Science, God's Philosophers and the Dark Ages
The claims made by James Hannam regarding the birth of modern science in the Middle Ages do not stand up to scrutiny, says Charles Freeman
This is the third article in our debate between historians James Hannam and Charles Freeman over Hannam's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. If you're new to the debate, start with Freeman's initial critique, followed by Hannam's response.
James Hannam has produced this full response to my critical review of his God’s Philosophers two weeks after it first appeared so I am taking it as definitive. I shall attempt to reply to it without bringing in much new material so that we have a closed debate. As my critique makes clear I wrote it in the very specific context of the Royal Society Book of the Year shortlist as I felt that the book’s inclusion gave the impression that God’s Philosophers was a work of serious scholarship when this was not justified.
I note that, in this response, Hannam is taking the date 1600 (a fateful year for one Giordano Bruno) as the year by which Europe is leading the world in "science". I personally would go for 1700 and even then wonder whether "modern science" had been achieved. But 1600 is the date we have been set.
Hannam says that he is sorry that I have been confused by his use of the word "science". As he notes, the word can hardly be said to have been used in its modern sense before 1833 (p.337) so one must be very careful about what we mean by "science" before then. I simply repeat my point that, as with 1600, he has set out the boundaries of the debate by saying on page 6 that he would use the term "natural philosophy" for "the study of nature as a separate subject" throughout his book but then does just the opposite! As I have said this is a problem an editor should have sorted out. I can’t see why Hannam went back on his promise unless he thought that using the word "science" for the medieval philosophers would send out some good vibes. It would have been easier if he had set out what he means by "modern science" a term he uses, of course, in his title and in such phrases as "the long road to modern science really does begin" with Galileo (p.299) and then we could have done some cherry-picking to find out which individuals or intellectual movements throughout history had set out on the varied roads to "modern science" first.
The answer of who founded modern science would surely be that the prizes would go to a wide variety of winners or societies that fostered particular ways of thinking (in a wide variety of subject disciplines – physics, biology, chemistry, etc). Galileo would come somewhere, as would Aristotle, Archimedes, Newton and their successors, of course, but they could only be evaluated in the wider intellectual context of the societies in which they lived. It would also mean that that some brilliant and innovative figures would end up in dead ends, then as they do now. As Hannam notes the winners and losers of the future would not have been obvious at the time (and they are certainly not obvious in the present day – the jury is always out). I entirely agree with him and Peter Harrison that one should try to evaluate scientific activity, however defined, within the context of its own time. This surely is the problem with Hannam’s thesis "How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science". Did the natural philosophers know what "modern science" would turn out to be, so they knew exactly what foundations to put in place. Or was it just pure luck that what the natural philosophers were laying what was later to end up as the foundations of modern science? Hannam clearly believes that they had some kind of prescience as he continually tells us that the Church did not suppress "science" in the Middle Ages. It clearly suppressed a lot of other ways of thinking so, to support Hannam’s argument, the Church in its omniscience clearly knew in advance what would prove important in "science", ring-fenced it and supported it. Doubtless the Church spotted in advance that Giordano Bruno and the Averroists were going nowhere so it was right to condemn them as heretical.
Hannam says here in this response: "History can . . . be told as a story of how a few heroic individuals strove to achieve the condition of modernity. Unfortunately, this is neither true nor honest." So what is he doing giving such heroic status to Galileo? Galileo has three chapters to himself in God’s Philosophers, one of which is called "The Trial and Triumph of Galileo". Hannam sees Galileo as "the first man to mould his theories into a coherent whole", which apparently qualifies him as starting the long road to modern science (p.299). Both these assertions are highly questionable. (One major problem I have with Hannam’s work as a whole is the way he makes apparently authoritative statements which simply do not stand up when questioned.) I can’t help feeling that Hannam’s use of Galileo as the lynchpin between the natural philosophers and "modern science" is deeply flawed, quite apart from falling into the category of "neither true or honest" which he sets out. As I said in my critique, the chapters on Galileo have the appearance of having been brought in from elsewhere and then adapted to provide a conclusion to the book. There is something essentially artificial here – why are other figures such as Newton or the wider ‘scientific’ movements of the 17th century not brought in?
Hannam’s section on Greek science in his response takes us nowhere as I was never evaluating the "Greek intellectual tradition", a phrase I chose carefully, in terms of whether it did or might have produced a "scientific revolution". The natural philosophers certainly did not produce one either and there is even doubt over whether the "scientists" of the 17th century did.
The reasons why I referred back to the Greeks include:
First, I don’t think that anyone, even Hannam at his most exuberant, would argue that the natural philosophers were part of an intellectual movement as broad and intellectually sophisticated as that achieved by the ancient Greeks. Even if we take the natural philosophers at Hannam’s estimation of them, the scope of their activities and subject matter was very limited. The reason I prefer Grant and Lindberg’s synthesis of "western science" (cited in my critique, although both are rather too conservative overall for my taste) is that this is made clear. Leaving out the Greeks risks giving the unwary reader the feeling that the natural philosophers were more impressive than they really were. Can you compare the scholastic Sports Day with the Olympics?
