site logo

Science At The Medieval Universities

With the growth of interest in science and in nature study in our own

day, one of the expressions that is probably oftenest heard is surprise

that the men of preceding generations and especially university men did

not occupy themselves more with the world around them and with the

phenomena that are so tempting to curiosity. Science is usually supposed

to be comparatively new and nature study only a few generations old. Men
/> are supposed to have been so much interested in book knowledge and in

speculations and theories of many kinds, that they neglected the

realities of life around them while spinning fine webs of theory.

Previous generations, of course, have indulged in theory, but then our

own generation is not entirely free from that amusing occupation.

Nothing could well be less true, however, than that the men of preceding

generations were not interested in science even in the sense of physical

science, or that nature study is new, or that men were not curious and

did not try to find out all they could about the phenomena of the world

around them.

The medieval universities and the school-men who taught in them have

been particularly blamed for their failure to occupy themselves with

realities instead of with speculation. We are coming to recognize their

wonderful zeal for education, the large numbers of students they

attracted, the enthusiasm of their students, since they made so many

handwritten copies of the books of their masters, the devotion of the

teachers themselves, who wrote at much greater length than do our

professors even now and on the most abstruse subjects, so that it is all

the more surprising to think they should have neglected science. The

thought of our generation in the matter, however, is founded entirely on

an assumption. Those who know anything about the writers of the Middle

Ages at first hand are not likely to think of them as neglectful of

science even in our sense of the term. Those who know them at second

hand are, however, very sure in the matter.

The assumption is due to the neglect of history that came in the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have many other similar

assumptions because of the neglect of many phases of mental development

and applied science at this time. For instance, most of us are very

proud of our modern hospital development and think of this as a great

humanitarian evolution of applied medical science. We are very likely to

think that this is the first time in the world's history that the

building of hospitals has been brought to such a climax of development,

and that the houses for the ailing in the olden time were mere refuges,

prone to become death traps and at most makeshifts for the solution of

the problem of the care of the ailing poor. This is true for the

hospitals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it is not

true at all for the hospitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth and

fifteenth centuries. Miss Nutting and Miss Dock in their History of

Nursing[36] have called attention to the fact that the lowest period in

hospital development is during the eighteenth and early nineteenth

centuries. Hospitals were little better than prisons, they had narrow

windows, were ill provided with light and air and hygienic arrangements,

and in general were all that we should imagine old-time hospitals to be.

The hospitals of the earlier time, however, had fine high ceilings,

large windows, abundant light and air, excellent arrangements for the

privacy of patients, and in general were as worthy of the architects of

the earlier times as the municipal buildings, the cathedrals, the

castles, the university buildings, and every other form of construction

that the late medieval centuries devoted themselves to.

The trouble with those who assume that there was no study of science and

practically no attention to nature study in the Middle Ages is that they

know nothing at all at first hand about the works of the men who wrote

in the medieval period. They have accepted declarations with regard to

the absolute dependence of the scholastics on authority, their almost

divine worship of Aristotle, their utter readiness to accept

authoritative assertions provided they came with the stamp of a mighty

name, and then their complete lack of attention to observation and above

all to experiment. Nothing could well be more ridiculous than this

ignorant assumption of knowledge with regard to the great teachers at

the medieval universities. Just as soon as there is definite knowledge

of what these great teachers wrote and taught, not only does the

previous mood of blame for them for not paying much more attention to

science and nature at once disappear, but it gives place to the

heartiest admiration for the work of these great thinkers. It is easy to

appreciate, then, what Professor Saintsbury said in a recent volume on

the thirteenth century:

And there have even been in these latter days some graceless

ones who have asked whether the science of the nineteenth

century after an equal interval will be of any more positive

value--whether it will not have even less comparative interest

than that which appertains to the scholasticism of the


Three men were the great teachers in the medieval universities at their

prime. They have been read and studied with interest ever since. They

wrote huge tomes, but men have pored over them in every generation. They

were Albertus Magnus, the teacher of the other two, Thomas Aquinas and

Roger Bacon. All three of them were together at the University of Paris

shortly after the middle of the thirteenth century. Anyone who wants to

know anything about the attitude of mind of the medieval universities,

their professors and students, and of all the intellectual world of the

time towards science and observation and experiment, should read the

books of these men. Any other mode of getting at any knowledge of the

real significance of the science of this time is mere pretence. These

constitute the documents behind any scientific history of the

development of science at this time.

