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More on the “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda

September 27th, 2008 by Matt

Those of you who have followed my discussions with Peter Cresswell on the history of Christianity and the relationship between faith and reason in the middle ages may find this abridged article by Dr James Hannam interesting. Dr Hannam has recently completed his PhD on the History of Science at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Hannam emailed me to advise that this article is no longer available online (it had to be removed at his publishers insistence) but is available in full in the book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, which is apparently now available in New Zealand. Bethyada will be interested to hear, “as one of the comments on your blog asked, I have included a discussion of the trebuchet and other weapons developed in the Middle Ages.”

Some reviews:

“A spirited jaunt through centuries of scientific development… captures the wonder of the medieval world: its inspirational curiosity and its engaging strangeness.” Sunday Times

“This book contains much valuable material summarised with commendable no-nonsense clarity… James Hannam has done a fine job of knocking down an old caricature.” Sunday Telegraph

Guess what I’m adding to my Christmas list? …Madeleine…

God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

Rethinking Science in the Middle Ages
The most famous remark Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) made is, “If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What most of us assume he meant is that his scientific achievements were built on the discoveries of his predecessors. In the same passage, he alludes to René Descartes (1596 – 1650), the French philosopher and mathematician, so presumably this is one of those whom he meant. Few people realise, however, that Newton’s aphorism was first coined in the twelfth century by the theologian Bernard of Chartres (d. c. 1130). Even fewer are aware that Newton’s science also has its roots embedded firmly in the Middle Ages.

This book will show just how much of the science and technology that we take for granted today has medieval origins.


During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science, which it also kept control of when speculation could impinge on theology. Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, even the limitations that the Church set may have benefited science in the long term. Furthermore and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth was flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas. The most famous clash between science and religion was the trial of Galileo (1564 – 1642) in 1633. Academic historians are now convinced that this had as much to do with politics and the Pope’s ego as it did with science. I will examine the trial fully in the last chapter of this book when I will also explain how much Galileo himself owed to his medieval predecessors.


Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians notwithstanding, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages were a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture. The compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe between AD500 and AD1500.

True, these inventions originated in the Far East, but Europeans developed them to a far higher degree than had happened elsewhere.


The development of printing and paper meant that an incredible 20 million books were produced in the first fifty years after Johann Gutenberg had published his printed Bible in 1455. This dwarfed the literary output of the ancient world. Printing probably had an even greater effect than gunpowder, which, like the stirrup before it, revolutionised warfare and allowed Europeans to dominate the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the people of medieval Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill and the blast furnace by themselves. Lenses and cameras, almost all kinds of machinery, and the industrial revolution itself all owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean that we should not recognise their achievements.

They lived much tougher lives than we do and we are the ones reaping the rewards for their hard work.

Most significantly, the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilisation, modern science. It is simply untrue to say that there was no science before the ‘Renaissance’. Once medieval scholars got their hands on the work of classical Greeks, they developed systems of thought that allowed science to travel far further than it had in the ancient world. Universities, where academic freedom was guarded against all comers, were first founded in the twelfth century. These institutions have always provided scientific research with a safe home. Even Christian theology turned out to be uniquely suited to encouraging the study of the natural world because it was believed to be God’s creation. Thus, my own research over the last decade has led me to believe that it is a gross injustice to label the Middle Ages as ‘stagnant’, ‘barbaric’, or ‘uncivilised’.


Watermills had existed in the ancient world but the Greeks and Romans never adopted them in large numbers. In the Early Middle Ages, they became increasingly common and the Domesday Book lists over 5,000. Tidal mills were adopted on suitable estuaries where a dam harnessed the high tide and released it through a channel containing a watermill. Finally, the first recorded European windmill sprouted in Yorkshire during the twelfth century and the idea quickly spread all over those parts of northern Europe where suitable rivers or estuaries were not available.
Taken together, these improvements in agriculture led to a population explosion. Estimates for the population of France and the Low Countries rise from three million in 650AD to 19 million just before the arrival of the Black Death in 1350AD. For the British Isles, the equivalent figures are 500,000 people and five million. In Europe as a whole, the population increased from less than 20 million to almost 75 million. These figures must be estimates, if not guesstimates, but the upward trend is clear. For comparison, at the height of the Roman Empire about 33 million people lived in Europe. Well before 1000AD, the population far exceeded what is was when the continent was ruled by Rome and remained above that level even after the Black Death had killed a third of the inhabitants of Europe in the fourteenth century.


