During most of the Middle Ages, the development of new scientific theories came to a halt. In Europe, during the earlier part of the period, the church still had a great deal of influence and many thinkers feared being charged with heresy should they go against Catholic beliefs.
This long period in history saw a gradual emergence of irrational theories that threatened to engulf the whole of science and leave behind much of the work done by the ancient Greeks. For example, astrology challenged astronomy, magic found its way into medicine and alchemy infiltrated natural science.
The slowing-down of scientific development didn’t permeate the whole world, however. Middle Eastern science flourished during this time when the now-common Arabic numerals were devised, along with time-keeping devices and astronomical instruments. This Middle-Eastern knowledge was carried to Europe later during the crusades.
In a time considered barren of scientific advancement, here’s a look at a few revolutionaries.
This polymath, whose full name is Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā, was a Persian scholar and is considered one of the greatest thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age in the 11th century. He wrote over 450 works and of those, about 240 have survived which include roughly 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.
Students studying at a great books college may be familiar with The Book of Healing and The Cannon of Medicine, two of his famous scientific, philosophical and medical encyclopedias that remained in use by major medical colleges until 1700.
Many of Avicenna’s explanations were well ahead of their time. For example, he proposed a new set of protocols to test medicines, and his volumes included newly translated Greek ideas such as the possibility that disease could airborne.
Paracelsus was a 14th century European chemist who made several advances in the periodic table of elements as well as in botany and medicine. He’s sometimes heralded as the “father of toxicology” due to his assertions that poison was safe in small doses. Paracelsus was the first to use chemicals in medicine as opposed to herbs and was even the first to propose the concept of the human unconscious. Many liberal arts students will continue learning where Paracelsus left off when they study Freud’s theory of the unconscious in their classes.
St. Albertus Magnus
Students attending liberal arts college in Chicago may be familiar with this Catholic saint, as he was the teacher of St Thomas Aquinas. He was an academic in chemistry, philosophy, zoology and physiology. He’s mostly known for preserving the ideas of Aristotle, but he also provided insight into the field of psychology where he debated the essential nature of the human intellect as well as whether or not the body was rooted in the soul.
St. Albertus Magnus was renowned as a teacher during his time as well as among scholars later on during the Renaissance. His ideas were survived by Aquinas, and students attending small liberal arts colleges will be sure to hear his name in several of their natural science courses.
Did we miss any of the great scientists of the Middle Ages? Let us know who you think deserved to be on this list.