Science, Healthcare, Culture

Scientific Developments

It all started with philosophy 

Metaphysics is perhaps the oldest branch of western philosophy that deals with questions such as ‘the meaning of life’, ‘where do we come from’ ‘what makes us human’, ‘what is the purpose of the universe’, etc. It is not about ethics, it doesn’t look for value statements regarding good and evil. It also doesn’t cover what we now call science. Everything that we have learned through science started of in philosophy, in thinking and exploring wisdom. As Bertrand Russell jokingly remarked: “Science is what we know, philosophy is what we don’t know”.  Until the 18th century all what we now call science was part of philosophy.

While science has enormously improved our material life, it is not something that brings people happiness. It are our insights in how to command those forces that are in the end far more important. What governance do we want, how do we mange capitalism and social issues. These are all issues that can’t be solved but science they require wisdom, the use of knowledge all elements that belong to the realm of philosophy and many to its critical branch of metaphysics. Fulfillment, happiness, wellbeing, and contentment are having their roots in wisdom.

Metaphysics is a theoretical discipline that has been of interest ever since the first Greek thinkers started these discussions more than 3000 years ago. These topics were as passionately discussed at that time as it is today.

During this 3,000 year journey many questioned were answered and were ticked of the list of metaphysics and arrived on the lists of science. However, the fundamental questions, some of them listed above are still on the metaphysics lists. Nevertheless the theoretical method to address these questions remain rigorous following rational and logic approaches and while answers do evolve they so far have not been definitive. Humanity is inescapable metaphysical, it questions that what there is beyond knowledge.

The fact that after 3,000 years we still ask some of these same questions might also indicate that indeed that knowledge is beyond our current capacity. This might be a restriction of the current stage of human evolution; we might first need to move to the next phase of evolution before we can tap into that knowledge. This in itself is a metaphysical question.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church became the dominant political force in Europe. They forced their authority on science, knowledge and learning and made all of that subject to their religious doctrine. This stifled innovation and put limits on the flexibility of individual thought. It was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that this started to change again when Europeans came in contact with the Arabs, who had kept in contact with the Classic learnings and had built on them during these intervening centuries.

Mathematics (algebra) was brought into Europe, the number zero revolutionised  architecture and other sciences that required mathematics. Trigonometry had another very practical impact on society. Instruments as the compass and the astrolabe  led to new maritime developments and the ‘discovery’ of new lands.

Gunpowder arrived in Europe via the Arabs from China and as is the case in modern times many new technological innovations had their beginnings in warfare.


However, it was not until Francis Bacon arrived on the scene around 1600 before experimentation was introduced, until that time the learned man of the world relied on observations. He moved away from the divine will to natural laws. He provides a vision of technical future of society moving forwards, that included what we now call cars, ships, aeroplanes and submarines.

But still, during all of the Middle Ages, theology was the main science used to explain how the world works. While other aspects of natural  science started to emerge they were always brought back to the official teachings of the Church Galileo was one of the first who more seriously challenged this. The dead-hand of religion ensured that even minor variations were  seen as heresy and could easily cost the life of the person who argued for it. Law and medicine were both seen as part of theology.

Separately were the ‘artes liberales’ (liberal arts): grammatica, retorica, dialectica, arithmetica, geometria, astronomia and musica. The first three were grouped as ‘trivium’ the 3-way road needed to find the truth through language. The other four: ‘quadrivium’, the fourfold way to use knowledge to get to the truth. Augustine was instrumental in linking the ‘arts’ into theology and also established the continuation of Greek philosophy – which heavily used retorica and dialectica –  into the Middle Ages.  With increased influence of the Catholic church,  science was replaced by faith and most scientific and educational institution from the Greek and Roman period were closed (see also: The infallible Medieval Belief System). During the 6th century there were only two significant scientist in Europe ; Boethius and  Cassiodorus.  The next century  gives us only one such man of knowledge ,  Isidore  of Seville and the following century – mainly thanks to Charlemagne  a few more smart people:  BedaVenerabilis,  Alcuin, Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, Rado and Abbot Fulrad.

Learning and knowledge was during most of the Middle Ages locked up within monasteries and had been limited to moral issues and was purely there to serve religion. It was the clergy who had access to it and who interpreted knowledge, as such knowledge was not disseminated.

Business innovations

Business however, stood separately from all of this and here important commercial innovations did take place that allowed trade to turn into the commercial revolutions came from Italy: accounting systems, money transfers, credit, insurance, banking and so on.

Innovations from the Low Countries, had mainly to do with shipbuilding, and these were exported to other parts of Europe. The Dutch Kogge (Cog)  was a revolution in cargo transport and its rudder was soon introduce everywhere.  It started to appear around 1200 and evolved from the Viking ships. These bigger ships could also cover larger distances and a flourishing trade started to develop between the Mediterranean, Flanders and England via Gibraltar and the North Sea. The Portuguese and the Spanish developed the Carrack and the Caravel. They in turn were followed by the Kraak (1000 tonnes).

