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Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.

God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

ALEXANDER POPE’S EPITAPH for Sir Isaac Newton, written in 1730 (three years after the great man’s death), seems to tell us all we need to know about medieval science. The natural philosophers of the Middle Ages floundered in ignorance and superstition until Newton changed the study of the world by basing his investigations on experiment and mathematics.

The typical medieval experimental philosopher was, supposedly, a man like the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, hunting for the philosopher’s stone. Bacon was an alchemist who tried to turn base metals into gold, pursuing delusions, and who was then forbidden by his own order to continue his strange experiments.

Odd, then, that it should be Bacon who said ‘Mathematics is the door and the key to the sciences’ and wrote an explanation of experimental science for the pope. Odder still that Isaac Newton was also actually an alchemist, and that by far the greater part of his writings was devoted to alchemy and interpreting the Book of Revelation. We choose to ignore the truth about the history of natural philosophy. It doesn’t fit into the story of human progress as we like to tell it.


Roots of science lie in alchemy – the study of how one substance can be changed into another. Alchemists were exploring a world whose nature, in their eyes, derived not from mechanical laws but from the mind of God.

The word ‘alchemy’ comes from Arabic and Egyptian roots (al-khimia refers to the black soil of the Nile); the study was said to have been devised by the god Hermes, creator of the arts and sciences. It was called the Hermetic art and was certainly explored by Greeks in Alexandria in the third century AD. Much of the Eastern Roman Empire, including Egypt, was ultimately conquered by Islam in the seventh century, and Arab inquirers pursued, and elaborated on, the ideas and knowledge that had been developed there. Eventually the secrets of alchemy were passed on to medieval Europe through Arabs in Spain.

Roger Bacon explained that, ‘Alchemy is a Science, teaching how to transform any kind of metal into another: and that by a proper medicine, as it appeared by many Philosophers’ Books.’ And alchemy certainly had the transmutation of base metals into gold at the top of its priorities. Gold was special but that was because it was so very different from any other substance – this was its significance for alchemists. Gold cannot rust. No natural process damages it. Heat it to white-hot and when it cools off it will be the same metal as it was before. It can be hammered to one-thousandth of the thickness of a sheet of newsprint, and drawn into a wire finer than a human hair, and remains quite unchanged. In a mortal world, gold is incorruptible.

To the alchemists it was perfection. The basis of alchemy was the belief that the world contained the possibility of perfectibility, and it was the duty of the inquirer to strive towards that. Once, in the Garden of Eden, everything had been perfect. Then sin had been introduced, men and women were barred from the garden and the world was now corrupt. But everything – animate and inanimate – was slowly striving to restore itself, and the existence of gold, rare as it was, demonstrated that such a restoration to perfection was real and did happen.

And because everything was tending towards a state of perfection, all metals that were still underground must be gradually changing themselves into gold. The alchemists were simply helping a natural process. Giving God a hand.

Before we scoff, we should bear in mind that even in the twentieth century miners have argued that metals grow in the ground. In a sense, they are correct. For example, if you leave scrap iron in a wet place in a worked-out copper mine, and seal the mine, a few years later you will find that copper has grown. It has migrated into the scrap iron from the moisture, copper atoms replacing iron ones.

To the alchemists it seemed to follow that, if metals grow, those that are left in the ground for the longest time will grow closest to perfection. That explained why there was so little gold in the world – in the fourteenth century all the gold in Europe would have filled a medium-sized room. Most metal, it was deduced, is brought to the surface too soon. The purpose of alchemy, as Bacon wrote, was to provide the solution to this problem:

Alchemy therefore is a science teaching how to make and compound a certain medicine, which is called Elixir, the which when it is cast upon metals or imperfect bodies, does fully perfect them.

This was the basis for the hunt for the philosopher’s stone (or elixir). Alchemy required that an inquirer should study all knowledge. Human beings, the heavens and the earth were intimately linked, having been created together in the mind of God.


Philosophers like Roger Bacon did not see themselves as challenging biblical orthodoxy. Their credo was ‘as above, so below’. In other words, the world itself is part of creation, so studying its secrets can help you to understand the Bible. Bacon argued that scientific study was essential to perceiving the hidden meaning of religious texts – only when you know about the world can you see what is being said. Alchemy was a religious inquiry that happens to look like bad science to our uncomprehending eyes.

For example, Bacon described the vastness of the universe in a way that sounds surprisingly modern:

Even the smallest of the stars visible to our sight is bigger than the earth; but, compared to the heavens as a whole, the smallest star has no effective magnitude at all . . . The sun is about 170 times as big as the whole earth, as Ptolemy proves (Almagest 5) . . . One could walk all the way round the earth in less than three years. So we see that the magnitude of things below is simply incommensurable with that of the heavenly bodies.

BACON, Operis Majoris

Just as we assume that Newton transformed physics by ‘introducing’ the importance of mathematics, we are taught that Galileo transformed cosmology by inventing the astronomical telescope. But Bacon describes how to use lenses, and his own use of them in an instrument that must have been a telescope. He claimed it could make the most distant object appear near, and that it could make stars appear at will. But every time we think an alchemist is talking modern science, we are mistaken. Bacon goes on . . .

. . .we see that the magnitude of things below is simply incommensurable with that of the heavenly bodies. Nor can their effectiveness be compared, since the effectiveness of things below is caused by that of things above. The combined influence of the sun below the slanting course of the ecliptic, and the aspects of the planets above, is the cause of all that happens here below them on the earth.

Since all things must be connected Bacon, like other philosophers, was also an astrologer. It followed, of course, that he believed his telescope gave him the power to see into the future. We have a different view of the world. Any modern astronomer knows that a telescope is a way of looking backwards in time, not forwards – since it takes time for light to pass from distant objects to earth, the further away the object, the longer ago the image was created.

Bacon’s inquiries were essentially inspired by religion; the pope supported his work and was eager to read what he wrote. He was also doing what we think of as real science, and alarmed his students by breaking white light up into the spectrum of colours: ‘The experimenter considers whether among visible things, he can find colours formed and arranged as given in the rainbow.’

When Bacon created a rainbow by passing light through some glass beads he was 500 years ahead of Isaac Newton – especially when he measured the angle of displacement of the beam correctly. He was demonstrating that experiment is a form of knowledge that can clarify the study of the Bible.


Our contempt for the theory of transmutation is rooted in the work of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier in the 1770s. He produced a theory of matter that said metals like iron, lead and gold are chemical elements that are fixed and unchanging. This new ‘truth’ became the basis of scientific understanding for nearly 200 years, and helps us to forget that the transmutation of one metal into another is now used all the time. It is how a nuclear reactor works. One metal – uranium – turns into others, including plutonium and thorium. We call the process radioactivity, but that’s just our word for transmutation.

The alchemists were right in thinking that nature transmutes metals very, very slowly – though somewhat more slowly than they assumed. It takes 4.5 billion years (about the age of the universe) for half a lump of uranium-238 to turn into thorium. Obviously, some trick is needed to speed the process up, which is what nuclear physics is all about.

As for the transmutation of lead into gold – in 1972 it was reported that Soviet physicists at a nuclear research facility near Lake Baikal, in Siberia, found that the lead shielding of an experimental reactor had done exactly that after a time under continuous nuclear bombardment! However, just in case you think this is an experiment worth repeating, please be advised that the gold must have been heavier than lead (which it normally isn’t) and intensely radioactive, and that it rapidly ‘decayed’ back to lead.

Of course, alchemists were not pursuing radioactivity. Their theory was that they were trying to purify matter. So, they reasoned, the first step must be to produce pure substances. They did this by distillation – heating something until it produced a vapour, then collecting the condensation. The processes could be unbelievably complicated: the Islamic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan recommended one particular procedure that involved 700 distillations.

In their attempts to purify matter alchemists produced entirely new substances with extraordinary properties. Distilling a combination of saltpetre and alum produced nitric acid – a liquid that would completely dissolve silver. It took longer to learn how to distil alum alone as the condensation destroyed metal vessels. Eventually alchemists began using containers made of glass, which the acid did not eat away. And the liquid produced would dissolve iron and copper. It was sulphuric acid. Then they discovered that distilling salt and alum, and passing the vapour through water, produced something even stronger: hydrochloric acid which, when mixed with nitric acid, would even dissolve gold.

These discoveries literally changed the world, by transforming European technology. Until the alchemists got to work the strongest acid known had been vinegar.

In addition, alchemists actually had reason to suppose they were on to something, because they found that they could make a substance that seemed to be gold. Adding a little gold dust to a flask of mercury and powdered silver resulted in a golden liquid. When this was heated and boiled away it produced (in addition to highly noxious fumes) what looked like a lump of gold – it’s called ‘butter of gold’. Nowadays, there are tests to show it isn’t the real thing, but these weren’t available to the old alchemists. So it is possible they thought they were closer to their goal than they were.


