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When Did Modern Science Begin? PDF Print E-mail

 Edward Grant

Although science has a long history with roots in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is indisputable that modern science emerged in Western Europe and nowhere else. The reasons for this momentous occurrence must, therefore, be sought in some unique set of circumstances that differentiate Western society from other contemporary and earlier civilizations. The establishment of science as a basic enterprise within a society depends on more than expertise in technical scientific subjects, experiments, and disciplined observations. After all, science can be found in many early societies. In Islam, until approximately 1500, mathematics, astronomy, geometric optics, and medicine were more highly developed than in the West. But science was not institutionalized in Islamic society. Nor was it institutionalized in ancient and medieval China, despite significant achievements. Similar arguments apply to all other societies and civilizations. Science can be found in many of them but was institutionalized and perpetuated in none.


Why did science as we know it today materialize only in Western society? What made it possible for science to acquire prestige and influence and to become a powerful force in Western Europe by the seventeenth century? The answer, I believe, lies in certain fundamental events that occurred in Western Europe during the period from approximately 1175 to 1500. Those events, taken together, should be viewed as forming the foundations of modern science, a judgment that runs counter to prevailing scholarly opinion, which holds that modern science emerged in the seventeenth century by repudiating and abandoning medieval science and natural philosophy, the latter based on the works of Aristotle.

The scientific revolution appeared first in astronomy, cosmology, and physics in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whether or not the achievements of medieval science exercised any influence on these developments is irrelevant. What must be emphasized, however, is that the momentous changes in the exact sciences of physics and astronomy that epitomized the scientific revolution did not develop from a vacuum. They could not have occurred without certain foundational events that were unique products of the late Middle Ages. To realize this, we must inquire whether a scientific revolution could have occurred in the seventeenth century if the level of science in Western Europe had remained much as it was in the first half of the twelfth century, before the transformation that occurred as a consequence of a great wave of translations from the Greek and Arabic languages into Latin that began around 1150 and continued on to the end of the thirteenth century. Could a scientific revolution have occurred in the seventeenth century if the immense translations of Greco-Arabic (or Greco-Islamic) science and natural philosophy into Latin had never taken place? Obviously not. Without those translations many centuries would have been required before Western Europe could have reached the level of Greco-Arabic science. Instead of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, our descendants might look back upon a "Scientific Revolution of the Twenty-first Century." But the translations did occur in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and so did a scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. It follows that something happened between, say, 1175 and 1500 that paved the way for that scientific revolution. What that "something" was is my subject here.

To describe how the late Middle Ages in Western Europe played a role in producing the scientific revolution in the physical sciences during the seventeenth century; two aspects of science need to be distinguished, the contextual and the substantive. The first--the contextual--involves changes that created an atmosphere conducive to the establishment of science, made it feasible to pursue science and natural philosophy on a permanent basis, and made those pursuits laudable activities within Western society. The second aspect--the substantive--pertains to certain features of medieval science and natural philosophy that were instrumental in bringing about the scientific revolution.

The creation of an environment in the Middle Ages that eventually made a scientific revolution possible involved at least three crucial preconditions. The first of these was the translation of Greco-Arabic science and natural philosophy into Latin during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Without this initial, indispensable precondition, the other two might not have occurred. With the transfer of this large body of learning to the Western world, the old science of the early Middle Ages was overwhelmed and superseded. Although modern science might eventually have developed in the West without the introduction of Greco-Arabic science, its advent would have been delayed by centuries.

The second precondition was the formation of the medieval university, with its corporate structure and control over its varied activities. The universities that emerged by the thirteenth century in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna were different from anything the world had ever seen. From these beginnings, the medieval university took root and has endured as an institution for some eight hundred years, being transformed in time into a worldwide phenomenon. Nothing in Islam or China, or India, or in the ancient civilizations of South America is comparable to the medieval university. It is in this remarkable institution, and its unusual activities, that the foundations of modern science must be sought.

