God’s Philosophers by John Hannam

According to the polemicists of the New Atheist movement, the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe and the dawn of the Renaissance was a howling wilderness of ignorance and superstition, ruled over by a Christian Church prepared to sacrifice the welfare of humanity for the sake of absolute power.  However, James Hannam – who graduated with a science degree from Oxford University, before completing a PhD. in the history of science from Cambridge – puts forward a very different view in God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon Books, 2009).

Hannam makes no bones about the fact that, for most people, life in the medieval period was frequently brutish, nasty, and short.  However, Hannam argues that this was not due to the suppression of science by a totalitarian Church, but to the fact that the very scientific foundations upon which the medieval world operated were woefully inadequate to the task of understanding such basic matters as human health and environmental hygiene.  In other words, the medievals were not ignorant or superstitious or irrational, nor were they terrorised into silence by the Church; rather, the first principles from which they proceeded were just simply wrong.

Moreover, Hannam points out that, despite the conceptual and methodological burdens under which medieval thinkers laboured, their accomplishments were nonetheless quite impressive.  As Hannam notes:

Popular opinion, journalistic cliché, and misinformed historians notwithstanding, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages was a period of enormous advances in science, technology, and culture.  The compass, paper, printing, stirrups, and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe between AD500 and AD1500.  True, these inventions originated in the Far East, but Europeans developed them to a far higher degree than had been the case elsewhere…Meanwhile, the people of Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill, and the blast furnace all by themselves…Most significantly, the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilisation, modern science.  It is simply untrue to say that there was no science before the “Renaissance”. (p.5)

Hannam takes the reader on a tour through the scientific achievements of the medieval philosophers, beginning with the “mathematical Pope” Gerbert of Aurillac, who pioneered the use of the astrolabe and introduced Arabic numerals into Western mathematics.  Hannam then introduces figures such as Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, who argued that the principles of logic and reason established by the Greek philosophers could properly be utilised to illuminate the mysteries of faith and theology.  This might sound distinctly “unscientific”, but it points to two important truths: firstly, that medieval clerics did not blindly argue their positions from a basis of unthinking dogma; and, secondly, that in introducing logic and reason – with its demands for proofs and coherent argument – into intellectual life, theologians in the Middle Ages were, in fact, laying the foundations for the scientific method itself.

Indeed, it is the origin of modern intellectual enquiry within the theological institutions of the Middle Ages that marks one of Hannam’s most important points: that the medieval worldview was neither irrational nor illogical.  Far from suppressing investigation into nature, medieval philosophers actively enquired into the operation of the world around them.  They did so from the point of view that God had gifted humanity with a reason which was equipped to discover the secrets of creaturely existence, and thereby reveal the glory of God in creation itself.  Granted, this represents a difference in motivation from that which animates the “scientific method”;  but the point is that far from being an agent of suppression and obscurantism, the Church did, in fact, foster a detailed exploration of nature.

This is reflected in the now largely forgotten “renaissance” of the High Middle Ages, when figures such as William of Conches argued that it was absurd to interpret Scripture in a strictly literal sense; Pope Innocent III, who wrote that the Moon reflected the Sun’s light, instead of being a source of light itself; and Adelard of Bath, who translated hitherto lost works of Greek science into Latin, and who wrote original works on nature.  These clerical scholars were seriously hampered by their lack of access to systematic information, and some of the answers they produced in their investigations were just plain wrong; but their thirst for knowledge resulted in a widespread movement dedicated toward the translation of ancient texts, which in turn paved the way for the foundation of the first universities – and for the later “Renaissance” itself.  Says Hannam:

…Adelard is struggling because he is attempting to make sense of incomplete information while also sticking to the rules of rational enquiry.  He never tells his (reader) that a subject is impious or forbidden.  Nor does he invoke concepts that he would class as supernatural…Adelard’s science was wrong, often spectacularly so, but not because he was irrational or superstitious. (p.68, parenthesis added)