Perhaps it’s not surprising, in an enterprise involving comparatively large quantities of gold, that some practitioners were in the business of extracting as much of it as they could for themselves. In The Canterbury Tales, written in the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer’s alchemist’s assistant calls alchemy ‘this cursed craft’:

This cursed craft – whoever tries it on

Will never make a thing to live upon

For all the cash on it that he forks out

He’ll lose; of that I have no doubt.

CHAUCER, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, 830–3

The assistant goes on to tell how a fraudulent alchemist tricks a priest into believing there is a process that turns mercury into silver, and cons £40 (a fortune) out of him for the secret. Of course, it does not work and the priest never sees the alchemist again.

Chaucer was clearly writing with first-hand knowledge of these charlatans. There must have been plenty of them.

One of the earliest was Artephius, who appeared in the twelfth century claiming he was 1025 years old. So old, he claimed in a book, that he was now ready to reveal the secret of the elixir of life:

I, Artephius, after I became an adept, and had attained to the true and complete wisdom . . . was sometimes obscure also as others were. But when I had for the space of a thousand years, or thereabouts, which has now passed over my head, since the time I was born to this day . . . by the use of this wonderful quintessence – when, I say, for so very long a time, I found no man had found out or obtained this hermetic secret, because of the obscurity of the philosophers’ words, being moved with a generous mind, and the integrity of a good man, I have determined in these latter days of my life to declare all things truly and sincerely, that you may not want anything for the perfecting of this stone of the philosophers.

The Secret Book of Artephius

Tragically for all would-be immortals, no-one can make head or tail of his instructions. Which is a shame, because by his own account he clearly went to literally fantastic lengths to gain his knowledge. He had not simply ‘gone the extra mile’ in search of the recipe, but had (he said) descended into hell, where the devil sat on a throne of gold, surrounded by imps and fiends.

Perhaps, though, this is an experience shared by all pioneering investigators in one way or another.

However, a lot of people desperately wanted the alchemists’ experiments to work. Henry IV, for example, exhorted learned men to study alchemy in order to pay off England’s debts – and he wanted illicit alchemists imprisoned to stop them undermining the currency. In the sixteenth century Elizabeth I sent an envoy to beg the English alchemist Edward Kelly to return from Prague and help her pay for her defence against Spain.

These rulers understood that the existence of frauds did not mean the theory of alchemy was rubbish. If this seems gullible, just consider the extent of fraud in contemporary research. Today’s equivalents of the philosopher’s stone include the nanocomputer – a full-scale computer too small even to be seen with an ordinary microscope. Dr Hendrik Schon, of Bell Laboratories, published 25 papers in three years on his breakthrough work on this and was considered to be a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. But in October 2002 16 of the papers were declared to be fraudulent. The journal Science withdrew eight they had published and Schon was fired.*1 In 1999 alone, the US Public Health Service received reports of ‘misconduct’ (fraudulent publication), in biomedical science alone, from 72 institutions.*2 But no-one jumps to the conclusion that modern science is worthless.

Medieval critics of research tended to be rather less tolerant of scientific fraud than we are. In 1350, Edward III threw an alchemist by the name of John de Walden into the Tower of London – he had been given 5000 crowns of the king’s gold and 20 pounds of silver ‘to work thereon by the art of alchemy for the benefit of the king’. Obviously not very successfully. Hendrik Schon, on the other hand, remains a free man at the time of writing.

In the fourteenth century the Dominicans and Cistercians banned alchemy following a papal bull against alchemical fraud. But the same pope who issued that edict in 1317 gave funds to his physician in 1330 for ‘certain secret work’.


Mark you, the alchemists were a pretty secretive lot. They operated in a world of elliptical allusions and allegory. And a lot of what they wrote was designed not to elucidate but to confuse. As the 1025-year-old Artephius put it: ‘Is it not an art full of secrets? And believest thou O fool that we plainly teach this secret of secrets, taking our words according to their literal signification?’

The Hermetic art was never to lose its emphasis on mystery. George Ripley, a fifteenth-century canon of the Augustinian priory of Bridlington in Yorkshire, explained that alchemy was a ‘holy science’ reserved for the few, and that he wrote in code:

. . . to discourage the fools, for although we write primarily for the edification of the disciples of the art, we also write for the mystification of those owls and bats which can neither bear the splendour of the sun, nor the light of the moon.

