When the Western European army of the cross brought the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1096, the Arabs of the Near East were less impressed by the army’s religious zeal than they were appalled by its stench. The disease-ridden body of the Christian host included true believers and righteous folk but also, according to the report of the medieval chronicler Albert of Aix in his Historia Hierosolymita, “adulterers, homicides, thieves, perjurers, and robbers.” Few had any learning at all. Ignorant of even the rudiments of science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and sanitation, they knew nothing of the workings of that prince of medieval scientific devices, the astrolabe, which captured the movements of the three-dimensional universe on its bronze faceplate; as a result, they could not even date their most important religious holiday, Easter, nor accurately tell the time of day.
Celestial phenomena—shooting stars, ball lightning, an eclipse of the sun—terrified them. Their forebears had long since lost the ability to read Greek, thus breaking off intellectual relations with the learning of antiquity. Education had all but collapsed, save for a handful of cathedral schools clinging to innovations introduced three hundred years earlier under Charlemagne. The scholar-monks at the West’s leading center of mathematical studies, the cathedral school of Laon, had no grasp of the meaning or use of zero.
Among the greatest affront to Arab sensibilities was the Crusaders’ complete disregard for personal hygiene. Their most noble knights boasted of bathing no more than four times a year; their diet consisted largely of monotonous rations of gruel and whatever else they could forage en route; medical care frequently involved exorcism or the amputation of afflicted limbs. When the Black Death struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, it unleashed social chaos. With no real notion of contagion or hygiene, one-third of the population died without knowing why. The mass casualties induced a frenzy of violence, typified by the burning of Jews suspected of having induced the disease through witchcraft.
The Book of Instruction, an informative memoir by the Syrian princeling Usama ibn Munqidh, who came to know the Crusaders in battle and in repose, records two instances in which a local physician’s sound advice was ignored in favor of Christian methodologies. In the first, the Franks simply lopped off a knight’s mildly infected leg with an axe; in the second, they carved a cross into an ill woman’s skull before rubbing it with salt. Both patients died on the spot, at which point the Arab doctor asked, “‘Do you need anything else from me?’ ‘No,’ they said. And so I left, having learned about their medicine things I had never known before.”
For six centuries the authoritative works of St. Augustine of Hippo had directed the Christian faithful to see only God’s mystery in an otherwise unknowable world. Upon his conversion to Christianity in 387, Augustine set aside his once-lively interest in art and science (“Certainly the theaters no longer attract me, nor do I care to know the course of the stars.”) and replaced it with superstition. Everyday existence was shrouded in allegorical meaning, while natural phenomena were seen—if they were seen at all—in the context of moralizing tales. The medieval bestiaries were designed to edify humans by showing them that stags, lions, birds, even rocks, were all proof of God’s wisdom and mercy and which, if properly studied, offered man a guide to Christian behavior.
Disease was viewed as divine punishment for the sins of man, rather than as a condition to be addressed or ameliorated through human intervention. The few tentative efforts to adopt the technological novelties starting to trickle in slowly from the Arab world, among them the water clock that Caliph Harun al-Rashid sent as a gift to Charlemagne in 801, were either dismissed as curiosities or condemned as Black Magic. As far as medieval Christians were concerned, God was the sole determinant force in their daily lives; there was no reason, then, to explore the nature of things—and thus, no science.
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