Day By Day by The Great Chris Muir

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Man Invented Science

When Man Invented Science
by Scott Locklin

Pope Benedict’s trip to Ole Blighty is over, and that sanctimonious gasbag Dawkins didn’t manage to arrest him in the name of secular humanism. While I’m not a believer myself, I often wonder at such professional atheists who cover themselves in the mantle of “science.” Don’t they know any history?

What we refer to today as “science” is something which was invented by humans, rather than springing forth from Jove’s forehead in some ancient time before time. There is a definite date before which there was no science and a date after which there was science. This isn’t controversial or mysterious: We know exactly when it happened, and some of the original manuscripts which invented science and modern thought still exist.

Science was invented in the “High Middle Ages.” This was an era of great prosperity in Europe (and everywhere else, really). It was warmer than it is now: Grapes grew in Northern England. Since Europe was an agricultural economy, this meant much more prosperity than in years previous. During this era, Europe was wealthy enough to fund the Crusades, something we arguably can’t afford today.

The Black Death ended this era. Had this disease not spread to Europe in the 1340s, we might have had a different world. Europe didn’t reach the High Middle Ages’ economic development or population densities again until the Industrial Revolution. Considering that Europe’s economy at the time was agricultural, Europe never really rose to those heights again.

This was a time of knights. It was a time the Vikings’ descendants reached their true potential as civilized people. The pagan Vikings were fierce warriors, but the civilized Christian Normans were unstoppable. This tiny tribe of supermen conquered southern Italy. They conquered Byzantium (with help from the treacherous Venetians). They were the last people to conquer England. They conquered the Holy Land. The other Christian Vikings, the Kievan Rus, founded a prosperous trading state on the Volga, which remains one of the highest forms of Russian civilization (also destroyed by the treacherous Venetians’ connivance). Great conquerors such as El Cid and Gualdim Pais forced the Saracens from Spain and Portugal during this time. The great European universities were founded during this era: Bologna, Coimbra, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, Cambridge, Montpelier, Padua. The very idea of a university was invented at this time, and it came straight from Roman Catholic monasticism. Venice, Genoa, Kiev, and the Hanseatic League made vast fortunes in international commerce. Musical notation was invented. Windmills, eyeglasses, printing, and improved clocks were all invented around this time, with inventions such as paper, the spinning wheel, and the magnetic compass being introduced from abroad by the great commercial city-states.
“Science was invented to give glory to God by examining his natural laws, not to overthrow him from his throne.”

We have visual evidence of this era’s glory and prosperity in the form of the Gothic cathedrals. Sleepy little towns such as Chartres were so wealthy and had so much free time, they were able to construct these magnificent structures. Think about Chartres Cathedral for a moment. Chartres could not afford to build such a thing today with all of our technology and wealth because it doesn’t have any spirit as it did in those days. In fact, no place in modern Europe has either the artistic spirit to build such a magnificent object or the spiritual will to make something so grand. This is an object which required 75 years to complete. When was the last time a modern culture had the spirit to create something which takes 75 years to construct? Yet, it was built by semi-literate laborers in an agricultural economy, as were dozens of other such things all over Europe at around the same time. One can look at the Gothic cathedrals as the physical crystallization of the heroic spirit which produced science in the same sense that one can look at the Parthenon of Pericles as the physical crystallization of Plato and the Greek philosophers’ spirit.

History’s first scientist was Robert Grosseteste, although his work is little known in popular education today. He was born in 1170 or so to a humble Suffolk family. He found his calling in the Catholic Church, as important a source of social mobility then as the university system is now. It was Grosseteste who formulated the first description of the scientific process. He was the first European in centuries to study Aristotle’s works and the first to study Arab natural philosopher Abu Ibn al-Haytham’s writings. From these thinkers he developed the idea of “composition and resolution,” which is the scientific method in itself. He advocated using mathematics to learn about reality. He also developed the idea of peer review. He built upon the notion that one could learn natural law’s general principles by studying specific examples. He developed the all-important idea of falsification, to separate true from false ideas.

