Science and Religion in The Early Middle Ages

John Wilkins posted an excellent analysis of the never-ending catfight on how to deal with the modern relationship between science and religious belief. PZ McWirter found this post anything but excellent and duly posted his disgruntled riposte at Phyrangula (hat tip to DS ;)) thus unleashing the hoards of the Old Ones on to the comment columns of Evolving Thoughts where they preceded to pour abuse on to the head of the Aussie Anthropoid. One of these gentlemen who titles himself Greg. Tingey wrote, amongst other things, the following:

The last time science was killed by religion, we had the dark ages – we just have to point this out to the politicos …

Now as somebody who spends a lot of time trying to learn about and understand the relationship between science and religion in the Middle Ages I could not let the very strange statement go by with out comment.

First of all I must assume that Mr Tingey when using the expression ‘dark ages’ is referring to that which historians now prefer to call the Early Middle Ages, this being the period of European history that starts with the final collapse of the Roman Empire and closes with the rebirth of city culture and international trading in the High Middle Ages. Dating of this period is variable with the start varying between 400 CE and 600 CE and the close between 800 CE and 1000 CE, I will take 400 to 1000 CE as being applicable for that which I wish to say.

Romano-Hellenistic science reached a high point in the middle of the second century CE with the works of Ptolemaeus and Galen but in the Western part of the Roman Empire science and education in general had all but died out by the end of the fourth century CE. This comparatively rapid decline had absolutely nothing to do with religion but with the general collapse of the Roman civilisation a product of various complex political and social factors. In the Eastern part of the Empire science and education remained active for a longer period but it mostly consisted of conservation of existing knowledge with almost no original contributions.

Outside of Europe the first Renaissance in knowledge came about as the result of the founding of a new religion Islam. Following the initial stage of very rapid expansion, in the 7th century, the Muslims of the Arabian peninsular realised that compared to the Indians, with whom they traded, they were very ignorant and uneducated and so they set about acquiring knowledge from the Indians, Chinese and Greeks, comparatively soon they built up their own systems of science.

Within Europe the situation was very different but again here it was religion that formed, not the negative force as claimed by Mr. Tingey, but the positive force for the preservation of the sciences. The late encyclopaedists Boethius, Cassiodorus and Isidore who provided the only remaining links to Greek knowledge were all Christian scholars and it was only within the isolated Christian monasteries that the knowledge of education and science was kept alive, if only at a very low level. However, despite the low level of this knowledge preservation it provided the necessary fundament on which to build when Europe in its turn started to import knowledge from the Muslims in the 11th and 12th centuries, the people doing the importing (read translation) being all Christian scholars. Far from being the cause of the loss of scientific knowledge in the so-called dark ages, religion was the one thing that kept that knowledge alive and fuelled its Renaissance in the High Middle Ages.

For those interested in learning in more detail the true story of science in the ‘dark ages’ rather than the fantasies propagated by the likes of Mr Tingey I recommend Steve McCluskey’s excellent Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe and the relevant chapters of David C. Lindberg’s equally excellent The Beginnings of Western Science.



Filed under Mediaeval Science

17 responses to “Science and Religion in The Early Middle Ages

  1. The conflict thesis is unfortunately a fairly common myth, and still promoted by some prominent philosophers like Grayling, although even he, I doubt, would make the weird claim that the fall of Rome was a victory of religion over science.

    • thonyc

      The conflict thesis is unfortunately a fairly common myth

      I know, I know and its one of the myths that I continually fight against even though I am a radical atheist myself!

  2. mh

    Nice twist.
    This post provides factual information in response to a comment with factually inaccurate to wrong statements – that is supposedly defending science against irrationality (religion).

    Thank you for summarizing the way religious people and institutions preserved and supported science.
    One might add that there has been massive repression of those scientific discoveries that threatened the religious order of the time, which Greg. Tingey is probably referring to.

    Just read your “who I am” etc.. very very interesting career!