It is extremely interesting to see the attitude of these men with regard

to authority. In Albert's tenth book (of his Summa), in which he

catalogues and describes all the trees, plants, and herbs known in his

time, he observes: All that is here set down is the result of our own

experience, or has been borrowed from authors whom we know to have

written what their personal experience has confirmed; for in these

matters experience alone can be of certainty. In his impressive Latin

phrase experimentum solum certificat in talibus. With regard to the

study of nature in general he was quite as emphatic. He was a theologian

as well as a scientist, yet in his treatise on The Heavens and the

Earth he declared that in studying nature we have not to inquire how

God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work

miracles and thereby show forth His power. We have rather to inquire

what nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.[37]

Just as striking quotations on this subject might be made from Roger

Bacon. Indeed, Bacon was quite impatient with the scholars around him

who talked over-much, did not observe enough, depended to excess on

authority, and in general did as mediocre scholars always do, made much

fuss on second-hand information--plus some filmy speculations of their

own. Friar Bacon, however, had one great pupil whose work he thoroughly

appreciated because it exhibited the opposite qualities. This was

Petrus--we have come to know him as Peregrinus--whose observations on

magnetism have excited so much attention in recent years with the

republications of his epistle on the subject. It is really a monograph

on magnetism written in the thirteenth century. Roger Bacon's opinion of

it and of its author furnishes us the best possible index of his

attitude of mind towards observation and experiment in science.

I know of only one person who deserves praise for his work in

experimental philosophy for he does not care for the

discourses of men and their wordy warfare, but quietly and

diligently pursues the works of wisdom. Therefore what others

grope after blindly, as bats in the evening twilight, this man

contemplates in their brilliancy because he is a master of

experiment. Hence, he knows all of natural science whether

pertaining to medicine and alchemy, or to matters celestial or

terrestrial. He has worked diligently in the smelting of ores

as also in the working of minerals; he is thoroughly

acquainted with all sorts of arms and implements used in

military service and in hunting, besides which he is skilled

in agriculture and in the measurement of lands. It is

impossible to write a useful or correct treatise in

experimental philosophy without mentioning this man's name.

Moreover, he pursues knowledge for its own sake; for if he

wished to obtain royal favor, he could easily find sovereigns

who would honor and enrich him.

Similar expressions might readily be quoted from Thomas Aquinas, but his

works are so easy to secure and his whole attitude of mind so well

known, that it scarcely seems worth while taking space to do so. Aquinas

is still studied very faithfully in many universities, and within the

last few years one of his great text-books of philosophy has been

replaced in the curriculum of Oxford University, in which it occupied a

prominent position in the long ago, as a work that may be offered for

examination in the department of philosophy. It is with regard to him

particularly that there has been the greatest revulsion of feeling in

recent years and a recognition of the fact that here was a great thinker

familiar with all that was known in the physical sciences, and who had

this knowledge constantly in his mind when he drew his conclusions with

regard to philosophical and theological questions.

It used to be the fashion to make little of the medieval scholars for

the high estimation in which they held Aristotle. Occasionally even yet

one hears narrowly educated men, I am sorry to say much more frequently

scientific specialists than others, talk deprecatingly of this ardent

devotion to Aristotle. No one who knows anything about Aristotle ever

indulges in such an exhibition of ignorance of the realities of the

history of philosophy and science. To know Aristotle well is to think of

him as probably possessed of the greatest human mind that ever existed.

We do not need to go back to the Middle Ages to be confirmed in that

opinion. Modern scientists who know their science well, but who also

know Aristotle well, and who are ardent worshippers at his shrine, are

not hard to find. Romanes, the great English biologist of the end of the

nineteenth century, said: It appears to me that there can be no

question that Aristotle stands forth not only as the greatest figure in

antiquity but as the greatest intellect that has ever appeared upon this


Before Romanes, George H. Lewes, in his interesting monograph in the

history of thought, Aristotle, a Chapter in the History of Science, is

quite as complimentary to the great Greek thinker. We may say that Lewes

was by no means partial to Aristotle. Anything but inclined to accept

authority as of value in philosophy, he had been rendered impatient by

the fact that so much of the history of philosophy was dominated by

Aristotle, and it was only that the panegyric was forced from him by

careful study of all that the Stagirite wrote that he said: History

gazed on him with wonder. His intellect was piercing and comprehensive;

his attainments surpassed those of every philosopher; his influence has

been excelled only by the founders of religion ... his vast and active

intelligence for twenty centuries held the world in awe.

Professor Osborn, whose scholarly study of the theory of evolution down

the ages From the Greeks to Darwin rather startled the world of

science by showing not only how old was a theory of evolution, but how

frequently it had been stated and how many of them anticipated phases of

our own thought in the matter, pays a high compliment to the great Greek

scientist. He says: Aristotle clearly states and rejects a theory of

the origin of adaptive structures in animals altogether similar to that

of Darwin. He then quotes certain passages from Aristotle's Physics,

and says: These passages seem to contain absolute evidence that

Aristotle had substantially the modern conception of the evolution of

life, from a primordial, soft mass of living matter to the most perfect

forms, and that even in these he believed that evolution was incomplete

for they were progressing to higher forms.

