the idea that nothing of any consequence occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. In 1988, Daniel Boorstin’s history of science The Discoverers referred to the Middle Ages as ‘the great interruption’ to mankind’s progress. William Manchester, in his 1993 book A World Lit Only by Fire, described the period as ‘a mélange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths and an almost impenetrable mindlessness’. Charles Freeman wrote in The Closing of the Western Mind (2002) that this was a period of ‘intellectual stagnation’. He continued, ‘It is hard to see how mathematics, science, or their associated disciplines could have made any progress in this atmosphere.’3

Closely coupled to the myth that there was no science worth mentioning in the Middle Ages is the belief that the Church held back what meagre advances were made. The idea that there is an inevitable conflict between faith and reason owes much of its force to the work of nineteenth-century propagandists such as the Englishman Thomas Huxley (1825–95) and the American John William Draper (1811–82). Huxley famously declared: ‘Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules.’4 Draper was a participant in the notorious debate on evolution between Huxley and the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (1805–73), in 1860, when the question arose of whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side. Draper wrote the massively influential History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, which cemented the conflict hypothesis into the public imagination.

More recently, we have seen a real-life conflict between evolution and creationism. Conservative Christians and Muslims have launched an all-out assault on Darwinism. As this phenomenon shows, it is certainly true that particular religious doctrines can be in conflict with scientific theories. However, it does not follow that such hostility is inevitable. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science, but it also decided that philosophical speculation should not impinge on theology. Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the Church may even have benefited science in the long term. Furthermore and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas. The most famous clash between science and religion was the trial of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) in 1633. Academic historians are now convinced that this had as much to do with politics and the Pope’s self-esteem as it did with science. The trial is fully explained in the last chapter of this book, in which we will also see how much Galileo himself owed to his medieval predecessors.

The denigration of the Middle Ages began as long ago as the sixteenth century, when humanists, the intellectual trendsetters of the time, started to champion classical Greek and Roman literature. They cast aside medieval scholarship on the grounds that it was convoluted and written in ‘barbaric’ Latin. So people stopped reading and studying it. The cudgels were subsequently taken up by English writers such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588– 1679) and John Locke (1632–1704). The waters were muddied further by the desire of these Protestant writers not to give an ounce of credit to Catholics. It suited them to maintain that nothing of value had been taught at universities before the Reformation. Galileo, who thanks to his trial before the Inquisition was counted as an honorary Protestant, was about the only Catholic natural philosopher to be accorded a place in English-language histories of science.

In the eighteenth century, French writers like Voltaire (1694–1778) joined in the attack. They had their own issues with the Catholic Church in France, which they derided as reactionary and in cahoots with the absolutist monarchy. Voltaire and his fellowphilosophes lauded progress in reason and science. They needed a narrative to show that mankind was moving forward, and the story they produced was intended to show the Church in a bad light. ‘Medieval philosophy, bastard daughter of Aristotle’s philosophy badly translated and understood’, wrote Voltaire, had ‘caused more error for reason and good education than the Huns and the Vandals.’5 His contemporary Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83) edited an immense encyclopaedia that became the epitome of thephilosophes’ achievement. D’Alembert’s influential Preliminary Discourse to this magnum opus set out the now traditional story of how scientific progress had been held back by the Church during the Middle Ages. He blamed ‘the condition of slavery into which almost all of Europe was plunged and the ravages of superstition which is born of ignorance and spawns it in turn.’6 But now, D’Alembert said, in his own time rational men could throw off the yoke of religion.

John William Draper and Thomas Huxley introduced this thesis to English readers in the nineteenth century. It was given intellectual respectability through the support of Andrew Dickson White (1832– 1918), president of Cornell University. The hordes of footnotes that mill around at the bottom of each page of his book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology give the illusion of meticulous scholarship.7 But anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.

The great weight of the assault on the Middle Ages carried on into the twentieth century. Popular historians based their work on previous popular histories and perpetuated the myth that the period was an interruption to mankind’s progress. Television shows by Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski handed the thesis on to a new generation. Even when someone discovered evidence of reason or progress in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it could easily be labelled ‘early-Renaissance’ so as to preserve the negative connotations of the adjective ‘medieval’.

The fight back began 100 years ago with the work of a French physicist and historian called Pierre Duhem (1861–1916). While researching an unrelated matter, he came across a vast body of unread medieval manuscripts. What Duhem found in these dusty tomes amazed him. He quickly realised that science in the Middle Ages had been sophisticated, highly regarded and essential to later developments. His work was carried forward by the American Lynn Thorndike (1882–1965) and German Anneliese Maier (1905–71), who refined and expanded it. Today, the doyens of medieval science are Edward Grant and David Lindberg. They have now retired, but their students already occupy exalted places in the universities of North America. As scholars explore more and more manuscripts, they reveal achievements of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages that are ever more remarkable.

Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians notwithstanding, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages was a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture. The compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in western Europe between AD500 and AD1500. True, these inventions originated in the Far East, but Europeans developed them to a far higher degree than had been the case elsewhere. The Italian doctor, mathematician and astrologer Jerome Cardan (1501–76) wrote that next to the compass, printed book and cannon, ‘the whole of the ancient world has nothing to compare.’8 A compass allowed Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to navigate his way across the Atlantic Ocean, sailing far from the sight of land to discover the New World in 1492. The development of printing and paper meant that an incredible 20 million books were produced in the first 50 years after Johann Gutenberg (c.1398–1468) had published his printed Bible in 1455.9 This dwarfed the literary output of antiquity. Printing probably had an even greater effect than gunpowder which, like the stirrup before it, revolutionised warfare and allowed Europeans to dominate the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the people of medieval Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill and the blast furnace by themselves. Lenses and cameras, almost all kinds of machinery and the industrial revolution itself all owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages. Just because we don’t know their names, this does not mean that we should not recognise their achievements.

Most significantly, the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilisation, modern science. It is simply untrue to say that there was no science before the ‘Renaissance’. Once medieval scholars got their hands on the work of the classical Greeks, they developed systems of thought that allowed science to travel far further than it had in the ancient world. Universities, where academic freedom was guarded from royal interference, were first founded in the twelfth century. These institutions have always provided scientific research with a safe home. Even Christian theology turned out to be uniquely suited to encouraging the study of the natural world, because this was believed to be God’s creation.

Today, when we talk about ‘science’, we have in mind a clear and specific meaning. We picture a laboratory where researchers are carrying out experiments. But the word ‘science’ once had a much broader definition than it does now. The word comes fromscientia, which means ‘knowledge’ in Latin. Science encompassed all intellectual disciplines, including politics, theology and philosophy. Theology was, famously, the queen of them all. The study of nature as a separate subject was called ‘natural philosophy’, and it is this term that will be used throughout this book. One of the essential lessons of history is that if we use our own categories to describe the past we will seriously misjudge it. Instead, it is important to understand where people in the Middle Ages were coming from and to understand them on their own terms. Part of doing this involves looking at subjects that we would consider unscientific today. To medieval people magic, astrology and alchemy were all considered to be ‘sciences’. More surprisingly, these arcane disciplines contributed directly to modern science by providing alternative ways of comprehending and manipulating the natural world.

The distinction between medieval natural philosophy and modern science is a subject of some debate among scholars today. However, one difference is immediately clear; modern science is naturalistic with no room for the supernatural. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, science has excluded God from the laboratory. In contrast, for the medieval natural philosopher, God was invariably central to any considerations about nature.

Modern science is a very specific kind of knowledge that blends empirical experimentation with rational analysis. Today we take it for granted and trust it to provide us with accurate information about nature. It is hard to believe that a few centuries ago, this scientific way of thinking hardly existed. Before the edifice of modern science could be built it required the strong foundations that were laid for it in the Middle Ages. The cornerstone was a widespread acceptance of reason as a valid tool for discovering the truth about our world. Clearly, this could not happen without the approval of the Church, which at the time was the guardian of almost all intellectual endeavours. This meant that the development of reason and its relationship with faith are both important parts of our story. So prevalent did rational argument become among philosophers during the Middle Ages that the period deserves to be thought of as the beginning of the ‘Age of Reason’.10

Some historians of science have had a habit of lauding individuals who seem to echo our own prejudices or appear more ‘modern’ than their contemporaries. When we hear about someone from the past who anticipated our own beliefs, we tend to label them ‘ahead of their time’. In fact, no one is ahead of his or her time. On closer examination, we always find that people are rooted firmly into their own cultural milieu. The best example of this is probably Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). A recent biographer, Michael White, even called him ‘the first scientist’.11 But surprisingly, despite being a genius, Leonardo had no impact on the development of western science at all. His influence was entirely in the arts. His lack of focus and constant experimentation prevented him from having as much success even in that field as he could have had. The reason no one followed Leonardo’s scientific ideas is that he didn’t tell anyone about them. His reputation today as a man of science is based on his famous notebooks, but these did not become known until centuries after his death. His secrecy was nothing to do with fear of prosecution or a belief that the Church would try to curtail his work. It was simply a character flaw that made him refuse to share his insights.12 He even disguised his notes by using mirror writing to make them illegible unless they were seen reflected in a mirror. Consequently, and despite his enormous reputation, we will hear no more about him in these pages.13

Another common mistake is to divide up history into discrete periods and then give them names containing clear value judgements. This can be extremely misleading. For example, we are commonly taught that there was a Renaissance, which was ‘a good thing’, the Dark Ages, which were ‘bad’ and the Enlightenment, which was ‘very good indeed’. How could anyone disapprove of being enlightened when the alternative, presumably, was to be benighted? Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, with the clear implication that previously civilisation had been well and truly dead. The term ‘Dark Ages’ was coined in the fourteenth century by the Italian writer Francisco Petrarch (1304–74). What he meant was that between the ancient world of Rome and his own time, nothing much happened. For 1,000 years, mankind had stood still. As we shall see, the advance of science provides one of the best examples of the injustice of these historical labels. The first appearance of the term ‘the Middle Ages’, a less pejorative label, was in the fifteenth century when it is used by various Italian humanists.14

