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Science in the Middle Ages – Rediscovering its Latent Genius

By Bridgette Hernandez

The period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance is commonly referred to by two distinct names – Middle Ages and Dark Ages. Roughly, we are looking at ten centuries of what most scholars consider to be a scientific regression led by the strong hand of the church.

While it is true that the Middle Ages have caused traditional Greco-inspired sciences to fade into obscurity, their continued development ensured Renaissance’s blooming later on. However, did “science” exist as we commonly refer to it today in the Middle Ages, or was research and study treated as a mere curiosity?

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The “Science” in the Science of the Middle Ages

The root of the word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia,” which is any field of knowledge, from botany, mathematics, or even theology. Theology played a large part in shaping the European continent in the centuries following Christianity’s canonization and the subsequent Great Schism, which split Christianity.

Given how dependent monarchs were of the church’s approval for anything they did, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches contributed to various fields of science independently. Monasteries were not only the homes of reclusive priests and monks seeking a connection to God but also learned scholars and manuscript writers, and artists.

Theology was closely integrated with other fields of science in the Middle Ages due to the time’s inherent necessity to look for God’s earthly footprints. This makes it difficult to distinguish the two today objectively, with primary sources all leaning heavily toward God as the ultimate architect of all things.

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Monasteries as the Middle Ages’ Universities

The second reason as to why monasteries were the meccas of scientific research lies in the monks’ level of education and familiarity with scientific fields. The printing press was not invented by Gutenberg by 1440, and even then, printing was a luxury very few could afford.

This made monasteries the perfect place for copying and storing original manuscripts from centuries past. When not in prayer or working in fields, monks spent most of their time reading, studying, copying, and preserving old manuscripts and creating new ones.

As official universities started opening in the late 11th century, as with the University of Bologna, the traffic between monasteries and formal schooling institutions increased. Manuscripts were exchanged, copied, and spread throughout Europe, further increasing the church’s presence in public life and academia.

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Translation and Distribution of Scientific Texts

Much like today, the science of the Middle Ages was an international affair despite Christianity’s heavy reliance on theology. Given the printing press’s late introduction to the Middle Ages, translation and physical distribution of scientific texts took precedent.

Universities across England, Germany, France, and Italy used Latin as the official international language, much like we use English today. Spain was particularly noteworthy for its translation of Islamic texts (copies and translations of original, lost Greek scriptures) back into Latin for international distribution.

This has made previously unknown and thought-lost scientific sources available again, prompting scholars to rediscover what was once lost to time. Both monastic orders and traders used this opportunity to distribute newly-written and freshly-copied tomes across Europe in hopes of spreading knowledge and enlightenment.

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Innovation Bred Through Rediscovery

The Middle Ages did much more than retread old ground laid out by ancient Greek scholars. Numerous scientific discoveries took place during the now-infamous time period despite the church’s wishes that all things be relegated to God.

The invention of the mechanical clock dates back to the 14th century, where it found its place as a time-keeping tool used by, again, monastic orders. Oxford Calculators, named for their place of invention, the Oxford University, have enabled scientists to measure elements such as speed and temperature with greater precision. First, eyeglasses were invented in the Middle Ages as a byproduct of research into optics and lenses.

Following that, research into sunlight, rays, and light is often attributed solely to European scholars but owes its roots to Muslim scholars in equal measure. While God has been placed at the center of creation in the Middle Ages, scholars didn’t stray from asking big questions about how nature works.  However, as stated, the two are interconnected on a fundamental level, and it is almost impossible to look at science and theology as separate entities.

Astronomy as an Epicenter of Medieval Curiosity

One only needs to look up at a starry sky to start wondering what the cosmos is really made of. This is the line of thinking many scholars in the Middle Ages attempted to follow through on through their research. We can trace the origins of cosmology to Plato and Aristotle, but their philosophies rely on the earthly and forgo the heavenly altogether.

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Medieval scholars were able to draw a parallel between the heavenly and earthly, justifying that what happens down here reflects on your journey up there. This has also been subjugated to Christianity and the notion of leading a healthy earthly life to ensure your place in the heavens. For medieval scientists, Earth was at the center of the cosmos, and everything else revolved around it. That is not to say that scholars were oblivious to the Solar System and planetary bodies as we know them today.

The astrolabe was a device which found its way to Europe from the Middle East in the 11th century and was used for astronomical predictions. Positions of planetary bodies were used closely with the zodiac to determine the best times to perform various earthly activities or medical procedures. In the 12th century, mathematics, arithmetic, and geometry slowly found their way into the field of astronomy, helping all these fields flourish going forward.

Planting the Seeds of Modern Medical Science

Medicine is a field which was seen in a drastically different light compared to today’s way of thinking. Following the familiar pattern of theology, most diseases and ailments were seen as acts of God and punishment for mankind’s misdeeds. Such was the case with the Black Death, notorious for its decimation of the European continent, which was interpreted as mankind’s ultimate punishment.

However, people were not oblivious to environmental disasters and climate changes, which, while equally godly, could be studied and anticipated more easily than sicknesses. As astronomy continued its development late into the Middle Ages, scholars were able to identify nature’s patterns more clearly and contribute to the medical field. The idea of the spiritual (mind) and earthly (body) being interdependent originated from the Middle Ages, and we still refer to it in academia.

Various herbs and drugs were used, studied, and subsequently cataloged by monastic orders and then spread throughout the continent as guidelines for healing the afflicted. Combined with the notion of spirit-body cohesion, Christian priests and pilgrims could exert religion and belief with the populous due to sheer continental educational disparity.

Reexamining the Science of the Middle Ages

It’s easy to look at the Middle Ages from the 21st-century perspective and scoff at numerous mistakes and poor decisions made in scientific studies. However, without the foundations laid in medieval times, our understanding of sciences such as mathematics, astronomy, and, crucially, medicine would be lacking severely.

With the church’s dominance in the Middle Ages being omnipotent, the only way any real scientific progress could have been made was under its wing. Today, we have the luxury of hindsight and are able to extrapolate what exactly long-forgotten scholars thought of the world we live in. By looking back, we can pave the way forward and leave an even better foundation for those that follow in our footsteps.

Bridgette Hernandez is a professional writer, editor, and self-proclaimed history buff, working closely on Subjecto Flashcards. Brid loves to write articles, case studies and do research on the topics of art and history, among others. In her spare time, Brid is an avid reader and traveler.

Top Image: Detail of historiated initial, with a female figure, possibly a personification of astronomy, showing the stars to a group of scholars, who wear versions of fourteenth-century academic dress, at the beginning of Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated by Gerard of Cremona. British Library MS Burney 275 fol. 390v

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