By Todd Lewis
The causal modern perception of the Middle Ages is that of an age of superstition, loss of classical learning, and general backwardness. To quote Hegel, it was “smells and bells”. In the last half-century or so, this view has been most popularized by Carl Sagan in his smash-hit miniseries, Cosmos, and his book by the same name. The influence of Cosmos can also be seen in the 2009 movie Agora about the life of Hypatia, a female pagan scientist of the 4th century. He makes two rather ridiculous claims that under-gird this entire anti-Christian fanaticism as it pertains to modern perceptions of the Middle Ages; that (1) the ancient pagans were proto-scientists on the verge of a scientific revolution, and (2) that the knowledge-hating bigoted Christians both burned down the Great Library and murdered Hypatia for their hatred of science, rendering her a martyr for those who believed in the power of science. This is absurd and the truth lies beyond the ability of the mentally-challenged atheists who follow people like Carl Sagan. The Library was destroyed and rebuilt many times by Caesar in 48BC, Aeurlian in the 270s AD, the Serapium (a temple to the god Seriphus which contained some remnant of the Library, mostly magical texts) in 391 AD by Theodosius, and in 640 by Caliph Omar. The truth is that Hypatia was the sad victim of late Roman political intrigues and mob violence.
Was Carl Sagan an honest fool of history, or a distorter of history working for the atheist smear-bund?
The root of this false narrative of a Christian war against science, in which the Medieval Era is front and center, is John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. As lying atheists, these men had no compunction in distorting and down-right falsifying history. No longer taken seriously by the modern scholarship on the subject, we still have legions of brain-dead atheists and liberals who believe this account to be gospel truth. For a sound scholarly rebuttal of this myth, see Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth.
Having cleared the underbrush of atheist calumnies, what exactly was the intellectual life of the Medieval era like? In short, it was one of decline, preservation and discovery. The intellectual life of Europe, from about 475 to 1453, can be divided into three broad categories: 475-636 rapid decline, 636-1200 preservation, and 1200-1453 discovery. The intermediate period of preservation would have been impossible without the erudition and scholarship of the Irish and Anglo-Saxons in the West and Greek scholars in the East. I chose the first set of dates going from the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the death of Isidore of Seville; the second set of dates stretches from Isidore’s death to the birth of Peter Lombard and the birth of Scholasticism; the final period stretches from the Scholastic era to the mass exodus of Greek scholars to the West, beginning the Renaissance.
Central to the narrative of the “Dark Ages” is the loss of classical learning that occurred during that period. Yet to blame Christianity for that loss is the height of absurdity, as I will show later; in fact, the real source of the loss was the upheavals brought about by Germanic migrations and invasions beginning in 375 AD, with the entrance of the Huns onto the European scene. This narrative is often used as a bludgeon by atheists and liberals to discredit Christianity and as a smokescreen to their questionable treatment of scientists, for example, the cruel treatment dished out against thinkers by the French First Republic and the Soviet Union. Central to the falsity of the narrative is that there never actually was a “Dark Age” in the Eastern Roman Empire. That empire, centered in Constantinople, lasted for another thousand years and the mass exodus of its scholars after the 1453 sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II helped to facilitate the Renaissance. In short, there is not even a correlation that Christianity leads to the demise of learning.
The rest of this essay will be devoted to giving a brief overview of the intellectual life and contributions of medieval Christendom. It will be divided into two parts: (1) Western Christendom and (2) Eastern Christendom. As stated above, I will divide western Christendom into the period of Decline 475-636, Preservation 636-1200, and Discovery 1200-1453. The importance of Eastern Christendom is seldom acknowledged in the Western Christian context, let alone the secular context, and I believe the Eastern influence was great as well, if not as well known. The second part will be released in another segment.
The Western Christendom can be traced back to the permanent division of the Roman Empire into East and West by the Emperor Theodosius in 395. Organized around the Roman Imperial diocese, the Western Church developed in a trajectory quite distinct from the East. While both the Eastern and Western Christians were heavily inspired by Plato, the former were more influenced by his mystical philosophy, especially the works of Plotinus, while the latter were more influenced by his rational philosophy. This, of course, is an over-generalization, as there were of course Greek rationalists and Latin mystics, but I believe that the theological and intellectual emphases of the East and West conform to the broad counters of rationalism versus mysticism. With the triumph of barbarism in 476, the West dealt with a period of historical trauma, suffering under constant invasion and pillage that did not subside until the middle of the 11th century. In this political power vacuum the Latin Church based in Rome and the Celtic church based in Iona filled the void. These twin western sources of light were the main reason why not all of classical learning was lost in the West. During the early part of this decline the Irish and Anglo-Saxon church played a dominant role; but as time wore on and the endless repetition of barbarian invasion and destruction was repeated, the Latin Church began to supplant the Irish in intellectual endeavors. A proto-renaissance occurred in the late 8th and early 9th century under the Frankish Emperor Charlemange and his resident master scholar, Alcuin of York. Viking invasion and legal succession crises terminated this hopeful turn of events. Italy in the 13th century witnessed the birth of Scholasticism, which was the culmination of the Latin Medieval mind. From Italy this philosophy spread to France, England, Scotland, Flanders and Germany. Scholasticism in like manner would eventually give birth to modern science in the persons of Roger Bacon and Copernicus, to name a couple.