  3. Pingback: Science in the “dark ages” « Evolving Thoughts

  4. Alright Ill be the fuel for the philosophical fires. The supposition here, is that Christianity saved “science” as much as possible from the ravages of political and cultural upheavals occurring during this time period. While this may be completely accurate at some level, I find the implicit idea that christianity was a friend of science (as we know it) disingenuous. Science is a relatively new field, however Christianity was using “sciency” approaches to demonstrate god, not to understand reality. Im not an expert in islamic history, but if the impetus was competition with the Indians and Europeans then their “sciency” approaches were for a different purpose/goal (the end result was not already formulated).

    Also, I would argue that the defense of scientific learning in Europe by Christianity is true and problematic. It seems akin to the argument that Christianity gave us all those wonderful works of art without noting that the Roman Catholic church was the only one paying ergo….

    (H/T silverback for directing me to your site)

  5. Lorax, would you mind shairing that comment over here, or elaborating on it at least?

    (For a fellow Minnesotan, eh?)

  6. Tlönista

    Over here from Evolving Thoughts—thank you for this! The public perception of the early Middle Ages in Europe is so far off from the actual history.

    @Lorax: Even nowadays, scientific research is driven—or held back—by political, cultural or ideological considerations. If, for example, a country has put more funding into research to stop scientists going elsewhere for jobs (the old “brain drain”), does that mean it’s not really science? If a scientist works for a corporation, developing their products, are they not really doing science because the corporation’s primary goal is to make money, and expanding the scope of human knowledge is really just a side perk?

  7. @Tlönista (YAY “cut-n-paste” so I didnt screw up the umlaut or whatever it’s called).

    I’m not sure what your point is. How does the fact that science is often a by-product of other considerations (your business model) relate to my point? It seems akin to arguing that since Pol Pot murdered millions more recently than Hitler, it’s not worth discussing the reasons behind these earlier killings.

    My point is that praising Christianity for “saving” science is somewhat disingenuous. In fact, what understanding of the real world was maintained in Europe during the Early Middle Ages may very well be attributable to Christian scribes and monks. Since this represents the vast majority of literate Europeans in the EMA this is kind of a “well Duh” fact. As noted by Thony C, real world understanding was kept in Christian enclaves “at a very low level.” This is significantly more than zero, but is it praise worthy?

    How much learning of the Greeks and others was lost? Not lost by an accident of history, but by the active removal of that understanding which conflicted with church doctrine at the time. Maybe absolutely none was lost, but I highly doubt it.

    So, I agree with you Tlönista that the preservation of knowledge by Christianity during the EMA was a side perk (I’ld add, at best). But I do have a problem with the potential conclusion that Christianity was a force for “science” in the EMA (Note: I am not suggesting that anyone here has made that supposition, I am simply responding to how I believe some people reading this post would react). I live in a country where numbskulls argue that early scientists were Christians, thus the Bible is literally true OR that Newton Galileo and other scientists were creationists who did not buy into evolution (ignoring the fact that the theory of evolution was 100s of years after these scientists).

    Regardless, I appreciate this post do address a profound mis-understanding of the “Dark Ages.” It was Enlightening 😛

  8. Jeb

    Nice Thony. Ive stuck in an article by Alex Woolf on the end of Romano-British culture. Most intresting argument on the issue so far I think, if you have not seen it.

  9. What about the role of the guilds? They did not do scientific research in the exact sense, but if I remember correctly quite a lot of progress was made in the Middle Ages on several practical engineering problems.

    • You are quite right Martijn and in fact the universities grew out of mediaeval guilds of students and teachers but that part of the process is later than that which I was discussing here. I will almost certainly post on that though at some point infuture.

  10. Mike

    Lorax wrote: How much learning of the Greeks and others was lost? Not lost by an accident of history, but by the active removal of that understanding which conflicted with church doctrine at the time. Maybe absolutely none was lost, but I highly doubt it.

    Ans.: Your doubts stem from your faith. Lost works can be extrapolated from passing references in other works. For example, we know of Thales of Miletus and the gist of his philosophy because Aristotle discusses him in one of his books of lecture notes. We have nothing Thales actually wrote.

