We have previously referred to the influence of the Byzantine civilization in transmitting the learning of antiquity across the abysm of the dark age. It must be admitted, however, that the importance of that civilization did not extend much beyond the task of the common carrier. There were no great creative scientists in the later Roman empire of the East any more than in the corresponding empire of the West. There was, however, one field in which the Byzantine made respectable progress and regarding which their efforts require a few words of special comment. This was the field of medicine.

The Byzantines of this time could boast of two great medical men, Aetius of Amida (about 502-575 A.D.) and Paul of Aegina (about 620-690). The works of Aetius were of value largely because they recorded the teachings of many of his eminent predecessors, but he was not entirely lacking in originality, and was perhaps the first physician to mention diphtheria, with an allusion to some observations of the paralysis of the palate which sometimes follows this disease.

Paul of Aegina, who came from the Alexandrian school about a century later, was one of those remarkable men whose ideas are centuries ahead of their time. This was particularly true of Paul in regard to surgery, and his attitude towards the supernatural in the causation and treatment of diseases. He was essentially a surgeon, being particularly familiar with military surgery, and some of his descriptions of complicated and difficult operations have been little improved upon even in modern times. In his books he describes such operations as the removal of foreign bodies from the nose, ear, and esophagus; and he recognizes foreign growths such as polypi in the air-passages, and gives the method of their removal. Such operations as tracheotomy, tonsellotomy, bronchotomy, staphylotomy, etc., were performed by him, and he even advocated and described puncture of the abdominal cavity, giving careful directions as to the location in which such punctures should be made. He advocated amputation of the breast for the cure of cancer, and described extirpation of the uterus. Just how successful this last operation may have been as performed by him does not appear; but he would hardly have recommended it if it had not been sometimes, at least, successful. That he mentions it at all, however, is significant, as this difficult operation is considered one of the great triumphs of modern surgery.

But Paul of Aegina is a striking exception to the rule among Byzantine surgeons, and as he was their greatest, so he was also their last important surgeon. The energies of all Byzantium were so expended in religious controversies that medicine, like the other sciences, was soon relegated to a place among the other superstitions, and the influence of the Byzantine school was presently replaced by that of the conquering Arabians.


The thirteenth century marks the beginning of a gradual change in medicine, and a tendency to leave the time-worn rut of superstitious dogmas that so long retarded the progress of science. It is thought that the great epidemics which raged during the Middle Ages acted powerfully in diverting the medical thought of the times into new and entirely different channels. It will be remembered that the teachings of Galen were handed through mediaeval times as the highest and best authority on the subject of all diseases. When, however, the great epidemics made their appearance, the medical men appealed to the works of Galen in vain for enlightenment, as these works, having been written several centuries before the time of the plagues, naturally contained no information concerning them. It was evident, therefore, that on this subject, at least, Galen was not infallible; and it would naturally follow that, one fallible point having been revealed, others would be sought for. In other words, scepticism in regard to accepted methods would be aroused, and would lead naturally, as such scepticism usually does, to progress. The devastating effects of these plagues, despite prayers and incantations, would arouse doubt in the minds of many as to the efficacy of superstitious rites and ceremonies in curing diseases. They had seen thousands and tens of thousands of their fellow-beings swept away by these awful scourges. They had seen the ravages of these epidemics continue for months or even years, notwithstanding the fact that multitudes of God-fearing people prayed hourly that such ravages might be checked. And they must have observed also that when even very simple rules of cleanliness and hygiene were followed there was a diminution in the ravages of the plague, even without the aid of incantations. Such observations as these would have a tendency to awaken a suspicion in the minds of many of the physicians that disease was not a manifestation of the supernatural, but a natural phenomenon, to be treated by natural methods.