Which in turn brings the reader to an important discussion about one of the most contentious and most misrepresented aspects of the medieval Church: the Inquisition.  Hannam points out that there was no such thing as “the” Inquisition (that is, a monolithic institution charged with hunting down heretics) during the Middle Ages; rather, Inquisitors were individuals commissioned by the Pope to investigate specific allegations.  Moreover, the need for Inquisitors arose partly in response to anti-Semitic mob violence that followed in the wake of the Crusades (and which violated Church Law protecting Jews); and partly in response to a related upsurge in large-scale heretical movements such as the Cathars, a bastardised descendent of Manichaeism.  In other words, the Inquisition arose because of religious upheavals, and not because of any desire to suppress the scientific discoveries of medieval philosophers.

Which isn’t to say that Hannam pretends that, viewed from a modern perspective, the Inquisition wasn’t a barbarous institution responsible for untold human misery and suffering.  But what he does cogently argue is that, compared to the secular judicial institutions of the Middle Ages, the Inquisition was frequently a haven of fair-dealing and justice.  And that was because the Inquisitors had to follow strict rules of procedure and evidence, giving the accused multiple opportunities to escape serious punishment.  As a consequence, torture was relatively rare, and imprisonment and death penalties reserved only for the most serious cases.  And this relative lenience was a consequence of the Inquisitors being guided by new legal techniques that were themselves the product of a revival of interest in Roman law sparked by the translation movement of the High Middle Ages.  Hannam writes:

With the new system of “inquisition”, the “accusation” method (trial by ordeal, etc) of justice was eventually abandoned altogether.  Instead, the authorities appointed a magistrate to investigate the crime, interview witnesses, examine the evidence, and reach a verdict…The system was an obvious improvement over the old ways and slowly spread to secular justice too.  In fact, it worked so well it still forms the backbone of criminal investigation in continental Europe to this day. (p. 85, parenthesis added)

Over the course of the rest of Hannam’s book, he presents the reader with a parade of extraordinary individuals and groups who advanced scientific knowledge over the course of the Middle Ages, often in surprising and unexpected ways.  A brief survey includes:

  • St Thomas Aquinas, whose magnum opus Summa Theologiae, among other things, established the first agreed boundaries between scientific enquiry and theological reflection, enabling philosophers to investigate the natural world without fear of retribution from the Church (and which laid the foundation for the specialisation of intellectual disciplines that characterises modern science and theology)(p98-105);
  • Roger Bacon, who undertook pioneering work in the field of optics; and Richard of Wallingford, who used algebra to build an accurate mechanical clock (chapters 9-10);
  • The Merton Calculators, a group of Oxford scholars including Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who further developed Aquinas’ theology of reason, and who disproved the then popular notion of the “infallibility” of Aristotle (p. 167-74);
  • Thomas Bradwardine, who first realised the utility of mathematics in addressing problems in the field of physics; and Thomas Swineshead, who developed the Mean Speed Theorem that would form the basis of Galileo’s subsequent work in motion (p.175-80)
  • John Buridan, whose theory of impetus demonstrated that a projectile in motion travels in a type of arc known as a parabola (p.181-5);
  • Nicole Oresme, Bishop of Lisieux, who used the Mean Speed Theorem to demonstrate that the earth rotates on its axis (p.186-90)
  • Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who argued that the universe was limitless, and that the earth was just another heavenly body (p.198);

The point of this parade of luminaries is not just that they were clerics and Christians, but that the Church either actively supported their researches, or viewed them as entirely consistent with their status as clergy.  As Hannam notes:

The popular image of the medieval Church as a monolithic institution opposing any sort of scientific speculation is clearly inaccurate.  Natural philosophy had proven itself useful and worth supporting.  It is hard to imagine how any philosophy at all would have taken place if the Church-sponsored universities had not provided a home for it.  But the price of having a rich sponsor is having to bend to their interests and avoid subjects they find controversial.  Modern scientific researches competing for funding from big companies have exactly the same problem.  The Church allowed natural philosophers a much wider dispensation than many corporate interests allow their researchers today. (p.193)

