The ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians were pioneers in science and medicine. But with the demise of these civilizations, the thirst for scientific knowledge decreased and would not pick up again until the latter part of the Middle Ages. In Medieval England, scientific development was considerably stagnant. Most things linked to the Romans were destroyed and most scientific knowledge acquired by the ancient civilizations was pushed aside in favor of superstition, crude medical practices and official church ideology.
In Medieval England, the Roman Catholic Church dominated the scientific and medical communities. Any view that deviated from that established by the church could be construed as heresy and punished accordingly. This affected general beliefs regarding illness and the place of science in the world. The church taught that sickness and disease were a punishment from God for sin, therefore few people thought it appropriate to try to cure the diseases "sinners" were afflicted with. Medical practitioners relied primarily on an anatomy text by Mondino called "Anatomia," written in 1316 and officially sanctioned by the church. Mondino drew heavily on the Greek astrologer-scientist Galen whose work, while revolutionary at the time, was already more than 1,000 years old when Medieval medical doctors were consulting "Anatomia."
While the Greeks and Romans had gone far in debunking some superstitions related to medicine and science, most of this knowledge was either lost or replaced in Medieval England. The result was a hodgepodge of church doctrine mixed with speculation and superstition. Students in the established universities were free to debate the ideas of Galen and Mondino, but the debates were not rooted in the scientific method, and instead were judged for their use of rhetoric. While not English, the Italian doctor Alderotti's views give a sense of the general unscientific thinking during the Middle Ages -- he claimed that combing the hair "comforts the brain."
The Four Humors and Astrology
It was common belief, reiterated by the church, that dissection of the human body was an act of desecration. This led to a general ignorance about what the body was actually composed of. Most people continued to believe in the four humors -- blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile -- an ancient Greek and Roman idea that treated illness as an imbalance of these elements. Medieval scientists also believed that the natural world was controlled by demons, bad smells and astrological signs. For instance, doctor and "chief scientist" for three successive popes, Guy Chauliac claimed that the Black Death occurred because of the alignment of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars.
Paving the Way for Renaissance
Despite the church's resistance to scientific knowledge, some developments were made. In the Arab world, science flourished with the development of Arab numerals, time-keeping devices and astronomical instruments. This new knowledge eventually made its way to England via the religious crusades and as yearning for new ways of understanding the world increased. During the latter part of the Middle Ages, a three-dimensional model of space was developed in England. By the 17th century, the concept of physical force -- later, gravity -- was developed and the need for a scientific method of inquiry was recognized. This recognition paved the way for the rapid advances in technology, science and medicine that would come about in the Renaissance.
- History Learning Site: Medicine in the Middle Ages
- BBC -- GCSE Bitesize: Medieval Medical Knowledge
- The New Phrenology -- The Limits of Localizing Cognitive Processes in the Brain; William R. Uttal
- BBC - GCSE Bitesize: Medieval Superstitions and Muslim Knowledge
- The Black Death; Philip Ziegler
- The Middle Ages; Jose Wudka
- Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images