The university was possible in the Middle Ages because the evolution of medieval Latin society allowed for the separate existence of church and state, each of which, in turn, recognized the independence of corporate entities, the university among them. The first universities, of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, were in existence by approximately 1200, shortly after most of the translations had been completed. The translations furnished a ready-made curriculum to the emerging universities, a curriculum that was overwhelmingly composed of the exact sciences, logic, and natural philosophy.

The curriculum of science, logic, and natural philosophy established in the medieval universities of Western Europe was a permanent fixture for approximately 450 to 500 years. It was the curriculum of the arts faculty, which was the largest of the traditional four faculties of a typical major university, the others being medicine, theology, and law. Courses in logic, natural philosophy, geometry, and astronomy formed the core curriculum for the baccalaureate and master of arts degrees and were taught on a regular basis for centuries. These two arts degrees were virtual prerequisites for entry into the higher disciplines of law, medicine, and theology.

For the first time in the history of the world, an institution had been created for teaching science, natural philosophy, and logic. An extensive four-to-six-year course in higher education was based on those subjects, with natural philosophy as the most important component. As universities multiplied during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the same science-natural philosophy-logic curriculum was disseminated throughout Europe, extending as far east as Poland.

The science curriculum could not have been implemented without the explicit approval of church and state. To a remarkable extent, both granted to the universities corporate powers to regulate themselves: universities had the legal right to determine their own curricula, to establish criteria for the degrees of their students, and to determine the teaching fitness of their faculty members.

Despite some difficulties and tensions between natural philosophy and theology--between, essentially, reason and revelation--arts masters and theologians at the universities welcomed the arrival of Aristotle's natural philosophy as evidenced by the central role they gave it in higher education. Why did they do this? Why did a Christian society at the height of the Catholic Church's power readily adopt a pagan natural philosophy as the basis of a four-to-six-year education? Why didn't Christians fear and resist such pagan fare rather than embrace it?

Because Christians had long ago come to terms with pagan thought and were agreed, for the most part, that they had little or nothing to fear from it. The rapprochement between Christianity and pagan literature, especially philosophy, may have been made feasible by the slowness with which Christianity was disseminated. The spread of Christianity beyond the Holy Land and its surrounding region began in earnest after Saint Paul proselytized the Gentile world, especially Greece, during the middle of the first century. In retrospect--and by comparison with the spread of Islam--the pace of the dissemination of Christianity appears quite slow. Not until 300 A.D. was Christianity effectively represented throughout the Roman Empire. And not until 313, in the reign of Constantine, was the Edict of Milan (or Edict of Toleration) issued, which conferred on Christianity full legal equality with all other religions in the Empire. In 392, Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire. In that year, the Emperor Theodosius ordered all pagan temples closed, and also prohibited pagan worship, thereafter classified as treason. Thus it was not until 392 that Christianity became the exclusive religion supported by the state. After almost four centuries of existence, Christianity was triumphant.

By contrast, Islam, following the death of Mohammad in 632, was carried over an enormous geographical area in a remarkably short time. In less than one hundred years, it was the dominant religion from the Arabian peninsula westward to the Straits of Gibraltar, northward to Spain and eastward to Persia, and beyond. But where Islam was largely spread by conquest during its first hundred years, Christianity spread slowly and, with the exception of certain periods of persecution, relatively peacefully. It was this slow percolation of Christianity that enabled it to come to terms with the pagan world and thus prepare itself for a role that could not have been envisioned by its early members.

