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Italian pharmacy jar, about 1400 AD (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Medieval science: an Italian pharmacy jar, about 1400 AD (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Learning from Islamic science

During the Middle Ages, the best scientists and doctors weren’t in Europe. They were in the Islamic Empire to the south and east. Most of the science and medicine that people were doing in Europe was learning from Islamic scientists and doctors. Trade across the Mediterranean helped to spread Islamic science to Italian ports like Genoa and Venice. Other scientific knowledge came from Islamic Spain to France. Because people thought Arabs were the best doctors, Italian pharmacists used this jar for holding medicine, decorated in an Islamic style. But neither the jar nor the medicine inside it really came from West Asia.

Learning from the Mongols

In medieval Europe, people were very interested in scientific observation. Together with Islamic scientists, they learned a lot about plants, and also astronomy. Europeans learned how to use an astrolabe from Islamic astronomers in Spain. On the other hand, the Mongols probably were the ones who told Europeans about hot air balloons and the compass about 1200 AD. (The Mongols had gotten both inventions from the Chinese.) Then Europeans passed compasses on to the Seljuks.

Medieval alchemy

One important kind of medieval science was alchemy (al-KEM-ee), which we call chemistry today. Alchemists tried to figure out how to live forever. And they were interested in turning lead into gold (so they could get rich). Those things aren’t possible, but along the way they did learn a lot about chemistry. The word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic word for “the chemistry”. It’s originally from a Greek word meaning “fluids”.

Logical argument

Logic was also an important part of medieval science, mainly through the Catholic Church. Men like Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas learned from Islamic Empire scholars like Ibn Rushd and Maimonides. They used logic to find relationships between Aristotle’s philosophy and Christian faith. Professors taught Aristotle and Socrates‘ methods of argument in European universities, just getting started in the 1100s AD. In the 1200s AD, universities opened all over Europe, from the University of Paris to the University of Naples.

da Modena, man wearing glasses (ca. 1350 AD)

da Modena, Italian man wearing glasses (ca. 1350 AD)

Arabic numbers

In mathematics, the Middle Ages saw the introduction of what we call Arabic numbers (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) from India through West Asia to Europe. The new numbers led to a shift in mathematical interests from geometry to algebra.

Glass lenses

Europeans also got better at working glass. By about 1000 AD, northern Europeans had figured out how to make glass from local materials. By about 1200, Ibn al-Haytham‘s work on optics encouraged Europeans to work with glass lenses, and by 1286 some Italians were using reading glasses.

A man using a heavier plow with a mold-board, with oxen (Tres Belles Heures du duc de Berry, 1400s)

New plows and chimneys

Europeans themselves invented new tools for farmers. During the early Middle Ages, they invented the horseshoe. They also put together a new kind of horse harness that worked better for plowing than what the Romans had.People began to use the mold-board to turn over plowed earth, and the pitchfork. They needed these things to plow heavy soil in northern Europe.  Europeans also invented chimneys in the Middle Ages, to heat houses in colder northern Europe.

Gunpowder and cannon

And once they had learned about gunpowder, a Chinese invention which reached Europe through the Mongol Empire, Europeans led the way in the invention of cannons, which they seem to have first used around 1320 AD in the Hundred Years’ War.

Learn by doing: Roman numerals
More about medieval mathematics
More about medieval glass-working
And more about Islamic Science

Bibliography and further reading about science in Medieval Europe:

Islamic Science
African Science
Middle Ages home