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.
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."
This return-to-antiquity approach had many negative effects; for example the renewed interest in Aristotle led to the throwing out of much of the scientific progress which had been made since, quite literally - libraries were even cleared out, and it was fortunate that the invention of printing had ensured that sufficient copies of medieval works survived to prevent this knowledge from being permanently lost, and science potentially being put back hundreds of years as a result. Again, the humanists' desire to restore the language of Cicero simply resulted in killing off Latin as a living and evolving language and ultimately rendering it stone dead (on this particular aspect, see also Ostler's excellent Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin).
In covering several hundred years of history in a paperback, the coverage of each personality and his ideas is sadly necessarily relatively brief; this is however a timely and important book, a first step in restoring a true view of both the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
on 29 March 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. There's Boethius (480-525) who, in his hugely influential The Consolation of Philosophy, provided the Latin-speaking world with continued access to Greek scholarship, even after the language faded from use. Then there's Gerbert of Aurillac (c.940-1003), "the most learned man in Europe", who introduced some of the riches of Muslim scholarship to a Christian audience before becoming Pope Sylvester II, the "Mathematical Pope". And so it continues, as discussions about mathematics and science, the nature of physical reality, the use of dissection and great technological advances are mingled with the colourful life stories of many remarkable individuals. Amongst them are Anselm (1033-1109), Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), Roger Bacon (1214-92), Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336), William of Ockham (c.1287-1347), the 14th-century Merton Calculators, John Buridan (c.1300-c.1361), and Nicole Oresme (c.1325-82), who gave arguments to show that the earth was rotating (everyone knew it was round, of course). (The book's List of Key Characters came in handy for writing that bit!)
Particularly interesting to me, as someone largely ignorant of the subject, were the five chapters on the origins of modern astronomy, with Nicolaus Copernicus (1472-1543), Johann Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and their buddies.
on 4 August 2009
Few subjects may confuse or create more controversies than "science and religion". It doesn't help much that the Medieval Period more often than not still is called the Dark Ages.
The result is a silly series of myths and misunderstandings. I have on several occasions thrown my hands up in despair when people refuses to accept that no serious scientist (or natural philosopher as it was called in those days) in the Middle Ages believed that the earth was flat or was persecuted by The Church for their science. Or that anything of value really happened between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
The myths perpetuated in the 19th century by people like Draper and White surface also in bestsellers by Carl Sagan, Daniel Boorstin, William Manchester and Charles Freeman to name a few.
Even if historians of science like Lindberg and Numbers long have shown that Draper and White rarely get it right, and e.g. Grant has described the positive effects of the Medieval Age on western rationality, James Hannam gives it all an illuminating and sometimes amusing spin.
"God's Philosophers" combines a thorough knowledge of the period with an engaging readability. Persons and politics are made alive, from the early middle ages to the various minor renaissances and recoverings of ancient learning, especially in the Twelfth Century.
The story is well told about how Aristotle's pagan science was christianised and why Oxford philosophers like Grosseteste, Bacon and Ockham were so influential. As well as the efforts to correct the errors of Aristotle by the so called Merton Calculators.
Hannam also gives us a pretty good idea why people came to dismiss the period. The agendas of the 15th and 16th century humanists and reformators were not exactly to praise the recent past.
Whether you're interested in why human dissections were allowed in the Medieval World (as opposed to in the Roman and Arabic), Copernicus and Galilei, or The Legacy of Medieval Science in general, this is a gem of a book.
Like Newton we are still very much standing on the shoulders of the medieval giants.
on 17 August 2009
This is a fascinating book, correcting the false impressions many of hus have about the Middle Ages, whilst bringing to our attention a whole host of amazing people who laid the foundations for the great advances of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and others.
It is highly illuminating and a much needed corrective to the distortions and propaganda that have been put about since the Rennaissance by people who for various reasons want to downplay the Middle Ages. It is also beautifully written. I enjoyed it, admire it and learned from it. What more can one ask?
on 23 November 2010
Wonderful, well-researched book. Hannam clearly knows his subject inside out. He brings to life the personalities, the debates and ideological clashes which were just as vibrant and passionate from the 10th to 15th centuries as those going on today.
He shows us that the Enlightenment really started when Christian Europe, still recovering from the fall of Rome, set out to learn all it could from the Greeks, Arabs, Indians and Chinese - and then overtook them.
It was Protestant reformers in the 16th Cent and thereafter who were keen to minimise the achievements of the Catholic church who colluded with humanists to paint the medieval era as ignorant. And that famous debate about angels dancing on the head of a pin? - it never happened.
