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).