God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam
Nina Power on a good Dark Ages argument made for the wrong reasons
Sometimes good arguments are made for the wrong reasons. Hannam’s overarching point in God’s Philosophers, namely, that the Middle Ages were not the backwards, uncivilised, religiously dogmatic period we tend to think of them as, is an argument worth making, and worth making often. We are “addicted”, says Hannam, to the idea that “nothing of consequence occurred between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance”. We use the word “medieval” as a synonym for brutality and still haven’t quite broken with Petrarch’s designation of the period 500-1500 AD as the “Dark Ages”. As Hannam points out, contrary to these stereotypes, this was the period when the compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe (admittedly on their way over from the Far East).
However, Hannam’s deeper motivation, namely to exonerate the Catholic Church from some of the worst excesses of which they stand accused (the persecution of Galileo, the holding back of scientific developments in astronomy, anatomy and physics), leads him to make some extremely convoluted and, at times, very unconvincing arguments. Just because persecution wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and just because some thinkers weren’t always the nicest of people doesn’t mean that interfering in their work and banning their ideas was justifiable then or is justifiable now. Hannam argues, for example, that “overall, the relationship between Christianity and natural philosophy … might best be summed up with the words ‘creative tension’.” Well, that’s one way of putting it – could we characterise contemporary debates about creationism and evolution in the same way? It seems unlikely.
Part of the problem in our understanding of this period, Hannam notes, is the difficulty of reading contemporary categories of “science” and “religion” back into forms of study and thinking that don’t fit these disciplines. “Natural philosophy”, the thought and practice of many of those covered in Hannam’s lengthy study, saw no problem in combining speculation about God with complex forms of reasoning. Hannam argues that “So prevalent did rational argument become among philosophers during the Middle Ages that the period deserves to be thought of as the beginning of the Age of Reason.” The course of science never did run smooth, and serious speculation about mathematics went hand-in-hand with astrology, alchemy and other discredited forms of pseudo-science (often because more money was to be made in telling fortunes for the rich than by solving equations). Hannam is good on these sorts of details, and as a general introduction to the intricacies of the thought and religious politics of this period, it is a useful guide: the difficulties of reconciling Aristotle’s thought with Christian doctrine are particularly well detailed.
Inevitably, though, it is the humanists who get the blame for misunderstanding the contributions of the Middle Ages. Those who looked back to the ancients tended to neglect the developments of the more recent period, certainly, but Hannam’s characterisation of these thinkers as “incorrigible reactionaries” who “almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy” is at odds with his more careful depiction of those that came before.
Whilst trying to fuse serious philosophy of science with a commitment to religious belief is a complex and intricate (and not uninteresting) process, it is hard not to read the Middle Ages as a struggle of new discovery and thought against dogmatic authority, even if those authorities were not as systematically brutal as we sometimes imagine they were: one of the most useful parts of Hannam’s argument is showing how the authority of Aristotle was finally shuffled off, hundreds of years after his works first emerged. It is this lesson – don’t believe what your masters tell you – that should be heeded above all.