With the division of the Roman Empire, the Western Roman Empire lost contact with much of its past. The Library of Alexandria, which had suffered since it fell under Roman rule, had been destroyed by 642, shortly after the Arab conquest of Egypt. While the Byzantine Empire still held learning centers such as Constantinople, Western Europe’s knowledge was concentrated in monasteries until the development of medieval universities in the 12th and 13th centuries. The curriculum of monastic schools included the study of the few available ancient texts and of new works on practical subjects like medicine and timekeeping.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Greek philosophy was able to find some support under the newly created Arab Empire. With the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, a period of Muslim scholarship, known as the Islamic Golden Age, lasted until the 13th century. This scholarship was aided by several factors. The use of a single language, Arabic, allowed communication without need of a translator. Access to Greek and Latin texts from the Byzantine Empire along with Indian sources of learning provided Muslim scholars a knowledge base to build upon.
Science in the Islamic world
15th-century manuscript of Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine.
Muslim scientists placed far greater emphasis on experiment than had the Greeks. This led to an early scientific method being developed in the Muslim world, where significant progress in methodology was made, beginning with the experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) on optics from circa 1000, in his Book of Optics. The law of refraction of light was known to the Persians. The most important development of the scientific method was the use of experiments to distinguish between competing scientific theories set within a generally empirical orientation, which began among Muslim scientists. Ibn al-Haytham is also regarded as the father of optics, especially for his empirical proof of the intromission theory of light. Some have also described Ibn al-Haytham as the “first scientist” for his development of the modern scientific method.
Rosanna Gorini writes:
|“||“According to the majority of the historians al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method. With his book he changed the meaning of the term optics and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field. His investigations are based not on abstract theories, but on experimental evidences and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.”||”|
In mathematics, the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi gave his name to the concept of the algorithm, while the term algebra is derived from al-jabr, the beginning of the title of one of his publications. What is now known as Arabic numerals originally came from India, but Muslim mathematicians did make several refinements to the number system, such as the introduction of decimal point notation. Sabian mathematician Al-Battani (850-929) contributed to astronomy and mathematics, while Persian scholar Al-Razi contributed to chemistry and medicine.
In astronomy, Al-Battani improved the measurements of Hipparchus, preserved in the translation of Ptolemy’s Hè Megalè Syntaxis (The great treatise) translated as Almagest. Al-Battani also improved the precision of the measurement of the precession of the Earth’s axis. The corrections made to the geocentric model by al-Battani, Ibn al-Haytham, Averroes and the Maragha astronomers such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Mo’ayyeduddin Urdi and Ibn al-Shatir are similar to Copernican heliocentric model. Heliocentric theories may have also been discussed by several other Muslim astronomers such as Ja’far ibn Muhammad Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi, Abu-Rayhan Biruni, Abu Said al-Sijzi, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, and Najm al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī al-Kātibī.
Muslim chemists and alchemists played an important role in the foundation of modern chemistry. Scholars such as Will Durant and Fielding H. Garrison considered Muslim chemists to be the founders of chemistry. In particular, Jābir ibn Hayyān is “considered by many to be the father of chemistry”. The works of Arabic scientists influenced Roger Bacon (who introduced the empirical method to Europe, strongly influenced by his reading of Persians writers), and later Isaac Newton.
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is regarded as the most influential scientist and philosopher in Islam. He pioneered the science of experimental medicine and was the first physician to conduct clinical trials. His two most notable works in medicine are the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (“Book of Healing”) and The Canon of Medicine, both of which were used as standard medicinal texts in both the Muslim world and in Europe well into the 17th century. Amongst his many contributions are the discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases, and the introduction of clinical pharmacology.
Some of the other famous scientists from the Islamic world include al-Farabi (polymath), Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (pioneer of surgery), Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī (pioneer of Indology, geodesy and anthropology), Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (polymath), and Ibn Khaldun (forerunner of social sciences such as demography, cultural history, historiography, philosophy of history and sociology), among many others.
Islamic science began its decline in the 12th or 13th century, in conjunction with the Renaissance in Europe, and due in part to the 11th- 13th century Mongol Conquests, during which libraries, observatories, hospitals and universities were destroyed. The end of the Islamic Golden Age is marked by the destruction of the intellectual center of Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258.
Science in Medieval Europe
Map of medieval universities
An intellectual revitalization of Europe started with the birth of medieval universities in the 12th century. The contact with the Islamic world in Spain and Sicily, and during the Reconquista and the Crusades, allowed Europeans access to scientific Greek and Arabic texts, including the works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Jābir ibn Hayyān, al-Khwarizmi, Alhazen, Avicenna, and Averroes. European scholars had access to the translation programs of Raymond of Toledo, who sponsored the 12th century Toledo School of Translators from Arabic to Latin. Later translators like Michael Scotus would learn Arabic in order to study these texts directly. The European universities aided materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, European university put many works about the natural world and the study of nature at the center of its curriculum, with the result that the “medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent.”
As well as this, Europeans began to venture further and further east (most notably, perhaps, Marco Polo) as a result of the Pax Mongolica. This led to the increased influence of Indian and even Chinese science on the European tradition. Technological advances were also made, such as the early flight of Eilmer of Malmesbury (who had studied Mathematics in 11th century England), and the metallurgical achievements of the Cistercian blast furnace at Laskill.
Statue of Roger Bacon, Oxford University Museum
At the beginning of the 13th century there were reasonably accurate Latin translations of the main works of almost all the intellectually crucial ancient authors, allowing a sound transfer of scientific ideas via both the universities and the monasteries. By then, the natural philosophy contained in these texts began to be extended by notable scholastics such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus. Precursors of the modern scientific method, influenced by earlier contributions of the Islamic world, can be seen already in Grosseteste’s emphasis on mathematics as a way to understand nature, and in the empirical approach admired by Bacon, particularly in his Opus Majus. Pierre Duhem’s provocative thesis of the Catholic Church’s Condemnation of 1277 led to the study of medieval science as a serious discipline, “but no one in the field any longer endorses his view that modern science started in 1277”.
The first half of the 14th century saw much important scientific work being done, largely within the framework of scholastic commentaries on Aristotle’s scientific writings. William of Ockham introduced the principle of parsimony: natural philosophers should not postulate unnecessary entities, so that motion is not a distinct thing but is only the moving object and an intermediary “sensible species” is not needed to transmit an image of an object to the eye. Scholars such as Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme started to reinterpret elements of Aristotle’s mechanics. In particular, Buridan developed the theory that impetus was the cause of the motion of projectiles, which was a first step towards the modern concept of inertia. The Oxford Calculators began to mathematically analyze the kinematics of motion, making this analysis without considering the causes of motion.
In 1348, the Black Death and other disasters sealed a sudden end to the previous period of massive philosophic and scientific development. Yet, the rediscovery of ancient texts was improved after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, when many Byzantine scholars had to seek refuge in the West. Meanwhile, the introduction of printing was to have great effect on European society. The facilitated dissemination of the printed word democratized learning and allowed a faster propagation of new ideas. New ideas also helped to influence the development of European science at this point: not least the introduction of Algebra. These developments paved the way for the Scientific Revolution, which may also be understood as a resumption of the process of scientific change, halted at the start of the Black Death.