The History of the History of Medieval Science
The Dark Ages
The Revival of Learning
The Slow Climb to Science
Geocentric versus Heliocentric
Conclusion and the Contribution of Christianity
Of the essays I have written, the one that has elicited the most response is How Christianity Helped Us Think Straight. While discussing this on the internet I have often come across many “new atheists” who simply cannot bring themselves to accept that Christianity had anything to do with the development of their beloved science. There are, I think, two reasons for this.
First, they have fed themselves an unrelenting diet of nineteenth century anti-religious myths like those found in Andrew Dickson White’s The Warfare of Science and Theology and John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. My essay on the Great Library of Alexandria has been especially painful to certain individuals as it demolishes one of their most cherished legends of Christian barbarism. Others have felt that any discussion on science and religion is killed stone dead by simply mentioning the unfortunate but, in the long tem, unrepresentative Galileo affair. We will be discussing this further below.
The second problem is that the history of science as an academic subject is still in its infancy and medieval science, which I believe is the vital period, is even more neglected due to the lack of Latin language skills. This means that the discoveries of academia have yet to percolate through to the general public. Popular histories of science give the impression that science began in the sixteenth century when Europeans finally picked up that baton that the Greeks had dropped when they were smothered by Christian dogma. I hope my book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, has started to combat this attitude.
There are several other myths surrounding the subject that I would also like to address below. I think, therefore, it is time to write an expanded essay on this question and include more historical background that will hopefully illuminate the debate.
The History of the History of Medieval Science
At the end of the nineteenth century the triumph of rationalism seemed near to complete. The history of science was the story of reason throwing off the shackles of superstition as chronicled in the works of Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper. But a backlash was inevitable and it came in fifteen weighty volumes from Pierre Duhem. He was the first to blow the cobwebs off the writings of medieval natural philosophers and found within some evocative glimmerings of what we would recognise as science. However, both Duhem and White were guilty of the same mistake as they picked through a vast body of writing to find only those pieces of evidence that fitted their theory (Draper was just a polemicist).
What was required was a more holistic view of the evidence but it was a while coming. Alexandre Koyré instead reasserted the pre-eminence of the Scientific Revolution (a term that he coined) and then Thomas Kuhn gave us his famous paradigm shift that seemed to cut medieval science off from the future completely. Over the last twenty years the picture has changed again as enough of the documents from the medieval period have been read and important work on the university system in the High Middle Ages has taken place. Indeed, Steven Shapin was able to begin one of his books with the words “The scientific revolution never happened and this is a book about it.” Meanwhile Edward Grant and David Lindberg have both produced surveys of science before 1500 that give credit where it is due. Medieval natural philosophers may not have been scientists in the way we would understand them but they laid the cultural and intellectual ground work which was essential for later developments. And in all of this Christianity was a vital part of the story.
The Dark Ages
That the first myth I wish to dispose of is that Christianity actually caused or prolonged the Dark Ages. Most of us know that the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west had nothing to do with religion. Instead, it was the result of the hordes of barbarian invaders and the Empire’s inability to cope with them after centuries of stagnation. The last of the invaders were the Vikings who subsided in the tenth century although their descendants, the Normans, kept the family traditions up for a while longer. Gradually the barbarians converted to Christianity but it was many generations before they lost touch with their pagan culture and way of life. We should also note that the Dark Ages were not actually that gloomy at all and historians now prefer to use the less judgemental phrase of ‘early Middle Ages’. The period was one of dynamic technical advance, with inventions like the horse collar and stirrup; great art, like the Sutton Hoe treasure; and great literature too, such as Beowulf and the work of the Venerable Bede himself (and that is just in England).
There was a Renaissance of sorts around 800 AD under Charlemagne and by the eleventh century a recognisable Western European culture was firmly established. Christians had always looked back to the Roman Empire as a lost ideal while pagan authors like Cicero and Virgil were popular. Christianity had grown up in a pagan culture and was usually quite comfortable with its literary achievements. There was no attempt to suppress classical works by the church and the losses of the early Middle Ages were caused simply by the fact that only a tiny number of people had been literate and hence valued the decaying manuscripts. It was the church that kept the candle of learning alive. The preservation of all the Latin literature that has come down to us is a direct result of the efforts of Christian scribes who laboured to copy out old manuscripts. True, they were more concerned to preserve what was important to them and that meant Christian writing – but to accuse them of not being interested in exactly what we are interested in is small-minded and churlish when we owe them so much.
It is important to note that there never was a tradition of natural philosophy (the name given to science at the time) in classical Latin. An intellectually-inclined Roman would learn Greek and study the masters in their own language. In contrast, someone wishing to get an overview would read a Latin handbook that gave the essential facts without the need to read the forbidding primary texts. It was these handbooks which were preserved in Western Europe but as they were redrafted and copied they became less and less useful. Like today’s popular science, they could hopelessly mangle explanations of the real science and give people the impression that they understood things that they did not. The most famous handbooks were by Isidore of Seville (who now appears to be the patron saint of the internet) and Martianus Capella.
