7 Myths Commonly held about the Middle Ages

Mainstream populace has accumulated erroneous myths concerning Middle-Ages. The most popular myths held among them includes the scientific progress propelling during Renaissance with philosophy and natural sciences making an indelible mark on human history. Middle-Ages are seen as a sequel to Greek scientific and philosophic progress upon which the modern European scientific progress was built upon. As it becomes apparent later, these popularized myths have no substantive value to stand against. Pythagoras is said to have proposed the round earth model as early as 6th century. As historian Jeffrey Burton records: No educated individual from 3rd century onward believed in the flat-earth model. 


Testification by Historians

In reading works of Galileo, Bernoulli and Newton, French mathematician and physicist Pierre Duhem found references to previous scholars. Works of Nicolas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Roger Bacon are prominently revered from supposedly Dark Ages. Conclusions of Pierre Duhem are corroborated by Lynn Thorndike having followed the same path of research. Medieval scientists are overlooked on political and ideological grounds. According to both, science was sophisticated and speculative during the Middle Ages. Edward Grant, Ronald Numbers and David Lindberg are present leading scholars heading the research into the science of Middle-Ages.


Authorial Publications

The Foundation of Modern Science in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant debunks the myths and expounds in details the European progressive movements in the 12th and 13th century, which became the pillars of 17th scientific revolution. In this regard, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam is another in-depth western historical narrative regarding scientific advancement and popularity of philosophy.


1) Church Suppressed Innovative Ideas

The Myth

Among circulated myths, one highly accepted is that of Church suppressing rational analysis and progress of science is a medieval fallacy. As per historical records, no scientist/ scholar was incarcerated, burned and tortured by Church for furthering scientifically justified claims. The isolated case of Giordano Bruno is shocking to some extent.

Reality is Mightier than Myths

Thomas Aquinas invested years in applying the rational Greek principles to Christian theology in an attempt to unify pure reason with Christian belief. More so, Quodlibeta debates were held at universities which were a free-for-all in which heretical and radical ideas were discussed/ proposed to verify their veracity.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Factually wrong^

The church believed certain aspects of the Bible to be purely allegorical in nature. Their symbolism was related to the physical world, however. A case-in-point is that of William of Conches. During the 12th century, this scholar admitted the symbolic nature of Adam-Eve in Genesis chapter. He proposed the action of natural forces in giving form to earth and universe. Asserting creation from simplistic mud due to the action of heat and reactions gave rise to earlier forms. He posited that man could be a by-product of these naturalistic processes. Most importantly, William of Conches was a devout churchman.

The Plot Thickens

Certain thoughts were barred from the discussion as early as in 13th century at the University of Paris. The Faculty of Theology endeavored to put a stop to ideas discussed by Faculty of Arts. The Pope sanctioned lists of Aristotelian ideas contradicting Christian beliefs (1210, 1270, and 1277). However, these were restricted to just Paris, whereas it went unenforced in the entirety of Europe. More so, their thrice implementation is an indicator for their lack of adherence thereof.


2) Lack of Scientific Advancement 

Establishing Scientific Method

Contrary to myths, the medieval Europe was an incubator for modern scientific and philosophical research. Roger Bacon was the first individual to propose cyclic experimentation, comprising of observation, hypothesis and experimentation. He applied this method to research nature of light and optics, the functionality of eye and nature of lenses. It eventually led to the creation of eyewear. He proposed a design for the telescope (never built one). Inspired by an Arabic scholar Al-Battani, Robert Grosseteste posited that experimentation should verify particulars.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
“It’s on the internet so it must be true” – Gandhi, 1453
Cult of Merton Calculators (Is that even a thing?)

14th century scholars proposed the notion of mathematics being more precise for induction and observation. Thomas Bradwardine strictly believed in preciseness of mathematics; proposing to undertake research without mathematics would conclude to be simply abstract and far from pragmatism. Bradwardine, along with other scholars employed mathematics with his research in physics. As a result, Richard Swineshead, William Heytesbury, John Dumbleton and Thomas Bradwardine were collectively known as Merton Calculators.