But, be the causes what they may, it is a fact that the thirteenth century marks a turning-point, or the beginning of an attitude of mind which resulted in bringing medicine to a much more rational position. Among the thirteenth-century physicians, two men are deserving of special mention. These are Arnald of Villanova (1235-1312) and Peter of Abano (1250-1315). Both these men suffered persecution for expressing their belief in natural, as against the supernatural, causes of disease, and at one time Arnald was obliged to flee from Barcelona for declaring that the "bulls" of popes were human works, and that "acts of charity were dearer to God than hecatombs." He was also accused of alchemy. Fleeing from persecution, he finally perished by shipwreck.

Arnald was the first great representative of the school of Montpellier. He devoted much time to the study of chemicals, and was active in attempting to re-establish the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen. He was one of the first of a long line of alchemists who, for several succeeding centuries, expended so much time and energy in attempting to find the "elixir of life." The Arab discovery of alcohol first deluded him into the belief that the "elixir" had at last been found; but later he discarded it and made extensive experiments with brandy, employing it in the treatment of certain diseases—the first record of the administration of this liquor as a medicine. Arnald also revived the search for some anaesthetic that would produce insensibility to pain in surgical operations. This idea was not original with him, for since very early times physicians had attempted to discover such an anaesthetic, and even so early a writer as Herodotus tells how the Scythians, by inhalation of the vapors of some kind of hemp, produced complete insensibility. It may have been these writings that stimulated Arnald to search for such an anaesthetic. In a book usually credited to him, medicines are named and methods of administration described which will make the patient insensible to pain, so that "he may be cut and feel nothing, as though he were dead." For this purpose a mixture of opium, mandragora, and henbane is to be used. This mixture was held at the patient's nostrils much as ether and chloroform are administered by the modern surgeon. The method was modified by Hugo of Lucca (died in 1252 or 1268), who added certain other narcotics, such as hemlock, to the mixture, and boiled a new sponge in this decoction. After boiling for a certain time, this sponge was dried, and when wanted for use was dipped in hot water and applied to the nostrils.

Just how frequently patients recovered from the administration of such a combination of powerful poisons does not appear, but the percentage of deaths must have been very high, as the practice was generally condemned. Insensibility could have been produced only by swallowing large quantities of the liquid, which dripped into the nose and mouth when the sponge was applied, and a lethal quantity might thus be swallowed. The method was revived, with various modifications, from time to time, but as often fell into disuse. As late as 1782 it was sometimes attempted, and in that year the King of Poland is said to have been completely anaesthetized and to have recovered, after a painless amputation had been performed by the surgeons.

Peter of Abano was one of the first great men produced by the University of Padua. His fate would have been even more tragic than that of the shipwrecked Arnald had he not cheated the purifying fagots of the church by dying opportunely on the eve of his execution for heresy. But if his spirit had cheated the fanatics, his body could not, and his bones were burned for his heresy. He had dared to deny the existence of a devil, and had suggested that the case of a patient who lay in a trance for three days might help to explain some miracles, like the raising of Lazarus.

His great work was Conciliator Differentiarum, an attempt to reconcile physicians and philosophers. But his researches were not confined to medicine, for he seems to have had an inkling of the hitherto unknown fact that air possesses weight, and his calculation of the length of the year at three hundred and sixty-five days, six hours, and four minutes, is exceptionally accurate for the age in which he lived. He was probably the first of the Western writers to teach that the brain is the source of the nerves, and the heart the source of the vessels. From this it is seen that he was groping in the direction of an explanation of the circulation of the blood, as demonstrated by Harvey three centuries later.

The work of Arnald and Peter of Abano in "reviving" medicine was continued actively by Mondino (1276-1326) of Bologna, the "restorer of anatomy," and by Guy of Chauliac: (born about 1300), the "restorer of surgery." All through the early Middle Ages dissections of human bodies had been forbidden, and even dissection of the lower animals gradually fell into disrepute because physicians detected in such practices were sometimes accused of sorcery. Before the close of the thirteenth century, however, a reaction had begun, physicians were protected, and dissections were occasionally sanctioned by the ruling monarch. Thus Emperor Frederick H. (1194-1250 A.D.)—whose services to science we have already had occasion to mention—ordered that at least one human body should be dissected by physicians in his kingdom every five years. By the time of Mondino dissections were becoming more frequent, and he himself is known to have dissected and demonstrated several bodies. His writings on anatomy have been called merely plagiarisms of Galen, but in all probability be made many discoveries independently, and on the whole, his work may be taken as more advanced than Galen's. His description of the heart is particularly accurate, and he seems to have come nearer to determining the course of the blood in its circulation than any of his predecessors. In this quest he was greatly handicapped by the prevailing belief in the idea that blood-vessels must contain air as well as blood, and this led him to assume that one of the cavities of the heart contained "spirits," or air. It is probable, however, that his accurate observations, so far as they went, were helpful stepping-stones to Harvey in his discovery of the circulation.