Modern French scientists are particularly laudatory in their estimation

of Aristotle. The group of biologists, Buffon, Cuvier, St. Hilaire, and

others who called world attention to French science and its attainments

about a century ago, are all of them on record in highest praise of

Aristotle. Cuvier said: I cannot read his work without being ravished

with astonishment. It is impossible to conceive how a single man was

able to collect and compare the multitude of facts implied in the rules

and aphorisms contained in this book.

It is possible, however, to get opinions ardently laudatory of Aristotle

from the serious students of any nation, provided only they know their

Aristotle. Sir William Hamilton, the Scotch philosopher, said:

Aristotle's seal is upon all the sciences, his speculations have

determined those of all subsequent thinkers. Hegel, the German

philosophic writer, is not less outspoken in his praise: Aristotle

penetrated the whole universe of things and subjected them to

intelligence. Kant, who is often said to have influenced our modern

thinking more than any other in recent generations, has his compliment

for Aristotle. It relates particularly to that branch of philosophy with

which Kant had most occupied himself. The Koenigsberg philosopher said:

Logic since Aristotle, like Geometry since Euclid, is a finished


I do not want to tire you or I could quote many other authorities who

proclaim Aristotle the genius of the race. They would include poets like

Dante and Goethe, scholars like Cicero and Anthon, literary men like

Lessing and Reich and many others. The scholars of the Middle Ages, far

from condemnation for their devotion to Aristotle, deserve the highest

praise for it. If they had done nothing else but appreciate Aristotle as

our greatest modern scholars have done, that of itself would proclaim

their profound scholarship.

The medieval writers are often said to have been uncritical in their

judgment, but in their lofty estimation of Aristotle they displayed the

finest possible critical judgment. On the contrary, the generations who

made much of the opportunity to minimize medieval scholarship because of

its worship at the shrine of Aristotle, must themselves fall under the

suspicion at least of either not knowing Aristotle or of not thinking

deeply about the subjects with regard to which he wrote. For in all the

world's history the rule has been that whenever men have thought deeply

about a subject and know what Aristotle has written with regard to that

subject, they have the liveliest admiration for the great Greek thinker.

This is true for philosophy, logic, metaphysics, politics, ethics,

dramatics, but it is also quite as true for physical science. He lacked

our knowledge, though not nearly to the degree that is usually thought,

and he had a marvellous accumulation of information, but he had a

breadth of view and a thoroughness of appreciation with a power of

penetration that make his opinions worth while knowing even on

scientific subjects in our enlightened age.

As for the supposed swearing by Aristotle, in the sense of literally

accepting his opinions without daring to examine them critically, which

is so constantly asserted to have been the habit of the medieval

scholars and teachers, it is extremely difficult in the light of the

expressions which we have from them, to understand how this false

impression arose. Aristotle they thoroughly respected. They constantly

referred to his works, but so has every thinking generation ever since.

Whenever he had made a declaration they would not accept the

contradiction of it without a good reason, but whenever they had good

reasons, Aristotle's opinion was at once rejected without compunction.

Albertus Magnus, for instance, said: Whoever believes that Aristotle

was a God must also believe that he never erred, but if we believe that

Aristotle was a man, then doubtless he was liable to err just as we

are. A number of direct contradictions of Aristotle we have from

Albert. A well-known one is that with regard to Aristotle's assertion

that lunar rainbows appeared only twice in fifty years. Albert declared

that he himself had seen two in a single year.

Indeed, it seems very clear that the whole trend of thought among the

great teachers of the time was away from the acceptance of scientific

conclusions on authority unless there was good evidence for them

available. They were quite as impatient as the scientists of our time

with the constant putting forward of Aristotle as if that settled a

scientific question. Roger Bacon wanted the Pope to forbid the study of

Aristotle because his works were leading men astray from the study of

science, his authority being looked upon as so great that men did not

think for themselves but accepted his assertions. Smaller men are always

prone to do this, and indeed it constitutes one of the difficulties in

the way of advance in scientific knowledge at all times, as Roger Bacon

himself pointed out.

These are the sort of expressions that are to be expected from Friar

Bacon from what we know of other parts of his work. His Opus Tertium

was written at the request of Pope Clement IV, because the Pope had

heard many interesting accounts of what the great thirteenth-century

teacher and experimenter was doing at the University of Oxford, and

wished to learn for himself the details of his work. Bacon starts out

with the principle that there are four grounds of human ignorance. These

are, first, trust in inadequate authority; second, that force of custom

which leads men to accept without properly questioning what has been

accepted before their time; third, the placing of confidence in the

assertions of the inexperienced; and fourth, the hiding of one's own

ignorance behind the parade of superficial knowledge, so that we are

afraid to say I do not know. Professor Henry Morley, a careful student

of Bacon's writings, said with regard to these expressions of Bacon:

No part of that ground has yet been cut away from beneath the

feet of students, although six centuries have passed. We still

make sheep-walks of second, third and fourth, and fiftieth

hand references to authority; still we are the slaves of

habit, still we are found following too frequently the

untaught crowd, still we flinch from the righteous and

wholesome phrase I do not know and acquiesce actively in the

opinion of others that we know what we appear to know.

