Science in the Middle Ages
What is Science?-Science versus Arts.
- Science can be thought of as two coexisting modes of thought/action
- The attempt to understand and to explain the natural world.
This can also be referred to as Natural Philosophy and is what
most historians of science are largely referring to when they
look at science before the "Scientific Revolution"
of 17th century Europe or in other cultures prior to their acceptance
of "modern science."
- The method of modern science, that is the experimental method
often characterized as the "Scientific Method" based
on observation, hypothesis creation , hypothesis testing (via
experimentation or directed exploration), and theory building.
- The Arts encompasses two broad categories which I will distinguish
as the "Liberal Arts" and simply the Arts.
- The Liberal Arts are very much what you might think of them
today: grammar, philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy:
what you might study at a liberal arts college. Basically the
Arts in the Middle Ages included the entire undergraduate curriculum
and the graduate curriculum outside of theology, medicine, and
- The Arts on the other hand are pretty much what we would
call technology and art: metal work, painting, ceramics, building
trades, etc. In other words, most of SCA "science."
- For my talk today I want to focus on two aspects of science
in the Middle Ages: First I want to give you a brief picture
of the overall intellectual atmosphere and content of science
in this period. And second, I want to illustrate some of the
overlap of Science and Art in the Middle Ages with some examples
of period scientific instruments-to me an important Medieval-Christian
and Islamic precursor to modern science.
- The Knowledge of Science: 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: 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 of 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."
- 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)
Examples of Some Scientific Instruments Typical of the Middle
Perfected by the Arabs, this instrument was developed by the
Greeks as early as the 2nd century B.C. The oldest extant examples
are 10th (Islamic) & 13th (Christian) century.
Astrolabe: A greatly simplified offshoot of the astrolabe,
it was developed in Portugal in the 15th century as superior
to the quadrant for navigation on ships.
- Altitude Quadrant:
Developed by the Greeks. Earliest Muslim reference is by Al Kwarizmi
(c. 840) with the earliest European description that of Leonardo
of Piza (c. 1220).
- Cross Staff:
Invented by the Provencal Levi b. Gerson in 1342 for astronomical
measurements. It was later adapted for navigational use. The
example is modeled after such a navigational instrument.
Sphere: Derived from Ptolemy's observational armillary sphere
the astrolabon. Observational spheres were well known in Islam
and were transmitted to Europe by the early 14th century. The
didactic sphere was used in teaching elementary astronomy in
Christian Europe, has no Islamic background, and was probably
developed in the 13th century. There were two types: a simple
hand-held variety, and one supported on a stand where it could
be set to various latitudes and seasons.
The wooden-bowl compass seems to have been developed by 1300
in the Mediterranean. Knowledge of the compass seems to have
come from China in the twelfth or thirteenth century. The example
is modeled after an extant specimen from the 15th century.
Dial: Modeled after a medieval instrument found in the walls
of Canterbury Cathedral.
- * References:
- AC= Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science.
Doubleday & Co. Inc. Garden City (1959).
- 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).
- EG= Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in
the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge (1996).
- © R. Paselk
- Last modified 6 August 1999