Saturday, December 5, 2009

Were Chaucer and Gower Druids?

One of the nice things about using Blogger as the basis for this blog is that I can use Google Analytics to track my traffic, see which posts are the most popular, trace referring sites and list which Google key words brought visitors to what parts of my blog. So far it's clear that the most popular (or, at least, most visited) post so far has been "Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again, with 1,908 page-views. This is followed by The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman, with 353 page-views, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History by James J. O'Donnell with 293, God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam with 255 and The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages by Chris Wickham with 235. By contrast the least clicked review was Four Books on Fourteenth Century England, with a paltry 37 page-views, though that was after a long posting hiatus.

What's rather more amusing is some of the stuff that people type into Google that leads them to this blog. Not surprisingly the keywords "Armarium Magnum" top the list of search terms (341 page-views). But second on the list is "gongfermours", with 17. For those of you who weren't among the 37 people who read that Four Books on Fourteenth Century England post, a "gongfermour" was a guy in Medieval England who had the unenviable job of cleaning out latrines and cesspits. Ian Mortimer mentions them in his book The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and I mentioned them briefly in my review of it. This means that a whopping 17 of the 37 people who viewed that post went there because they were Googling English toilet cleaners of the Middle Ages. Why? Who knows ...

But the more amusing key word searches tend to be found towards the bottom of the list. I can see how "ostrogoth inheritance western europe" would bring you to my blog or even "streets magnum market description" (I think they were after information on the ice cream), but why "dominic sandbrook irish"? The one that tickled me the most however was "witch kind of animal a 350 magnum can kill" - who said gun nuts were illiterate? This is closely followed by the person who asked Google "why did geoffrey chaucer have such a weird beard?". But the top prize has to go to "were chaucer and gower druids?". In case that searcher ever comes back I think I can answer that: NO.

That anyone would think Chaucer was a druid is kooky enough, but the fact that they thought John Gower might have been one is bizarre. In fact, that someone who is into "druids" even knew who Gower was is very odd. Still, the depths of pseudo historical kookiness never cease to amaze me. Kooky Scottish loon, Gordon Strachan, got in the news this week as the "expert" whose claims form the basis for a new documentary called And Did Those Feet which claims, yes, that Jesus visited England. And, of course, studied with the druids. This is typical crappy Holy Blood Holy Grail-style bonkers pseudo history, but it's amazing to see how happily the media reports it as though it's much the same as any real research by a real historian. No wonder the general public's grasp of history is so whacko.

The story got a mention on the Forum where, to their credit, most of the posters called shenanigans. One, however, tried to come to the defence of the "Jesus as Teenaged Backpaper in Glastonbury" theory, largely by talking up the "ground breaking research" of one Graham Phillips. A quick survey of Mr Phillips' literary output will quickly give anyone with the ghost of a clue an indication of how "ground breaking" his crap actually is. This led to a discussion of what elements a truly kooky theory needs to have:

Ah, but as the guys in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum make clear, any mushbrain theory has to involve (i) Templars (of course), (ii) Masons (same thing, according to the mushbrains), (iii) Druids (ditto), (iv) the Grail ("bloodline" and/or cup) and, preferably (v) the Ark of the Covenant. Mix in some Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Assassins, hidden messages in paintings, some "Symbology" (never mind that there is no such discipline - it's in The Da Vinci Code) and try to work in the Cathars, Montsegur, the Rosslyn Chapel and Rennes-le-Chateau if possible. An ancient Egyptian angle, preferably involving Akhenaten, is nice as well. Stir in some mysterious documents in obscure archives, vaguely referenced so no-one can check your facts (the Vatican Archives are great for dramatic effect), add a title with words like "Mystery" and "Hidden" and "Secret" and "Conspiracy", put a blurb by some other kook on the cover ("Even more sensational than my last ten books!" - Graham Phillips) and serve to an endless market of gullible clowns. A recipe for kook success.

This gave me an idea for next year's Armarium Magnum Essay Competition. Entrants will have to write a detailed summary of a Holy Blood/Graham Phillips-style kooky pseudo historical thesis that (i) combines as many of the usual elements as possible in a new way, (ii) could be seen as plausible by people with no critical analysis skills and (iii) is funny. That gives you all a whole year to start dreaming up whacko pseudo historical conspiracy theories and gives me plenty of time to think up a prize that is both desirable and appropriate.

Now I better go because there's an albino monk at the door who wants to talk to me about something or other.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Armarium Magnum Essay Competition - The Winner!

We have a winner! As discussed below, when I ordered James Hannam's God's Philosophers from Amazon I somehow managed to end up with two copies. So I offered one as the prize in the inaugural and now (probably) annual "Armarium Magnum Essay Competition" with the book to be awarded to the best entry tackling the topic:

"Christianity caused the Dark Ages: Discuss"

So I am now pleased to announce that the winner for 2009 is Dr Graham Budd for the excellent discussion of the topic that I will now post for you all. Congratulations Graham - the book will soon be winging its way north hopefully in time for some Christmas reading.

The question of what caused what is one of the most compelling and yet hardest to answer in the study of history. Did the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand cause the First World War to break out? Did the wreck of the White Ship cause a 12th century civil war in England – or even the English Reformation? What caused the Roman Republic to fail? The mere laying out of the facts does not always reveal the ineluctable thread of fate that made things be as they are.

Yet in the case of the Dark Ages, this vapour of uncertainty condenses into a drop of clarity. It is quite clear that the Dark Ages were brought into being by Christianity. On the other hand, what this means in terms of how history had evolved up to that point is trivial. Its relevance for subsequent history is, however, less clear.

