Medicine or Magic? Physicians in the Middle Ages
By William Gries
The Histories, Vol.15:1 (2019)
Introduction: According to Hannam’s paraphrase of the subject in The Genesis of Science: How the Christin Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, Aristotle claimed that, “no object could continue moving without some object moving it.” Such an observation may seem quite obvious to the uniformed observer, for, when one stops pushing a chair, the chair stops moving. This theory bumps into some problems, however, when it is extrapolated to all types of motion, such as a thrown ball that continues to move even after it has left the hand of the thrower. To make such an anomaly fit in with his theory of motion, Aristotle, “was convinced that something must be pushing it after it had left [one’s] hand…the only thing he could think of was that the air behind the ball was propelling it forward.”
Now, modern science, the product of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tells any learned person today that these Aristotelian claims are quite wrong. Even natural philosophers in the middle ages were actually aware that, “this idea [of violent motion] is easily refuted” by basic empirical experimentation or just simple observation. The issue was that, “such was Aristotle’s prestige that even his hairbrained ideas had to be taken seriously [and so] although critics were unconvinced by the air-pushing concept, they still accepted Aristotle’s fundamental law that a moving object must be moved by something else.” Clearly, even natural philosophy, through the study of physics, was plagued with grossly incorrect, at least in hindsight, theories and explanations for certain phenomena.
Note, however, that these, rather hairbrained, theories do not detract from Hannam’s claim that, “as scholars explore more and more manuscripts, they reveal achievements of the natural philosophers of the middle ages that are ever more remarkable” demonstrating that simply being tied to antiquity era writers, and their ideas, does not remove the label of ‘science’ from medieval era studies; in fact, such methods of thinking, that bound new thought up in the study and interpretation of ancient philosophers, appeared to have been the very basis for what did, and did not, constitute ‘science’ at the time.
Top Image: 15th century image of a Physician setting a dislocated arm