Saturday, August 15, 2009

"God's Philosophers", James Hannam

For years, the teaching of history has been criticised in some quarters for being insufficiently broad. It focuses on the cause and effect of specific events - often those of significance to the political inclination of those writing the curriculum, or those where the student can be expected to empathise with the subjects studied. Thus in England, for example, children can expect to learn about the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War, but will often learn little about how the United Kingdom or Europe arrived at their current political shape. But even given a general knowledge of history, some areas are more opaque than others. History, it seems, barely existed in pre-Roman times in the British Isles. For a similar reason perhaps - a relative dearth of written sources - our knowledge of the time from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance tends to be pretty sketchy.

It is easy to conclude that our ignorance of what happened means that nothing of any significance actually did happen. So the "Dark Ages" have come to signify an era of intellectual and cultural stagnation between the Classical era and the Renaissance. This has been fed by writers from later eras - both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment - seeking to portray their own time as the new golden age, in contrast to what went before.

Modern scholarship has detected this bias and ignorance, and has started to evaluate the Middle Ages in a more objective light. James Hannam's book, "God's Philosophers", gathers together stories of the people, ideas and innovations from the time. He shows that, far from being an era in which the culture stood still, key developments took place without which the development of modern science and technology couldn't have been possible. In fact, even the humanistic ideas which shaped the Renaissance have their roots in philosophical/religious work from the Middle Ages.

Hannam highlights developments in many areas - mathematics, timekeeping, optics - as well as more obvious ones, such as the printing press. He shows that earlier progress was acknowledged - or at least apparent - in the work of early modern scientists - Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe, and subsequently Newton.

Indeed, Hannam points out, one of the effects of the Renaissance obsession with Classical culture was to come close to discarding all the progress that had been made in the Mediaeval era, in areas such as maths, science and philosophy. Much writing was virtually lost, only to be rediscovered in some cases centuries later.

The traditional demarcation between the premodern and modern eras - a fairly moveable line, though one which probably hovers around the time of Galileo - is actually too arbitrary. Substantially after the start of the Renaissance, Newton continued to believe in Alchemy; astronomy continued to be driven by astrology; medicine arguably continued to operate using a pretty premodern methodology well into the 18th Century.

Also, the supposed clash of cultures between the church and the forces of rationalism was not nearly as apparent as it is suggested now. Galileo's conflict with the Inquisition, as portrayed by Brecht and regularly replayed, has already been shown elsewhere to not have taken place as a struggle between faith and science. Hannam argues further, highlighting the role of the church in establishing universities as centres of independent thought, granting them a substantial degree of intellectual autonomy. The Inquisition itself, he suggests, was not the ruthless and intolerant secret police organisation we have come to know and love. Instead, it was patient and careful, loath to impose heavy sanctions, and operating using a higher standard of judicial procedure than could be expected in contemporary civil courts.

Hannam's theses aren't new; these ideas of the Middle Ages are increasingly acknowledged by scholars, and Hannam helpfully offers a list of books for further reading, along with a very comprehensive list of source material. His book highlights the difference between careful scholarship and the lazy rehash of received wisdom all too common amongst writers who simply present ideas that fit their presuppositions, with little attention to how substantive they are.

The book is fast paced and well-written. It is very hard to dispute his assertion that the cultural and scientific achievements of the era were significant and far-reaching. Perhaps it would be possible to argue that with the withdrawal of intellectual life to the monasteries and subsequently the universities, life was culturally narrower for the general population than it had been under the Romans. However, with the spread of architecture and the growth of cities, even this seems unlikely. This is a very helpful introduction to the Middle Ages in Europe.

"God's Philosophers" (Icon Books), James Hannam

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