Guy of Chauliac, whose innovations in surgery reestablished that science on a firm basis, was not only one of the most cultured, but also the most practical surgeon of his time. He had great reverence for the works of Galen, Albucasis, and others of his noted predecessors; but this reverence did not blind him to their mistakes nor prevent him from using rational methods of treatment far in advance of theirs. His practicality is shown in some of his simple but useful inventions for the sick-room, such as the device of a rope, suspended from the ceiling over the bed, by which a patient may move himself about more easily; and in some of his improvements in surgical dressings, such as stiffening bandages by dipping them in the white of an egg so that they are held firmly. He treated broken limbs in the suspended cradle still in use, and introduced the method of making "traction" on a broken limb by means of a weight and pulley, to prevent deformity through shortening of the member. He was one of the first physicians to recognize the utility of spectacles, and recommended them in cases not amenable to treatment with lotions and eye-waters. In some of his surgical operations, such as trephining for fracture of the skull, his technique has been little improved upon even in modern times. In one of these operations he successfully removed a portion of a man's brain.

Surgery was undoubtedly stimulated greatly at this period by the constant wars. Lay physicians, as a class, had been looked down upon during the Dark Ages; but with the beginning of the return to rationalism, the services of surgeons on the battle-field, to remove missiles from wounds, and to care for wounds and apply dressings, came to be more fully appreciated. In return for his labors the surgeon was thus afforded better opportunities for observing wounds and diseases, which led naturally to a gradual improvement in surgical methods.


The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had seen some slight advancement in the science of medicine; at least, certain surgeons and physicians, if not the generality, had made advances; but it was not until the fifteenth century that the general revival of medical learning became assured. In this movement, naturally, the printing-press played an all-important part. Medical books, hitherto practically inaccessible to the great mass of physicians, now became common, and this output of reprints of Greek and Arabic treatises revealed the fact that many of the supposed true copies were spurious. These discoveries very naturally aroused all manner of doubt and criticism, which in turn helped in the development of independent thought.

A certain manuscript of the great Cornelius Celsus, the De Medicine, which had been lost for many centuries, was found in the church of St. Ambrose, at Milan, in 1443, and was at once put into print. The effect of the publication of this book, which had lain in hiding for so many centuries, was a revelation, showing the medical profession how far most of their supposed true copies of Celsus had drifted away from the original. The indisputable authenticity of this manuscript, discovered and vouched for by the man who shortly after became Pope Nicholas V., made its publication the more impressive. The output in book form of other authorities followed rapidly, and the manifest discrepancies between such teachers as Celsus, Hippocrates, Galen, and Pliny heightened still more the growing spirit of criticism.

These doubts resulted in great controversies as to the proper treatment of certain diseases, some physicians following Hippocrates, others Galen or Celsus, still others the Arabian masters. One of the most bitter of these contests was over the question of "revulsion," and "derivation"—that is, whether in cases of pleurisy treated by bleeding, the venesection should be made at a point distant from the seat of the disease, as held by the "revulsionists," or at a point nearer and on the same side of the body, as practised by the "derivationists." That any great point for discussion could be raised in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries on so simple a matter as it seems to-day shows how necessary to the progress of medicine was the discovery of the circulation of the blood made by Harvey two centuries later. After Harvey's discovery no such discussion could have been possible, because this discovery made it evident that as far as the general effect upon the circulation is concerned, it made little difference whether the bleeding was done near a diseased part or remote from it. But in the sixteenth century this question was the all-absorbing one among the doctors. At one time the faculty of Paris condemned "derivation"; but the supporters of this method carried the war still higher, and Emperor Charles V. himself was appealed to. He reversed the decision of the Paris faculty, and decided in favor of "derivation." His decision was further supported by Pope Clement VII., although the discussion dragged on until cut short by Harvey's discovery.

