Why God's Philosophers did not deserve to be shortlisted for the Royal Society prize
James Hannam's book is a good read but presents a distorted view of the medieval period and the development of science that suits his Catholic agenda, claims Charles Freeman.
Read James Hannam's response to this critique, published on the New Humanist site on 5 November 2010. A further response from Freeman was published on 9 November.
Last year, to universal acclaim, the Royal Society’s Prize for Science Books was awarded to Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a glorious account of the foundations of science in the Romantic era. This year one God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam appeared among the shortlist. It had a raft of adulatory reviews to which the judges of the prize added when they described it as “a vibrant insight into the medieval approach to science, full of wonderful anecdotes and personalities. Dispelling common myths about the ‘dark ages’, this is a very readable book about a neglected era in the history of science. It very much fills a gap, making you realise that the great scientific achievements of the Renaissance are in debt to the ‘philosophers’ prepared to sacrifice long held beliefs and frequently their lives for their ideas.” Yet its success is mystifying. Vibrant it certainly is, and full of good anecdotes and engaging personalities, but its vivid style masks a number of serious academic weaknesses which combine to make the book vastly overrated. It comes nowhere near the high academic quality that we should expect from a major institution such as the Royal Society yet its selection, as one of the last six from 134 entries, risks giving it an academic imprimatur.
Hannam is a Catholic convert (I have passed the other way) and he presents himself as an apologist (in the old sense of the word as “defender”) for the positive role of Christianity in Western society. Anyone who accesses his website for God’s Philosophers is provided with a link to his articles on the history of Christianity and science. In his article “Catholics Must Fight Back” on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site he states that “Christianity is the single most important element in the development of modern Western society”. So anyone who has explored the background to God’s Philosophers knows the context in which it was written. It is a pity that, as his Catholicism is already well known thanks to his own publicity, Hannam does not state his allegiance more specifically in God’s Philosophers. His stance on theological issues, notably faith and heresy, in God’s Philosophers only make sense if viewed from a Catholic perspective.
The core argument of God’s Philosophers is that a number of natural philosophers, most of them but not all working at the universities of Paris and Oxford between 1200 and 1400, made important breakthroughs so as to provide the foundation of what Hannam terms “modern science”. They were either supported by the Catholic Church or given an environment by it in which their researches were tolerated. Crucial to the argument is that after 1450 the work of these philosophers was unjustly denigrated by the so-called humanists, a bunch of “incorrigible reactionaries” who destroyed the progress the natural philosophers had made through their obsessions with the rediscovered texts of ancient Greece and Rome. One supporter of Hannam, a medievalist who clearly knows more about the literature on medieval science than I do, states that “his work is simply popularising several decades of research by leading historians of early science like [Ronald] Numbers, [David] Lindberg and [Edward] Grant”. Hannam has frequently gone on record to say that Edward Grant is his mentor. However, as the quotations I will provide from Grant’s recent major summary of his ideas, From Aristotle to Copernicus: Science and Religion 400 BC –AD 1550 suggests, Hannam certainly does not slavishly follow him. (1) Certainly God’s Philosophers is a popularising book, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. It is written with brio, full of lively characters and overall “a good read”. Although I could not see how the second half of the book related to Hannam’s main argument, this provided a wide-ranging and enjoyable romp through a variety of “scientific” thinkers of the sixteenth century. I can understand why so many readers have enjoyed it.
However God’s Philosophers is also poorly structured, without a coherent argument and often misleading, either through making assertions for which there is no, or contrary, evidence or by omitting evidence that would weaken its case. The review that called it “a spirited jaunt” was spot on. It catches the mood of serendipitous ramblings, anecdotes and asides that make it an easy read but hardly a serious contribution to our understanding of medieval and sixteenth century science. Its success is mystifying
First some background. The birth of modern science has been placed between Copernicus, whose heliocentric theory broke through the framework of medieval and ancient Ptolemaic cosmology in 1543, and the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, led by such as Francis Bacon, Galileo and Isaac Newton. There were several features of the period 1500 to 1600 that revolutionised the context in which all intellectual debate (scientific and otherwise) took place, which is why the beginnings of modern science are usually placed there (although they do not have to be). If one is looking at foundations before this one can draw on three: the ancient Greeks, the Arabs and the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages. Hannam plays no more than lip service to the first two and in this he contrasts with scholars such David Lindberg and Edward Grant, whose recent surveys of the history of science extend from the Greeks to the end of the Middle Ages. He can’t have known of Jim al-Khalili’s balanced Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science (2), as it is only just out, but al-Khalili makes a good case for Copernicus borrowing much from medieval Arab science by showing, with illustrations, how Copernicus’s models are similar, even to the placing of the labelling, to those in Arab astronomical texts.
Yet the European Middle Ages (and I shall be taking examples from 1100-1450) provided a very different context for debate and can better be understood by comparing them to the Greek intellectual tradition that Hannam virtually ignores. The intensely competitive arguments of the Greeks over virtually every aspect of knowledge can be traced back to 550 BC. (3) In the heterogeneous world of the Greek city-states there was no stable external authority to police intellectual debate and no orthodoxy that needed protecting. Philosophers were especially vulnerable to their adversaries and their response was to develop more sophisticated methods of argument, descending to the bedrock of what it means to know anything at all. So it was the Greeks who established the essential problems that still preoccupy philosophers today. As there was a community of philosophical thinkers who argued continuously, the tradition became self-perpetuating so that intellectual giants such as Galen (medicine) and Ptolemy (astronomy and geography) were still to be found in the second century AD.
So while Edward Grant can call Aristotle “probably the most significant figure in the history of Western thought up to the end of the sixteenth century” (4) (a fuller assessment can be found by consulting the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy), this does not mean that Aristotle was immune from challenge by his contemporaries and successors. After all it was Aristotle himself who argued that a theory was only as good as the empirical evidence it rested on and thus might collapse with the appearance of new evidence. So aspects of Aristotle’s empirical findings (on spontaneous generation) were challenged by his colleague and successor Theophrastus, and centuries later (in the sixth century AD) the Christian philosopher Philoponus was in the same, if dying tradition, when he challenged many of Aristotle’s assertions. (Alas, Philoponus was working in a new climate and he was posthumously declared a heretic for his views on the Trinity.) A much later challenger of Aristotle’s empirical findings, one Galileo Galilei, knew this when he noted that Aristotle would have approved more of his (Galileo’s) critical approach to his work than those of his time who stuck rigidly to misinterpretations of Aristotle’s work. (5) Throughout God’s Philosophers Hannam adulates those who challenge Aristotle’s empirical findings. Yet it was not the Greeks, but the medieval philosophers, and to some extent the Arabs, who placed Aristotle on the pedestal which they (and Hannam) thought they were being original in knocking him off. Galileo understood this well which is why he was so hostile to the medieval scholastics who froze Aristotle’s works as authoritative. He knew Aristotle would not have approved.