Saint Ambrose of Milan
This period witnessed the birth of Latin Medieval thought with the four great Doctors of the Latin Church: Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Gregory. No less influential were St. Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, St. Aiden, Boethius, and the man for which I end this period, Isidore of Seville.
Ambrose of Milan is the first in our list of Western thinkers. He is most well-known for his role in converting his more famous pupil St. Augustine to the Christian faith. Yet in his own right he was a man of great erudition and laid the foundation of Medieval music by giving the Western World its first antiphonal psalmody. Ambrose is probably most famous for his courageous stand against Emperor Theodosius I. After Emperor Theodosius sacked Thessalonica and slaughtered 7,000 people as punishment for their uprising, Ambrose was incensed by this carnage and denied the Emperor communion until he performed penance for the act, even to the point of rebuffing Theodosius at the door of his own church as he was about to celebrate mass. The Emperor eventually repented and performed penance for his deeds. Seldom has such courage been shown in the face of absolute power, and as such, Ambrose must surely stand as one of the most shining examples of courageous men speaking truth to power.
Jerome, a contemporary of Ambrose and Augustine, was a man of letters; a philosopher, theologian, and historian. He is most well-known for his translation of the entire Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate. In addition to his efforts at translation he also wrote numerous commentaries on the books of the Bible. Inspired by classical authors such as Plutarch and Seutonius, Jerome wrote his “De Viris Illustribus,” a biographical work covering the great Christians from Peter to his own day.
St. Augustine was arguably the greatest mind of his millennium. His works in Christian theology, philosophy, rhetoric, as well as his invention of new genres of literature, remained unrivaled until the Scholastic era. One of the most widely read works of Augustine is his Confessions which was the first autobiography in history. His notion of free will and grace would lead to a rich development of Protestant and Catholic thought, and as secularism rendered man in the image of God, influenced atheism as well. His forays into semiotics would later influence the 20th century deconstructionists. His pioneering work on just war, the most extensive revision since Cicero, rings down through the ages. The very arguments for and against the 2003 invasion of Iraq would have been inconceivable without Augustine’s contribution to this world of thought. His “De Civitate Dei” is a tour de force against the contradictions of ancient paganism and one of the most influential history books of all time. His notions of two kingdoms, one heavenly and the other earthy, influenced both Protestants and Catholics; his vision of the heavenly city was eventually secularized in modern utopianism, socialism, and Marxism. His philosophy of mind and the trinity casts a shadow that can still be seen today. For example, Augustine’s elevation of the willing aspect of God’s personality can be seen in the philosophy of Existentialism. For if God is perfected through his gratuitous will, and secular man deifies himself, the man’s greatest form of expression is when his will is also perfected. From Camus to Derrida and everywhere in between we can see the shadow of the Augustine-haunted West.
Under the Ostrogothic successor to the Western Roman Empire, we find a man who bridged ancient and medieval world in the West: Boethius. Boethius’ erudition extends to mathematics, logic, commentary and philosophy. Boethiu’s work in philosophy led to his formulation of the Quadrivium and the Trivium, the foundations of classical education. The former pertains to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, with the later pertaining to grammar, rhetoric and logic. His efforts at organizing and categorizing already existing disciplines influenced Western education for well over a millennium. Boethius was one of the few men of his time, in the West, who could read Greek. His efforts at translating the classical texts into Latin would be an invaluable foundation for future work.
Out of the many Briton, Irish and Anglo Saxon monks of this period I will mention three: St. Patrick, St. Columba, and St. Aidan. The importance of these men is found in their transformation of the British Isles from a fringe on the Roman Empire/Christendom to the cockpit of learning and science in the West, though that will occur in the second period which I will discuss later.