The Dark Ages is a conveniently flexible time period that dates, everyone agrees, from some time after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. What this actually means is, however, uncertain. Did the Empire effectively fall in the third century, as Goldsworthy (in In the name of Rome) would have it? Or the sack of Rome in 410? Can we take the famous date in 476 as its start, when the last Emperor was deposed? Or the fall of the Kingdom of Soissons in 486? Or 610,when Heraclius de-latinised the East? Was it even the period of time after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in 888 (rounded to 900), as Baronius wrote in 1602? And if its start date is doubtful, what of its even more extensible end? The coronation of Charlegmane in 800? The long series of Church reforms beginning in 1046 with Clement II? The awakening of the Renaissance at the end of the fourteenth century? The fall of Constantinople, the invention of the printing press, the death of England’s Richard III or the nailing of Luther’s Theses? Such confusion – it is possible, after all, to choose a start date after an end date from the above morass simply signposts the difficulties surrounding the periodization of history. Which is why professional historians tend not to, of course.

The above confusion suggests conceptual confusion too, and indeed this is just what we find. Petrarch seems to have been one of the first to talk of an age of “darkness”, in which he regarded himself as still living. Here he longs for the coming radiant age when the present (1343) darkness will have been dispersed:

Michi degere uitam

Impositum uaria rerum turbante procella.

At tibi fortassis, si - quod mens sperat et optat -

Es post me uictura diu, meliora supersunt

Secula: non omnes ueniet Letheus in annos

Iste sopor! Poterunt discussis forte tenebris

Ad purum priscumque iubar remeare nepotes.

(Africa IX, 451-7).

And yet Baronius, who wrote of the “Dark Age” itself (“saeculum obscurum”) as late as 1602, placed it in the 10th century.

Such as it is, the “Dark Ages” emerged with these two Christian ecclesiastics, and it is in this sense alone that Christianity caused them to come into being. With such different datings, it is clear they are talking about different things. For Petrarch, a romantic (one can for once use the word in a literal sense) longing for the cultural achievements of the classical era made him think of the long epoch of impoverished latin as indeed an age of darkness. And for Baronius, he is bemoaning not the quality, but the quantity, of writing. In this latter sense, there are really two Dark Ages; the period of time from around the middle of the fifth century to around 800, and during the tenth century (or a single one punctuated by the Carolingian achievements). Yet these distinct (and yet, note, both literary) conceptions were to be conflated and heaved over into the religious realm – a move that both Baronius and Petrarch would have strenuously resisted. Indeed, it seems that Baronius wrote specifically to refute them – the Lutheran Magdeburg Centuries had painted the centuries from the 5th onwards as an inexorably accumulating heap of ecclesiastical corruptions.

Of course, there are many ironies here. The 19th century Romantic movement, disillusioned with its own age of progress, as Petrarch was with his, was to look back to his time as one free from care and the oppression of industrialization. And Baronius termed the “Dark Age” in a work responding to and refuting the calumnies heaped on the ages by his Protestant counterparts.

Let us be clear. The fall of the Roman empire was a long and drawn out death agony, revolving around economics and the rise of the German influence in the army; the attacks of the Persian Sassanids in the east, and a thousand other factors (or at least 210, in any case). After its second century peak, the Western Empire slipped jerkily into ruin, during which time Christianity had limited influence. Despite Gibbon’s concerns of the weakening of the martial spirit by the lily-livered Christians, no such case can be made sensibly today, and as we all know, the Eastern Empire lasted for another millennium. This is not to say, of course, that without Christianity things would have turned out “the same”. Of course the religion of the empire was a factor in the events, just like the make-up of the army, the spread of the Justinian plague, or any other of the features of the age. But when one asks the counter-factual question “if the empire had not been Christian, would it have survived?” one immediately sees that the answer to this question is extremely unlikely to be “yes” The Christianity of the empire was one factor among many other much more important features, of which, to be Marxist for a moment, the economic ones were probably at least as important as any others.

What, then, of subsequent events? Weren’t the “Dark Ages” a black nightmare for nightmare that took centuries to emerge from? Of clerical power and domination, cruel social and religious oppression, backwardness in thought and science and technology? Of ignorance and superstition, torture and witch hunts and burnings? And yet, influenced still by nineteenth century romanticism, don’t we paradoxically picture this medieval period as the ideal society, to which all fantasy novels tend, in some sense?

It is fair, I think, to see the early medieval period in the west as a post-collapse society; where survival became paramount over poetry. But as soon as the show was on the road again, ie when the Carolingians took over from the fratricidal Merovingians, a great burst of enthusiasm took hold. “If only there were many who would follow the illustrious desire of your intent," Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne, "perchance a new, nay, a more excellent Athens might be founded in Frankland ; for our Athens, being en-nobled with the mastership of Christ the Lord, would surpass all the wisdom of the studies of the Academy.” Under Charlemagne, the Europeans looked to the ancients for inspiration, but hoped to surpass them. Such hopes of a young culture recalls America or even modern day China, with its bustling forward-looking determination. These particular hopes were not to last, but they laid the ground for the high middle ages of 1100-1300, one of the most remarkable periods in European history. The fact that 9th century grammar was not up to Ciceronian standards is perhaps forgivable under the circumstances.

What is striking in these patterns of waxing and waning in European culture is how the fortunes of the papacy swing up and down exactly in rhythm. Papal temporal power began to grow significantly in the 8th century with the founding of the papal states, and the cooperation between the Carolingians and the papacy to oust the Lombards from Italy, and this relationship was famously cemented when Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800. But this relationship was not to last, as Charlegmagne’s empire crumbled after his death; and not even the most robust defender of the Papacy can claim the 10th century as the height of its moral or temporal influence. But the papacy had (more or less) recovered its poise by the time of the election of Gregory VII in 1073 (albeit under rather dubious circumstances). As a vigorous Europe swung into a period of unprecedented expansion on all fronts, so too were the central authority and administrative effectiveness of the church expanding, culminating in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the pontificate of Innocent III. And as Europe slipped out of the High middle ages into the crises of the 14th and 15th centuries – the familiar series of plagues, famines and wars – so too the papacy declined again, into the Babylonian captivity and the Great Schism.