But a new form of injury now claimed the attention of the surgeons, something that could be decided by neither Greek nor Arabian authors, as the treatment of gun-shot wounds was, for obvious reasons, not given in their writings. About this time, also, came the great epidemics, "the sweating sickness" and scurvy; and upon these subjects, also, the Greeks and Arabians were silent. John of Vigo, in his book, the Practica Copiosa, published in 1514, and repeated in many editions, became the standard authority on all these subjects, and thus supplanted the works of the ancient writers.

According to Vigo, gun-shot wounds differed from the wounds made by ordinary weapons—that is, spear, arrow, sword, or axe—in that the bullet, being round, bruised rather than cut its way through the tissues; it burned the flesh; and, worst of all, it poisoned it. Vigo laid especial stress upon treating this last condition, recommending the use of the cautery or the oil of elder, boiling hot. It is little wonder that gun-shot wounds were so likely to prove fatal. Yet, after all, here was the germ of the idea of antisepsis.


We have dwelt thus at length on the subject of medical science, because it was chiefly in this field that progress was made in the Western world during the mediaeval period, and because these studies furnished the point of departure for the revival all along the line. It will be understood, however, from what was stated in the preceding chapter, that the Arabian influences in particular were to some extent making themselves felt along other lines. The opportunity afforded a portion of the Western world—notably Spain and Sicily —to gain access to the scientific ideas of antiquity through Arabic translations could not fail of influence. Of like character, and perhaps even more pronounced in degree, was the influence wrought by the Byzantine refugees, who, when Constantinople began to be threatened by the Turks, migrated to the West in considerable numbers, bringing with them a knowledge of Greek literature and a large number of precious works which for centuries had been quite forgotten or absolutely ignored in Italy. Now Western scholars began to take an interest in the Greek language, which had been utterly neglected since the beginning of the Middle Ages. Interesting stories are told of the efforts made by such men as Cosmo de' Medici to gain possession of classical manuscripts. The revival of learning thus brought about had its first permanent influence in the fields of literature and art, but its effect on science could not be long delayed. Quite independently of the Byzantine influence, however, the striving for better intellectual things had manifested itself in many ways before the close of the thirteenth century. An illustration of this is found in the almost simultaneous development of centres of teaching, which developed into the universities of Italy, France, England, and, a little later, of Germany.

The regular list of studies that came to be adopted everywhere comprised seven nominal branches, divided into two groups—the so-called quadrivium, comprising music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy; and the trivium comprising grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The vagueness of implication of some of these branches gave opportunity to the teacher for the promulgation of almost any knowledge of which he might be possessed, but there can be no doubt that, in general, science had but meagre share in the curriculum. In so far as it was given representation, its chief field must have been Ptolemaic astronomy. The utter lack of scientific thought and scientific method is illustrated most vividly in the works of the greatest men of that period—such men as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and the hosts of other scholastics of lesser rank. Yet the mental awakening implied in their efforts was sure to extend to other fields, and in point of fact there was at least one contemporary of these great scholastics whose mind was intended towards scientific subjects, and who produced writings strangely at variance in tone and in content with the others. This anachronistic thinker was the English monk, Roger Bacon.


Bacon was born in 1214 and died in 1292. By some it is held that he was not appreciated in his own time because he was really a modern scientist living in an age two centuries before modern science or methods of modern scientific thinking were known. Such an estimate, however, is a manifest exaggeration of the facts, although there is probably a grain of truth in it withal. His learning certainly brought him into contact with the great thinkers of the time, and his writings caused him to be imprisoned by his fellow-churchmen at different times, from which circumstances we may gather that he was advanced thinker, even if not a modern scientist.

