Medieval Roots of Science

University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

The High Middle Ages (1100-1300)

Unlike the Middle Ages of popular stereotype, the actual Middle Ages were a time of vigorous activity in Western Europe, and a time when we can identify many of the attitudes central to the scientific and technical word-view beginning to assume recognizable form.

Beginning about 1100, there was a general trickle of ancient knowledge via Spain and Sicily that expanded to a steady stream. The Almagest of Ptolemy arrived in Europe about 1100 via Spain. Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) authored seventy translations including Avicenna's medical encyclopedia. Arabic (actually Hindu) numerals arrived around 1200. The astrolabe, an astronomical calculator invented by the ancient Greeks, reappeared in the Moslem world about 800 and had reached Europe by 1200. Euclid's work on geometry was unavailable in Europe in 1100; by 1200 there were six translations, some from the original Greek, others by way of Arabic. Eastern technological innovations also appeared in Europe. Paper had been making its way westward from China for centuries, and finally appeared in Europe by 1200. The trebuchet, a counterweight catapult also from China, appeared about 1100 and greatly increased the range and power of siege machinery. (The trebuchet is the device featured in an episode of Northern Exposure, used to fling a piano, although the medieval versions were powered by falling weights rather than a bulldozer.) The compass, traditionally attributed to China, appeared all across Eurasia about 1200. Windmills as a power source originated in the near East and entered Europe about 1100. Gunpowder and possibly the concept of the clock escapement mechanism also arrived from China around 1200.

There were also important independent inventions in Europe. One was the discovery of linen, a fiber that greatly reduced the price of cloth. The cheapness of linen made it feasible to throw away old clothing and, with the advent of paper, to recycle it into paper. An abundance of paper laid the foundation for the printing press. But no invention so epitomizes the West to the rest of the world as the clock. Mechanical clocks may have been inspired and assisted by innovations elsewhere, but clocks themselves are wholly European, the first really advanced mechanical devices of completely Western origin. When Europeans opened trade with China and Japan, clocks were one of the few manufactured articles that Asians were not making for themselves.

Why did clocks appear in Europe? Complex mechanical clock prototypes had been made in China, but never were widely copied. When they appeared in Europe, they were the rage. It appears that clocks are intimately related to Western concepts of individuality. In a world that never changes, time is of no consequence. In a slave society time doesn't matter; working faster only means more work, none of the slave's output benefits him, and there is no liberty to enjoy what leisure time exists anyway. A master in a slave society need not be concerned with time either; he has slaves to do the work. The significance of clocks is this: only autonomous people have agendas; they have things to do, places to go and people to see.

Rise of Western Science and the Decline of Islamic Science

It is ironic that just at the time that the West began rapidly accelerating in science and technology, the brilliant flowering of the Islamic world came to an end. Islamic attitudes around 1100 became conservative, and mistrustful of the effects of learning on faith. The writer al-Ghazzali, (1058-1111) was one of the most influential critics of rationalism. The trend was accelerated by the Crusades, but especially by the trauma of the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. In contrast, Western writers, especially Thomas Aquinas, argued all truth was one and that there should be no conflict between science and religion.

One of the rediscoveries of the Middle Ages was Roman Law. To northern Europeans, whose law had been largely traditional and rule-of-thumb, the discovery that one could systematize human affairs as coherently as the Romans had done was a revelation. Revival of interest in Roman law helped foster a general belief in order.

The dark side of the force was that Roman law sanctioned judicial torture. No society has ever required outside help in inventing torture, and Europe was no exception, but Roman law allowed the use of evidence acquired by torture. In theory, torture could be used to be sure a person was really telling the truth; in practice, the evidence meant whatever the interrogators wanted to make it mean.

The Unique Nature of Western Monotheism

The medieval world with its emphasis on religious dogma seems alien and threatening to secular 20th Century Americans. Yet we can recognize in the medieval world-view some important ingredients of our modern world-view. Some of these arise from the nature of Judaeo-Christian monotheism itself.

A brief note on usage: It used to be traditional to capitalize all references to God, direct or indirect. It is still the norm in religious literature but no longer in secular and academic literature. In what follows, God will be capitalized when used as a proper name, but not otherwise. Pronouns will not be capitalized.

First of all, the Judaeo-Christian god is the creator of the Universe, but still active in it. Contrast this belief with Classical mythology. In Classical mythology, the chief of the gods on Mount Olympus is Zeus (Latin, Jupiter). Where did Zeus come from? His father was Cronos (Saturn), and Cronos' parents in turn are Uranus and Gaia (Greek, Heaven and Earth). Saturn gave birth to Zeus and some monstrous beings called the Titans; there are some dark and not at all Greek-sounding myths about battles against the Titans, and once the gods are established on Olympus, the progenitor gods who created the Universe never appear in any more myths. The gods who influence the world are not the gods who created it. The Judaeo-Christian god, in contrast, both created the universe and is still active in it.

