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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb rehabilitation of the middle ages
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...
Published on 24 Nov 2009 by Dr. Nicholas P. G. Davies

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard going for such an interesting subject
This book was shortlisted for the science writing prize, and my interest in the history of science therefore meant that it soon made it onto my wish list. I was intrigued by how much science and philosophy interacted in the Medieval period and to learn more about early scientists - Roger Bacon being one of the only early natural philosophers that I was aware of...
Published on 8 July 2011 by Clare Topping

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A reasoned exorcism, 8 Nov 2009
Mr. A. Grigor "anthony" (Newcastle on Tyne) - See all my reviews
Half a century ago the accepted orthodoxy taught in schools was that the English Reformation was fuelled by the ordinary peoples deepseated hatred of the excesses of the medieval Church in its various manifestations. The recent detailed work of scholars like Eamon Duffy has shown that to be based indisputably more on prejudice than on fact. Similarly the longstanding view of the period covered so freshly by James Hannam in his immensely readable and enjoyable book,namely that these were the "Dark Ages",shows itself to equally without foundation.Hopefully this book will play a significant part in dismantling another of those historical Berlin walls which past "Stasi historians" had erected on the assumption that their prejudices presented as history would remain forever unquestioned.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Just Not Very Good, 13 May 2014
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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.

But as far as I am concerned it is aimed too low, too middlebrow. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy, or even Will Durant in The Age of Faith covered the period better. I would not say Hannam is wrong that often, but he just does not engage. For instance when he addresses Anselm of Bec's ontological argument he gives a potted version of Anselm's first effort, does not name Gaunilo as the author of the Reply to Anslem, nor explain how Anselm reframed his argument. And Hannam certainly does not engage with the argument - or explain its later use by Descartes and modern reframing by philosophers such as Richard Swinbourne or Alvin Plantinga.

In non-intellectual history he simply gets things wrong: Lynn White's argument about stirrups was demolish by Bernard Bachrach in 1970, but it pops up here. Haskin's notion of a Twelfth-century Renaissance has not, I think, really been accepted by later scholars, and so on.

As a very basic introduction for non-specialists who intend to remain non-specilaists, I suppose this book is OK, but it could not be recommended for any use in a university course at any level.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Work, 9 Jan 2012
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Finds light in the Dark Ages, 14 July 2011
J. Elmes (London UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
An interesting and illuminating book. It is a well written and fairly comprehensive survey of the development of philosophical thought as it relates to nature (which then became natural philosophy before eventually becoming science). I wasn't convinced that the author made a very good case for saying that the Dark Ages weren't as dark as they're made out to be by others, but he draws our attention to the beacons of light that were there.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good thinking, 22 Nov 2010
This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
God's Philosophers
By James Hannam
A review by the Cote d'Azur Men's Book Group

