History of Science in the Middle Ages of Europe


History of Science in the Middle Ages of Europe

We studied the origin of western science in the ancient times. This article is a continuation of that post. Here, we shall learn about how science progressed in the Middle Ages of Europe.

Middle Ages as is a period in European history between about 476 and 1400. Please remember that history has no clear-cut divisions. Rather, one period merges into the next. 

The history of science, which you will study, is essentially about European science. You will also learn about Africa’s contributions to the advancement of modern science.

At the end of this article, you should be able to discuss vividly the state of science during the Dark Ages of Western Europes, outline the contributions of Arab scholars to science and write short notes on Robert Grossetesste, Rogar Bacon and Leonardo de Vinci.

Science in the Middle Ages of Europe (476 - 1400 AD)

The Middle Ages are also known as the medieval period. The period was dominated by Christian Theology and characterized by initial decline of science and its rise again much later (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

There are two phases within this period and they are:

1. The Dark Ages (450 to 800 AD)

2. The Renaissance (9th to 15th century AD)


Science in the Dark Ages

This is the first part of the Middle Ages in Europe. As a result of constant invasions by barbarian tribes (the tribes outside the Roman Empire), civilization which had flourished under the rule of the Roman Empire, came to a standstill.

Development in learning, architecture, science and art slowed down or stopped altogether. Life also became unsafe as a result of the many wars among the petty kingdoms within the Empire.

A kind of ‘darkness’ covered life in Europe. For this reason, the period from about AD 450 to 800 is sometimes called the ‘Dark Ages’. (You might be interested to know that this was the period when the old kingdom of Ghana reached the peak of its civilisation).

All through the Middle Ages, there was only one Christian church (Roman Catholic) in Western Europe. It became a symbol of unity, such that the united Christian world was called ‘Christendom’. 

During the Dark Ages, the fathers of the church showed little interest in knowledge of nature for its own sake. They believed that holding discussion on the nature and position of the earth would not help them in their hope of life to come (Damper: 1989).

Therefore, the desire and the power to study nature with an open mind gradually passed away. From the Christian perspective knowledge of nature was valued only as a means of edification, or as an illustration of the passage of scripture. People soon lost the ability to criticize and believe anything particularly if it was in accordance with the scriptures.

Example, a dictum of Aristotle, says, ‘everything that moves is moved by something else’. Thomas Aquinas, one of the fathers of the church, used the statement as evidence that God must exist since he is an unmoved mover.

Aristotle’s cosmology was the dominant basis of science in the Dark Ages and the scholastic period— the period of Arab influence (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica:1995).He believed that heavenly bodies influenced human destinies.

However, some advances were made during this period. However, their fundamental nature, really made people not to notice them. These included the inventions of the rigid horse collar and the iron horse shoe. While the rigid horse collar helped to shift the weight of a load to a horse’s shoulder, the horseshoe protected a horse’s hoof from damage and so enabled the animal to travel farther and faster than it could without them. These were important inventions, since the use of horses were their means of land transportation (The New Encyclopaedia B ritannica: 1995).

What do you think were the means of land transportation in Africa at that time? In addition, the monks in monasteries ensured that some amount of learning was kept alive. During that period, they translated ancient knowledge and works of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks into Latin. They also kept alive some knowledge of the art of agriculture, since they were practical farmers. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, Islamic learning started to flourish in the East.

To the Arabs, ancient science was a precious treasure. They eagerly searched for the writings of the Greeks and translated them into their language.

In this way, much of the ancient science passed into Islamic culture. Greek medicine, astronomy and astrology, mathematics, philosophical works of Plato and particularly, Aristotle were assimilated in Islam, by the end of the 9th century.

The Arabs, however, did not stop with assimilation (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).

They criticized and tried to make their own innovations.

Don’t you think that should be the attitude of us Africans towards scientific advancements?

Don’t you think that Africans should not just use foreign-made goods, for example, without some healthy criticisms?

You may recall from that critical thinking was defined as the testing and evaluation of proposed solutions to a problem. Also, it was mentioned that ‘critical tradition is fundamental to the advance of science’.

You might be aware that some of the foreign-made goods don’t function properly in Africa because of the weather, even though they help to solve some of our problems. Would you be able to give some examples of the foreign-made goods?

As we already mentioned in the foregoing, the Arabs criticized and innovated. Their major interest was in Astronomy and Astrology. They constructed great astronomical observatories, which they used in checking Ptolemaic predictions.

