5 Curious Facts about Science in the Medieval Period

Medieval science has a reputation for being incorrect and superstitious, but was this actually the case? These facts prove that there was more to medieval science than we may think.

Feb 27, 2023By Molly Dowdeswell, MA Early Modern History, BA History
medieval period science facts


It is commonly assumed that people in the medieval period did not know much about science, and what they did know was false. But this was not entirely the case, and historians are working tirelessly to correct the misconceptions that exist and show that during the medieval period, influential advancements were made, including major inventions. Furthermore, it is commonly assumed that religion and science were at war for all of history. However, the medieval period provides substantial evidence that this was not the case. The two were inherently related and often worked together. In fact, there are many cases where religion helps to advance science.


1. Religion Was Heavily Involved in Medieval Science

medieval science jean mielot
Portrait of Jean Mielot by Jean Le Tavernier, c. 1456, from Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, via National Geographic


While today there is a clear distinction between major religions and science, in the medieval period, this was not the case. The two were inherently interwoven and not necessarily opposed.


For example, the medieval version of modern-day science was called natural philosophy. Put simply, this was the art of learning about one’s surroundings, the Earth, and nature, as well as the sky and the stars as created by God. Because of this, for many who practiced it, medieval science was actually devotional and a way for them to become closer to God.


The two were further intertwined by the fact that the Catholic Church in Europe was the most powerful institution. It, therefore, funded many of the universities where students went to learn about science.


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In addition to this, religious people studied science. Monks, for example, studied the subject at universities and were often heavily involved in its discoveries; they were often the most educated people in society. Monks were taught to read and write in a world where most of the population couldn’t, so they were often tasked with writing books and recording information.


In addition, they had access to some of the best libraries on the continent and so naturally read widely. They were initially trained in literacy in order to read people the Bible, but this did not stop them from broadening the literature they read.


2. Astrology Was Part of Medieval Science

medieval science astronomical texts
Astronomical texts, 12th century, via The British Library, London


While today astrology is considered by many to be made up and meaningless, in the medieval period, it played a large role in science and in general, everyday life.


In medieval universities, courses were divided into seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. Astronomy was the study of celestial beings like the stars or the planets and celestial events like comets. Astrology was the connection of these events and beings to events and beings on Earth and was considered a science.


Devotional literature often contained calendars that provided information on the movements of the stars and the planets. This information was commonly adapted and interpreted by normal people in their own lives. Furthermore, while today each zodiac corresponds to a specific set of dates, in the medieval period, they belonged to an entire month. Individuals would interpret this information and use it to dictate how they lived their lives during that month.


This information was so influential, in fact, that it dictated when people sought medical advice. For example, a calendar from 1518 demonstrates 54 veins that could be drained for medicinal purposes in alignment with the phases of the moon and the seasons of the year.


3. Medieval People Did Not Believe the World Was Flat

medieval science geometer god
God as Geometer, The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee, unknown artist, c.1220-30, via Amsterdam University Press


It has become a common belief that, until Christopher Columbus sailed to America, people believed the earth to be flat. This is false, however. There is little evidence to suggest that people believed the earth to be flat at all.


In fact, there are references to the Earth being spherical as far back as the Ancient Greeks in the work of Plato and Aristotle, and we know people in the medieval period also believed the world to be round because of physical evidence as well as written or drawn evidence. For example, a 13th-century miniature of the Earth was found in England and showed the Earth to be round.


Furthermore, it was not just scientists or the learned who knew the Earth was round. There are also depictions of a spherical Earth in a lot of artwork from the medieval period. A perfect example of this is the art depicting the creation of Earth by God. This artwork commonly showed God creating the Earth, holding a compass, a tool for drawing round objects.


In fact, people in medieval Europe were so aware of the Earth’s shape that they were even linking it to time zones. For example, in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, completed in 1320, he discusses how the Earth’s shape caused time zones. Dante also mentioned that different stars were visible in the different hemispheres.