Middle Ages Rejected Greek Science

The Greek postulates were scrapped off as kinematics were replaced by dynamics. Aristotle viewed motion as some external force. However, the Merton scholars disagreed, viewing motion as a measurable quantity, comprised of velocity and volume. This invoked the foundation of momentum and developing Mean Speed Theorem. Fallaciously, this achievement is attributed to Galileo, yet it was the accomplishment of Merton Calculators well before the existence of Galileo.

Advancing Astronomy

These suppositions were applied to the field of astronomy as well. Thus, Nicole Oresme concluded the Greek doubts of a revolving earth were invalid. He proposed the geocentric model on various grounds. Copernicus utilized his research to propose his theory of heliocentrism. Nicolas of Cusa, Jean Buridan and Orseme proved that a constant source of motion could be halted due to a resistive force. As a result, medieval physicists set aside Greek suppositions of heavenly motion widely different from earthly motion. Principles of motions could be applied to planetary bodies just as well.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Twinkle twinkle little stars
Each Age is Inspired by its Predecessor

The fallacious claim that Newton, Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus were original in their asserted claims/previous centuries being an intellectual wasteland is audacious at best. Prominent freethinkers such as Occam, Bacon, Grosseteste, Merton scholars, Buridan and Oresme founded modern scientific thought during the Middle Ages. They could be termed as the father of modern thought.  


3) Europe Drowned in an Age of Illiteracy

Seeking Scholarly Solace

Admittedly, during 11th century, Western Europe had experienced sufficient losses, compelling them to flock doors of Spain, southern Italy and Sicily. Daniel Morely affirms visiting Toledo as it was the center of learning in order to gain access to wisest of philosophers. On return, he had bought several books with from Toledo. Greek and Muslim knowledge invaded Europe via its schools and universities. After successfully capturing Toledo (a center of Muslim learning) in 1085, European scholars flocked the center for quenching their intellectual thirst.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
When religions and wars ruin progress of civilization
Not all Europe

As Greek and Roman literature flowed in, the scholars eagerly studied natural history, optics, medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, logic and reason. Scholarly research was acutely focused on logic, science and philosophy. These scholarly pursuits eventually laid the foundations of modern scientific and philosophical thought as universities began transitioning through a formative change.

Origin of University

The term university was coined from universitas, a system where students served under a master/ teacher; pass oral exams and series of tests before adjudicated fit for practice. However, this structure of education was widely dissimilar to adhered system in Greece and Islamic world.

Academic Debates

In addition to that, these intellectual texts were more than just read, they were discussed and debated using the rules of logic. The experts invited competitions free-for-all to participate. Students could rev their reputation by partaking in these contests. Universities held a quodlibeta biannually, where logical debates were allowed on various subjects. Paradoxical, logical and heretical subjects were tackled hands-on with no holds barred. It was a regular/ popular event in medieval universities.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
This town is getting too small for us, Sheriff


4) Recorded Scientific Dark Age

To a Certain Extent….

Indeed, western philosophy experienced a period of stagnation during which Roman and Greek scholarly compilations were at risk. Roman and Hellenic scholars inherited assembled works of Greek proto-scientists from 4th and 5th century B.C. Roman scholars were well-versed in Greek science by 1st Century A.D, having affinity with Archimedes and Aristotle. Ptolemy and Galen headed the fields of astronomy/ mathematics and medicine respectively.

During the 3rd century, major political and social transformations hindered Roman life and scholarly pursuits with devastating consequences. As Roman Empire entered Military Anarchy, a period of instability ensued as political successors alternated frequently withal the empire enduring decades of civil war. Roman Empire was fraught with invaders from Persia and Germanic barbarians. Civil resources sunk in constructing defensive walls over civil communities.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Burn that witch!
Once Again the Day is Saved, Thanks to…….