The Arabs further made many improvements in medicine. In their hands, the primitive chemistry of the Greeks known as alchemy developed into modern chemistry. Rhazes (865 -925) was the reatest of the Arabic alchemist. His works were based on experience and experiment.

The most eminent Muslim physicist was Ibn-al Haitham (965 -1020 AD). His chief work was done in optics and showed a great advance in experimental method (Damper: 1989; Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

Islamic thinkers were fascinated with numbers. This fascination thus served as the motivation for the creation of algebra (from Arabic: al-Jabr) and the study of algebraic functions (The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: 1995).

They also borrowed the idea of zero from the Hindu mathematicians and invented the Arabic numerals. Is this not interesting?

Do you know what the Arabic numerals are?

You might know but may not have known who invented them and how they were invented.

The Arabic numerals are: 1,2,3,4,5, etc. Are you surprised?

You would now know the importance of this invention. Just imagine how our everyday would have been like without these numerals?

We wouldn’t be able to do formal mathematics, various businesses would not have been able to keep records, and governments would have found it difficult to take census and so on and so forth. Towards the end of the medieval period, it was widely recognized that the East held the secret of ancient wisdom in learning and science.

Thus, the Europeans (west) developed interest in Arabic language and commenced translations of books from Arabic to Latin. You can observe the influence of Arabic learning of this period from several basic scientific terms that have their origins in Arabic or Persian language (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997).

Examples include the following:

1. Pharmaceutical terms: alcohol, camphor, and syrup. (These are of Persian origin)

2. Technical/astronomical: Zenith, azimuth, azure, etc. (These are of Arabic origin).

3. Mathematical terms: zero, cipher, sine, root, algebra, algorism, etc

4. Music terms: lute, guitar, rebeck, etc.

5. Other words of Arabic origin include: almanac, mattress, take, tartarm astronomy, etc.

However, the Arabic or Muslim science was very speculative. Making little or no experiments. It was not empirical. By the close of 11th century, the decline of Arabic learning had set in, and from then, science was chiefly a European activity.


Science in the Renaissance Period

This period is the second half of the Middle Ages of Western Europe and it started from the 9th to 15th century. During this period, men began to be dissatisfied with a way of life, which made progress very slow. People felt that changes in ideas, in beliefs and in ways of thought were necessary.

The ancient Greeks and the peoples of other ancient civilisations had written many books on mathematics, astronomy, geography etc., and learned men of this period began to study these ancient writings.

This increasing desire for knowledge was satisfied by translation of the Greek books into Latin. This was done in two ways:

Firstly by retranslation from the Arabic and later by direct translation from the Greek (Damper: 1989). The learned men of this period saw that the ancient scholars had a lot to offer them. But they were not satisfied to learn simply what those before them had written or taught.

They tried to find out new things for themselves. (This should exactly be the attitude of Africans and Nigerians in particular towards scientific development. Don’t you think so?) You would observe that this attitude of renaissance men was different from that of the men of the Dark ages. Men of the Dark Ages were often satisfied with whatever they learnt, without any form of questioning.

This spirit of questioning old beliefs and forming new opinions generally came to be described as the ‘Renaissance’, which means rebirth or revival of learning. The revival was started in Italy by three famous scholars: Dante (1265 -1321 AD), Petrarch (1304 -1374 AD) and Boccaccio (1313 -1321 AD).

These artists tried to show how superior the learning, art and culture of the ancient Greeks were, and this led to a revival of interest in the Greek language. In the field of science were two very influential theologians and philosophers: Albert ‘the Great’ (1193 -1280 AD), a Bavarian Dominican priest, and Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274 AD), an Italian monk. Both of them taught at the University of Paris.

They were the first to accept the idea of a distinction between knowledge of nature and revealed knowledge. But they also pointed out that God was the author of both.

This rationalistic approach separating large segments of human knowledge from theology, prepared the way for a relatively independent development of science. (Damper: 1989; Ene: 2000; The New Encyclopedia Britannica: 1995).

Some scientists of this period with experimental and practical bent of mind include the following: Robert Grosseteste (1175 -1253). He was an English philosopher science. He determined the main direction of the physical science in the 13th and 14th centuries. He had knowledge of the workings of mirrors and of the nature of lenses (Nwala and Agbakoba: 1997). Roger Bacon (1214 - 1294 AD).

