Getting medieval on the history of science

God's Philosophers, by James HannamFollowing my previous post referring to  God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, I’ve now finished reading this book and can recommend it without reservation.

Hannam sets out to restore, for a popular audience, the reputations of medieval scientists – or “natural philosophers”, as they are more properly called (and as Hannam refers to them throughout). In doing so he systematically dismantles the standard narrative of the development of modern science that still tends to dominate our assumptions.

The standard narrative goes something like this:

  • The Greeks and Romans had developed remarkably advanced science and mathematics.
  • Then Christianity and the Dark Ages happened, and scientific development ceased as the Catholic Church clamped down on any rival systems of thought.
  • In the fourteenth century, the Renaissance happened, Greek and Roman culture was rediscovered.
  • As a result – and despite the best efforts of the Church, burning Giordano Bruno and prosecuting Galileo as a heretic – science resumed, pretty much where the Greeks and Romans had left off.

Hannam sets out a radically different story, which can be summarised very roughly as follows (with any mistakes or over-simplifications being mine rather than Hannam’s):

  • Medieval Europe made some remarkable technological advances, but the fall of the western Roman empire caused great political instability and  cut off western Europe from the Greek-speaking East, and thus from the heritage of Greek philosophical works.
  • From the twelfth century, western Europe began to rediscover Greek philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle) in Latin translation, leading to a revolution in philosophy (not least natural philosophy) and theology.
  • Between 1200 and 1500, medieval natural philosophers made many advances on Aristotle, including discoveries which were later attributed solely to post-Renaissance scientists such as Galileo.
  • From the late 1400s, the “humanist” movement rejected medieval philosophy in favour of a return to what they considered the superior, “pure” learning of classical Greece and Rome. In doing so they discarded many of the advances made by medieval thinkers (the University of Oxford, for example, lost its entire collection of medieval manuscripts between 1535 and 1558). Providentially, however, the invention of printing meant that many medieval scientific works survived even after they became unfashionable.
  • Early “modern scientists” such as Copernicus and Galileo were thus not reacting against medieval ignorance, but against reactionary humanism which had sought to discard the discoveries of medieval natural philosophy, and which often resisted attempts to correct Aristotle. Early modern science stood in continuity with medieval natural philosophy, rather than picking up where classical civilisation had left off.

Here are some sample quotations from Hannam’s book. First, on how printing saved medieval natural philosophy from destruction:

In traditional histories, the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as ‘a good thing’, but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. By discarding the advances made by medieval scholars together with so many of the manuscripts that contained them, they could have set back the advance of science by centuries. Einstein might have had to do the work of Newton. The reason that progress in science was not so held back (although it arguably didn’t move forward as quickly as it might have done) was that the invention of printing had guaranteed that, if nothing else, the old books were preserved. Most people forgot about them but a few, like Galileo, used the knowledge found within.

On Copernicus:

Thus, Copernicus was not a lone genius who rediscovered ancient wisdom. He was part of the long-running European school of natural philosophy that went back to William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, cross-fertilised by the parallel occult and Arabic traditions. That is not to say that heliocentricism was not radical and new, but Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is written in the language of medieval thinkers and uses their arguments.

On Kepler:

Kepler died in 1630. He had solved two of the greatest scientific problems of the Middle Ages – how the planets moved and how we can see. He did so driven by a relentless Christian faith and working in the medieval traditions of the universities. In putting Witelo’s name in the title of his book on optics, Kepler was not afraid to admit to his sources. The same cannot be said for his contemporary Galileo Galilei. His achievements were just as great as Kepler’s, but Galileo was a great deal more circumspect about where he was getting his ideas from.

On Galileo:

Galileo’s scientific achievement was solidly based on the natural philosophy that came before him. Appreciating that fact should not diminish our admiration of his genius. While almost all his theories can be traced back to earlier sources, he was the first to mould them into a coherent whole and the first to show how they could be experimentally demonstrated. In that sense, the long road to modern science really does start with him. […]

Galileo’s early doubts about Aristotle’s account of motion were not the thoughts of a lone radical, but part of a scientific milieu where experimentation and criticism of Greek natural philosophy were becoming increasingly common.

And from Hannam’s conclusion:

The most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened.

I hope that Hannam’s book will have a significant impact. It’s about time that our culture finally rid itself of the remarkably durable (at least on a popular level) myth of ignorant medievals, an anti-intellectual Catholic Church, and the triumphant resumption of scientific advance after a thousand years of unrelieved darkness.


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