Science and Technology in the Middle Ages

Peter Hodgson FAITH Magazine May-June 2006


The Middle Ages were one of the most outstandingly creative periods in the whole of human history. It was then that the foundations of modern science were laid and the same time saw what had been justly called the first industrial revolution. Both were made possible by the beliefs about the material world and about the mutual responsibilities of men towards each other that are inherent in Catholic theology.

For the first time in history there was a civilisation permeated by the Catholic beliefs about the material world that are the essential presuppositions and foundations of science. These beliefs, which include many derived from the Old Testament, are the goodness and order of creation, its openness to the human mind and the obligation freely to share any knowledge gained, together with the duty to study and understand the world and to use it for the good of mankind. The dogma of creation in time contradicted the Aristotelian belief in an eternal universe, and the analysis of motion in the light of creation led John Buridan to develop the concept of inertia that lies at the foundation of dynamics. In this way Catholic beliefs gradually destroyed the erroneous physics of Aristotle that hadprevented the development of science for two thousand years.

In ancient civilisations there were plenty of slaves to carry out laborious work, and so there was no incentive to build machines, but in the Middle Ages Catholic theology taught that unnecessary work was unworthy of the dignity of man, and so great efforts were made to develop labour-saving machinery. The monasteries were centres of technological innovation. Windmills and watermills were used to grind corn and the cam made it possible to transform rotary to linear reciprocating motion and thus to saw wood and stone. Sophisticated clocks were made to regulate the hours of prayer and pumps enabled minerals to be extracted from greater depths. Brass was first made in Tintern Abbey. The heavy wheeled plough that turned the soil over was drawn by horses, and their shoulder collars increasedtheir pulling power by a factor of four. The stirrup made it easier to control the horse, and the whipple-tree facilitated the motion of farm carts. These advances in agriculture greatly increased the food supply and with it the population.

A century ago it was generally believed that nothing of significance for science took place in the Middle Ages, so that they could be ignored in any discussion of the history of science. This belief has now been completely demolished by the extensive researches of Pierre Duhem, Marshall Clagett, Edward Grant, Annalise Meyer, Alistair Crombie, Lynn White and many others. They have provided extensive documentation of the pioneer work carried out at that time. Their work was not always welcome. The pioneer of studies of medieval science was Pierre Duhem, and he wrote a vast treatise, Systeme du Monde, in ten large volumes. When the first volume on the Greeks was published George Sarton, the distinguished historian of science who founded and edited the journal Osiris, greeted it with fulsomepraise, and said that he eagerly looked forward to the second volume. When it appeared he was horrified to find that it contained the detailed justification of the Christian origin of science, repugnant to his secularist convictions. Unable to refute Duhem, he used the remaining weapon of silence, and Duhem was hardly ever mentioned again. Duhem’s publisher was legally obliged to publish one volume of Systeme du Monde each year, and the first five volumes duly appeared. Then Duhem died at a tragically early age in 1916 and the secularist establishment resolved to prevent the publication of the remaining five volumes, already complete in manuscript. It was only after a long battle led by Duhem’s daughter Helene and the threat of legal action, that the last five volumes appeared thirtyyears later. Such are the lengths that the secularist establishment was willing to go to stifle Duhem’s work.

It is remarkable that in spite of the massive scholarly work on medieval science there are still books on the history of science that begin with an account of the achievements of the ancient Greeks and pass immediately to the Renaissance, completely ignoring the contribution of the Middle Ages. Such books may be immediately identified by the JCD test: look in the index for the names Jaki, Crombie and Duhem, three Catholic scholars who have devoted their lives to historical studies of science and have written many magisterial books, some of which are listed below. Scholars who are interested in the origin and development of science and its associated technology find in them a mine of vitally important information. If one disagrees with their findings the scholarly response is to givereasons and initiate a dialogue. If however one is unwilling to accept what they say for some other reason the response, as the example of Sarton showed, is the silent treatment. This is still strong today for other reasons. Is it not high time for honest scholars to give due weight to the achievements of the Middle Ages?

Faith Magazine

May - June 2006