From a structural point of view, then, the fortunes of the church, at least as measured at Rome, moved in step with the rest of Europe, and not in opposition to it. One should not make too much of this pattern – it says much about the relatively limited power of the Papacy even at its height that it was still prey to the same broad trends that affected the rest of European society, and it is hard to make the case that this co-evolution implies some dependency of society as a whole on the fortunes of Rome.

If one may judge that the fortunes of Rome are of less importance in the provinces than other religious features, one might consider the spread of monasticism in this era. Starting from the late tenth-century Cluniac reforms, which led to the foundation of the Cistercians in the late 11th century; and throughout the high middle ages, western monasticism flourished and differentiated in a remarkable fashion, spreading land reform and technology as it did so. Nor was the medieval church a bystander to the endemic feudal violence of the time: the peace and truce of God movements espoused by the Cluniacs and others were at least a partial attempt at non-violent resolution of conflicts.

What then, of ”progress” during this progress? In his 2006 Faraday Lecture, Ronald Numbers writesLargely I was bemoaning the fact that after years, decades, of research by historians in the history of science and religion, the same old myths that we have corrected time and time again continue to have a life of their own and to be widely known among the public. One of the biggest obstacles, I think, to improving the public understanding of science and religion in the present is to clear up the myths that still linger from the past.

It is indeed extraordinary that the idea of the medieval church suppressing science is so entrenched that that it apparently does not need any evidence to support it; and naturally enough, the non-medieval Galileo is the only example seriously proposed.

This is not to say, of course, that science would not have eventually emerged without the presence of Christianity in the western world – one can apply counterfactuals here too. And perhaps it might be argued that certain features of the western mindset in the middle ages – their strong adherence to respect for past authors (which was not, however, as slavish as is popularly made out) , for example – were not entirely conducive to the development of an aggressive empirical method. But against this can be set the reasonable idea that the idea of ”free thought” is a convenient mirage that ignores the strong influence of both ideology and fads in practice in modern scientific practice.

Nor is it reasonable to draw a circle around a perhaps rather small group of natural philosophers – Abelard of Bath, Albert Magnus, Grosseteste etc etc, and claim that their ”enlightened” views necessarily typified that of the church as a whole, in the same way that one cannot take Caccini’s attack on Galileo from the pulpit in 1614 as representative either.

In the grand scheme of things, medieval natural philosophy undoubtedly played a smaller part in society than modern science does today – as the present climate change debate witnesses. But to condemn the middle ages for this lack is about as sensible to condemn them for their lack of knowledge of nuclear energy or oscilloscopes. No societies before the industrial revolution managed the knack of combining rapid economic growth and stability with rising populations and rising living standards, a set of circumstances that gave rise to the technological breakthroughs of today, which in their scope utterly dwarf the achievements of medieval societies (one thinks of the impact of electricity, or penicillin, for example). Yet even during this period of relatively glacial progress, medieval society in its way had some remarkable technical achievements, which perhaps can be summed up best by reference to the gothic cathedral; solar observatories as well as aesthetic and architectural triumphs.

The medieval world was not just an innovative one, it was a profoundly practical one – taking up other technologies as diverse as wheelbarrows and watermills that were known to the ancients, and lustily exploiting them to their full. Just as the requirements of modern day warfare have spawned many new technologies, so the requirements of due religious observance (from the right dates to the right buildings) gave rise to similar satellite achievements. What has also become increasingly obvious is that the roots of the scientific revolution – another dubious periodization of history – can clearly be traced well back into the preceding centuries. Galileo may have been the greatest scientist of his age; but his achievements in mechanics and the mathematical treatment of nature were clearly anticipated by medeivals such as Oresme and the Oxford Calculators; achievements that were known and taught all the way through to the 17th century. And so the argument that it was uniquely Christianity that suppressed the growth of science, even though modern science uniquely emerged within a christian society is again to present a profound and powerful counterfactual case: and one that is very hard to answer. If Christianity stopped science, why did modern science develop in Christendom?

Let me conclude. The whole idea of a dark age – with its implied anthesis of an age of light – is ambiguous, as it can refer to a lack of knowledge of, as well as within, a society. No-one can doubt that the period of time from about 500 to at least 800 was a period of turmoil and loss in Europe. But as christian society slowly re-established itself, drawing on the resources that had almost always been preserved by the monasteries, it made strenuous efforts not only to recover the past – the essentially backward-looking stance of all romantic movements – but also to surpass it. Perhaps Dorothy L. Sayers was not after all exaggerating when she wrote of ”That new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown rose of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth". If any age can claim to lay claim to being the Age of Reason, the core of the middle ages, when church and society in the west were at their strongest, is surely it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam

James Hannam, God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

(Icon Books, 2009) 320 pages
Verdict?: A superb and long overdue popular treatment of Medieval science 5/5

My interest in Medieval science was substantially sparked by one book. Way back in 1991, when I was an impoverished and often starving post-graduate student at the University of Tasmania, I found a copy of Robert T. Gunther's Astrolabes of the World - 598 folio pages of meticulously catalogued Islamic, Medieval and Renaissance astrolabes with photos, diagrams, star lists and a wealth of other information. I found it, appropriately and not coincidentally, in Michael Sprod's Astrolabe Books - up the stairs in one of the beautiful old sandstone warehouses that line Salamanca Place on Hobart's waterfront. Unfortunately the book cost $200, which at that stage was the equivalent to what I lived on for a month. But Michael was used to selling books to poverty-stricken students, so I went without lunch, put down a deposit of $10 and came back weekly for several months to pay off as much as I could afford and eventually got to take it home, wrapped in brown paper in a way that only Hobart bookshops seem to bother with anymore. There are few pleasures greater than finally getting your hands on a book you've been wanting to own and read for a long time.