Grosseteste was a deeply moral and pious man. He made sure the common people had proper moral instruction in English and that everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. He fired all of the clergymen under his authority who led immoral lives and was a passionate advocate for religious instruction in his native tongue of Middle English. We have this idea from the 1800s of a scientist as a sort of deranged Promethean character bent on upsetting the natural order, but Grosseteste was practically saintlike, and he was the first scientist. I think this is why we don’t hear more about these guys. They were not what we expect of scientists from popular culture. They were clerics. They were extremely good and moral clerics; examples to the others in a time where there was no shortage of very bad and immoral clerics. They were not the mad scientists of yore, nor did they cut the antinomian figure of modern charlatans such as Dawkins; they were extremely pious figures. Their study of science was a form of prayer or religious devotion, not a way of rebelling against their societies’ constraints. Science was invented to give glory to God by examining his natural laws, not to overthrow him from his throne.

Roger Bacon could probably be considered the great systematizer of Grosseteste’s work. He put science in the form and words we know now. He used the terms we know today: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and independent verification. He also detailed many of the ways in which people can fall into error: resort to authority (a particular peeve of mine), custom, cultural opinion, and pretentious blather. Bacon’s the one medieval scholar you’ve likely heard of, and his contributions to human knowledge were many.

Another important early scientist of the era is Albertus Magnus. The Catholics canonized him as St. Albert the Great. He is considered one of only 33 Doctors of the Church; no Promethean he. One of his most important contributions was the idea that experiments were imperfect, so you could be surer of your conclusions if you did multiple tests on different systems to prove a given natural law. He also discovered arsenic, almost invented photography, and wrote books on mineralogy, botany, physiology, metallurgy, zoology, and a host of other topics. Albertus’s intellectual achievements are so numerous, he makes the entire concept of “Renaissance man” ridiculous. We have no thinking men alive today who can compare to Albertus Magnus, and only a few thinkers in human history can be considered as wide-ranging and important to modern thought. Yet most of you have never heard of him.

Other figures from the era: Petrus Peregrinus, a crusader and monk-knight, wrote detailed accounts of his experimentation with magnets. Witelo of Silesia developed perspective optics, which eventually led to the beauties of Western painting. Johannes de Scartobosco made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy that we take for granted today. William of Ockham—yes, the guy who invented Ockham’s razor—made important contributions to logic and physics.

All of these guys were deeply pious. They didn’t come from the rebellious clerics, of whom there were no shortage in that time. They were religious, but not ignorant mystics; they were their era’s most learned men. They were not provincial rubes as we like to portray the religious today: They were greatly inspired by men from other cultures. They were religious men, not rebels against the Church, as is the modern conception of science opposed to religion. They also came from a time of spirit and prosperity of a magnitude the world hasn’t seen since. In my opinion, this was one of the high points of human history, like the time of Pericles.

Modern atheists with no sense of history like to think of the Church and religious people as the forces of darkness, but in reality, the Catholic Church was the birth of the light of reason. Those religious people are the ultimate heroes of reason; without them, no science would have come into being. The High Middle Ages is also an unsung era because modern people don’t like to think of a historical decline having happened so recently. We safely dismiss the Gothic cathedrals’ knightly era as a time of primitive post-Roman rapacious barbarians rather than an era of high culture and achievement. Thinking about this era is painful, as it was the peak before a big decline, the likes of which are only happening now. Europe’s current depopulation is the first one since the end of the High Medieval times. We like to think of history as a story of steady progress from barbarism, and we like to imagine the enemies of progress as all wearing clerical robes, but history is much more complicated. We move forward and we are hurled back by titanic forces, whether disease back then or anomie and apathy today.

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

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

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

(Icon Books, 2009) 320 pages
Verdict?: A superb and long overdue popular treatment of Medieval science 5/5

My interest in Medieval science was substantially sparked by one book. Way back in 1991, when I was an impoverished and often starving post-graduate student at the University of Tasmania, I found a copy of Robert T. Gunther's Astrolabes of the World - 598 folio pages of meticulously catalogued Islamic, Medieval and Renaissance astrolabes with photos, diagrams, star lists and a wealth of other information. I found it, appropriately and not coincidentally, in Michael Sprod's Astrolabe Books - up the stairs in one of the beautiful old sandstone warehouses that line Salamanca Place on Hobart's waterfront. Unfortunately the book cost $200, which at that stage was the equivalent to what I lived on for a month. But Michael was used to selling books to poverty-stricken students, so I went without lunch, put down a deposit of $10 and came back weekly for several months to pay off as much as I could afford and eventually got to take it home, wrapped in brown paper in a way that only Hobart bookshops seem to bother with anymore. There are few pleasures greater than finally getting your hands on a book you've been wanting to own and read for a long time.

