In the present day understanding, modern science is supposed to have begun in 1543, when both Copernicus and Vesalius published their great works. It is no derogation however, to point out that their accomplishments did not appear overnight. The distinctive Western tradition of science appeared in the eleventh century with a massive amount of Arabic and Greek works translated into Latin. Out of criticism arose new observation, speculation, and increasing distrust of ancient authorities.
By the late thirteenth century Europe had seized global scientific leadership from the faltering hands of Islam. It would be absurd to deny the profound originality of Newton, Galileo or Copernicus as to deny that of the fourteenth century scholatic scientists like Buridan or Oresme, on whose work hey built. Before the eleventh century, science scarcely existed in the Latin west even in Roman times. From the eleventh century onward, the scientific sector of Occidental culture has increased in a steady crescendo.
Since both our technological and our scientific movements got their start, acquired their character, and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages, it would seem that we cannot understand their nature or their present impact upon ecology without examining fundamental medieval assumptions and developments.
Until recently, agriculture has been the chief occupation even in ”advanced” societies; hence any change in methods of tillage has much importance. Early plow, drawn by two oxen, did not normally turn the sod but merely scratched it. Thus, cross plowing was needed and fields tended to be squarish. In the fairly light soils and semiarid climates of the Near east and the Mediterranean, this worked well. But a plow was inappropriate to the wet climate and often sticky soils of northern Europe. By the latter part of the seventh century, however, following obscure beginnings, certain northern peasants were using an entirely new kind of plow, equipped with a vertical knife to cut the line of the furrow, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, a mold board to turn it over. The friction of this plow against the soil was so great that it normally required not two but eight oxen. It attacked the land with such violence that cross plowing was not needed, and fields tended to be shaped in long strips.
In the days of the scratch plow, field were distributed generally in units capable of supporting a single family. Subsistence farming was the presupposition. But no peasant owned eight oxen; to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow teams, originally receiving plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was no longer based on the needs of a family, but rather on the capacity of a plow machine to till the soil.
Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly, man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature. Nowhere else in the world did farmers develop any analogous agricultural implement. is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness towards nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?
This same exploitative attitude began appearing in the ninth century in illustrated calendars. In older calendars the months were shown as passive personifications. The newer Frankish calendars show men coercing the world around them; plowing, harvesting,chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature were now two things and man is master.
These novelties seem to be in harmony with larger intellectual patterns. the attitude of people toward their ecology depends greatly on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology seems deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny. That is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident say, in India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.