Chapter 5 – Introduction and Thesis

Hans Peter Broedel

We are accustomed to think of the middle ages, that roughly thousand-year span between the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the dawning of the modern world around 1500 CE, as a period of ignorance and benighted superstition.   This is largely because the term “middle ages” was invented by very smart, but very conceited, Renaissance scholars who liked to contrast their own considerable achievements with what they saw as the intellectual wasteland that preceded them.  This bit of slander also suited the purposes of reforming Protestants who used the alleged darkness of the medieval centuries as evidence of the stifling influence of the Catholic Church.  Yet, as we shall see, such an attitude is mostly wrong and completely unfair: medieval people made great contributions to the development of European science and technology without which the future achievements of the moderns would have been impossible.

Sometimes medieval contributions are difficult to understand because they do not look like what we expect or are accustomed to.  When we study the middle ages, however, we need to remember that neither science nor technology progresses just because “that’s what it does,” but because change brings benefits to certain sufficiently important members of society.  A warrior aristocracy dominated medieval Europe for whom the capacity for violence provided not only the means to power, but also its very justification.  For this reason, technologies that enhanced force and that maximized the ability of a relatively small number of men to project violence as efficiently, safely, and widely as possible, were embraced and encouraged.  Castles, steel swords and armor, heavy warhorses, Viking ships: these iconic images define the middle ages in our imaginations, but they were also extremely effective and functional expressions of medieval technological goals.

Other medieval technologies responded to the needs of society more broadly.  Agricultural innovations, many imported from Asia, spread rapidly because they were profitable: higher crop yields meant better, longer lives for peasants and more rents for lords.  The use of waterpower for mills and other industrial technologies came rapidly where it was profitable, and slowly or not at all where it was not.  The development of clocks, bookkeeping, and new techniques of manufacture met the quite different needs of growing urban communities.  Finally , an increasing dependence on writing served the needs of a broad constituency, including urban guilds, governments, and, of course, the church.

In a quite similar way, medieval natural philosophy (or we could say “medieval science” since it endeavored to better understand and describe the natural world) reflected the values, goals, and worldview of its most important stakeholder, the Church.  Because the natural world, God’s creation, was a direct expression of his thought and will, to better understand it led to a better understanding of God.  The natural world was perceived as a kind of text, a “book of nature,” which could and should be examined and studied in ways much like scripture.   Naturally, for this reason medieval science was required to conform to basic Christian teachings, yet because the Church was also steeped in classical and Latin traditions, the Greco-Roman inheritance provided a second basis for understanding the natural world.  How these two traditions coexisted, adapted, and merged determined in large part the direction of medieval science.



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History of Applied Science & Technology Copyright © 2017 by Hans Peter Broedel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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