Patrick is famous for his conversion of Ireland, his youthful shenanigans and monkeyshines, and not the least, his courage. Patrick was kidnapped as a youth and enslaved by the Irish in the 5th century. His experiences as a slave led him in later years to free slaves and seek to abolish the trade itself. While not a great intellectual, Patrick’s courage and actions laid the foundation for the great flowering of Celtic learning in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries.
Columba, the son of a nobleman, from an early age was enrolled in the monastic education system, a rich and vibrant network of autonomous schools that studied Greek and Latin and preserved the classical texts. Columba founded the influential monastery at Iona. Iona is famous for its scriptorium which both preserved and produced manuscripts. Some of the most famous manuscripts were the illuminated texts, a famous example being the Book of Kells. Columba spent much of his life converting the Scots and Picts to Christianity in Scotland.
St. Aidan, a generation after the death of Columba, reconverted Northumbria to Christianity. He settled in Lindisfarne, a special dispensation from the king. From there, Aidan paid for the freedom of slaves, fed the hungry, and built monasteries throughout the region.
A short space must be reserved here for the monastic system and its importance to the Medieval Era. Monasticism originated in the East with hermits such as St. Anthony. The collections of wandering individuals were later organized into vibrant communities by such men as Pachomius and St. Basil. The first major Western monastic tradition was the Benedictine order. The monastic tradition was dominated by prayer, contemplation, work, service and study. Men and women had to swear oaths of obedience, poverty and chastity. The monastic communities themselves were self-governing, a combination of a church, a school, a hospital, an agricultural center and a manufacturing center. This is not to say that all monasteries or monastic communities composed all of these aspects, but these aspects were covered throughout the gamut of the system. In the darkness brought on by repeated barbarian invasions from the 5th century to the 11th, the preservation of classical texts and creation of new centers of learning would have been almost impossible in the absence of these monastic communities.
With this trio of Celtic saints we see the triumph of compassion, love and the Gospel over barbarism, violence, and hate; the triumph of learning, order, and reason over ignorance, chaos, and superstition. These were truly pivotal years in the development of post-Roman Europe and it is no exaggeration for Thomas Cahill to say that the “Irish Saved Civilization” through their steady and often unrewarded diligence in keeping the flame of knowledge lit.
The last individual we will cover in this period is the polymath Isidore of Seville. I choose Isidore to end this period with, in part, because he is often termed “last of the ancient scholars.” This is true in the sense that he was one of the last western Scholars to be proficient Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Isidore was a man whose accomplishments are so vast and varied that one is at a loss to understand how a man of his caliber could be totally unknown, even to most educated people. As a cleric, he aided in the conversion of the Visigoths from Arianism to Catholic Christianity, headed the fourth Council of Seville in 633, and as a scholar he wrote the first encyclopedia: the Etymologiae, a compilation of all classical and sacred learning covering knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, mineralogy, zoology, physiology, geography, agriculture and medicine to name a few. He wrote works on linguistics, such as the Differentiarum libri, on the sciences, such as De natura rerum, on theology, such as De officiis ecclesiasticis and Synonima, as well as on history. The scope and breadth of his learning is astounding and a shining example of the magnificent culmination of classical and Christian learning in the “Not-So-Dark Ages.”
This period is primarily of interest as it covers the Carolingian Renaissance, a period in the 8th and 9th centuries where the far-sighted Charlemagne sought to keep the light of learning alive, which will be discussed at greater lengths later. The primary center of learning during this time was in the British Isles; first Irish, then Anglo-Saxon converts led the West in intellectual thought, some of whom could still read Greek and their efforts culminated in the aforementioned renaissance. During this period of preservation I will cover four individuals: the Venerable Bede, Alcuin of York, Peter of Pisa, and Johannes Scotus Eriugena.
The venerable Bede, a monk from the Monastery of Jarrow, was the first native English historian. His work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, has earned him the title “Father of English History.” He covers the period of Julius Caesar’s invasion of the Isle to his own time. He also wrote textbooks on grammar, such as De arte metrica, and orthography, such as De orthographia. He helped popularize in the West via histories and the method of dating time Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord, AD). Bede also contributed to our knowledge of astronomy and time with his De temporum ratione. He was a biographer and poet as well. He was a light shining in the dark after the fall of Rome, which brought so much ruin to West.
Peter of Pisa was an 8th century grammarian who would become Charlemagne’s Latin tutor, tasked with shaping the mind and thought of the legendary King of the Franks. As well as teaching grammar, Peter also wrote poetry.
