- One of the many groundless myths that litter the path towards a more balanced understanding of the historical relationship between Christianity and science is the one which states that, between the close of antiquity and the Renaissance, science was suppressed by the Church. The source of this myth constitutes a study in itself, which particularly fascinates me; though over the past few decades the work of now sadly deceased scholars of the calibre of Alistair Crombie and John North has done much to counter it.
- James Hannam's God's Philosophers provides us with a major new resource in the rehabilitation of medieval Europe within the scientific fold of intellectual and spiritual history. Hannam's book, moreover, is sweeping in its range, covering 1,100 years of history, from Boethius to Galileo. Its value lies in its power of synthesis, bringing together as it does, and as its notes and references testify, a large corpus of published specialist scholarship, and presenting it in a well-organised and very readable form.
- Central to the book is the creative dynamic that existed in medieval Europe between Greek pagan philosophy (especially that of Plato and Aristotle), the world of nature, and Christian theology. For as Hannam shows, one of the tasks that occupied many early Christian theologians, such as St Augustine and the twelfth-century William of Conches, was the reconciliation of what might be called ‘proto-Christian' Greeks, such as Plato, with the Bible. For if God was the Creator of all things, then he could not have made truths that contradicted each other. And by way of an object-lesson for modern-day fundamentalists is St Augustine's treatment of the flat earth suggested1 in Genesis with regard to the spherical cosmology of his own Graeco-Roman world.
- Things really got going in western Europe when the mathematician and astronomer, Gerbert of Aurillac, was crowned Pope Sylvester II in 999 — a scientific pope on the throne of St Peter at the millennium. But what is really fascinating is the way in which a rediscovery and re-exploration of Greek philosophy stimulated a true Renaissance in the twelfth century. Hannam traces this development, and how the new techniques of critical reasoning unleashed a fresh approach to theology and natural philosophy (science). Could God's existence be proved intellectually, and could reason even limit the power of God? This whole radical movement is delineated, from St Anselm and Peter Abelard, to the new Aristotelianism of St Thomas Aquinas, to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa.
- Another major theological and philosophical puzzle with which medieval thinkers wrestled was how far physical research and mechanical analogy could give true and meaningful insights into how God had built his Creation. For if the Heavens2 alone were perfect, and the earth was flawed because of sin, how could the divine mathematics of God be traced out in the fallen physical world? Hannam deals with several case studies touching upon this problem, such as Friar Roger Bacon's optical experiments, and Abbot Richard of Wallingford's mechanically-powered astronomical clock in the early-fourteenth-century St Albans Abbey.
- But of both contemporary and enduring significance were those Oxonians known collectively as the ‘Merton Calculators'. Hannam reminds us that these men were the initiators of many of those mathematical and physical studies later brought to fruition and published — without any acknowledgement — by Galileo. These include mathematical investigations into the acceleration of falling bodies, the geometrical curves in which projectiles such as arrows move, and even the possible properties of the vacuum. For if two contiguous flat surfaces are suddenly pulled apart, how does the air rush into the resulting space? The Mertonians, moreover, were also pioneers of the graph as a mathematical technique.
- And all of this work and much more besides was taking place beneath the spiritual and academic umbrella of the Catholic Church, and all the key figures were clergy. And unless one's inquiries led to a deliberate denial of God, such as in the case of the Amalricians in 1210, or Giordano Bruno (an ex-Friar) in 1600, then a remarkable toleration prevailed.
- God's Philosophers supplies a powerful, accessible and very much needed corrective to the myth that the medieval Church suppressed science. Indeed, it shows quite the opposite to have been the truth. The book is beautifully written, wholly free from jargon, and astonishingly modestly priced for such a hardback.
- Allan Chapman lectures in the history of science in the History Faculty at Oxford and lectures extensively on the history of science in England and abroad.
Review of "Hannam (James) - God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science".
Footnote 1: Does Genesis suggest any such thing? It’ll be interesting to read (Hannam’s account of) Augustine on this matter.
Footnote 2: Does this not signal a confusion (or an equation) of “heaven” with “the heavens”? Just what does orthodox Christianity suppose “heaven” to be? This (I suppose) is the point of the Gagarin comment that he didn’t see God in space. Of course, Christians no longer make this equation, but presumably the Medievals did, which is presumably why pointing out imperfections in the heavens caused a theological problem. But what is the current view (if any)?
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)