The genius of medieval science: from medicine to mechanical clocks

The medieval era is often dismissed as a ‘dark age’ before the glories of the Renaissance. But, as Seb Falk explains in his new history of medieval science, this was in fact an age of wonder. He speaks to BBC History Magazine editor Rob Attar...

A near-contemporary depiction of the 14th-century English monk, mathematician and astronomer Richard of Wallingford. Monks were among the leading scientific practitioners during the medieval period. (Photo by Bridgeman)

Rob Attar: Medieval science is frequently disparaged nowadays. Why do you think that is, and do you feel that it’s unfair? 

Seb Falk: This has a long history. The disparagement of the medieval goes all the way back to the Renaissance, when scholars were trying to recover the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. They saw everything that had come between those times and their own day as being, essentially, irrelevant. And that picture has continued right up to the present day. 

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The Middle Ages has always been viewed as this mediocre bit in the middle, and it’s true that some of the things that people thought in the Middle Ages were wrong – but that doesn’t make them less interesting. In my book, I wanted to show how the ideas of the Middle Ages weren’t as infertile, stagnant and dark as is often portrayed. This period contributed a huge amount to the development of modern science, including the recovery and the study of ancient texts, the involvement of Islamic texts in western European scholarship and the foundation of the universities and other institutions.  

VIRTUAL EVENT: Seb Falk | Monks, Manuscripts and Medieval Machines: Science in the not-so-Dark Ages

Why did devout monks study the stars? How did students at the first universities prove the world was round? And how can you tell the time today using an ancient brass astrolabe?

Join us on Thursday 29 October at 7pm to find out more about the imaginative, eclectic scientific theories shaped medieval people’s views of the universe and their place in it. 

Find out more here

RA: Did such a thing as ‘science’ exist in the Middle Ages and what would it have been called then?

SF: There was nothing like our modern science, which is a distinct discipline, practised by professionals in purpose-designed spaces such as laboratories and observatories, and which follows well-defined rules. But the word science comes from the Latin root scientia, and in the Middle Ages this was any field of knowledge – including things like theology – that was a discipline of
serious study.

A compass is depicted as a symbol of God’s act of creation in a 13th-century manuscript. The study of nature was seen “as a way of getting closer to the mind of God”, says Seb Falk. (Photo by Alamy)
A compass is depicted as a symbol of God’s act of creation in a 13th-century manuscript. The study of nature was seen “as a way of getting closer to the mind of God”, says Seb Falk. (Photo by Alamy)

The idea of science as the study of nature separate from other kinds of intellectual endeavour is a modern concept. But that doesn’t mean that people weren’t investigating nature – they were doing it in other ways. Some historians argue that medieval people did what we now call science so differently that we shouldn’t use the word at all, and instead employ some of the categories that they used: either distinct sciences like astronomy, mathematics or geometry; or grouping them together, as sometimes happened, under the heading ‘natural philosophy’.

In the Christian west, natural philosophy was a devotional activity – a way of getting closer to the mind of God. By understanding the world around you, you understood creation and the mind of its inventor. This has led some historians to say that we shouldn’t talk about this as being science. But actually, it’s similar: they’re still looking at the same nature, they’re still studying the same stars, they’re still using mathematics, they’re still reading texts. 

RA: We now tend to have a clear divide between religion and science. Does the fact that they were intermingled in the Middle Ages devalue that era of scientific study?

SF: There is this idea that there’s been a conflict between religion and science and that the church, as an all-powerful body, got in the way of science. But I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. First of all, the church, in so far as it was controlling anything, had a huge role to play in supporting science, in founding universities. There was a popular metaphor that scholars in the Middle Ages liked to use, which was that there were two books in which one could understand God: you could read about God in scripture, of course, but you could also read about God in the book of nature.

All the way through the Middle Ages, the study of science was done by religious people – by monks in universities – so to boil it down to some kind of conflict is misleading. Now, of course, there were incidents where teachers were disseminating ideas that contradicted the church’s teachings. And in those cases, sometimes the church did get involved. But its interventions were sporadic, and the sanctions it implemented often didn’t have much effect. 

RA: Why was it monks who tended to lead the way in medieval science?

SF: Mainly because they were the most educated. They were literate: primarily to read scripture, but that didn’t stop them reading other things as well. And they had access to books, with many of the best libraries being monastic libraries. 

Monks were not actually the first people to attend the universities, which developed from the late 11th century onwards. Initially monks tended to want to keep themselves apart from the world and didn’t want to be involved in urban life. But that changed with the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars, who eagerly took up university opportunities, wanting to be educated – including in science – in order to preach against heresy. After that, monks saw that they were losing some of their best recruits to these orders and jumped on the bandwagon. Most people who studied at university had some kind of clerical status and there was a real traffic between these institutions and the monasteries.

