NATURAL SCIENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
|NATURAL SCIENCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES|
By Professor LYNN THORNDIKE
WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY
PROBABLY ninety-nine out of every hundred educated persons would be surprised to learn that there was any such thing as natural science in the middle ages. Lest I seem to impute too much ignorance to my present audience, perhaps I should lower the ratio to nine persons out of ten. That is really a flattering estimate, since one of the most recent works on the middle ages, Taylor's "The Medieval Mind," while it devotes two volumes to monasticism, scholasticism and other features of medieval thought, treats of natural science in the middle ages only incidentally in two chapters upon Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, and dismisses all other medieval students of nature with the words,
Assuredly, through all the middle ages there were men who noticed such physical phenomena as bore upon their lives, even men who cared for the dumb beginnings of what eventually might lead to natural science. But they were not representative of their epoch's master energies.
Such an attitude is due partly to the fact that the history of science has as yet been little investigated; it is also partly due to misconceptions concerning the middle ages. If we appreciate what the middle ages really were, we shall not be amazed to find an interest in natural science then.
Every one knows that by the term "middle ages" is roughly indicated the period between ancient civilization and modern civilization, or, more specifically, between the. decline of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance or the discovery of America. For a time historians, under the influence either of classical or of Protestant prejudices, seemed to think that between ancient civilization and modern civilization there was no civilization. Therefore, the term "dark ages" was applied to the middle ages. Everything worth while in modern life was supposed either to have been rescued from the ruins of antiquity by the men of the Renaissance, or to have originated at some time since. Every disused and decadent idea or custom which modern men threw away on to the historical ash-heap was designated as medieval.
But after a while the middle ages were studied more thoroughly and sympathetically. Monasticism, feudalism, scholasticism, the social and