These innovations in transport and the consequence economic growth saw also people travelling further and further. Already 1n 1240 the Flemish Franciscan William of Rubroeck travelled to the Far East . See alsoTrade in the Middle Ages.

Precursors of programming

Inputting information into machines in binary form (on or off) is not new. In the late 14th century, in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands, the first mechanisms were made for church bells to play simple tunes automatically. Large, spring-loaded cylinders were studded with pegs. When released, the cylinder turned and as each peg met a lever, it caused a particular bell to be struck. The pegs could be moved to different positions on the cylinder to produce different tunes; in other words, the system was “programmable”.

Ultimately, this pegged-cylinder system led to musical boxes and a similar mechanism was used in sophisticated devices that could control not just sounds but also complex movements.

Increased trade also fuelled the spirit of entrepreneurship. We saw above that some of the farmers in the countryside also started to grow flax which provided them with extra income. In Holland we increasingly see farmers being involved in other activities that earn them extra money; shipbuilding, shipping, fishery, peat and salt extraction, brick making and so on.

Trade required infrastructure and it was in the interest of those involved in it that roads, waterways, dikes and other infrastructure was well maintained, this also provided new income streams for the broader population and at least some of the wealth created through trade did find its way into the country side. So much that by 1500 in Holland half of the population heavily depended on that extra income [5. Van Uytven, Geldhandelaren en wisselaars] .

Some of that money earned by farmers was invested in land, which created a class of rather wealthy farmers.

The need for printing

Dutchman Uwe Neddermeyer has estimated that in the German Empire, including the Low Countries,  the annual production of handwritten books twice increased tenfold during the Middle Ages. First from 20,000 in 1370 to 200,000 by 1460. Further pressure was added by the rise in humanism, which emphasised the importance of the individual, the led to more people becoming interested in the written world that allowed them to interpret the world around them. The second increase occurred between 1460 and 1500 by that time in had reached to 2 million.

With an increase in demand and a decrease in population there was a significant shortage of scribes, this was an enormous stimulant for innovations and soon the printing presses started to arrive.

Interestingly there was also opposition to this new technology. Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico argued that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men ‘less studious’ and weakening their minds.

While there were some earlier starts, such as in Haarlem in the 1440s, it was goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, who perfected these early attempts and developed the printing press with ‘moveable type’ in the 1450s.

Interesting German engineering played a role in the spread of printing. It took a generation or so before printers in other countries had mastered the technological skills, not just to build presses but also to develop and manage the printing and engraving techniques.  This led to the development of leading printing centres in for example Antwerp and Amsterdam.

It is hard to underestimate the social and economic changes that were set in motion with the arrival of the printing press. For the previous 1,000 years the Catholic Church had been in total control of the media. The printing press changed everything and opened a window to what eventually become known as democracy.


Medical Science and Healthcare

The lack of healthcare

It could be argued that the total lack of fundamental knowledge regarding healthcare was perhaps the biggest threat to life in the Middle Ages. Getting sick in these times often became a death warrant and even a relative mild level of sickness could easily result in death because it was left untreated, poorly treated or simply mistreated.

Medieval medicine contained a mixture of astrology, rituals, cults and religious acts complimented with rather bizarre treatments. The only other way to treat illnesses was based on herbs and other century or even millennium old old methods. Here the so called ‘wise women’ played a key role, they bartered their knowledge for food and other goods – in general they didn’t take money. Worms played also a key role in their treatments. These women also were often the midwives of the community and for all intents and purposes the district nurse of their times. Because of their medical secrets and their ability to make medicines they were also feared as working for the devil. They always had to be aware of the fact that they could be accused of heresy and many ended up on the stake or drowned in rivers when tested if they might be a witch.

There were a limited number of medical practitioners in the Middle Ages (physicians) and they were mainly in the service of the nobility or accessible to the more well off in society. However, with the above mentioned practices their positive effect on illnesses were very limited.

Thanks to observations – again some millennia old – a number of therapies were known such as: trephination, treating burns, bone setting, plasters, tourniquettes and cupping glasses. While they didn’t understand the underlying causes and effects they had learned how to treat them. Barbers were the surgeons of those days, they knew how to use the knife and they had developed their skills around that.

According the Medieval belief the main reason for falling sick was because of divine intervention as a punishment, a test or a form of purification of the soul. Religious elements such as pilgrimages or penitence were often part of the medical treatment.  Most Medieval churches still show the signs of this with little crosses engraved in walls and altars, votive offering are  in many churches still on display together with wax arms or legs, crutches and other attributes as offerings for  miraculous recoveries. The cathedral of Our Lady of Den Bosch also became the focus for pilgrims and many miracles are attributed to her; the have been recorded in the Miracle Book of Den Bosch (Bossche Mirakelboek 1381 – 1603).