Alcuin of York was, if you will, the mastermind behind the Carolingian Renaissance. He was invited by Charlemagne to join his entourage of scholars, which included such great men as Peter of Pisa, Paulinus of Aquileia, and Abbot Fulrad. Alcuin personally educated Charlemagne’s sons and sought to curb the rude barbarism of Charlemagne’s faith and his cruel policy toward the Saxons. Through the witness of Alcuin, the “Butcher of the Saxons,” responsible for slaying 4,500 of them at Verden in 783, by 797 had rescinded the death penalty for paganism. Alcuin was made head of the palace school from 782-796 with a hiatus in England from 790-93. Under his guidance, the Carolingian Renaissance flourished. Major advancements in grammar and learning, that we now take for granted, were developed for the first time. Of many firsts was Carolingian miniscule. Carolingian miniscule was a form of script written in small letters, which is the direct for-bearer of our modern script. Not only were the letters standardized in size and shape, but spaces between words, punctuation, and capital letters were added. The quadrivium and trivium were standardized and made the basis of education. More books were written and published in this period than in the combined previous centuries after the fall of Rome. A migration of Roman art forms to the northern regions of Europe occurred during this period, laying the foundation for the later Gothic art form to flourish. Musical notation in the West originates in the year 800 as a result of Charlemagne’s attempts to aid Frankish musicians in attaining the Roman standard of music.
The 8th century scholar Johannes Scotus Eriugena was known for his questionable theology, his mastery of Greek, his translation of the Pseudo-Dionysius and his revival of the dialectic method of inquiry. He was the greatest Western neo-platonic thinker since Augustine.
A brief discussion of the renaissance itself I believe is needed. Unlike the secular 16th century renaissance so often opined over in public school textbooks, the Carolingian Renaissance was deeply religious and led by clerics. The vast project of collecting texts, organizing them, creating superior translations, and correcting errors was an empire-wide task. The classical Latin texts were used primarily for improving one’s Latin in order to read the Christian texts. Education was major focus of Charlemagne, though the primary beneficiaries were the clergy. The twin catastrophes of Viking invasion of the British Isles, which destroyed and denuded the intellectual cockpit of Western Europe, and the ceaseless fighting between Charlemagne’s heirs led to the gradual failure of the Carolingian Renaissance in truly transforming the Western world.
The 10th and 11th century Frankish Pope Sylvester II (originally Gerbert d’Aurillac) was a great student of the classics and his scientific and philosophical work helped recovered some of the lost classical knowledge. When Gerbert discovered the Arabic-Hindu numeral system, he paired it with the lost technology of abacus, thereby reintroducing it to Europe. Via his knowledge of Islamic scholars, Gerbert reintroduced the amillary sphere into Western usage. We see that Pope Sylvester’s efforts in the late 10th century helped translate the Islamic rediscovery of ancient Greek learning into Western Civilization.
St. Victor of Hugo, a 12th century Catholic German theologian, was an influential individual in laying down the intellectual framework under which modern science would develop. Hugo divided science into three fields: theoretical (mathematics, theology, and physics), practical (ethics, economics and politics) and mechanical (carpentry, agriculture and medicine). Hugo’s work of organizing Christian thought in such a way, which included the scientific process, was of great importance to the development of such thought in the West.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
By the middle of the eleventh century, the conversion of the Norse, Poles and Magyars, coupled with Spanish Reconquista, had pushed Europe’s enemies far enough away from the France, Germany and Italy triangle that the true rebuilding of learning and civilization could be begun. By this time the Moors in Spain had abandoned their crude ways for a more sophisticated way of thinking informed by the discovery of Greek philosophy. Many 11th century geniuses, such as Averroes, Avicenna, and Al Gazhali, laid the foundation of Aristotelian thought that later passed into Western Europe, which in turn help sparked the rise of the Scholastic movement. The Latin Scholastic era is one of the richest in Western intellectual history, but the theological works of these men will not be the subject of this paper, but rather their philosophical, scientific, and mathematical accomplishments.
Next we shall look at Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Theodoric of Freiberg and Nicholas of Cusa. Robert Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln, is one of the possible contenders for the father of scientific thought, the other being Roger Bacon. Grosseteste invented the notion of a controlled experiment, and though the original method was crude, it was vital and instrumental in the development of future scientific thought. Via Aristotle, Grosseteste developed the notion that through observing nature, one can deduce the laws that govern it. Through his work in optics and study of Boethius, Grosseteste concluded that the highest science was mathematics, to which all other sciences were subordinate, a view that would dominate for centuries to come. Grosseteste wrote treatises on optics, such as De Iride, and light such as De Luce, where he outlines a very correct view of the nature of color. It was the rediscovery of Grosseteste’s work that led to the University of Durham ‘Ordered Universe’ team of scientists and historians to critically re-evaluate pre-renaissance science, admitting it to be more advanced than previously thought.