Secondly, and here Hannam helps us along the way, while the Greeks produced much original work, the vast majority of work done by the natural philosophers, were dependent on these same works (or, at least the few of them to be available in the Middle Ages). As Hannam says here, logic was studied from Greek sources, and much else directly from "the philosopher" Aristotle. This was an age of commentaries (the bulk of Jean Buridan’s work) in which on relatively few occasions (as with Buridan on "impetus"), a natural philosopher was brave enough to strike out in his own. This is, again, why I prefer Grant and Lindberg’s syntheses of early western science as they show much more clearly than Hannam does how the natural philosophers were dependent on inspiration from an earlier intellectual culture. Contra Hannam, I feel that the rediscovery and evaluation of more Greek texts in the 16th century was a further inspiration to intellectual vitality not a sign of reaction.
My most important point, and one that Hannam does not even address in his response, is that, in comparison to the Greeks the natural philosophers operated within the context of a much more authoritarian society. Christianity brought the concept of absolute theological truths, many ring-fenced as "articles of faith" which, as Hannam notes, apparently with approval, were unchallengeable. There was the concept of the heretical (first defined in law by the Roman emperor Theodosius in AD 381 and elaborated by the theologian Augustine (1)) which justified the Church, and often the state, in their condemnation/persecution of those who thought outside the box of orthodoxy. As intellectual life evolved in the Middle Ages, no one quite knew where the boundaries lay, the threat of heresy was used all too widely in personal power struggles between opposing factions and individuals and the ultimate punishment was burning on earth as a preliminary to eternal burning in hell. If Hannam cannot see how this affected free discussion in the Middle Ages, there is little hope for him. Yet, as I show in my critique, he even seems to be sympathetic to the process.
I also wanted to bring in the Greeks in order to challenge Hannam’s insular argument that philosophy would never have happened without the support of the Church. The Greeks showed that it could. After all if given the freedom to do so, a number of individuals will always be curious about the world around them and about its ultimate meaning. ("Man is by nature curious" as Aristotle put it.) They do not need to be goaded by a religious institution to get thinking, particularly if that same institution considers itself justified in burning those whose philosophical thinking is not up to (its own) standard! From 1559, the Papal Index simply deprived the Catholics of Italy and Spain, and to a lesser extent France, from knowing about new movements in philosophy anyway. (I love the story of the Austrian State Index of Prohibited Books which had to place itself on the Index in 1777 after students were getting copies solely to find out what they ought to be reading!)
Hannam suggests that he shows how natural philosophy shifted towards Italy by 1400 but it was precisely here that it was confronted by the dreaded humanists! Of course the Italians were Christians, what else could they be in an age where the Arabs and Jews of Spain, as well as other marginal Christian groups were facing such persecution? Hannam’s point is that it was the Catholic Church (not Christianity as such – this is an important distinction with the Reformation about to happen) that fostered science but the institutional church was at its weakest in Italy as I outlined in my critique. Venice simply banned the Inquisition from coming into the city and took responsibility for defining itself what might be considered as heretical. I don’t think it is going too far to link the progressive nature of life in northern Italy with the weakness of the Church hierarchy there. And yes, Hannam does mention Brunelleschi and even the dome, but why not say something about it as an amazing achievement when prizes are handed out to English clockmakers working in a period when most Italian communes had their town clocks already up and running.
I am sorry that Hannam has changed his mind on humanism as often the subject matter of a Ph.D thesis provides a foundation for an academic career. Would a scientist have got away with producing a Ph.D which he/she knew before he had finished it was based on unreliable evidence? Hannam tells us that he worked for two and a half years on his refutation of the standard view on humanism. Yet there is no evidence of this in God’s Philosophers. If one looks at the footnotes in his chapter on "Humanism and the Reformation" all refer to conventional platitudes about humanism drawn from the standard sources. His statement about "incorrigible reactionaries" and other similar condemnatory remarks are not footnoted at all, despite the two and half years work in coming to them. The only clue is the one we are given is what he tells us about Erasmus in this response. It implies that the only reason he condemns Erasmus, of who he had become so "fond", was that Erasmus berated the natural philosophers. Even the most fervent advocate of the natural philosophers admits that much of their work was stodgy, conservative, repetitive and largely incomprehensible (all the more reason to applaud those natural philosophers such as the logician Abelard who broke out of this straitjacket and were ready to face charges of heresy as a result.) Hannam’s condemnation of anyone who pointed this out as necessarily reactionary without considering the wider context of their views –in Erasmus’ case the breadth of his scholarship and his reformist tendencies – is surely blinkered.
Hannam’s failure to footnote provocative statements is made worse by what one can only term misleading use of sources. I will only give one example and it refers to progress in "early medieval Europe", normally the period AD 400 or 500 to 1000. To requote Hannam (p.14): "In his study of early-medieval technology, the great American historian Lynn White Junior (1907- 87) concluded that the period “marks a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman empire”. The popular impression that the early Middle Ages represented a hiatus in progress is the opposite [sic] to the truth."