One might think that the other names we give to historical periods also date back centuries, but in fact they nearly all originated in nineteenth-century France. French historians had a very clear idea that the past was the story of mankind’s progress towards their own civilisation, which they regarded as the pinnacle of human progress. The English were just as bad. The Victorians invented a story about the triumph of civilisation through Protestantism, free markets and a benevolent British Empire. They even believed that this triumph had been made possible by frequent victories over the French. If we really are going to understand history, we will have to do away with prejudicial labels like ‘the Dark Ages’ and ‘the Enlightenment’, or at least learn to treat them with considerable scepticism.

On the other hand, some of the customary names and adjectives used for historical periods are just too convenient and so we will have to employ a few of them. The dates assigned to each period are, inevitably, rather arbitrary. According to this schema, the early Middle Ages (which used to be called the Dark Ages) extend from the fall of the western Roman Empire in AD476 up until 1066; the Middle Ages proper start at that point and end in 1500 when we enter the early modern period. All dates are AD unless otherwise stated and AD/ BC designators are used whenever there might be some confusion. There is a trend among historians today to replace the old system of AD and BC with CE (for Common Era) and BCE (for Before Common Era) as a non-Christian alternative. That seems right for a history of China or Mesoamerica, but for the European Middle Ages AD and BC remain entirely appropriate.

Briefly stated, the plan of this book is as follows. It tells the story of how natural philosophy in the Middle Ages led to the achievements of modern science. We begin with a review of the early Middle Ages up to AD1000. During this period, western Europe recovered from the collapse of the Roman Empire and began to rebuild itself with the help of several important new inventions. We will see how agriculture improved and how much a well-educated person at the time could expect to know about natural philosophy.

In the third and fourth chapters, we will learn how the West recovered the heritage of ancient Greek learning. This had been lost to Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed, but was regained from Arab and Byzantine sources. This wave of new knowledge inevitably caused concern to the authorities. Chapter 5 tells of how the Christian Church became increasingly concerned about heresy in the twelfth century. However, it eventually came to terms with Greek philosophy. And as we will see in chapter 6, a great deal of debate and argument was resolved by the titanic figure of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), the greatest scholar of the Middle Ages.

Chapter 7 looks at why, if you fell ill in the Middle Ages, you would be better off praying at a holy shrine than visiting a doctor. Chapter 8 examines two subjects that the Church treated with suspicion but which nonetheless enjoyed great popularity – alchemy and astrology. In chapter 9 we meet Roger Bacon, a dedicated alchemist, who devoted his life to the study of nature because he thought it would be a useful tool for converting Muslims to Christianity before the imminent end of the world. In chapter 10 we meet another less celebrated but no less fascinating Oxford scholar – Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336). Besides his achievements in astronomy, he built one of the finest and most complicated clocks of the Middle Ages, despite suffering from the dreadful affliction of leprosy.

Once Thomas Aquinas had Christianised Greek philosophy, medieval scholars could build on it. Chapters 11 and 12 demonstrate the advances in scientific thought that were made at the universities of Oxford and Paris in the fourteenth century. Two areas saw particular progress – the implications of the earth’s rotation and the motion of accelerating objects.

In chapter 13, we will see how new inventions in the late Middle Ages had a profound effect on European society and, thanks to the voyages of Columbus and others, the rest of the world as well. Ascertaining whether or not the earth is flat was the last thing on Columbus’s mind.

Chapter 14 examines the impact of humanism and the Protestant Reformation on science and technology. Humanists recovered important ancient Greek mathematical texts but also rejected the advances made in philosophy during the Middle Ages. The Reformation broke the power of the Catholic Church to control science but also made it less tolerant of new ideas.

Although ‘the Renaissance’ is often associated with the beginning of modernity, it also saw a surge in magical belief that especially affected those who were at the cutting edge of science. Chapter 15 looks at these links. In chapter 16, we will see how human dissection arose in Europe and helped us to understand the machinery of our own bodies.

Chapter 17 relates the story of how Nicolaus Copernicus (1473– 1543) decided that the earth orbited the sun, and not the other way around as everybody else thought. He was no isolated genius, though, and owed a great deal to his medieval and Islamic forebears.Chapter 18 shows how Copernicus’s radical idea was adapted and proved by Johann Kepler (1571–1630).

The last three chapters look at Galileo and his contemporaries. He too took ideas from earlier thinkers and used them to construct his own theories about matter and motion. Galileo pulled together many of the strands of medieval thought to form the basis of modern science. It is with him that our story concludes.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!