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God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science [Paperback]

James Hannam
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)

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Paperback, 6 Aug 2009 --  

Book Description

6 Aug 2009
This is a powerful and a thrilling narrative history revealing the roots of modern science in the medieval world. The adjective 'medieval' has become a synonym for brutality and uncivilized behavior. Yet without the work of medieval scholars there could have been no Galileo, no Newton and no Scientific Revolution. In "God's Philosophers", James Hannam debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth is flat, nor did Columbus 'prove' that it is a sphere; the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution; no Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. "God's Philosophers" is a celebration of the forgotten scientific achievements of the Middle Ages - advances which were often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity and Islam. Decisive progress was also made in technology: spectacles and the mechanical clock, for instance, were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, "God's Philosophers" brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine, as well as putting into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 435 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd; 1st edition (6 Aug 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848310706
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848310704
  • Product Dimensions: 3 x 16 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 633,857 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Hannam took a Physics degree at Oxford before training as an accountant. He enjoyed a successful career in the City, mainly financing film production, but harboured ambitions to write about the history of science. In 2001, he started a part time MA at Birkbeck College, London in Historical Research. The experience only served to further whet his appetite for the subject. In 2003, he was accepted at Cambridge to read a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science. His thesis on the decline of medieval learning during the sixteenth century was completed in 2008. In the meantime, he also worked on his book for the general reader, "God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundation of Modern Science" which was published by Icon in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2010. James has also written for various magazines and newspapers including the Spectator, History Today, Standpoint and New Scientist.

Product Description


[A] spirited jaunt through centuries of scientific development... captures the wonder of the medieval world: its inspirational curiosity and its engaging strangeness. --Sunday Times, August 16, 2009

This book contains much valuable material summarised with commendable no-nonsense clarity... James Hannam has done a fine job of knocking down an old caricature. --Sunday Telegraph, August 30, 2009

A very useful general survey of a difficult topic, and a robust defence of an unfairly maligned age. --The Spectator, August 12, 2009

The book can be highly recommended as the very best kind of popular history. --Chemistry World, December 2009

Hannam, the liveliest of guides, makes enjoyable reading out of some seriously dusty history and difficult ideas.
--The Scotsman, August 2009

About the Author

James Hannam is a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge where he studied physics and then gained a PhD in the history of science. He lives in Kent with his wife and two children. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb rehabilitation of the middle ages 24 Nov 2009
By Dr. Nicholas P. G. Davies TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an excellent discovery. Thanks to previous reviewers on here who recommended it. Having just read it, is my turn to recommend it now.

There are several reasons to recommend this book. Firstly it is a good historical drama with a rich cast of interesting characters and contexts. The author is a good narrator and takes us through the stories briskly and thoroughly. He gives enough detail to make the point, and if you need further evidence there is a useful reference list as well.

Secondly this book is good at separating the events that happened during the middle ages from the myths and pejorative labels that have been attached to the middle ages by later observers for their own purposes. This book shows that there were never many believers in a flat earth. This book shows that the Christian milieu provided a fertile growing ground for science and was not opposed to science. Conflicts between a literal reading of the bible and science were resolved sensibly and quickly.

The people living in the middle ages did not know they were in the middle of anything. They were humans with their own strengths and weaknesses trying to make sense of the world they found themselves in. They struggled with this as well as they could do and made huge intellectual and technological progress, which we in turn have built on. This book is a glorious story of people and how they used knowledge to better their understanding of the world. It is a glorious example of a historian writing to explore and understand how the world appeared to his subjects, rather than to impose his modern views on a past people.

This book increases our respect for the great medieval scholars and their work, and its role in helping us to get to where we are now. It is a great rehabilitation exercise on an often unjustly mocked period of history. I can recommend it highly to other readers.
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the shoulders of (medieval) giants 29 Mar 2010
What did the Middle Ages ever do for us--for science in particular? Not a lot, I hear you say? The Greeks laid the foundations, and then, after the fall of Rome, a great darkness descended on the intellectual world for about a thousand years. During this time no major advances were made, and any attempts to make progress were swiftly suppressed by the dominant ecclesiastical establishment. Then, finally, the light began to dawn, the classics were rediscovered, reason broke free from tradition, and the modern era was born.


