(Roughly) Daily

“Historians will silently murder you with their eyeballs if you say ‘Dark Ages’ unironically”*…

Abbot Richard Wallingford measuring a bronze disc as part of his scientific studies

Henrik Lagerlund explains how medieval thinkers foreshadowed modern physics in investigating the character of machines, devices, and the forces that animate them…

The Middle Ages still suffers from the embarrassment of comparison. Before it glowed the light of the ancient Greeks – the great, early speculators of the natural world and our place in it. After the Middle Ages came the scientific revolution – Copernicus, Galileo, Newton – and the surging onrush of modernity. Even if the idea of the so-called ‘dark ages’ is waning, there remains the widespread impression that the Middle Ages is in some sense a time of stagnancy, especially in its understanding of science and the natural world. Is this an accurate view of medieval science? There is one discipline, often overlooked, that serves to illuminate the Middle Ages, as well as its place in the history of scientific thought: mechanics.

The predominant assumption about the rise of modern science is that it went hand in hand with the conception of nature as a universal mechanism. By viewing nature in this way, it could be studied, analysed and experimented upon with mathematical rigour, and its functioning could be elucidated by physicists harnessing empirical methods. While the motion of inanimate bodies became theorised on the model of projectiles, some mechanical philosophers even claimed that the complex organisation of animate bodies could be understood on the model of levers, springs, pulleys and other mechanical devices. This step – nature as a universal mechanism – is often seen as the important break from the Middle Ages.

But, in fact, mechanics was not unknown in the Middle Ages, and medieval thinkers continuously discussed mechanical problems at the crossroads of natural philosophy and mathematics. Mechanics enjoyed continuous interest and progress throughout the Middle Ages, and modern physicists and mathematicians relied to a large extent on results inherited from the Middle Ages. But mechanics as a scientific discipline did not always go under that name.

Taking this into account, a close look at the Middle Ages reveals that the consideration of mechanics as a core part of physics, together with the mathematical treatment of weights, forces and resistances, all generally assumed to characterise the birth of modern science, was there long before Galileo. That means that medieval thinkers did not simply lay the foundations of the scientific revolution. It means they started it. There should be no more embarrassment of comparison for that great era of scientific thought, especially when we review the fascinating history of mechanics…

Read on for that review: “Machina mundi,” from @HenrikLagerlund in @aeonmag.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)


As we give credit where credit is due, we might note that today is the Summer Solstice– or Midsummer– the day with the longest period of daylight and shortest night of the year, when the Sun is at its highest position in the sky.

Often celebrated during the Middle Ages as the Feast of St. John (six months “opposite” the celebration of Christ, for whom John “paved the way”), it has pagan roots, and was often observed with songs, games, displays, processions, mystery plays, and dancing (often around a Maypole), which served to repel witches and evil spirits.

Midsummer celebrations in medieval Russia (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 21, 2023 at 1:00 am

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