Science and Religion, Medieval and Modern 

A review of James HANNAM, God's Philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, London: Icon Books (2009)

Many myths about science and religion are commonplace in our society.  Repeated endlessly, often without any special malice, but equally often as anti-Christian polemic, they have become an unquestioned truth about how our world came into being.  In these myths, science arose in a primitive form in ancient times, and was then forgotten during the middle ages.  At the renaissance Greek science was rediscovered, the medieval world rejected, and out of the intellectual ferment that resulted came the end of the medieval Catholic church, the beginnings of Protestantism, and the start of modern science with Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.  The trial of the latter before the Inquisition exemplifies the way in which the medieval church sought to suppress any science that cast doubt on the bible, according to this theory.

James Hannam is a historian of science with a special interest in the medieval period.  His book deals with all these themes in the only possible way.  He goes back to the beginning and traces the history of science.  There is brief discussion of the ancient world, and a very brief mention of the Dark Ages, to set the scene.  But the focus of the book is the period from the beginning of the Middle Ages to the time of Galileo, with which the book more or less comes to an end.  The book is aimed at the general educated reader, but not the specialist.

The quality of the book-making is good.  The prose style is light and very readable, with the possible exception of the introduction which feels somewhat heavy going.  Footnotes are banished to the end and mainly reference secondary sources.  The book is over 400 pages long, which is very long. But this includes almost 100 pages of notes and bibliography. The size of this last section does seem a little excessive for a general work, and although unfashionable today, I would have preferred to see the notes as footnotes anyway.  There are also 16 inline illustrations, although these do not seem to add very much to the narrative.

The approach taken is straightforward and chronological.  Starting around 1000 AD, each chapter focuses on a number of figures who made scientific advances.  Each is discussed, his life, work, milieu, motivations, and the role that the church played in his life.  Each of these is exceedingly well told and very easy to follow.  Each is related to his predecessors.  There are short summaries of events and institutions where this is necessary to advance the story, each told in a crisp, brief and well-informed manner.  Few should have any difficulty in following the story-line. The sheer number of characters in the story may be a little indigestible if read in a couple of sessions.  But the book is probably best read a section at a time.  It would make excellent bed-time reading, except that the urge to follow the story is probably guaranteed to keep you up and reading!

The majority of the medieval figures are in holy orders, as might be expected; and Hannam explains why this was so in a particularly lucid way.  The rise of the universities in the twelfth century is charted, as is the curious balancing act between church and king that allowed them to exist and prosper.  The church found the pool of trained talent useful, and was prepared to tolerate a great deal of wild thinking in return for it.  Only those who insisted on confronting the church head-on ran into difficulties; and even then there were well-marked escape routes which allowed both sides to save face.

Throughout Hannam highlights how the simple picture that we normally hear is misleading.  The church was rarely motivated by an unthinking fundamentalism.  Even in times of persecution, its officials tended instead to have political issues in mind -- as with Galileo. The Popes tended to encourage learning, as doing so increased the prestige of the church.

From the book we learn of the huge debt that renaissance writers owed to medieval work, even though they tended not to acknowledge it.  While scholasticism was rejected outright, the more technical works of the middle ages continued to be printed and to circulate during the period, and the ideas in them were used by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.  Hannam points out the extent to which all of these relied on medieval knowledge.  

The chapters on Galileo will be a revelation to those familiar with the "church vs religion" myth.  Galileo lived in an ecclesiastical world, albeit one on the defensive against protestantism.  He was backed by the pope, who even was prepared to deal with a magician if it suited him, so was hardly driven by religious principle.  Galileo's abilities as a publicist, and his ability to alienate his friends in the ecclesiastical establishment were to prove his undoing; yet even then he escaped largely unharmed.  What does emerge very clearly from Hannam's account is how Galileo was really the first recognisable scientist.  Rather than the crude picture of men of genius working in a vacuum, Hannam links his heroes to their environment, and how they rose above it, or did not.  The book is mercifully free of anachronism.

There is always a risk of revisionism, when confronting myths.  Hannam's book seems largely free of this.  But in his enthusiasm for the middle ages, and his concern to make us aware of the merits of medieval thinkers, he does not always at once give a balanced picture.  An example would be his discussion of the inquisition.  We learn that the system of an investigating magistrate used today is the same as that of a papal inquisitor.  We learn that this system of evidence-based justice was actually an advance on previous forms of justice, such as trial by ordeal or by getting bunches of witnesses to swear innocence or guilt.  But we do not learn for a page or two that the system was also wide-open to abuse because of the system of informers that inevitably grew up around it.  It was just too easy to settle a score by denouncing a neighbour, if you had a dispute with him.  Hannam does tell us this, but not at once.  His aim is to open our eyes, not to reinforce our existing prejudices.  That said the book is generally free of revisionism; it is, instead, introducing facts known to few.

With his focus on the history of science in the middle ages, the renaissance and the Florentine humanists are not nearly as important to him as would be the case in a literary history.  Indeed in their opposition to scholasticism and their enthusiasm for antiquity, Hannam shows how they set up Aristotle and Galen far too much above criticism.  For the development of science this was a negative and is treated as such quite properly.  But this does give an unbalanced picture of a group of men whose work was otherwise of the highest value.

There are a great many interesting pieces of incidental information, such as the invention of spectacles in Italy, and how this affected the development of the study of optics. Indeed it is almost worth reading just for these anecdotes.  

This is an important book, particularly for those interested in the history of science, or those who think they know what it is.  It will take a few days to work through, but the reading will not be hard work and at the end the reader will be in possession of a great mass of concrete information on a subject much travestied.  He will also have the references needed to read further.  Recommended.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse.

Written 13th August 2009.

This page has been online since 13th August 2009.

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