In his Opus Majus Bacon had previously given abundant evidence of his

respect for the experimental method. There is a section of this work

which bears the title Scientia Experimentalis. In this Bacon affirms

that without experiment nothing can be adequately known. An argument

may prove the correctness of a theory, but does not give the certitude

necessary to remove all doubt, nor will the mind repose in the clear

view of truth unless it finds its way by means of experiment. To this

he later added in his Opus Tertium: The strongest argument proves

nothing so long as the conclusions are not verified by experience.

Experimental science is the queen of sciences, and the goal of all


It is no wonder that Dr. Whewell, in his History of the Inductive

Sciences, should have been unstinted in his praise of Roger Bacon's

work and writings. In a well-known passage he says of the Opus Majus:

Roger Bacon's Opus Majus is the encyclopedia and Novum

Organon of the thirteenth century, a work equally wonderful

with regard to its wonderful scheme and to the special

treatises by which the outlines of the plans are filled up.

The professed object of the work is to urge the necessity of a

reform in the mode of philosophizing, to set forth the reasons

why knowledge had not made greater progress, to draw back

attention to the sources of knowledge which had been unwisely

neglected, to discover other sources which were yet almost

untouched, and to animate men in the undertaking of a prospect

of the vast advantages which it offered. In the development of

this plan all the leading portions of science are expanded in

the most complete shape which they had at that time assumed;

and improvements of a very wide and striking kind are proposed

in some of the principal branches of study. Even if the work

had no leading purposes it would have been highly valuable as

a treasure of the most solid knowledge and soundest

speculations of the time; even if it had contained no such

details it would have been a work most remarkable for its

general views and scope.

As a matter of fact the universities of the Middle Ages, far from

neglecting science, were really scientific universities. Because the

universities of the early nineteenth century occupied themselves almost

exclusively with languages and especially formed students' minds by

means of classical studies, men in our time seem to be prone to think

that such linguistic studies formed the main portion of the curriculum

of the universities in all the old times and particularly in the Middle

Ages. The study of the classic languages, however, came into university

life only after the Renaissance. Before that the undergraduates of the

universities had occupied themselves almost entirely with science. It

was quite as much trouble to introduce linguistic studies into the old

universities in the Renaissance time to replace science, as it was to

secure room for science by pushing out the classics in the modern time.

Indeed the two revolutions in education are strikingly similar when

studied in detail. Men who had been brought up on science before the

Renaissance were quite sure that that formed the best possible means of

developing the mind. In the early nineteenth century men who had been

formed on the classics were quite as sure that science could not replace

them with any success.

There is no pretence that this view of the medieval universities is a

new idea in the history of education. Those who have known the old

universities at first hand by the study of the actual books of their

professors and by familiarity with their courses of study, have not been

inclined to make the mistake of thinking that the medieval university

neglected science. Professor Huxley in his Inaugural Address as Rector

of Aberdeen University some thirty years ago stated very definitely his

recognition of medieval devotion to science. His words are well worth

remembering by all those who are accustomed to think of our time as the

first in which the study of science was taken up seriously in our

universities. Professor Huxley said:

The scholars of the medieval universities seem to have studied

grammar, logic, and rhetoric; arithmetic and geometry;

astronomy, theology, and music. Thus their work, however

imperfect and faulty, judged by modern lights, it may have

been, brought them face to face with all the leading aspects

of the many-sided mind of man. For these studies did really

contain, at any rate in embryo, sometimes it may be in

caricature, what we now call philosophy, mathematical and

physical science, and art. And I doubt if the curriculum of

any modern university shows so clear and generous a

comprehension of what is meant by culture, as this old Trivium

and Quadrivium does.

It would be entirely a mistake, however, to think that these great

writers and teachers who influenced the medieval universities so deeply

and whose works were the text-books of the universities for centuries

after, only had the principles of physical and experimental science and

did not practically apply them. As a matter of fact their works are full

of observation. Once more, the presumption that they wrote only nonsense

with regard to science comes from those who do not know their writings

at all, while great scientists who have taken the pains to study their

works are enthusiastic in praise. Humboldt, for instance, says of

Albertus Magnus, after reading some of his works with care:

Albertus Magnus is equally active and influential in promoting

the study of natural science and of the Aristotelian

philosophy. His works contain some exceedingly acute remarks

on the organic structure and physiology of plants. One of his

works bearing the title of Liber Cosmographicus De Natura

Locorum is a species of physical geography. I have found in

it considerations on the dependence of temperature

concurrently on latitude and elevation and on the effect of

different angles of the sun's rays in heating the ground which

have excited my surprise.

