The Middle Ages gave us the luxury of saunas, the science of antibiotics, and calculus

Fareeha Arshad
‘The Large Ecce Homo’, a painting by Lucas van Leyden | The Age of Discovery allowed the rediscovery of any inventions lost to timePxhere

When the last Roman Emporer fell, the western world entered the Middle Ages. Along with the fall of the mighty Empire, their knowledge was also lost to time. This has been repeated quite a few times in history. Even now, our fragile future is dependent on technology that can blow us up anytime. Yet, any idea, unlike technology, is not volatile.

We, as humans, are made up of stories that deserve to be discovered and rediscovered— just like our ideas. History bears witness to numerous ideas and discoveries that were lost to time only to be rediscovered. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

1. Steaming at saunas is an age-old practice
The ancient baths covered a huge area and could provide room for more than 1500 people to bathe togetherWikimedia Commons

The ancient Roman society was the first to introduce steam in the bathing area — like the present-day sauna. Their bathing areas were out, open in public, and were often very huge. Even today, long after their collapse, Roman society is still remembered for its gigantic public baths.

The public baths in ancient Rome didn’t just have vast tubs filled with water. Instead, it was a party in the tub. Elsewhere within the area, used to be a sporting section, food stalls, servants, various rooms, including the dressing room. The bathing tub used to be filled with steaming water heated indirectly using the ‘hypocaust’ technology they invented.

This technology made the use of a centralized heating system that circulated the hot air produced through pipes attached to the bathtub that then warmed the water. This system also warmed the Roman buildings and rooms in ancient times. For a technology that was invented all those years ago, it was a kickass idea. This invention improved the living conditions of people by a thousand folds. The modern centralized heating that we use is the contemporary version of this hypocaust system.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europeans reverted to their old ways of directly heating water using heart and fire and lost the tradition of centralized heating for centuries. Much later, during the Industrial Revolution, this practice resurfaced. However, risk factors like insufficient ventilation, fire, and explosion risks hindered the practical application of centralized heating devices installed at homes until very recently.

Hence, the heating systems that we have now were not a modern discovery. The Romans were, in fact, more advanced than we credit them for.

2. We already had antibiotics in the medieval period
A few pages from the medieval period’s, ‘The Bald’s Leechbook’Picryl

We think that the antibiotics that we have now are a recent discovery. Then how did people who lived hundreds of years ago treat themselves? You can talk about the lack of modern science and the natural lifestyle, but this doesn’t answer how they treated their sick?

During the fifth century, the infamous Greek physician, Hippocrates, contributed significantly to the medicinal field. He advised painkillers, like the chew willow bark, for swellings and pain. It wasn’t until recently that we discovered the medicinal properties of this natural medicine. The white willow contains chemical salicin that functions almost similar to aspirin — and that is why this natural medication was so successful as a painkiller.

A similar age-old medication using onion and garlic was discovered for Staphylococcus aureus over a thousand years ago. This was recorded in the Bald’s Leechbook, which is a ninth-century English medical text. Many similar remedies are found in the book. These trial and error-based treatment methods could have been recorded to keep track of the medications that worked and those that didn’t.

Many of these treatment options, like the one that killed S. aureus, were forgotten for over a millennium and was rediscovered recently.

3. We have been mastering calculus since 408 B.C.
A portrait of Archimedes, taken from Austrian National LibraryPicryl

Applications of basic mathematics are a piece of inherent knowledge. Everybody who has some basic information about maths can apply it in every aspect of their practical life. On the contrary, prior knowledge of complex mathematical formulations like rates of change, conversions, and others is needed to solve more advanced problems. This is where calculus comes in handy.

It’s a general belief that calculus was discovered during the late seventeenth century or the early eighteenth century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Yet the reality is that calculus was in the making by ancient Greeks for over a thousand years before its modern discovery.

Eudoxus was one of the ancient world’s best mathematicians and astronomers of Greek origin. Born in 400 BC, he contributed significantly to the theory of proportion in irrational numbers. He even gave views related to planetary motion. Over a century later, Archimedes explained methods that resemble the modern-day integral calculus. Even medieval Indian minds had contributed to the development of mathematics.

Hence, most of these pieces of knowledge were either lost when Europe entered its Dark Ages or preserved by other cultures of the world.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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