It is not too difficult to see that at times this ‘science’ was also used to for moral conditions.  Causes of illnesses were often identified a s being a punishment for bad or immoral behaviour, a disputable life style, etc. It was used to condemn people, to justify discrimination or racism and to promote good breeding (and not just between people). The Church did not allow interference with the body, which stopped any serious developments in medicine.

Hygiene was another issue and while cities started to put more and more regulations in place to make these places more livable, the poorer people still live in the most atrocious situation. On the other hand we do see that the middle and upper classes do put far more emphasis on cleanliness.

Dental care had more to do with bad smells than saving teeth. Again there was no concept of what caused toothaches (they thought worms were eating the enamel from the inside) and therefore the remedies are as bizarre as with other healthcare issues.

Food was another area that effected the health of the population, apart from the regular famines, there was in general sufficient food available to the population. However, 80% of the food intake was carbohydrates-  in the form of white bread-  that made up their diet. Alcohol was another problem area, as water was unsafe to drink it was wine and beer that was drunk by young and old and while the percentage of alcohol was low, drinking a lot of it still caused sufficient drunkenness to give it a permanent mentioning in nearly all stories about the Middle Ages.

The most devastating healthcare of the Middle Ages was the outbreak of the plague, which is covered separately (Climate Change, Floods, Famine and the Great Death).

Humorism – the Greek classical elements

Humorism, or the doctrine of the four temperaments, as a medical theory may have origins in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, though it was not systemized until ancient Greek thinkers around 400 BC who directly linked it with the popular theory of the four elements earth, fire, water and air.

Amazingly it retained its medical popularity for centuries largely through the influence of the writings of Galen (131–201 AD) and was decisively displaced only in 1858. Galen was one of the few who based his medical writings on reason, he did not believe that the supernatural played a role in this.

Classical element according to Aristotle:

  • Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
  • Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
  • Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
  • Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.

According to Galen, these elements were used by Hippocrates in describing the human body with an association with the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water).

Galen thought believed that different foods had varying potential to be acted upon by the body to produce different humors. Warm foods, for example, tended to produce yellow bile, while cold foods tended to produce phlegm. Seasons of the year, periods of life, geographic regions and occupations also influenced the nature of the humors formed.

The imbalance of humors, or dyscrasia, was thought to be the direct cause of all diseases. Health was associated with a balance of humors, or eucrasia. The qualities of the humors, in turn, influenced the nature of the diseases they caused. Yellow bile caused warm diseases and phlegm caused cold diseases.

Galen further emphasized the importance of the qualities. An ideal temperament involved a balanced mixture of the four qualities. Galen identified four temperaments in which one of the qualities, warm, cold, moist or dry, predominated and four more in which a combination of two. These last four, named for the humors with which they were associated, eventually became better known than the others. They were also linked to human temperaments.

  • warm and moist -sanguine (hothead, reddish skin)
  • warm and dry – choleric (anger)
  • cold and dry – melancholic (grumpy sometimes mentally ill)
  • cold and moist – phlegmatic (lazy, fat, milk white skin)

While the term temperament came to refer just to psychological dispositions, Galen used it to refer to bodily dispositions, which determined a person’s susceptibility to particular diseases as well as behavioural and emotional inclinations.

The balance of the body fluids was furthermore influenced by the condition of the parents, the moment of birth and age as well as external elements such as food, drinks, rain, wind, sun, sea, mountains, climate and the environment where one is born and lives.

Urine was another important indication of imbalances in the humors. Urine charts were also used to help physicians diagnose illnesses. Certain coloured urine, smells or tastes  indicated certain illnesses. Combined with a table of the planets, these gave physicians enough information to diagnose a disease. Once the disease had been diagnosed, a treatment was decided on.

Based on humorism identical injuries or illnesses would be treated totally different based on the humors of the patient. Bloodletting was one of the major cures, mainly conducted through leeches. This practice created a whole industry around it with leech gatherers and dealers.


Andreas Vasalius of Brabant

One of the first science innovators of the Middle Ages was Andreas van Wesel (Vasalius) born in Brussels in 1514, son (and grandson) of highly respected imperial court physicians. Andreas studied in Leuven. He – together with Leonardo da Vinci –  questioned the medicine studies of antiquity. He also questioned much of the content of  Galen. He was criticised for this by most of his contemporaries. He left for Italy where the Renaissance had created more openness for new ideas. Andreas is seen as the founder of modern human anatomy. However, despite this progress the new knowledge obtained was not used by him or anybody else to improve medical science.