RA: Science today thrives through knowledge exchanges throughout the world. To what extent did this happen in the medieval era?

SF: This is a really important point: science was hugely international in the Middle Ages. Even before the invention of the printing press, there was still a wide circulation of texts and of scholars. For example, you had the likes of Roger Bacon from England, Albertus Magnus from Germany and Thomas Aquinas from Italy all at the University of Paris at roughly the same time in the 13th century. These universities were hives of intellectual scholars who were all able to communicate because Latin was the international language of scholarship. 

There was a huge movement of scholarship in the Middle Ages and a huge desire to translate texts from other languages. The 12th century was the era of a great translation movement, particularly in Spain, where Latin Christians encountered texts from the Islamic world – by Muslims, Jews, and even Christians, but all written in Arabic. Some of these texts had come from ancient Greece and been stored, translated and studied by Muslim scholars, particularly in and around Baghdad in the ninth century. 

RA: Were there any particularly important scientific breakthroughs in the Middle Ages?

SF: Some of the main ones involve the development of instruments: the mechanical clock goes back to the Middle Ages, for example. And there were developments in mathematics and physics such as the Oxford Calculators, where in early 14th-century Oxford techniques were developed for measuring things previously thought unquantifiable, such as temperature and speed. There were also improvements in the understanding of optics and lenses, and the first eyeglasses were invented in the Middle Ages. The wider understanding of rays and the geometry of light was originally an achievement of Muslim scholars, men like Al-Kindi and
Ibn al-Haytham, but was picked up eagerly by scholars in western Europe. 

Yet it’s not just about the contribution that medieval scholars have made to modern science, it’s also important to understand how they fitted in to medieval culture, which was a deeply scientific one. In the works of Chaucer, for example, you’ve got science, you’ve got astronomy, you’ve got precise learning. He even wrote an instruction manual for an astrolabe. Science was deeply embedded in medieval art and literature.


Listen: Marion Turner explores the life of Geoffrey Chaucer, arguing that we need to look beyond his status as the ‘father of English literature’ to discover his connections to European culture


RA: Astronomy seems to be an area that medieval people were really fascinated by. Why was it so important to them?

SF: In the medieval mind everything was connected. The basic understanding, which goes back to the cosmology of Plato and Aristotle, is that everything that happens down here on Earth, is a microcosm of the macrocosm – what happens up in the heavens. And so everything that happens in the human body is reflected up in the heavens and your health is dependent on the motions of the planets. This has a real practical impact on people. 

Astronomy is also a subject that people were able to observe, predict and make models for in a rational, quantifiable way.
It was the first mathematical science and the most scientific science of the Middle Ages. Astronomy fed into everything else. It was
at the centre of everything.

Written in the stars: A 16th-century miniature of the globe and signs of the zodiac. Medieval scientists believed that what happened to the human body was reflected in the heavens. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
A 16th-century miniature of the globe and signs of the zodiac. Medieval scientists believed that what happened to the human body was reflected in the heavens. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

RA: Medieval medicine is an area that always fascinates our readers. What’s your take on how effective it was?

SF: One of the important rules about studying medieval medicine is that we shouldn’t dismiss something that we now see as ineffective. The question is really whether people at the time experienced it as being useful to them. It is fair to say that medicine as a technology had decidedly mixed results, really right up to the early 20th century. Yet the ideas that medieval scholars came up with, and the actions that they took – including public health measures during the plague, which are comparable to today’s social distancing rules – are really interesting. 

One thing we can learn from medieval medicine is the idea of the body as a whole – for example, the interaction between mental and physical health

Medieval people understood health in different ways. It is often said that when the plague hit Europe in the 14th century, people just thought they were being punished by God. But this is nonsense. There were really complex views of health, which layer on to a kind of astrological understanding. There was a sense that God was intervening, but people were also aware of environmental causes. 


Listen: Elma Brenner examines the state of healthcare in the Middle Ages


They understood that medicine could itself be the cause of disease – that medicines could have side-effects and doctors themselves could perhaps prescribe medicines that had negative effects on humans. They understood, for example, about lead poisoning and yet we are still suffering the effects of leaded petrol which only came out of our cars a couple of decades ago. There was some complex understanding and subtle knowledge, which I think is often dismissed. Even when medieval people were going to cathedrals and pilgrimage sites to pray for God to cure them, they were also given medical treatments using available herbs and drugs by the monks and priests. There was a huge literature of the study of the effects of different drugs and a huge trade in herbal remedies across Europe. 

