The Relevance of the Middle Ages to the History of Science and Technology

The Relevance of the Middle Ages to the History of Science and Technology

By Nicholas H. Steneck

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, No. 441 (1985)

Optical diagram showing light being refracted by a spherical glass container full of water – from Roger Bacon, De multiplicatione specierum)

Introduction: Prior to the late nineteenth century, few scholars assigned much importance to the Middle Ages when discussing the development of modern science and technology. Most assumed that the medieval period was best seen as a backward age whose darkness helped set out the brilliance of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Beginning in the first decade of this century, Pierre Duhem tried to change this view by presenting evidence of important scientific discoveries that were supposedly made in the fourteenth century by Parisian and English scholastics.

By the late 1920s, Charles Homer Haskins drew back the curtains even farther with his speculations about the importance of the renaissance of the twelfth century. With the renewed interest in medieval science and technology that followed, the way was opened for a critical reassessment of the relevance of the Middle Ages to the development of our modern scientific-technological world.

However, the process of reassessment has yet to produce any consensus on the relevance of the medieval period to the scientific and technological revolutions of western society. Duhem’s continuity thesis is now seen as much too optimistic. Fourteenth-century thinkers criticized elements of the Aristotelian world view, but they did not abandon it. Their teachings on astronomy did not anticipate Copernicus’s contributions to astronomy, nor did they discover inertia or analytical geometry. Save for a few possible minor exceptions from astronomy, optics, and mathematics, it is difficult to point to any speculations about nature maintained in the Middle Ages that were not later overturned during the course of the Scientific Revolution.

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