Technology is defined as the study or use of mechanical arts and applied sciences. Tell that to ancient Greeks such as Archimedes and even Plato, read the amazing theories of Galileo or even try the l4th century's Richard the Clockmaker of Wallingford and many other geniuses whose ideas and inventions have been a continual thread of brilliance since Man emerged from the primordial soup
The wheel was invented long before the birth of Christ (nobody knows exactly who was the inventor) and history has been blessed with new technology that has greatly benefited humanity. Can high technology be summed up in one word?Yes,that very special scientist Arthur Clarke felt some of it was ""magic. Is that true? Well, consider the technology in our own lifetime from the splitting of the atom to The Hubble Telescope.
We live in a world of incredible technology and the author of God's Philosophers, James Hannam left the Cote d'Azur Men's Book Group wondering whether or not life was better -from a scientific point of view - in the Middle Ages.
Certainly it often could be brutal and short, and public executions was seen as a good day out for the family . No central heating, no television, no adequate sanitation but there were numerous men of distinction who brought their powers of scientific and astronomical study to the attention of the world .
The case of Galileo, one of the greatest of all, is fairly typical of the hazards facing great men. He came to trial in l633 following his heretical claim that the Earth was the centre of the universe and supporting Copernicus's belief, heaven's above!, that the earth moved around the Sun. and wounding the religious stature of The Pope.
Galileo faced the Inquisition and lived a subsequent life of ill health. Galileo did wonderful things, examining the stars and the planets through his superior telescope, although he used the basic scope invention of another, Galileo was a great refiner and researcher, rightly honored for his work today. He was also able to solve complicated problems with the use of mathematics and commonsense.
We learn in this book that many of our solutions and equations came from ancient civilizations such as Asia, Persia and Islam, methods such as mathematics, decimal points, the Arab world introduction of that most vital of numeric's, Zero, from which most mathematical formulae begins. The abacus was a basic counting tool for centuries.
The Church played a huge roles in society and so did the Pope. Most scholars were taught by monks. In 999 Gerber of Aurillac was crowned Pope. This wise priest was known as the most learned man in Europe. He had a patron who noted his powers and that led to links to Royalty. He taught arithmetic and astronomy, knew Greek and Latin. There were chinks in his educational armour,He believed the earth was stationary in the Universe.
For all that he was a wonderful teacher. If we leave this mathematically minded man of God peering into the future we come to the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century when there was a movement to translate into Latin a lot of writing from an ancient Greek and Islamic worlds.
William of Conches who was thought to have tutored Henry of Anjou (Henry the Second of England)reconciled the natural philosophy of Plato with the Creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. The contrast between the Christian God who intervened in human affairs and a deity who left the universe to run itself, became the subject of intense arguments. Thomas Aquinas in turn provided a bridge between Aristotle and other great classical sources and Christian intellectual programs in philosophy and theology, which in turn provided the background to the development of science in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Overall, the Book Group thought this a fascinating book. Famous names appear from long ago, Newton, Gutenberg, Martin Luther. Thomas Aquinas Bellarmine and it is fitting that the author begins his time travel with a comment of Isaac Newton that if he had seen further, "it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy and necessary rehabilitation of the Medieval Scientific Mind, 21 Dec 2010
Mark Meynell "quaesitor" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
Sir Isaac Newton is a titan in world science, so it's no surprise that he features on the very first, and the penultimate page of James Hannam's excellent, 2009 book God's Philosophers (which made it onto the shortlist for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

This is how the book opens:
"The most famous remark made by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was: `If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' Most people assume that he meant his scientific achievements were built on the discoveries of his predecessors... Few people realise, however, that Newton's aphorism was first coined in the twelfth century by the theologian Bernard of Chartres (who died around 1130). Even fewer are aware that Newton's science also has its roots embedded firmly in the Middle Ages. This book will show just how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins." (p1)

And then towards the end, Hannam explains how a theistic or deistic worldview was not incompatible with scientific rigour. Quite the reverse, in fact:
" The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent, and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and wroth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle's contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of medieval science. Sir Isaac Newton explicitly stated that he was investigating god's creation, which was a religious duty because nature reflects the creativity of its maker. In 1713, he inserted into the second edition his greatest work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the words:
Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of organisms which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing... and that is enough concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearances of things does certainly belong to natural philosophy.
It would take Charles Darwin (1809-1882) to prove Newton wrong." (p340-341)

Now, what's the big deal? Well, it is tiresome, to say the least, when we have to contend with the constant propaganda about the incompatibility of scientific and religious thinking. As a non-scientist, I for one can feel bludgeoned into silence simply because of my lack of experience of the laboratory (beyond `O' Level Chemistry). I'm fascinated by science of course, and one of my favourite books of the last year was Age of Wonder. But I struggle to know how to answer some of the big questions of science and religion.

There is an agenda behind may of them of course - there are plenty of people who don't want them to be compatible. But that is a different matter entirely. The reason this book is so refreshing, informative and exciting to read is that it cuts a swath through the nonsense. Hannam clearly knows his onions, having his drunk deeply from his Aristotle and Archimedes through to his William of Ockham (he of razor fame), Aquinas, Roger Bacon (he of Oxford lane fame), the wonderfully named Merton Calculators and right up to Copernicus and Galileo. I found myself overwhelmed at times by the names half-remembered or never learned - and was immensely grateful for the medieval timeline and 10 page Who's Who appendices). But Hannam is a trusty and sure-footed guide. While I did quibble a bit with his rather cursory take on the Reformation, that was fairly immaterial, not least because he shows near the end how little the debates specific to the reformation affected people's scientific worldview or endeavour (p228).

