On ‘Progress’ in Early Medieval Science

Did the “Christian Dark Ages” suppress scientific knowledge and does it matter? You can find some great graphs on the internet that suggest so. Some even suggest that Europe managed to hit 0% science. You can imagine the argument without reading anything: people in the Middle Ages – all of them – made no technological breakthroughs and weren’t very interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake because of religion. Here is one such graph (with defence):

DarkAges.gif

http://www.nobeliefs.com/comments17.htm

Medieval science: it was the worst science, all covered in straw and with no real progress whatsoever made until the Reformation.

Even playing along, it is not entirely clear that graph is entirely fair. First, it implies Roman science was lost, when in fact it was preserved and developed in the Middle Ages, so the level shouldn’t really drop that dramatically. At worst, it should pop up again in the twelfth century when Arab and Greek knowledge was ‘rediscovered’. Part of the justification is that no medieval person was as good as science as any Roman or Greek person, which possibly gives away a failure to read any medieval, Roman or Greek science. Anyway: second, it implies that medieval scientific knowledge was constant in its low-levels, ignoring that new and more technical knowledge was developed in different fields at different times throughout the period (plus the bit in the middle where they ‘discovered’ Arab and Greek science). They managed more than a few unimportant things at the end, so it should go up a little bit.

This all sets the scene for the age-old problem ‘what is [scientific] progress anyway?’ Here are some check points we can bear in mind:

1) Quantity. More data is always better than less, even if it’s scary or overwhelming. And they did accumulate lots and lots – there are hundreds of manuscripts of observations (not all good) from across the Middle Ages. But progress is about more than accumulation because of…

2) Quality. The data needs to be good, and there need to be good theories of explanation. Both are possibly connected to truth/ reality in a meaningful way. Great. There were certainly rational theories in the Middle Ages based on observed phenomena, even if they weren’t always right. But there also needed to be…

3) Goals. What are the problems you are trying to solve? Those early “Dark Age Christians” were pretty good at astronomy, believe it or not, because one of their biggest challenges was developing an accurate computus.[1] (Also there was intellectual competitiveness, which drove some improvements). They improved agricultural production as the population grew. They developed sea transportation so that they could move good arounds more quickly and effectively, and new building techniques to build bigger and better palaces and cathedrals, so they were not without technological movement. Yes, they didn’t have ipads or melt the Arctic, but we have different goals. Not, it should be noted, that goals are necessarily a Good Thing if you want to go back to the quantity argument, because disinterested scientific progress should not be constrained by corruptible targets. Mind you, we might also need to bear in mind…

4) Impact. Impact is not something made up recently by government officials to annoy scientists by forcing them only to do the science they know will work within a REF cycle. It has a longer pedigree as a way of evaluating whether it changed anything, from its own discipline to socio-economic factors. This obviously makes things a bit more complicated, because more and better science with goals does not always add up to impact – or at least it cannot guarantee ‘good impact’ (see again the Arctic melting mid-winter thanks to 200 years of industrial ‘progress’).

Early medieval science scores better on some of these issues than others. Let’s just take the boring stock example of Bede’s science in eighth-century Northumbria (in De natura rerum and De temporum ratione): he accumulated data with some observation and some books of Roman science, evaluated it all rationally, produced theories that corresponded to the natural world at least a bit, and he did this to construct a calendar and to understand the laws of nature, and the impact was that it gave lasting form to Europe-wide debates about chronology, calendars, and the nature of nature. No one is saying it is the most technically accurate and exacting account of nature ever. But it’s not bad science, or even not science, just because Bede believed in God. Progress is not a linear thing: sometimes it is contextual and depends on what people need, and sometimes it doesn’t take the form or pursue the ends that white western secular men would like it to take.

There might, anyway, be interesting questions one could ask about science apart from ‘did it progress?’ Science is supposed to be about complicated real issues. For Bede, religion did not just dictate the science, but the science also fed back into the religion. He saw a rational, rule-driven world. So we might also ask ‘how did the interplay between religion and science affect belief structures?’ We might also wonder about why he had books of Roman and Irish science and ask ‘what determined people putting money/ resources into preserving and developing that body of knowledge over this body of knowledge?’ We might even wonder if only having western European yardsticks is self-defeating if Arab and Chinese sciences were better, and we could compare different cultures of scientific knowledge. Maybe having faith in only one way of doing science isn’t the best way to generate ‘good progress’.

Maybe science is more complicated than people think.

[1] Computus = (roughly) the development of an accurate lunar-solar calendar for the purposes of knowing in advance when the next Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox was each year.

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