God’s Philosophers: a book review

God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (2009)

I recently read James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers, which is the story of the Medieval ideas that led up to modern science, told largely through short biographies of major and minor figures (this relates to my previous two posts about when and why science began, as well as to my three posts about science and Dante).

Farming in the 15th Century

The early Middle Ages was, to a large extent, a struggle to build a more productive agricultural system (since Europe had lost access to the rich grain-fields of North Africa that had fed the Roman Empire). The later Middle Ages, however, saw an explosion of new ideas. Some of these ideas came from the Muslim world, but many were entirely original.

The Age of Cathedrals: Bourges (begun c. 1195, finished c. 1230)

Hannam briefly surveys Medieval mathematics, logic, medicine, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, and engineering. Roger Bacon (1214–1292) and Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336) are discussed in some detail. The former wrote on optics and the theory of science, while the latter did work in trigonometry and designed an elaborate astronomical clock. Clocks were to replace living things as metaphors for the operation of the Universe.

Richard of Wallingford using a pair of compasses

Hannam also has a chapter on the Merton CalculatorsThomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349), Richard Swineshead (fl. 1340–1355), and William Heytesbury (c. 1313–1373). As well as contributing to logic, these scholars anticipated Galileo’s application of mathematics to physics, proving the mean speed theorem. In France, Nicole Oresme (c. 1325–1382) developed an elegant graphical proof of this theorem, as well as doing work in astronomy and introducing the bar graph. Ironically, it was the later Humanists who, inspired by the glories of ancient Greece and Rome, discarded some of these advances (the same source of inspiration also led to a decline in women’s rights, as Régine Pernoud has pointed out).

Merton College, Oxford (Michael Angelo Rooker, 1771)

Hannam finishes his book with the stories of Kepler and Galileo. These are better known than those of the Medievals, but the myths surrounding Galileo seem to be as persistent as those about the so-called “Dark Ages.” Hannam’s treatment is necessarily simplistic and brief, but he does point out Galileo’s debt to Oresme and the Merton Calculators. For readers specifically interested in Galileo, the best introductory book is probably Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel, with Finocchiaro for follow-up.

Although Galileo pitted the modern Copernicus against the ancient Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe had already suggested a hybrid system, which was only later proved wrong

Hannam concludes “It would be wrong to romanticise the period and we should be very grateful that we do not have to live in it. But the hard life that people had to bear only makes their progress in science and many other fields all the more impressive. We should not write them off as superstitious primitives. They deserve our gratitude.

See also this review in Nature of Hannam’s book (“God’s Philosophers condenses six hundred years of history and brings to life the key players who pushed forward philosophy and reason”), this review by a Christian blogger (“In God’s Philosophers James Hannam traces medieval natural philosophy—and some of the other disciplines we’ve come to think of as scientific, such as medicine—through the reign of Plato and Aristotle to the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo”), and this excellent review by an atheist historian (“… the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena. … Hannam sketches how polemicists like Thomas Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, all with their own anti-Christian axes to grind, managed to shape the still current idea that the Middle Ages was devoid of science and reason.”). Hannam has also responded comprehensively to this negative review by Charles Freeman. I disagree with Freeman, and am giving Hannam’s well-researched and readable book four stars. My only real quibble is Hannam’s somewhat biased view of the Protestant Reformation.

* * * *
God’s Philosophers by James Hannam: 4 stars


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