I had another experience of that particular pleasure when I received my copy (copies actually - see below) of James Hannam's God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science a couple of weeks ago. For years I've been toying with the idea of creating a website on Medieval science and technology to bring the recent research on the subject to a more general audience and to counter the biased myths about it being a Dark Age of irrational superstition. Thankfully I can now cross that off my to do list, because Hannam's superb book has done the job for me and in fine style.

The Christian Dark Age and Other Hysterical Myths

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who has the lack of common sense to hang around on atheist discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person's grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

So, alongside the regular airings of the hoary old myth that the Bible was collated at the Council of Nicea, the tedious internet-based "Jesus never existed!" nonsense or otherwise intelligent people spouting pseudo historical garbage that would make even Dan Brown snort in derision, the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena.

The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvellous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along, banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness. The online manifestations of this curiously quaint but seemingly indefatigable idea range from the touchingly clumsy to the utterly hysterical, but it remains one of those things that "everybody knows" and permeates modern culture. A recent episode of Family Guy had Stewie and Brian enter a futuristic alternative world where, it was explained, things were so advanced because Christianity didn't destroy learning, usher in the Dark Ages and stifle science. The writers didn't see the need to explain what Stewie meant - they assumed everyone understood.

About once every 3-4 months on forums like we get some discussion where someone invokes the old "Conflict Thesis" and gets in the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being garbage. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

And, almost without fail, someone digs up a graphic (see below), which I have come to dub "THE STUPIDEST THING ON THE INTERNET EVER", and to flourish it triumphantly as though it is proof of something other than the fact that most people are utterly ignorant of history and unable to see that something called "Scientific Advancement" can't be measured, let alone plotted on a graph.

The Stupidest Thing on the Internet Ever
Behold its glorious idiocy!
(Courtesy of an drooling moron called Jim Walker. Take a bow Jim!)

It's not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked this bullshit up from other websites and popular books and collapse as soon as you hit them with some hard evidence. I love to totally stump them by asking them to present me with the name of one - just one - scientist burned, persecuted or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists - like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa - and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents have usually run away to hide and scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

The Origin of the Myths

How the myths that led to the creation of "THE STUPIDEST THING ON THE INTERNET EVER" and its associated nonsense came about is well documented in several recent books on the the history of science, but Hannam wisely tackles it in the opening pages of his book, since it would be likely to form the basis for many general readers to be suspicious of the idea of a Medieval foundation for modern science. A festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericism and Classicist snobbery have all combined to make the Medieval period a by-word for backwardness, superstition and primitivism and the opposite of everything the average person associates with science and reason. Hannam sketches how polemicists like Thomas Huxley, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, all with their own anti-Christian axes to grind, managed to shape the still current idea that the Middle Ages was devoid of science and reason. And how it was not until real historians bothered to question the polemicists through the work of early pioneers in the field like Pierre Duhem, Lynn Thorndike and the author of my astrolabe book, Robert T. Gunther, that the distortions of the axe-grinders began to be corrected by proper, unbiased research. That work has now been completed by the current crop of modern historians of science like David C. Lindberg, Ronald Numbers and Edward Grant.

In the academic sphere at least the "Conflict Thesis" of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists are clinging so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent objective peer reviewed historians. This is strange behaviour for people who like to label themselves "rationalists". I'll leave others to ponder how "rational" it is.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While dinosaurs like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine's encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy and Boethius' translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, reason and rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the Dark Ages that resulted from that collapse. Edward Grant's superb God and Reason in the Middle Ages details this with characteristic vigor, but Hannam gives a good summary of this key element in his first four chapters.

What makes his version of the story more accessible than Grant's rather drier approach is the way he tells it though the lives of key people of the time - Gerbert of Aurillac, Anselm, Abelard, William of Conches, Adelard of Bath etc. Some reviewers of Hannam's book seem to have found this approach a little distracting, since the sheer volume of names and mini-biographies could make it feel like we are learning a small amount about a vast number of people. But given the breadth of Hannam's subject, this is fairly inevitable and the semi-biographical approach is certainly more accessible than a stodgy abstract analysis of the evolution of Medieval thought.