But mention the middle ages to many and it is assumed to be synonymous with all things dark, illogical, oppressive, reactionary and anti-enquiry. It was eye-opening, for instance, to realise that the term Renaissance is itself a loaded, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite periods of history. For when you stop to think about it, implies that intellectual and creative life had been effectively dead for a long time. The early humanists (not to be confused with modern atheists) are largely to blame for this with their advocacy of returning to the ancient classics - I, for one, did a classics degree which went by the pompous and grandiose title Literae Humaniories, which i suppose makes me one of their heirs. I little realised that one motivation for their return to the worlds of Cicero and Homer was to escape the shoddiness of medieval latin - and thus they discarded much medieval intellectual life at one fell swoop. Another factor was the Reformation agenda to find nothing good coming out of medieval Catholicism.

So Hannam is on a rehabilitation drive. He is wanting to show how significant the middle ages were for later history, and especially modern science. He is also seeking to debunk the more idiotic myths and plain falsehoods about what actually happened. It is at times swashbuckling, and occasionally quite funny, stuff. Here are some of them:

- The medieval church was anti-science. FALSE
"During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science, but it also decided that philosophical speculation should not impinge on theology. Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the Church may even have benefited science in the long term. Furthermore and contrary to popular believe, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero, and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas." (p2)

The fact that Galileo (right) ended up having his famous heresy trial in the seventeenth century only confirms everyone's worst fears - and turned him into a poster child for the rights of enquiry. Hannam therefore devotes the last 3 chapters of the book to what happened. And while the church was acting in a pretty venal and grim way (as in fact it frequently did throughout the middle ages - I'm certainly not advocating a wholehearted defence of medieval christianity here!), it is folly and simplistic to use this as an indictment for a theistic worldview.

- The `flat-earth' theory was official church doctrine. FALSE
"The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have originated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who wrongly claimed tha geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. There were a few authentic flat-earthers in antiquity, but none among the scholars of the Middle-Ages proper. One of the main reasons that some historians fell for the flat idea is because of the existence of mappae mundi (Latin for `maps of the world')... It is understandable that, faced with such a map, modern scholars mistakenly believed that the people who drew it thought the earth was flat. What they did not realise was that it was only intended to map the quarter of the earth's surface that medieval people believed to be inhabited." (p35)

- Friar Roger Bacon was imprisoned in Oxford making him a martyr to scientific integrity. FALSE.
"According to several of the standard biographies, the Franciscan authorities imprisoned [Roger] Bacon for ten years late in his life. For those looking for evidence of the conflict between science and religion, this was a prime example of clerical intolerance. Some historians had no doubt that the Church incarcerated Bacon for his dangerous scientific opinions. For others, it was his sympathetic view of both astrology and alchemy that doomed him to a dungeon. Today, a fresh look at the surviving sources show that it is difficult to prove Bacon's imprisonment happened at all, let alone that it was caused by his dangerous scientific views." (p147)

- The Church tried to ban zero. FALSE.
"In recent years there have been persistent claims that the Church resisted the introduction of Arabic numbers and especially of zero. In fact, professional abacus users were the ones who really felt threatened by the new system, as it seemed to make their skills redundant." (p158)

-Copernicus' great thesis advocating heliocentrism was heretical. HALF-TRUE. It was banned 60 years later and placed on the Vatican's infamous Index, but this was as much to do with politics and big picture stuff.
"There was no question of ecclesiastical pressure being brought to bear and no chance that the church would seek to suppress the book. After all it was dedicated to Pope Paul III (1468-1549) himself. This was the done thing at the time when all scholars needed patronage and a great number of books were presented to princes and kings complete with gushing pronouncements on the royal virtues. Paul III had been a dedicatee of another book presenting a reformed model of astronomy five years before Copernicus'. All the signs are that the Pope appreciated the flattery and read neither of them." (p271)

- Great scientific breakthroughs were made despite, not because of the middle ages. FALSE.
If anything this assumption can be seen as yet another classic example of what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery which assumes the idiocy and ignorance of past generations.
"Some historians of science have had a habit of lauding individuals who seem to echo our own prejudices or appear more `modern' than their contemporaries. When we hear about someone from the past who anticipated our own beliefs, we tend to label them `ahead of their time'. In fact no one is ahead of his or her time. On closer examination, we always find that people are rooted firmly into their own cultural milieu." (p7)

In many ways, it is refuting this error that seems the primary gift of this book. From Aristotelians all the way through the Newton, one thing is clear. They were all motivated to pursue scientific questions (in what was called natural philosophy) precisely because of their cosmological beliefs. And this led them to question even the most tenaciously held views of the ancients and their peers.

- According to almost all Greek cosmologists, the earth did not rotate each day. The entire heavens turned full circle every 24 hours while the earth remained stationary at the centre. The problem that John Buridan had with this was that it seemed rather ugly. The heavens were very large and causing them to turn had to be less efficient than rotating the earth, which was relatively speaking, minute. Like many medieval Christians, Buridan expected God to have arranged things in an elegant way, always allowing that he could do what he pleased. (p185)
- As far as Copernicus was concerned, Ptolemy's system was too messy to have been designed by God. So, he claimed, he read all the books philosophy he could lay his hands on in search of an alternative. (p274)
- For Kepler, the most important fact about the world was that God had created it. Like Copernicus, he was convinced that the structure of the heavens had to reflect the perfection of its creator. This perfection, he thought, would reveal itself best through the precision of geometry. (p288)
- Nevertheless, it remains true that Kepler cracked the mystery of the planets' movements because of his faith in God's creative power. (p292)

Well if there are falsehoods being propagated, they ought to be put right anyway. But if those falsehoods are used, unfairly, as part of an anti-theist armoury, then it is only fair to have them declared invalid. There may be other valid arguments against belief in God - but this book clearly demonstrates that the history of modern scientific enquiry is hardly one of them. The middle ages are complex enough as it is, and the potential for misrepresentation and misappropriation is huge. It takes a scholar of Hannam's learning to be able to put us right.

I gained a huge amount from the book and certainly feel both motivated and more confident in learning more of the Middle Ages as a result. I can't say I completely followed all the mathematical stuff necessarily - but found the book's central thesis thoroughly well argued and convincing.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and informative book, 7 Sep 2009
D. J. Parsons (Seaford, East Sussex) - See all my reviews
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This was an interesting and informative book which is also very enlightening. The impressive bibliography and cross referencing is worthy of the highest academic accolades yet the book is accessible to non academics. It will bear reading more than once and may become a standard reference work for historical studies. The purchase price is money well spent.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars amazingly simply put, 25 Mar 2011
E. Clarke "Cambusken" (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
There can't be many people nowadays who dismiss the achievements of the Middle Ages, so my one criticism of this quite excellent book is that it is sometimes too defensive. I realise the usual prejudices are well embedded in the idiom and structure of how we discuss these things, but anyone likely to be interested in this book - anyone with a real interest in the history of science - is unlikely to think modern science just popped up suddenly in the person of one or two brilliant individuals. There were such individuals, but they were only able to do what they did because they, and anyone they wanted to communicate with, had been educated in the presuppositions, questions, mathematical and logical techniques, procedures and equipment developed over the preceding half a millenium, and had the institutional framework and international networks which allowed them to communicate and develop their enthusiasms and interests . Otherwise they each would have been seen by everyone (and not just the religious fanatics) as incomprehensible oddities. This book sets out these preconditions marvelously plainly - and entertainingly - but sometimes needlessly addresses yet another common misconception, or piece of literary (ie ant-scientific) Renaissance propaganda. Maybe he thought this was the only way he could get some scurrilous detail into the book - describe the misconception in gruesome detail, but then demolish it. The rest of the book was fascinating enough.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Catholic Laboratory approves!, 29 April 2010
I. Maxfield "Ian" (Scotland) - See all my reviews
This is the script from episode 16 of the Catholic Laboratory podcast which featured a review of this book.

I came across God's Philosophers when browsing the Sunday newspapers about a month ago I guess. I have to admit that it wasn't the title that grabbed me, but the sub title - How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science.

At 21 chapters, plus introduction and a conclusion over 330 odd pages, with another 100 odd pages dedicated to a further reading, a timeline, key characters and the like this, you could say is a huge book. So please don't drop it on your foot.

As we explored on this podcast the Middle Ages are usually portrayed as DARK - very DARK, and the phrase used to describe the period following this time in our history - THE ENLIGHTENMENT, doesn't help.

To help overcome this stereotype, just by of a start, Hannam draws attention to the discovery of at Sutton Hoe. The inference being that the drak ages were not dark, but well informed. A view also supported by the recent Anglo Saxon Staffordshire Hoard of 1500 gold and silver pieces dating from around the 7th century.

Hannam not only describes the key events in the development of science under the Church, but also the characters. What I particularly liked was the attention to detail, the quirky moments as well as the big eureka moments. For instance ... describing the 900's and the passion and confusion of new discoveries: Pg 28/29.

Hannam moves on to chart the rise of reason under the Church, and the rise of heresy. And here he deals with the Inquisition too - often misrepresented, but Hannam is clear. pg85.

Linked to this of course are subjects such as magic, alchemy, astrology, and Hannam describes how the Church took the truth form these, removing the heresy, and brought out the good turning them into medicine, health care, chemistry and astronomy.

Again stories come through that remind us of how brutal the times were, for instance did you know it was dangerous to be an astrologer and not because of any battle with heresy. In Chapter 8 Hannam recites a story about the Emperor Tiberius (42BC to AD37)

Fast forward to the 1300s and the sad take of Cecco D'Ascole who was burnt at the stake for his astrology. Here Hannam pays attention to detail and uses Cecco to describe how the Inquisition worked.

Cecco was a lecturer in astronomy at Bologna but he practiced astrology on the side. He was investigated thanks to a tip off, stripped of his lectureship, warned, and fined. But Cecco fled to Florence where he set himself up as an astrologer.

The Inquisitor in Florence caught up with him, compared notes with his counterpart in Bologna, and had Cecco tried where he was handed over to the secular authorities who had him burnt at the stake on 16 Sept 1327.

I don't wish to spoil the book for you - I'm not sure that would be possible anyway, it's simply a massive work and I've only shared a couple of stories with you. There is so much in God's Philosophers and I can see myself digging into it for material for future episodes.

The list of characters Adelard of Bath, Roger bacon, John Buridan, Galileo, Bruno all feature - the latter two have three chapters between them.

I will leave the final words to Hannam - see pg 342.

What more can I say - except go get it!
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23 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars God's Advocate, 14 Jan 2012
Mr. Lee Simpson "Arcas" (Amersham, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
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 to what the book is about. In this case, perhaps I should have paid more attention to the main title if I wanted to understand where the author was coming from. I quite fancied reading a brief book that summarised the achievements of medieval science and the individuals involved. Up to a point this book does this very well but increasingly it was becoming clearer that James Hannam is on something of a mission in this book; to assert the dubious proposition that modern science owes its chief debt of gratitude to the medieval world and the frankly ludicrous proposition that we have the church to thank for this.

On the former. Few would dispute the notion that the true foundations of modern science were laid in the 17th century by Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Hannam's book throughout attempts to build the case that these giants were influenced and guided by the work of various of their medieval predecessors. That alone should be a statement of the obvious. But in fact, despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, it is strikingly obvious just how few individuals of any note there were through this period of some 500 years or more and how little any of them achieved or added to the science of the ancient world. Spectacles, mechanical clocks and improvements in agricultural techniques were medieval European achievements but these things were the products not of medieval scientists but of medieval craftsmen. The sparse advances in mathematics and mechanics that Hannam makes so much of were pitifully few for such a span of history, largely trumpeted because they contradicted Aristotle whereas in fact The Philosopher was challenged over such things by his own contemporaries. The mathematics used by Kepler to explain the laws of planetary motion and the conceptual models of the universe with which he wrestled all existed in the ancient world and owe nothing to his medieval predecessors.

On the latter. The more I read this book the more I became increasing became uncomfortable that some sub-plot was going on. Not simply a whitewashing of the church's reprehensible role in the suppression of scientific enquiry but the audacious suggestion that we somehow have the church to thank for the, already overblown, achievements of medieval science. This, it would seem, because despite all the condemnations, inquisitions, banned books and topics, etc., the church didn't interfere too much in the study of mathematics and mechanics, or to burn people for stating scientific truths without first giving them the opportunity to recant. Well, thank you church. A little web searching soon suggested that the author appears to be some sort of `believer' that has previously upheld creationist notions and the existence of miracles. Surprise, surprise. No wonder the first gushing review on the back of the book is from The Catholic Herald.
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