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When seeing some documentary about the history of medical science in the middle ages, I got the impression that many doctors were happy to merely study the works of Galen, rather than do their own research, and that that was detrimental in the long run to medical science. Was this the case?

Were there any other cases where books from classical times were detrimental to either the knowledge held in the middle ages, or to the rate of acquiring new knowledge?

For the purposes of this question, don't regard religious texts (for example, the Bible) as delaying scientific progress.

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3 Answers 3

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What held back scientific progress was the lack of the scientific method, which manifested in the way those books were treated. Scholasticism was the predominant school of thought among academics, and it actually contributed quite a lot to progress by "rediscovering" those classical texts as well as Arabian sources.

Nowadays it's easy to say that of course, science is more about experimentation than about abstract reasoning based on authorities. But that point of view didn't really gain traction until the Enlightenment, and doing it right is hard, because it goes against human nature in some ways.

Heck, even today, an appalling amount of medical science is based on very shaky experimental results!

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The problem was not with the “books” but with the readers. Aristotle, for example, was an extremely creative and self-critical thinker who was very willing to change his mind even on important issues. But the Christian/Muslim/Jewish writers of the middle ages turned Aristotelianism into a dry dogma. In more recent times the self-styled Marxists have done the same disservice to the writings of Marx.

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The situation in Europe was that petty kingdoms ruled by violent, illiterate warlords were the rule. Without a stable, peaceful, literate civilization to back you up, it is hard to do science. Imagine if there was a nuclear holocaust and it turned into a Mad Max situation. In that environment, textbooks you now consider to be mundane would be scientific treasures.

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