Second, the Judaeo-Christian god is transcendent: unlimited in scope or powers. The Classical gods, in contrast, were very limited. The story of the start of the Trojan war provides a perfect example. The gods are assembled for a banquet on Olympus when a party-crasher appears. She is Eris, goddess of discord, who was not invited (with a reputation like that, small wonder!). She comes anyway, throws a golden apple into the hall, then leaves. The apple is inscribed "To the fairest", and immediately Hera, queen of the gods, Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, begin squabbling over it (one would expect Athena, the goddess of wisdom, at any rate to have more sense). The male gods wisely bow out of offers to settle the dispute, so the goddesses pick a mortal, the shepherd Paris, who is watching his flocks near Troy. They appear to Paris, and each offers him a bribe. Hera offers power, Athena offers wisdom, and Aphrodite offers the most beautiful woman in the world. To Paris, the choice is easy. He chooses Aphrodite, who gives him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, Helen happens to be married to King Menelaus, and when Paris kidnaps her and takes her back to Troy, Menelaus assembles his Greek allies and follows in pursuit. Hera, Athena, and their allies naturally support the Greeks, and Aphrodite and her allies support the Trojans. The rest is history, or, at least, mythology.

From this legend, it is clear that the Olympian gods are limited in many ways. They cannot see the future (they were taken by surprise by Eris), they are limited in power, they can be bribed and bargained with, and they are morally imperfect.  The really serious issues were decided by other forces: the Fates decided issues like life and death, and the Furies dealt with divine retribution for heinous deeds like cold-blooded murder or betrayal. There are no cute myths about the Fates and the Furies; when they appear, it is always in deadly earnest.

(We see hints of limited gods even in the early books of the Bible. In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hide from God after eating the forbidden fruit, and God has to call them out of hiding and ask them why they were covered. Later on, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into blessing him rather than his older brother, as if God would be bound by a blessing obtained by trickery. But the Jewish concept of God would eventually evolve into something radically different.)

The Judaeo-Christian god, on the other hand, knows everything, past, present, and future, and can do everything. He does not bargain and cannot be bribed. The Olympian gods were more concerned with who got the golden apple than with Paris kidnapping another man's wife; one even made the abduction possible. In contrast, the Judaeo-Christian god says "Thou shalt not commit adultery", and that is the end of the discussion. No amount of propitiation will persuade him to change his mind or make an exception. With a god who is infinitely powerful, there is no need, or room, for any other. The early Jews seem to have considered the gods of other nations to be legitimate for other nations, but soon came to insist that their god was the only one, thus setting them constantly at odds with their neighbors, and with occupiers who might have been prepared to accept the Hebrew god as legitimate, but who demanded equal honors to their own gods. Early Christians briefly debated where other gods fit in relation to their own, but rapidly discarded them as mythical at best, diabolical at worst.

Thus we have a single god who is the creator of the Universe and still ruler of it, and one who is omnipotent and omniscient. Three very important currents of Western thought stem from this belief system:

  1. Nature is not ruled by supernatural forces.
  2. There exist laws that are absolute and invariable
  3. There is one correct theology (philosophy, ideology)

The notion of a transcendent god leads inevitably to the de-sacralization of nature. If there is an omnipotent god, there is no room for minor deities in control of every plague, earthquake, or thunderstorm. At the same time, it seems inherently absurd to believe that this infinite god is going to intervene in every minor event, or as we would say now, micromanage. If there are moral laws that are absolute, it is only a short step to believe in natural laws that are absolute as well. The third idea has had powerful effects both positive and negative. The negative effect, of course, is to reinforce the idea that if one belief is right, all the others must be wrong, with all the attendant religious and ideological warfare and persecution that flow from it. On the other hand, a hard-headed insistence that some ideas are right and others are wrong is essential for the birth of science, and even for philosophy and ethics as well. For all our belief in the validity of alternative viewpoints, do most of us really believe that Nazism was "just as valid" as democracy?