The major difference between the Greeks and the natural philosophers was that the more empirically minded Greeks, the followers of Aristotle rather than Plato, were concerned with the material world in its own right as the environment in which we live and did not see any intervention by the gods in its day to day operation. The forces beyond our vision and understanding were abstract and non-interventionist, so that the workings of natural laws could be trusted to be consistent. There were few barriers against speculation about the natural world.
In contrast, the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages, as Hannam repeatedly confirms, saw the world as the creation of God and the material world only part of a wider cosmos which was subject to a mass of supernatural forces, not only the actions of God through His miracles, but angels and saints and devils. This meant that much debate was about these supernatural forces and what God could actually do or not do. There was very little interest in systematically collecting information about the material world as the intensely curious Greeks did. (Medievalists note how the travelogues of pilgrims make almost no reference to the natural world around them.) In short, “science”, in the sense of a preoccupation with understanding the workings of the natural world, was not a major concern of the medieval philosophers. It was left to a few brilliant minds such as Jean Buridan, who carefully kept their work clear of the theologians, and to those whose main concern was with making the material world work better for them, to make “progress”. The latter were largely in Italy where the most prosperous, educated and skilled communities of the Middle Ages were to be found. Oddly, as we shall see, Hannam, the champion of medieval progress, hardly mentions the specific achievements of the Italian city-states from 1200 onwards.
To turn to the book. Hannam is frustrating in failing to use the term “science” in any coherent way. When Grant in his Science and Religion notes that “science in the late ancient and medieval periods was radically different from modern science' there is no chance of confusion as he provides no “modern science” to compare it with.(6) Hannam starts by making a clear distinction. He notes (p.6) that the Latin scientia encompassed all knowledge including theology. “The study of nature as a separate subject was called “natural philosophy”, and it is this term that will be used throughout this book”. Yet “throughout the book” he does exactly the opposite. His Chapter One is called “The Truth about Science in the Middle Ages”, Chapter Twelve, “The Apogee of Medieval Science”, and there are subtitles such as “ The Scientific Syllabus of the Middle Ages” and “The Decline of Medieval Science”. Why did Hannam not stick to the term “natural philosophy” as he promised to do? It is highly confusing to the reader not least because it suggests that the natural philosophers were scientists in the modern sense of the word when clearly they were not. A good editor would have sorted this conceptual muddle out.
Hannam begins his survey with a chapter subtitled “Progress in the Early Middle Ages”, by which he means the period c. 500 -1100. This chapter serves no purpose and does nothing to found his argument or give accurate information on “progress”. To take a simple point, again made by Edward Grant (7), Bede’s concept of “the establishment of the port” is the only original formulation of nature known to have been made in the West for some eight centuries. This does not deter Hannam. He is determined to make his readers believe that this was indeed an age of progress! So he quotes an American source to the effect that early medieval Europe “marks a steady and uninterrupted advance [sic] over the Roman empire”. He adds: “The popular impression that the early Middle Ages represented a hiatus in progress is the opposite of the truth” (p.17). Well perhaps he should approach some modern scholarship on the subject. He has no excuse as, in our exchange of 2006, I alerted him to Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (8) which documents the archaeological evidence for the disintegration of the Roman economy. Or he might take the introduction in Steven Epstein’s The Social and Economic History of Later Medieval Europe (1000-1500): “In the barbarian kingdoms of the early medieval economy, the imperial economy with its sophisticated tax structures collapsed by 700. . . .the barbarians wrecked much of the empire’s infrastructure and manufacturing or allowed it to decay”. (9) The most prosperous area of early medieval Europe, Epstein notes, was Muslim Spain. If Hannam really wants to have the evidence he can tackle Michael McCormick’s massive The Origins of the European Economy AD 300-900, a thousand pages of intricate evidence which opens one chapter with : “The economy which had sustained the Roman empire collapsed. It did so through a very long concatenation of gradual deteriorations and sharp blows”. (10) I always give the example from my native Suffolk of the late Roman Hoxne treasure of c.408 with over 15,000 gold and silver coins and the paltry forty found in the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial of two hundred years later. I think this is enough to show there was a major hiatus in progress and certainly not “a steady advance”. He might have noted that both McCormick and Epstein see one of the main items of trade with the Arab economies as pagan slaves. Is Hannam simply ignorant of the scholarship or is he so carried away by his thesis of progress that he just ignores it? All too often Hannam fails to see beyond the narrow perspectives of what he has written to spot their implications.
If he chooses to deal with this early period, Hannam cannot avoid the aggressive conversion campaigns of Charlemagne, which in one case involved the massacre of over 4,000 Saxon prisoners. “However,” he tells us, “the conversion of disparate tribes to a single religion brought them all together into a single spiritual unit. As a result the Church could, to some extent, enforce its prohibition against fighting between Christians and insist that their martial energies [sic] were directed externally.” (p.24) So that’s all right then – presumably they are justified in launching further wars of aggression to bring in more to the “single spiritual unit”. There appears to be an unthinking assumption, here and elsewhere in the book, that the march of “Christian civilization” was always a good thing whatever the cost in lives.
In my book The Closing of the Western Mind, I devoted the final chapter to “Thomas Aquinas and the Restoration of Reason”. I made my way through Boethius, Eriugena and Anselm to the major Christian theologians and gave Aquinas a special accolade. “Thomas Aquinas revived the Aristoteleian approach to knowing things so successfully that he unwittingly laid the foundations of the scientific revolution that was to transform western thought”. Although I now think this view overstated, at least it is one that Hannam will concur with. So Hannam can hardly count me as an adversary to his thesis or his chapter “The Rise of Reason” although, bearing in mind the sophistication of rational thinking among the Greeks, I felt that “restoration” was more appropriate.
Medieval logic, often subsumed under the general term “scholasticism”, was under way from the eleventh century. All logic rests on the foundations of axioms, basic, apparently unchallengeable, premises from which argument can proceed. So in mathematics the Greek Euclid famously set out axioms from which he developed incontrovertible proofs and the Greek empiricists tried to accumulate and classify evidence from the natural world that could provide an axiomatic foundation from which to work. Such were the foundations of mathematics and science. In the Middle Ages, on the other hand, the major axioms were theological, such as “God can do what He wills”. Once this axiom is taken as unchallengeable, logical outcomes are developed and much time is spent on issues such as whether God can create an infinity of angels and similar issues. In short, the axioms that are adopted decide the context in which the logical argument is developed and define the framework in which it can take place. This does not prelude speculation about the natural world, of course – it is all part of God’s creation – but it was hardly its main concern. One problem, as one can see from “best-sellers” such as that by Cardinal Lothario dei Segni, later the formidable Pope Innocent III, On the Contempt of the Worlds, is that theologians tended to talk of the degradation of the human state. Hannam’s argument that the natural philosophers wanted to explore the world because, as God’s creation, it was good, needs supporting evidence to place against the medieval texts that suggest that the pleasures of the world only deserve contempt or are there for human exploitation.