It is with regard to physical geography of course that Humboldt is

himself a distinguished authority.

Humboldt's expression that he found some exceedingly acute remarks on

the organic structure and physiology of plants in Albert the Great's

writings will prove a great surprise to many people. Meyer, the German

historian of botany, however, has re-echoed Humboldt's praise with

emphasis. The extraordinary erudition and originality of Albert's

treatise on plants drew from Meyer the comment:

No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared with him

unless Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted; and

after him none has painted nature in such living colors or

studied it so profoundly until the time of Conrad Gessner and


These men, it may be remarked, come three centuries after Albert's time.

A ready idea of Albert's contributions to physical science can be

obtained from his life by Sighart, which has been translated into

English by Dixon and was published in London in 1870. Pagel, in

Puschmann's History of Medicine, already referred to, gives a list of

the books written by Albert on scientific matters with some comments

which are eminently suggestive, and furnish solid basis for the remark

that I have made, that men's minds were occupied with nearly the same

problems in science in the thirteenth century as we are now, while the

conclusions they came to were not very different from ours, though

reached so long before us.

This catalogue of Albertus Magnus' works shows very well his own

interest and that of his generation in physical science of all kinds.

There were eight treatises on Aristotle's physics and on the underlying

principles of natural philosophy and of energy and of movement; four

treatises concerning the heavens and the earth, one on physical

geography which also contains, according to Pagel, numerous suggestions

on ethnography and physiology. There are two treatises on generation and

corruption, six books on meteors, five books on minerals, three books on

the soul, two books on the intellect, a treatise on nutritives, and then

a treatise on the senses and another on the memory and on the

imagination. All the phases of the biological sciences were especially

favorite subjects of his study. There is a treatise on the motion of

animals, a treatise in six books on vegetables and plants, a treatise on

breathing things, a treatise on sleep and waking, a treatise on youth

and old age, and a treatise on life and death. His treatise on minerals

contains, according to Pagel, a description of ninety-five different

kinds of precious stones. Albert's volumes on plants were reproduced

with Meyer, the German botanist, as editor (Berlin, 1867). All of

Albert's books are available in modern editions.

Pagel says of Albertus that

His profound scholarship, his boundless industry, the almost

incontrollable impulse of his mind after universality of

knowledge, the many-sidedness of his literary productivity,

and finally the almost universal recognition which he received

from his contemporaries and succeeding generations, stamp him

as one of the most imposing characters and one of the most

wonderful phenomena of the Middle Ages.

In another passage Pagel has said:

While Albert was a Churchman and an ardent devotee of

Aristotle, in matters of natural phenomena he was relatively

unprejudiced and presented an open mind. He thought that he

must follow Hippocrates and Galen, rather than Aristotle and

Augustine, in medicine and in the natural sciences. We must

concede it a special subject of praise for Albert that he

distinguished very strictly between natural and supernatural

phenomena. The former he considered as entirely the object of

the investigation of nature. The latter he handed over to the

realm of metaphysics.

Roger Bacon is, however, the one of these three great teachers who

shows us how thoroughly practical was the scientific knowledge of the

universities and how much it led to important useful discoveries in

applied science and to anticipations of what is most novel even in our

present-day sciences. Some of these indeed are so startling, that only

that we know them not by tradition but from his works, where they may be

readily found without any doubt of their authenticity, we should be sure

to think that they must be the result of later commentators' ideas.

Bacon was very much interested in astronomy, and not only suggested the

correction of the calendar, but also a method by which it could be kept

from wandering away from the actual date thereafter. He discovered many

of the properties of lenses and is said to have invented spectacles and

announced very emphatically that light did not travel instantaneously

but moved with a definite velocity. He is sometimes said to have

invented gunpowder, but of course he did not, though he studied this

substance in various forms very carefully and drew a number of

conclusions in his observations. He was sure that some time or other man

would learn to control the energies exhibited by explosives and that

then he would be able to accomplish many things that seemed quite

impossible under present conditions.

He said, for instance:

Art can construct instruments of navigation, such that the

largest vessels governed by a single man will traverse rivers

and seas more rapidly than if they were filled with oarsmen.

One may also make carriages which without the aid of any

animal will run with remarkable swiftness.