Be it slowly but medical science started to change from one purely based on the Greek reasoning (theory), to one based on the observation of facts. This led to rigorous analyses which in turn started to lead to a much better understanding of the anatomy of the human body how it functions; or should function.


The hospital evolved from the Christian xenodochia, a room (or separate guest-house) in a monastery for the temporary accommodation of guests, pilgrims or the poor. They originated in Judaea during the late fourth century and spread through the late Roman Empire into Europe. Canstantionople in the 6th century had the largest  xenodochia which was built and staffed by St. John Chrysos-tom during his tenure as Bishop of the city.

However, the medical profession, like the church, saw its prestige damaged during periods of epidemics as they were unable to prevent the diseases or heal the patients.

The Black Death resulted in a new view on medial science and the use of hospitals. These had so far only been used to isolate the sick and often resembled more of a prison. After the plague the emphasis changed from trying to cure the ill. We visited in 2005 the impressive hospital of Beaune. This is a classic example of the high level of charity that did exist amongst the well-to-do in the Middle Ages. Of course this was strongly linked the Christianity and was in general seen as an obligation of this class.

The devastation of the society during the 15th century also saw an enormous increase in poverty in the cities, often linked to unemployment. For most of the period a quarter to a third of the population was too poor to look after themselves and depended on the many religious and semi-religious (guilds) institutions as well on the city facilities for their wellbeing.

Hospice de Beaune

The newly emerging bureaucracy also allowed for the emergence of a range of university educated experts in financial, legal and administrative affairs, which resulted in great benefits to the Burgundisation process of centralisation. One of the rising stars here was the Burgundian (proper) Nicholas Rodin. He rose to the position of chancellor to Philip the Good, a function he held from 1422 to 1457; gathering a noble title and great wealth in the process.

Nicholas and his wife Guigone de Salins founded in 1443 the famous Hôtel Dieu, Hospice de Beaune. A city ravaged by the 100 year war with lots of poverty and famine. He was inspired by similar building he had seen in the great cities of Flanders. The Salle du Polyptyque hosts an altar polyptyque with the powerful paintings of the Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. There is also the equally impressive 72 meters long Grand Salle des Pauvres with its 28 four-posted beds. The perfectly preserved Hospital was one of the most beautiful buildings we visited during our trip to Burgundy in 2006. It was still in use as a hospital until 1971.

Sanitation and a general understanding of public health also improved, with cities such as Florence, Venice and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) leading the charge here. This latter city established the first public quarantine station in Europe.

Despite its strong link with the Classical Periods, the medial instruments used during the Middle Ages were far less sophisticated than those by the Greek and Romans. This only started to change in the 19th century.

Cultural developments

Even when people started to become aware of history they had little understanding of cultural development. There was little sense that people in different time were different, wear different clothes, used different transport. Different cultures and times were portrayed the same as theirs. This perception lasted to well beyond the Middle Ages.

However, we looking back of course do see these cultural developments.  They can be described as the total material and immaterial  human output. Culture is highly shaped by art and science.

While in the Early Middle Ages art was closely linked to the gift-giving society, through the late Roman and Byzantium cultures other forms of art were created. Greek culture delivered philosophy to the western countries. During the High Middle Ages culture (arts and science) was dominated by the Catholic Church science was dominated by  theology , as everything was explained through this.

Gregorian (church) music started in the 7th century and by 850 it had spread throughout the Christian world.

Iconography was an important element of Medieval culture, iconographic art had many layers of course there was the visual aspect, but it also told stories some religious, some moral, some sexual and so on. Individual elements had their own stories attached while scenes and the overall picture added other layers to it. Of course all of this needs to be placed in a mainly illiterate society. These themes were abundantly used in medieval paintings and in particular in the Flemish or Netherlandish Renaissance paintings of Jheronimus Bosch (ca 1450-1516) , Pieter Brueghel (1525 – 1569) and others.

Another critical and rather sudden development was that in the late 13th and early 14th century the higher class started abandon Latin and started to write in vernacular languages. In England and the Low Countries also French started to give way for their own vernacular languages. While Latin, or far that matter French, were not totally abandoned, more and more literature as well as official documents were written in the local languages. The same applied for the spoken language by the upper classes of society, of course the ordinary people had always spoken their own local languages.

Netherlandish Art

The development of the cities in Flanders and Brabant created enormous wealth for merchants and others who were involved in the economic boom. Many of these burghers started to buy art as an expression of their newly acquired wealth. This had a number of effects on the developments of the arts in this part of the world.

Netherlandish Art is not based on new intellectual developments such as humanism in Italy. Here the Renaissance was based on new ideas, new learnings and new interpretations of the Classics.