He was an English, Franciscan Monk. He was the first man in Europe, during the renaissance period, approached in scientific spirit, the great Arabians who preceded him (Damper: 1989).

This was because of his clear understanding that experimental methods alone give certainty in science. This was a revolutionary change in mental attitude. He read all the authors he could reach.

This included those of the Arabic and Greek authors.

Instead of accepting the facts and inferences of natural knowledge from the scriptures, the fathers, the Arabians or Aristotle, he told the world that the only way to verify their statements was to observe and experiment. But in spite of his writing, he did not appear to have done much experimenting himself, except in optics.

In addition, for his entire comparatively advanced outlook, accepted most of the medieval attitude of mind. This was with regards to the fact that the end of science and philosophy was to explain and adorn their queen - theology. Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519).

He was an Italian and he could stand as the incarnation of the true spirit of scientific thought of the renaissance. He was a painter, a sculptor, an engineer, an architect, a physicist, a biologist and a philosopher. He was indeed supreme in each role.

To him, observation of nature and experimentation were the only true methods of science. He also believed that knowledge of the ancient writers could be useful as a starting point, but could never be conclusive. He opined that mathematics, arithmetic and geometry gave knowledge that was certain within their domain, and therefore had something to do with reasoning. But true science, he said began with observation to obtain certainty of knowledge.

According to him again, ‘those sciences which do not begin with experiments, the mother of all certainties and which do not end with one clear experiment are vain and full of errors’. Science to him Give certainty and power (Damper: 1989).

Leonardo might have been great, but it is to be noted that he did not solely originate the scientific spirit he displayed. Alberti (1404 -1472) had studied mathematics and did physical experiments before him.

While he was helped in his anatomical researches by Antonio della Torre, Amerigo Vespucci gave him a book on geometry.

What do you think we can learn from the men of Renaissance? If your answer includes the following, then you are on the right track:

1. They truly founded modern science. They emphasized observation, hypothesizing and experimentation, which are the core elements of the scientific method.

2. In spite of the above statement, science at the Renaissance period was still a branch of philosophy. This is because renaissance men were still philosophers in spite of their advanced scientific outlook.

3. Africans, especially Nigerians of all works of life should cultivate the habit of using the scientific method of reasoning. It was the emergence of this method and its use that led to the advancement of countries of Western Europe and other advanced countries.


Conclusion on History of Science in the Middle Ages of Europe

In this article, we have discussed how Western science, which originated in the ancient times, progressed through the Dark Ages and Renaissance period.

As you are now aware, the Dark Ages and Renaissance period constitute the two parts of the time called the Middle Ages of Europe. Within these periods, Western science was still trying not only to find its feet, but also to free itself from the clutches of philosophy and religion. The next article will focus on how science finally found its feet.

The main points in this article are as follows:

• The Middle Ages of Western Europe comprise two phases which are: the Dark Ages (450 to 800 AD) and the Renaissance (9th to 15th century AD).

• In the Dark Ages, knowledge of nature was valued only as a means of edification or as an illustration of the passages of scripture.

• In that period also, people lost the ability to criticise and believed anything that was in accordance with the scriptures. Thus, science and earning declined rapidly.

• In that same period, the monks in monasteries translated ancient works into Latin and thus kept alive some amount of learning.

• While Europe was in the Dark Ages, Islamic learning started to flourish.

• Islamic scholars translated Greek writings into their language because they treasured ancient science.

• In this way, ancient science passed into Islamic culture. 

• The Arabs did not stop with assimilation. They also criticised and innovated.

• In their hands, the primitive chemistry of the Greeks known as alchemy developed into modern chemistry.

• Islamic thinkers also created the science of algebra and the study of algebraic functions.

• They also borrowed the idea of zero from the Hindu mathematicians and invented the Arabic numerals.

• Many scientific terms such as alcohol, syrup, zenith, algebra, zero, sine etc. are legacies which Arabic science left to mankind.

• The Renaissance period was characterized by an increasing desire for knowledge such that critical power resurfaced.

• The Renaissance in science was started by two theologians: Albert the Great (1193 -1280 AD) and Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274 AD).

• They were the first to accept the idea of a distinction between knowledge of nature and revealed knowledge. They also pointed out that God was the author of both.

• This attitude of theirs prepared the way for a relatively independent development of science.

• Some scientists of this period who emphasized the methods of observation and experimentation were: Robert Grossetesste (1175 - 1253 AD), Roger Bacon (1214 -1294 AD) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519 AD).

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