4. Women Were Involved in Science

woman teaching geometry
A woman teaching geometry by Meliacin Master, c. 1308-16, via The British Library, London


It is often commonly assumed that science before the modern period was all male. While women certainly were the minority of scientists in the medieval period, this does not mean that they did not exist at all.


One of the issues concerning the study of women in science in the medieval period is the fact that they were not allowed to attend university. This meant that women did a lot of their science undocumented and at home.


It was common that women would know about medicines and remedies, and it was often the woman’s role to tend to their sick children. A wise local woman often could offer up information if someone in the village became ill.


miscellany works computus rhetoric
Miscellany of works on computus and rhetoric, c. 11th century, via The British Library, London


Nevertheless, there are a few rare examples of women producing medical texts. For example, the Trotua of Salerno, written in the 12th century, was a compilation of three texts named The Conditions of Women, Treatments for Women, and Women’s Cosmetics and is thought to have been written by a woman.


The collection contained information on everything from hair care to recipes for lipstick to childbirth. The work must have been popular because it was copied many times and existed in 200 manuscripts. It was reproduced in Latin, French, and Italian and was still being reproduced well into the 15th century.


The section on cosmetics is particularly interesting. Not only does it mention practices common in western Christianity, but it also touches on some Muslim practices. This suggests that methods had been shared from across the world.


As briefly mentioned above, one of the realms of science in which women had the most power was childbirth. For much of history, it was considered a woman’s role and place in the delivery room. Furthermore, many of the poorest people in isolated villages could either not afford a doctor or could not access one. Therefore, they had to rely on experienced women in their local community.


5. The Mechanical Clock Was Invented in the Medieval Period

medieval science time zones constellations
Geography: two rotating discs (volvelles) showing the times at different places compared to London, and the constellations visible in the sky at different dates and times… unknown artist, 1844, via the Wellcome Collection


The medieval period saw many technological inventions, one of the biggest and most influential was the invention of the mechanical clock. It is thought that they originated in the form of tower clocks built in the region between Germany and Italy between 1270 and 1300.


These very early clocks did not have hands but rather told the time through the use of bells. The wheels of the clocks were moved by suspended weights, one of which moved the clock, and the other rang the bell.


There is evidence that one of these early clocks was installed in England. In 1283, one was added to Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire. The Catholic Church more generally played a crucial role in the installation and widespread use of the first clocks, which is not surprising. People in the church had a strict routine that often revolved around activities at set times. This included prayer times, which the clocks made increasingly easier to work out.


Before the use of clocks, science and, more specifically, mathematics played a significant part in thinking about time in the medieval period. The monks and other religious individuals often would do this work.


This was because, again, daily religious life was conducted to a strict routine. This was not just on a daily basis, however, but on a yearly basis too. The Christian calendar was characterized by moveable feasts, which involved having to work out specific dates which varied from year to year.


computus astronomy prognostics
Computus, astronomy, and prognostics. The image shows fingers labeled in order to calculate the date of Easter, c. 11th century, via The British Library, London


One of the most popular of these feasts and one which inspired many mathematical texts and diagrams was Easter. The computing of the specific date of Easter each year entailed combining mathematics and astronomy.


Religious thinkers knew that the date was close to Passover, but they spent a long time figuring out exactly when it should fall. There were further issues with working out when the vernal equinox was, which made computing the Easter date harder.


Eventually, Western Christianity adopted the Alexandrine method when it came to working out their dates, and the method remained in place until 1582 when the Gregorian calendar was put in place. Using this earlier method, it was decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday after the 14th day of the Paschal month.


In conclusion, medieval science was a lot more advanced than many of us would believe. Not only did major inventions occur in the period, but women had a voice, too (albeit small). Furthermore, people understood that the world was round and that this contributed to time zones.

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By Molly DowdeswellMA Early Modern History, BA HistoryMolly graduated from the University of Birmingham with a master's degree in early modern history and from Swansea University with a bachelor’s degree in history. She has a long-standing interest in the subject and enjoys researching and writing on a broad range of historical topics and is most interested in the history of medicine and disease. Molly is currently working as a writer based in Birmingham, England and is planning on returning to university to complete a PhD in history.