In the northern countries the art flourished because of commercial demand for the product.. This was driving the market for more secular art, such as genre work based on ordinary life as well as landscapes and still life. In the south it remained largely religious works that were produced be it now in the new Renaissance style; still life and landscapes were used here as well but more as backgrounds in biblical scenes.

Another interesting detail is that most Italian art shows positive depictions of men, while a lot of the Niederlandisch art (especially Hieronymus Bosch) shows the negative effects of men.

Obviously with more money flowing into the art market in the north artists also started to experiment with new ideas, for example they became the masters in oil paintings and they explored all of the new art innovations that this new technique brought with it. Oil painting suits the Dutch wet and cold climate very well; it dries through its interaction with oxygen. Tempura on the other hand is well suited to the warmer Italian climate where the sun does the drying work.

As many of their patrons were merchants, the size of their paintings had to be such that they could be hang on the walls in their homes, religious works for churches and palaces in Italy remained much larger. Obviously religious art was also produced in the north but the bulk of the art here was in a smaller format.

The Flemish painters stayed much longer with the more linear Gothic style and developed their Late Gothic works around those principles. As the wealthy Dutch artists were able to travel widely they were most certainly aware of the new Renaissance techniques in the south so they quite deliberately stayed with their own style, as the Italian stayed with their tempura techniques and for a long time did not embark on oil painting. Obviously there are also mixed styles. The Lamb of God triptych in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent both hat Late Gothic and Renaissance elements in it.

Jan van Eyck, in his portrait of his wife, became the first painter to paint the face of a woman looking at the viewer, rather than looking down or away from the viewer; this form of portrait painting also influenced his Italian colleagues.

The Burgundian Court which moved their seat from Dyon to Flanders and Brabant (Bruges, Doornik and Brussels) were great supporters of their painters. This Court became the envy of the rest of the European nobility because of riches and lavishness. Not only did they attract nobility from all over Europe they also became trendsetters and the northern art profited from this as well and soon Dutch art spread all over the continent and the Burgundian artist received commissions from all over Europe. The Spanish Court which had very strong links with Flanders became one of the largest collectors as well ass the Hapsburg Court in Vienna. King Alphonso of Naples was another great fan of Flemish art.

Among the first successful painters of this Dutch School was Jan van Eyck, who started in Bruges and Rogier van der Weiden who started in Doornik (Tournai) where he worked in the studio of his master Robert Campin. There are clear indications that both artists were in contact with each other and shared ideas. Rogier soon moved to Brussels, which became his new home.

Jan van Eyck was not only a famous artist but also a courtier at the Court of Philip the Good, he was his chamberlain (and before that also of Count Jan of Holland) he also was a highly respected diplomat, travelling widely. He was the first one to control the art of painting with oil and he widely shared his techniques and innovations with others.

Pieter Brueghel was highly influenced by Hieronymus Bosch.

Other artists of this period include Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Simon Marmion, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Gerard David.

The period more or less ends with Pieter Breughel the Eldest who made the many famous Dutch landscape paintings, including those that show the effect of the Little Ice Age in the 1560s. By that time the Dutch School had well and truly expanded across Europe and its style became known as International Gothic with artists and studios from Bohemia and Poland in the east, to Austria and Swabia in the south. This work is characterised by its ornate draping of cloths, its three dimensional structure and its phenomenal level of detail. This also makes these painting so very interesting for historians, a great deal of life, architecture, tools, cloth, illnesses, games and so on can be learned from these paintings.

No wonder that despite the arrival of the printing press this art form also continued in the many manuscripts that still were produced during this period. The Limburg Brothers from Nijmegen are amongst the most well known from this period. The Burgundian Duke Philip the Good and his brother Jean de Berry were great collectors of manuscripts. At the same time drawings for woodcuts became popular and several of the Netherlandish (style) artists such as Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Leyden became famous for their work that was than used in the emerging book printing market.

By the 17th century – the Dutch Golden Age – paintings are becoming more realistic and the use of Renaissance techniques are becoming fully integrated in the paintings of that period.

Manuscripts and books

After language, it arguable has been writing that has been the most important development that has shaped human developments, see: Writing Revolution.

Clay tablets, wax  and wooden panels were still used through Roman and Medieval times. Papyrus was used in Egypt as early as the 3rd century BCE. This also became the material for all official documents in Greece and the Roman Empire. Parchment (vellum) started to take over from papyrus in the early Middle Ages. This also made it possible to move from scrolls to books. This heralds the era is the manuscripts, for a thousand years they were the jewel in the ‘writing crown. For most of this period it were the monks in monasteries who dominated this trade, however from 1300 onward we also universities, courts and other institutions deploying their own scribes for the production of books. The use of paper that stared to become available in the 13th century led to an increase of  textual sources. The big breakthrough happened in the middle of the 15th century when the printing press truly revolutionised the developments in writing.