In these days when the automobile is with us and when the principal

source of energy for motor purposes is derived from explosives of

various kinds, this expression of Roger Bacon represents a prophecy

marvellously surprising in its fulfilment. It is no wonder that the book

whence it comes bears the title De Secretis Artis et Naturae. Roger

Bacon even went to the extent, however, of declaring that man would some

time be able to fly. He was even sure that with sufficient pains he

could himself construct a flying machine. He did not expect to use

explosives for his motor power, however, but thought that a windlass

properly arranged, worked by hand, might enable a man to make sufficient

movement to carry himself aloft or at least to support himself in the

air, if there were enough surface to enable him to use his lifting power

to advantage. He was in intimate relations by letter with many other

distinguished inventors and investigators besides Peregrinus and was a

source of incentive and encouragement to them all.

The more one knows of Aquinas the more surprise there is at his

anticipation of many modern scientific ideas. At the conclusion of a

course on cosmology delivered at the University of Paris he said that

nothing at all would ever be reduced to nothingness (nihil omnino in

nihilum redigetur). He was teaching the doctrine that man could not

destroy matter and God would not annihilate it. In other words, he was

teaching the indestructibility of matter even more emphatically than we

do. He saw the many changes that take place in material substances

around us, but he taught that these were only changes of form and not

substantial changes and that the same amount of matter always remained

in the world. At the same time he was teaching that the forms in matter

by which he meant the combinations of energies which distinguish the

various kinds of matter are not destroyed. In other words, he was

anticipating not vaguely, but very clearly and definitely, the

conservation of energy. His teaching with regard to the composition of

matter was very like that now held by physicists. He declared that

matter was composed of two principles, prime matter and form. By forma

he meant the dynamic element in matter, while by materia prima he

meant the underlying substratum of material, the same in every

substance, but differentiated by the dynamics of matter.

It used to be the custom to make fun of these medieval scientists for

believing in the transmutation of metals. It may be said that all three

of these greatest teachers did not hold the doctrine of the

transmutation of metals in the exaggerated way in which it appealed to

many of their contemporaries. The theory of matter and form, however,

gave a philosophical basis for the idea that one kind of matter might be

changed into another. We no longer think that notion absurd. Sir William

Ramsay has actually succeeded in changing one element into another and

radium and helium are seen changing into each other, until now we are

quite ready to think of transmutation placidly. The Philosopher's Stone

used to seem a great absurdity until our recent experience with radium,

which is to some extent at least the philosopher's stone, since it

brings about the change of certain supposed elements into others. A

distinguished American chemist said not long ago that he would like to

extract all the silver from a large body of lead ore in which it occurs

so commonly, and then come back after twenty years and look for further

traces of silver, for he felt sure that they would be found and that

lead ore is probably always producing silver in small quantities and

copper ore is producing gold.

Most people will be inclined to ask where the fruits of this

undergraduate teaching of science are to be found. They are inclined to

presume that science was a closed book to the men and women of that

time. It is not hard, however, to point the effect of the scientific

training in the writings of the times. Dante is a typical university man

of the period. He was at several Italian universities, was at Paris and

perhaps at Oxford. His writings are full of science. Professor Kuehns, of

Wesleyan, in his book The Treatment of Nature in Dante, has pointed

out how much Dante knows of science and of nature. Few of the poets not

only of his own but of any time have known more. There are only one or

two writers of poetry in our time who go with so much confidence to

nature and the scientific interpretation of her for figures for their

poetry. The astronomy, the botany, the zooelogy of Albertus Magnus and

Thomas Aquinas, Dante knew very well and used confidently for figurative

purposes. Anyone who is inclined to think nature study a new idea in the

world forgets, or has never known, his Dante. The birds and the bees,

the flowers, the leaves, the varied aspects of clouds and sea, the

phenomena of phosphorescence, the intimate habits of bird and beast and

the ways of the plants, as well as all the appearances of the heavens,

Dante knew very well and in a detail that is quite surprising when we

recall how little nature study is supposed to have attracted the men of

his time. Only that his readers appreciated it all, Dante would surely

not have used his scientific erudition so constantly.

So much for the undergraduate department of the universities of the

Middle Ages, and the view is absolutely fair, for these were the men to

whom the students flocked by thousands. They were teaching science, not

literature. They were discussing physics as well as metaphysics,

psychology in its phenomena as well as philosophy, observation and

experiment as well as logic, the ethical sciences, economics,

practically all the scientific ideas that were needed in their

generation--and that generation saw the rise of the universities, the

finishing of the cathedrals, the building of magnificent town halls and

castles and beautiful municipal buildings of many kinds, including

hospitals, the development of the Hansa League in commerce, and of

wonderful manufacturers of all the textiles, the arts and crafts, as

well as the most beautiful book-making and art and literature. We could

be quite sure that the men who solved all the other problems so well

could not have been absurd only in their treatment of science. Anyone

who reads their books will be quite sure of that.

While most people might be ready, then, to confess that possibly Huxley

was not mistaken with regard to the undergraduate department of the

universities, most of them would feel sure that at least the graduate

departments were sadly deficient in accomplishment. Once more this is

entirely an assumption. The facts are all against any such idea.