It is for this reason that Edward Grant seems absolutely right when he states in his God and Reason in the Middle Ages that “In the Middle Ages, reason was employed in an abstract and a priori manner and was frequently applied to hypothetical arguments and examples with little relevance to the real world”.(11) The theological community tended to be isolated and so, as Grant puts it, “By the end of the Middle Ages, scholastic logic had become virtually unintelligible to anyone not immersed in its strange juxtapositions of words and bizarre sentences it used as examples”. (12) Hannam tells us nothing of this. The best argument that can be made for scholasticism is that it fostered techniques of argument and analysis that could be transferred into new contexts. (Although I still have to find a work that shows that the reasoning of scientists in the seventeenth century can be traced back directly to scholastic logic – they seemed to work within the very different context of empiricism.)
Hannam’s pen pictures of his medieval natural philosophers are engaging but he often vastly overestimates their achievements and he underplays the power of the Church to prevent new thinking. I share his admiration for Abelard (1079 -1142) whose penetrating logic was outstanding, especially when he noted how often “faith” was simply used as a cloak for authority and people babbled statements that made no sense to them. His lectures were invigorating and his students were enthusiastic. The Church was rattled, there was some nasty subterfuge by his opponents, especially the austere Bernard Clairvaux, the champion of faith (Abelard’s “human ingenuity usurps everything, leaving nothing to faith”), to undermine him and he was charged with heresy. Eventually, nineteen specific statements he had made were condemned as heretical at a Council in Sens in 1140 and he died in 1142. Apparently he was personally forgiven by the pope before his death but his heresies remained condemned. No one seriously doubts that it was his challenging ideas and methods of arguments that presented major problems for the conservative theologians, who wished to defend articles of faith as revelations of God that were beyond reasoned thought, and lay behind his condemnation.
Yet for Hannam Catholic authority is never the problem. “However sympathetic we might be to his [Abelard’s] plight, the fact remains that he brought most of his problems on himself. His blatant hypocrisy and breathtaking arrogance ensured that he had a ready supply of enemies who were quite happy to see accusations of heresy to bring him down”. (P.59) Hannam has no understanding of the intellectual inhibitions that arise from ring-fencing large areas of knowledge as “faith”, or using the threat of heresy for those who transgressed, often unwittingly, the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy. Inevitably these tended to arbitrary. The freedom of intellectual debate was bedevilled, literally – the punishment for heresy was eternal suffering at the hands of devils in hell fire, something unknown to the Greeks. One will never know what fruitful pathways of knowledge remained closed as a result. (I have detailed the process by which religious “truths” were declared to be absolute and challenges to them worthy of excommunication and eternal punishment in my The Closing of the Western Mind and AD 381. I see the fourth century as one of the most important, if still neglected, turning points in the history of European thought. Hannam’s discussion of “Heresy and the Inquisition”, (pp.52-6), never considers that the definition of heresy is problematic. He takes it for granted that orthodox Catholic Christianity must be defended.)
Now Hannam goes on to state, in another of his sweeping assertions, that as soon as Abelard was dead “his ideas came to dominate Christian scholarship” (p. 59). His ideas were certainly popular in his day and his analytical method in his Sic et Non (which was a parade of conflicting early “authorities”) may have influenced his contemporary Peter Lombard’s medieval textbook The Sentences and so set patterns of argument for the future. However, by the end of the twelfth century Abelard’s influence was dead and not a single manuscript of his logical works survives from the thirteenth century. (13) Some of his ideas may be found in speculative theology of the fourteenth century but it seems that the condemnations of 1140 had their effect. Brilliant Abelard certainly was, but in terms of his ideas dominating Christian scholarship, he is nowhere near as influential as Augustine remained or Thomas Aquinas was to become, which is, perhaps, why more is known today about his fated relationship with Heloise than his philosophy.
Still, “natural philosophy” and logic were under way. Hannam argues that it was the universities that played the major role in sustaining natural philosophy. In his conclusion he gives them a major accolade: “Protected by both church and state universities gave students and their professors unprecedented [sic] levels of security and intellectual freedom” (p.339) and, earlier, “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” (p. 193). Well, the Greeks seemed to have sorted it before the Church had even been heard of!
There are many more problems lurking in these statements. First Hannam fails to distinguish between the two university traditions of Europe, those in northern Italy such as Padua and Bologna, which were not Church- sponsored, and those north of the Alps, notably Paris, which were. This distinction is crucial for any understanding of intellectual and cultural life in the Middle Ages.
The intense rivalry between popes and Holy Roman emperors for supremacy in Italy, the wealth flowing in from trade and the competition between them gave the Italian city-states an intense local pride which they showed off in their own public institutions and vigorous community activity. Here were the earliest universities. As Philip Jones shows in his authoritative The Italian City-State, “the main university movement was the enterprise supremely of the communes”. (14) (15 They needed them desperately for teaching advanced skills in law and administration. Those studying for the church had to go elsewhere. The University of Bologna, founded in the twelfth century, or, as many argue, much before this, did not even have a Faculty of Theology until 1364. As a result there were few tensions between lawyers and doctors and the Church and this may be the main reason why medicine was so advanced in Italy. Yet Hannam fails even to mention the medical school at Salerno, celebrated throughout Europe between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, where Arabs, Greeks, Jews and Latins worked alongside each other. As Jones continues, once the Italian universities were under way, “from the thirteenth century Italians advanced learning [in medicine] along new lines, incorporating and developing from what at first may have been public forensic purposes the scientific study of surgery and anatomy, based for the first time since antiquity on dissection and demonstrations'. (15)
Northern Italy was, in fact, the place in Europe where the institutional church was weakest. The Italians simply had to stand up the papacy if they were to keep their independence. The Benedictine historian Matthew Paris (1200-1259) even called the Italians “semi-Christian”! It was Marsiglio of Padua who in his Defensor Pacis of 1324 exploded the pretensions of the medieval papacy. Dante firmly placed several popes in hell and the greatest expropriation of Church property before the Reformation was effected by Florence in its war against the papacy in the 1370s. As a result the universities enjoyed relative independence. As Hannam acknowledges, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries English Protestants were able to go and study at the University of Padua because it was controlled not by the Catholic Church but by the city of Venice.
Jones also shows how Italian technology and know-how were preeminent in Europe. “In all the ‘revolutions’ associated most clearly with medieval economic growth Italians were the principal if not sole pioneers.” (16) Jones gives a wealth of examples of technological progress from shipping and spectacles to scientific cartography and complex accounting systems. This was after all the wealthiest and most highly-educated part of Europe. It has been estimated that seventy per cent of boys and girls in Florence enjoyed basic literacy in the 1330s and it is known that eighty per cent of households were able to submit their fiscal declarations in writing a century later. The church could never organise as effective a programme of education or even welfare as a determined commune. If I was writing on progress in the Middle Ages, I would give three times as much space to Italy as to the rest of Europe but, perhaps because the Catholic Church played so little part in this, Hannam does not regard it worthy of much attention. He does not even give a mention to the Pisan Fibonacci who many have seen as the finest mathematician of the Middle Ages (Fibonacci took his inspiration in mathematics straight off the Arabs). Fibonacci is not known ever to have attended a university although he was honoured with a pension by his native city.