The Revival of Greek Learning
In the early Middle Ages, non-theological subjects were taught within the framework of the seven liberal arts: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic together with the quadrivium of astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. It is frightening to see the split between art and science is so early! Western Europeans knew perfectly well how ignorant they were and spoke of the intellectual “poverty of the Latins”. There was a strong desire to find out more about the ancient learning and fairly soon they were able to obtain it. With the fall of Toledo in Spain in 1085, a major centre of Moslem learning had fallen to the Christians. Scholars descended on the city and started to translate vast amounts of what they found into their own language. Fairly soon, they realised that it would be better to be translating the Greek originals rather than second hand through Arabic versions. So the hunt was on for Greek manuscripts too. The Muslim contribution was not so much the preservation of Greek philosophy which had also survived in its original language through the Byzantine Empire. The Arab achievement consisted of the commentaries they made and their original advances in maths, optics and medicine. Furthermore, as there was no fundamental hostility to pagan learning in the Christian West, nearly all literate men, trained by the church, welcomed the new sources of knowledge with open arms. Conflicts would arise later but they were mainly academic or intellectual in nature and were not aimed against ancient thought in general.
We should note that the West was not handed the Greek and Arabic classics on a plate. They had to search them out and do a great deal of translation work. And the desire for that learning was something that they developed themselves without any outside help at all. They had started to see the world in a different way. As noted in my earlier essay, they believed that the universe was a law abiding structure because it had been created by a lawful God. This meant that it was open to analysis and investigation by reason and even God himself could be so investigated. St. Anselm’s ontological argument and the writings of William of Conches and Adelard of Bath show how far Christian thinkers had come before the influx of the translations. Indeed some scholars speak of the twelfth century as a Renaissance in its own right.
The author who most fired the excitement of late medieval scholars was Aristotle. He seemed to have answers to everything and people wanted to know what they were. His works and his Arab commentators were translated, copied and studied diligently and pretty soon he became the core of the curriculum at the new universities that had sprung up across Europe.
These universities were radically different from previous centres of learning in a number of ways. Firstly, they did not depend entirely on the prestige of particular teachers. Second they were independent corporations separate from both church and state (at least to a degree). Finally they could encompass very many different points of view. They ensured that, even if the most vital scholarship was done actually their members, that a body of well educated people familiar with the new learning appeared relatively quickly.
But Aristotle did conflict with the teaching of the Bible and everyone understood that the Bible was the ultimate authority. It was alright to think about what Aristotle suggested and even to consider how things might have been if God had done them differently, but you could not say that Aristotle was right and the Bible was wrong. And this was a stroke of luck because in physics at least, Aristotle was wrong just about the whole time. Aristotle’s problem was that he saw being rational as the same as using one’s intuition. Therefore, although he was a great observer (as shown in his works on biology (or natural history as the ancients called it) he never felt the need for experimentation. This meant he described the way he thought things ought to be rather than the way they were, while the real world was thought as too chaotic to allow much systematic analysis. So, not only did Aristotle (wrongly) insist a heavy object would fall faster than a light one, a vacuum is impossible, the universe was eternal and that the earth was at its centre, he said went as far as to claim that these things had to be so.
An astute reader will already be pointing out that the Bible too was thought to suggest a geocentric universe and stationary Earth. But this was much less of a problem than might be thought as people were more happy to read the Bible symbolically than they would become later. Nicholas Oresme, in considering the rotation of the earth, wrote that the Bible ‘conforms to the customary usage of popular speech’ and so references to a stationary earth should be construed as figurative rather than literal. Consider that today, you would be hard pressed to get even the most conservative evangelical to claim that the Earth cannot orbit the sun on the grounds that the Bible says so. We shall return to this question when we look at the trial of Galileo.
It was not so much the eternal universe conflicting with Genesis that worried serious theologians, it was the idea that God himself was restricted to doing what Aristotle thought possible. Before long, St Thomas Aquinas was redefining omnipotence in a rigorously logical fashion and using similar methods to construct a entirely new rational theology. Some traditionalists were shocked but soon the liberals were indeed claiming God could not have created a world that did not conform to their reason. Everything came to a head in the Condemnations of Paris in 1277.
To us the long list of errors which could not be taught that the Archbishop of Paris promulgated sounds just like the church stamping on reason and reasserting superstition. But in fact they were a vital step on the way to modern science. Despite all the fiery language, the Condemnation did not seem to have much negative effect apart from shutting up the liberals and incidentally writing off most of Aquinas at the same time. This was soon put right and Aquinas was made a saint. Even the threatened rewriting of Aristotle with the controversial bits removed never came to anything. What is important about the condemnations is that they forced a refocusing on the way we look at the world.