The Fall

Other pivotal Western values spring from Judaeo-Christian theology. The doctrine of the Fall has powerfully influenced Western attitudes. According to tradition (the Biblical references are not at all clear-cut), Satan was originally an angel who rebelled against God and was expelled from Heaven with his followers. He later tempted Adam and Eve, causing them to be expelled from the Garden of Eden and leading to humanity's demonstrably flawed state. The doctrine of the Fall holds that humans are intrinsically flawed, an interpretation that many modern philosophers reject. However, the really interesting aspects of the doctrine have to do with its effect on Western ideas of good and evil, specifically:

  1. Unlike many cultures where good and evil are viewed as equally fundamental, the Western view is that evil is an aberration. Satan is in no sense a counterpart of God in Western theology, but rather a subordinate and infinitely less powerful being (though still a menace).
  2. If evil is an aberration from an ideally good world, it follows that evil can be defeated. Things can be fixed. The idea that smallpox is a bad thing is obvious to anybody who has ever seen its effects; the idea that it can be eradicated from the world is a distinctly Western idea.
  3. The dark side of the force: since Satan is a rebel and would-be usurper, it follows that evil has no rights. The negative effects of this idea can hardly be overstated and probably account for many of the uglier episodes of Western history: religious persecution, imposition of beliefs and lifestyles on other societies, and so on.

If evil is an aberration, will things be put right? The Jews believe that a Messiah will come to restore goodness to the world. Christians believe that Christ was the Messiah and that he will return at the end of the world. Moslems believe Christ was one of a series of great prophets culminating in Mohammed; they too believe in a final judgement. All of these beliefs have one striking feature in common: time is linear. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, which will be marked by the final triumph of good. The progression of time stands in sharp contrast to the endless "now" of many cultures or the cyclicity of cultures like India. The idea that time has a definite forward direction is obviously at the root of the whole concept of progress, one of the central ideas in Western thinking.


If there is one paramount contribution the Judaeo-Christian world-view has made to science it is this: throughout their history both Judaism and Christianity have been implacably opposed to magic. Magic is the ultimate ego-trip. Magic is fundamentally the notion that the individual can shape the universe to his desires; it is the ultimate narcissism. The instinct for magic is a direct offshoot of our inbuilt desire to be God. It includes the notion that individuals can manipulate or bargain with the supernatural world (after all, gods should be able to cut deals). In pre-technical and polytheistic societies this notion finds expression in well-known occult forms like rituals, sacrifices, magic charms, and so on. We still have plenty of people in our own society who engage in these practices, but even if these expressions disappeared, that wouldn't mean the instinct for magic had. Most nominal religion is fundamentally magic; the idea that perfunctory adherence to periodic rituals is sufficient to placate God. Even today, one of the most common criticisms of the scientific world view is that it robs life of its magic.

Science is the antithesis of narcissism. Alan Cromer in Uncommon sense: the heretical nature of science (1993) views the conquest of egocentrism as the indispensable prerequisite of science:

From the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, we know that human beings have a fundamentally egocentric conception of the world. Growing up in modern society means learning to accept the existence of an external world separate from oneself. It is hard. Most of humankind, for most of its history, never learned to distinguish the internal world of thoughts and feelings with the external world of objects and events. ... Cutting this connection, which is necessary before science can develop, goes against the grain of human nature.

For all the harm it has sometimes caused, it seems clear that the Western world's bias in favor of black and white, right and wrong, was indispensible to the development of science. A culture that views things in terms of black and white can learn to see shades of gray; it is not at all clear that a culture that sees only shades of gray can learn to see black and white. A culture committed to right and wrong answers will eventually see that over-zealous application of that concept sometimes fails to agree with reality; it yields wrong results. But in a culture where differences are routinely explained away as a matter of individual perspective, how could anyone deduce the existence of invariable laws?

Digression: If your biases don't determine reality, then how do you explain the Wave-Particle Duality?

The Most Important Decisions in European History

What happens when you hold beliefs of long standing, seemingly validated by experience, and backed by your culture and its institutions, and you encounter new ideas that are also powerful, agree with experience and observation, that are partially in harmony with and partially in conflict with your old beliefs? There are four alternatives:

  1. You can reject the new ideas. This is the choice the Islamic world eventually made.
  2. You can embrace the new and abandon the old. In extreme cases, culture shock can result. This is the choice many primitive societies make when confronted with the full impact of Western technology.
  3. You can meld the two without regard for logical consistency. This is termed syncretism. Closely related is compartmentalization, in which different beliefs apply in different spheres and conflict is avoided by keeping the spheres separate.
  4. You can seek a consistent synthesis. You can reconcile apparently conflicting ideas whenever possible, or if they are mutually exclusive, try to discover which (if any) are correct.

Arguably the most important choice ever faced by the Western world was how to reconcile traditional Judaeo-Christian teachings with the ideas of the ancient world. There were traditionalists who wanted to suppress the new, radicals who wanted to abandon the old, and many people who simply considered the whole matter irrelevant. But there were a some key figures who sought a synthesis and made it happen. And the medieval choice was at least the fourth time it had happened.