Hannam also gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to "the Myth", was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out amongst the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

God and Reason

The enshrining of reason at the heart of inquiry and analysis in Medieval scholarship combined with the influx of "new" Greek and Arabic learning to stimulate a veritable explosion of intellectual activity in Europe from the Twelfth Century onwards. It was as though the sudden stimulus of new perspectives and new ways of looking at the world fell on the fertile soil of a Europe that was, for the first time in centuries, relatively peaceful, prosperous, outward-looking and genuinely curious.

This is not to say that more conservative and reactionary forces did not have misgivings about some of the new areas of inquiry, especially in relation to how philosophy and speculation about the natural world and the cosmos could have implications for accepted theology. Hannam is careful not to pretend that there was no resistance to the flowering of the new thinking and inquiry but - unlike the perpetuators of "the Myth" - he gives that resistance due consideration rather than pretending it was the whole story. In fact, the conservatives and reactionaries' efforts were usually rear-guard actions and were in almost every case totally unsuccessful in curtailing the inevitable flood of ideas that began to flow from the universities. Once it began, it was effectively unstoppable.

In fact, some of the efforts by the theologians to put some limits on what could and could not be accepted via the "new learning" actually had the effect of stimulating inquiry rather than constricting it. The "Condemnations of 1277" attempted to assert certain things that could not be stated as "philosophically true", particularly things that put limits on divine omnipotence. This had the interesting effect of making it clear that Aristotle had, actually, got some things badly wrong - something Thomas Aquinas emphasised in his famous and highly influential Summa Theologicae:

The condemnations and Thomas's Summa Theologicae had created a framework within which natural philosophers could safely pursue their studies. The framework .... laid down the the principle that Gad had decreed laws of nature but was not bound by them. Finally, it stated that Aristotle was sometimes wrong. The world was not 'eternal according to reason' and 'finite according to faith'. It was not eternal, full stop. And if Aristotle could be wrong about something that he regarded as completely certainly certain, that threw his whole philosophy into question. The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks.
(Hannam, pp. 104-105)

Which is precisely what they proceeded to do. Far from being a stagnant dark age, as the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was, the period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, by far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect. With Occam and Duns Scotus taking the critical approach to Aristotle further than Aquinas' more cautious approach, the way was open for the Medieval scientists of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries to question, examine and test the perspectives the translators of the Twelfth Century had given them, with remarkable effects:

(I)n the fourteenth century medieval thinkers began to notice that there was something seriously amiss with all aspects of Aristotle's natural philosophy, and not just those parts of it that directly contradicted the Christian faith. The time had come when medieval scholars could begin their own quest to advance knowledge .... striking out in new directions that neither the Greeks nor the Arabs ever explored. Their first breakthrough was to combine the two subjects of mathematics and physics in a way that had not been done before.
(Hannam, p. 174)

The story of that breakthrough and the remarkable Oxford scholars who achieved it and thus laid the foundations of true science - the "Merton Calculators" - probably deserves a book in itself, but Hannam's account certainly does them justice and forms a fascinating section of his work. The names of these pioneers of the scientific method - Thomas Bradwardine, Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury, John Dumbleton and the delightfully named Richard Swineshead - deserve to be better known. Unfortunately, the obscuring shadow of "the Myth" means that they continue to be ignored or dismissed even in quite recent popular histories of science. Bradwardine's summary of the key insight these men uncovered is one of the great quotes of early science and deserves to be recognised as such:

(Mathematics) is the revealer of every genuine truth ... whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.
(Quoted in Hannam, p. 176)

These men were not only the first to truly apply mathematics to physics but also developed logarithmic functions 300 years before John Napier and the Mean Speed Theorem 200 years before Galileo. The fact that Napier and Galileo are credited with discovering things that Medieval scholars had already developed is yet another indication of how "the Myth" has warped our perceptions of the history of science.

