Study Material

Physics in the Middle Ages

The physics in the Middle Ages was framed within the concept Natural Philosophy, which included other disciplines such as natural sciences. The knowledge base was the works from Classical Greece, in addition to translations of the works of Arab physicists.

Physics in the Middle Ages
Although the medieval period has always been considered a dark period in terms of knowledge, the translation of Greek and Islamic works allowed natural philosophy to receive a boost in universities, especially from the end of the 13th century. This knowledge had to be adapted to a society based on the Christian religion.

One of the figures responsible for the value of scientific discoveries was Charlemagne, monarch of the Carolingian Empire . From his position, he promoted the recovery of knowledge from classical antiquity. From that moment on, science settled in monastic schools and nascent universities.

Within physics, the works and experiments on light, optics or kinematics, the discipline that studies the movement of objects, stood out. Scientists like Roger Bacon became the antecedent of the later Scientific Revolution, especially for their defense of experimentation as a scientific method.

Knowledge in physics that existed in the Middle Ages

Islamic scientists and thinkers of the Middle Ages
Islamic scientists and thinkers of the Middle Ages

Thanks to the work of universities, knowledge of physics in the Middle Ages grew over time. However, some of them were already known in ancient times or by other contemporary cultures, such as in Chinese culture.


One of the groups of university researchers of the Middle Ages, the so-called calculators from Merton College, at the University of Oxford, stood out for the advances made in kinematics.

This subject is dedicated to analyzing the movement of objects and its development had been very scarce to date. Medieval scholars defined more strictly concepts such as speed, uniform motion, or acceleration. Among his most important contributions was the Average Velocity Theorem.

On the other hand, the professors at the Paris School of Physics also devoted parts of their efforts to this discipline. One of them, Nicolás de Oresme, was the creator of geometric representations related to kinematics.

Rotation of the Earth

Nicolás de Oresme himself affirmed that the Earth rotated on itself, a matter that became an important scientific debate at the time and was later used by Copernicus. Likewise, he was also ahead of Galileo with his idea on the principle of relativity.

Momentum theory

Other aspects of Aristotelian mechanics were also questioned by medieval physicists. In addition to the works of Nicolás de Oresme, he highlighted the so-called momentum theory formulated by Jean Buridan.

This theory served to find a scientific explanation for the way in which the projectiles moved. Buridan’s conclusions are considered as an antecedent to the concept of inertia.


Optics was one of the subjects most studied by medieval scientists. They conducted numerous experiments that provided data on crystals, light, and lenses. In 1258, those studies led to the invention of glasses.


Experimentation as a fundamental part of the scientific method grew in importance during the final part of the Middle Ages. Scientists such as Bishop Robert Grosseteste defended the need for experimentation in order to gain knowledge, although it was Roger Bacon who wrote the most on this subject.

Bacon included experimentation among the fundamental steps of the scientific method, along with observation, hypothesis-making, and verification.

Lenses and light

Roger Bacon was the author of the first theory on how lenses could improve eyesight, in 1249. The scientist carried out experiments on reflection and refraction, as well as on other properties of light. To do this, he carefully observed their reaction in lenses and mirrors.

Another Bacon experiment aimed to study eclipses. His main tool was a camera obscura, a device that projects sunlight onto any surface.

Light passing through a glass of water

A simple experiment allowed Robert Grosseteste to study the behavior of light and its relationship with various types of lenses. This cleric only needed a glass of water to carry out these studies.

Thus, he observed how light behaved when passing through that glass, which led him to discover refraction. Likewise, he realized that light was divided into several colors, which he reflected in a treatise on rainbows.

Magnet Properties

Frenchman Peter Peregrinus Maricourt conducted several experiments on magnetism. In one of them, he used a magnet and held it close to a needle, which moved immediately. After doing this several times, he realized that the pattern of these movements resembled the globe.

After this experiment, Maricourt named the ends of the magnet poles. Later, he carried out new tests that allowed him to discover that the attraction between two magnets was determined by the position of their poles.

Characters / Scientists

Roger bacon

Roger Bacon came to the world in the British town of Ilchester in 1214. This physicist, alchemist, philosopher and theologian was trained at the University of Oxford.

Bacon proposed to change the Julian calendar and was distinguished by his criticisms of the astronomical system proposed by Ptolemy. In the field of physics, he rejected Aristotle’s theories, which were then the basis of natural knowledge.

Among other advances, Bacon pioneered the use of lenses to improve vision. Similarly, he also stated that it was possible to combine several lenses to build a telescope.

In addition to his research, Bacon was noted for his defense of the experimental method in science.

Peter Peregrinus de Maricourt

Peter Peregrinus de Maricourt was a French scientist born in the 13th century. Among his works, his experiments on magnetism stood out, which allowed him to write the first work on magnets.

Another of his important research was on the compass, a device that he described in detail in his letter entitled Epistle of Magnete .

Although their life is not widely known, Bacon described them as the greatest experimental scientist of their time.

Jean buridan

Born in Béthune, France, around the year 1300, Buridan was the author of a theory on the movement that contradicted the hitherto current work of Aristotle. The Greek had claimed that it was the air that moved the objects, but Buridan claimed that it actually stopped them.

On this basis, Buridan enunciated the Theory of Momentum, which contains the first approximation to the modern concept of inertia.

Roberto Grosseteste

Franciscan and English like Bacon, Roberto Grosseteste (Stradbroke, 1175 – 1253) is considered one of the most important scholars of his time.

His main field of study was light, although he also highlighted his theory on the creation of the universe, which has been considered a distant antecedent to that of the Big Bang.


Although he was not a scientist, the role of the King of the Franks and creator of the Carolingian Empire, Charlemagne, was fundamental for the promotion of science in the Middle Ages, including physics.

This monarch decided to gather scholars, almost all belonging to the clergy, to begin to recover the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.

One of the most important figures in this Charlemagne project was Alcuin. His work was essential for the founding of schools of different types: the monastic, which depended on the monasteries; the cathedrals, directed by the canons; the municipal ones; and the palatines, located in the court.

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