Sciences and Medicine in Medieval Europe

Sciences and Medicine in Medieval Europe
Sciences and Medicine in Medieval Europe

The Latin West in the early medieval period was too poor and rural to produce significant theoretical science and medicine. The near-total loss of the scientific language of antiquity, Greek, also hindered Western science. What remained were the Bible and the voluminous but unsystematic and uncreative Latin works of Roman and a few early medieval compilers, such as the Elder Pliny’s Natural History or the encyclopedic writings of Isidore of Seville.

Medieval science built on the tradition of Greek natural philosophy and medicine. Ptolemy in astronomy (and astrology); Galen in medicine; Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius in mathematics; and Aristotle (along with works falsely ascribed to him) in logic and natural philosophy composed a body of ancient authority that underlay medieval science. They were joined by numerous writers from the Islamic world, particularly influential in the field of medicine, but important in many other areas as well.

Leaders among these included the philosopher-physicians Ibn Sina (980–1037), known in the Latin West as Avicenna; Ibn Rushd (1128–98), known as Averroës or “the Commentator” (on Aristotle); and Moses Maimonides (1138–1204). Physicians and philosophers from the Islamic world, who included Jews like Maimonides and Christians as well as Muslims, had further developed and systematized Greek thought as well as innovating.


The revival of Western science can be traced to the growing prosperity of the West in the 11th century, which stimulated interest at first in the Roman writings, and then in an influx of translations from the Arabic, both of originally Greek texts translated into Arabic and of originally Arabic ones, beginning late in the 11th century.

The principal avenue for scientific translation was Spain, where many Muslim areas with developed scientific traditions were coming under Christian rule. (There were also translations directly from the Greek being made in the Sicilian kingdom, an area that had never lost its connections to Greek culture.)

The most important translator of the 12th century was Gerard of Cremona (1114–87), an Italian who worked in Toledo, Spain. Gerard’s translations of Arabic versions of Greek works included Ptolemy’s Almagest, Euclid’s Geometry, and Archimedes’ Measurement of the Circle.

Arab works he translated included Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine and the commentary on Galen by Haly Radoan, both of which became standard medical texts. The 12th and 13th century discovery of these Greek and Arab writers had a radical impact on European culture, making the physical universe an object of scholarly interest.

By the late 12th and 13th centuries, the vehicle for disseminating science and medical theory in Latin Christendom was the university, particularly the undergraduate arts faculty and the medical faculty. The intellectuals who worked in these universities are referred to as Scholastics.

Scholastics did not view qualitative science as a discipline divorced from philosophy but as a subdiscipline within philosophy, called natural philosophy. Natural philosophy was taught in universities principally by commenting on Aristotle’s genuine and spurious scientific works along with previous commentaries and other texts.

Among the most important centers for the study of nature was the University of Paris. Leading Scholastic philosophers with an interest in natural philosophy included the 12th century William of Conches and Albertus Magnus (1200–80). More mathematical aspects of science, such as astronomy and optics, were taught outside the natural philosophy curriculum.

Scholastic natural philosophers faced the challenge of reconciling Aristotle’s thought, produced in the culture of pagan Greece, with Christianity. The most common approach was to subordinate Aristotle to Christian doctrine, denying such Aristotelian claims as the eternal existence of the world as unbiblical. A very different strategy based itself on the philosophical works of Averroës.

By asserting the autonomy of philosophy, including natural philosophy, from Christian theology, the Latin Averroists such as Siger of Brabant (c. 1240–c. 1284) at the University of Paris attracted a great deal of suspicion from church authorities.

The bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, reacted to the perceived threat of the Averroists by condemning many Aristotelian ideas as irreligious in 1277. The Aristotelian denial of the possibility of multiple worlds, for example, was thought to be a heretical limitation on God’s power.

The scope of Tempier’s condemnation reached to the works of many philosophers trying to synthesize Aristotle with Christianity, such as the Paris professor Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74). The effect of this condemnation was limited; it did not, nor was it intended to, stop the study of nature. It did encourage a greater focus on God’s omnipotence, with a greater willingness to discuss hypothetical, non-Aristotelian cosmologies.

These discussions were not assertions of physical reality but remained speculative. When the Parisian master Nicolas Oresme (c. 1320–82), for example, discussed the anti-Aristotelian idea that the Earth rotated, his influential arguments were directed at demonstrating that it was possible, not that it was actually happening.

Somewhat apart from the mainstream of Scholastic science was experimental work. Its most notable practitioner in the Middle Ages was the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1219–c. 1292), whose optical and alchemical experiments won him a bad reputation as a magician.