Similarly, the physics and astronomy of Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme were radical and profound, but generally unknown to the average reader. Buridan was one of the first to compare the movements of the cosmos to those of another Medieval innovation - the clock. The image of a clockwork universe which was to serve scientists well into our own era began in the Middle Ages. And Oresme's speculations about a rotating Earth shows that Medieval scholars were happy to contemplate what were (to them) fairly outlandish ideas to see if they might work - Oresme found that this particular idea actually worked quite well. These men are hardly the products of a "dark age" and their careers are conspicuously free of any of the Inquistitors and threats of burnings so fondly and luridly imagined by the fevered proponents of "the Myth".


As mentioned above, no manifestation of "the Myth" is complete without the Galileo Affair being raised. The proponents of the idea that the Church stifled science and reason in the Middle Ages have to wheel him out, because without him they actually have absolutely zero examples of the Church persecuting anyone for anything to do with inquiries into the natural world. The common conception that Galileo was persecuted for being right about heliocentrism is a total oversimplification of a complex business, and one that ignores the fact that Galileo's main problem was not simply that his ideas disagreed with scriptural interpretation but also with the science of the time. Contrary to the way the affair is usually depicted, the real sticking point was the fact that the scientific objections to heliocentrism at the time were still powerful enough to prevent its acceptance. Cardinal Bellarmine made it clear to Galileo in 1616 that if those scientific objections could be overcome then scripture could and would be reinterpreted. But while the objections still stood the Church, understandably, was hardly going to overturn several centuries of exegesis for the sake of a flawed theory. Galileo agreed to only teach heliocentrism as a theoretical calculating device, then promptly turned around and, in typical style, taught it as fact. Thus his prosecution by the Inquistion in 1633.

Hannam gives the context for all this in suitable detail in a section of the book that also explains how the Humanism of the "Renaissance" led a new wave of scholars to not only seek to completely idolise and emulate the ancients, but to turn their backs on the achievements of recent scholars like Duns Scotus, Bardwardine, Buridan and Orseme. Thus many of their discoveries and advances were either ignored and forgotten (only to be rediscovered independently later) or scorned but quietly appropriated. The case for Galileo using the work of Medieval scholars without acknowledgement is fairly damning. In their eagerness to dump Medieval "dialectic" and ape the Greeks and Romans - which made the "Renaissance" a curiously conservative and rather retrograde movement in many ways - genuine developments and advancements by Medieval scholars were discarded. That a thinker of the calibre of Duns Scotus could end up being known mainly as the etymology of the word "dunce" is deeply ironic.

As good as the final part of the book is and as worthy as a fairly detailed analysis of the realities of the Galileo Affair clearly is, I must say the last four or five chapters of Hannam's book did feel as though they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew. I know I was able to follow his argument quite easily, but I am very familiar with the material and with the argument he is making. I suspect that those for whom this depiction of the "Renaissance" and the idea of Galileo as nothing more than a persecuted martyr to genius might find it gallops at too rapid a pace to really carry them along. Myths, after all, have a very weighty inertia.

At least one reviewer seems to have found the weight of that inertia too hard to resist, though perhaps she had some other baggage weighing her down. Nina Power writing in New Humanist magazine certainly seems to have had some trouble ditching the idea of the Church persecuting Medieval scientists:

Just because persecution wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and just because some thinkers weren’t always the nicest of people doesn’t mean that interfering in their work and banning their ideas was justifiable then or is justifiable now.

Well, no-one said it was justifiable now and simply explaining how it came about then and why it was not as extensive or of the nature that most people assume is not "justifying" it anyway - it is correcting a pseudo historical misunderstanding. That said, Power does have something of a point when she notes "Hannam’s characterisation of (Renaissance) thinkers as “incorrigible reactionaries” who “almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy” is at odds with his more careful depiction of those that came before." This is not, however, because that characterisation is wrong but because the length and scope of the book really do not give him room to do this fairly complex and, to many, radical idea justice.

My only criticisms of the book are really quibbles. The sketch of the "agrarian revolution" of the Dark Ages described in Chapter One, which saw technology like the horse-collar and the mouldboard plough adopted and water and wind power harnessed to greatly increase production in previously unproductive parts of Europe is generally sound. But it does place rather too much emphasis on two elements in Lynn White's thesis in his seminal Medieval Technology and Social Change - the importance of the stirrup and the significance of the horse collar. As important and ground-breaking as White's thesis was in 1962, more recent analysis has found some of his central ideas dubious. The idea that the stirrup was as significant for the rise of shock heavy cavalry as White claimed is now pretty much rejected by military historians and his claims about how this cavalry itself caused the beginnings of the feudal system were dubious to begin with. And the idea that Roman traction systems were as inefficient as White's sources make out has also been seriously questioned. Hannam seems to accept White's thesis wholesale, which is not really justified given it has been reassessed for over 40 years now.

