Get Medieval

BIS Odyssey

The past gave us what we have today. Published by Channel 4 Books/Pan Macmillan 2001. Cover photographs copyright The Bridgeman Art Library and Mary Evans Picture Library.

It’s all too easy to make the mistake of assuming that because our ancestors centuries ago did not have the advantages of modern technology, they were somehow inferior to us as human beings. Far from it. Medieval swordsmen or archers, for example, might not have had automatic rifles to hand, but they could become exceptionally proficient in the weapons they did use – their lives depended on it – and probably far superior to most people handling such instruments these days.

Similarly, we should not necessarily assume that those who lived in the medieval period were all barbaric thugs with no appreciation of the finer things in life.  The gangster Marsellus Wallace, played in suitable style by Ving Rhames in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, has a lot to answer for with his threat to “get medieval” in a decidedly unpleasant fashion on part of his victim’s anatomy.  Medieval life could actually be, in its own way, quite civilized – though largely only if you could afford it.

Drawing a comparison between the seemingly primitive existence of a medieval society and the supposed benefits of advanced technology occasionally features in science fiction.  Juxtaposing the two within the same story allows the author to describe an alien world set against a type of society we may all recognise from history.  AE van Vogt did this to great effect in his 1957 novel Empire of the Atom.  On a future Earth, long after a nuclear war has destroyed much of human civilization, the atom gods are worshipped and served by temple scientists who have control of atomic energy. 

As a result, despite the society appearing strangely medieval and primitive in many respects, it possesses spacecraft that enable travel throughout the Solar System.  Nuclear fuel is manufactured in the temples and used such that a form of nuclear pulse propulsion can be achieved: “an orderly series of explosions could be started and stopped at will.”  This ensures that “the largest ships that could be constructed by man were lifted as easily as if they were made of nothingness.”

The historical Middle Ages of Europe were nothing like that, of course, but we still make a serious mistake if we think of them solely as a brutal period devoid of any scientific endeavour.  From the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, the groundwork was laid for many of the advances that came to fruition during the subsequent Renaissance and which last to this day.  The medieval imagination was just as adept in transforming reality then as we would hope our own imagination is now.

Allan Chapman described the development of astronomy from ancient times to the Renaissance in his excellent 2001 book Gods in the Sky, and asserted that seeing medieval Europe as “intellectually backward, and hostile to scientific ways of thinking, is false.”  He explained how the astrolabe – a “form of personal computer which enabled its owner to solve all kinds of problems in planetary and stellar astronomy” – became widespread across Europe, and the invention of the mechanical clock was particularly important in humanity’s developing awareness of the heavens.

The thirteenth-century scientist Roger Bacon made great advances in the study of light and optics, along with other experimental physicists such as Theodoric of Freiburg and Witelo of Silesia.  Later, Nicholas of Cusa presented noticeably modern ideas on the physics of astronomical bodies.

Such developments were essential to aspects of the Renaissance which we now take for granted, such as the Copernican revolution which displaced the Earth from the centre of the universe in mankind’s thinking.  As Dr Chapman expresses it, without the concept of the medieval cosmos, “so much of the content and metaphor of modern science and civilisation would not have existed.”  Indeed, rather than denigrate the work of our medieval ancestors, we should be grateful to them.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Conquest of Space As It Might Have Been | How the Earth Appears to Us

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