GEORGE RIPLEY, The Compound of Alchymie conteining Twelve

Gates, 1475

As it happened, Ripley’s code involved pictographs and his resulting book, known as the Ripley Scrolls, is among the most attractive of medieval manuscripts. In his text a king clad in red is gold, the queen in white is silver, a salamander is fire, and a dragon being killed by the sun and moon is mercury being combined with gold and silver.


The mystery surrounding alchemy encouraged the suspicion that alchemists were devotees of the black arts. The 1279 edition of the Franciscans’ Constitutiones Generales Antiquae forbids alchemy along with magic, sorcery and the summoning of demons; and in the late sixteenth century Roger Bacon was portrayed as a figure like Faust, who engaged in a devilish pact to work magic. A popular drama around 1580 showed him constructing a brass head that could speak, and whose incantation would (had it not been destroyed) have surrounded England with a protective brass wall. But the Church did not generally see natural philosophy as a challenge to Christianity.

Bacon was certainly viewed with considerable anxiety by his Franciscan brotherhood, but that had more to do with his outspoken views on the order itself than with his scientific interests. A ferocious debate was going on in Franciscan theology, with one group, the ‘Spirituals’, demanding total commitment to a life of poverty and the other justifying a compromise with something more comfortable. Bacon sympathized with the spiritual and, like a number of other Franciscans, was virtually imprisoned by the order. Early in the next century Spirituals would be condemned as heretics and burned. But the Church’s attitude to scientific inquiry was complex, and not as condemnatory as has often been assumed.

Bacon was based in Paris, and thirteenth-century Paris was throbbing with new ideas about philosophy and theology. At the heart of the ferment was the study of Aristotle’s writings, and the way his ideas were being handled in a Christian context by scholars like Thomas Aquinas. One establishment response was the so-called ‘General Condemnation of Philosophy and the Sciences’ by the bishop of Paris in 1277. This has traditionally been described as an attack on reason – which is rather misleading. The Church was trying to resist a new dogmatism of rational certainty which seemed to challenge the omnipotence of God and the value of theology. The bishop particularly condemned the propositions that:

Theological discussions are based on fables.

Nothing is known better because of knowing theology.

The only wise men of the world are philosophers.

In fact, the condemnation rejected a number of propositions which, if they had been accepted as orthodoxy, would have dramatically limited scientific debate and made heretics of many theories and theorists. Some of these condemned propositions were:

There was no first man, nor will there be a last: there always was and always will be a generation of man from man. Nothing happens by chance. The first cause [that is, God] could not make several worlds. God could not move the heavens [that is, the sky and therefore the world] with rectilinear motion; and the reason is that a vacuum would remain. God cannot be the cause of a new act [or thing] nor can he produce anything new. God cannot make more (than three) dimensions exist simultaneously.

These propositions would have made Darwin and Newton heretics, and quantum probability, the theory of continuous creation, ideas of multiple universes and dimensions would all have been heresies. The Bishop insisted that these possibilities must remain open because human reason cannot limit God’s omnipotence. By rejecting these propositions the bishop made it an offence to deny the possibility of evolution, quantum probability, Newtonian motion, the multiverse, continuous creation and multiple dimensions!


It does look as though modern people are as likely as those of the Middle Ages to hold false certainties. One of the oddest of these is the widespread conviction that medieval people thought the earth was flat. This is a modern mistake – there was no such belief in the Middle Ages. Perhaps ‘mistake’ is too kind a word. It is a lie that has been elevated into a fact.

The lie was concocted by two writers at around the same time: a French antireligious academic, Antoine-Jean Letronne, in his On the Cosmographical Ideas of the Church Fathers (1834), and the American novelist, Washington Irving. Irving was the author of such reliable historical texts as ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’. In 1828 he wrote an equally reliable biography of Christopher Columbus. This includes a scene in which the great navigator, about to set off westwards to the Indies, is confronted by the Church authorities at Salamanca in Spain. They accuse our hero of heresy because he says the world is round. It’s a gripping scene and one that has held imaginations in thrall through the ensuing years.

The only snag is that Washington Irving simply made the whole thing up. The Church had never taught that the world was flat. It’s nonsense.

But it was a great idea with which to attack the Church, even if it wasn’t true. Ledronne was an anti-Christian polemicist and the Darwinists, when they were attacked by the Church authorities for saying that humans were descended from other animals, connected his falsehoods with Irving’s fantasy and called religious zealots ‘flat earthers’. Irving’s nonsense was repeated by a succession of lazy authors*3 and ended up in a number of well-respected histories of science, and in the New York Times editorial that ushered in the first day of the new millennium.