Although Bacon was at various times in durance, or under surveillance, and forbidden to write, he was nevertheless a marvellously prolific writer, as is shown by the numerous books and unpublished manuscripts of his still extant. His master-production was the Opus Majus. In Part IV. of this work he attempts to show that all sciences rest ultimately on mathematics; but Part V., which treats of perspective, is of particular interest to modern scientists, because in this he discusses reflection and refraction, and the properties of mirrors and lenses. In this part, also, it is evident that he is making use of such Arabian writers as Alkindi and Alhazen, and this is of especial interest, since it has been used by his detractors, who accuse him of lack of originality, to prove that his seeming inventions and discoveries were in reality adaptations of the Arab scientists. It is difficult to determine just how fully such criticisms are justified. It is certain, however, that in this part he describes the anatomy of the eye with great accuracy, and discusses mirrors and lenses.

The magnifying power of the segment of a glass sphere had been noted by Alhazen, who had observed also that the magnification was increased by increasing the size of the segment used. Bacon took up the discussion of the comparative advantages of segments, and in this discussion seems to show that he understood how to trace the progress of the rays of light through a spherical transparent body, and how to determine the place of the image. He also described a method of constructing a telescope, but it is by no means clear that he had ever actually constructed such an instrument. It is also a mooted question as to whether his instructions as to the construction of such an instrument would have enabled any one to construct one. The vagaries of the names of terms as he uses them allow such latitude in interpretation that modern scientists are not agreed as to the practicability of Bacon's suggestions. For example, he constantly refers to force under such names as virtus, species, imago, agentis, and a score of other names, and this naturally gives rise to the great differences in the interpretations of his writings, with corresponding differences in estimates of them.

The claim that Bacon originated the use of lenses, in the form of spectacles, cannot be proven. Smith has determined that as early as the opening years of the fourteenth century such lenses were in use, but this proves nothing as regards Bacon's connection with their invention. The knowledge of lenses seems to be very ancient, if we may judge from the convex lens of rock crystal found by Layard in his excavations at Nimrud. There is nothing to show, however, that the ancients ever thought of using them to correct defects of vision. Neither, apparently, is it feasible to determine whether the idea of such an application originated with Bacon.

Another mechanical discovery about which there has been a great deal of discussion is Bacon's supposed invention of gunpowder. It appears that in a certain passage of his work he describes the process of making a substance that is, in effect, ordinary gunpowder; but it is more than doubtful whether he understood the properties of the substance he describes. It is fairly well established, however, that in Bacon's time gunpowder was known to the Arabs, so that it should not be surprising to find references made to it in Bacon's work, since there is reason to believe that he constantly consulted Arabian writings.

The great merit of Bacon's work, however, depends on the principles taught as regards experiment and the observation of nature, rather than on any single invention. He had the all-important idea of breaking with tradition. He championed unfettered inquiry in every field of thought. He had the instinct of a scientific worker—a rare instinct indeed in that age. Nor need we doubt that to the best of his opportunities he was himself an original investigator.


The relative infertility of Bacon's thought is shown by the fact that he founded no school and left no trace of discipleship. The entire century after his death shows no single European name that need claim the attention of the historian of science. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, however, there is evidence of a renaissance of science no less than of art. The German Muller became famous under the latinized named of Regio Montanus (1437-1472), although his actual scientific attainments would appear to have been important only in comparison with the utter ignorance of his contemporaries. The most distinguished worker of the new era was the famous Italian Leonardo da Vinci—a man who has been called by Hamerton the most universal genius that ever lived. Leonardo's position in the history of art is known to every one. With that, of course, we have no present concern; but it is worth our while to inquire at some length as to the famous painter's accomplishments as a scientist.