In Paris, in contrast to Italy, the university grew out of the cathedral schools and the Faculty of Theology dominated the university in terms of prestige. It was Jean Buridan, the brilliant natural philosopher of the fourteenth century, who noted, when he came up against a contradiction between God's power and reason: `I yield the determination of these questions to the lord theologians, and I wish to acquiesce in their determination”. (17) Buridan was only echoing what had occurred earlier when Aristotle’s ideas began to permeate the academic community in the early thirteenth century. In 1228, Pope Gregory IX had warned the theologians that they must not leaven theology with worldly science and that they would weaken the authority of articles of faith if they tried to use reason to support them. In 1246, Pope Innocent IV made the university directly subject to the papal curia. Oxford was luckier in that it was only subject to the bishop of Lincoln who was under the eye of the king and this probably explains why “it established a freer, more empirical tradition [than Paris], more clearly orientated towards mathematical and scientific pursuits”.(18) Hannam describes these with enthusiasm but his praise for the Church as the sponsor of “free thinking” is much too sweeping. The further the universities were away from direct papal control, the more productive their work which was, in this period, teaching, not research.
Yet the fascination with Aristotle continued, culminating in the superb synthesis of his ideas with Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas. In 1272, two years before Thomas’ death, more action had to be taken at Paris. Hannam relates what happened next. “Just to be on the safe side [sic] the university of Paris required philosophers to agree that they would not meddle in matters of theology. From 1272 new graduates had to swear that they would never argue about sacred doctrines and, if they had to mention them, they would always come down on the side of orthodoxy. From a medieval point of view this was a sensible and understandable arrangement.” (P. 101) Well, maybe it was “sensible” in the specific context of the medieval world where condemnation led to excommunication and hell fire for eternity but this is not an “unprecedented level of freedom”, certainly not when compared with that enjoyed by the ancient Greeks. Theology was thus preserved as a reserved area, even into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was left to the Enlightenment thinkers to mount an effective challenge to its reserved status (which was often protected by prohibiting books, through the Index in the areas where there was effective papal control or through enforcing law, as in the English Blasphemy Act of 1698).
The Church authorities were still unsettled by the intrusion of Aristotle in Paris. His works set a much higher level of sophistication than any scholar had seen before. The problem was that he was not a Christian. While Christians argued that the material world had a moment of creation by a God that existed eternally, Aristotle argued that it was the world that existed eternally. The most committed Aristoteleian of the era was the Arab philosopher Averroes (1126 -1198) who had written massive commentaries on his hero, and had emerged as a major defender of the importance of using human reason to investigate matters of theology. Hannam might have been sympathetic to Averroes because Averroes’ approach was more likely to lead to modern scientific thinking than defence of the status quo, with theology left unchallenged and supreme. But for Hannam, freedom to think for oneself can go too far. As he puts it in a disapproving tone, “Averroes was certainly not content for philosophy to be a handmaiden of theology. Reason, he implied, trumped faith every time”. (P.96) Well, not an unreasonable position for a rationalist to take and one which is essential if there to be a genuine breakthrough in independent thought.
It is hardly surprising that the Catholic Church was determined to eradicate Averrorism as a threat to its status and doctrines and so when Siger of Brabant, a member of the Faculty of Arts in Paris, championed Averroes’ ideas, he had to be squashed. In the Condemnations of 1277, issued by the bishop of Paris with papal backing, 219 propositions, many of them relating to Aquinas’ and Averroes’ beliefs, were condemned. Hannam tells how the list was drawn up quickly but this “made their success all the more remarkable . . . they did put a stop to the Averroists” (!) (P.104). It is a pity that Hannam never explains at any point in this book explains Catholic theology and why he adheres to it. Then those with no knowledge of Catholicism could understand why he is so supportive of the crushing of the threat to Catholic articles of faith by Averroism, a philosophy that seems to be a good example of the Middle Ages laying foundations for modern scientific thought. Averroes continued to be seen as dangerous. The man who taught Galileo physics at Pisa, Girolamo Borro, was a convinced Averroist and was imprisoned by the Papal Inquisition as a result in the 1580s.
Hannam goes on to approve the principle enshrined in the Condemnations “that God had decreed the laws of nature but was not bound by them”. He certainly was not as everyone who lived in medieval Europe well knew. Every church had its own relics and they were mediums through which the saints and God/Christ himself could be approached in hope that he would award salvation from the hell that Augustine had argued was the expected fate of sinners, burdened as they were by the inherited sin of Adam. Miracles at shrines happened on a daily basis, sometimes a hundred at a time when a saint died (three hundred when the canonization of Nicholas of Tolentino was announced in 1446) or in the mass hysteria when a relic was exposed to the faithful on its feast day. Parisians of the thirteenth century would have seen the majestic Sainte-Chapelle take shape in the 1240s. It was to house the Crown of Thorns that Louis IX had spent half his annual income in acquiring and this was before he had added many other relics including the swaddling clothes of Jesus and milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary. No natural philosopher questioned the miraculous (the first was the Italian humanist Pietro Pomponazzi in his On Incantations (1556) - a book which naturally enough went straight onto the Papal Index of Prohibited Books) so everyone knew that God was not bound by natural laws. Hannam seems oblivious to the ubiquity of the miraculous in medieval life. He does not therefore discuss the extent to which the daily occurrence of miracles throughout the Catholic world may have inhibited the study of natural laws.
Yet Hannam’s argument then becomes even more bizarre. (Pp. 104-5.) The Condemnations of 1277 naturally condemned Aristotle’s view that the universe had existed eternally. The Condemnations were upholding Catholic doctrine of an independent divine creation and it could not have been expected otherwise. Hannam, supporting Catholic orthodoxy, states that Aristotle was “wrong” on the eternal universe. (I think modern scientists are not quite so sure.) Then comes Hannam’s astonishing next sentence. “If Aristotle could be wrong about something that he regarded as completely certain, that threw his whole philosophy into question”. Does Hannam really believe that? If so there cannot be a single philosopher in the world whose “whole philosophy” is not called into question. What about the independent evaluation of a philosopher’s specific strengths and weaknesses? He then goes on: “The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks”. But even if Hannam’s absurd sentence about Aristotle had been justified, Aristotle was only one figure in 900 years of Greek intellectual life. The richest period of Hellenistic science (c.300-100 BC) was one when Aristotle’s influence was at its weakest and a time when scientific and mathematical thought moved beyond Aristotle. So Hannam’s argument that through the Church declaring one belief of Aristotle to be wrong, the Middle Ages could move on beyond the Greeks makes no sense at all. Until more Greek texts entered Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, most people were unaware of what the Greeks other than Aristotle and Euclid had taught anyway. (The most important additions were Archimedes and the Hellenistic philosophers including the Sceptics.)The fixation on Aristotle as “The Philosopher” was never healthy, not least because it diverted attention from the breadth and sophistication of the whole Greek intellectual tradition.