William of Ockham was one of those who tried to draw a line under unrestrained rational conjecture with his famous razor. But the atheist may be disappointed to hear that he seemed to think that God was about all you needed in terms of ultimate explanations. William said that we cannot assume that God did things the way we think he ought to as he can do whatever he likes. Therefore the only way to find out what God has actually done is to go out and look. In other words you need to do experiments. Unfortunately this idea did not immediately take hold but Aristotle had, at least, been tipped out of his throne. Modern science really began when he had been chased out of the building too but that had to wait for a while longer.
The Slow Climb to Modern Science
At the beginning of the fourteenth century it looked as if the scientific revolution could be just around the corner but in fact it had to wait another two centuries. Thinkers had realised that a lawful God meant a comprehensible universe open to their powers of reason and had also climbed out of the trap of unbridled speculation divorced from actual reality. So what caused the delay? One major factor would have been the Black Death that struck with terrifying force in the 1340s. It wiped out nearly half the population and it was hard to cling to the force of reason in the face of such awful and indiscriminate death.
Furthermore there was work still to be done. Scholars at Merton College in Oxford produced valuable work on the motion of a particle subject to uniform acceleration but no one thought that gravity itself might be a force that produced just such a motion. There was also a good deal of consideration about motion in a vacuum and conclusions that heavy and light particles would fall with the same speed in such a system. Impetus theory developed from this and this is sometimes credited for being an early formulation of the Law of Inertia (Newton’s First Law). Later on, Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci would pick up much of this work and take it further but for now the material world still seemed too complicated to yield to such schemes. A much simpler place was required and skies above seemed to provide it.
Geocentric versus Heliocentric
The Greek philosopher, Aristarchus of Samos, had suggested a model of the Solar System with the sun in the centre in 250BC but no one took very much notice. Instead the Greek’s refined Aristotle’s idea of placing the Earth in the centre with Ptolemy of Alexandria its most learned exponent. It was this model that was picked up by medieval cosmologists.
Two more myths need dispelling at this point. The first is that people in the Middle Ages thought that the earth was flat. As explained here, they undoubtedly did not and thought that the earth was a globe around which the sun and planets revolved. Columbus faced trouble going west not because his sailor’s thought they would sail off the edge of the world but because they rightly thought that the distance between Europe and the East Indies was much greater than Columbus did. Imagine the trouble he would have been in if the Americas had not been there to land on!
The other myth is that medieval cosmologists placed the Earth in the centre of the universe because they thought this was a measure of its importance. In fact the opposite is true and they saw the fallen and dirty Earth belonged below while the heavens were the realm of perfection and light. Removing the Earth from the centre seemed to exalt it rather than marginalize it. The so called Copernican fallacy is a modern invention that replaces the alleged claim that the earth was the centre of the universe because it was important with the equally daft idea that because the Earth is not so positioned, it does not matter.
The Polish parson Nicolaus Copernicus first published his idea of a heliocentric model during 1543 in The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in which he suggested that the earth orbited the sun. Exactly why he thought this remains a mystery and he was clearly afraid of academic ridicule. Because, like Ptolemy, he insisted on circular orbits, his heliocentric model was no more accurate than the geocentric one. It also conflicted with obvious empirical evidence such as the lack of stellar parallax (the stars do not appear to move relative to the Earth as it orbits the sun). The only advantage of his model was it seemed to be simpler.
More and better observations slowly chipped away at the Ptolemaic model and Tycho Brahe suggested that the planets orbited the sun which in turn moved around the Earth. This met with much approval and was what the intellectual classes widely believed when Galileo came onto the scene. But Johannes Kepler had already improved the model further by using a Copernican system with elliptical orbits. As his writings make clear, he had been inspired by his faith to figure out a perfect system as he knew God would not tolerate the inaccuracy that still plagued the other models. It is likely that in time Kepler’s model would have been accepted by the academic community after some debate and science would have moved on. But a monstrous clash of egos and the Reformation made such a peaceful transition impossible.
The greatest of the secular myths is Galileo Galilei as a martyr for science. The epic battle between the forces of reason and truth and the dark superstitions of the church has been retold hundreds of times. The truth as discovered by patient work by modern academics is a little less clear cut and not quite so kind to Galileo. Galileo was a great scientist but in astronomy he was not on as scientifically firm ground as is often believed. He supported Copernicus rather than Kepler so his model was not any better than Ptolemy’s and perhaps eclipsed by Tycho Brahe’s. He also wrongly insisted that the tides were proof that the Earth was revolving on its axis.