Another major development was the rediscovery of the works of Cicero, in particular thanks to Petrarch this led to the art of letter writing.

The second European renaissance

The use of the term renaissance during the period before the ‘proper’ Renaissance indicate innovative activity, facilitated by for example forward thinking rulers and significant changes in the society such as urbanisation. Key here is the realisation that innovation has taken place throughout the Middle Ages and not just at the end when the period officially changed into Renaissance.

During the early Middle Ages Europe had been under continues threat from the Vikings in the north, the Arabs in the south and the Magyars in the East. In order to obtain the assistance of the local nobility in fighting the invaders, the kings had to provide much concession virtually giving most of his power away in exchange for military services. Therefore, at the start of the Late Middle Ages, a large number of rather small fiefdoms had been able to establish themselves, often around not much more than a village or a township. They were based on a military aristocracy which controlled the local population by the use or threat of force.

Public authority could only be reached by consensus from these landowners. While the written laws from the previous period still remained in place, it was up to the local ‘force’ to adhere to it or not. The Church, while being the dominating culture had little autonomy and no unified leadership.

But the period between 1000 and 1200 would turn out to become one of the most dynamic periods in European history. The era is sometimes also called the 12th century renaissance; following the brief Carolingian renaissance from around 800 and the Ottonian period nearly two centuries later.  But after this the centre of literature and culture moved from Rhineland to Paris. During this period intellectual development flourished and most certainly played an important underlying role in the dynamics of these two centuries.

  • The crusades brought Europe into contact with the Arab world.
  • Broader international contacts (Caliphate, Spain, Southern Italy, Sicily) were established, curiosity kindled many explorations, new products entered the European market.
  • Scholastic and Humanist movement based in the rediscovery of Greek, Arab, Jewish and Chaldean texts.
  • Colonisation took place especially in the north east of Europe.
  • International trade (Hanse) fuelled the growth of many cities
  • Rapid urbanisation created a new social class of burghers.
  • All of this fuelled a hunger for knowledge, information and education (writing, counting, law, medicine)
  • Wealth started to appear in a way that was previously unheard of

William van Moerbeke

The Flemish Dominican William of Moerbeke(east Flanders) was appointed bishop of Corinth when during the 4thcrusade Greece came under western rule. During his reign at bishop (1277-1286) he translated no less than 50 classic Greek works into Latin (including nearly all the works of Aristotle and Archimedes). It is believed that he did so at the request of a good acquaintance of him, Thomas Aquinas. It is also believed that the small Greek village of Merbaka is named after William.

While in earlier times some of the classics were translated to Arabic and Syrian and than back into Latin. Moerbeke did direct translations and these are now still the main sources as many of the  original works have been lost.

The above mentioned powerful women also show the advance of literature during the Middle Ages. A major development here occurred in the south of France, than known as Aquitaine. During the 11th century minstrels started to perform the so called ‘chanson de geste’ (epic stories about heroic deeds). This development was also closely linked to the troubadours. Medieval people loved music both at a court level as well as a street level.


Troubadours and Trobaritz are mainly people from noble descend who in southern France, in the Occitan language, composed and performed poetry and songs. According to a lecture I followed from Yvette Derberque from the University of Sydney, there have been some 2500 troubadours between the 11th and 13th centuries, of which perhaps 1% were trobaritz (females).

The origin is unclear there are poetic influences that can be linked back to Roman times, monastic influences are also often very noticeable and Islamic influences from Andalus are also recognisable. The main centre of this culture was Aquitaine, where William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1127) became one of the first to patronise troubadours this was continued by his son William X and in particular his granddaughter Eleanor; she also introduced this culture at the English Court. Eleanor of Aquitaine was an equally powerful woman of the Middle Ages and the only one that can claim the title of Queen of two countries, France and England.

The elite troubadours included many famous and influential men of the Middle Ages. They included: King Richard I of England (son of Eleanor, Archbishop of Toulouse Fouquet de Marseille and Bertrand de Born, Baron of the Limousines.

One of the most successful troubadours was Bernart de Ventadorn, he performed at the Court of Raymond V of Toulouse who supported the Cathars and the sympathy for these ‘heretics’ is also noticeable in Bernart’s poetry. Raymond’s father, Raymoad the IV died while on crusades and these crusades are also an important theme on the works of the troubadours.

These performers attached themselves to one of the many local courts in the area and provided their services for a fee, accommodation, clothing, etc. Some travelled between courts and the most popular ones were sometime ‘headhunted’ away. They were immensely popular and mainly because of the courtly love poetry. They often also were involved in courtly love at the court – which too place under strict rules – however, there se several indications that such rules were not always adhered to. Other genres included political or satirical works.