The time it took before Christianity became the state religion enabled Christianity to adjust to the pagan society around it. In the second half of the third century, Christian apologists concluded that Christianity could profitably utilize pagan Greek philosophy and learning. In a momentous move, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) and his disciple Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-ca. 254) laid down the basic approach that others would follow. Greek philosophy, they argued, was not inherently good or bad, but one or the other depending on how it was used by Christians. Although the Greek poets and philosophers had not received direct revelation from God, they did receive natural reason and were therefore pointed toward truth. Philosophy--and secular learning in general--could thus be used to interpret Christian wisdom, which was the fruit of revelation. They were agreed that philosophy and science could be used as "handmaidens to theology"--that is, as aids to understanding Holy Scripture--an attitude that had already been advocated by Philo Judaeus, a resident of the Jewish community of Alexandria, early in the first century A.D.

The "handmaiden" concept of Greek learning became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning by the middle of the fourth century. That Christians chose to accept pagan learning within limits was a momentous decision. They might have heeded the words of Tertullian (ca. 150-ca. 225), who asked pointedly: "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted adversely toward Greek pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, since there was much in the latter that was offensive to the Church. They might even have launched a major effort to suppress pagan thought as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not.

The handmaiden theory was obviously a compromise between the rejection of traditional pagan learning and its full acceptance. By approaching secular learning with caution, Christians could utilize Greek philosophy--especially metaphysics and logic--to better understand and explicate Holy Scripture and to cope with the difficulties generated by the assumption of the doctrine of the Trinity and other esoteric dogmas. Ordinary daily life also required use of the mundane sciences such as astronomy and mathematics. Christians came to realize that they could not turn away from Greek learning.

When Christians in Western Europe became aware of Greco-Arabic scientific literature and were finally prepared to receive it in the twelfth century, they did so eagerly. They did not view it as a body of subversive knowledge. Despite a degree of resistance that was more intense at some times than at others, Aristotle's works were made the basis of the university curriculum by 1255 in Paris, and long before that at Oxford.

The emergence of a class of theologian-natural philosophers was the third essential precondition for the scientific revolution. Their major contribution was to sanction the introduction and use of Aristotelian natural philosophy in the curriculum of the new universities. Without that approval, natural philosophy and science could not have become the curriculum of the medieval universities. The development of a class of theologian-natural philosophers must be regarded as extraordinary. Not only did most theologians approve of an essentially secular arts curriculum, but they were convinced that natural philosophy was essential for the elucidation of theology. Students entering schools of theology were expected to have achieved a high level of competence in natural philosophy. Since a master of arts degree, or the equivalent thereof, signified a thorough background in Aristotelian natural philosophy, and since a master's degree in the arts was usually a prerequisite for admittance to the higher faculty of theology, almost all theologians can be said to have acquired extensive knowledge of natural philosophy. Many undoubtedly regarded it as worthy of study in itself and not merely because of its traditional role as the handmaiden of theology.

If theologians at the universities had chosen to oppose Aristotelian learning as dangerous to the faith, it could not have become the center of study at the university. But medieval theologians interrelated natural philosophy and theology with relative ease and confidence, whether this involved the application of science and natural philosophy to scriptural exegesis, the application of the concept of God's absolute power to hypothetical possibilities in the natural world, or the frequent invocation of scriptural texts to support or oppose scientific ideas and theories. Theologians rarely permitted theology to hinder their inquiries into the physical world. If there was any temptation to produce a "Christian science," they successfully resisted it. Although biblical texts were often cited in natural philosophy, they were not used to demonstrate scientific truths by appeal to divine authority.

The relatively small degree of trauma that accompanied Greco-Arabic science and natural philosophy into Western Europe, and the subsequent high status that science and natural philosophy achieved in Western thought, is attributable in no small measure to theologian-natural philosophers of this kind. Some of the most significant contributors to science and mathematics came from their ranks: Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, John Pecham, Theodoric of Freiberg, Thomas Bradwardine, Nicole Oresme, and Henry of Langenstein. Theologians used natural philosophy so extensively in their theological treatises that, from time to time, the Church had to admonish them to refrain from frivolously using natural philosophy to resolve theological problems. Although there were occasional theological reactions against natural philosophy--as in the early thirteenth century when Aristotle's works were banned for some years at Paris, and in the later thirteenth century when the bishop of Paris issued the Condemnation of 1277--they were relatively minor aberrations when viewed against the grand sweep and scope of the history of Western Christianity.

