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.