UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


HPSCGA20 Science, Technology, and Medicine across Medieval Worlds

New module for 2011-12

Tutor: MacLehose, William (link)

Email: w.maclehose@ucl.ac.uk

course description

This seminar studies the transfer of scientific knowledge from the ancient Greco-Roman world to an Arabic context from the ninth century onward and a Western Christian context from the eleventh century to the eve of the Renaissance. We will examine how and why centres of learning, such as Alexandria and Baghdad or southern Italy and Spain, brought both continuity and change to the scientific tradition. By studying geography, astronomy, physiology, contagious diseases, and pharmacology, we will explore the ways in which Muslim, Jewish and Christian views of knowledge influenced each other in the formation of a scientific method and spirit of inquiry into the natural world based on a pagan past. How did the different sciences, such as medicine, geography, astrology, and mathematics, connect with each other and with philosophy and theology? We will also consider the Western spread of scientific knowledge out of the learned Latin-speaking world to a broader audience through translations into the European vernaculars.


Two 5,000 word essays

No exam

Aims of the module

The module is designed to provide an overview, from a comparative perspective, of the nature of scientific knowledge in the medieval Islamic and Western worlds. Students will gain an understanding of the transfer of knowledge from the ancient world to the different medieval cultures under discussion. Awareness of religious, cultural, social and intellectual similarities and differences will be stressed.

The course is designed to provide an interdisciplinary approach, using historical, sociological and anthropological methods. Close study of both primary and secondary literatures will hone the students’ analytical and critical abilities. Essays and oral presentations will allow students to work more closely with the materials and present their findings clearly and forcefully.


At the end of the seminar, students will be able to master the content of the course, particularly the different kinds of transfers of knowledge (learned and popular) and the interpenetration of religious and scientific worldviews in medieval eastern and western science. The emphasis on secondary literature will allow students to engage critically with the major historiographic questions raised by the material. Oral presentations by the students should allow them to improve their skills in public speaking and argumentation.

Beyond the content of the course, students will develop their abilities 1) to contextualise primary sources; 2) to analyse the past from a comparative perspective; 3) to study a single culture or a variety of cultures synchronically or diachronically; 4) to understand the broad mechanisms of change and larger social, economic, cultural and institutional forces that shaped the past.

The weight placed on essays should improve students’ abilities with extensive analysis of historical material, both primary and secondary. They should develop their abilities to gather, properly cite, and interpret large amounts of material, and to create clear, logical arguments in a concise and articulate writing style. The essays will require the students to identify and critique the larger themes and received wisdom on the nature of science in the middle ages.

Contact the course tutor for more information.