Science in the Middle Ages  

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"It is, therefore, worth while to give a short list of some of the things the Greeks and Romans did not know, and that the Middle Ages did know. For most of the examples I shall cite I am indebted to Lynn White’s remarkable essay on Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. The classical Greeks and Romans, although horsemen, had no stirrups. Neither did they think to shoe the hooves of their animals with plates of metal nailed to them. Until the ninth or tenth centuries of our era horses were so harnessed that they pushed against straps that ran high about their necks in such a way that if they threw their weight and strength into their work they strangled themselves. Neither did the classical peoples know how to harness draft animals in front of each other so that large teams could be used to pull great weights. Men were the only animals the ancients had that could pull efficiently. They did not even have wheelbarrows. They made little or no use of rotary motion and had no cranks by which to turn rotary and reciprocating motion into each other. They had no windmills. Such water wheels as they had came late and far between. The classical Greeks and Romans, unlike the Middle Ages, had no horse collars, no spectacles, no algebra, no gunpowder, no compass, no cast iron, no paper, no deep ploughs, no spinning wheels, no methods of distillation, no place value number systems—think of trying to extract a square root with either the Greek or the Roman system of numerals!"--Prints and Visual Communication (1953) by William Ivins, Jr., page 8

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Scientific activities were carried on throughout the Middle Ages in areas as diverse as astronomy, medicine, and mathematics. Whereas the ancient cultures of the world (i.e. those prior to the fall of Rome and the dawn of Islam) had developed many of the foundations of science, it was during the Middle Ages that the scientific method was born and science became a formal discipline separate from philosophy. There were scientific discoveries throughout the world, as in the Islamic world, in the Mediterranean basin, China and India, while from the 12th century onwards, the scientific development in Western Europe began to catch up again.

The Byzantine Empire, which was the most sophisticated culture during the early middle ages, preserved the systems and theories of science, mathematics, and Medicine of the Greco-Roman period. The works of Aristotle, Archimedes, Galen, Ptolemy, Euclid, and others spread through the empire. These works and the important commentaries on them were the wellspring of science during the Medieval period. Christian Western Europe had suffered a catastrophic loss of knowledge following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But thanks to the Church scholars such as Aquinas and Buridan, the West carried on at least the spirit of scientific inquiry which would later lead to Europe's taking the lead in science during the Scientific Revolution using translations of medieval works.


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