On at rather more personal note, as a humanist and atheist myself, there is a rather snippy little aside on page 212 where Hannam sneers that "non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word 'humanist' to mean a softer version of 'atheist'." Sorry, but just as not all humanists are atheists (as Hannam himself well knows) so not all atheists are humanists (as anyone hanging around on some of the more vitriolically anti-theist sites and forums will quickly realise). So there is no "non-believer" plot to "hijack" the word "humanist". Those of us who are humanists are humanists - end of story. And "atheism" does not need any "softening" anyway.

That aside, this is a marvellous book and a brilliant, readable and accessible antidote to "the Myth". It should be on the Christmas wish-list of any Medievalist, science history buff or anyone who has a misguided friend who still thinks the nights in the Middle Ages were lit by burning scientists. But if you don't want to wait that long, keep in mind that I am still giving away a free copy as part of my Armarium Magnum Essay Competition. Entries close at the end of November.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages

Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages spanned roughly from the 5th century to the 16th century – a total of 1,100 years. During the time following the Middle Ages (which is often referred to as the Enlightenment), the previous millennium was criticized and condemned – just as we now condemn the actions of some during the Victorian Period (sexual prudishness for example). Many of the writers of the newly invented Protestant movement harshly attacked the Middle Ages because of its Catholicity. Unfortunately many of the myths and misconceptions that sprung up at the time are still believed today. This list aims to set things straight.

Death Penalty

Myth: The death penalty was common in the Middle Ages

Despite what many people believe, the Middle Ages gave birth to the jury system and trials were in fact very fair. The death penalty was considered to be extremely severe and was used only in the worst cases of crimes like murder, treason, and arson. It was not until the Middle Ages began to draw to a close that people like Elizabeth I began to use the death penalty as a means to rid their nations of religious opponents. Public beheadings were not as we see in the movies – they were given only to the rich, and were usually not performed in public. The most common method of execution was hanging – and burning was extremely rare (and usually performed after the criminal had been hanged to death first).

Locked Bibles

Myth: Bibles were locked away to keep the people from seeing the “true word”

During the Middle Ages (until Gutenberg came along) all books had to be written by hand. This was a painstaking task which took many months – particularly with a book as large as the Bible. The job of hand-printing books was left to monks tucked away in monasteries. These books were incredibly valuable and they were needed in every Church as the Bible was read aloud at Mass every day. In order to protect these valuable books, they would be locked away. There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people – the locks meant that the Church could guarantee that the people could hear the Bible (many wouldn’t have been able to read) every day. And just to show that it wasn’t just the Catholic Church that locked up the Bibles for safety, the most famous “chained bible” is the “Great Bible” which Henry VIII had created and ordered to be read in the protestant churches. You can read more about that here. The Catholic diocese of Lincoln makes a comment on the practice here.

Starving Poor

Myth: The poor were kept in a state of near starvation

This is completely false. Peasants (those who worked in manual work) would have had fresh porridge and bread daily – with beer to drink. In addition, each day would have an assortment of dried or cured meats, cheeses, and fruits and vegetables from their area. Poultry, chicken, ducks, pigeons, and geese were not uncommon on the peasants dinner table. Some peasants also liked to keep bees, to provide honey for their tables. Given the choice between McDonalds and Medieval peasant food, I suspect the peasant food would be more nutritious and tasty. The rich of the time had a great choice of meats – such as cattle, and sheep. They would eat more courses for each meal than the poor, and would probably have had a number of spiced dishes – something the poor could not afford. Wikipedia has an interesting article here which describes the mostly vegetable and grain diet of the peasants in the early Middle Ages, leading to more meat in the later period.

Thatched Roofs

Myth: Peasants had thatched roofs with animals living in them

First of all, the thatched roofs of Medieval dwellings were woven into a tight mat – they were not just bundles of straw and sticks thrown on top of the house. Animals would not easily have been able to get inside the roof – and considering how concerned the average Middle Ager was, if an animal did get inside, they would be promptly removed – just as we remove birds or other small creatures that enter our homes today. And for the record, thatched roofs were not just for the poor – many castles and grander homes had them as well – because they worked so well. There are many homes in English villages today that still have thatched roofs.