There were three graduate departments in most of the

universities--theology, law, and medicine. While physical scientists are

usually not cognizant of it apparently, theology is a science, a

department of knowledge developed scientifically, and most of these

medieval universities did more for its scientific development than the

schools of any other period. Quite as much may be said for philosophy,

for there are many who hesitate to attribute any scientific quality to

modern developments in the matter. As for law, this is the great period

of the foundation of scientific law development; the English common law

was formulated by Bracton, the deep foundations of basic French and

Spanish law were laid, and canon law acquired a definite scientific

character which it was always to retain. All this was accomplished

almost entirely by the professors in the law departments of the


It was in medicine, however, where most people would be quite sure

without any more ado that nothing worth while talking about was being

done, that the great triumphs of graduate teaching at the medieval

universities were secured. Here more than anywhere else is there room

for supreme surprise at the quite unheard-of anticipations of our modern

medicine and, stranger still, as it may seem, of our modern surgery.

The law regulating the practice of medicine in the Two Sicilies about

the middle of the thirteenth century shows us the high standard of

medical education. Students were required to have three years of

preliminary study at the university, four years in the medical

department, and then practise for a year with a physician before they

were allowed to practise for themselves. If they wanted to practise

surgery, an extra year in the study of anatomy was required. I published

the text of this law, which was issued by the Emperor Frederick II about

1241, in the Journal of the American Medical Association three years

ago. It also regulated the practice of pharmacy. Drugs were manufactured

under the inspection of the government and there was a heavy penalty for

substitution, or for the sale of old inert drugs, or improperly prepared

pharmaceutical materials. If the government inspector violated his

obligations as to the oversight of drug preparations the penalty was

death. Nor was this law of the Emperor Frederick an exception. We have

the charters of a number of medical schools issued by the Popes during

the next century, all of which require seven years or more of university

study, four of them in the medical department, before the doctor's

degree could be obtained. When new medical schools were founded they had

to have professors from certain well-recognized schools on their staff

at the beginning in order to assure proper standards of teaching, and

all examinations were conducted under oath-bound secrecy and with the

heaviest obligations on professors to be assured of the knowledge of

students before allowing them to pass.

It might be easy to think, and many people are prone to do so, that in

spite of the long years of study required there was really very little

to study in medicine at that time. Those who think so should read

Professor Clifford Allbutt's address on the Historical Relations of

Medicine and Surgery delivered at the World's Fair at St. Louis in

1904. He has dwelt more on surgery than on medicine, but he makes it

very clear that he considers that the thinking professors of medicine of

the later Middle Ages were doing quite as serious work in their way as

any that has been done since. They were carefully studying cases and

writing case histories, they were teaching at the bedside, they were

making valuable observations, and they were using the means at their

command to the best advantage. Of course there are many absurdities in

their therapeutics, but then we must not forget there have always been

many absurdities in therapeutics and that we are not free from them in

our day. Professor Richet, at the University of Paris, said not long

ago: The therapeutics of any generation is quite absurd to the second

succeeding generation. We shall not blame the medieval generations for

having accepted remedies that afterwards proved inert, for every

generation has done that, even our own.

Their study of medicine was not without lasting accomplishment, however.

They laid down the indications and the dosage for opium. They used iron

with success, they tried out many of the bitter tonics among the herbal

medicines, and they used laxatives and purgatives to good advantage.

Down at Montpellier, Gilbert, the Englishman, suggested red light for

smallpox because it shortened the fever, lessened the lesions, and made

the disfigurement much less. Finsen was given the Nobel prize partly for

re-discovery of this. They segregated erysipelas and so prevented its

spread. They recognized the contagiousness of leprosy, and though it was

probably as widespread as tuberculosis is at the present time, they

succeeded not only in controlling but in eventually obliterating it

throughout Europe.

It was in surgery, however, that the greatest triumphs of teaching of

the medieval universities were secured. Most people are inclined to

think that surgery developed only in our day. The great surgeons of the

thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, anticipated most of our

teaching. They investigated the causes of the failure of healing by

first intention, recognized the danger of wounds of the neck,

differentiated the venereal diseases, described rabies, and knew much of

blood poisoning, and operated very skilfully. We have their text-books

of surgery and they are a never-ending source of surprise. They operated

on the brain, on the thorax, on the abdominal cavity, and did not

hesitate to do most of the operations that modern surgeons do. They

operated for hernia by the radical cure, though Mondeville suggested

that more people were operated on for hernia for the benefit of the

doctor's pocket than for the benefit of the patient. Guy de Chauliac

declared that in wounds of the intestines patients would die unless the

intestinal lacerations were sewed up, and he described the method of

suture and invented a needle holder. We have many wonderful instruments

from these early days preserved in pictures at least, that show us how

much modern advance is merely re-invention.

