It’s believed that the level of knowledge accrued in the ancient world was far greater than that of the Middle Ages. After all, the library of Alexandria and its burning marked the end of the Classical period in many ways. Western culture forgot how to build an arch, let alone aqueducts and domes. But did they really lose all that knowledge? Or was it carried on by word of mouth? We are led to believe that all the knowledge of the past had to be rediscovered by clever men in the Renaissance. But what were the secret stashes of scientific knowledge?
We know that Irish monks copied the few surviving ancient texts faithfully, though didn't necessarily absorb any of Aristotle’s scientific discourses. The copied texts were housed in monasteries throughout Europe, yet it would appear that no one thought to continue the experimentation. Perhaps they were too distracted by plague and war to give it more time than it took to copy it down.
Who was the first person who decided to try eating an artichoke? Probably someone whose crops had failed and faced starvation. Who first thought of putting powdered silver in an open wound? We know now that silver is a great antibacterial. Was it a limitless trial and error theater in the arena of food and medicine?
Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham was tired of people using the term ‘medieval’ as a pejorative. An Anglo Saxon/Viking scholar as she was, she decided to test the scientific claims of an Anglo Saxon physician of the 10th century. Most people would dismiss the cures in Bald’s Leechbook as superstitious home remedies. But Lee wanted a true scientific test of the efficacy of the recipes. She chose a cure for eye infections, had the concoction brewed in a lab, the instructions followed carefully: mashing garlic, onion, ox gall (bile from a cow) and wine and letting it rest for a set number of days. To everyone’s surprise, the concoction performed far better than modern antibiotics when applied to the notoriously difficult to kill MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staph aureus), one of the prime killers in hospitals around the world. There are plans to start human trials with this thousand-year-old remedy.
I can only imagine the pharmaceutical companies rushing to hire Anglo Saxon translators in droves. Who said studying dead languages could lead you nowhere? But the point is, humanity has collected and stored knowledge for millennia. That knowledge is regularly lost or destroyed, but I doubt the whole process must start from scratch. There had to be repositories of more ancient knowledge, perhaps on the fringes of civilization like the Anglo Saxons. Much scientific knowledge came from the Persians, though borrowing such ideas was considered blasphemy during the period of the crusades. I’m sure soldiers fighting for the Pope might store away a healing recipe or two gathered from the locals.
But things have changed drastically. The quantity of knowledge stored digitally to be accessed by just about anyone is staggering. Classicists and medieval scholars can now access the works stored in the Vatican Library through their digitization project. Just think what might be found hidden in the pages of ancient documents long stored, never translated and rarely examined by anyone. Open sourcing these documents might lead to incredible finds like that of Christina Lee. And the amount of information available will increase exponentially. Let’s start digging for the lost wisdom of ages past.
Maybe the Dark Ages weren’t so dark after all