Medieval monks’ groundbreaking discoveries laid bare as ‘modern science declines’

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The Medieval era is often dismissed as the ‘dark age’. It was the time before the splendours of the Renaissance graced the world. Yet, many disagree with this assertion, and instead claim the Medieval period to be full of light and creativity in the field of sciences.

Although there was nothing like our modern science which is a distinct discipline, there were signs in the Medieval period of a burgeoning field.

As historian Dr Seb Falk explained during an interview with BBC History Magazine, “the word science comes from the Latin root scentia” interpreted in the Middle Ages as any field of knowledge that was a discipline of serious study.

He describes the period as an “age of wonder” for science and, in his new book ‘The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery’, he points out that the idea of science as the study of nature separate from other kinds of intellectual endeavour – theology, for example – is a modern concept.

In the Middle Ages, the unlikely figure of Monks were actually pushing a scientific agenda in their religious schools and universities, teaching what we would now call astronomy, mathematics or geometry; we might group them together as “natural philosophies”.

Monks, in practising this “natural philosophy” did so in a bid to become closer to God, not to discover what we today would class as the intrinsic value of the natural world.

Dr Falk explained: “All the way through the Middle Ages, the study of science was done by religious people – monks in universities.”

He said that naturally, these pious monks would often, accidentally, stray into teaching sciences that clearly contradicted the church, and would be reprimanded for doing so.

Yet, it was these monks who laid the foundations for the hundreds of years of scientific progress to come, adding the link in the chain that connected the ages before and after them.

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They had this privilege to become experts in natural philosophy because they were the most educated people in society.

They were literate, “primarily to read scripture, but that didn’t stop them reading other things as well,” Dr Falk said.

He explained: “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 – inducing in science – in order to preach against heresy.


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“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 statues and there was real traffic between these institutions and the monasteries.”

Contrary to popular belief, science was a hugely international operation in the Middle Ages.

Even before the creation of the printing press in 1436, a wide circulation of texts and scholars found their way around the globe to exchange ideas.

In the 13th century, some of Europe’s greatest thinkers of the time – Roger Bacon from England, Albertus Magnus from Germany and Thomas Aquinas from Italy – were all at the University of Paris at roughly the same time.

Things became even more advanced when Latin Christians in Spain discovered and subsequently translated scientific and intellectual texts from the Islamic world, opening centuries of Eastern and Central Asian wisdom.

Then there were the huge scientific breakthroughs of the Middle Ages.

The mechanical clock, developments in mathematics and physics such as the Oxford Calculators, now allowed the measurements of previously unquantifiable things such as temperature and speed.

Groundbreaking advances were made in the understanding of optics and lenses too, which has led to our modern day privilege of getting around bad and degenerating eyesight.

Muslim scholars Al-Kindi and Ibn al-Haytham made leaps in work towards rays and the geometry of light, which was quickly picked up by Western scholars.

Even things like Medieval medicine, which largely depended on what might now be considered the placebo effect, drove in the right direction towards understanding natural concoctions and the makeup of humans.

When asked why, then, science in the Middle Ages has been looked down upon, Dr Falk said: “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 defied themselves against people – often people in the past – who they thought were stupid or whose ideas they can dismiss easily.

“This is a tremendous problem for us today because, if we think of ourselves as having understood everything, then we lost the ability to question, we lost the ability to identify when we’re doing things wrong, we lost the ability to improve our ways of studying science.”

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