There is no doubt that intelligent people in the Middle Ages knew perfectly well that the earth was a globe. Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, wrote that, ‘the astronomer and the natural philosopher both demonstrate the same conclusion, such as that the world is round; yet the astronomer does so through mathematics, while the natural philosopher does so in a way that takes matter into account.’

Roger Bacon, living at the same time as Aquinas, had been taught that Greek mathematicians had measured the earth’s circumference. It was obvious that it was round – for how else did things disappear beyond the horizon? As he wrote: ‘The . . . curvature of the earth explains why we can see further from higher elevations.’

What is more, medieval scholars were actively considering the possible existence of America. They realized that the people of the world they knew inhabited only one hemisphere, and devoted a lot of discussion to what happened on the other side. Some said it was all water. But some postulated the existence of another land mass, the antipodes, ‘on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us’ (that is, in the far west). And whether or not these ‘antipodes’ were inhabited was a matter of intense speculation. The fifth-century theologian St Augustine had thought not, on the very rational grounds that all humans must be descended from a common ancestor and such lands, if they existed, were too far away to have been settled.

Columbus had no problem with the Church’s geography. He found the antipodes.


Surely, though, the maps of the Middle Ages demonstrate beyond doubt that medieval people had no idea of the shape, size, look, nature, plan, organization or concept of the earth as it really is?

The standard medieval image of the earth – described as a T-O map – was a circular disc divided by bodies of water in the shape of the letter T. The area above the T represents Asia; the lower left quadrant (separated from Asia by the Black Sea) represents Europe and the lower right (separated from Asia by the Red Sea) represents Africa. The upright of the T, separating Europe and Africa, is the Mediterranean, and Jerusalem is in the centre of the map.

Well, it’s reassuring to be able to laugh at the ignorance of our forebears, but the trouble is that laughter often betrays our own ignorance. It’s unlikely that anybody who looked at such a ‘map’ in the Middle Ages thought it portrayed a geographical representation of the earth. The T-O map is more like an acronym, an aid to help people remember the significant points of the then-known world: the three continents and the waters in between.

And what of the wonderful and elaborate mappae mundi – such as the one in Hereford cathedral – that show strange and idiotic distortions of the earth? They are so obviously the products of a map-maker with less of a clue than the average primary-school student of today that it’s hard to take them seriously. And it’s certainly true that if you tried to use one to get from London to Stuttgart you probably wouldn’t get as far as Noah’s Ark – which usually figures prominently in such maps, along with the Tower of Babel, the dog-headed people converted by Thomas Aquinas, people with heads in their chests and people who protected themselves from the sun by holding their single gigantic foot over their heads like a parasol.

But once again we’re mistaking the purpose of the beast. These were not maps. Mappa simply means ‘cloth’ and a mappa mundi is not a ‘map of the world’ but a ‘cloth of the world’. The fact that we have derived our word ‘map’ from these cloths is not the fault of the people of the Middle Ages. If there’s any blame to be apportioned it’s our fault for forgetting where the word comes from.

And a cloth of the world had an entirely different purpose from an atlas (a seventeenth-century idea). A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, of human history, of notions and knowledge. It’s more like an encyclopaedia. It’s certainly not – and was never intended to be – a chart to be followed by travellers.

More than likely, a mappa mundi would have been a conversation piece in a rich man’s house. A fashionable – and expensive – ornament to prompt after-dinner discussion. For journeys people needed not maps but travel itineraries, and that is what they had. The most famous of the English ones was drawn by Matthew Paris, a monk of St Albans, in the thirteenth century. It shows the roads of England, and towns and villages and the time it takes to walk between them. The word ‘journey’ comes from the walking times on itineraries of this kind; ‘journée’ referred to a day’s travel.


The medieval church was by no means opposed to the pursuit of knowledge. On the contrary, it was churchmen who were responsible for many of the discoveries of the age. And the fabulous cathedrals, churches and abbeys that were constructed throughout the Middle Ages were the result of technical experimentation on a monumental scale.

The style of religious building that immediately followed the Conquest was essentially connected with fortification: thick stone walls with small windows were surmounted by barrel vaults supported on sturdy pillars.

The architecture of fortification was a natural field for innovation and experiment. By the late thirteenth century Edward I was building castles in a revolutionary new form created by a European master-mason, James of St George. In place of the old design, in which everything helped to defend a massive core called the Keep, Edward was dominating Wales with castles of concentric rings of wall, each wall protected by covering fire from towers. The gloomy, thick-walled Keep had been, in effect, a prison for the castle’s master; Edward’s castles were not only stronger but had at their heart an open space where a King or his lieutenant could live in more palatial comfort. But Church architecture had gone off on a totally different tack.

