Humboldt State University ® Department of Chemistry

Richard A. Paselk

Science in the Middle Ages


(Summer 1997)

What is Science?-Sciences & Arts
I. In modern terms of scientists science can be thought of as two coexisting modes of thought/action:
II. The term science can also be "applied to any procedure or belief characterized by rigor, precision, or objectivity" (DL 2). Thus Sherlock Holmes, and medieval theologians considered themselves scientific.
III. Another definition holds that science includes the patterns of behavior by which we have gained control over nature. Thus science in ancient and medieval times (as well as today in lay terms) could refer to technology and craft traditions.
The Arts encompasses two broad categories:
The Knowledge of Science: (For our discussions I am going to use the definitions of science under (I).)
A number of institutions/occurrences were critical to the development of science in the Middle Ages.
The separation of Church and State (based on Christ's dictum: Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar's and onto God that which is God's) allowed for greater intellectual freedom. This was quite different than in Islam or Byzantium, where there was little or no differentiation between religious and secular authority.
The translations (from Arabic and Greek into Latin): Science in the Middle Ages was absolutely dependent on the translations of the Greek texts, particularly those of Aristotle. These of course did not generally come to them raw. Most initially came via the Islamic culture, particularly through Spain And "Islamic" scientists had heavily commented on and added to this heritage. Thus Europe gained a highly developed scientific literature, the result of perhaps a thousand years of intellectual exploration.
By far the greatest of these translations were of Aristotle's works. Most of us, having never looked at Aristotle think of him as one of the great early philosophers. In fact he was the great Greek scientist and most of his extant works (and those available in the Middle Ages) pertain to science, and especially to Natural Philosophy. The works of other authors, such as Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, al-Kwarizmi, Avicenna, Rhazes, and Archimedes were also largely concerned with science. As was Plato's Timaeus.
The University is a unique contribution of 12th century Europe to the World's cultures. Originally based on the guild structure, the term university originally had no scholarly or educational connotations, it simply referred to a group pursuing common ends (DL 208). Commonly four faculties existed: an undergraduate faculty of liberal arts, and three graduate faculties-law, medicine, and theology. A boy started at university at about age 14, spent 3­4 years to get his bachelor's degree (via exam), then might pursue a master of arts while lecturing on some subjects. At about age 21 he could take the masters exam to get the M.A. which would entitle him to teach all courses in the liberal arts. (DL 209) Additional study for the Master's or Doctor's degree (no difference) took 6­7 years past the M.A. for medicine, 7­8 years for law, and 8­16 years for theology. The curriculum expanded beyond the traditional seven liberal arts. Logic increased its emphasis while grammar declined, math maintained its low profile, while the three philosophies, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, and metaphysics rounded out the arts .Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Aristotelian natural philosophy became compulsory and the central, dominant material of the arts curriculum. This curriculum was very uniform across Christianity. Completing the M.A. conferred the ius ubique docendi (right of teaching anywhere). (DL 212) Of course having a common language, Latin, helped. Finally, the Masters had great intellectual freedom-"there was almost no doctrine, philosophical or theological, that was not submitted to minute scrutiny by scholars of the medieval university." (DL 213) "[T]he medieval master...who specialized in the natural sciences, would not have thought of himself as restricted or oppressed by either ancient or religious authority." (DL 213)
The liberal attitude of the Catholic Church toward pagan knowledge: For the most part they seemed to feel little threat from pagan philosophy etc. This is seen in the emergence of the theologian-natural philosophers who had backgrounds in natural philosophy as well as theology (as a result of the emphasis on science in the medieval university). These Medieval Scholastics had a spirit of free inquiry, emphasized reason, had a profound sense that seeking to understand how the world operated was a laudable undertaking, and they created a core of problems to be studied. (EG 202) Thus, William of Ockham, "Assertions...concerning natural philosophy, which do not pertain to theology, should not be solemnly condemned or forbidden to anyone, since in such matters everyone should be free to say freely whatever he pleases." (c. 1330; EG 201) and Nicole Oresme invoking reason to repudiate arguments for the eternity of the world: "I want to demonstrate the opposite according to natural philosophy and mathematics. In this way it will become clear that Aristotle's arguments are not conclusive." (EG 201) Medieval natural philosophers (e.g. Buridan) sought to investigate the "common course of nature," not the uncommon or miraculous course. They described this as "speaking naturally" (loquendo naturaliter)-speaking in terms of natural science, not faith or theology. (EG 195) They were thus able to avoid theological condemnation, since they still allowed God the miraculous or out of the ordinary.
Three preconditions for the development of modern science were thus laid down in the Middle Ages: 1) the translation of Greco-Arabic works on science and natural philosophy into Latin, 2) the formation of the Medieval University, and 3) the emergence of the theologian-natural philosophers. (EG 171)
Many of the key works on science and mathematics in the middle ages are readily available in translation. The items displayed at the workshop are all from The Great Books of the Western World set: v 7, Plato; v. 8 & 9, Aristotle; v. 10 Hippocrates & Galen; v. 11 Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga, and Nicomachus; v. 16, Ptolemy (this is not considered a particularly good translation, a better one was made in the 1980's); v. 19 & 20, Thomas Aquinas.
Examples of Some Scientific Instruments Typical of the Middle Ages
  1. AC= Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science. Doubleday & Co. Inc. Garden City (1959).
  2. DL= Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Traditions in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. University of Chicago Press. Chicago (1992).
  3. EG= Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge (1996).

Workshops Medieval Science & Scientific Instruments


© R. Paselk
Last modified 6 August 1999