In some ways, the medieval worldview was closer to ours than we sometimes imagine. For example, Gerbert and all his fellow men and women of any education in 1000AD were perfectly well aware that the Earth was a sphere. They also knew that the universe was very large compared to the Earth. As Boethius wrote in his Consolation of Philosophy:
It is well known and you have seen it demonstrated by the astronomers, that in comparison to the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point. That means that, compared to the heavenly sphere, the earth may be thought of as having no size at all.
Comments we hear today about people in the Middle Ages inhabiting a ‘poky little universe’ or believing that the Earth is flat are born of modern rather than medieval ignorance.


Another modern misconception about the medieval worldview is that people thought the central position of the Earth meant that it was somehow exulted. In fact, to the medieval mind, the reverse was the case. The universe was a hierarchy and the further from the Earth you got, the closer to Heaven you came. At the centre, underneath our feet, the Christian tradition placed Hell. Then, second worse only to the infernal pit was our Earth of change and decay. Above us, acting as a boundary between the earthly and the heavenly, was the sphere of the Moon. This marked the dividing line between the perfect unchanging heavens and the transient sub-lunar region containing ourselves, doomed to die. Next, there were the crystalline spheres of the seven planets – the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – eternally orbiting with uniform circular motion. The spheres were thought to be made of a transparent and imperishable fifth element called ether or quintessence. Above them were the fixed stars whose positions relative to each other never appeared to change. Above even them was the firmament and beyond that, Christians like Gerbert imagined, was the realm of God. This hierarchical system gave people absolute directions of up and down, one towards the heavens and one down to Earth at the bottom of the celestial ladder. To move the Earth away from the centre of the universe was not to downgrade its importance but to raise it up towards the stars.

The “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda
Things They Don’t Teach you in Public Schools…
The Flat Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Guest Post: Dan Brown’s History of Science

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13 responses so far ↓

  • I was going to add the water wheel but I see he covered that later too. So I will add another significant invention, the trebuchet. (Though there is indication that war machines when back several centuries BC.)

    The ignorance of men concerning the middle ages is astonishing and unfortunate. Their technological achievements were significant. And the subsequent invention of science was dependant on the Christian worldview. I have my suspicions that much good that the enlightenment claims as its glory actually predated it, and most of what the enlightenment did contribute was detrimental.

    And the false history was invented by likes of antitheists such as Andrew Dickson White. Though the fact that the dark ages were not dark has been documented since ~1920s in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (I think). Yet even in my household when the flat earth came up, people trotted out the Columbus sailing of the edge of the earth myth.

    This is my response to a Christian claiming Jesus thought the world was flat.

    I have found Rodney Stark‘s books helpful in documenting, not only the history of this era, but also likely reasons as to the huge developments.

  • […] Earlier on in this blog’s life, I ran a small series of posts last year on common historical myths about the Church that  are so pervasive in society that most Christians fall for them. Anyway, after receiving some correspondance, I have updated this post, More on the “Dark Ages” and Other Propaganda. […]

  • You say the Church never burned anyone alive at the stake for scientific ideas, have you heard of Giordano Bruno 1548-1600 whose cosmology challenged that of the Catholic Church. He was burned at the stake.

    I think it is fair to say science progressed in spite of not because of the Catholic Church, so long as scientists did not challenge the teachings of the Church they were left alone.

  • Mark V: Giordano Bruno was not convicted of heresy for his scientific ideas but for heretical beliefs and public pronunciation about Christ, the Trinity, Transubstantiation, the Liturgy etc. Nor was he burned to death by the Church, it was the State that issued that condemnation.

    The idea that the Catholic Church has stunted science is ridiculous. The University system itself wouldn’t exist without the Church creating it, and for other reasons I’ll refer you to the above article for some pointers.

  • Mark you note You say the Church never burned anyone alive at the stake for scientific ideas, have you heard of Giordano Bruno 1548-1600 whose cosmology challenged that of the Catholic Church. He was burned at the stake.