To appreciate the importance of a class of theologian-natural philosophers for the development of science and natural philosophy in the Latin West, one has only to compare the Western reception of natural philosophy with its treatment in the civilization of Islam, where religious authorities regarded the study of natural philosophy as potentially dangerous to the faith. Despite the fact that for many centuries--say, from the ninth to the end of the fifteenth--the level of science in the civilization of Islam, especially the exact sciences and medicine, far exceeded that of Western Europe, Aristotelian natural philosophy encountered many obstacles. Because of fears that natural philosophy might subvert the faith, and perhaps for other reasons as well, natural philosophy and also the exact sciences were never institutionalized in Islam and thus never made a regular part of the educational process.

By contrast, the universities that were founded in the West European Middle Ages preserved and enhanced natural philosophy. The university as we know it today was invented in the late Middle Ages. Universities were powerful and highly regarded institutions, corporate entities with numerous privileges that increased century by century. They were always there, dispensing natural philosophy and thereby keeping alive a tradition of scientific inquiry. Despite plagues, wars, and revolutions, they carried on, giving natural philosophy and science a sense of permanence. They could do so because the Church and its theologians, who were the guardians of dogma and doctrine, had acquiesced in the major role accorded to Aristotelian natural philosophy. For the first time in history, science and natural philosophy had a permanent institutional base. No longer was the preservation of natural philosophy left to the whims of fortune and to isolated teachers and students.

Without the development of these three preconditions, it is difficult to imagine how a scientific revolution could have occurred in the seventeenth century. Although these preconditions, permanent features of medieval society, were vital for the emergence of early modern science, and therefore qualify as foundational elements, they were not in themselves sufficient. The reasons why science took root in Western society must ultimately be sought in the nature of the science and natural philosophy that were developed.

If we leave medicine aside, science in the Middle Ages is appropriately divisible into two parts: the exact sciences (primarily mathematics, astronomy, and optics) and natural philosophy. Although the Latin Middle Ages preserved the major texts of the exact sciences in mathematics, astronomy, and optics, and even added to their sum total, I am unaware of any methodological or technical changes that proved to be significant for the scientific revolution. Preserving the texts, as well as studying them, and even writing new treatises on these subjects, was itself a major achievement. Not only did these activities keep the exact sciences alive, but they reveal the existence of a group of individuals who, during the medieval centuries, were competent in dealing with these sciences. At the very least, expertise in these sciences was maintained, so that the Copernicuses, Galileos, and Keplers of the new science had something to study, something to which they might react and alter for the better. Because the late Middle Ages is not highly regarded for its contributions to the exact sciences, let us concentrate on natural philosophy, where there were significant achievements.

The role of natural philosophy during the Middle Ages differed radically from that of the exact sciences. With natural philosophy, we are not concerned with the mere preservation of Greco-Arabic knowledge, but rather with the transformation of an inheritance into something ultimately beneficial for the development of early modern science. Natural philosophers in the arts faculties of the universities converted Aristotle's natural philosophy into a large number of questions that were put to nature on a range of subjects that eventually crystallized into specific sciences, among them physics, geology, meteorology, and others. To each of these questions, a yes or no reponse was usually required.

Within the format of a yes or no reply, however, scholastic authors presented numerous arguments and conclusions in defense of their different positions. Revolutionary changes occurred when the responses that were acceptable to natural philosophers in the Middle Ages were found inadequate by scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the end of the seventeenth century, new conceptions of physics, and of the cosmos as a whole, drastically altered natural philosophy. Aristotle's cosmology and physics were largely abandoned, though his ideas about many other aspects of nature--including material change, zoology, and psychology--were still found useful. In biology, Aristotle's influence continued into the nineteenth century.

