Tim O’Neill explains why the false view of science coming to a halt during the Middle Ages is not merely incorrect, but is the result of anti-Christian Enlightenment propaganda.
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
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.
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 Monde: Histoire 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.
One thing I learned in writing The Irrational Atheist was to never trust “what everybody knows” about history. It’s more than MPAI, it’s more than a general ignorance about history; the fact is that most people who consider themselves to be educated with regards to history are, in demonstrable fact, maleducated. They’ve been given a false narrative that is belied by the actual documentary evidence.