So when Hannam moves on to Duns Scotus, who felt that Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning had gone too far, he once again asserts that, now that Aristotle has been challenged and God can do whatever He wants to do, science can flourish because there is more freedom to speculate. There is, sadly, no record that Duns Scotus went on to say: “But in order to help the human race make scientific progress, please God, stop doing so many miracles for the time being so that we can work out what your natural laws are”. God obliged only in the Protestant world of the sixteenth century onwards.
Hannam cannot resist giving out prizes – to medieval Brits if possible. So Richard of Wallingford, who designed an impressive clock for the monastery at St Albans, is declared to have left “a mechanical legacy without equal”. “Without equal”, ever? It was probably completed in the 1340s after Wallingford’s death although experts think that due to a failure to take friction into account it may never have worked accurately. Hannam, with his blindspot for Italian technology, does not appear to know of the more sophisticated astrarium constructed by Giovanni de’Dondi between 1348 and 1364 and installed in a castle in Pavia.
Next Hannam wants to give a boost to Thomas Bradwardine ( c.1290-1349). He puts forward the argument that Aristotle “did not believe that it was possible to make deductions in one subject, say mathematics, and use them to prove something in another subject, say physics”. (P. 176.) Hannam praises Brewardine for challenging this. I had never heard this said about Aristotle so I was pleased to find that the historian of science David Lindberg has dealt with the matter. He shows, with a quotation from Aristotle’s Physics, that Aristotle “consistently rejected a prohibition against crossing the boundary between physics and mathematics . . . In practice, Aristotle repeatedly and unapologetically applied mathematics to the physical world” (19) and, it might be added, so did many of his Greek successors, especially in astronomy. Thus Brewardine was not breaking with Aristotle, he was simply continuing within Aristoteleian tradition. Not quite such an original natural philosopher/scientist after all!
We are on common ground with Jean Buridan and his student Nicholas Oresme, both major thinkers in the Faculty of Arts in Paris, although Hannam may be going too far to argue that Buridan “laid the foundations for the new science of mechanics” as a result of his impetus theory. (It was hardly a “new science” if one looks at the work of Archimedes.) The canny Buridan knew how to keep his work independent of that of the Faculty of Theology, although enthusiasts for Buridan tend to see his greatest achievement to be in philosophy rather than in physics. (The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good survey of his achievements.)
Now Hannam has a problem. Buridan died in 1361 and Oresme in 1382 . The difficulty with the scholastic natural philosophers was that they never formed a self-critical community ready to pass texts around and argue about them and so the tradition begins to fade. The gap between traditional Greek philosophy, based on sense-experience and first principles, and the authority of Church teachings was impossible to bridge. The conflict between Galileo and the Church was always incipient and if natural philosophy had advanced further in the Middle Ages, this conflict would have perhaps come into the open earlier. (One criticism of Buridan that has been made is that he never broke through the Aristoteleian framework within which he worked.) Scholastic theology also appeared to be reaching a dead-end as it became ever more abstract and entangled in to the logical formulae that had become intrinsic to it. “By the mid-fourteenth century, it is already clear that scholastic theology was leading to a catastrophic alienation from the properly religious function it was expected to fulfil, and that it was going to have to be replaced by some other form of intellectual support for a genuinely Christian spirituality”. (20)
Yet despite this intellectual crisis, the 15th century is upon us. Hannam has to confront the major intellectual development of the century, the rise of classical humanism, notably at first in northern Italy. The humanists saw themselves as providing the new start, a justified intellectual reaction against the convoluted arguments of the scholastics. They were inspired by the rediscovery of many more classical texts, especially those from the Greek world. The input of these texts led to new ways of thinking about matters as wide-ranging as the purpose of education, the ideals of life, architecture and the scholastic tradition. One of the achievements of the humanists was that they were able to integrate their new learning with Christianity. Pius II (pope 1458-64) is a good example of a humanist scholar. Humanism represented a movement within, not outside or normally antagonistic, to Christendom
Yet the humanists were frustrated with Hannam’s beloved scholastic natural philosophers, so he has to diminish them. “We must meet a group of scholars and gentlemen who turned the word ‘medieval’ into an insult [this is the first time I have been told that the humanists used the word ‘medieval’] and sought to forget everything they owed to their immediate past in favour of glorifying the residues of the ancient world. These men have become known as the humanists”. (P. 210.) (Pause for groans and hisses.) He goes on “A fifteenth or sixteenth century humanist was simply [sic] someone who was interested [sic] in classical Greek or Latin literature. In seeking to turn back the clock, humanists thought they were at the cutting edge of innovation, but they were really incorrigible reactionaries”. (Pp. 212-3.) (Cue for more groans and hisses.) So much for the Renaissance and the many areas of cultural and intellectual life that it invigorated. (Reading the online synopses of the texts being published by the I Tatti Renaissance Library will help here.)
Luckily, as the darkness of humanist reaction settles across the sunlight of medieval Europe, Hannam has one last “medieval thinker” to produce. He is Nicholas of Cusa, often known as Cusanus (1400-1464). Nicholas came from Germany and studied at the University of Padua, the home of much of the most advanced thinking of the day. Hannam praises him for speculating about the limitless nature of the universe and for arguing that exact measurement was needed if natural philosophy was to be married to mathematics. Yet, as most scholars agree, his immediate influence was negligible. While he is mentioned by some thinkers in the sixteenth century such as Kepler, the late Edward Crantz, the great authority on Nicholas, can only suggest Giordano Bruno as a possible heir.
Yet when one comes to explore Nicholas as a “medieval thinker” there is a problem. Hannam derides the humanists for rubbishing medieval scholasticism but this is just what Nicholas does. His argument is that they are too addicted to reasoning for the sake of reasoning and they miss out on a wider vision. In essence he is a mystic. He argues that reason will only take one to the Gates of Paradise and unless reason is conquered one can never pass through them. In fact, Nicholas was deeply indebted to the sixth century mystical thinker known as Pseudo-Dionysius and though him Plato rather than Aristotle. (21)
Yet for Hannam (p.214), the reappearance of Plato’s works in the fifteenth century was due to the humanists that he derides. A terrible truth is revealed. Far from being a “medieval thinker” as Hannam claims, Nicholas of Cusa is one of those dreaded humanists. The collection of Crantz’s essays is entitled Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance. Nicholas has a chapter to himself in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy and the I Tatti Renaissance Library will shortly be issuing a translated volume of his works. So far from supporting Hannam’s argument that the medieval thinkers are somehow superior to the Renaissance humanists, one of his main examples turns out to be a Renaissance humanist!