The other contender to being the father of scientific thought is Roger Bacon. The English friar Bacon, much as Grosseteste, wrote extensively on optics. Bacon, indebted to both Grosseteste and Islamic scientists, wrote on eyesight, color and magnifying glasses. He was an early advocate of calendar reform. He noticed that the Julian calendar had calculated the wrong number of days in a year, this error over centuries had led to many days being added to the true date. It was not until three centuries later that Bacon’s ideas on the calendar were instituted. Bacon is also the first known Westerner to give the formula for gunpowder. He hypothesized about lighter-than-air dirigibles and actual powered flight. He observed the sun via a pinhole projector. Ultimately, Bacon’s efforts were invaluable in advancing the frontier of learning.
Albert Magnus, famous for his theological and philosophical works, is thought to have been the first individual to isolate the compound arsenic. He reportedly heated Arsenic trisulfide with soap and the result was nearly pure arsenic.
Theodoric of Freiberg, a 14th century German physicist, in his study of optics, correctly described the rainbow. His work, De iride et radialibus impressionibus, with the use of geometry and the theories of observation, was able to describe both primary and secondary rainbows, the reversal of color in the secondary rainbow, and the light paths necessary to form a rainbow. In his study of optics, he correctly described the path that light takes as it enters a raindrop. To simulate the droplets, he made spherical glass flasks, which he considered to be analogous to raindrops, and filled them with water; he would then raise and lower the flasks relative to the position of his eye, observing the path and color of the light as it passed through globes.
The fifteenth century polymath Nicholas of Cusa was renowned in his legal, philosophical, theological, and scientific writings. Cusa argued that the earth was not the center of the universe and that earth’s magnetic poles were not fixed. He challenged the Ptolemaic view of the planets and their orbits by claiming that neither were perfect spheres. In many ways his work is a precursor to Copernicus’ work, even though Copernicus was ignorant of Cusa. In medicine Cusa argued that pulses should be counted. Cusa also observed that plants derive nutrients from the air, performing the first biological experiment and proved that air had weight.
I have attempted, in a very general way, to describe the one thousand year contributions of Western Christendom. We have covered the last ancients, Augustine, Gregory and Isidore and their accomplishments including, but not limited to, semiotics, history and the first encyclopedia, as well as the Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, who preserved the classical texts and led the valiant attempt at a renaissance in the early 9th century. We saw the recovery of Western knowledge and the first steps at laying the foundation for the renaissance with the Scholastics, which included major advancements in optics and astronomy, with respectable gains chemistry and medicine as well. Contrary to the “Carl Sagan and Draper White view” of history, medieval Western Christendom was a vital and vibrant component of the Western intellectual tradition. They saved the classical texts, and improved upon them, and by doing so they laid the foundation for the scientific revolution. We see the same process at work in Copernicus and Galileo. Their efforts would be inconceivable without the thankless work of the previous millennium. Given that this entire essay is a rebuttal of the misconceptions about medieval scholarship spread by atheists, I felt like ending with a brief note on Galileo. The standard story is that Galileo was a plucky scientist who proved the Bible wrong; that the Bible erroneously claimed that earth was the center of the universe (even though the Bible makes no such claim), and that the Catholic Church, in its ignorance and superstition, persecuted him and forced him to recant. The real story is a little more complicated. Galileo was not the first to propose heliocentrism; earlier Copernicus did the same with far less controversy. The controversy arose in Galileo’s confrontational attitude; he implicitly mocked the Pope in his work, A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo openly insulted the Pope, first by writing his work in Italian (instead of Latin) in an effort to go over the head of the Pope and to the Italian people directly, and secondly by caricaturing the Pope as the dialogue’s antagonist, Simplicio (Italian for “simpleton” or “simple-minded”). Galileo also did not help his case by demanding the Catholic Church accept his position as fact when very little experimental evidence existed at that time. The problem of parallax was thought to be an argument against heliocentrism. Parallax is the observation that when you observe an object from two or more different locations, that object ‘appears’ to change its position, when in fact it does not. In Galileo’s day, the optical instruments were too crude to observe the parallax between the stars, but as optics became more refined later, people were able to observe the differences in location of celestial objects. So again, the atheist spin-doctors got history wrong again. Christianity, far from being anti-scientific, is the womb that birthed science in the first place. In conclusion, I will end where Thomas Woods began in his book, “Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization,” by quoting Wisdom 12:21 “but thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.”