One thing I think we can learn from medieval medicine – which is something that modern medicine is perhaps only now coming back to – is this idea of the body as a whole. In medieval medicine, if there was something wrong with any one part of the body, it was thought to have been caused by a holistic problem, an imbalance in the body. By contrast, modern medicine said, let’s look at individual organs, let’s look at individual cells, let’s look at the interactions, the chemistry and even the physics of the human body. But in doing so, we lost sight, I think, of some of that holistic view – some of the interaction between physical health and mental health, for example. 

RA: The central figure in your book is the 14th-century English scholar John Westwyk, who is our guide to medieval knowledge. Why is he particularly helpful in navigating this subject? 

SF: John Westwyk is a brilliant, fascinating character who had an incredible, adventurous life. He was a monk who came from a fairly ordinary background and may have studied at Oxford. At some point he got exiled, we think, up to Tynemouth Priory, on the cliffs overlooking the North Sea, where monks were often sent as a punishment or to prove themselves in an inhospitable environment. Later, he went to Flanders, during the Bishop’s Crusade of 1383 where the whole army got dysentery. And eventually we find him in London where he was inventing an astronomical instrument. 

Westwyk had this tumultuous life, but, at the same time, he’s entirely ordinary and that was a really important point for me. Too many histories of science are parades of great individuals, holding them up as being unique figures, ahead of their time. And that’s not how science works, it’s not how science has ever worked. In the Middle Ages, so much scientific study was humble, it was anonymous, it was about making incremental advances on the work of earlier scholars. 

But John Westwyk was also very useful to me because he was not super advanced and we can see him working out stuff as he goes along. And what I wanted to do in my book was let people learn the science for themselves. There are too many books that tell people how amazing something was, but I really wanted people to see for themselves: to learn how to multiply Roman numerals and how to count to 10,000 on their fingers; to learn how to use an astrolabe or how to cure dysentery. I wanted them to see for themselves how creative and ingenious medieval science was.

RA: Were there many women practising science in the Middle Ages?

SF: Yes, absolutely. Part of the problem that we have is an evidential one, in that men were able to study in universities, while women weren’t. Men were also able to practise as physicians and women almost always couldn’t. So there’s more evidence for men producing science but that doesn’t mean that women weren’t doing it – and often when we have an anonymous text, I don’t think we should discount the possibility that it was by a woman. Meanwhile, there were certain areas, such as in folk healing, where if you didn’t have the money, or chose not to consult a qualified university-trained physician, the chances are that you would be treated by a female healer. 

And like monks, we also have cases of nuns practising science. I mention in the book the Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights) by Herrad of Hohenburg, an abbess in Alsace. It’s full of really interesting science, of the kind that would be useful to a nun in the abbey in the 12th century. So there definitely are cases of women being involved in scientific study – Hildegard of Bingen, of course, is a very famous one – but they were not generally allowed access to the places where science was being practised.

RA: Coming on to the present day, do you think that, in the future, our own scientific knowledge might be disparaged in the way medieval learning has been?

SF: Disparaging medieval science is a way of making ourselves feel good. It’s a way of saying we’re not as stupid as them. People have always defined themselves against people – often people in the past – who they thought were stupid or whose ideas they
can dismiss easily. And this is a tremendous problem for us today because, if we think of ourselves as having understood everything, then we lose the ability to question, we lose the ability to identify when we’re doing things wrong, we lose the ability to improve our ways of studying science. 

Disparaging medieval science makes us feel good. People have always defined themselves against people in the past who they thought stupid

If we had ever understood everything in science, the scientists could have given up and gone home a long time ago. But science
is constantly developing, it’s constantly progressing. We have to understand that sometimes that line of progress takes a wiggle, goes down a dead end. And it’s really important to see that that’s just a normal part of the development of science. 

There will certainly be things in today’s science that future generations will laugh at. And so I think studying the science of the Middle Ages – apart from recognising their achievements – helps us see that, even where we might now say they were wrong, they were wrong for the right reasons. These were deeply intelligent people, and so if they were wrong, we have to ask how can people be wrong about things for a long period of time? How does science support incorrect ideas? By looking at that, we can learn something about the way that science is done today.   

Seb Falk is a historian based at the University of Cambridge and a 2016 BBC New Generation Thinker. His new book, The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery, has just been published by Allen Lane. He was speaking to Rob Attar, editor of BBC History Magazine

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VIRTUAL EVENT: Join Seb Falk on Thursday 29 October at 7pm to find out more about the imaginative, eclectic scientific theories shaped medieval people’s views of the universe and their place in it. Book your place now