Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Explosive Science

Few people really appreciate the Dark Ages. Westerners are not taught about European history after the rise of Constantine. The 5th century until well after the 13th are the general dates given for the “Medieval” period, also called the “Middle Ages.” Not a lot of progress went on in Europe during this time. The only local inventions were various farming implements, primarily improvements on the plow (which is itself technology originally borrowed, possibly from Egypt or even further back to pre-historic India).

Westerners are never taught of the Islamic Renaissance that took place from the 8th century and extended well into the 15th. We learn little of the vast Chinese empires that rose and fell during this time. These two cultures produced the technology we take for granted, spurring the Renaissance in Europe.

Peaceful and violent interaction with Arabs during the late Middle Ages brought Europe not only the knowledge of these two great cultures, but also the lost “pagan” knowledge destroyed by the Christians in their rise to power. Our knowledge of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Pythagoras, and many other Western philosophers was preserved by Muslim scholars for centuries.

Chinese paper allowed for the abandonment of expensive parchment and inferior papyrus. The printing press meant books could be reproduced without being rewritten by hand. Arabian optics allowed for the production of eyeglasses, telescopes, and (much later) microscopes. However, there is one invention of the Chinese that met with one field of Arabian science that changed history forever: gunpowder and alchemy.

Al-kimiya was a science the Muslims built out of the Greek study of khemeioa. The Greeks named it such after Egypt, known then as Khemia. Egyptians are the oldest recorded practitioners of alchemy. There, they created cosmetics, glass, dyes, inks, and papyrus. They also extracted metal from ore. This final task was vital, as it was the alchemists who made the Pharaohs wealthy. Alchemy was suppressed in Europe as witchcraft for centuries. All writings on the subject were destroyed, and we will never know how much or how little we lost.

The invention of gunpowder in China in the 9th century by Taoist monks took some time to reach Europe. Muslims are the first to adopt it in the West. It is recorded as being used in Spain against the Reconquista forces of Europe, who had rallied to fight off the Islamic Moors who controlled areas of the Iberian Pennisula, including Spain, Portugal, and even Sicily. The first Europeans to use gunpowder are Vikings (who traded with the Muslims), and the first Christian to write of it are Norwegian nobility in the 1250s. Both used it primarily for incendiary ship-to-ship warfare,

By around 1300, Christian monks began recording the recipe for gunpowder. Early on, it was hidden in anagrams or buried in long rhyming poems in order to conceal it and prevent charges of witchcraft (the latter technique is preserved in the portrayal of “witchcraft” as sing-songy, rhyming recipes, the only kind to survive the period).

Even after the utility of gunpowder is demonstrated, many religious authorities banned it on the same grounds they banned the use of crossbows: it was seen as barbaric that any common man could use such a weapon to kill a chivalrous, valiant knight. Those who did use it were often looked down upon, though success followed them. The first cannons are built by the craftsmen who made church bells. Leonardo Da Vinci dabbled in weapons blending all of the newly introduced technology, from gunpowder to improved metallurgy to mechanics.

However, one of the three ingredients in gunpowder was saltpeter, which was expensive and had to be imported… until Europeans found out they’d been throwing the stuff away for years. After learning an effective means for the production of saltpeter from animal dung, again from Arabic alchemists, Europe went off like a rocket.

More than changing the face of warfare, gunpowder established alchemy as an acceptable practice in Europe. The Dark Ages gave way to a Renaissance of exploring new ideas, questioning our views of the world we lived in. In time, gunpowder also provided the means for monarchies to be toppled, in favor of a Greek form of “pagan” governace: democracy.


  1. It is interesting... From a Western standpoint, we call that time the Dark Ages because the church stopped all scientific exploration. All "reason" was wiped out. The Renaissance is seen as a "revitalization" of art and discovery. Really, reason was allowed again, and science began to slowly advance.

    We all owe a big thanks to DaVinci for dragging out dead prostitutes out of the river to begin the study of anatomy.

  2. And we should thank the bishops and priests for killing them.


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