I had another experience of that particular pleasure when I received my copy (copies actually - see below) of James Hannam's God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science a couple of weeks ago. For years I've been toying with the idea of creating a website on Medieval science and technology to bring the recent research on the subject to a more general audience and to counter the biased myths about it being a Dark Age of irrational superstition. Thankfully I can now cross that off my to do list, because Hannam's superb book has done the job for me and in fine style.

The Christian Dark Age and Other Hysterical Myths

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who has the lack of common sense to hang around on atheist discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person's grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

So, alongside the regular airings of the hoary old myth that the Bible was collated at the Council of Nicea, the tedious internet-based "Jesus never existed!" nonsense or otherwise intelligent people spouting pseudo historical garbage that would make even Dan Brown snort in derision, the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena.

The myth goes that the Greeks and Romans were wise and rational types who loved science and were on the brink of doing all kinds of marvellous things (inventing full-scale steam engines is one example that is usually, rather fancifully, invoked) until Christianity came along, banned all learning and rational thought and ushered in the Dark Ages. Then an iron-fisted theocracy, backed by a Gestapo-style Inquisition, prevented any science or questioning inquiry from happening until Leonardo da Vinci invented intelligence and the wondrous Renaissance saved us all from Medieval darkness. The online manifestations of this curiously quaint but seemingly indefatigable idea range from the touchingly clumsy to the utterly hysterical, but it remains one of those things that "everybody knows" and permeates modern culture. A recent episode of Family Guy had Stewie and Brian enter a futuristic alternative world where, it was explained, things were so advanced because Christianity didn't destroy learning, usher in the Dark Ages and stifle science. The writers didn't see the need to explain what Stewie meant - they assumed everyone understood.

About once every 3-4 months on forums like we get some discussion where someone invokes the old "Conflict Thesis" and gets in the usual ritual kicking of the Middle Ages as a benighted intellectual wasteland where humanity was shackled to superstition and oppressed by cackling minions of the Evil Old Catholic Church. The hoary standards are brought out on cue. Giordiano Bruno is presented as a wise and noble martyr for science instead of the irritating mystical New Age kook he actually was. Hypatia is presented as another such martyr and the mythical Christian destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is spoken of in hushed tones, despite both these ideas being garbage. The Galileo Affair is ushered in as evidence of a brave scientist standing up to the unscientific obscurantism of the Church, despite that case being as much about science as it was about Scripture.

And, almost without fail, someone digs up a graphic (see below), which I have come to dub "THE STUPIDEST THING ON THE INTERNET EVER", and to flourish it triumphantly as though it is proof of something other than the fact that most people are utterly ignorant of history and unable to see that something called "Scientific Advancement" can't be measured, let alone plotted on a graph.

The Stupidest Thing on the Internet Ever
Behold its glorious idiocy!

(Courtesy of an drooling moron called Jim Walker. Take a bow Jim!)

It's not hard to kick this nonsense to pieces, especially since the people presenting it know next to nothing about history and have simply picked this bullshit up from other websites and popular books and collapse as soon as you hit them with some hard evidence. I love to totally stump them by asking them to present me with the name of one - just one - scientist burned, persecuted or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists - like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa - and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents have usually run away to hide and scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

The Origin of the Myths

How the myths that led to the creation of "THE STUPIDEST THING ON THE INTERNET EVER" and its associated nonsense came about is well documented in several recent books on the the history of science, but Hannam wisely tackles it in the opening pages of his book, since it would be likely to form the basis for many general readers to be suspicious of the idea of a Medieval foundation for modern science. A festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericism and Classicist snobbery have all combined to make the Medieval period a by-word for backwardness, superstition and primitivism and the opposite of everything the average person associates with science and reason. Hannam sketches how polemicists like Thomas Huxley, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, all with their own anti-Christian axes to grind, managed to shape the still current idea that the Middle Ages was devoid of science and reason. And how it was not until real historians bothered to question the polemicists through the work of early pioneers in the field like Pierre Duhem, Lynn Thorndike and the author of my astrolabe book, Robert T. Gunther, that the distortions of the axe-grinders began to be corrected by proper, unbiased research. That work has now been completed by the current crop of modern historians of science like David C. Lindberg, Ronald Numbers and Edward Grant.

In the academic sphere at least the "Conflict Thesis" of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists are clinging so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent objective peer reviewed historians. This is strange behaviour for people who like to label themselves "rationalists". I'll leave others to ponder how "rational" it is.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While dinosaurs like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine's encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy and Boethius' translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, reason and rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the Dark Ages that resulted from that collapse. Edward Grant's superb God and Reason in the Middle Ages details this with characteristic vigor, but Hannam gives a good summary of this key element in his first four chapters.

What makes his version of the story more accessible than Grant's rather drier approach is the way he tells it though the lives of key people of the time - Gerbert of Aurillac, Anselm, Abelard, William of Conches, Adelard of Bath etc. Some reviewers of Hannam's book seem to have found this approach a little distracting, since the sheer volume of names and mini-biographies could make it feel like we are learning a small amount about a vast number of people. But given the breadth of Hannam's subject, this is fairly inevitable and the semi-biographical approach is certainly more accessible than a stodgy abstract analysis of the evolution of Medieval thought.