The point of this last observation is not only to draw parallels between the Middle Ages and the present, but to demonstrate that the Renaissance, far from being the liberation of Western civilisation from the shackles of benighted obscurantism, in fact nearly completely destroyed European science by rejecting all the advances of medieval philosophy and investing in an (ironically) unthinking belief in the truthfulness of the classical authors, especially Aristotle.  Whilst this obsession resulted in the recovery of many previously lost Greek and Latin manuscripts, the very “modernity” of medieval philosophy meant its advances went unrecognised or were disregarded.  But in a tragi-comic twist, the advent of the printing press enabled the works of Buridan, Bradwardine, and others to reach a wider scholarly audience, thereby enabling Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo to make their great discoveries.

And it is on that point that Hannam makes perhaps his most important observation: that far from being the wholly original geniuses who shaped modern science out of a void of ignorance and irrationality, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were heavily indebted to the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages – even if they rarely acknowledged that debt.  Indeed, the “genius” of these giants of modern science was actually in their capacity to systematise the previously disparate threads of medieval intellectual enquiry, and apply this collated data to their observations.  This in turn enabled them to make original discoveries on their own account; but without the foundations laid by their predecessors, they would probably now be just as forgotten.

Allied to this is the misleading notion that the Church reacted negatively – and uniformly – against the discoveries of early modern science.  This, however, is simply not the case: for example, it was more than 50 years after its promulgation that the Church reacted in any way to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system; in the meantime, the “controversy” surrounding it was generated by other astronomers, not Church bureaucrats.  Moreover, the status of figures like Galileo and Giordano Bruno as “scientific martyrs” is a myth.  Bruno was something of a charlatan who wandered around Europe peddling a mystical-magical philosophy to anyone who would listen (he was eventually executed for his heretical views on the Eucharist, not for his scientific speculations); while Galileo was for a long time actively supported by the Jesuit Order and by Pope Urban VIII –  things only started going wrong for him when he indulged in a personal attack on the Order and the Pope himself.

Which isn’t to say that Hannam suggests that the Church was innocent of wrongdoing, or was in any way justified in its handling of Galileo or Bruno or any of the others who incurred its displeasure.  Rather, that this reaction, inhumane as it seems from the present, was nonetheless neither hysterical or irrational.  Moreover, the reaction, when it did come, was as much about personalities as it was perceived threats to the Church: both Galileo and Urban VIII were notoriously techy and arrogant.  Additionally, much of the opposition to Galileo and other “scientific martyrs” during their lifetimes came from other scientists, not the Church, again for reasons that had more to do with vanity than science. So the image of the valiant Galileo taking on the might of the tyrannical Church is vastly overblown where it is not actually false.

Ultimately, God’s Philosophers is a remarkably even-handed, thoroughly researched, and enjoyably accessible book that not only explodes the myth of medieval irrationality, it actually illustrates the muscular vitality of intellectual life during the Middle Ages.  Hannam does not gloss over the realities of life during this period, nor does he hide the tension between the natural philosophers who paved the way for modern science and the institutional Church that was the underlying reality of medieval life.  But he flatly rejects the notion that there was no science worth mentioning before 1500, or that the Church was responsible for wholesale suppression of its achievements.  God’s Philosophers is, ultimately, a paen to individuals and a culture which overcome enormous adversity to achieve spectacular results.  As Hannam says in the splendid closing paragraph of this book:

Life in the Middle Ages was often short and violent.  The common people were assailed by diseases they didn’t understand; exploited by a distant ruling class; and dependent upon a Christian Church that rarely lived up to the ideals of its founder.  It would be wrong to romanticise the period, and we should be very grateful that we do not have to live in it.  But the hard life that people had to bear only makes their progress in science and in many other fields all the more impressive.  We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.  They deserve our gratitude. (p.342)

(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.