Science and the Medieval World

Through astrology, philosophy, mathematics and alchemy, the expansion of knowledge and invention thrived across the Medieval globe. The Medieval Islamic civilisations experienced a Golden Age of learning and creativity which helped forge the beginnings of modern science andinfluenced the cultural phenomenon of the European Renaissance. Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore this fascinating topic: from eBooks to images, this Featured Content is your gateway into the study of science in the Middle Ages.

Science in the Global Middle Ages

Image Showing Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-'Ibadi Isagoge.
Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-'Ibadi Isagoge (Wikimedia Commons)

How the Science of Medieval Islam Shaped the Western World

Long before the European Renaissance, while the western world was languishing in what was once called the 'Dark Ages', the Arab world was ablaze with the knowledge, invention and creativity of its Golden Age. John Freely’s Light From the East (2011) tells the story of how Islamic science, which began with the translation of Greek manuscripts into Arabic in eighth-century Baghdad, preserved and enhanced the knowledge acquired from Greece, Mesopotamia, India and China. Through the astrologers, physicians, philosophers, mathematicians and alchemists of the Muslim world, this knowledge was carried from Samarkand and Baghdad to Cordoba and beyond, influencing western thinkers from Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus. This chapter begins the tale with the science and knowledge of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Image Showing Westerner and Arab practicing geometry 15th century manuscript.
Practicing Geometry, 15th Century (Wikimedia Commons)

Baghdad’s ‘Golden Age’: Islam’s Scientific Renaissance

The flowering of the ‘Abbasid caliphate between 750 and 1258 CE is often considered the classical age of Islamic civilization. This chapter from The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the ‘Abbasid Empire (2009), explores the Abbasid era which began with what is often called Baghdad’s ‘Golden Age’. During this time, Muslims built on the Arabo-Islamic intellectual foundations laid by the Umayyads to develop numerous branches of learning and practical expertise. The religious sciences became more sophisticated, literature and the arts moved in new directions inspired by Sasanian political theory, and the sciences of the Greek curriculum – mathematics, philosophy, astrology, astronomy and medicine – were translated, interrogated and improved upon by Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims.

This image shows The Coming of the Mongols, 2018.
The Coming of the Mongols, 2018 (I.B. Tauris)

Scholarship and Science under the Qara Khitai (1124–1218)

One of the distinctive features of the history of Greater Iran in the period between the Seljuqs and the Mongols was the establishment of the Qara Khitai, or Western Liao Empire, in Central Asia. This chapter from The Coming of the Mongols (2018) seeks to shed some light on Muslim intellectual activities under Qara Khitai rule. Based on a variety of Muslim and Chinese literary sources as well as archaeological evidence, and following the careers of twelfth-and thirteenth-century scholars, including migrants from the Qara Khitai realm who were active under Mongol rule, it reconstructs the main fields of knowledge and achievements of Central Asian Muslim scholars under the Qara Khitai and their impact on the later Islamic world, including Iran.

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Medieval Science

This image shows Escribano, c.1456.
Escribano, c.1456 (Wikimedia Commons)

Philosophy and the Sciences

It is often believed that Medieval thought was inimical to the sciences, and that the sciences did not begin to flourish until scholasticism was overthrown. This view has now been discredited by many historians. In this chapter from Why Medieval Philosophy Matters (2019), Stephen Boulter examines how the methodology of the sciences, particularly the design of experiments, also presupposes scholastic principles. Through explorations of the connection between scholasticism and the sciences, and also the connection between scholasticism and everyday experience, he argues that scholastic ideas are deeply embedded in the scientific world view. If scientific experiments matter, so does scholasticism.

This image shows The Elephant Clock, 14th Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The Elephant Clock, 14th Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Early 14th Century Syrian Elephant Clock

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides access to a rich collection of objects from across the Medieval globe. This particular piece bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1956, depicts an early 14th century folio from an illustrated manuscript dated A.H. 715A.D., 1315. This folio is from the “Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" by al-Jazari, a treatise of fantastical devices. Here, the elephant clock is depicted in opaque watercolour and gold on paper. According to the text, every half hour the different parts of the mechanism would have moved to release a ball into the pot. The time would have been determined by counting the balls in the bowl.

This image shows God and Science, circa 1220-1230.
God and Science, circa 1220-1230 (Wikimedia Commons)

Alchemy and the Sciences

Alchemy presented its practitioners with the exciting prospect of witnessing through experimental science the mysteries of creation and the eternal struggle between good and evil, God and the devil, and the spirit with nature. The alchemists’ endeavours in the 14th century were dominated by the search for the original prime matter that was regarded as the origin of all life - known as the ‘first water’ or the ‘philosopher’s mercury’. The conflict between mercury and sulphur was seen as crucial to understanding the laws of nature and therefore a necessary precondition for the existence of life in the corporeal material world. Click here to read more from The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England (2012).

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies at the IMC

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies is excited to once again take part in the 2022 International Medieval Congress taking place this July in Leeds, UK, and online. You will be able find us at the Bookfair, and we will also have a host of information available online too. Whether you will be attending in person or virtually, we look forward to seeing you there.

