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.

4 Answers 4


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!


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.


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.


Classical texts did not delay scientific progress in Northern and Western Europe during the Middle Ages. The delay in scientific progress within much of the European continent during much of the Middle Ages was rooted in a pan-religious culture and social atmosphere-(specifically referring to Roman Catholic Christian lands and countries).

The Early Middle Ages were also nicknamed, "The Dark Ages", due to a prolonged period of anti-intellectualism, rampant superstitions and hyper-religiosity. Even when the more intellectually curious Late Middle Ages or "Age of Scholasticism" emerged, the sciences were not at the forefront of Clerical scholarship. Sure, the works of Aristotle were widely translated and read by the Catholic Clergymen of Northern and Western Europe during the Late Middle Ages; however, they were perhaps less preoccupied with Aristotle's biological and other scientific works, though were more interested in his cosmological works, such as, "The Metaphysics" and "The Soul", as early explanations that affirmed the indispensable existence and Prime Causality of God.

The earliest stages of European scientific development date to the Northern Italian Renaissance with some of the inventive and innovative ideas of Leonardo De Vinci, followed by the landmark discoveries, writings and teachings in Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy by Galileo. And of course, one can fit Nicholas Copernicus into this period-(Copernicus was not Italian, though was affiliated with The University of Bologna, either as a student or teacher during the Renaissance period). Additionally, the earliest Medical schools were centered in Northern Italy during the Renaissance period.

So, one can see that Christian Northern and Western Europe had a late start(historically and chronologically speaking) in the sciences, medicine and engineering when compared with the the Medieval Islamic world, as well as Ancient Greece, Egypt, Babylon, India and China.

  • So, basically saying the Church wanted the power and tried to make sure of keeping it - ie limiting knowledge to that neceassary for prayers etc
    – Solar Mike
    Oct 8, 2017 at 4:17

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