It is not clear whether Hannam means "advance" only in technology but this quote certainly implies that there was no break even here ("steady and uninterrupted") from the fall of the Roman empire. He is also implying that he is reflecting current scholarship ("the popular impression . . . is [sic] the opposite to the truth"). One accesses the source to find that it is a quotation of Lynn White’s from an essay written in 1940 (!) and that the original sentence reads slightly differently (on page 15 of the source, not 14 as cited by Hannam): “In technology, at least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman empire”.
So White is only talking about technology. He is also using the dreaded term "Dark Ages", "dreaded" because for Hannam and his supporters, this was not a "Dark Age" (pages 11-12 of God’s Philosophers) and so Hannam has to omit the words. For the rest of society, White, (p.12 of his essay) writes as follows: “The Dark Ages doubtless deserve their name: political disintegration, economic depression, the collapse of literature surely made the barbarian kingdoms in many ways unimaginably dismal". So White accepts that the period was one of general collapse, except for technology. Yet over the past 70 years a mass of sophisticated archaeological evidence details the collapse of technology as well (see the sources cited in my critique) until at least 800 -900, making White’s assertion redundant for the earlier period. There was recovery from the low base but it was slow – even in 1000 there were only 100 towns in Europe, a sad shadow of the bustling city-full Roman empire. Chris Wickham (see below) notes (pp.549-550) that it is only in northern Francia and the Rhineland that there is evidence of a dynamic economy.
Even then, one has to temper the notion of "progress" in the period 800-1000 with the evidence of the increasing subjection of a once independent peasantry to feudal laws and serfdom. The chapter "The Caging of the Peasantry, 800-1000" in Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Penguin 2009) deals well with the issue (2). Hannam’s assertion of uninterrupted advance is seriously misleading to the innocent reader and he really has no business to be making generalisations that imply that he is representing current scholarship. As I said in my critique, I cannot see why, if Hannam chooses to omit the Greeks and the Arabs, he does not just start at, say, 1100 and so avoid the embarrassment that anyone who knows this period will load onto him and the possible charge that he is misleading in his use of sources.
In my critique I argued that Hannam had simply not made his case, especially in linking Galileo to the natural philosophers, whom the former so openly derided. The only point Hannam makes in this response is that John Heilbron in his biography of Galileo notes the influence on the natural philosophers on Galileo on pages 130 and 137. Heilbron has an effective way of dealing with areas in Galileo’s ideas where there is some confusion by providing an imaginary dialogue between Galileo and an alter ego, Alexander. This particular "imaginary reconstruction" of a discussion, as Heilbron terms it, refers to Galileo’s experiments and his discussions with Paolo Sarpi, the Venetian polymath of whom Galileo said "no one in Europe comes before him in knowledge of the [mathematical] sciences". (Heilbron notes how several of Galileo’s ideas are to be found first in Sarpi’s notebooks.) While the two Galileos do discuss impetus, there is nothing to show that they were not drawing on "their" recent discussions and experiments. Heilbron would surely have mentioned Buridan in his exhaustive list of influences on Galileo (see my critique) if Buridan was the primary source of the discussion as Heilbron imagines it. Even if he had been, we are nowhere near Hannam’s assertion that without the work of the natural philosophers we would not have had the achievement of Galileo and hence "modern science". His argument simply collapses.
I am not sure what Hannam means by "possibly infelicitous" when he approaches my argument about God’s Philosophers not being worthy of a place on the Royal Society shortlist. I meant it to be totally "infelicitous", in the OED definition of that word as "unfortunate", and I think I have made this clear here and in my earlier critique. I can only repeat that the book is conceptually muddled, makes far too great claims for the natural philosophers and fails to provide any evidence for many of its major assertions. As Hannam does not even try to counter the refutation of his conclusions to God’s Philosophers that I made at the end of my critique, I will not need to offer any further comment or elaboration of them
Finally, Hannam says that if he woke up an atheist he would hold to everything he has written . Well, there are atheists and atheists as much as there are Christians and Christians. But he would be the first atheist whom I have heard to defend the view that Catholic teaching must be necessarily right to the extent that the Church is justified in burning those who disagree with it. This is a deeply flawed book and the questions that concerns me above all others is why so few critics have failed to spot its inadequacies.
1. My book AD 381 deals with the matter. On Augustine, John Rist’s excellent Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised, Cambridge University Press, 1994, provides details of Augustine’s evolving thoughts on persecution.
2. I don’t think one can find a greater authority than Chris Wickham on social and economic life between 400 and 1000. He concludes his chapter as follows: "There was thus some economic vitality in western Europe at the end of our period [1000 AD] but not exchange take-off. . . The main motor was still aristocratic. And in this context the caging of the peasantry was a vital element. All the trends towards the greater subjection of the peasantry described in the first half of this chapter had as an important result the concentration of peasant surplus in the hands of lords, . .the loss of autonomy of the peasantry and the increase in the complexity of exchange were thus two sides of the same coin. . . . Complexity has costs, and the cost in this period was a decisive move to restrict the autonomy (and sometimes, indeed, the prosperity) of between 80 and 90 per cent of the population." (pages 550-551). So much for Hannam’s adulation as this period of one of progress – it was only such for the aristocracy (and the Church which was busy accumulating major estates).