Hannam’s opening sentence on Nicholas of Cusa (p.198) describes him as “the most original mind of the fifteenth century”. I would like to present two possible competitors. Hannam is right to applaud Gothic cathedrals and he has already picked out Beauvais as having the highest Gothic vault in Europe. Yet by the end of the fourteenth century, the Florentines had constructed a vast cathedral which still had no dome. The problem was that the base from which the dome was to raise was already twelve feet higher than the top of Beauvais. That was where one had to start building. It was left to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 -1446), inspired by classical models such as the Pantheon in Rome, to envisage and complete a two-shelled solution that still stands. I puffed up the 463 steps, up between the two shells, just a couple of weeks ago. Even lifting the stones that high required machinery that has been rated as centuries ahead of its time. It remains the highest and widest masonry dome ever built. This is undoubtedly the major architectural feat of the period 1100-1500 but Hannam, the advocate of the Middle Ages as an era of major technological progress, seems totally unaware of its significance. But there is more to Brunelleschi than this. It has been argued (notably by Samuel Edgerton (22)) that his theory of linear perspective had the revolutionary effect of establishing a vision that was instrumental in creating an understanding of space by the seventeenth century physicists. So much for humanist reactionaries.
Note that Brunelleschi never attended a university. Nor did another contender for “the most original mind of the fifteenth century”, one Leonardo da Vinci. As the primary function of a university was teaching, those whose immediate interests were scientific research or practical technology were better off seeking patrons outside them (23). Hannam gives a distorted picture when he infers that it was only in the universities that "science" took place..
Of course one can argue for ever over the true significance of Da Vinci but he does stand rather uncomfortably in a book that might be entitled “How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, and How the Humanists Tried to Destroy their Efforts”, if only because the breadth and variety of his work, in art as much as in science, is so infused with originality. So he needs to be got out of the way. Hannam does this brutally as early as page 7 of God’s Philosophers. Because Leonardo kept his work secret (which is not strictly true - he did work for patrons), Hannam tells us that he had no influence on Western science. “Consequently, and despite his enormous reputation, we will hear no more about him.” And that is that. I leave it to the reader to decide between Nicholas of Cusa, Brunelleschi and Leonardo as “the most original mind of the fifteenth century”. However, with Brunelleschi not mentioned and Leonardo not at the starting post, it is left to that Renaissance humanist philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, cleverly disguised by Hannam as a medieval natural philosopher, to come home in triumph!
I am afraid that it was at this point I gave up on this populist book as any kind of serious academic enterprise but duty compels me to continue. Hannam’s denigration of the humanists reaches a low point with his treatment of Erasmus. I suggest that readers click onto the entry for Erasmus in the Stanford Encyclopedia to remind themselves of his achievement. Here is another great mind who threatens Hannam’s assessment of humanists as “incorrigible reactionaries”. He was not only a major biblical scholar, he was arguing for reform of the Church, hardly a reactionary position to take. But he is a humanist. Naturally he must be dealt with. Hannam only mentions one of Erasmus’ many works, In Praise of Folly, in which Erasmus gently ridicules the pretensions of the papacy. Then (p.221) comes Hannam’s only comment and it is truly a killer sentence. “Erasmus’s rhetoric was part of a sustained attack on the Catholic Church that soon split Christianity asunder.” So that is the problem of the Reformation dealt with – those wretched humanists really did go too far! I was searching my mind for some way of describing Hannam’s attitude – for some reason the phrase “incorrigible reactionary” seemed to drift into it.
In the opening chapter of God’s Philosophers Hannam tells how the Middle Ages have usually been maligned by misguided commentators, but he is putting things right by applauding its achievements. His treatment of the humanists show that he I providing as major a distortion of the sixteenth century as any critic of the Middle Ages of the thirteenth and fourteenth. I had no idea, where outside his own mind, he had concocted his extreme views on the humanists. However, it looked as if I might find an answer. Hannam makes no pretence to be a medievalist but according to his agent’s blurb he has written a PhD on “the reception of medieval science in the sixteenth century”. A Cambridge PhD is no mean feat and this would surely contain the academic background to his views. So I accessed the PhD, even though its title “Teaching Natural Philosophy and Mathematics at Oxford and Cambridge 1500 –1570” (“James Hannam Teaching Natural Philosophy” will bring it up online) did not seem to match the description Hannam had given it.
Imagine my surprise when I found its thesis stated as follows (p.2).
“This thesis,” Hannam begins, “will argue that the universities were able to provide the education required by the pioneers of the new philosophy because they had radically reformed their teaching between the 1490s and 1560s. These changes went beyond replacing one set of textbooks with another. The whole process by which the syllabus was determined was remoulded from one where existing texts remained privileged for generations to one where change was the new normality. From venerating a set of fourteenth-century Scotist tomes [i.e. of Duns Scotus], the universities turned to a constantly renewed set of textbooks written in the previous few decades. Furthermore, both mathematics and natural philosophy expanded their horizons with the introduction of new subjects. Geography and natural history, recently established by the translation of ancient Greek texts, were introduced because they met the needs of the sixteenth century.”
So the humanists were reformers after all. I was especially relieved to see that he did, after all, know about the success of the Italian universities in that great age of humanism, the sixteenth century.
As he puts it:
“The Italian universities had employed a succession of esteemed natural philosophers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries [ i.e. the age of humanism]. Padua in particular could boast of Paul of Venice, Cajetan de Thiene, Agostino Nifo (c. 1473 –c. 1538), Niccolò Leonico Tomeo (1456 –1531) and Pietro Pomponazzi among others. With such illustrious names, it is hardly surprising that natural philosophy enjoyed a high reputation there as well as being a subject for which professors were well paid. In addition, the medical school at Padua demanded that arts students be better versed in natural philosophy than the theologians at Oxford or Cambridge felt necessary. [!] These factors meant that Padua employed four professors of natural philosophy in 1500. All these professors were producing important original work as well as teaching a great number of students. Their numerous publications are the main reason their fame lasts to this day.”
And what about our friend the University of Paris?
“The University of Paris, pre-eminent in theology, had little reputation in natural philosophy or mathematics While it was excellent as a way of illustrating God’s goodness in creating the world, it did not actually lead to anything specific, in the way that the medieval syllabus had led to scholastic theology. For those who wanted to carry out their own research into the state of nature, such a broad education was ideal in allowing them to identify areas they wished to follow up and not forcing them into any particular ideological mould.” (P. 215)
Here Hannam is simply echoing the traditional scholarship about universities that one finds in the standard histories. So Hannam has undergone a dramatic conversion. The man who is deeply sympathetic to humanists in his PhD thesis of 2008 has turned decisively against them by 2009. The man who applauds the natural philosophers of Paris in 2009 is happy in 2008 to write that “Paris had little reputation in natural philosophy or mathematics”. I think the apostle Paul would have been proud of him!