Its popularity rapidly spread to Spain, Greece, France, England, Flanders and Germany, where it formed its own version as ‘Minnesang’. However, after the plague (1350)the tradition rapidly died out. At the French and Bourgundian Court the entertainment tradition moved into musical ensembles.

A separate cultural development was introduced by the Goliards (vagantes) were a group of mainly travelling clergy who wrote bibulous, satirical Latin poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were mainly students at the universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England who protested the growing contradictions within the Church, such as the failure of the Crusades and financial abuses, expressing themselves through song, poetry and performance.

On the other side serious religious literature also started to be produced, especially the life of saints was a very popular genre (hagiography). Passion plays were another popular religious genre that started to emerge in these times.  Maria worship was another major element in many of the religious cultural output (see below: Mariken van Nieumeghen).

One of the first theater developments (since the Greek and Roman theater plays had disappeared) also happened around this time. Also in the Middle Ages plays were a male only affair, women were not allowed to perform. In public life, actors however were not highly regarded, they were often grouped together with prostitutes and vagabonds. The use of make up was profusely and as this contained highly poisonous substances, many actors died young.

Adam de la Halle (Atrech – North France – ca.1235-1288) wrote comedies and also put some of that on music. Ensemble was important and this lead to the formation of theaters and orchestras.

In the Low Countries this led in the 15th and 16th century to the formation of Chambers of Rhetoric (Rederijkerskamers), they played a key role in the further development of literature (poetry), theater and the mystery- and miracle plays. The latter were often performed on carts pulled onto market squares and other public spaces, often this included tricks and spectacular scenes with the use of cranes and pulleys to elevate people or to provide for spectacular entrances into the play; torture could be used as an other ‘attractive’ element of these plays. Sometimes these plays were performed over several days and other activities were build around them , markets, feats, parties. There are often strict local regulations around these performances as they could end up in rowdiness and even popular uprisings. On the other side, in a more  positive way, some of the plays and events attracted direct or indirect subsidies as it could bring business to the town and or could be used to appease the population.

Mariken van Nieumeghen and Elckerlijc

Mariken van Nieumeghen is a miracle play from around 1518 (when it was published in Antwerp) with the full title:  “Die waerachtige ende seer wonderlycke historie van Mariken van Nieumeghen die meer dan seven jaren met den duvel woonde ende verkeerde” (The true and wonderous story of Mariken van Nieumeghen who lived with the devil for more than seven years). Nieumeghem=Nijmegen.

Elckerlijc (also known as Elckerlyc) is a Dutch morality play which was written somewhere around the year 1470 and was originally printed in 1495. It was extremely successful and may have been the original source for the English play Everyman.. The authorship of Elckerlijc is attributed to Peter van Diest, a medieval writer from the Low Countries.

The play won the first prize in the Rederijker contest in Antwerp in 1485. As a morality play, it stresses the didactic message. It uses allegory of the hero as an “everyman” (a typical human person).

Other famous works are the fable Reynard (Van den vos Reynaerde) from the 12th century and Brabantsche Yeesten (mirror – speculum – history) from around 1350.

The medieval genre of speculum literature, popular from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, was inspired by the urge to encompass encyclopedic knowledge within a single work. Other specula offered mirrors of history, of doctrine or morals. Many of the medieval painting from Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel also follow this principle, putting a moralistic mirror in front of people.


After the invention of the printing press pamphlets became very popular. They were cheap disposal print works, mostly used for political purposes to influence opinions or to spread the sensational stories of the day (murder, scandal, sex, disasters and discoveries). In the 16th century they did cost a ‘stuiver (five pence) in the Netherlands roughly a third of a laborer’s day wage. For this you received a so called quarto of 12 pages. In the beginning of the 17th century a newspaper did cost 5 stuivers. It has been estimated that on average a pamphlet was read by 5 people.Because of its liberal copyright laws and low taxes on printing the Netherlands became the printing capital of Europe and many political and religious ‘refugees’ from Britain,  France, Spain and Portugal went to the Netherlands to print their books and pamphlets. [7. Bourdgonië voorbij. Een rechtshistorische vingerafrdurk. Marie-Charlotte Le Bailly, 2010, p392-397]

See also broadsides.

Slow start of the Renaissance (proper)

The Renaissance is a social and cultural revolution that was set in motion as mentioned above as early as the 12th century when the first cities started to emerge and society started to open up a bit. This created an economic and social change to the Middle Age society. Driven by commercial activities the early merchants needed a different set of social and economic tools that were rather different from the traditional way of life driven by the church and the nobility. The traditional way of ‘doing business’ had to be changed and slowly but surely this led to a new way of more liberal thinking and a new set of values that slowly also became accepted by the society at large.  With their newly gained commercial wealth they were able to attract more liberal social and cultural developments and as such they attracted many more new liberal thinkers and artists to their city palaces. This led to a more individual pursuit, while still friendly towards the group certain elements of live were private and even secret (especially in businesses).  The medieval way of group thinking typically crushed individuality.

