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As more works of ancient Greek and Muslim philosophy became available to Western European Christians, the question of how to understand the world acquired more urgency. How were Christians to understand the world: through divine revelation, as it appeared in the Bible, or through the human reason of philosophers? Indeed, this question was reminiscent of similar questions taking place in the Islamic world, when thinkers such as al-Ghazali questioned how useful the tools of logic and philosophy were in understanding the Quran.
In the twelfth century, certain devout monks had said, “Whoever seeks to make Aristotle a Christian makes himself a heretic.” Out of this controversy, medieval Europe produced its greatest thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274). St. Thomas was a Dominican friar, who took a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Instead of living in isolated monasteries, friars spent much of their time preaching to laypeople in Europe’s growing towns and cities.
Friars generally belong to one of two major groups: Franciscans and Dominicans. Both had schools in most major universities of Western Europe by the early thirteenth century. Aquinas, a philosopher in the Dominican school of the University of Paris, had argued that human reason and divine revelation were in perfect harmony. He would raise a point, raise its objection, then provide an answer, and this answer would always be based on a logical argument. Aquinas was only part of a larger movement in the universities of Western Europe. We generally call the movement to reconcile Christian theology with human reason through the use of logic scholasticism.
Aquinas and the scholastics can be compared to Zhu Xi and the neo-Confucians of Song China. Just as Zhu Xi had sought to integrate Confucian thought with Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, so also Aquinas sought to integrate both Aristotelian logic and Christian theology.
The period not only saw successes in the field of speculative philosophy and theology, but also in the practical application of science. The master masons who designed Western Europe’s castles and cathedral churches built hundreds of soaring cathedrals, which would be the tallest buildings in Europe until the nineteenth century. This architecture was called Gothic, since it used pointed arches (which may have been copied from Middle Eastern styles) and stained-glass windows. The prosperity of Europe’s towns often financed the construction of these magnificent churches.
Thirteenth-century Europe showed other developments in technology. In 1269, Pierre of Harincourt first came to understand the principles of magnetic poles based on an analysis of the magnetic compass (in use since the twelfth century). At the same time, between 1286 and 1306, Western Europeans invented eyeglasses based on the pre-existing technology of lens-grinding, which had come from the Muslim world. Water clocks had been known since ancient times, but, in the years between 1271 and 1300, Western Europeans invented the mechanical clock.
In the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, Western Europeans gradually adapted the art of alchemy, (changing or attempting to change one element into another), from the Muslim world. Eventually, alchemists and natural philosophers who studied alchemy would find new techniques for refining and compounding chemicals. However, their ultimate goal of turning base metals into gold would never succeed.
In addition to these technologies invented or improved in medieval Europe, the Mongol Empire’s opening of trade routes had allowed the importation of East Asian technologies such as gunpowder.