    By the same token, we have nothing of Aristotle except what the Christians laboriously copied. In fact, we can compare the Greek works that were preserved with the Greek works that are mentioned in passing in other texts. Aristotle, Galen, Archimedes and the rest were not the bulk of what the Greeks wrote. “Science” never caught on in Greek culture. It caught on in the Latin Christian imagination and so they copied and recopied works on logic, reason, natural philosopy, medicine, etc. Our impression of ancient Greece is a consequence of this somewhat selective “recovered memory.”

    The muslims deserve much credit, but what the preserved was first copied and recopied by Byzantine and Syriac Christians. (Syriac is a half-way house for translating into Arabic.) The translation center, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, was operated by a Syriac Christian, Husayn ibn Ishaq and his nephews. But again, the famous muslim faylasuf were more famous in Latin Europe than in the House of Submission. There, Greek science was always called “foreign science” and it was never taught publicly. All the the great faylasuf were punished or chastized in some way when they lost official protection. Al-Kindi was publicly flogged. Ibn Rushd was forced to flee town.

    The reasons for the receptivity to science in the Latin West goes far beyond the desperate preservation of books from the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracen raiders who plagued the West. It goes to the root philosophical attitude toward the natural world.

  11. False Prophet

    So in the mid-16th century, Copernicus puts forth the theory of the heliocentric universe, and by many accounts it is well received by high officials of the Catholic Church, perhaps even the Pope himself.

    Less than a century later, Galileo supports the same theory with more observation and better math, and faces the Inquisition for it.

    So what changed? Copernicus was doing his work at the very beginning of the Reformation while the Catholic Church still saw itself as the throne of Christendom in Europe. Galileo, meanwhile, had the misfortune of coming along in the middle of the Counter-Reformation, when the Church was circling the wagons in an attempt to prevent any more losses to the Protestants, and any idea that seemed to counter Church doctrine was seen as a threat.

    The Church was not devoted to truth as revealed by science, but by temporal self-interest. They’re not particularly different from other political entities in this, but to imply they’re pro-science is misleading.

    “Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,… and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.”

    – St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

    Now what would have motivated Augustine to write that?

    • thonyc

      Less than a century later, Galileo supports the same theory with more observation and better math, and faces the Inquisition for it.

      Actually he didn’t! The reasons why Galileo ended up in front of the Inquisition are very complex and are only marginally concerned directly with heliocenticity. This is a topic that can’t be addressed in a few words in a comment column but it is something about which I shall be blogging in the not too distant future.

      …but to imply they’re pro-science is misleading

      The Church was neither pro or anti science in any active theoretical sense. However it is a fact of history that the science that survived the so-called Dark Ages in Europe did so within the walls of the Christian Monasteries.

      • Urban Djin

        Galileo didn’t arrive at his belief in heliocentrism by observation and reason, he absorbed it with mother’s milk in a Pythgorean household; his father Vincenzo being a key member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of Pythagoreans inventing opera in a failed attempt at re-creating Greek tragedy. Heliocentrism was an ‘a priori’ article of faith for the members of the Camerata as was all the jazz about the book of nature written in number. Pythagoreans had believed both since antiquity.

        We all know that the story about the swinging chandelier is false but Galileo could easily have been exposed to swinging pendulums of different weights on varying lengths of string by observing the Camerata’s well known Pythagorean music experiments with monochords.

        I only know about this from music history. Do history of science people discuss Vincenzo and his fervent Pythagoreanism as part of Galileo’s context?

  12. Pingback: Squid history « The Renaissance Mathematicus

  13. Interesting fellow, Cassiodorus. As has been pointed out, there is no necessary logical connection between monasticism and copying classical (thus pagan) manuscripts. Also, a good deal of the knowledge in question concerned this world rather than the next. The fact that the popular image of legions of monks scribbling away in the Scriptorium bears some relation to the truth, is due in large part to Cassiodorus.

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