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

James Hannam
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 May 2010
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: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd (7 May 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848311508
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848311503
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 77,530 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


"The judges said: "A vibrant insight into the medieval approach to science, full of wonderful anecdotes and personalities.""
--Shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
32 of 32 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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34 of 35 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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14 of 14 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 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 1 month 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 9 months ago by Sebastian Palmer
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Still reading this but the story so far is just great. Full of interesting facts and corrections to many historic myths. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Alan Frew
4.0 out of 5 stars A history of science from ancient Greece to Galileo
God's Philosophers: How the Medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, by James Hannam, Icon Books, London, 2009, 448 ff. [U.S. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Dr. H. A. Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars God's Advocate
For several centuries when someone was being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church an official, commonly referred to as the Devil's Advocate, was charged with presenting... Read more
Published 22 months ago by JohnCarr
2.0 out of 5 stars God's Advocate
God's Philosophers. How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Very often the title of a book tells you very little about it and the sub-title is a better guide... Read more
Published on 14 Jan 2012 by Mr. Lee Simpson
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Work
It's an encyclopeadic book with a lot of effort put in it. It gives an insight into the middle ages science and the motivations behind its movements, writings and discoveries.
Published on 9 Jan 2012 by H. Bastawy
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, interesting, well-researched and a joy to read
In his introduction Hannam sets out his aim which can be summarised as "myth-busting." Some may regard it as revisionist, though I think that would be a little harsh. Read more
Published on 25 Dec 2011 by S. Meadows
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read
I recently finished reading this book, I found it a very interesting read.
I've always been interested in the history of sciences and how it developed. Read more
Published on 16 Nov 2011 by A. Nim
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding the now, by knowing what happened before
This was the first book about the history of science that I read, but it will most certainly not be the last time. Read more
Published on 17 Aug 2011 by Harm Hilvers
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