The new wealth also led to a more external expression of the ‘self’, in the way of housing, clothing and luxury goods . The individual clearly started to distinguish himself (still mainly men) from the group.

While this early ‘merchant-driven’ change occurred more or less simultaneous in northern Italy and in the Low Countries, it was by the late 14th century Northern Italy that led these developments. The commercial innovations regarding accounting, banking, trading, international business affairs, etc were developed here and exported to Flanders and the Rhine area. From here the slowly spread over the following centuries to other parts of Europe.

The reason why Italy was able to take the lead can perhaps be led back to the fact that in Northern Europe the traditional nobility (Counts of Flanders and Brabant and later the Dukes of Burgundy) were able to maintain more control over the political situation in their lands. The Dukes of Burgundy in particular were able to extend their political power, at the expense of the cities.

In Northern Italy the new city rulers were able to establish (very) strong political control and in a sense they started to act as the nobility. This was possible because their overseeing political powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France, where often at war with each other over these territories and/or absent from this region. The power and wealth of these city rulers was to a large extend based on trade and banking and as such they had a totally different approach to their society as the nobility; whose wealth was based on land ownership. Here it had become easier for the individual thinkers to come out of the mist of the Middle Ages based on religion and a rather childish perception of the world around them.

As described under Humanism in more detail, Dante Aligheri (c.1265–1321) was one of the intellectuals representing the transition from Scholasticism and Humanism. In his master work ‘Divina Commedia’ he still very much represents traditional Medieval religious representations. However, in his descriptions of the people involved in this book he introduced elements such as reason, free choice and free will. [8. Middeleeuwen, D.E.H. de Boer, J. van Herwaarden, J. Scheurkogel, 1995, p 364] Francesco Petrarca  (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio(both around 1350)  are seen as the first true renaissance writers, theirs are secular works based on humanism and individuality;  they both also wrote  in the vernacular (Italian), which made their work far more accessible.

The difference between medieval intellectual writing and humanistic writings is that the first group would write about history, personal life and other daily affairs along the lines ‘what do I do in my life’, humanists would write along the lines of ‘why am I doing this in life‘.

Dante for example still wrote along the lines of the group:  ‘Sienna made me‘.

These thinkers went back to the Classics works of people like Plato and Aristotle and traced back the original texts rather than those that had been copied many times and included many mistakes. In doing so the started to take a more anthropocentric philosophical view and became interested in the human aspects, the relation between people and its environment, for this reason they were called humanists.  A major difference between medieval thinking and humanism was that the latter was more centered on the individual while the existing system at the time were based around people acting as groups; be it the family, the court system, the nobility, the guilds, the church and so on. One did not replace the other but humanist and renaissance attitudes started to evolve parallel to the existing systems.

While these liberal trends most certainly also existed in the Low Countries, they were not as such supported by the ruling nobility, their courts were still very much medieval. Here the Renaissance was driven by individual merchants within these cities and the Netherlands (Flemish) Renaissance art was mainly acquired by these people. It was not until the late 15th century that the nobility started to embrace the Renaissance in a more broader sense and at the Dutch Court this was driven by Margaretha and later Maria from Burgundy (reps, an aunt and a sister of Charles V). The first truly Renaissance buildings here, arrived first in Mechelen and Brussels (the residence cities of these rulers). Emperor Charles himself was still largely a medieval ruler. While medieval rulers saw themselves primarily as military rulers, renaissance rulers saw themselves as rulers in all aspects of life; they supported poets, painters, studied languages and their courts became the focus for cultural and political activities.

However, it was in these more northern regions that humanist thinking coincided by the humanisation (secularisation) of religion. The Modern Devotion that developed around Deventer and spread further through the Low Countries can be seen as a link between religious and civic thinking. Several humanist were attracted to this new religious movement.

Innovations in particular developed in architecture and art, utilising practical science such as mathematics, optics and anatomy. Perspective in painting was one of those significant breakthroughs.


Chambers of rhetoric (rederijkerskamers)

These were drama societies in the Low Countries. Their members are called Rederijkers (singular – Rederijker), from the french word ‘rhétoricien’, and during the 15th and 16th centuries were mainly interested in dramas and lyrics. These societies were closely connected with local civic leaders and their public plays were a form of early public relations for the city. Most Dutch cities sponsored a chamber of rhetoric, and many cities had more than one, which competed with each other during prize contests.

The first chambers of rhetoric were founded in Flanders around the 15th century; they later flowered in Holland, where they were an important part of the literary scene in the Dutch Golden Age and experimented with poetic form and structure.  (Souce: Wikipedia)


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)