During the fourteenth century, Aristotelian natural philosophy was significantly transformed. This transformation played a role in the revolution to come. But it was not because of any particular achievements in science, important though these were. Medieval natural philosophers emphasized ways of knowing and approaching nature--that is, they became interested in what we might characterize as scientific method. They sought to explain how we come to understand nature, even though they rarely pursued the consequences of their own methodological insights.

A few of these methodological changes were relevant to mathematics. The mathematical treatment of the variation of qualities was characteristic of medieval natural philosophy.

The problems were usually imaginary and hypothetical, but the application of mathematics to resolve them was commonplace. In treating such problems, scholastic authors frequently introduced infinites and infinitesimals. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mathematical ways of thinking, if not mathematics itself, had been incorporated into natural philosophy. The stage was set for the consistent application of natural philosophy to real physical problems, rather than to imaginary variations of qualities.

Most of the methodological contributions to science were, however, philosophical. Scholastic natural philosophers formulated sound interpretations of concepts such as causality, necessity, and contingency. Some--and John Buridan, an eminent arts master at the University of Paris in the fourteenth century, was one of them--concluded that final causes were superfluous and unnecessary. For them, efficient causes were sufficient to determine the agent of a change. John Buridan was also involved in another major methodological development when he insisted that scientific truth is not absolute, like mathematical truth, but has degrees of certitude. The kind of certainty Buridan had in mind consisted of undemonstrable principles that formed the basis of natural science--as, for example, that all fire is warm and that the heaven moves. For Buridan, these principles are not absolute, but are derivable from inductive generalization; or, as he put it, "they are accepted because they have been observed to be true in many instances, and to be false in none."

Moreover, Buridan regarded these inductively generalized principles as conditional because their truth is predicated on the assumption of the "common course of nature." This was a profound assumption that effectively eliminated the effect on science of unpredictable, divine interventions. In short, it eliminated the need to worry about miracles in the pursuit of natural philosophy. Miracles could no longer affect the validity of natural science. Nor indeed could chance occurrences that might occasionally impede or prevent the natural effects of natural causes. Just because individuals are occasionally born with eleven fingers does not negate the fact that in the common course of nature we can confidently expect ten fingers. On this basis Buridan proclaimed that "for us the comprehension of truth with certitude is possible." Using reason, experience, and inductive generalizations, he sought to "save the phenomena" in accordance with the principle of Occam's razor--that is, by the simplest explanation that fits the evidence. Buridan had only made explicit what was implied by his scholastic colleagues. The widespread use of the principle of simplicity was a feature typical of medieval natural philosophy. It was also characteristic of science in the seventeenth century, as when Johannes Kepler declared that "it is the most widely accepted axiom in the natural sciences that Nature makes use of the fewest possible means."

Medieval natural philosophers investigated the "common course of nature," not its uncommon, or miraculous, path. They characterized this approach, admirably, by the phrase "speaking naturally" (loquendo naturaliter)--that is, speaking by means of natural science, and not by means of faith or theology. That such an expression should have emerged, and come into common usage in medieval natural philosophy, is a tribute to the scholars who took as their primary mission the explanation of the structure and operation of the world in purely rational and secular terms.

The widespread assumption of "natural impossibilities" or counterfactuals--or, as they are sometimes called, "thought-experiments"--was a significant aspect of medieval methodology. An occurrence would have been considered "naturally impossible" if it was thought inconceivable for it to occur within the accepted framework of Aristotelian physics and cosmology. The frequent use of natural impossibilities derived largely from the powerful medieval concept of God's absolute power, in which it was conceded that God could do anything whatever short of a logical contradiction. In the Middle Ages, such thinking resulted in conclusions that challenged certain aspects of Aristotle's physics. Where Aristotle had shown that other worlds were impossible, medieval scholastics showed not only that the existence of other worlds was possible, but that they would be compatible with our world.

