Dan Jones

The new age of enlightenment

God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, by James Hannam

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

James Hannam

Icon Books, pp. 421, £

God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, by James Hannam

We all have our hobby-horses. James Hannam’s is the abuse of the word ‘medieval’. Hats off. As I have written in this magazine before, using the term as shorthand for anything you consider cruel, arcane or barbarous (be it the Taliban, the hunt, the House of Lords, or whatever) is ignorant and unhistorical. If I had my way, all offenders would get a long spell in the village stocks. 

In God’s Philosophers, Hannam has pursed his cheeks and attempted to puff away the common notion that nothing of scientific significance happened in Christendom between the fall of Rome and the birth of Galileo. Or, as he puts it, he wants to kill off the idea ‘that there was no science worth mentioning in the Middle Ages … [and] that the Church held back what meagre advances were made’.

By the Middle Ages, most of the great works of the classical world were lost. The one dominant figure in the field of natural philosophy was Aristotle, whom Boethius had translated from Greek into Latin during the early sixth century AD. (Plato was not revived until the 15th century.) Unfortunately, Aristotle was a pagan, and there was much both implied and contained in his work that sat ill with the official doctrine of the Church.

Nevertheless, it was clear that Aristotelian reason was a powerful intellectual tool. Scholars therefore struggled gamely to find a way to use his ideas without contradicting or impinging upon theology. The fellow who solved this unholy conundrum and melded faith with reason was Thomas Aquinas, the beefy 13th-century genius.

This was, you might say, A Good Thing for medieval scientific thought. Aquinas showed that it was possible to build on the wisdom of Aristotle and the ancients (as well as Muslim scholars like Averroes and Jewish philosophers such as Moses Maimonides) without risking heresy. Gradually, with the development of the universities at Paris and Oxford, it became possible for scholars to study logic as well as theology, and for their lecturers freely to consider many outrageous theories about the mysteries of nature and the heavens.

The heavens, of course, are where many of the great scientists from Galileo to Hawking have found their inspiration. Hannam does a good job of explaining how a few medieval scholars had come devilishly close to realising that the earth was in motion, and that the moon controlled the tides. Copernicus nailed much of it in the 16th century, but Hannam shows that some of his arguments were straight lifts from the work of much earlier scholars, such as John Buridan. Buridan suggested as early as 1350 that sunrise and sunset was caused by the earth, not the sun, moving. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed.

Some of the other impressive medieval scientific achievements included the invention of eyeglasses, windmills, the printing press and the mechanical clock. All are neatly covered here. Hannam also gives us a great sense of the porousness of the medieval mind. The scientific disciplines leaked into one another. Natural philosophy overlapped with alchemy. Magic and medicine shared a bloody bed. Astronomy and astrology were made of the same stardust, as were mathematics, physics and music.

With so much ground covered, occasionally this book feels like a catalogue of scientific saints. There must be more than 150 characters, few of whom reappear after their first mention, and in places one wishes Hannam would pause longer for thought before rattling onto the next genius.

Conversely, there are a couple of perplexing omissions. Leonardo da Vinci doesn’t get a look-in after page seven, on the grounds that ‘his influence was entirely in the arts’, and that his obsessive secrecy about his inventions (a ‘character flaw’) stripped his scientific work of direct influence on nearby generations. It’s a curious rationale. Meanwhile, Fibonacci, whose Liber Abaci was a 13th-century masterpiece of modern mathematics, is nowhere to be seen.

Still, this is a very useful general survey of a difficult topic, and a robust defence of an unfairly maligned age. Hannam might just have done enough to get himself elected to my Ignatius J. Reilly Society of proud medievalists.