The European Middle Ages, particularly the Pre-Conquest Early Medieval period is generally associated with superstition, scientific and educational ignorance, the stifling of progress by religious fanaticism, and general ‘backwardness’. The term ‘Dark Ages’ is still often applied to the Period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century, with the Negative Connotations of the undesirable conditions above.
The Myth of the Flat Earth
One widely held belief that is closely associated with the perceived ignorance of the medieval populace is that of the flat earth. It is generally held that everybody (or almost everybody) in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat, often coupled with the idea that sailing too far outside the boundaries of the known world would result in falling off the edge of the earth, into oblivion.
An examination of texts and writings from throughout the Middle Ages reveals that this belief has little basis in fact. From the fifth Century onwards Medieval writers make clear and unambiguous references to a round or spherical earth. Not only in works of science or philosophy, but also poetic, religious, historical and biographical works, written by authors of many different backgrounds.
Boethius Consolation of Philosophy– Written in the Sixth Century by a Western Roman aristocrat awaiting execution on trumped-up charges of treason, the consolation was a poetic treatise intended to address the ‘big questions’ and make sense of life using the tenets of Greek Philosophy, combined with Christian religion.
The following passage in Boethius makes passing reference to what appears to have been common knowledge “the whole of the earth’s globe, as thou hast learnt from demonstration of astronomy, comparing with the expanse of heaven is found no bigger than a point” and elsewhere refers to unknown tribes in “in a neighbouring quarter of the globe”. The term ‘globe’ clearly suggests a spherical earth, and although more recent translations use ‘circumference’ in the first passage, the implication is still the same.
Bede- On the Reckoning of Time – 200 Years after Boethius the Northumbrian Monk Bede wrote a his work On the Reckoning of Time which combined geographic, astronomical, and mathematical observations, for the purpose of better gaining a better understanding of workings of time. This work is now largely unknown, and has been eclipsed by Bede’s much more famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
In this work, Bede addresses the question of differing lengths of day by stating ““The reason why some days are of unequal length in the roundness of the world…it is not merely circular like a shield, or spread out like a wheel but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions”.
These are but two examples of Early Medieval writers who clearly demonstrated their knowledge that the earth was round, who stand amongst dozens of others,. These include Isodore of Seville, , Ambrose of Milan, Theodulf the Visigoth, Orosius, and our very own King Alfred the Great.
Bede’s work on time apparently became something of a textbook for medieval students, and, contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence that the Church ever endorsed, encouraged, or even accepted belief in a flat earth. Conversely, the knowledge of the true shape of the earth is an example of how some aspects of Classical science and knowledge were survived in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
Geocentrism – It is also widely known that Medieval people incorrectly believed that the earth was located in the centre of the universe, and remained static, whilst the sun and the other planets revolved around it. This belief, known as Geocentrism was indeed the established view throughout the Middle Ages, and had been since ancient times.
It can be argued however that this position made perfect logical sense to Medieval people, rather than being a result of hopeless ignorance. They were after all taught at the Geocentric Model at school, and it was drawn directly from the writings of Aristotle, which were often held in high regard. He has argued that the earth appeared to be stationary, and because people could not feel or see the effects of the movement, it would have appeared illogical to assume that the earth was moving.
Furthermore, people could see that the sun appeared to move through the sky each day, and observation of the distant planets by the naked eye showed that they too were moving. It was not until the invention of the Telescope allowed for closer and more complex astronomical observations in the Sixteenth century which revealed that the other planets did not move in perfect spherical courses that there was any real reason to reject the Geocentric Model.
Faith, Reason and Science – For Medieval people, the religious model which stated that God had created the earth and the Universe formed the basis of all scientific examination. To modern people this appears illogical and irrational, but in the Middle Ages there would almost certainly have been every reason to assume that this Model made perfect sense. As the earth was seen as God’s creation it was regarded as perfectly legitimate to explore and investigate that creation.
An Eleventh century churchman, Anselm of Canterbury promoted the idea that the existence of God could be proved by simple logic alone and was an early developer of the so-called Ontological Argument.
Theologian and scholar Thomas Aquinas followed in Anselm’s footsteps argued that the existence of God could be proved exclusively by reason, but also went some way towards reconciling this idea with some of the sceptics within the church who feared its implications. Namely that reason would become the final arbiter in all religious debates, and might do away with faith. In this way Aquinas ensured that reason was perceived largely as an asset to the Christian faith, rather than an enemy, as long as it was not used to contradict Orthodox Catholic teachings. The ideas and writings of Aquinas were held in high regard, and formed an influential part of academic theological education throughout the High Middle ages.
In the early Middle Ages three items or inventions came to Western Europe, and had a major impact on many aspects of life. The first of these was the Watermill, which had been used since Roman Times but is thought to have been lost after the collapse of the Empire. The Domesday book mentions many thousands of these in use in Eleventh century England.
Secondly there were stirrups, which seem to have come to Europe from China in around the fifth century. These revolutionised warfare, and allowed for the development groups of Elite cavalry who could launch a sustained mounted assault against their enemies in battle.
The third and last of these inventions, and arguably the most important at an agricultural level was the plough, which came to England in around the Tenth century. Peasants could work a far larger area of land with this device, and the way that is simultaneously cut and turned the soil helped to uproot weeds, and improve drainage. Thus a smaller amount of land could yield more crops and support more people than before.
Whilst many inventions and technological innovations originated from outside Europe, there are some important inventions which did not. Spectacles seem to have been invented in Italy in the late Thirteenth Century These enabled scholars and scribes to continue their studies until their older years, and for longer than before, when eyesight deterioration would otherwise prevent this.
It appears that the world’s First mechanical Clock was invented in England in the thirteenth Century, as English sources are the first to mention it at this time. Initially clocks were not intended to measure time, but the movement of planets and so intended to aid astronomical observation. In time however the allowed for a more precise measurement of time. Before clocks daylight hours had varied according to the season, now they were set and standardised.
Far removed from the popular perception, the Middle Ages were not a time of Universal superstition and ignorance. Learning and scholarly debate was important not only in the Cultural Renaissance of the Eleventh century, with the influence of the ‘newly discovered’ works of the Ancient Greek authors, but even before in the Early Middle Ages. Charlemagne is known to have appointed the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York to assist in promoting education in his provinces during the Ninth century ‘Carolingian Renaissance’.
It was also Dark Age Wales that an item which was to play a prominent role in the military History of Later Medieval England is said to have invented. This was the Longbow, its use attributed to English victories in Battle in Scotland and France across the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. It can be demonstrated that the invention and use of this weapon required some knowledge of physics and mathematics, but it also I believe illustrates well the nature of the Medieval period as an important and formative era of European History in which many significant developments were made, rather than being dismissed as the Dark Ages.
References and Sources
James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London,2009).
Danny Danzinger & John Gillingham, 1215:The Year of the Magna Carta (London,2003).
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Public Domain Books,11th Dec 2004).
Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999).