- Review of James Hannam. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Icon Books: Cambridge, 2010, hb, 445pp, ₤20
Among medieval theologians and thinkers, the figure of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) cannot be underestimated. Still considered the patron saint of scholars, his Summa Theologica constituted a major achievement of the medieval mind. Aquinas was neither dogmatic nor pedantic. Instead, his work flowed into ordered patterns with the revealing of sequential theoretical proofs or the “five ways”. Still used by Christian apologetics, his proofs showed a powerful intellect understanding the world and relating it to his faith. Medieval man sought to know his reality but did so with Christianity as the lens through which to perceive it. Aquinas’ method of using reason to validate faith penetrated into explorations of the natural world. In what would become the sciences, faith informed research and affected the course of human knowledge.
In the early 21st century, the world appears desacralised and operates according to laws provable by physics and higher mathematics. However, in the Middle Ages existence was imbued by the sacred and profane. Reality constituted a reflection of the heavens and if man could tap into the hidden powers of the universe, he could control and use them. This belief expressed itself in practices such as magic and alchemy. Essentially a deeply religious worldview, it offered the mage (or adept cleric) the opportunity to alter reality in his favour. Alchemical experiments searching for the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ produced rudimentary knowledge of chemistry.
Aided by scientific advancements filtering in from the Islamic world, medieval experimenters began to fill out what we now consider the periodic table of elements. Always innovative, these men sought to understand the nature of God’s creation and were sometimes accused of dealing in the ‘black arts’. Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was said to learn many natural secrets from an enchanted bronze head he kept in his study. In his Opus Majus, he correctly discussed optics, the making of gunpowder, the position of the planets and even conjectured mankind would build a flying machine. Although the Opus Majus was imbued with Franciscan piety, one cannot help thinking of Da Vinci’s drawings and ideas that would come in two centuries. Yet as Hannam correctly demonstrates, many of the innovators making these advancements were churchmen steeped in Scholasticism. Far from being an impediment to scientific progress, the church assisted in its development.
First studying algorithms brought from Arabia, he combined his mathematical knowledge with intensive readings of Aristotle and Boethius. After earning his Master of Arts at Oxford, Richard designed a complex astronomical instrument called an Albion. This device assisted both medieval astronomers and astrologers by determining the position of stars and planets. Instead of consulting reference works, users could quickly determine positions of cosmic bodies accurately and effectively. Richard also designed a massive clock for the abbey church at St Albans. Able to tell high and low tides at London Bridge in addition to the time, the technical schematics for the clock are still preserved in the Bodleian Library.
Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349) also brought scientific acclaim to Oxford. An ordained cleric, Bradwardine championed mathematics as an unfairly neglected science. Believing it to be a pass key in understanding the universe, he used all of his intellectual energies in learning its laws. Prior to recent historical investigations, it was thought that John Napier (1550-1617) had been the originator of known logarithms. Hannam demonstrates that Bradwardine used logarithms in a rudimentary sense several centuries before Napier.
Bradwardine also speculated on the laws of gravity and postulated that in set conditions, objects in a vacuum would fall at the same rate. These advancements are thought to have emerged in the supposed scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, the achievements of Galileo and Copernicus had distinct antecedents in the figures of Richard of Wallingford and Thomas Bradwardine. Without the intellectual culture of medieval universities and the Church’s support, these discoverers could not have made their advancements. Hannam also cleverly challenges the notion of scientific development as being radically oppositional to a religiously-imbued worldview.
More than anything else, this caused the Dominican Order to try him as a heretic. Likewise, Galileo was ‘asked’ several times to recant by Pope Urban VIII. A committed devotee of astrology, Urban believed the promotion of heliocentrism to be unwise but not a real threat to the Christian understanding of the universe. It was only when Galileo insisted on publishing and avidly defending his theories that the Church took action. Forced to disavow his theories, Galileo is today thought of as a radical harbinger of rapid scientific advancement. In actuality, this point of view consists of erroneously seeing scientific history through a ‘glass darkly’.
What Hannam so brilliantly accomplishes in God’s Philosophers is to refute the notion of a radical break that happened in early modern intellectual culture. In culturally Protestant nations, our visions are coloured by Whig notions of history which posit human development as consisting of freedom’s expansion and rising egalitarianism. Inevitably, the Church always serves as a black-clad villain in this narrative. According to this line of thought, the Reformation laid the groundwork for free intellectual inquiry, which produced the scientific revolution.
Negating the complex history of science in the Middle Ages, this viewpoint does a disservice to those seeking to understand human development. By periodizing history for political and ideological ends, the results are skewed and minimize the importance of key figures such as Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Whether allied with medieval scholasticism or Cartesian rationalism, intellectual progression continues to mature through the ages. Religion and science are not necessarily oppositional, no matter how shrilly Richard Dawkins proclaims this to be the case.