The Sixteenth Century

During the later Middle Ages in general, only the people who desired to join the learned professions of Church, law, and medicine were educated at the universities, and the entire intellectual attainment of Europe rested primarily on the scholars. An average man was contented if he was considered to be a good Christian (meaning that he was capable of reading the Bible and that he worried about saving his soul). The medieval scholar believed that many religious truths, like miracles, should remain unreasonable and inexplicable. When he asked himself questions such as ‘from whence comes the water of a spring?’ he first referred to the Scriptures. If he did not find it there, he might have looked into the works of the Greek or the Roman philosophers or even into those of his Islamic predecessors for the answers. But he did not, in general, venture to propose explanations of his own for such natural phenomena and, consequently, it is not surprising that the sciences of hydrology and meteorology did not advance much during those ages.

The first indications of a divorce between science and philosophy can be traced to about the beginning of the twelfth century, although a final split did not come until a few centuries later. The word philosophy included any type of inquiry, scientific or philosophical, using the roots of the modern terms. The Church had dominated the secular knowledge for such a long time that the impetus of individual independent thoughts like those of Roger Bacon or Leonardo were unable to produce any significant effect on the status of science. It is true that the refreshing breeze of both the renaissance and the reformation brought an acceptance of new ideas again, but the writings of the old Greek masters kept on being dissected and summarized with monotonous regularity. It was just the same old wine with only a new label on the bottle. With very few exceptions, people preferred book learning to observations of nature, and universities concentrated on classical literature. So far as experimental science was concerned, universities were as intolerant of it as was the contemporary Catholic Church. Such were the unfavourable conditions concerning the advancement of knowledge when the great Italian genius, Leonardo da Vinci, was born.

By Asit K. Biswas, Chapter 8 of the book: History of Hydrology, 1970, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

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