Published 2011 by Regnery Publishing, ISBN 978-1-5968-155-3
I picked up this book intrigued by the title, and soon found that it was a great treasure-trove of information. In this book James Hannam, a physicist and historian of science, pulls back the curtain on Medieval Europe and puts short shift to many of the myths surrounding the so-called Dark Ages (which for many people means the whole of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance), including:
- people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat
- the Inquisition executed people because of their scientific ideas or discoveries
- the Middle Ages was a time of intellectual stagnation, superstition, and ignorance
In this book you will discover that all of the above are not true, and in fact that medieval philosophers, scientists, and theologians did much to lay the ground work for our modern scientific methods and were well on the way to discovering many important scientific principles of their own, hampered only by faulty premises handed down to them by their Greco-Roman predecessors. It seems they revered Aristotle a little too much!
In particular I appreciated the author’s take on the role of the Church in fostering and encouraging new ideas. Hamman demonstrates how the education made possible by the Church allowed for the flourishing of science, math, and philosophy. This is a far different view promulgated by most in our society today. In fact my eldest son told me one of his recent philosophy professors taught his class the three misconceptions listed above. Hamman shows us that the supposition that the Church had a large part in suppressing scientific thought and discoveries comes from the Enlightenment and writers such as Thomas Huxley and John Draper. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, for it suited early Protestant writers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to promote the idea that the “Catholic” church had taught nothing of value before the Reformation. Writers such as Voltaire, who saw the Catholic Church as being in cahoots with the French monarchy, again cast aspersions on medieval thought and discoveries.
All of these threads bring us to today, and our assumptions that the medieval time gave us nothing of value scientifically, that the Church was responsible for holding back the progress of science, and was in fact anti-reason. Hamman does a great job of methodically showing us that this is very far from being true.
This book is fairly easy to read, given its weighty subject matter. I will admit to getting lost a time or two. Some of the philosophical debates and scientific principles covered in the book are tricky to understand, although I think the author does a good job of explaining these fairly difficult concepts to the average lay reader, like me. I’m sure that those who have more knowledge than myself on these topics would find it even more interesting!
Hannam covers many fascinating topics, including medicine, alchemy and astrology, anatomical discoveries, heresy and reason, the Merton Calculators, and many more. The final chapters delve into the story of Galileo, and show that his execution was all about politics, not science.
I love books like these that can take our view of the world and turn it upside down. It’s a great challenge to examine carefully our own suppositions, to see if we are simply parroting the “party line”.
What’s your opinion of the progress of science throughout history and the role of the Church in promoting or suppressing it? Is your opinion based on fact or propaganda? This book challenges us to examine the facts, and in doing so, I learned a whole lot more about an era that I thought I knew quite a lot about already.
I recommend this book – it will certainly teach you and stretch your thinking, neither of which is a bad thing.