I leave it up to others to explain the conversion but it may just be that Hannam wants to make a populist splash and knows that in today’s climate one has to say something dramatic to do it. He can have no excuses for not knowing the scholarship about sixteenth century humanism as both primary and secondary sources are meticulously listed in his own Bibliography. I wonder what one of his listed authors, that outstanding scholar of humanism, Anthony Grafton, would have to say about Hannam’s views on humanism in God’s Philosophers.
I am not sure what the point of the rest of the book is, a romp through some selected figures of the sixteenth century. It is not clear. A tough editor might have said: “This is all good fun but aren’t you going to tie this in with an argument?”. The intellectual climate in Europe changed radically between 1500 and 1600. By 1600, 350,000 book titles had been published. New texts such as the works of Archimedes had been discovered and many more Greek works translated into Latin. The New World and the Reformation had challenged existing Euro-centric and Catholic-centred world pictures. There was a much more sustained interest in the natural world and empirical observation than had ever been seen in the Middle Ages. (24) There were public libraries for the first time since the classical period. In printing the perfection of woodcuts allowed scientific illustrations to be made for the first time, thus fostering a revival in natural history. The new discoveries overseas fostered the art of accurate map-making. Yet, Europe had also seen the Counter-Reformation, symbolized by the reassertion of traditional Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent and the Papal Index, that, in its first edition of 1559, comprised the entire works of 550 authors (including, of course, every work of Erasmus, even though he remained within the Catholic Church at the Reformation). The Index reads as a reading list for a course on modern European thought.
Hannam cannot let us know much of this. So while the Jesuits may have been great on electricity, we do not hear their founder Ignatius of Loyola’s notorious statement that “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides”. I had to chuckle when Hannam told us that “publicising his ideas was not Kepler’s strong point”. The first volume of Johannes Kepler’s most influential (among Protestant readers) book The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, a book that was to become a standard introduction to astronomy, was placed on the Papal Index in May 1619 so he did not get much help with his publicity there! The Church banned any book on the heliocentric universe which claimed it was a fact rather than a hypothesis. The 1835 Index was the first edition in which these listed works disappeared.
Hannam has an obsession with the point that Giordano Bruno (who was burned to death in Rome in 1600) was not burned to death for his science (pp. 306-10). This was a period when it was impossible to distinguish ‘science’ from the full range of intellectual activities that ranged over astrology and alchemy and into mysticism so the point hardly makes much sense. Why not concentrate on the fact that the Church could burn to death those whom it considered , for whatever, often arbitrary, reasons, it considered heretical. Of course, in Hannam’s typical style, it was all Bruno’s fault for challenging an essentially benign church. “His combination of new fangled and absurd theology with an unerring ability to rub people the wrong way meant that he could rarely stay put for long.” When a Venetian patrician took Bruno in, his ultimate fate was sealed . . . “the experience of having Bruno in his house was quite sufficient to cause any sensible Catholic to hand him over to the authorities”. Can’t Hannam see how crass this statement is, and how offensive it must be to his fellow Catholics? The Church, as Hannam appears to suggest, really could not have done much else with this recalcitrant figure than burn him and get him down to hell as soon as possible, although Hannam is prepared to criticize the Inquisition for taking this “renegade” seriously at all.
Hannam devotes three chapters to Galileo but these give the impression of something he has written elsewhere and which is now tacked on. What has Galileo, working in the totally different climate of Italy in the seventeenth century, got in common with the medieval philosophers of Paris and Oxford? Well, Hannam has his chance but he can show no more than Galileo must have been familiar with the mean speed theorem of the Merton Calculators (p.330), that he has used a result also obtained by Nicholas Oresme and demonstrated it in the same way (p.331), that he may have used the ideas of William Heystesbury from a 1494 edition of his works, may have used another medieval work on balls running down slopes, and generalised a law put forward by Jean Buridan.
This is nowhere near enough to support Hannam’s conclusion that “To historians who want to learn where Galileo and Kepler found their ideas, medieval natural philosophy is indispensable”. It isn’t at all, as a study of any standard biography of Galileo, such as John Heilbron’s excellent life, just published, will make clear. (25) Galileo was always sui generis, a genius in his own right who thought for himself. The only medieval figure who meant much to him as a young man was Dante. If he had heroes, he went back to the Greeks and Archimedes was the one he placed above all others. At the end of his biography, Heilbron helpfully gives an exhaustive list of 359 of Galileo’s ‘contemporaries and those whose writings and escapades engaged him.’ Other than Dante the only medieval natural philosopher is John of Sacrobosco (1195-1256) whose Sphaera was an elementary treatise on astronomy that Galileo was required to teach at Pisa. (Even here he used the 1581 Commentary by the mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius which was thirty times as long as the original.) If Heilbron, one of the most distinguished historians of science around, cannot spot the influence of the natural philosophers on Galileo, I doubt anyone can.
In fact, and here Hannam’s argument falls apart completely, Galileo was largely condemnatory of the medieval scholastics. In the introduction to his Science and Religion, Hannam’s mentor Edward Grant argues that Galileo “had only contempt for the scholastic natural philosophers” who mindlessly followed Aristotle. “More than anyone else, Galileo shaped the judgements about medieval scholasticism for the centuries that followed.” (26) So here we have the man whom Hannam claims used the medieval natural philosophers as the foundation for his work, actually being one of the main culprits for putting them in the dog-house.. As Heilbron says, “Galileo was a humanist of the old school”, his cultural tastes rooted in the sixteenth century that Hannam so despises.(27) The sheer muddle of Hannam’s argument leaves one in despair.
Hannam’s final conclusion means that his book ends not with a bang but a whimper. “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 [Stop giggling there at the back, Messrs. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo! We’ve put you on the Index so that we don’t have to be irritated by you], 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 endorses. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened.” (P. 336.) Come back you pagan Greeks. How did you manage all that intellectual stuff without being inspired by God? Where is the evidence that Galileo’s restless mind was primarily driven by his belief that God had created the universe? One cannot read about Galileo without coming across a man overflowing with curiosity and this surely has been and remains one of the driving forces behind many other scientific geniuses. Galileo emphatically denies that the natural philosophers have anything for him and so Hannam’s argument ends up in almost as total a collapse as the economy of early medieval Europe.
In his concluding chapter, “A Scientific Revolution” (pp. 337-342), Hannam puts forward four cornerstones which he claims the medieval period provided for the foundation of “modern science”. The first is the medieval university. I have covered the weaknesses in Hannam’s arguments above but, as he says nothing about how the universities carried on medieval natural philosophy into the next era, his argument never begins. As my quotations from it show, it is his own PhD thesis which suggests that they did reform, reject much of scholasticism, and become more open to science than they had been in the medieval period. Many of the greatest scientific minds worked outside the universities (witness the achievements of the Royal Society!) and it was not until the nineteenth century that the [German] universities became serious research institutions in science and the medieval period can hardly be responsible for this major shift in their focus.
