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History of Science Islamic and early medieval science

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 7: Islamic and Early Medieval Science

Early Medieval Science

Here are the assignments for Early Medieval science, starting off with some primary sources:

  1. Medieval Technology
  2. Celtic scholarship
  3. Fibonacci and his numbers
  4. Roger Bacon
  5. Thomas Aquinas
  6. David Lindberg, Beginnings of Western Science, chapter 9.

From the Vault video text:

Thanks for joining me in the History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries. Let’s look at a few treasures from the vault that throw light on the story of science in early medieval Europe.

Isidore of Seville wrote his book titled Etymologies as the Roman empire was crumbling around him in the 6th century AD. In Spain the Goths had been in political control for two centuries already, and educational institutions were languishing in the remnants of the old empire. Isidore founded a cathedral school in Seville to halt this decline, and thereafter the Etymologies served many medieval students as an encyclopedia of basic knowledge. In one interesting section of the Etymologies, Isidore listed monstrous forms of humans, including birth defects and deformed races reported to Isidore in travelers' tales. Isidore thus provided the inspiration for the duffelpuds and such creatures in CS Lewis’ Narnia tales. Because of Isidore’s encyclopedic approach, he is the patron saint of the internet and the information age.

Convents were places where anyone could come for healing, and in this book the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen explained their herbal remedies and medical procedures. In addition to this work on medicine, Hildegard wrote works on cosmology and theology, corresponded in nearly 400 letters with abbots, popes and emperors, and created at least 70 musical compositions. Does this look like any student you know after final examinations? In October of 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church, the fourth women of 35 persons honored by that title in the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not our oldest work, but it is one of my favorites. The style of the binding indicates that it comes from German speaking parts of Europe around 1600, more than a century after the book was printed. The original binding, of brushed vellum, is preserved inside. The squiggles above the lines of text are markings for Gregorian chant. The original binding is a 10th century Easter chant. 500 years later it was recycled as the original binding for the book when it was printed. Here is the first page, printed with movable type but illuminated by hand with gold leaf and artistic flair. This is the earliest published work on agriculture. It is a manual for running a feudal estate. It is an ancestor to the herbal, and explains what plants one must cultivate to be able to make the common remedies.

Albert the Great, teacher of Thomas Aquinas and Doctor universalis, commented upon the full spectrum of Aristotelian science. He updated each topic he considered with evidence gathered from other writers and from his own extensive observations. Albert’s treatise on animals includes, for example, a section displaying impressive knowledge of falcons, discussing how to train them for hunting and methods for treating their injuries and illnesses.

This is the first part of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor. Aquinas represents the ultimate medieval reconciliation of science and religion, as he affirmed the unity of truth and refuted apparent conflicts between philosophical truth and Christian faith. Wormholes appear on the cover of this otherwise well-preserved medieval masterwork of theology.

In university study, the most common introduction to the geocentric cosmos was De Sphaera, On the Spheres, a medieval work by Sacrobosco.

Apian’s cosmic section illustrates the traditional Aristotelian/Ptolemaic understanding of the universe. The spherical earth lies in the center, surrounded by the regions of the sublunar elements. Rotating heavenly spheres carry the planets and stars, nesting one within the other all the way out to the empyrean heaven.

The significance of Dante’s Divine Comedy for conveying an imaginative appreciation of medieval geocentric cosmology cannot be overstated; for example, “star” is the final word of each volume. This 5 vol set is the first edition of Dante’s collected works, including the Divine Comedy as well as Dante’s minor works. Dante’s minor works include a poem on gems and minerals, and a discourse on the formation of the Earth.

Science is a story. What stories do you want to hear and tell about medieval science?


TOPIC QUIZ: The statements are either True or False. When you take the quiz at Janux, you will see 12 of these statements, chosen at random, 2 points each.

  1. The population growth in northern Europe that provided a foundation for the establishment of medieval universities resulted from advances in technology that raised the standard of living for ordinary people.
  2. Settlers of the American West relied on technologies such as log cabins, windmills, wagons and saddles, that were similar to those used by settlers of northern Europe in the Middle Ages.
  3. Oriental technology such as gunpowder and paper-making came to Europe as travel increased along the Silk Road.
  4. According to medieval Christian tradition, manual labor was important, even for scholars.
  5. Windmills deployed in medieval Europe for grinding grain used a vertical post with vertical sails, and could be turned to face the wind.
  6. Northern European agriculture and food supply increased because the heavy plow completely destroyed the root systems of weeds in cultivated fields.
  7. Before 1212, Paris had fewer than 22,000 inhabitants.
  8. By 1483, Paris had more than 50,000 inhabitants.
  9. Spectacles for the far-sighted were invented in Egypt around 1300.
  10. Roger Bacon experimented with convex lenses to correct vision.
  11. Amid the collapse of the Roman empire, Celtic scholars in monasteries in Ireland and Scotland translated Greek works.
  12. With the settling of northern Europe by Germanic tribes, Celtic monks re-introduced Greek and Latin works to the continent, traveling as far south as Italy.
  13. Celtic monks attempted to censor and suppress the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans because they were of pagan origin.
  14. Arabic numerals, unlike Roman numerals, were used in a place-value system.
  15. Arabic numerals were invented by Islamic mathematicians in Damascus around 600 AD.
  16. Pope Sylvester II was one of the earlier Europeans to use Arabic numbers circa 1000 AD.
  17. An early treatise explaining the use of Arabic numbers, the zero and the decimal system, was by Fibonacci, entitled Liber Abaci.
  18. Any number in the Fibonacci series is the sum of the two previous numbers added together.
  19. Fibonacci solved a cubic equation using sexagessimal Babylonian mathematics.
  20. The numbers of spirals of seeds in sunflowers equal the terms in the Fibonacci series.
  21. For Roger Bacon, experience is not enough to attain truth, but reason is.
  22. To investigate the cause of the rainbow, Roger Bacon performed experiments with gemstones of various types.
  23. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas argued that when reason and faith seem to conflict, one should submit to faith because the truths of faith may be contrary to natural reason.
  24. Aquinas suggested that because reason naturally deceives us, the Christian should trust to faith instead of natural reason.
  25. Alcuin helped implement Carolingian reforms that laid a foundation for future scholarship, including the establishment of cathedral schools.
  26. The Greek scholar John Scotus Eriugena came to the Carolingian court from Spain.
  27. Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II, traveled to Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) during the Catalonian renaissance and championed the use of instruments such as the armillary sphere.
  28. By the “12th century renaissance,” European nations were becoming politically more stable, more prosperous, more populous, more urban, and more technologically advanced.
  29. Cathedral schools of the 11th and 12th centuries, located in urban areas, had a broader curriculum than the monastic schools.
  30. The 11th and 12th century teachers and theologians Anselm and Abelard diminished the role of reason in education, because they believed the exercise of reason might be harmful to religious belief.
  31. Sic et non was the title of a theological work written by Thomas Aquinas.
  32. Thierry of Chartres reconciled cosmology and the Bible by suggesting that the creation events related in Genesis 1 throughout the six days occurred as a result of incomprehensible miracles rather than natural causes.
  33. Translations of scientific works from Arabic into Latin were produced in Spain and Italy by scholars with a wide variety of ethnic and national origins.
  34. Teachers and students modeled their efforts on the practices of guilds (universitas, bachelors, masters), in order to establish self-governance and to exercise control over educational endeavors.
  35. Professors were mobile and universities had an international character in part because, once a student passed a Masters examination, the ius ubique docendi gave him the right to teach at any European university.


"Learn everything. Afterward you will discover that nothing has been superfluous." Hugh of St. Victor, 12th century.

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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