The Church had found a new confidence and it wanted to demonstrate that confidence. In fact, it now wanted to dominate the landscape. Abbots and archbishops became interested in constructing buildings with high towers, that would celebrate rather than defend their power.

We are so familiar with these enduring constructions that it is easy to forget that at the time they were built architects were experimenting at the limits of their technology and beyond – and all too often they learnt what those limits were the hard way: Winchester cathedral’s tower collapsed in 1107, during the building work. At Gloucester Abbey, built in 1100, the southern tower of the west front fell over in 1170.

But these minor drawbacks did not create architectural conservatism. On the contrary, theology said that God is light, and the Church wanted to get away from the dark, introspective architecture of the past and let the light of God shine in on worshippers.

So, when the choir of Canterbury cathedral burned down in 1174, the monks decided to build something altogether more ambitious in place of the previous heavy, rough-hewn pillars, rounded arches and wooden ceiling. And they allowed a French architect, William of Sens, to talk them into an entirely new architecture – far taller and lighter, finely chiselled and with its pointed arches coming together in graceful vaults, soaring to the glory of God and the Church. Nothing like it had been seen in England before.

In fact, William had conned the monks into it. He won the contract against other bidders by saying he thought they had overestimated the amount of work that needed doing, and then ‘for some time concealed what he found necessary to be done, less the truth should kill them’. It has often been said that medieval cathedrals were built by anonymous communities of dedicated men. The truth is they were built by internationally famous architects like William, who took advantage of ambitious churchmen to put up hugely expensive monuments to their own genius.

The problem of preventing the sides of a building being pushed outwards by the weight of the stone roof was solved by propping them up. At Canterbury the props developed in the course of the work from solid, triangular buttresses into flying buttresses – a new invention that would be the mark of ‘Gothic’ architecture.

This was a wildly experimental architecture, as was the process of putting it up. William was five years into the project, and about to start installing the great vault, when the scaffolding collapsed and timber, stone and William fell 50 feet. He survived, and tried to carry on directing the work from his bed, but in the end he had to return to France. It was another William, an Englishman, who came up with the design of the flying buttresses.

But the odd setback wasn’t going to stop the Church. Encouraged by hugely ambitious architects, it launched an unprecedented building programme, covering Britain and France with innovative and untried designs.

The nave of Lincoln cathedral collapsed in 1185 and the central tower in 1237 (during a sermon, burying the congregation). The tower of St David’s Cathedral fell down in 1220, as did Ely cathedral tower in 1322 (and part of the west front in the next century).York cathedral tower collapsed in 1407, and the tower of Ripon cathedral in 1450.

But by then the attempt to build ever-higher vaults was well and truly over. The technology had finally been recognized as being too dangerous in 1284, when a great chunk of Beauvais cathedral crashed to the ground. It was still under construction. Its choir was already the tallest building in Europe; its main section, the nave, was never built at all. Beauvais cathedral still stands – just – a massive stone fantasy of layered buttresses, attached to the stump of the squat building it was meant to replace and kept up by immense, modern wooden struts that are testament to the glorious incompetence of its design.


The Middle Ages were actually a hotbed of experimentation; and some people were prepared to test their theories in practical and very dangerous ways, even trying out flying machines. At Malmesbury Abbey, in the eleventh century, a monk by the name of Elmer built himself wings and took off from the top of the tower. The wings took him a full 200 yards before he crash-landed, breaking both legs.

When he was in bed recovering he told his abbot he knew what had gone wrong: his flying machine needed a tail. The abbot forbade him to take the experiment any further, setting back the development of flight by 900 years. But even though Elmer was crippled for life he never lost his interest in the sky. The Bayeux tapestry shows Halley’s comet, which was seen in 1066 and was heralded as a portent of disaster for England. It was reputedly Elmer who spotted it in the sky and gloomily identified its meaning.


Everywhere we look in the Middle Ages we find churchmen experimenting and testing, exploring new boundaries of knowledge. Of course, much of this wasn’t pure ‘blue skies’ research. Just like a lot of modern science there were often economic or political imperatives behind the pursuit of knowledge.

Take Richard of Wallingford, who became abbot of St Albans in 1327. He undertook one of the most ambitious engineering projects of his day for reasons that were more to do with the exercise of power than with pure research.