They understood the principles of aseptic surgery very well. They

declared that it was not necessary that pus should be generated in

wounds. Professor Clifford Allbutt says:

They washed the wound with wine, scrupulously removing every

foreign particle; then they brought the edges together, not

allowing wine or anything else to remain within--dry adhesive

surfaces were their desire. Nature, they said, produces the

means of union in a viscous exudation, or natural balm, as it

was afterwards called by Paracelsus, Pare, and Wurtz. In older

wounds they did their best to obtain union by cleansing,

desiccation, and refreshing of the edges. Upon the outer

surface they laid only lint steeped in wine. Powders they

regarded as too desiccating, for powder shuts in decomposing

matters; wine after washing, purifying, and drying the raw

surfaces evaporates.

Almost needless to say these are exactly the principles of aseptic

surgery. The wine was the best antiseptic that they could use and we

still use alcohol in certain cases. It would seem to many quite

impossible that such operations as are described could have been done

without anaesthetics, but they were not done without anaesthetics. There

were two or three different forms of anaesthesia used during the

thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. One method employed by Ugo da Lucca

consisted of the use of an inhalant. We do not know what the material

employed was. There are definite records, however, of its rather

frequent employment.

What a different picture of science at the medieval universities all

this makes from what we have been accustomed to hear and read with

regard to them. It is difficult to understand where the old false

impressions came from. The picture of university work that recent

historical research has given us shows us professors and students busy

with science in every department, making magnificent advances, many of

which were afterwards forgotten, or at least allowed to lapse into


The positive assertions with regard to old-time ignorance were all made

in the course of religious controversy. In English-speaking countries

particularly it became a definite purpose to represent the old Church as

very much opposed to education of all kinds and above all to scientific

education. There is not a trace of that to be found anywhere, but there

were many documents that were appealed to to confirm the protestant

view. There was a Papal bull, for instance, said to forbid dissection.

When read it proves to forbid the cutting up of bodies to carry them to

a distance for burial, an abuse which caused the spread of disease, and

was properly prohibited. The Church prohibition was international and

therefore effective. At the time the bull was issued there were twenty

medical schools doing dissection in Italy and they continued to practise

it quite undisturbed during succeeding centuries. The Papal physicians

were among the greatest dissectors. Dissections were done at Rome and

the cardinals attended them. Bologna at the height of its fame was in

the Papal States. All this has been ignored and the supposed bull

against anatomy emphasized as representing the keynote of medical and

surgical history. Then there was a Papal decree forbidding the making of

gold and silver. This was said to forbid chemistry or alchemy and so

prevent scientific progress. The history of the medical schools of the

time shows that it did no such thing. The great alchemists of the time

doing really scientific work were all clergymen, many of them very

prominent ecclesiastics.

Just in the same way there were said to be decrees of the Church

councils forbidding the practice of surgery. President White says in his

Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, that, as a

consequence of these, surgery was in dishonor until the Emperor

Wenceslaus, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, ordered that it

should be restored to estimation. As a matter of fact, during the two

centuries immediately preceding the first years of the fifteenth

century, surgery developed very wonderfully, and we have probably the

most successful period in all the history of surgery except possibly our

own. The decrees forbade monks to practise surgery because it led to

certain abuses. Those who found these decrees and wanted to believe

that they prevented all surgical development simply quoted them and

assumed there was no surgery. The history of surgery at this time is one

of the most wonderful chapters in human progress.

The more we know of the Middle Ages the more do we realize how much they

accomplished in every department of intellectual effort. Their

development of the arts and crafts has never been equalled in the modern

time. They made very great literature, marvellous architecture,

sculpture that rivals the Greeks', painting that is still the model for

our artists, surpassing illuminations; everything that they touched

became so beautiful as to be a model for all the after time. They

accomplished as much in education as they did in all the other arts,

their universities had more students than any that have existed down to

our own time, and they were enthusiastic students and their professors

were ardent teachers, writers, observers, investigators. While we have

been accustomed to think of them as neglecting science, their minds were

occupied entirely with science. They succeeded in anticipating much more

of our modern thought, and even scientific progress, than we have had

any idea until comparatively recent years. The work of the later Middle

Ages in mathematics is particularly strong, and was the incentive for

many succeeding generations. Roger Bacon insisted that, without

mathematics, there was no possibility of real advance in physical

science. They had the right ideas in every way. While they were occupied

more with the philosophical and ethical sciences than we are, these were

never pursued to the neglect of the physical sciences in the strictest

sense of that term.

Is it not time that we should drop the foolish notions that are very

commonly held because we know nothing about the Middle Ages--and,

therefore, the more easily assume great knowledge--and get back to

appreciate the really marvellous details of educational and scientific

development which are so interesting and of so much significance at this