Saturday, April 11, 2015

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

James Hannam’s 2009 book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science effectively explodes most of the irritating and wrong-headed prejudices that unfortunately still survive in relation to the Middle Ages.

The view that is still widely accepted is that intellectual progress, which had flourished in the ancient world, came to a grinding halt when the Roman Empire in the West collapsed and did not restart until the wise enlightened humanists of the Renaissance rediscovered the glories of ancient knowledge and swept away centuries of ignorance and superstition. The ignorance and superstition are almost always blamed on the Catholic Church which supposedly rabidly hostile to scientific enquiry.

Hannam demonstrates that this is all nonsense. Firstly, while the intellectual achievement of the Greeks and Romans was certainly impressive it is surprising just how often and how spectacularly the ancients were wrong. When it came to explaining how the world works they were wrong on just about every count. It is also remarkable just how technologically backward the ancient world was. The Greeks were fascinated by the process of constructing elaborate theories but they were extraordinarily uninterested in checking to see if their theories corresponded with reality. They were also surprisingly uninterested in finding practical applications for knowledge.

The Middle Ages, by contrast, were characterised by steady progress in technology. Medieval agriculture was infinitely more sophisticated than anything the ancients came up with. Part of the problem is that the ancients were unable to use the power of animals effectively. It was not until the so-called Dark Ages that proper harnesses were developed to allow oxen and horses to pull significant loads. The ancients had no stirrups, making horses of little use even for riding. Watermills and windmills, unknown in the ancient world, increased medieval agricultural productivity. The medievals also invented the mechanical clock, and the magnetic compass. They learnt how to make paper. They invented eye-glasses.

Medieval natural philosophers like Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, the famous Merton Calculators of Oxford University (Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead), Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa laid the foundations on which sixteenth century scientists like Kepler and Galileo built.

Hannam also debunks the myth of the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the intellectual legacy of the ancient world occurred in the twelfth century, right slap bang in the middle of the medieval period. The twelfth century also brought the work of the great Islamic scientific pioneers to the attention of western Europe. Most importantly, the European natural philosophers of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries took the achievements of the ancient and Islamic thinkers and developed them much further. There was no Scientific Revolution as such - scientific progress was steady but sure throughout the later medieval period.

The hostility of the Catholic Church to science is also mostly myth. The Church did not burn people for doing science. More often than not it encouraged them. Scientists in fact ran into much bigger problems after the end of the medieval period. Galileo was not persecuted by the medieval Church. Insofar as he was persecuted at all he was persecuted during the supposedly more enlightened seventeenth century (which really was an age of superstition and magic). And despite having ignored repeated warnings Galileo’s fate was not especially severe - he was not even imprisoned, merely sentenced to house arrest.

Critics of the Church and the Middle Ages like to bring up the burning of Giordano Bruno, but Bruno’s execution took place in 1600 long after the end of the medieval period, and he was no scientist - his doctrines were bizarre amalgams of mysticism and the occult.

Hannam’s book is both stimulating and vastly entertaining. He gives us enough biographical details to bring the great medieval natural philosophers to life while providing enough scholarly detail to make his case convincingly. This book is a model of what history should be. Very highly recommended.

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