It was said that Richard had neglected theology as a student at Oxford, preferring to concentrate on mathematics and astronomy; but he was particularly interested in astrology. According to his fellow monks, he predicted by astrological means the old abbot’s death and his own election to the post. Richard was clearly attracted to science that had practical applications.

The abbey of St Albans had been built in the early twelfth century, and for many years dominated the commercial life of not just the town but also the surrounding district. In recent years, however, its grip had been allowed to slip. In 1323 some pillars in the south nave had collapsed, bringing down the roof and wall. To add to the monks’ woes, the townspeople and tenants had rebelled against the abbey, demanding a charter of rights with representation in Parliament and an end to being forced to have their grain ground (at what they considered exorbitant cost) in the abbey’s mills. The old abbot, Hugh was a sick man, and conceded the charter and gave up imposing the abbey’s monopoly on milling. As a result the abbey lost control of the town, and was broke.

Richard set about restoring its fortunes with a degree of ruthlessness. He confiscated the hand flour-mills the townsfolk were now using to grind their corn and had them set into the abbey floor. From then on they were once again forced to use the abbey’s mill and – of course – pay for the privilege. At one stroke Richard had made the abbey solvent. But instead of using the money to rebuild the collapsed nave, he decided he would make something that would dominate the commercial life of St Albans.

He decided to build a clock.

The Church had originally established what were called ‘canonical hours’. These marked the times for praying and there were only four such hours during daylight and four for the night. The intervals between the hours varied according to the season. In summer the daylight ones were long and the night-time ones were short, and vice versa in winter. This was time as physically experienced on earth.

Economic growth had brought pressure from merchants and employees for more accurate timekeeping. It appears that by the thirteenth century the intervals between canonical hours no longer varied according to the seasons – many monasteries had moved over to fixed lengths. One of the effects of this change was that None – the hour for prayers originally said at the ninth hour of the day (mid-afternoon) – was displaced to midday, giving the English language the word ‘noon’.

However, laypeople were beginning to use time as measured by astronomers, who divided a day into 24 equal and unvarying hours. By the fourteenth century the Church found that its monopoly on time was being appropriated by townspeople who began to erect clocks on public buildings and in city squares. Control of timekeeping was passing from the Church to the merchant classes.

Richard intended to keep the Church in control – in St Albans anyway. And as he was more concerned with the life of the town than the life of the abbey, his clock used the lay system – not the canonical hours. It did not just give the time, but linked it into the whole of the cosmos; on the clock could be seen the phases of the moon and the times of eclipses.

The clock used the same geared mechanism as the much-hated abbey mill, showing that the mill was linked to the mechanisms of the heavens. By chiming every hour, instead of just for prayers, it took control of the working day of the town. From now on, it was the Church that would issue the time for town council meetings, for the opening and closing of markets, for the start and the end of each and every day of work.*4

Richard’s aim seems to have been to demonstrate the intellectual and technical superiority of the Church, and its scientific understanding, over mere commercial tradesmen. You could say his purpose was political. And yet he would doubtless have claimed it was religious. He was making God’s universe visible.

We assume that science and religion are poles apart. But for the philosophers of the Middle Ages ‘science’ would have no meaning unless it led to an understanding of God. This religious agenda applied to every branch of philosophy or learning. Even medicine.


Today we expect but one thing from our doctors: to make us better. The medieval doctor was trying to do a lot more than that. He was taking care of the soul as well as the body. Unlike modern doctors he did not try to stop a patient dying at all costs . . . rather, if death seemed inevitable, he was duty-bound to try and help him or her die in the best possible way for their immortal soul.

But doctors of the Middle Ages had an even higher goal. It was no less than to return the human body to the state of perfection it had enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. And the means by which they would do this was through their version of the philosopher’s stone: the elixir of life.

For us, medicine is mechanical chemistry, one chemical interacting with another, with the patient as an anonymous vessel – the retort within which this interaction takes place. From a medieval perspective, this is a recipe for disaster. The basic question a medieval patient needed to ask was ‘Why me? Why now?’; and the cure for the illness, if there was one, would depend on the answer.

Just as natural philosophers relied on Aristotle for a basic understanding of the physical world, medieval doctors looked to another ancient Greek – Galen – for ideas about the human body. In both cases the connection to classical philosophy came through Islamic scholars and was eagerly taken up by enquiring Christian researchers.