Hannam also gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to "the Myth", was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out amongst the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

God and Reason

 The enshrining of reason at the heart of inquiry and analysis in Medieval scholarship combined with the influx of "new" Greek and Arabic learning to stimulate a veritable explosion of intellectual activity in Europe from the Twelfth Century onwards. It was as though the sudden stimulus of new perspectives and new ways of looking at the world fell on the fertile soil of a Europe that was, for the first time in centuries, relatively peaceful, prosperous, outward-looking and genuinely curious.

This is not to say that more conservative and reactionary forces did not have misgivings about some of the new areas of inquiry, especially in relation to how philosophy and speculation about the natural world and the cosmos could have implications for accepted theology. Hannam is careful not to pretend that there was no resistance to the flowering of the new thinking and inquiry but - unlike the perpetuators of "the Myth" - he gives that resistance due consideration rather than pretending it was the whole story. In fact, the conservatives and reactionaries' efforts were usually rear-guard actions and were in almost every case totally unsuccessful in curtailing the inevitable flood of ideas that began to flow from the universities. Once it began, it was effectively unstoppable.

In fact, some of the efforts by the theologians to put some limits on what could and could not be accepted via the "new learning" actually had the effect of stimulating inquiry rather than constricting it. The "Condemnations of 1277" attempted to assert certain things that could not be stated as "philosophically true", particularly things that put limits on divine omnipotence. This had the interesting effect of making it clear that Aristotle had, actually, got some things badly wrong - something Thomas Aquinas emphasised in his famous and highly influential Summa Theologicae:

The condemnations and Thomas's Summa Theologicae had created a framework within which natural philosophers could safely pursue their studies. The framework .... laid down the the principle that Gad had decreed laws of nature but was not bound by them. Finally, it stated that Aristotle was sometimes wrong. The world was not 'eternal according to reason' and 'finite according to faith'. It was not eternal, full stop. And if Aristotle could be wrong about something that he regarded as completely certainly certain, that threw his whole philosophy into question. The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks.
(Hannam, pp. 104-105)
Which is precisely what they proceeded to do. Far from being a stagnant dark age, as the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was, the period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, by far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect. With Occam and Duns Scotus taking the critical approach to Aristotle further than Aquinas' more cautious approach, the way was open for the Medieval scientists of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries to question, examine and test the perspectives the translators of the Twelfth Century had given them, with remarkable effects:

(I)n the fourteenth century medieval thinkers began to notice that there was something seriously amiss with all aspects of Aristotle's natural philosophy, and not just those parts of it that directly contradicted the Christian faith. The time had come when medieval scholars could begin their own quest to advance knowledge .... striking out in new directions that neither the Greeks nor the Arabs ever explored. Their first breakthrough was to combine the two subjects of mathematics and physics in a way that had not been done before.
(Hannam, p. 174)

The story of that breakthrough and the remarkable Oxford scholars who achieved it and thus laid the foundations of true science - the "Merton Calculators" - probably deserves a book in itself, but Hannam's account certainly does them justice and forms a fascinating section of his work. The names of these pioneers of the scientific method - Thomas Bradwardine, Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury, John Dumbleton and the delightfully named Richard Swineshead - deserve to be better known. Unfortunately, the obscuring shadow of "the Myth" means that they continue to be ignored or dismissed even in quite recent popular histories of science. Bradwardine's summary of the key insight these men uncovered is one of the great quotes of early science and deserves to be recognised as such:

(Mathematics) is the revealer of every genuine truth ... whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.
(Quoted in Hannam, p. 176)

These men were not only the first to truly apply mathematics to physics but also developed logarithmic functions 300 years before John Napier and the Mean Speed Theorem 200 years before Galileo. The fact that Napier and Galileo are credited with discovering things that Medieval scholars had already developed is yet another indication of how "the Myth" has warped our perceptions of the history of science.

Similarly, the physics and astronomy of Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme were radical and profound, but generally unknown to the average reader. Buridan was one of the first to compare the movements of the cosmos to those of another Medieval innovation - the clock. The image of a clockwork universe which was to serve scientists well into our own era began in the Middle Ages. And Oresme's speculations about a rotating Earth shows that Medieval scholars were happy to contemplate what were (to them) fairly outlandish ideas to see if they might work - Oresme found that this particular idea actually worked quite well. These men are hardly the products of a "dark age" and their careers are conspicuously free of any of the Inquistitors and threats of burnings so fondly and luridly imagined by the fevered proponents of "the Myth".


As mentioned above, no manifestation of "the Myth" is complete without the Galileo Affair being raised. The proponents of the idea that the Church stifled science and reason in the Middle Ages have to wheel him out, because without him they actually have absolutely zero examples of the Church persecuting anyone for anything to do with inquiries into the natural world. The common conception that Galileo was persecuted for being right about heliocentrism is a total oversimplification of a complex business, and one that ignores the fact that Galileo's main problem was not simply that his ideas disagreed with scriptural interpretation but also with the science of the time. Contrary to the way the affair is usually depicted, the real sticking point was the fact that the scientific objections to heliocentrism at the time were still powerful enough to prevent its acceptance. Cardinal Bellarmine made it clear to Galileo in 1616 that if those scientific objections could be overcome then scripture could and would be reinterpreted. But while the objections still stood the Church, understandably, was hardly going to overturn several centuries of exegesis for the sake of a flawed theory. Galileo agreed to only teach heliocentrism as a theoretical calculating device, then promptly turned around and, in typical style, taught it as fact. Thus his prosecution by the Inquistion in 1633.