It's also well-written and good fun.
on 18 August 2009
Many myths about science and religion are commonplace in our society. Repeated endlessly, often without any special malice, but equally often as anti-Christian polemic, they have become an unquestioned truth about how our world came into being. In these myths, science arose in a primitive form in ancient times, and was then forgotten during the middle ages. At the renaissance Greek science was rediscovered, the medieval world rejected, and out of the intellectual ferment that resulted came the end of the medieval Catholic church, the beginnings of Protestantism, and the start of modern science with Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. The trial of the latter before the Inquisition exemplifies the way in which the medieval church sought to suppress any science that cast doubt on the bible, according to this theory.
James Hannam is a historian of science with a special interest in the medieval period. He's concerned about the quantity of myths circulating on his chosen subject. So, starting around 1000 AD, and running up to Galileo, each chapter focuses on a number of figures who made scientific advances. Each character gets a biography -- all these are very readable -- and full of interest. Many of them were known to me only as names, if that.
He talks about how each related to the medieval world, and especially to the church, which seems to have held the same sort of role it did today. Yes you could get punished for heresy; but in reality for a scholar you really had to try hard. Your chances of being prosecuted were much less than if today you utter a "racist" remark at some university, for instance.
The church was very keen on promoting learning, since it made them look good; and the new universities ensured freedom of speech by playing off the nobility against the pushier clerics. Even Galileo got away with pretty much anything until he alienated his supporters (the Jesuits) and then took the mick out of the Pope personally.
The renaissance, so very important in every other area, was something of a backward step for science. Because it focused on recovering ancient authors and ignoring the middle ages, it discarded medieval work on the limitations of Aristotle. Both Aristotle and Galen enjoyed an unjustified vogue during this period in consequence. This is the sort of information that shows how what we all know is in fact a bit of a myth. But Hannam is not a revisionist; merely an expert talking about his chosen field, which is one that most of us know little about.
The book is aimed at the general educated reader, but well footnoted. It's pretty long, the text being over 300 pages. But because it falls naturally into episodes, it might be the sort of book for bedtime, where you read a few pages and then do the same tomorrow. It's full of little gems like the invention of spectacles in Italy in the middle ages. The only problem is that you might want to keep reading!
If you are interested in the history of science and have always presumed the Middle Ages was a period of nothing, then you need this book. Galileo is indeed the founder of modern science; but without this background, much of what he did and was will remain incomprehensible to you.
on 29 December 2009
Hannam is a truly rare breed of scholar: he is both a master of his subject matter and he is
able to express the intricacies of the subject to the readers, educate the laymen with a
writing style that is as informative as it is engaging.
From explaining the significance of the most esoteric philosophies of the era, to shedding light
on figures and personages to which modern science owes a great debt, Hannam does it all with
equal parts panache and academic rigor.
A must have!
on 17 August 2011
This was the first book about the history of science that I read, but it will most certainly not be the last time. The subject is quite interesting, because it introduces the reader to a number of developments that helped shape the scientific and philosophical time we're living in right now. Understanding the now is only possible by understanding what happened before.
The book is broad. Hannam does not write about a few scientific subjects such as theology or medical science, instead he covers the whole breadth of what science and philosophy entailed during the Middle Ages. Of course, he goes into detail about topics we today consider scientific, but he also does not eschew from writing about alchemy and astrology, subjects we no longer consider science, but contemporaries in the Middle Age did.
'God's Philosophers' is well-written. Explaining a simple development is easy, but explaining a more complex innovation, idea or product is more difficult and time- and paper-consuming. Hannam knows how to do this very, very well. Sometimes, he uses illustration, but most of the time it's just clear and well-written text that tells the reader what happened, why it happened and what the relation is with developments that went before.
Hannam makes sure to show - and this was an interesting and reassuring extra for me - that it was not the Catholic Church that held back science during the Middle Ages. On the contrary, many of the leading scientists were theologians and philosophers back then, and naturrally had to work within the boundaries of the church. The church was, however, quite liberal to new ideas, as long as they weren't too strange. In almost all of the cases Hannam describes, however, the church was not obstructing the fruitful development of the sciences.
on 2 September 2009
James Hannam has written a book that romps along, bringing to life a host of colourful characters from the Middle Ages who in their various ways contributed to our "civilisation" as we know it today. It is humbling to read about how brilliant some of them were - and brave - in a world that was often brutal, and at a time when education was not accessible to all. The amount of travelling and sharing of knowledge across Europe is also amazing for those days.
The book is packed with fascinating and lively details, and yet has obviously been researched with the meticulous thoroughness of a scholar's mind. I couldn't put it down, and have been quoting from it ever since I finished the last page.
All in all, an entertaining and illuminating book that is both very readable and instructive - the perfect combination in a good read!