At the centre of Galen’s medicine was a belief that health depended on the delicate balance of four vital fluids or humours: blood produced by the heart, phlegm produced in the brain, black bile from the liver and yellow bile from the gall bladder. It was believed that the individual mixture of these humours in each person determined their characters. This implied the need for different treatments for different sorts of people – even at different times of the day (an idea which has had some renewed life with the study of biorhythms).

Within this framework there was a complex world of plant knowledge, much of it used very successfully within its limits, comparable to what the Amazonian Indians, for example, know today. In fact, a considerable amount of medical knowledge that was dismissed as old wives’ tales in later, more ‘rational’, ages has subsequently been found to be extremely useful. One of the most famous examples is the use of willow bark for patients with fever, which was thought to be unscientific for many years but resulted in the development of aspirin . . .

The old word for a healer was ‘leech’, and the same word was applied to the bloodsucking worm doctors used to take blood from patients who were deemed to be ‘too sanguine’. The common medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, remained a popular instrument of treatment until the late nineteenth century – in fact, French doctors imported 41.5 million leeches in 1833 alone, and the poor little thing became an endangered species. The medical profession lost interest in bleeding as a cure for illness, but has recently realized the usefulness of a creature that produces natural anticoagulants and anaesthetics in its saliva, so that patients bleed readily and generally feel nothing. Today, doctors have begun to use leeches again, particularly after microsurgery, and they are even being farmed commercially for use in medicine. It is likely that there is more to be learnt from the medical practitioners of the past.


During the Middle Ages medical science was, like other branches of knowledge, experimental. At the site of an old monastery at Soutra Aisle, south of Edinburgh in Scotland, some remarkable detective work has uncovered new evidence of just how skilled some of the medieval practitioners were.

Dredging through the ‘blood and shit’ pits on site, archaeologists have discovered sets of seeds used in herbal preparations. These reveal a wealth of medical knowledge that has been lost to us. For example, a plant called tormentil was used to treat intestinal worms; it contains tannic acid, on which current treatments for worms are based. And juniper was used to promote contractions when giving birth.

Our belief that anaesthetics are a modern invention is shown to be quite wrong. Among the finds are several natural anaesthetics, such as opium, black henbane and hemlock. It had been thought that it was impossible to grow opium in Britain’s climate – but the monks clearly found a way. One of the major discoveries was a heel bone with deep ridges that look like evidence of a club foot. It is believed that the foot must have been amputated – and an anaesthetic compound was found only 3 inches away.

We like to believe in the idea of progress – and it helps to think that we know more than people did in the past. But, arguably, we have a strange form of medicine which seems to extend human life while creating its own wreckage. Hospitals actually cause disease while curing it. In 1997 the Lancet published a study*5 showing that just under 20 per cent of hospital patients in the United Kingdom experience some adverse event because of being in hospital. It found that the likelihood of this increased by 6 per cent for each day of hospitalization. Hospital-acquired infections alone kill nearly twice as many people in the UK as die on the roads.*6

In the United States medical treatment is the third highest cause of death (iatrogenic death) after cancer and heart disease. So, despite our undoubted progress in understanding the chemistry and biological structure of the body, and great advances in the techniques of medical intervention, we are not exceeding the achievements of medieval doctors as much as we might expect. In their terms we are doing worse, because the objective of their care was not necessarily to save the body (which would, of course, be wonderful) but to help save the soul by allowing patients to know the hour of their death, and prepare for it. This was itself a genuine medical skill and, again, one that depended on seeing the patient as a human being.

No-one ever found the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of life – otherwise they’d still be here to tell us about it – but this doesn’t mean we can dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of superstitious ignorance. The determination to insist on a major shift in thought around the time of Newton has done a great disservice to our understanding of the past.

It was medieval philosophers who argued that revelation was to be found hidden in nature, and uncovered by experiment. This was the true scientific revolution. And it was Newton’s age that was the great age of superstition. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that people started to believe that human beings could make a pact with the Devil and thereby gain supernatural powers.

When Roger Bacon thought about the future he believed it was easily possible that the world would very soon be completely transformed. He foresaw ships guided by one man, moving ‘with greater swiftness than if they were full of oarsmen . . .’; mechanical lifts and cranes; devices ‘whereby, without bodily danger, a man may walk on the bottom of the sea or of a river . . .’; high-powered magnification; artificial flight; and that ‘a car shall be made which will move with inestimable speed, and the motion will be without the help of any living creature . . .’.

That was 750 years ago. What took us so long?

Partly, our ignorance about our own past.

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