The Christian church played a monumental role in burning the torch of intellectualism when entirety of Europe spiraled deep into a pothole of national/ civil wars. Christianity was opposed to Greek philosophy at first, it later embraced it with open arms. God was posited as a rational being and thus, Greeks were gifted with stellar philosophic thought.

As the Western Empire was sunk in oblivion, the church was cognizant with Greek science and philosophy, finding ways to amalgamate it with Christianity. Attempts were made to translate Greek knowledge for better understanding.


5) Intellectual Abyss

Origin of the Term Dark Ages

In essence, the term ‘Dark Ages’ was first used by a 14th century Italian poet named Petrarch, an avid advocate of Roman Empire. As per his aspirations, the present circumstances prevalent in Europe could be cured by imitating Roman Empire.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Perception of Dark Ages in 20th century
We Thank You, Sir

However, Carolingian minuscule was a writing script standardized by Emperor Charlemagne during 8th century. It revolutionized the entire scripting of language. Prior to his standardization of script, handwriting followed no particular rule; overriding the rules of comma, punctuation and space between letters. It enabled in expediting the process of writing and reading as handwriting became civil and urban. Due to this reason, books became easier to read and publications become rampant and widespread. More so, archaic texts were required to be interpreted and corrected just as well. Clearly, these myths have no merit on its own.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Don’t bloody judge me yet


6) Death of Scientific Progress

The Myth

As the predominant rhetoric goes, Dark Ages inhibited scientific progress, scientists were termed as heretics, deeming them immoral and naysayers against the Bible. The mass majority even perceived the earth to be flat.

7 Myths Commonly held About the Middle Ages
Bible started misinformation propaganda

Establishing World Renowned Universities

The church was largely responsible for rescuing science as opposed to inhibiting it. The Catholic church was the last remnant of Roman Empire in Western Europe. The church embarked on setting monasteries in Europe, and monks built massive libraries. The monks have preserved human history through the annals of time. More so, the church established the infamous University of Cambridge, Oxford and Paris, among famous academic institutions. Graduation from these institutions took 7-long years with additional degrees consuming more time. These institutions were hell-bent on translating Greek works such as Plato and Aristotle. Arabic numerals had arrived in Europe, whereas physicians had started using anti-septic. Spain had popularized the usage of a compass and the astrolabe. Dissection of human corpses has been just as acceptable to church for that matter.


7) The Earth was Flat

Europeans did believe at one point in the flat-earth model, which goes as far as 4th B.C, when European civilization was progressing by leaps and bounds. Greek thinkers had proposed a sphere model by this time. They even calculated its dimension to precision, nearly.

7 Myths Commonly Held About the Middle Ages
Living on the edge
Deconstructing the Myth

When these mainstream myths are tested for veracity, they often crumble a la pile of sand. The primary notion of the flat-earth model being the yardstick was popularized in 19th century to distinguish the backwardness of Middle-Ages from modern era. The church is largely held responsible for intellectual stagnation. More so, the Columbus myth owes its origin to Washington Irving in 1828, which asserted sea voyages since the earth was flat. This fact was incorrect, yet used as ammunition against Church. Before the 1830s, people were fully cognizant of medieval people being aware of the circular earth model. On the other hand, Columbus believed that earth was analogous to shape of a pear, whereas critics assumed it to be a sphere.


Thus, we owe our present technological headway to efforts undertaken in an era bygone. It would be only fair to give credit where it’s due. Interestingly, the history taught in schools is pure rubbish as evidenced. Due to this reason, these circulating myths were necessary to be cleared off. Correspondingly, every age has its heroes and cultural legends thereof.


Umer Asad

Umer Asad invented writing, the airplane, and the internet. He was also the first person to reach the North Pole. He has flown to Mars and back in one day, and was enthusiastically greeted by the Martians. “Very strange beings,” he reported on his return. He has written one thousand highly regarded books; a team of experts is presently attempting to grasp their meaning. “It might take a century,” said the chief expert. Umer is also a great teller of stories — but not all of them are true, for instance the ones in this bio.

Leave a Reply