Not at all, says James Hannam in his recent and highly accessible book (with a wealth of highly inaccessible contemporary scholarship to back him up). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books, 2009) seeks to do away with the simplistic and inaccurate view the most people (myself included) have tended to have concerning intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages.

But how could such a misrepresentation arise? Quite easily, in fact. History can easily been rewritten, or re-spun, to give the impression that all that went before was insignificant ("Middle Ages") and repressive ("Dark Ages"), but that now we have life ("Renaissance"), light ("Enlightenment"), progress ("Modern") and real transformation ("Reformation" and "revolution", even "scientific revolution"). Anyone with an axe to grind against their predecessors will soon pile in to reinforce the stereotypes.

So what did these "Middle Ages" do for modern science? The rest of the book takes us on a remarkably enjoyable whistle-stop tour of the period to find out, as we meet one "giant" after another.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A timely and important book 22 Sep 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The notion that the Middle Ages were an era of superstition, ignorance and of religious dogma preventing scientific development is without doubt incorrect, and largely down to a number of writers from the Victorian period onwards who were vehemently hostile to religion, painting a very biased picture of the past. On the contrary, it was a period of great scientific advancement. The church was in no way against this; by delimiting what could be established by religion, the church effectively ring fenced a vast area of intellectual development which could be addressed by science and philosophy without interference.

Even going beyond such boundaries, going "against" the church's doctrine would not in itself rouse its ire so long as such science was regarded as purely speculative rather than asserted to be true. And unlike the popular perception, heretics were treated relatively gently and given plenty of opportunity to return to orthodoxy without suffering any consequences. It took a rather bloody-minded type to repeatedly provoke the church to go as far as to hand over such to the secular authorities for burning.

Nor was the Renaissance quite the awakening we have been led to believe. As Hannam notes, "The desire to look back to Greece and Rome was the true mark of the Renaissance, which in many ways was a conservative movement attempting to recapture an imaginary past rather than march forward. It was a time when, in order to be up to date in writing or architecture, artists had to model their work on a prototype that was over 1,000 years old.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark Ages, what Dark Ages?
Fascinating insight into the science of the so-called Dark Ages. The paper us rather coarse and I'm not sure the book will last which is a shame because the book was a really... Read more
Published 7 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Really interesting and easy to read.
Published 10 days ago by C. Masters
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Nicely told history, explains how the flame of learning and ideas was kept alive for a 1000 years
Published 1 month ago by Peter James Reid
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightened
Amazing how preconceptions can be answered in a clear and informative way , I am only a person with average knowledge so was pleased that it was easy and clear to grasp and tbat... Read more
Published 3 months ago by warwick robertson
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read!
James Hannam's book is an excellent read, easy to follow an shows just how much current science is owed to those Christians who wanted to know God through God's creation.
Published 4 months ago by Raymond Borrett
5.0 out of 5 stars A excellent book in every way.
informative, indeed educational. Very easy to read and worthwhile. When I've finished this I will certainly read it again
this time more attentively and will probably obtain a... Read more
Published 4 months ago by charles w roberts
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it
Good book.Totally demolishes the already discredited conflict theory.James hannam offers very compelling insights in this book. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Ernest Ombayo
3.0 out of 5 stars Just Not Very Good
OK, medieval philosophical theology was one of my Ph.D. dissertation fields so I probably come to this book knowing more than the average reader. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Paul Halsall
4.0 out of 5 stars Necessary rehabilitation......
It seems that I sometimes have and controversial and nonconformist taste in history books. I don't generally like tabloid style, sensationalistic controversy for its own sake,... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Medieval Lady
5.0 out of 5 stars An informative & gratifyingly easy & enjoyable read
This is a great book. Whilst I'm not sure I agree with all of Hannam's views (or those of a number of other reviewers on Amazon), nevertheless his book is very informative and,... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Sebastian Palmer
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