A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter I
Science in the dark age
An obvious distinction between the classical and mediaeval epochs may be found in the fact that the former produced, whereas the latter failed to produce, a few great thinkers in each generation who were imbued with that scepticism which is the foundation of the investigating spirit; who thought for themselves and supplied more or less rational explanations of observed phenomena. Could we eliminate the work of some score or so of classical observers and thinkers, the classical epoch would seem as much a dark age as does the epoch that succeeded it.

But immediately we are met with the question: Why do no great original investigators appear during all these later centuries? We have already offered a part explanation in the fact that the borders of civilization, where racial mingling naturally took place, were peopled with semi-barbarians. But we must not forget that in the centres of civilization all along there were many men of powerful intellect. Indeed, it would violate the principle of historical continuity to suppose that there was any sudden change in the level of mentality of the Roman world at the close of the classical period. We must assume, then, that the direction in which the great minds turned was for some reason changed. Newton is said to have alleged that he made his discoveries by "intending" his mind in a certain direction continuously. It is probable that the same explanation may be given of almost every great scientific discovery. Anaxagoras could not have thought out the theory of the moon's phases; Aristarchus could not have found out the true mechanism of the solar system; Eratosthenes could not have developed his plan for measuring the earth, had not each of these investigators "intended" his mind persistently towards the problems in question.

Nor can we doubt that men lived in every generation of the dark age who were capable of creative thought in the field of science, bad they chosen similarly to "intend" their minds in the right direction. The difficulty was that they did not so choose. Their minds had a quite different bent. They were under the spell of different ideals; all their mental efforts were directed into different channels. What these different channels were cannot be in doubt - they were the channels of oriental ecclesiasticism. One all-significant fact speaks volumes here. It is the fact that, as Professor Robinson[1] points out, from the time of Boethius (died 524 or 525 A.D.) to that of Dante (1265-1321 A.D.) there was not a single writer of renown in western Europe who was not a professional churchman. All the learning of the time, then, centred in the priesthood. We know that the same condition of things pertained in Egypt, when science became static there. But, contrariwise, we have seen that in Greece and early Rome the scientific workers were largely physicians or professional teachers; there was scarcely a professional theologian among them.

Similarly, as we shall see in the Arabic world, where alone there was progress in the mediaeval epoch, the learned men were, for the most part, physicians. Now the meaning of this must be self-evident. The physician naturally "intends" his mind towards the practicalities. His professional studies tend to make him an investigator of the operations of nature. He is usually a sceptic, with a spontaneous interest in practical science. But the theologian "intends" his mind away from practicalities and towards mysticism. He is a professional believer in the supernatural; he discounts the value of merely "natural" phenomena. His whole attitude of mind is unscientific; the fundamental tenets of his faith are based on alleged occurrences which inductive science cannot admit - namely, miracles. And so the minds "intended" towards the supernatural achieved only the hazy mysticism of mediaeval thought. Instead of investigating natural laws, they paid heed (as, for example, Thomas Aquinas does in his Summa Theologia) to the "acts of angels," the "speaking of angels," the "subordination of angels," the "deeds of guardian angels," and the like. They disputed such important questions as, How many angels can stand upon the point of a needle? They argued pro and con as to whether Christ were coeval with God, or whether he had been merely created "in the beginning," perhaps ages before the creation of the world. How could it be expected that science should flourish when the greatest minds of the age could concern themselves with problems such as these?

Despite our preconceptions or prejudices, there can be but one answer to that question. Oriental superstition cast its blight upon the fair field of science, whatever compensation it may or may not have brought in other fields. But we must be on our guard lest we overestimate or incorrectly estimate this influence. Posterity, in glancing backward, is always prone to stamp any given age of the past with one idea, and to desire to characterize it with a single phrase; whereas in reality all ages are diversified, and any generalization regarding an epoch is sure to do that epoch something less or something more than justice. We may be sure, then, that the ideal of ecclesiasticism is not solely responsible for the scientific stasis of the dark age. Indeed, there was another influence of a totally different character that is too patent to be overlooked - the influence, namely, of the economic condition of western Europe during this period. As I have elsewhere pointed out,[2] Italy, the centre of western civilization, was at this time impoverished, and hence could not provide the monetary stimulus so essential to artistic and scientific no less than to material progress. There were no patrons of science and literature such as the Ptolemies of that elder Alexandrian day. There were no great libraries; no colleges to supply opportunities and afford stimuli to the rising generation. Worst of all, it became increasingly difficult to secure books.

This phase of the subject is often overlooked. Yet a moment's consideration will show its importance. How should we fare to-day if no new scientific books were being produced, and if the records of former generations were destroyed? That is what actually happened in Europe during the Middle Ages. At an earlier day books were made and distributed much more abundantly than is sometimes supposed. Bookmaking had, indeed, been an important profession in Rome, the actual makers of books being slaves who worked under the direction of a publisher. It was through the efforts of these workers that the classical works in Greek and Latin were multiplied and disseminated. Unfortunately the climate of Europe does not conduce to the indefinite preservation of a book; hence very few remnants of classical works have come down to us in the original from a remote period. The rare exceptions are certain papyrus fragments, found in Egypt, some of which are Greek manuscripts dating from the third century B.C. Even from these sources the output is meagre; and the only other repository of classical books is a single room in the buried city of Herculaneum, which contained several hundred manuscripts, mostly in a charred condition, a considerable number of which, however, have been unrolled and found more or less legible. This library in the buried city was chiefly made up of philosophical works, some of which were quite unknown to the modern world until discovered there.