From a passage in the works of Leonardo, first brought to light by Venturi,[1] it would seem that the great painter anticipated Copernicus in determining the movement of the earth. He made mathematical calculations to prove this, and appears to have reached the definite conclusion that the earth does move—or what amounts to the same thing, that the sun does not move. Muntz is authority for the statement that in one of his writings he declares, "Il sole non si mouve"—the sun does not move.[2]

Among his inventions is a dynamometer for determining the traction power of machines and animals, and his experiments with steam have led some of his enthusiastic partisans to claim for him priority to Watt in the invention of the steam-engine. In these experiments, however, Leonardo seems to have advanced little beyond Hero of Alexandria and his steam toy. Hero's steam-engine did nothing but rotate itself by virtue of escaping jets of steam forced from the bent tubes, while Leonardo's "steam-engine" "drove a ball weighing one talent over a distance of six stadia." In a manuscript now in the library of the Institut de France, Da Vinci describes this engine minutely. The action of this machine was due to the sudden conversion of small quantities of water into steam ("smoke," as he called it) by coming suddenly in contact with a heated surface in a proper receptacle, the rapidly formed steam acting as a propulsive force after the manner of an explosive. It is really a steam-gun, rather than a steam-engine, and it is not unlikely that the study of the action of gunpowder may have suggested it to Leonardo.

It is believed that Leonardo is the true discoverer of the camera-obscura, although the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Porta, who was not born until some twenty years after the death of Leonardo, is usually credited with first describing this device. There is little doubt, however, that Da Vinci understood the principle of this mechanism, for he describes how such a camera can be made by cutting a small, round hole through the shutter of a darkened room, the reversed image of objects outside being shown on the opposite wall.

Like other philosophers in all ages, he had observed a great number of facts which he was unable to explain correctly. But such accumulations of scientific observations are always interesting, as showing how many centuries of observation frequently precede correct explanation. He observed many facts about sounds, among others that blows struck upon a bell produced sympathetic sounds in a bell of the same kind; and that striking the string of a lute produced vibration in corresponding strings of lutes strung to the same pitch. He knew, also, that sounds could be heard at a distance at sea by listening at one end of a tube, the other end of which was placed in the water; and that the same expedient worked successfully on land, the end of the tube being placed against the ground.

The knowledge of this great number of unexplained facts is often interpreted by the admirers of Da Vinci, as showing an almost occult insight into science many centuries in advance of his time. Such interpretations, however, are illusive. The observation, for example, that a tube placed against the ground enables one to hear movements on the earth at a distance, is not in itself evidence of anything more than acute scientific observation, as a similar method is in use among almost every race of savages, notably the American Indians. On the other hand, one is inclined to give credence to almost any story of the breadth of knowledge of the man who came so near anticipating Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin in his interpretation of the geological records as he found them written on the rocks.

It is in this field of geology that Leonardo is entitled to the greatest admiration by modern scientists. He had observed the deposit of fossil shells in various strata of rocks, even on the tops of mountains, and he rejected once for all the theory that they had been deposited there by the Deluge. He rightly interpreted their presence as evidence that they had once been deposited at the bottom of the sea. This process he assumed bad taken hundreds and thousands of centuries, thus tacitly rejecting the biblical tradition as to the date of the creation.

Notwithstanding the obvious interest that attaches to the investigations of Leonardo, it must be admitted that his work in science remained almost as infertile as that of his great precursor, Bacon. The really stimulative work of this generation was done by a man of affairs, who knew little of theoretical science except in one line, but who pursued that one practical line until he achieved a wonderful result. This man was Christopher Columbus. It is not necessary here to tell the trite story of his accomplishment. Suffice it that his practical demonstration of the rotundity of the earth is regarded by most modern writers as marking an epoch in history. With the year of his voyage the epoch of the Middle Ages is usually regarded as coming to an end. It must not be supposed that any very sudden change came over the aspect of scholarship of the time, but the preliminaries of great things had been achieved, and when Columbus made his famous voyage in 1492, the man was already alive who was to bring forward the first great vitalizing thought in the field of pure science that the Western world had originated for more than a thousand years. This man bore the name of Kopernik, or in its familiar Anglicized form, Copernicus. His life work and that of his disciples will claim our attention in the succeeding chapter.