Hannam gives the context for all this in suitable detail in a section of the book that also explains how the Humanism of the "Renaissance" led a new wave of scholars to not only seek to completely idolise and emulate the ancients, but to turn their backs on the achievements of recent scholars like Duns Scotus, Bardwardine, Buridan and Orseme. Thus many of their discoveries and advances were either ignored and forgotten (only to be rediscovered independently later) or scorned but quietly appropriated. The case for Galileo using the work of Medieval scholars without acknowledgement is fairly damning. In their eagerness to dump Medieval "dialectic" and ape the Greeks and Romans - which made the "Renaissance" a curiously conservative and rather retrograde movement in many ways - genuine developments and advancements by Medieval scholars were discarded. That a thinker of the calibre of Duns Scotus could end up being known mainly as the etymology of the word "dunce" is deeply ironic.

As good as the final part of the book is and as worthy as a fairly detailed analysis of the realities of the Galileo Affair clearly is, I must say the last four or five chapters of Hannam's book did feel as though they had bitten off a bit more than they could chew. I know I was able to follow his argument quite easily, but I am very familiar with the material and with the argument he is making. I suspect that those for whom this depiction of the "Renaissance" and the idea of Galileo as nothing more than a persecuted martyr to genius might find it gallops at too rapid a pace to really carry them along. Myths, after all, have a very weighty inertia.

At least one reviewer seems to have found the weight of that inertia too hard to resist, though perhaps she had some other baggage weighing her down. Nina Power writing in New Humanist magazine certainly seems to have had some trouble ditching the idea of the Church persecuting Medieval scientists:

Just because persecution wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and just because some thinkers weren’t always the nicest of people doesn’t mean that interfering in their work and banning their ideas was justifiable then or is justifiable now.

Well, no-one said it was justifiable now and simply explaining how it came about then and why it was not as extensive or of the nature that most people assume is not "justifying" it anyway - it is correcting a pseudo historical misunderstanding. That said, Power does have something of a point when she notes "Hannam’s characterisation of (Renaissance) thinkers as “incorrigible reactionaries” who “almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy” is at odds with his more careful depiction of those that came before." This is not, however, because that characterisation is wrong but because the length and scope of the book really do not give him room to do this fairly complex and, to many, radical idea justice.

My only criticisms of the book are really quibbles. The sketch of the "agrarian revolution" of the Dark Ages described in Chapter One, which saw technology like the horse-collar and the mouldboard plough adopted and water and wind power harnessed to greatly increase production in previously unproductive parts of Europe is generally sound. But it does place rather too much emphasis on two elements in Lynn White's thesis in his seminal Medieval Technology and Social Change - the importance of the stirrup and the significance of the horse collar. As important and ground-breaking as White's thesis was in 1962, more recent analysis has found some of his central ideas dubious. The idea that the stirrup was as significant for the rise of shock heavy cavalry as White claimed is now pretty much rejected by military historians and his claims about how this cavalry itself caused the beginnings of the feudal system were dubious to begin with. And the idea that Roman traction systems were as inefficient as White's sources make out has also been seriously questioned. Hannam seems to accept White's thesis wholesale, which is not really justified given it has been reassessed for over 40 years now.

On at rather more personal note, as a humanist and atheist myself, there is a rather snippy little aside on page 212 where Hannam sneers that "non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word 'humanist' to mean a softer version of 'atheist'." Sorry, but just as not all humanists are atheists (as Hannam himself well knows) so not all atheists are humanists (as anyone hanging around on some of the more vitriolically anti-theist sites and forums will quickly realise). So there is no "non-believer" plot to "hijack" the word "humanist". Those of us who are humanists are humanists - end of story. And "atheism" does not need any "softening" anyway.

That aside, this is a marvellous book and a brilliant, readable and accessible antidote to "the Myth". It should be on the Christmas wish-list of any Medievalist, science history buff or anyone who has a misguided friend who still thinks the nights in the Middle Ages were lit by burning scientists. But if you don't want to wait that long, keep in mind that I am still giving away a free copy as part of my Armarium Magnum Essay Competition. Entries close at the end of November.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Amarium Magnum Essay Competition

Yesterday I received a package from which I knew would be my copy of James Hannam's long-awaited God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. On opening the package, however, I found to my surprise not one but two copies of Hannam's book. It seems that in my feverish excitement at finally getting my hands on a copy I accidentally ordered two copies rather than one. Now, I certainly don't begrudge the vast sums of money James is probably making from his sky-rocketing sales and I'm happy to add a few more of my hard-earned dollars to the pit of cash in which I imagine he rolls around each day. But as nice as the book is (yes, a review is coming soon) I don't really need two copies on my already crowded shelves.

So I've decided to make the spare copy the prize in the inaugural Armarium Magnum Essay Competition. The winner will not only have their winning essay published here on the blog to the admiration of all, but will also get a copy of Hannam's fine hard-cover volume winging its way to them in the mail.