But this find, interesting as it was from an archaeological stand-point, had no very important bearing on our knowledge of the literature of antiquity. Our chief dependence for our knowledge of that literature must still be placed in such copies of books as were made in the successive generations. Comparatively few of the extant manuscripts are older than the tenth century of our era. It requires but a momentary consideration of the conditions under which ancient books were produced to realize how slow and difficult the process was before the invention of printing. The taste of the book-buying public demanded a clearly written text, and in the Middle Ages it became customary to produce a richly ornamented text as well. The script employed being the prototype of the modern printed text, it will be obvious that a scribe could produce but a few pages at best in a day. A large work would therefore require the labor of a scribe for many months or even for several years. We may assume, then, that it would be a very flourishing publisher who could produce a hundred volumes all told per annum; and probably there were not many publishers at any given time, even in the period of Rome's greatest glory, who had anything like this output.

As there was a large number of authors in every generation of the classical period, it follows that most of these authors must have been obliged to content themselves with editions numbering very few copies; and it goes without saying that the greater number of books were never reproduced in what might be called a second edition. Even books that retained their popularity for several generations would presently fail to arouse sufficient interest to be copied; and in due course such works would pass out of existence altogether. Doubtless many hundreds of books were thus lost before the close of the classical period, the names of their authors being quite forgotten, or preserved only through a chance reference; and of course the work of elimination went on much more rapidly during the Middle Ages, when the interest in classical literature sank to so low an ebb in the West. Such collections of references and quotations as the Greek Anthology and the famous anthologies of Stobaeus and Athanasius and Eusebius give us glimpses of a host of writers - more than seven hundred are quoted by Stobaeus - a very large proportion of whom are quite unknown except through these brief excerpts from their lost works.

Quite naturally the scientific works suffered at least as largely as any others in an age given over to ecclesiastical dreamings. Yet in some regards there is matter for surprise as to the works preserved. Thus, as we have seen, the very extensive works of Aristotle on natural history, and the equally extensive natural history of Pliny, which were preserved throughout this period, and are still extant, make up relatively bulky volumes. These works seem to have interested the monks of the Middle Ages, while many much more important scientific books were allowed to perish. A considerable bulk of scientific literature was also preserved through the curious channels of Arabic and Armenian translations. Reference has already been made to the Almagest of Ptolemy, which, as we have seen, was translated into Arabic, and which was at a later day brought by the Arabs into western Europe and (at the instance of Frederick II of Sicily) translated out of their language into mediaeval Latin.

It remains to inquire, however, through what channels the Greek works reached the Arabs themselves. To gain an answer to this question we must follow the stream of history from its Roman course eastward to the new seat of the Roman empire in Byzantium. Here civilization centred from about the fifth century A.D., and here the European came in contact with the civilization of the Syrians, the Persians, the Armenians, and finally of the Arabs. The Byzantines themselves, unlike the inhabitants of western Europe, did not ignore the literature of old Greece; the Greek language became the regular speech of the Byzantine people, and their writers made a strenuous effort to perpetuate the idiom and style of the classical period. Naturally they also made transcriptions of the classical authors, and thus a great mass of literature was preserved, while the corresponding works were quite forgotten in western Europe.

Meantime many of these works were translated into Syriac, Armenian, and Persian, and when later on the Byzantine civilization degenerated, many works that were no longer to be had in the Greek originals continued to be widely circulated in Syriac, Persian, Armenian, and, ultimately, in Arabic translations. When the Arabs started out in their conquests, which carried them through Egypt and along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, until they finally invaded Europe from the west by way of Gibraltar, they carried with them their translations of many a Greek classical author, who was introduced anew to the western world through this strange channel.

We are told, for example, that Averrhoes, the famous commentator of Aristotle, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, did not know a word of Greek and was obliged to gain his knowledge of the master through a Syriac translation; or, as others alleged (denying that he knew even Syriac), through an Arabic version translated from the Syriac. We know, too, that the famous chronology of Eusebius was preserved through an Armenian translation; and reference has more than once been made to the Arabic translation of Ptolemy's great work, to which we still apply its Arabic title of Almagest.

The familiar story that when the Arabs invaded Egypt they burned the Alexandrian library is now regarded as an invention of later times. It seems much more probable that the library bad been largely scattered before the coming of the Moslems. Indeed, it has even been suggested that the Christians of an earlier day removed the records of pagan thought. Be that as it may, the famous Alexandrian library had disappeared long before the revival of interest in classical learning. Meanwhile, as we have said, the Arabs, far from destroying the western literature, were its chief preservers. Partly at least because of their regard for the records of the creative work of earlier generations of alien peoples, the Arabs were enabled to outstrip their contemporaries. For it cannot be in doubt that, during that long stretch of time when the western world was ignoring science altogether or at most contenting itself with the casual reading of Aristotle and Pliny, the Arabs had the unique distinction of attempting original investigations in science. To them were due all important progressive steps which were made in any scientific field whatever for about a thousand years after the time of Ptolemy and Galen. The progress made even by the Arabs during this long period seems meagre enough, yet it has some significant features. These will now demand our attention.





[Pages pratiques][Aide][Recherche sur Internet]

© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.