The Middle Ages Vindicated!

Tim O’Neill shows how the notion that “science made little progress in the Middle Ages” is false, a product of Renaissance and Enlightenment prejudice:

The standard view of the Middle Ages as a scientific wasteland has persisted for so long and is so entrenched in the popular mind largely because it has deep cultural and sectarian roots, but not because it has any real basis in fact.  It is partly based on anti-Catholic prejudices in the Protestant tradition, that saw the Middle Ages purely as a benighted period of Church oppression.  It was also promulgated by Enlightenment scholars like Voltaire and Condorcet who had an axe to grind with Christianity in their own time and projected this onto the past in their polemical anti-clerical writings. By the later Nineteenth Century the “fact” that the Church suppressed science in the Middle Ages was generally unquestioned even though it had never been properly and objectively examined.

It was the early historian of science, the French physicist and mathematician Pierre Duhem, who first began to debunk this polemically-driven view of history.  While researching the history of statics and classical mechanics in physics, Duhem looked at the work of the scientists of the Scientific Revolution, such as Newton, Bernoulli and Galileo.  But in reading their work he was surprised to find some references to earlier scholars, ones working in the supposedly science-free zone of the Middle Ages.  When he did what no historian before him had done before and actually read the work of Medieval physicists like Roger Bacon (1214-1294), Jean Buridan (c. 1300- c. 1358), and Nicholas Oresme (c. 1320-1382) he was amazed at their sophistication and he began a systematic study of the until then ignored Medieval scientific flowering of the Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries.

What he and later modern historians of early science found is that the Enlightenment myths of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age suppressed by the dead hand of an oppressive Church were nonsense.  Duhem was a meticulous historical researcher and fluent in Latin, meaning he could read Medieval scientific works that had been ignored for centuries.  And as one of the most renowned physicists of his day, he was also in a unique position to assess the sophistication of the works he was rediscovering and of recognising that these Medieval scholars had actually discovered elements in physics and mechanics that had long been attributed to much later scientists like Galileo and Newton.  This did not sit well with anti-clerical elements in the intellectual elite of his time and his publishers were pressured not to publish the later volumes of his Systeme de MondeHistoire des Doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic – the establishment of the time was not comfortable with the idea of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age being overturned.  Duhem died with his painstaking work largely unpublished in 1916 and it was only the efforts of his daughter Helene’s 30 year struggle for her father’s opus to see the light of day that saw the whole 10 volume work finally released in 1959.

Read the whole thing. One of the Renaissance books I recently read (can’t remember which one) suggested that scientific enquiry (like the status of women) actually abated in the Renaissance, which was obsessed with art and literature, to the impoverishment of natural philosophy.