Smelly People

Myth: People didn’t bathe in the Middle Ages, therefore they smelled bad

Not only is this a total myth, it is so widely believed that it has given rise to a whole other series of myths, such as the false belief that Church incense was designed to hide the stink of so many people in one place. In fact, the incense was part of the Church’s rituals due to its history coming from the Jewish religion which also used incense in its sacrifices. This myth has also lead to the strange idea that people usually married in May or June because they didn’t stink so badly – having had their yearly bath. It is, of course, utter rubbish. People married in those months because marriage was not allowed during Lent (the season of penance). So, back to smelly people. In the Middle Ages, most towns had bathhouses – in fact, cleanliness and hygiene was very highly regarded – so much so that bathing was incorporated into various ceremonies such as those surrounding knighthood. Some people bathed daily, others less regularly – but most people bathed. Furthermore, they used hot water – they just had to heat it up themselves, unlike us with our modern plumbed hot water. The French put it best in the following Latin statement: Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere! (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, – This is to live!)

Peasant Life

Myth: Peasants lived a life of drudgery and back-breaking work

In fact, while peasants in the Middle Ages did work hard (tilling the fields was the only way to ensure you could eat), they had regular festivals (religious and secular) which involved dancing, drinking, games, and tournaments. Many of the games from the time are still played today: chess, checkers, dice, blind man’s bluff, and many more. It may not seem as fun as the latest game for the Wii, but it was a great opportunity to enjoy the especially warm weather that was caused by the Medieval Warming Period.

Violence Everywhere

Myth: The Middle Ages were a time of great violence

While there was violence in the Middle Ages (just as there had always been), there were no equals to our modern Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Most people lived their lives without experiencing violence. The Inquisition was not the violent bloodlust that many movies and books have claimed it to be, and most modern historians now admit this readily. Modern times have seen genocide, mass murder, and serial killing – something virtually unheard of before the “enlightenment”. In fact, there are really only two serial killers of note from the Middle Ages: Elizabeth Bathory, and Gilles de Rais. For those who dispute the fact that the Inquisition resulted in very few deaths, Wikipedia has the statistics here showing that there were (at most) 826 recorded executions over a 160 year period – from 45,000 trials!

Oppressed Women

Myth: Women were oppressed in the Middle Ages

In the 1960s and 1970s, the idea that women were oppressed in the Middle Ages flourished. In fact, all we need to do is think of a few significant women from the period to see that that is not true at all: St Joan of Arc was a young woman who was given full control of the French army! Her downfall was political and would have occurred whether she were male or female. Hildegard von Bingen was a polymath in the Middle Ages who was held in such high esteem that Kings, Popes, and Lords all sought her advice. Her music and writing exists to this day. Elizabeth I ruled as a powerful queen in her own right, and many other nations had women leaders. Granted women did not work on Cathedrals but they certainly pulled their weight in the fields and villages. Furthermore, the rules of chivalry meant that women had to be treated with the greatest of dignity. The biggest difference between the concept of feminism in the Middle Ages and now is that in the Middle Ages it was believed that women were “equal in dignity, different in function” – now the concept has been modified to “equal in dignity and function”.

Flat Earth

Myth: People in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat

Furthermore, people did not believe the Earth was the center of the universe – the famous monk Copernicus dealt a death blow to that idea (without being punished) well before Galileo was tried for heresy for claiming that it proved the Bible was wrong. Two modern historians recently published a book in which they say: “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference.”

Crude and Ignorant

Myth: People of the Middle Ages were crude and ignorant

Thanks largely to Hollywood movies, many people believe that the Middle Ages were full of religious superstition and ignorance. But in fact, leading historians deny that there is any evidence of this. Science and philosophy blossomed at the time – partly due to the introduction of Universities all over Europe. The Middle ages produced some of the greatest art, music, and literature in all history. Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli are still revered today for their brilliant minds. The cathedrals and castles of Europe are still standing and contain some of the most beautiful artwork and stonework man has been able to create with his bare hands. Medicine at the time was primitive, but it was structured and willing to embrace new ideas when they arose (which is how we have modern medicine).