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Science, Technology, and Health: Overview

814-1350: Science, Technology, and Health: Overview

The Middle Ages . The thoughts, beliefs, and values of medieval Europeans were dramatically different from those of modern people. Europeans living in postmedieval periods such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—as the names of those eras suggest—self-consciously tried to portray themselves as somehow overthrowing the formal structures and restrictions of an earlier age, and in the process they managed to denigrate and misrepresent the life and thought of an entire millennium. The Middle Ages were born in the still-mysterious process that caused the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and the whole of medieval culture was affected by a widespread attempt to regain the glories of classical civilization. Yet, in the midst of this apparent attempt to re-create the past, medieval Europeans moved forward as well. There were many important intellectual advances during the Middle Ages, including the beginnings of almost every modern vernacular European language and the written scripts to record them, the origins of such fundamental institutions as parliamentary government and the university, and a host of everyday inventions from eyeglasses to wheelbarrows to gunpowder. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholars have greatly increased their knowledge about the Middle Ages, gaining respect for the genuine accomplishments of this vital and productive period.

The Dark Ages. The accomplishments of Greco-Roman culture were documented in two languages, Greek and Latin, but much of the scientific and medical knowledge of the classical period was recorded only in Greek. As most educated Romans were fluent in Greek, there was no reason to translate the philosophical and scientific works of antiquity into Latin. The decline of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries left the Latin-speaking West largely bereft of the intellectual heritage of the Greek-speaking East, even as the economic collapse of the Roman Empire left the West depopulated and impoverished. The political fragmentation of the Roman Empire into petty kingdoms ruled by Germanic warlords completed the process of cultural decline. Only the Roman Church retained some concept of the old order and its cultural possibilities, and as the most devout individuals clustered in monasteries and nunneries to escape the increasingly ignorant and unstable world outside, these ecclesiastical institutions became the centers where the fragments of ancient learning were preserved. Meanwhile, as the new Islamic religion arose in Arabia during the 600s and spread vigorously across North Africa and the Middle East, much of Greek learning was translated into Arabic, rather than Latin, and an unprecedented Arab intellectual culture flourished as its Western counterpart declined.

European Revivals. All endings represent opportunities to begin anew, and the intellectual life of medieval Europe began to renew itself as early as 768, when Charlemagne (Charles the Great) succeeded to the throne of France and launched what was later called the Carolingian Renaissance. The director of that “renaissance,” the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk Alcuin, set up schools, promoted the copying of classical Latin texts, and developed a new handwriting, the direct ancestor of modern lettering. Most classical texts survive owing to this effort. The Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne’s political effort to reinstate a form of the Roman Empire, was less successful, especially as his successors fought among themselves for pre-eminence, foreshadowing the later rivalry between France and Germany. During the later part of the ninth century and most of the tenth, Europe was again on the defensive against “barbarian” invaders, this time the Vikings, Avars, and Magyars (Hungarians). Still, throughout this period the climate steadily improved, and agricultural technology grew more productive, paving the way for genuine economic and demographic growth in the new millennium. The Church found itself struggling for its institutional independence, leading to renewed emphasis on monasteries as exemplars of Christian virtue, which included culture and learning.

High Medieval Culture. By the late eleventh century Christian Europe was prepared to counterattack Islam, which Europeans unfortunately saw as a sworn enemy in possession of Christian patrimony: Jerusalem and the Holy Land. With the First Crusade (1096–1099), a long series of bloody wars between Muslims and Christians began. Even as the West attacked Islam, however, Catholic monks and scholars began the task of translating Greco-Roman philosophical and scientific works from their Arabic intermediaries into Latin, triggering an entirely new medieval revival, which centered on towns and cathedral schools and ultimately gave rise to universities and what is called Scholastic philosophy. Unlike the Carolingian Renaissance, the intellectual flourishing of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was devoted not merely to saving the best of the past but to integrating the richness and sophistication of ancient culture with the demands of the Christian faith. The result was a virtual explosion of knowledge in a new and useful form. Medieval European civilization reached its height during this time: towns grew into cities; cathedrals reached toward the sky; and new kingdoms took shape.