The topic if the competition's essays will be:

"Christianity caused the Dark Ages: Discuss"

Entries can be up to 7,000 words and should be submitted by e-mail to this address by November 30th, 2009. All readers of this blog are eligible, with the exception of those whose names are "James Hannam" and who recently wrote a book on Medieval science. Good luck.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Four Books on Fourteenth Century England

Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants Revolt of 1381 (HarperPress, 2009) 288 pages
Verdict?: Excellent popular history 4/5

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
(The Bodley Head, 2008) 341 pages
Verdict?: A novel guide to social history 4/5

Peter Ackroyd, Chaucer
(Vintage, 2005) 144 pages
Verdict?: An excellent brief biography 4/5

Peter Ackroyd, The Clerkenwell Tales
(Vintage, 2004) 224 pages
Verdict?: Diverting fictional time-travel 3.5/5

Some readers of this blog will already know that many moons ago I did a Masters Degree in Medieval literature, with a thesis on the Fourteenth Century English poet John Gower's Confessio Amantis. I chose Gower's poem partly because it was rarely studied (and I didn't think the academic world needed yet another thesis on Chaucer) but substantially because of the challenge of tackling a work which was almost universally, and wrongly, regarded as "dull". The thing that struck me about the Confessio was that, while it's been a neglected work for the last 200 years or so, for the 400 years before that it was a beloved best-seller. Given that the late Fourteenth Century was anything but "dull", I set out to find out about the social milieu that produced this poem and who its intended audience may have been.

In doing this I was following the path taken by the new historicist critic Paul Strohm in his book Social Chaucer - arguably one of the better and more illuminating recent ventures into the well-trodden field of Chaucerian analysis. Like Strohm, by analysing who Gower was, who he knew (he was a good friend of Chaucer and well-known to both Richard II and Henry IV for example) and where he lived, I could get a better grasp of his poetry, its audience and therefore Gower's intentions.

One of the insights this analysis gave me was an understanding of exactly how small Gower and Chaucer's world was. In the wake of the Black Death the population of London was just 40,000 people and, as anyone who has lived in a town that size would know, most residents would have know each other at least by sight. Social circles would have overlapped and spilled across class distinctions, alliances would have been close, resentments long-remembered and, when the opportunity arose, pay-back would have been up close and personal. In a city that you could cross at a leisurely stroll in about twenty minutes, peasants, beggars and apprentices lived cheek by jowl with aristocrats, burgers and civil servants and tensions could get high, especially when the weather got hot and the misrule of the mid-summer festivals spilled over into mayhem.

This is the world Dan Jones describes so ably in his first book Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Jones is a journalist with an Honours Degree in History from Cambridge and, judging from interviews, a burning desire to tell the great stories of Medieval English history in a popular and accessible way. This is straight-forward, narrative popular history of the kind that generally spares the reader the mechanics of how Jones has sorted and assessed the evidence in favour of telling, as he puts it, "a cracking good story".

And a great yarn it is. While it's probably one that is familiar enough to most Medievalists, the market can certainly do with young popular writers of Jones' skill and energy bringing a story like this one to broader attention. As I mentioned in a previous post, his publishers have billed this book as "the first full popular account (of the Revolt) in a century", which is odd considering both Alastair Dunn and Mark O'Brien brought out books on the uprising just five years ago. But Jones' book is certainly more fast-paced than Dunn's and takes the reader along on a breakneck journey assuming a minimum of prior knowledge.

I picked up this book as someone with a pretty intimate knowledge of the world he describes and was struck by the vividness and detail with which he depicts it. The excellent street map of London which form the endpapers of the hard-cover edition was useful, but the author managed to give a real sense of the sights, sounds and smells of the Medieval city, which formed the backdrop to some of the most dramatic and bloody events of that tumultuous Corpus Christi week:

As the welcoming swell grew, with a resigned nod from the leaders of the Bridge Ward, under whose immediate jurisdiction London Bridge fell, the bridge's keeper let down the drawbridge, and the Kentishmen, seeing their path stretch before them, flooded into London. .... Straight ahead lay the close, dirty streets of England's capital, thick with excitable, drunken rascals and wealthy traders alike, the timid scuttling for cover and all the clergy of the city rushing to pray for peace in a time of chaos.
(Jones, p. 88)

The descriptions of the chaos that followed make for exciting reading: the destructive orgy of the sacking and burning of John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace on the Strand, the burning of documents and charters - symbols of the legalism and bureaucracy the rebels despised - in the Temple compound and the vengeful executions the mob carried out in Cheapside, where Milk Street, Wood Street and Bread Street came together. Jones has an eye for some of the curious details of the story, like the way the rebels sacking the Savoy made up for the fact that the hated John of Gaunt was not in the city by hoisting up a richly embroidered heraldic "jakke" of his and using it for target practice. Or the grim fate of thirty revellers who broke into Gaunt's wine cellar while the rebels rampaged through the palace above them, only to have the whole house burn and collapse above their heads, leaving them entombed in the wreckage to slowly die (but with plenty of wine).

Other reviewers have found this fluid and vivid narrative not quite their style. A few have commented that we are given little background information on the leaders of the rebellion: Wat Tyler, the Lollard priest John Ball and the shadowy Jack Straw. This is true, but it's probably due to the fact is that we know very little about any of them (some historians suspect Straw didn't exist at all) and personally I fail to see that there would have been much benefit to pause in the story to detail why that is so. Others found the "colour" of the narrative a bit lurid for their tastes, especially the emphasis on the bloodier details - eg the mitre nailed to the skull of Bishop Sudbury when his head was exposed on London Bridge. Perhaps those reviewers prefer their narrative history a dusty shade of beige, but to tell this story without those details would be to rob it of its life and its fairly shocking immediacy.

All in all Jones' book is precisely the kind of action-packed, fast-paced popular history that the field of Medieval Studies can do with. His passion for the subject is clear and his desire to tell stories worth telling is precisely what you would expect of a young writer who was a student of another historian with a flair for exciting popularisation, David Starkey. If his debut is anything to go by, Dan Jones is a writer to watch.

