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Pre-Scientific Revolution: Logic, Reason & Scientific Experimentation

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  • 0:02 Pre-Enlightenment Thought
  • 0:29 Medieval Narrative
  • 2:09 Progress
  • 4:28 Limitations & Enlightenment
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the reasons behind the typical narrative surrounding the Middle Ages and the advances in reason and science made during this period.

Pre-Enlightenment Thought

Stereotypes are easy things to fall back upon. They simplify a situation or people and provide an easy explanation for a wide range of habits, activities, or circumstances. As easily as they can be applied, they are just as often incredibly wrong. A similar situation exists in the history of Western civilization. In this lesson, we explore how the Dark Ages may not be just as 'dark' as they seem at first look.

Medieval Narrative

For a long period of time, the history of Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was thought of as a period of intellectual stagnation - a dark period where life was short, kings were tyrannical, and little was achieved to further our knowledge of the world. As a result, the period gained several degrading nicknames, like the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period - terms that still conjures images of barbaric armies and primitive, backward cultures.

The Middle Ages lasted for roughly a thousand years from 400-1400 A.D. (though, it should be noted, historians still bicker over these start and end dates). The traditional narrative of this period stems partially from a lack of significant evidence documenting the period's learning, unlike periods before and after. The Romans, who controlled most of Europe prior to the period, left huge buildings and engineering marvels like the aqueducts that could transport water thousands of miles. Moreover, the Middle Ages were followed by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, a tremendous period of intellectual tumult that produced much of the scientific and philosophical writing still studied and highly regarded today.

In addition to this problem, the intervening period in Europe was also far poorer than before or after. The vast majority of the population were farmers who had to focus on growing food for themselves and their families and had little time for intellectual and academic pursuits. The few who did have the time were often religious figures or members of the incredibly small aristocracy of Europe. Though these men did make contributions to the knowledge of the world and philosophy, many of their writings have been lost.

Progress

Although the Middle Ages seemed like a simple time, you'd be wrong to assume the period was entirely void of any intellectual activity. The teachings of the Romans and Greeks may have been lost or ignored in central and western Europe after the fall of Rome, but in southwestern Europe and in Asia Minor, philosophy, science, and mathematics was alive and well. Indeed, recent scholars have pointed to the period from 800-1200 A.D. in areas held by the Byzantine Empire and other states in what is today the Middle East as a veritable golden age of intellectual activity and academic pursuit. For example, the Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun developed similar economic principles regarding division of labor, differences in wages, and the forces of supply and demand centuries before they were independently arrived at in Scotland by Adam Smith.

Furthermore, the Middle Ages were not a complete period of intellectual stagnation in Europe, and isolated universities often carried on the traditions of learning. The thinkers that attended these universities and schools of the Middle Ages often practiced scholasticism. Scholasticism differed from the logic and reason of the Enlightenment era, which often cast aside all facts in an attempt to recognize universal truth. Instead, scholasticism started with accepted truth, whether it was the Bible or the ancient Greek and Roman work. Then, scholars proceeded to read the works critically, making notations and debating with their colleagues in an attempt to understand, interpret, and make inferences to better understand the work's meaning and its applications to the contemporary world.

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