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If I'm not mistaken, universities in Europe originated in the middle ages.

Today, the way of making new discoveries known to the learned community is publication in scholarly journals, or more recently, things like the arXiv (which is only lightly refereed, so scholarly journals are still the main thing).

What means of making new findings known to learned people in general were used in the middle ages?

(I have wondered whether the reason why medieval Norsemen who visited North American were not credited with its "discovery" is that they did not avail themselves of such means.)

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For much of the medieval period, the only way to disseminate knowledge (scientific or otherwise) was by personal letter or in books. In a very real sense, this preserved the traditional structures of authority, knowledge, and even doctrine.

In his book, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Jonathan I. Israel argues that the development of scholarly journals served to upset these structures and so accelerate the development and expansion of knowledge.

I'd like to illustrate the situation before the introduction of scholarly journals with a couple of examples.

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar and philosopher in thirteenth century England. He is probably best known as being the first person in Europe to record the formula of gunpowder. He emphasised the study of nature through empiricism and was one of the earliest European advocates of the "scientific method" inspired by Aristotle. As such, we can probably reasonably classify him as an early scientist.

This was long before the invention of the printing press, so his work would have been transcribed - by hand - in the scriptorium of a monastery. The amount of work involved in the transcription process, by its very nature, limited the number of copies that could be produced. In turn, this was a real limitation on how widely the details could be disseminated. In that context, the idea of a "learned community" in the modern sense is probably anachronistic.

Despite this, some news of Bacon's research and discoveries would have been transmitted by word-of-mouth and by letters. That news certainly travelled all across Europe, for we know that Pope Clement IV requested a copy of Bacon's work. A copy of his Opus Majus, was sent to the Pope in Rome in 1267.

Another Englishman, who was also a practitioner of the scientific method, was Francis Bacon. He was active during the early part of the scientific revolution, some 300 years after Roger Bacon. Despite the earlier work of of Roger Bacon, it is Francis that is today often called the "father of scientific method" and "father of empiricism".

This was not because Roger Bacon's work had been lost. It simply reflected the increased range that could be achieved in the years after the development of the printing press. Although this was after the medieval period, it was still before the days of learned societies and scholarly journals. His works were published privately. However, in some ways, it can be argued that it was the work of Francis Bacon that led to the publication of those journals.

The Royal Society is, perhaps, the oldest learned society still in existence. It was founded in November 1660. Its founding members claimed to have been influenced by the "new science" - that was promoted by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis.


As to the question of why medieval Norsemen who visited North American were not credited with its "discovery", that is probably largely due to the prevailing attitudes in Christian Europe.

Most texts were written by men of the Church (which brings us back to those "traditional structures of authority and knowledge" I mentioned above). Given the depredations of Viking raiders against Christian Abbeys and Monasteries, it is probably not surprising that they were rarely reported in a positive light. In all probability, few had even heard of the Norse sagas, even fewer thought they were worth recording. Because their settlements were ultimately unsuccessful, the story was simply lost.

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Insofar as I'm aware of, and until the late 17th century when academic journals began to appear, scientists would communicate their thoughts and discoveries by either publishing books or sending each other letters.

Mind you, the latter process didn't change that much initially, in that you'd still send letters. The difference was that you'd send them to e.g. the Royal Society rather than to your peers directly. Peer review wasn't mainstream until the 20th century.

There wasn't even a prescribed language or format in the early day of journals either. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, for instance, wrote in colloquial Dutch when writing to the Royal Society. (I recollect reading somewhere - but unfortunately can't recall the book, except for the fact that it had a blue-shaded cover and had to do with the discovery of how sexual reproduction worked - that he made an exception once. Namely, he had his letter translated to Latin when he wrote about his discovery of spermatozoa. In the latter he purportedly also made it a point to explain that he extracted his semen after having sex with his wife rather than by masturbating.)

  • Royal Society and Leeuwenhoek are from 17 century, while the question was about Middle ages. – Alex Aug 6 '17 at 19:29
  • @Alex - Makes little difference: the first academic journal got published a couple years earlier. (And Royal Society was the first in the Anglo-Saxon world.) Point I was hoping to make there was to raise that there was no generally accepted format (or indeed language) until much later. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 6 '17 at 21:31
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The means of communication of scientific ideas before 17th century were books, private letters, lectures and public disputations. (There was no scientific societies before 17th century). By the way, many important scientific discoveries did not come from the universities at that time. For example, Fibonacci was not associated with any university.

You should be more specific about what you mean by science in the Middle Age. Almost no science existed in Europe before the Renaissance. So when we speak of Medieval science we should be discussing Muslim world first of all.

If you are talking about Renaissance, there was still no scientific societies, and the means of communication remained the same (Napier, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, they all wrote books and letters, here was no scientific societies, and by the way none of these named people was associated with any university).

  • My question nowhere uses the words "science" or "scientist". – Michael Hardy Aug 6 '17 at 20:55
  • @Michael Hardy: Your question mentioned discoveries. Perhaps you should specify what discoveries. Discovey of Newfounland by the Scandinavians was spread in their sagas. – Alex Aug 7 '17 at 11:23

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