Medieval Borrowing. Unlike many other civilizations, medieval Europe was always willing to absorb elements from other cultures and to remake them in its own image. The extent of this borrowing is one of the main things that modern scholars have learned about the medieval period, and it occurred in many areas of medieval life. Examples include the “Gothic” arch and instruments such as water clocks and astrolabes from the Arabs, silks and brocades from the Chinese, the principles of philosophy (adapted to a Christianized intellectual context) from the ancient Greeks, and the beaded “rosary” and the palms-together gesture of prayer from Islam. This “syncretic” quality is especially important in technology, where many individual items were borrowed and adapted from the Near East, Asia, and even Africa. Stirrups, cranks, the magnetic compass, the fiddle or violin bow, windmills, crossbows, distilled alcohol, and gunpowder are all borrowings from the East that were adapted by medieval culture and often improved. The history of technology is frequently about creative borrowing, as contrasted with allegedly “original” invention. Medieval Europe excelled at borrowing.

The Persistence of the Middle Ages. Medieval European culture is extraordinary in its persistence and its pervasive influence on the modern world. Modern students are often less than flattered to think of themselves as repositories of medieval material objects and intellectual constructs, but they are. Without denim and jeans—named for the medieval cities of Nimes and Genoa—their wardrobes would be markedly different; lacking eyeglasses, many could not see; rock music is still notated on the staff invented in the Middle Ages and played on modern versions of medieval instruments—the guitar and the keyboard. The most popular computer card game is solitaire, played with cards, a medieval invention. Popular movies feature medieval objects such as firearms, medieval literary conventions such as romantic love, and plotlines that go back to the medieval troubadours. A complete list of such holdovers for the Middle Ages would be much longer.

The End of the Middle Ages. The persistence of medieval culture in the modern period demonstrates the artificial nature of the line dividing “medieval” from “modern.” The end of the Middle Ages is much more difficult to establish than the “fall of Rome” that signaled the collapse of classical civilization in the fifth century. Medieval European civilization did not collapse. The advent of bubonic plague in the mid fourteenth century, however, helped to trigger a serious decline in population over most of Europe, and the plague was a recurrent scourge for many centuries. This process was abetted by a serious worsening of the climate, which made some land unsuitable for crops and restricted agricultural output. (Much more land was plowed and farmed in medieval Europe than has ever been cultivated there since.) Some historians think similar conditions led to population decline and the collapse of ancient civilizations, but if so, medieval civilization proved more resilient than its predecessors. Depressed economic conditions stimulated religious and political movements, some of them quite extreme, but the overall effect was to strengthen nascent institutions such as the modern nation-states of France and England, while keeping intact the economic and social framework of late medieval Europe. When Europeans set out to explore new routes to “The Indies,” for better or for worse they wound up carrying European culture to the far corners of the earth. The flood of new wealth and knowledge that came back to Europe did not mark an end to the Middle Ages. The changes this influx sparked were more analogous to growing up than to the cultural destruction that accompanied the end of Rome. All postmedieval cultures are the children of the Middle Ages. To acknowledge this ongoing debt to that period is to begin to understand modern history.

Science, Technology, and Health. In many ways, however, the Middle Ages were unlike the modern world, especially in science, technology, and health. Science was distinctly separate from technology and healing. Sciences were studied and debated in universities, and although scholars might take notice of the “mechanical arts,” as technology was called, they regarded this field as a separate and distinct area of investigation. Medicine, as distinct from healing, was a science taught in the universities, and it did not deal directly with sick people. The practical arts of technology and healing were considered subordinate and therefore inferior to theoretical science and medicine. The goal of science was not useful applications, but a better and more perfect understanding of God’s creation. Indeed, medieval science is intimately associated with theological concerns of perfection and providence.

A Link to the Ancient World. Medieval science stands as a stepping stone between ancient Greek knowledge of the world and the modern conception of it, which is generally understood to have arisen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during the so-called Scientific Revolution. While it may seem foreign to the modern understanding of the world, medieval science does make a certain amount of “sense.” Many of its explanations of things or processes were formulated, not with reference to observable facts, but to extend or corroborate the overarching religious or philosophical beliefs of the time. The same thing could be said of the ancient worldview as well. Where the medieval world broke free of the ancient mythological understanding of the world was in the belief that it was fundamentally explainable. Medieval scholars asserted that, since God made the world, its laws, and its inhabitants, he must have given humanity the power and intellect to investigate and explain this Christian cosmos. An understanding of the natural world would then lead to a greater understanding of its creator as well—a belief also common among the scientists of the Scientific Revolution. As medieval scientists studied various aspects of the world and its denizens, they formed the foundations for the methods by which modern scientists investigate the world.