In anticipation of the Congress, we have brought together a carefully curated collection of eBook chapters, encyclopedia entries, digitised primary sources, and pedagogical teaching and learning tools from across the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies. Whet your appetite for the big event with this Featured Content on the theme of Borders and Migration.

Borders and Migration Across the Medieval Globe

Image of the cover of The Easter Frontier, 2019 (I.B. Tauris)
The Easter Frontier 2019(I.B. Tauris)

Conceptualizing the Eastern Frontier in Medieval Geographic Literature

This chapter from Robert Haug’s The Easter Frontier focuses on the conceptual image of the eastern frontier of the early Mmedieval Islamic world in the works of geographers writing in Arabic and Persian during the ninth and tenth centuries, and provides a framework for understanding how contemporary authors viewed the eastern frontier. Arabic and Persian geographical sources of the ninth and tenth centuries describe a greater Khurāsān and Transoxiana that is not easily defined by clear borders. Instead, as we see when we examine large walled oases such as Balkh and Bukhara, this is a geography of nodes and networks.

Image of the cover of The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier, 2015 (I.B. Tauris)
The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier, 2015 (I.B. Tauris)

The Islamic-Byzantine frontier

Frontiers have long served as temptingly rich fodder for historians, ideologues and archaeologists, and the Byzantine–Islamic frontier has not escaped such manipulations. What is at stake is the continuous simplification of Muslim–Christian encounters throughout history and the appropriation of an assumed or envisioned past that has been grafted onto modern interactions. This chapter from A. Asa Eger’s The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier (2015) contributes to a more complex vision of the frontier than traditional historical views by juxtaposing layers of a real ecological frontier of settlement and interaction with an imagined military/religious ideological frontier.

Image of the cover of The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier, 2015 (I.B. Tauris)
Migration in the Medieval Mediterranean, 2021 (Arc Humanities Press)

Borders and Migration in the Medieval Mediterranean

In Migration in the Medieval Mediterranean (2021), Sarah Davis-Secord argues that the cross-Mediterranean movement of peoples was a central aspect of the Mmedieval world. She outlines numerous examples of people who moved across barriers that might seem as impenetrable as walls or modern state borders—those of religion, language, or political allegiance, for example. And while they did not have to confront passport control kiosks, hostile coast guards, or immigration officers, for many Mmedieval migrants the process of establishing a new life in a new land was fraught with difficulties, dangers, and obstructions similar in many ways to those of modern refugees. Others, however, appear to have found successful lives and profitable positions in new places. Click here to read more.

Research and Teaching Guides on Bloomsbury Medieval Studies

Image of the cover of The Easter Frontier, 2019 (I.B. Tauris)
The Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages 2019 (I.B. Tauris)

Early Medieval Migration and Mobility

The Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages (2019) is exclusive to Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, and takes an inclusive approach to the history of the middle ages. This article by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller explores the topic of borders and migration from a global perspective. The fourth–sixth centuries CE have been described as a “Migration Period” par excellence, especially into the territories of the (Western) Roman Empire, and other macro-regions across Afro-Eurasia such as China, Central Asia, India, or Iran. Furthermore, the time period leading up to the ninth century CE saw migration movements on a similar scale, such as the Chinese Empire of the Tang dynasty or the Arab Caliphate. The “hidden migrations” that fall below the radar of written historiography, such as the one of Bantu-speaking groups in Sub-Sahara Africa, are also explored.

Image of the cover of The Easter Frontier, 2019 (I.B. Tauris)
Map of the World from Psalter c. 1265 (The British Library)

Medieval Maps of the British Library

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides access to a unique collection of 12th-15th century maps from the British Library. The digitized editions of works by Matthew Paris, Ranulf Higden, Bartholomaeus Anglicus and more, allow users to explore how contemporary cartographers understood the Medieval world and its borders. This example from The Map Psalter c. 1265, shows a remarkably detailed map of the world. Jerusalem is in the centre, the Red Sea is coloured red, and depictions of mythical monstrous races are arranged along the lower right-hand extremity. The British Isles are at the lower left extremity. The author is unknown, but the initials are similar in style to the Sarum Master and the artist of the Stockholm Psalter.

Image of the cover of The Easter Frontier, 2019 (I.B. Tauris)
Map of the world from Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon, 1299-1364 (The British Library)

Research and Teaching Tools to Globalise your Study

Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides a range of exclusive and specially-commissioned pedagogical resources that introduce students to key subject areas, support instructors to build and globalise their curriculum, and serve as jumping-off points for further research. Thematic Lesson Plans serve as a tool for instructors to structure classes, and the carefully curated Subject Guides bring together the site’s extensive content into manageable lists. The Primary Source Commentary Articles give students an accessible overview of key Medieval documents, while the Introductory Article series offers global overviews of important themes. This Commentary Article from Victoria Flood explores the digitised map of the world from Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon..