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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Necessary rehabilitation......, 23 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Paperback)
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, especially if this is based on dubious assumptions or modern judgement- but sometimes controversy might spark my interest. One thing that attracted me to this book was the extreme polarization of opinion- the way that historians and interested laypeople seemed to love it, but many with secular humanists hated it. As a student of medieval history I have long known that the notion of all Medieval Europeans being backwards and stupid was a fallacy, so I was inclined to side with the author, and bought the book shortly after the paperback first came out.

After nearly two years I finally got around to reading and finishing it. On the one hand God's Philosophers is an accessible and necessary work. Necessary because it challenges popular views and misconceptions which still exist to this day, especially where the history of science and philosophy are concerned. Hannam demonstrates that it was in the Universities of Medieval Europe that natural philosophers, theologians and intellectuals made important discoveries and theorised, analysed, and strove about the world around them in many subjects from astronomy to mathematics, physics to rationality. More importantly, especially to Hannam's line of argument is that most of these important thinkers were churchmen.

The most common misconception that the author seeks to correct is that the church sought to supress learning and rational inquiry. Part of the problem may be the modern, humanistic understanding of reason which holds itself to be the antithesis of faith, and therefore incompatible with it. However, those who read anything of the scholastic thinkers of the 11th century onwards will realize that their definition of reason was different. It was not the enemy of faith, for they were men of faith, but rather a gift from God. A creation based belief system told them the universe was ordered and adhered to certain laws, and so men could understand and interpret the creation and the world around them.

Of course there was conflict, especially when some scholars sought to use philosophy to challenge Orthodoxy or formulate beliefs deemed heretical. The paranoid heresy hunting church hounding innocent scientist is however not truthful or accurate picture of the time- a time in which a English blacksmith's son by the name of Richard of Wallingford would in his closing years create one of the world's first mechanical clocks, in Italy the first spectacles appeared, as well as many other inventions and innovations in agriculture, architecture and many other areas. So much for the supposed `intellectual stagnation' of Medieval Europe which did not end until `the Renaissance'- in fact there was more than one Renaissance.

On the other side of the coin, there are some drawbacks to this work. Hannam is to my knowledge, a scientist first and foremost, not a historian. Hence he does seem to apply the preconceptions and attitudes of modern science and `progress' to his work sometimes, and they do not always sit well. His view of medieval medicine is rather scathing, for instance, but does not seem entirely justified. At least, a medical historian at my University would not agree with his generalization that all medicine of the time was useless and more likely to do harm than heal. To the contrary, there is some evidence that herbal remedies of past may have been effective.

Conversely, whilst having little good to say about medical practitioners and quacks, credit it given to some astrologers, alchemists and even occultists in spite of the dubious basis of their beliefs- even by the standards of the time. Also, I felt there was some bias against Creationism and Protestantism on the part of the author, which came through in the work, so the accusations of a Pro-Catholic slant may not be entirely unfounded.

Altogether, a useful and necessary work, though with some deficiencies, and perhaps suffering from one or two misconceptions of itself.
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