The novel replies that emerged from the physics and cosmology of counterfactuals did not cause the overthrow of the Aristotelian world-view, but they did challenge some of its fundamental principles. They made many aware that things could be quite different from what was dreamt of in Aristotle's philosophy. But they accomplished more than that. Not only did some of the problems and solutions continue to influence scholastic authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but this characteristically medieval approach also influenced significant non-scholastics, who reveal an awareness of the topics debated by scholastics.

One of the most fruitful ideas that passed from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century is the concept of God annihilating matter and leaving behind a vacuum--a concept used effectively by John Locke, Pierre Gassendi, and Thomas Hobbes in their discussions of space.

A famous natural impossibility derived from a proposition condemned in 1277. As a consequence, it was mandatory after 1277 to concede that God could move our spherical world rectilinearly, despite the vacuum that might be left behind. More than an echo of this imaginary manifestation of God's absolute power reverberated through the seventeenth century, when Pierre Gassendi and Samuel Clarke (in his famous dispute with Leibniz) found it useful to appeal to God's movement of the world. In medieval intellectual culture, where observation and experiment played negligible roles, counterfactuals were a powerful tool because they emphasized metaphysics, logic, theology, and the imagination--the very areas in which medieval natural philosophers excelled.

The scientific methodologies described here produced new conceptualizations and assumptions about the world. Ideas about nature's simplicity, its common course, as well as the use of counterfactuals, emphasized new and important ways to think about nature. Galileo and his fellow scientific revolutionaries inherited these attitudes, and most would have subscribed to them.

Another legacy from the Middle Ages to early modern science was an extensive and sophisticated body of terms that formed the basis of later scientific discourse such terms as potential, actual, substance, property, accident, cause, analogy, matter, form, essence, genus, species, relation, quantity, quality, place, vacuum, infinite, and many others. These Aristotelian terms formed a significant component of scholastic natural philosophy. The language of medieval natural philosophy, however, did not consist solely of translated Aristotelian terms. New concepts, terms, and definitions were added in the fourteenth century, most notably in the domains of change and motion. Definitions of uniform motion, uniformly accelerated motion, and instantaneous motion were added to the lexicon of natural philosophy. By the seventeenth century, these terms, concepts, and definitions were embedded in the language and thought of European natural philosophers.

Medieval natural philosophy played another momentous role in the transition to early modern science. It furnished some--if, it is true, not many--of the basic problems that exercised the minds of non-scholastic natural philosophers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Medieval natural philosophers produced hundreds of specific questions about nature, the answers to which included a vast amount of scientific information. Most of the questions had multiple answers, with no genuine way of choosing between them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new solutions were proposed by scholars who found Aristotelian answers unacceptable, or, at best, inadequate. The changes they made, however, were mostly in the answers, not in the questions. The scientific revolution was not the result of new questions put to nature in place of medieval questions. It was, at least initially, more a matter of finding new answers to old questions, answers that came, more and more, to include experiments, which were exceptional occurrences in the Middle Ages. Although the solutions differed, many fundamental problems were common to both groups. Beginning around 1200, medieval natural philosophers, largely located at European universities, exhibited an unprecedented concern for the nature and structure of the physical world. The contributors to the scientific revolution continued the same tradition, because by then these matters had become an integral part of intellectual life in Western society.

The Middle Ages did not just transmit a great deal of significantly modified, traditional, natural philosophy, much of it in the form of questions; it also conveyed a remarkable tradition of relatively free, rational inquiry. The medieval philosophical tradition was fashioned in the faculties of arts of medieval universities. Natural philosophy was their domain, and almost from the outset masters of arts struggled to establish as much academic freedom as possible. They sought to preserve and expand the study of philosophy. Arts masters regarded themselves as the guardians of natural philosophy and fought for the right to apply reason to all problems about the physical world. By virtue of their independent status as a faculty, with numerous rights and privileges, they achieved a surprisingly large degree of freedom during the Middle Ages.