Be that as it may, he published, in 1630, with papal permission, a book called A Dialogue Concerning Two Principal Systems of the World which was more what we would term ‘popular science’ than an academic text. The Pope, Urban VIII, believed he was being parodied in it as a fool – an insult that no self respecting Renaissance prince could bear. Galileo already had plenty of enemies in academia who resented his fame, influence and condescending style and when abandoned by the Pope he ran out of friends. He was summoned to Rome and arrested by the Inquisition. Clearly, it was impossible to bring a man to trial for making the Pope look foolish so a trumped up charge was manufactured using a spurious undertaking that Galileo was supposed to have given not to teach Copernicus’s theory. In addition, the Protestant reformers had accused Catholicism of straying too far from the Bible. The relaxed reading that had prevailed among academics in the Middle Ages was therefore unfortunately no longer in fashion in Rome.
The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and, because he refused to use Kepler’s system, Galileo even lost the scientific argument. His recantation was intended to cut him down to size and he was kept in a very comfortable house arrest until he died a few years later. He never came to any physical harm at the hands of the Inquisition and neither did he mutter his famous words ‘But it does move’ as he was condemned. In all he got off quite lightly because if he had attacked a secular ruler of the time as he did the Pope, intentionally or not, the cutting down to size would have been roughly one foot and involved an axe.
As the purpose of this essay is not to consider Galileo in depth I would recommend the following works. Galileo the Courtier by Mario Biagioli is summarised here and examines how Galileo may have been a victim of the politics in the Pope’s court. The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santillana remains one of the standard academic works although it is now rather out of date. Stillman Drake’s Galileo: A Very Short Introduction is written by one of the masters of the subject. Finally, this essay by Paul Newall contains a very detailed explanation of the political and intellectual climate at the time together with a fresh interpretation of the events surrounding the trial.
Conclusion and the Contribution of Christianity
Christianity had an important impact on every step of the road to modern science. Let me now summarise exactly what they were:
The preservation of literacy in the Dark Ages
Because it is a literary religion based on sacred texts and informed by the writings of the early church fathers, Christianity was exclusively responsible for the preservation of literacy and learning after the fall of the Western Empire. This meant not only that the Latin classics were preserved but also that their were sufficient men of learning to take Greek thought forward when it was rediscovered.
The doctrine of the lawfulness of of nature
As they believed in a law abiding creator God, even before the rediscovery of Greek thought, twelfth century Christians felt they could investigate the natural world for secondary causes rather than put everything down to fate (like the ancients) or the will of Allah (like Moslems). Although we see a respect for the powers of reason by Arab scholars they did not seem to make the step of looking for universal laws of nature.
The need to examine the real world rather than rely on pure reason
Christians insisted that God could have created the world any way he like and so Aristotle’s insistence that the world was the way it was because it had to be was successfully challenged. This meant that his ideas started to be tested and abandoned if they did not measure up.
The belief that science was a sacred duty
This is not so much covered in this essay, but features again and again in scientific writing. The early modern scientists were inspired by their faith to make their discoveries and saw studying the creation of God as a form of worship. This led to a respect for nature and the attempt to find simple, economical solutions to problems. Hence Copernicus felt he could propose a heliocentric model for no better reason that it seemed more elegant.
Not all these factors were unique to Christianity but they all came together in Western Europe to give the world its only case of scientific take off which has since seen its ideas spread to the rest of the world. An learned examination of why other civilisations failed to make the leap forward can be found here.
For the anti Christians desperate not to give credit for their own faith of scientism to the religion they hate, two questions must be answered. First, if the dominant world view of medieval Europe was as hostile to reason as they would like to suppose, why was it here rather than anywhere else that science arose? And secondly, given that nearly every one of the founders and pre founders of science were unusually devout (although not always entirely orthodox) even by the standards of their own time, why did they make the scientific breakthroughs rather than their less religiously minded contemporaries? I wonder if I will receive any answers.
There are several lectures and articles on line about this subject. These include Christianity: A Cause of Modern Science? by Eric Snow (unfortunately hosted by a creationist site) and Christianity and the Birth of Science by Michael Bumbulis. Chapter two of Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God covers the same ground and also argues Christianity was a cause of modern science. Stark has unimpeachable academic qualifications and found many of his views elsewhere in the literature.
For general background, Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages is a short and very useful survey of medieval science and how it laid some important foundations. It is interesting that Grant has moved to a much more positive view of early science than that found in his previous book Physical Science in the Middle Ages.
A fatter book that covers ancient and Arab science as well is David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science that has very rapidly become the standard work of introduction in the field. You find it at the top of the list of recommended reading on every undergraduate course. He has also helped write a journal article debunking Andrew Dickson White’s The Warfare of Science and Theology which I follow up here.
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© James Hannam 2002.
Last revised: 22 July, 2010 .