Tim O’Neill describes himself as an “atheist blogger”. That, however, doesn’t stop him debunking the idea that Christianity caused the Dark Ages, thereby holding back the progress of science by centuries.

He does so on the Strange Notions website, in a review of James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science:

“The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvelous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along. Christianity then banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness.”

O’Neill has a simple counter-argument:

“The assertions collapse as soon as you hit them with hard evidence. I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any.”

There’s no denying that the treatment of Galileo was a black mark on the Church’s record, but that, of course, didn’t take place in Middle Ages. Furthermore, Galileo and the other great figures of the Scientific Revolution didn’t just pick up from where the Greeks and Romans left off, they were the inheritors of a Medieval tradition of scholarship:

“By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.”

So, where do we get the idea that the Middle Ages were an intellectual wasteland?

It’s not all down to militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins variety. Part of the blame goes to the weirdly fractured way in which we’ve always taught history in this country. For some reason, we jump from the Romans to the Tudors with no more than a brief stopover in 1066. It’s no wonder that our understanding of the past is full of blanks.

More recently the influence of multiculturalism has emphasised the achievements of non-European civilisations – in particular the Islamic Golden Age. The Arab world at this time was certainly a place of great learning, but sometimes too much of contrast is drawn with contemporaneous Europe.

Though it took Europe centuries to recover from the collapse of the Roman Empire, learning was preserved in monasteries and convents, laying the foundations for the revival of scholarship in the later Middle Ages:

“…the Twelfth Century Renaissance… contrary to popular perception and to ‘the Myth’, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.”

As James Hannam shows, many of the scientific breakthroughs that we ascribe to early modernity were actually made in the Middle Ages. The roots of the Industrial Revolution can also be found in Medieval Europe, where the applied science of wind and water mill technology was further advanced than anywhere else in the world.

Our view of the past has become badly distorted. While we associate the Greeks and Romans with civilisation, the very word ‘Medieval’ has become a synonym for barbarity. However, we’d do well to re-evaluate the Middle Ages, because its most enduring legacy is the greatest civilisation of them all: our own.

28 comments for: Heresy of the week: On the whole, medieval Christianity was good for science

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