Theology was always a potential obstacle, true, but in practice theologians offered little opposition, largely because they, too, were heavily imbued with natural philosophy. By the end of the thirteenth century, the arts faculty had attained virtual independence from the theological faculty. By then, philosophy and its major subdivision, natural philosophy, had emerged as an independent discipline based in the arts faculties of European universities. True, arts masters were always subject to restraints with regard to religious dogma, but the subject areas where such issues arose were limited. During the thirteenth century, arts masters had learned how to cope with the problematic aspects of Aristotle's thought. They treated those problems hypothetically, or announced that they were merely repeating Aristotle's opinions, even as they offered elaborations of his arguments. During the Middle Ages, natural philosophy remained what Aristotle had made it: an essentially secular and rational discipline. It remained so only because the arts faculty struggled to preserve it. In doing so, they transformed natural philosophy into an independent discipline that embraced as well as glorified the rational investigation of all problems relevant to the physical world. In the 1330s, William of Ockham expressed the sentiments of most arts masters and many theologians when he declared:

Assertions . . . concerning natural philosophy, which do not pertain to theology, should not be solemnly condemned or forbidden to anyone, since in such matters everyone should be free to say freely whatever he pleases.

Everyone who did natural philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the beneficiary of these remarkable developments. The spirit of free inquiry nourished by medieval natural philosophers formed part of the intellectual heritage of all who engaged in scientific investigation. Most, of course, were unaware of their legacy and would probably have denied its existence, preferring to heap ridicule and scorn on Aristotelian scholastics and scholasticism. That ridicule was not without justification. It was time to alter the course of medieval natural philosophy.

Some Aristotelian natural philosophers tried to accommodate the new heliocentric astronomy that had emerged from the brilliant efforts of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Galileo. By then, accommodation was no longer sufficient. Medieval natural philosophy was destined to vanish by the end of the seventeenth century. The medieval scholastic legacy, however, remained--namely, the spirit of free inquiry, the emphasis on reason, a variety of approaches to nature, and the core of legitimate problems that would occupy the attention of the new science. Inherited from the Middle Ages, too, was the profound sense that all of these activities were legitimate and important, that discovering the way the world operated was a laudable undertaking. These enormous achievements were accomplished in the late Middle Ages, between 1175 and 1500.

To illustrate how medieval contributions to the new science ought to be viewed, let me draw upon an analogy from the Middle Ages. In the late thirteenth century in Italy, the course of the history of medicine was altered significantly when human dissection was allowed for postmortems and was shortly afterward introduced into medical schools, where it soon became institutionalized as part of the anatomical training of medical students. Except in ancient Egypt, human dissection had been forbidden in the ancient world. By the second century A.D., it was also banned in Egypt. It was never permitted in the Islamic world. Its introduction into the Latin West marked a new beginning, made without serious objection from the Church. It was a momentous event. Dissection of cadavers was used primarily in teaching, albeit irregularly until the end of the fifteenth century. Rarely, if at all, was it employed to enhance scientific knowledge of the human body. The revival of human dissection and its incorporation into medical training throughout the Middle Ages laid a foundation for what was to come.

Without it, we cannot imagine the significant anatomical progress that was made by such keen anatomists as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Bartolommeo Eustachio (1520-74), Andreas Vesalius (1514 64), and many others.

What human dissection did for medicine, the translations, the universities, the theologian-natural philosophers, and the medieval version of Aristotelian natural philosophy did collectively for the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. These vital features of medieval science formed a foundation that made possible a continuous, uninterrupted eight hundred years of scientific development, a development that began in Western Europe and spread around the world.

EDWARD GRANT is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.


Publication Information: Article Title: When Did Modern Science Begin?. Contributors: Edward Grant - author. Magazine Title: American Scholar. Volume: 66. Issue: 1. Publication Date: Winter 1997. Page Number: 105+.