Technology. Historians used to believe that, after the fall of Rome, a “Dark Age” settled over Europe and was not lifted until that glorious “rebirth” called the Renaissance. In technology, as in many other areas of medieval studies, this view has been resoundingly disproved as more and more evidence has come to light from archaeological digs and newly discovered or re-examined documentary sources. Scholars now know that people of the Middle Ages were extremely interested in using technology to create wealth, comfort, and change in a society that had lost a central cultural influence with the end of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Middle Ages was the period in which the Western predilection for doing things with machines was born. Pulling themselves from the wreckage of the Roman Empire and aspiring to re-create Roman glories as they understood them, medieval Europeans instead created the foundations of the modern world. From simple “machines” such as the gear and the pulley, they made complex machinery to stamp, grind, pump, jack, throw, pull, and lift. With the simple straightedge and compass, they transformed basic geometry into complex patterns and then erected these patterns in stone, developing in the process new ways to enclose space. In their wars, they sought new mechanical and architectural solutions to the perennial problems of attack and defense. With new understandings of how the elements in a technological system could be manipulated, they reorganized their methods of work and increased productivity manyfold.

Power Sources. For proof of how favorably Europeans looked on machinery, one may examine the technology they employed to harness power. All societies are fundamentally defined by the power sources they have at their disposal. Although medieval Europe had only one source that the Romans did not have (windmills), exploitation of those power sources in the Middle Ages was vastly more impressive than the Romans’ use of the same technology. With the harnessing of animals, flowing water, and the winds, medieval Europeans changed the world: they tilled the soil and increased crop production many times over; they pumped and hammered and sawed with a new ease that would have amazed non-Europeans of their time; and they milled enough grain to feed an ever-expanding population. They became skilled at manipulating gears, pulleys, levers, beams, cords, and wheels to make machines do amazing things. They had learned how to harness nonhu-man power to perform tasks that had been done by humans before. This fundamental shift in energy sources liberated humanity’s potential to alter how that energy was given back to them as useful work. In virtually all ways, the history of medieval technology shows people at their most creative.

Health. Today the concept of medieval “health” might seem a contradiction in terms, for many still agree with the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who asserted that life in the Middle Ages was “nasty, brutish, and short.” In fact, although average life expectancy was short, a person who survived childhood and adolescence (and especially childbirth) had a good chance of living into his or her sixties, if not longer. At the same time, however, war and plague were ever present, and to many people the specter of death (and final judgment) seemed not far off. In addition, famine and starvation in years of crop failure were a constant threat, and in many parts of Europe, soil, climate, and isolation from trade routes resulted in unhealthy diets for the poor people of those regions. In some areas of Europe the Black Death of the fourteenth century killed an estimated one-third to one-half of the populations of some towns.

Health Care. Nonetheless, medieval people developed many effective strategies to maintain and restore health. Their theoretical understanding has been wholly supplanted, and their success was not as high as that of modern medicine; yet, their methods were not wholly ineffectual. By modifying their behaviors and diets and using various medicines, extracts, herbs, and compounds—derived from a body of works known collectively as the materia medica (medical matters)—they dealt quite effectively with many pathogens and ailments. Within the framework of their understanding of the human body and natural conditions, medieval healers and doctors saved and prolonged lives.

Treatment and Prevention of Disease. In the Middle Ages medical information from doctors was often restricted or unavailable, so people frequently turned to herbals—manuscript collections of remedies made from plants to prevent or cure diseases, or ease their symptoms—to help them live in as much comfort and with as little pain as possible. Many of the practices medieval people followed are no longer commonplace, but some are still followed by millions of people. Although medical science once discounted the herbs and natural medicines that medieval people favored, recent research has found value in many of them, and some are still prescribed by doctors around the world. The idea of a balanced regimen of healthy living is another medieval concept that continues to influence modern people. The discovery of how medieval Europeans tried to maintain their health and vitality has discredited the notion that the Middle Ages had little to offer in the field of health. The period was in fact a fertile time for the growth of practical, rather than theoretical, knowledge about getting and staying healthy.

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