Another experimentalist was the French nobleman Pierre de Maricort, who experimented on magnets. The most active experimental program was probably that carried out by alchemists, particularly in distillation. As the university scientists, they drew on Greek and Arabic science, but their discipline was passed on outside the academy and aroused some suspicion from church authorities.

One of the most intriguing developments in late medieval science was the increasing quantification of Aristotelian physics. This was initially the work of a group of scholars at Oxford University, many of them associated with Merton College, the so-called Calculatores.

Leaders in this early effort to create a mathematical physics were Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1300–49) Richard Swineshead (d. 1365), and William Heytesbury (d. c. 1372). The project was also advanced by avant-garde masters at the 14th century University of Paris, notably Oresme, Jean Buridan (1300–58) and Albert of Saxony (c. 1316–90).

Their brilliant work continued to be expressed in the form of commentaries on Aristotle’s works, modifying the Aristotelian system rather than overthrowing it. Their most notable conceptual innovation was “impetus,” a quality of a moving body that kept it in motion. This differed from the Aristotelian theory that a body’s motion was maintained by the medium in which it moved.

Although professional healing continued in early medieval Europe, it was not based on mastery of textual sources. The transmission of the Greek and Arab tradition in medicine to Latin Europe began in the late 11th century, with a group of translations from the Arabic associated with the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.

These translations, made by an otherwise unknown monk named Constantine the African, included works of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, Galen, and Arab physicians. The new body of texts was instrumental in the re-creation of medicine as a learned profession, as well as ensuring that the Western medicine would follow Arabic medicine into adopting a basically Galenic framework.

The first recorded institution devoted to medical education in the Latin West was a medical school at Salerno in southern Italy, which developed a body of texts that would form a basis for medical learning throughout the medieval period.

With the development of the university system in the 12th century, medicine was taught alongside law and theology as one of the three higher disciplines. As they did in science, universities benefited in medicine from the flood of Spanish Arabic translations of the mid-12th century, the most influential work being Avicenna’s Canon, a massive systematization of Galenic medicine that eventually served in Latin translation as a medical textbook.

A third wave of medical translations in the 13th century was led by the royal physician Arnauld of Villanova and included a higher proportion of translations directly from the Greek. Latin Christians also began to write medical treatises, commentaries, and compendia of their own, although nothing to challenge the intellectual authority of Greek and Arabic works.

In addition to Paris and Montpellier in southern France, the most important universities for medicine were mostly Italian, particularly Bologna and Padua. The bachelor of medicine degree took about seven years, the M.D. about 10.

As the medical curriculum developed, textual study began to be supplemented with other forms of medical education. Some universities required medical students to get practical experience working with a physician, and beginning in the 14th century some Mediterranean universities began to require attendance at dissections.

The Galenic medicine taught in the universities was based on a theory of the four “humors” of the human body: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. A healthy body was one where the humors balanced. This led to the popularity of bloodletting as a therapy, as it allegedly relieved the distress caused by an excess of blood.

Although Galen differed from Aristotle on some biological questions, Galenic medicine was mostly compatible with Aristotelian natural philosophy, and physicians were educated in natural philosophy as well as medicine proper. It was also considered important for a physician to know astrology to choose the best times to perform medical procedures.

Largely outside the university tradition were Jewish physicians, some of whom served as personal physicians for the most powerful Christians in Europe. Also outside the university tradition were women writers on medicine such as the nun Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179).

Her Book of Simple Medicines includes information on the curative power of herbs and jewels. There was also a mysterious woman medical writer at Salerno named Trotula, but she had no successors on university faculties.

One set of rivals to the physicians, as educated medical professionals, were the surgeons, who in addition to practicing what is now called surgery were also active in the treatment of skin disease. (Italy was exceptional in that physicians were trained as surgeons as well.) Surgery was not taught at the university, but through apprenticeship, which eventually led to the formation of a guild system.

Physicians, a tiny minority among Europe’s medical practitioners, distinguished themselves from surgeons (and other healers like mid-wives and herbalists) through a focus on why the body became sick, rather than merely on the cure. Physicians often emphasized maintaining health through proper diet and the observance of astrological moments rather than healing the sick.

By the late Middle Ages a network of medical institutions outside university medical faculties had begun to develop. Surgeons organized themselves into guilds such as Paris’s College of Saint Cosme, founded in 1210. Governments established systems of licensing practitioners, although unlicensed practitioners continued to flourish. Cities, beginning in Italy, hired public physicians. Hospitals, originally places for the sick to die or recover, started hiring physicians as attendants.