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10.06.35, Hannam, God's Philosophers

10.06.35, Hannam, God's Philosophers

In God's Philosophers, Hannam describes how some of the most famous scientists, such as Copernicus, Kepler and particularly Galileo, were indebted to their medieval predecessors. By doing so, he aims at dispelling the myth of a scientific dark age, for which the medieval Church has been often held responsible. Even though abandoned long ago by medievalists and most historians of science, this myth, created by the humanists in the late 15th and early 16th century, and perpetuated far into the late 19th century, is unfortunately still very popular. The most damaging blow was given in 1896 when Andrew Dickson White penned his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, which portrayed the medieval Church as an obscurantist bulwark to scientific thought. Since then, many works have been written to correct this image; Pierre Duhem's Le système du monde (1913-1915) being the first among them. We may think also of more recent studies with titles very similar to the one under review: The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Edward Grant, 1996) and The Beginnings of Western Science (David Lindberg, 2nd ed., 2007). No one, however, had yet tackled the task to communicate these findings to a general audience in an accessible way. While not without its shortcomings, God's Philosophers clearly fills a gap in the growing choice of popular histories of the Middle Ages.

The book is organized chronologically in 21 chapters ranging from the Early Middle Ages to Galileo, and consists of a collection of biographical anecdotes and scientific data related to a few chosen characters. Brief historical outlines are provided in chapter 1 (Early Middle Ages) and chapter 14 (Humanism and Reformation). Chapters 2 to 13 deal with sciences in the medieval period as such, laying down the foundations; chapters 15 to 21 discuss how this knowledge was incorporated into modern sciences. The last three chapters are devoted to Galileo, who is probably the most well-known among the scientists supposedly persecuted by the Church. Within these chapters, the flow of the text is somewhat disorganized at times, as it is peppered with constant flashbacks and many anecdotes. The result, however, is a lively work that will keep the reader entertained.

Hannam's objective is to show how modern science arose not suddenly, but as the result of a gradual questioning of Greek authorities. He identifies four corner stones to the medieval legacy to modern sciences: institutional (the university), technological (e.g. agriculture and the invention of spectacles), metaphysical (as a stimulus for studying nature) and theoretical (e.g. the notion of impetus and the use of mathematics in natural philosophy). Despite many simplifications, Hannam's emphasis on the importance of the twelfth-century Renaissance and his approach of humanism as a reactionary movement that often hampered the questioning of classical authorities and forgot the discoveries of its medieval predecessors, provide an interesting challenge to views commonly held in the public about the Middle Ages. Constantly highlighted is also the Church's role in encouraging or at least not interfering too much with scientific endeavors. All of this, Hannam achieves generally well, although the unavoidable generalizations and shortcuts may leave one wanting. For instance, chapter 2 on Gerbert of Aurillac is devoted essentially to the early medieval view of the (spherical) world rather than to Gerbert himself. In chapter 15, on 16th-century polymaths, we are left to wonder what the Middle Ages have to do with it all.

The weakest part of the book is probably Hannam's treatment of the Early Middle Ages. Chronological boundaries are defined in the introduction, where the following claim is made: "the Middle Ages proper start at that point (1066) and end in 1500." (8) Before "that point" are the Early Middle Ages, apparently not to be considered fully medieval. This little twist, however, allows the author to overlook conveniently the preceding 600 years and to really start his foundational history with Gerbert of Aurillac. Bede is barely mentioned in the entire book; Isidore of Seville is forgotten; Boethius and John Philoponus appear later, respectively in chapter 2 and chapter 11; and two short paragraphs describe the Carolingian Renaissance. Only 13 pages are devoted to the Early Middle Ages as such (chapter 1), in a confusing assortment of facts on the agricultural technology described in the Domesday Book, the fall of the Roman Empire, the five pillars of Islam and the Carolingians. While Hannam very justifiably set to correct some myths about the later Middle Ages, his oversimplification of this earlier period certainly perpetuates others. Barbarians poured into the Roman Empire in unexpected waves; Constantine "made Christianity the official religion of the Empire" (18); and the disappearance of the Western Emperor suddenly gave the Roman bishop a "free rein in the unquestioned head of the Catholic Church" (19). I will pass over the treatment given to Islam and the Carolingian Empire. Overall, the book might benefit from the removal of this unfortunate chapter altogether, which does not do justice to the general quality of the work.

On the whole, God's Philosophers is a very informative work, full of little tales, snippets of life and discoveries. Some of them are more and other are less relevant to the overall project of this book, but all will keep the reader interested in the subject: how St Anselm was mountaineering in the Alps; how Peter Abelard and Heloise entertained a very famous love affair; how, bored at the siege of Lucera, Peter the Pilgrim wrote a treatise on the lodestone; or how Richard of Wallingford invented the mechanical clock. One will also learn about the invention of spectacles and its consequences, Jerome Cardan's family problems and Galileo's family life. The author explains an impressive range of complex issues clearly and simply: the ontological argument of St Anselm, the place of Aristotle in theological issues (e.g. transubstantiation), the controversy over Averroïsm (irritatingly spelled Averröes and Averröism throughout), the principles of astrology, the dispute over universals, the physics of motion, optics, progress in anatomy, but also hermetism and the place of magic and the occult in medieval and early modern sciences. Along the way, Hannam also dispels a few urban legends. The myth of the flat earth is probably the most famous one, or for that matter, that the Church elevated the earth so much as to give it a central position in the world system. He also tackles tales about the ruthless fervor with which inquisitors persecuted scholars (like Vesalius) and commonly burned heretics at the stake; the imprisonment of Roger Bacon; the Church's reluctance to adopt Arabic numbers and the zero, or to authorize dissection. In this account, the Church is certainly given back its due place in the development of scientific thought.

It is difficult to know what guided the choice of characters or topics to be covered, however. No mention is made of Constantine Africanus, the School of Salerno or Jewish scholarship, if we except Maimonides. Translation movements, intellectual exchanges and the mobility of scholars are often implied and briefly discussed, but it would have been interesting to give them a more extensive treatment considering the importance of this phenomenon in the Middle Ages. The author should probably not be blamed for this; much is accomplished already and there was certainly no need to make the book longer. It is more surprising, though, that not a single woman is discussed, with the exception of Heloise's love affair with Abelard. One would have expected at least a few words about Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen or Trotula to name a few.

God's Philosophers is written in a simple and accessible style. This will make it attractive to many, although it does not go without some (harmless) anachronisms. Just allow me a smile, for instance, at St Bernard who, in "a panic" during his famous dispute with the scholar Peter Abelard over the use of reason in theology, "launched a flurry of letters to the Vatican." (58) Beyond a short list of suggested readings, the reader will find at the end a bibliography of works cited with titles exclusively in English, a helpful list of key characters with brief biographical information, and an index of names, places and concepts.

While the book could do with some improvement and does not replace Lindberg's Beginnings of Western Science as a textbook for students, the clear explanations and simplicity of style will draw a general audience--the intended public of this work. Hopefully, this will reduce the number of people who think the Church persecuted and even burned people for their scientific ideas. The positive response it has already received in the media clearly shows that Hannam has reached this goal. If anything, he certainly has the merit of having undertaken what more of us should, but often relent to do: communicate our results to a general audience.