The first time was the Hellenistic era and the early days of Christianity. Judaism had its stern insistence on monotheism and absolute laws, but little interest in science, esthetics, or philosophy. The Jews frequently became obsessed with minutiae of law and ritual. The Greeks had powerful concepts of science, esthetics, and philosophy, but sometimes were more interested in sophistry, the manipulation of ideas for its own sake, than in drawing conclusions. The fusion of the two systems by Hellenized Jews and early Greek Christians resulted in a more balanced blend of religion and reason than either had separately.

The second time was in the work of Augustine in the fifth century. Augustine was a hedonist and neo-Platonist as a youth. His Christian mother prayed for his conversion and eventually, probably having sinned himself out, Augustine converted to Christianity. But he could never abandon the logical thinking and organization he had learned from Classical philosophy. Instead, he set out to lay down the whole of Christian thinking in the organized and logical fashion he was used to. In so doing, he put a distinct Platonic spin on early Christianity and gave it an obsession with order and system.

The third time, almost simultaneously, was Patrick's skillful and seamless integration of Christianity into Irish life. Patrick saw into the Irish world-view, saw the needs fulfilled by the traditional Irish belief systems, and presented his beliefs in a way that addressed and fulfilled those needs. So skillfully did he do this that Ireland is the one country where Christianity was adopted totally without bloodshed, and yet the Irish gave up none of their Irishness. He thus made it possible for the Irish to preserve literacy and spread it across northern Europe.

Once you have a tradition of synthesis, each subsequent synthesis becomes easier. Accompanying and underlying synthesis are some important attitudes that are deeply and intrinsically Western: change is not necessarily bad, and change can be controlled and managed.

The Foundations are Laid

By about 1200, Europe was beginning to develop a distinctly modern world-view. One variation on the legend of Tristan and Isolde is revealing. There are many variations on this story, all involving the unattainable love of a knight, Tristan, for a noble lady, Isolde. In the version of Gottfried of Strasbourg, Tristan and Isolde are actually lovers, but her husband, the King, becomes suspicious and orders her subjected to trial by ordeal. She is to walk on red-hot plowshares and, if her feet are burned, she is guilty. Isolde realizes she can never pass the test, so she and Tristan concoct a plot. Tristan disguises himself as a beggar and stands along the way to the ordeal. As Isolde passes him, she faints, and Tristan carries her the rest of the way. She revives, and swears on a Bible that she has never been in the arms of any man except the King and the beggar who just carried her.

Pretty risque for 1200. (A pattern that is clear from recent American history is that when people start laughing at parodies of their own most sacred institutions, those institutions are on the way out.) The story is casting ridicule on the idea of trial by ordeal. Europeans are beginning to realize that it is inherently absurd to expect God to answer human subpoenas or intervene in every trivial event. In short, there are laws of nature.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council convened. One of their acts was to abolish trial by ordeal in Church proceedings, though it would linger in civil law for centuries yet. Another was to deal with the question of what exactly happens at the Consecration during Mass. Church doctrine held that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ, but anyone could see that the bread and wine still looked like bread and wine. (The expression "hocus-pocus" is a corruption of the Latin hoc est corpus meum, "this is my body", said by the priest at the Consecration.) The Council's answer, the doctrine of transubstantiation, is Catholic doctrine to this day. It holds that the inward nature of the bread and wine change but that all the outward physical properties do not. Whether you believe this solution or not is much less important than the forces that led up to it: Europeans were demanding that theology explain a physical observation. They could see a conflict between observation and doctrine, and they considered the physical facts important enough to call doctrine into question and demand an explanation. The foundations of the scientific Western world-view are in place.

Digression: Magic and Quantum Mechanics

A lot of people who reject the scientific world-view appeal to relativity and quantum mechanics. Since a few readers might raise this objection, it's worth digressing to answer it. Without going into great detail, the Wave-Particle Duality is the notion that particles like electrons have the properties of both waves and particles. If you don't intervene in certain experiments, electrons act like waves, but if you take measures to find out the exact path of the electrons, then they behave like particles. So doesn't this prove that your perception shapes reality?

About as much as throwing a switch on a rail line shows that your perception determines the path of the train. In both cases, your actions change the outcome. If your perception really governed reality, however, you should be able to get the results you desire regardless of what you do. A scientist who doesn't know you changed his experiment should continue to see electrons behave as waves; an engineer who doesn't know the switch is thrown should continue going right down the original track. If this notion of reality really held, we could never have discovered quantum mechanics and relativity because our experiments would never have led to the paradoxical results that caused us to discover them. We would have seen only what we expected because our perception would have altered reality.

Okay, go back to what you were doing


Return to Emergence of Western Technology Syllabus
Return to Emergence of Western Technology Notes Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 10 April 1998, Last Update 20 October 1998

Not an official UW Green Bay site