Secondly, Hannam talks of technological advances. Yes, in Italy, in particular, these were often impressive but Hannam misses some of the best, such as Brunelleschi’s dome and de’Dondi’s astrarium. The Italians had the skills and commercial acumen to exploit technology quickly. I can’t make up my mind whether Hannam does not know much about medieval Italy or whether he avoids it because it might undermine his argument about the dominant influence of the Church on the fostering of learning.
I don’t give much credence for Hannam’s third cornerstone, the idea that science was inspired by the desire to understand God’s creation. This was not a cause of the much more sophisticated tradition of the Greeks, and, as we have seen, the focus on the absolute power of God to do as He wills diverted much of the natural philosophers’ energy away from the natural world. The constant presence of God in his miracles, which pervaded everyday life, hindered the discovery of natural laws. While Hannam talks of a medieval belief in the consistency of God, everyone hoped that he would not be consistent! Augustine had taught that, as a result of original sin, the expected destination of all humanity was hell, unless, through the (undeserved) grace of God, one was saved It might just be possible that he might change his mind through the intercessions of the saints or the pleadings of the Virgin Mary. The greatest barrier to modern science was in fact the view of the Catholic Church, reasserted with some vigour at the Council of Trent (1545-1563),that God is not bound by natural laws and so is free to disregard them through the granting of miracles. It is possible to argue that the roots of Galileo’s conflicts with the Church lay in his insistence that there were natural laws that could not be subverted, and here he emphatically turns his back on the world of the natural philosophers.
Finally, Hannam talks of the theories that natural philosophers bequeathed to the modern world. Actually he lists surprisingly few. His final assertion - “Without these scientific [that word again!] advances it is hard to see how Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo could have made the progress they did” - is not proven. As not one of Hannam’s listed medieval inventions was an astronomical instrument it seems unlikely. Even when I did some work on Copernicus about ten years ago his direct borrowings from the Arabs were known about. While the first Arab observatory was up and running in Baghdad by 828 (the Shammasiyya observatory), there was not a single one in Christian Europe until Tycho Brahe’s at Hven in Denmark in 1576. Perhaps this fact alone is enough to suggest caution when awarding prizes for the founders of modern science among the medievalists, especially when they are being given credit for the achievements of astronomers
James Hannam is a good writer and has clearly built up a loyal following. Within the “Christianity brought civilization” school he is vastly better than David Bentley Hart (who makes sweeping assertions about the benefits of Christianity without any evidence to support them) and Rodney Stark who is simply embarrassing (see my review of his The Victory of Reason on Amazon.co.uk), but he allows his thesis to dominate to the extent that he distorts the findings of recent scholarship too help it fit. He has major problems with structuring a book and using his conceptual terms coherently and much of what he says is not supported by scholarship. His Catholicism often blinds him to the real difficulties in thinking independently when the punishment for heresy, however it was defined, was so brutal on earth and everlasting in hell. None of this detracts from “the good read” and the interesting information he provides about his heroes but this can hardly be called a book of high academic quality. Entitled The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution in the forthcoming US edition, it will doubtless be lauded there as a major work of scholarship.
There are thousands of books like this coming out every year, hoping to catch a mood, in this case the belief that the Middle Ages have been underestimated. As this critique shows, I am more than happy to accept the Middle Ages as progressive, but I would place this progress in Italy rather than in Paris and Oxford. The Italian city-states had a creative vitality that is not easily found in the rest of Europe. It is not so much James Hannam that I am criticising as those critics who failed to challenge his arguments. God’s Philosophers succeeds at the “good read” level but goes no further. I was not surprised that Nina Power writing in New Humanist gave God’s Philosophers two stars and I expected many similar reviews. They have not arrived as I assumed they would from historians with an interest in the history of European thought. Perhaps, like myself, they glanced at the book and did not think it was a serious contribution to the medieval period. (In fact, historians do not seem to have noticed the book at all.) I may be sticking my neck out, but by not awarding God’s Philosophers its top prize, I am sure that the Royal Society has saved itself considerable embarrassment.
Read James Hannam's response to this critique, published on the New Humanist site on 5 November 2010. A further response from Freeman was published on 9 November.
1. John Hopkins University Press, 2004. This book is particularly useful as it allows the medieval period to be placed in its historical context and shows a distinguished conservative scholar summing up a lifetime of research.
2. Allen Lane, 2010. See page 218 for the illustrations.
3. The many works by G.E.R.Lloyd provide a good starting point, e.g. The Revolutions of Wisdom, University of California Press. 1987, although I have been taken by Lloyd’s study of the complexities of Aristotle’s research in his Aristoteleian Explorations, Cambridge University Press, 1996..
4. Grant, Science and Religion, p. 37.
5. See Galileo’s letter (September 1640) to Fortunio Liceto, a professor of philosophy at Padua, in which Galileo told him that he was not against Aristotle as such but against the scholastic interpretations of him.
6. Grant, Science and Religion, p.24.
7. Ibid, p.145.
8. Oxford University Press, 2005.
9. Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 10-11.
10.Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.115.
11. Cambridge University Press, 2001. p.290.
12. Grant, Science and Religion, p. 6.
13. A point made Yukio Iwaruma in his chapter ‘Influence’ in Jeffrey Brower and Kevin Guilfroy (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Abelard, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.305.
14. Oxford University Press, 1997, p.449. As Jones goes on (p.450), ‘Higher education was for the communes a state concern, an attribute of power’.
15. Ibid,. p. 452-3.
16. Ibid., p.183.
17. Quoted by Grant, Science and Religion, p. 211.
18. Anthony Levi, Renaissance and Reformation: The Intellectual Genesis, Yale University Press, 2002, pp.43-4.
19. The Beginnings of Western Science, Second Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 360-1.
20. Levi, op.cit., p.65.
21. The lecture ‘Reason and Beyond Reason in Nicholas of Cusa’, in F. Edward Crantz, Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance, Ashgate/Variorum Press, 2000, has the relevant quotations from Nicholas’ work.
22. Most recently in The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, Cornell University Press, 2009.
23. This explains the letter of 1610 sent by Galileo to Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, while Galileo was still employed by the University of Padua but hoping for patronage from Cosimo. ‘ If I am to return to my native Land [Tuscany], I desire that the primary intention of his Highness shall be to give me leave and leisure to draw my works to a conclusion without teaching.’
24. In contrast to the medieval scholastics. ‘ . . .nonscholastic, or better antischolastic, scholars in the seventeenth century, beginning with Francis Bacon, and continuing on through a stellar list of natural philosophers and scientists, laid great emphasis on empirical evidence as a control on pure reason’. Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, p.290.
25. Galileo, Oxford University Press, 2010.
26. Grant, Science and Religion, p.24.
27. On page 1 of his biography.