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Natural Science - Year I

Unit 18: Overview of Medieval and Renaissance Science Issues

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History Weblecture for Unit 18


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History Lecture for 18: Overview of the history of science from the fall of Rome to the end of the Scientific Revolution

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Lecture outline:

Quest for a Comprehensive World View

As we have seen, human minds like to put things in neat organized order, partly to understand real relations between physical objects and functions, partly to make it easier to record information, and partly to make it easier to retrieve information. During the medieval period, one of the driving forces in philosophy and science was the pressure to make experience and natural philosophy consistent with each other, and with the experiences recorded by those in authority, both religious officials and classical authors, whose works were revered and reviled from time to time.

Medieval Science: the Role of the Church

The Middle Ages is a period loosely defined from the demise of the Roman Empire in Western Europe until the Renaissance. Both are tricky dates: while the line of western Roman Emperors ends in 473 ce with the ascension of Theodoric to the throne in Rome, the eastern Roman empire continued as Byzantium until 1473 ce. The rise of perspective in art, nationalist governments with lessening ties to the Holy Roman Emperor, the use of national languages rather than Latin for literature and poetry, the flow of people into cities and the rise of an influential middle class -- all of which mark the "Renaissance" -- occurred at different times in different parts of Europe, starting around 1300 in Italy, but not until 1500 or so in England and Germany, where Renaissance trends were linked inseparably with the Reformation. The effort of recovering of Greek and Roman ideas was transformed into a pursuit of humanism culminating in the Enlightenment movement during the 17th century, and the beginning of the "modern" era.

The medieval period is sometimes termed the "Dark Ages", which implies that the period doesn't contain any new great advances in philosophy or science. One reason that is sometimes given is that the fall of Rome and the decimation of the population by several major plagues left most geographical areas in relative chaos, struggling to recreate government institutions and military controls that could protect travelers and the flow of information and goods across the Mediterranean and Western Europe in the face of invasions by Vandals, Visigoths, Huns, and Norsemen. The other reason that is often proposed is that the rising Christian Church institutions controlled free debate and suppressed any ideas that countered its own interpretation of Christian Scriptures.

As with most generalizations, neither description of the continent-sized area of Western Europe over a 1500-year period is really applicable. Different conditions and controls applied in different areas of Europe through different periods.

During the centuries dominated by the western Roman Empire, it was still possible to travel easily between Rome, Northern Africa, Palestine, and Asia Minor — as witnessed by the extensive travels of St. Paul and St. Augustine, and by evidence throughout the empire of extensive trade (goods made of British tin found in cities near the Black Sea, for example). The Councils of Chalcedon and Nicea were attended by bishops and clerics from across three continents, and their decisions were published back again, along with the letters and philosophical opinions of the Church Fathers. Because different writers quoted each other, we know that these writings made their way from one town to another on a different continent.

Even after the fall of Rome, the relationships between church institutions kept communications alive. Rome sent missionaries to Africa, Ireland and England; Ireland in particular returned the favor by sending Irish missionaries to the European continent. The rise of monastic houses, such as the Italian abbeys at Monte Cassino (founded by St. Benedict) and Bobbio (founded by St. Columbanus, who was trained in Ireland) resulted in institutions dedicated to preserving knowledge of all kinds. Charlemagne established a new school of learning under Alcuin in the early ninth century. As we shall see, the monasteries and cathedral church schools developed into the European colleges and universities of the twelfth century, spurred on by the discovery of Arab works on optics, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy by travelers to Spain and the Middle East. The open-ended debates required of those seeking the Master of Arts degree, which were often over the interpretation of scripture and the claims of Aristotle, contributed to the Scientific Revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While there were specific restrictions under some bishops at different times, by and large the medieval church preserved knowledge and fostered new thought. It is worth remembering that most of the natural philosophers who wrote on scientific topics during the "Dark Ages" were clerics who drew their daily living from their Church offices: if the Church had not supported them, they would have been unable to pursue their research.

Medieval Science: Population factors

Another point to keep in mind is demographics. This term describes the size and kind of populations living in different geographical areas. By the sixth century ce, the population of the former Roman Empire territories was significantly smaller than it had been two centuries earlier. Plague and invasions had wiped out whole towns. As the population recovered, so did commerce and travel, and a new institution, feudalism, grew to replace the old Roman institutions to supply justice, law, and order. The manor farm and village model that became the stable form of society until the industrial revolution rested on three medieval inventions (according to Lynn White, at any rate):

  1. The stirrup, which allowed a mounted, armored man to maintain his seat in battle and gave him the advantage over many foot soldiers.
  2. The three field system, in which one field was planted in grain, one in legumes (which supply proteins otherwise available only in meat, and also fix nitrogen and therefore act as a natural fertilizer), and one field is left fallow to recover from earlier plantings.
  3. The heavy plow, which allowed people to farm land for longer periods because it turned over more dirt and brought up soil that had not yet been exhausted by previous crops.

As a result of better protection by a mounted knighthood, and better nutrition from new farming techniques, the population of Europe began to recover during the ninth and tenth centuries, so that by the eleventh century, there were more people than were needed to work the land. The excess population provided labor for bureaucracies in the Church and national governments, apprentices for new crafts and cottage industries in the towns, and soldiers for Crusades. Those who wanted to work in bureaucracies needed to be able to read and write, and this demand in turn drove the creation of grammar schools and eventually colleges and universities. By the end of the middle ages in Europe, there are nearly two hundred colleges serving thousands of students, many of whom move from college to college to work with specific masters or study a particular field, just as students do today. This led to an exchange of ideas across national boundaries, classes, and fields of study.

In many ways, the challenges that faced the medieval Christian philosophers of Europe and Islamic philosophers in North Africa and the Middle East were no different than those that faced the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks. They all wanted to explain their experiences, both of natural phenomena and the behavior of men and societies, on some consistent way that also meshed with their belief in God. Both cultures inherited classical Greek philosophical ideas, either directly through translations of Greek works or in summaries of other writers. Greek ideas, especially of an eternal, uncreated world, challenged the Biblical tradition of a world designed, created, and maintained by the deliberate acts of God. There was also tension between the Platonic sense of mathematical harmony in nature, and the more pragmatic descriptions of Aristotelian physics and its strict division between abstract mathematical concepts and physical realities. Both Christian and Arab philosophers sought to reconcile these opposing views into a single world view that did not involve contradictions.

Renaissance Science: A move toward accuracy

With the recovery of the original Greek texts, many of which were brought to Italy by Byzantine Christians fleeing the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, and the availability of new printing press methods for publishing these works, the focus of European philosophy shifted from attempts to create a comprehensive Aristotelian-Christian world view to study of individual works. The Renaissance marks the beginning of specialization in the sciences, and a passion for accuracy in reporting observations. New methods made possible graphical reproduction of anatomical drawings that inspired new researches and discoveries. Art and architecture became more dependent on geometrical methods for determining perspective. New techniques in tool-making led to more accurate measuring instruments, and better data for comparing the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic explanations for planetary motions. New navigation methods led to the exploration of the seas and the discovery of the Western Hemisphere, Polynesia, and the Australian continent, each with new plants, animals and geographic features their European explorers had never seen before. The end result was the Scientific Revolution: a new unification of astronomy and biology grounded in fundamental concepts of forces and motion governed by physical laws that could be expressed in mathematical formulae.

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