    I did not say this, Dr James Hannan said it in his PhD thesis on the history of science and religion which he did at Cambridge University which has now been published by Icon books. But in response to your query I would refer you to Anthony’s comments above.

    I think it is fair to say science progressed in spite of not because of the Catholic Church, so long as scientists did not challenge the teachings of the Church they were left alone.

    My understanding is that this claim though common is false. The thesis that the Church for centuries consistently suppressed science and prevented its flourishing (known as the conflict thesis) originates in two works, John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White in his book A History of The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. The conflict thesis is now widely rejected by historians of science. Several people such as Stanley Jaki, (The Road to Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)); Alfred Whitehead, (Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925); Peire Duhem, (L’Aube du savoir: épitomé du système du monde (histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic), ed. Anastasios Brenner, Paris, Hermann, selections from Duhem 1913-59). Michael Foster (”The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the rise of Modern Natural Science,” Mind 43 (1934), 446–468 “Christian Theology and Modern Science of Nature (I)” Mind 44 (1935) 439–466; “Christian Theology and Modern Science of Nature (II)” Mind 45 (October, 1936), 1–27. Also, Reijer Hookykaas (Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 1972) and Stark have all called this thesis into question and argued that Christian ways of understanding lead to the rise of Science.

    Other’s, most notably Numbers and Lindberg, while not wanting to defend the claim that Christianity fostered the rise of Science, also question the conflict thesis. In an anthology they edited, entitled God and Nature, Numbers and Lindberg suggest a more nuanced thesis; that the relationship between theology and science has been too complex over the ages for either generalisation to be correct.

    However both schools, as far as I can tell, reject Whites work as a piece of propaganda. As Collin Russel notes “Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact, that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship.” (”The Conflict of Science and Religion” in The Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, New York 2000). John Hedley Brooke, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, writes in Science and Religion – Some Historical Perspectives (1991), “In its traditional forms, the [conflict] thesis has been largely discredited”. Similarly, Edward Grant Professor Emeritus of the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University writes, “If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities” In the same vein Steven Shapin Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego writes, “In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the ‘warfare between science and religion’ and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.”
    .-= My last blog-post ..Common Historical Myths About the Church =-.

  • Anthony you said :

    “Nor was he burned to death by the Church, it was the State that issued that condemnation.”

    You are being picky, the Church and the State were effectively one and the same.

    Matt I take your point that the Church did not suppress science and technology, however the Church did suppress thought and contrary ideas and philosophies. The renaissance marked the begining of the separation of Church and State and withi it the emergence of new philosophies.

  • Mark V: The State and the Church were very much NOT one and the same! Although the Church had a lot more influence over the State than it does now it did not have anything even remotely like control of it. In the case of Giordano Bruno the Church petitioned strongly for the State to not execute him, but the State did anyway, a turn of events testifying against your thesis.

    As for the Church restricting thought in general this is true if by thought you mean unsupported and socially destructive doctrines. For instance slavery made it’s come back in the Enlightenment, something that the Church had worked hard for a millenia to abolish and finally had by the middle-ages. Galileo for instance only had to provide evidence for heliocentrism in order for his assertions to be allowed, he couldn’t do so. And even then only his biblical interpretation was at issue not the science, which was allowed even after his appearing before the inquisition as long as he kept it as a mathematical theory and did not assert it to be absolutely true before he could prove it.

  • “For instance slavery made it’s come back in the Enlightenment, something that the Church had worked hard for a millenia to abolish and finally had by the middle-ages.”

    Hi Anthony, could you provide more info about this. I’m interested because this is a topic that is very often brought up. Any Wikipedia link (won’t be shocked if non exists there) or book title or something?

  • Matt, did Hannam add a section to his book based on my comment? Perhaps I am going to be forced to buy it 🙂

    Matt, do you have the link address to the article the publishers asked to be taken down?
    .-= My last blog-post ..Let it rain =-.

  • It does seem to read that way Bethyada but then maybe he just means to say that he did write on that.

    The original link to the full chapter is:
    .-= My last blog-post ..Common Historical Myths About the Church =-.

  • What about the Muslims, then?