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.”
“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.