Another writer who is keen to transfer his passion for Medieval history to the general reader is Ian Mortimer, though in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century he takes a rather more unconventional approach to that chosen by Jones. Mortimer prides himself on finding new and interesting ways to shed light on history. In 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory he approached the reign of Henry by detailing a day-by-day account of his life in the year 1415, from New Year's Day to December 31st, giving a level of intimate detail and a distinct lack of selective evidence in the process. In one interview Mortimer details why he tries to find newer and more enlightening perspectives on history:

As I see it, the traditional pseudo-objective stance of the academic - the study of evidence whether on an empirical or a theoretical basis - is a very narrow slice of a very large historical pie. There are simply thousands of ways of writing history. .... As soon as one realises that one can adopt any one of an infinite number of approaches to the past, the limits are taken away from history.

It's clear even from the title that The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is another attempt to find new ways into the past and, on the whole, a highly entertaining and successful one. Taking his format from travel guides like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, Mortimer details the foreign country that is Fourteenth Century England with all the information needed by an intrepid time traveller. He has chapters on "What to Wear", "Where to Stay", "What to Eat and Drink" as well as information on the law, the landscape and how to get around. The result is amusing, sometimes surprising and highly entertaining and is full of information that you generally don't find even in narrative history, let alone in academic analysis. The text is interspersed with information boxes outlining useful snippets ("The Social Hierarchy" - handy if you want to know if a Franklin was superior to an Esquire or the other way around) and places to go ("Ten Places to See in London" - the Tower is recommended for Edward III's collection of lions and leopards in the royal menagerie).

Like Jones, Mortimer does not shy away from making his text as colourful as possible, though in his case the colour is generally shit brown rather than blood red:

(London's) inhabitants will draw your attention to how 'evil-smelling' this mud is just after it rains (as if you need telling). And yet these are not the worst of London's problems. The stench and obstruction of the animal dung, vegetable rubbish, fish remains and entrails of beasts present problems of public sanitation on a scale unmatched by any other town in England. With 40,000 permanent citizens and sometimes as many as 100,000 mouths to feed and bowels to evacuate, it is impossible with a city with no sewerage system to cope.
(Mortimer, p. 17)

The evacuation of bowels is a subject that features regularly in Mortimer's book, with details of Medieval toilets ranging from the "close stools" of the nobles, with their removable brass basins and velvet-covered seats, to the description of the gloriously-named "gongfermours" (latrine-emptiers) of London taking their daily, and probably very much-needed dip in the Thames just before sunset. He dispels several of the persistent myths about Medieval bathing and cleanliness - in other words, he makes it clear that such things existed, contrary to popular belief - and details some attitudes to hygiene that were rather different to ours. After explaining how spiritual cleanliness was supposed to give a holy person a literal sweet odour of sanctity he notes dryly "(i)n the modern world we have no equivalent to this form of cleanliness. Instead we have antibacterial wipes." (p. 194).

One temptation for someone taking this fairly whimsical approach to social history might be to concentrate entirely on the exotic and the bizarre. Certainly, a lot of the entertainment value of Mortimer's book comes from the more unusual or odd aspects of the Fourteenth Century world. His discussion of Medieval humour, for example, is illustrated with the anecdote of a retainer of Edward II who fell off his horse three times in rapid succession, sending the king into such fits of laughter that he awarded the man a year's salary as a present, indicating that Medieval Englishmen liked their humour broad and physical. Similarly, the section on food and cooking details some of the stranger items that made it to a noble's table, including seals, dolphins, porpoises, puffins and even beaver.

But Mortimer balances this in each section by going into similar detail about the more ordinary and mundane aspects of Medieval life. Each topic generally gives the perspective of the peasants, the middle classes and then the nobles, making it pretty clear that no peasants sat down to feast on whale meat with a side dish of beaver; more like beans and bacon. The guidebook format works better in some sections than others - few time-travelling tourists would need quite that much detail on Medieval English law - but on the whole the book is an entertaining romp. I suspect it will be particularly useful for historical fiction writers and would not be surprised if some of Mortimer's details begin turning up in some novels over the next few years.

One novelist who probably does not need Mortimer to do his homework for him is Peter Ackroyd. Judging from both his novel The Clerkenwell Tales and his short biography Chaucer, Fourteenth Century London is familiar ground for him already. The Clerkenwell Tales is a Chaucer-fan's delight: set in the poet's London and full of references to the characters, places and (to an extent) stories of The Canterbury Tales. The novel itself is a tight and fairly dark thriller, with plots within plots, murders and a terrorist group setting fires around the city. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a new character, each of whom has the same title as Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, even if only a few are the same people (eg Roger Ware, the Cook, appears in both the novel and Chaucer's poem).

One problem for the modern novelist writing historical fiction is getting the right tone to their dialogue. To have their characters speak too much like modern people can be jarring to some readers (though I prefer it myself - conveying everyday idiom using our everyday idiom, though minus anachronistic expressions). On the other hand, adopting a tone that is too overtly "historical" can result in silliness, forsoothness and general gadzookery. Ackroyd has a poet's ear for Middle English, however, and manages to have his characters speak as though they just stepped from the pages of Chaucer without sounding forced or outlandish:

'You have as much pity for poor men as pedlars have for cats, that would kill them for their skins if they could catch them.'
'Mea culpa.' The cleric's face was suffused with sweat.
'You are purse proud. Piss proud.'
'Mea culpa.'
'You are an ape in a man's hood.'
'Mea maxima culpa.'
'I will enshrine you in a hog's turd.'
(Ackroyd, p. 53-54)

Again, readers of Chaucer will constantly find snippets from his poetry in the dialogue (such as the "hog's turd" reference above) and other subtle and sly references in a story that is deftly handled and a setting that is as vivid as we would expect of this accomplished writer.

Ackroyd began his career as a fiction writer, though in recent years he has made his name as a biographer. Having read many biographies of Chaucer, from G.G. Coulton's quaintly Victorian Chaucer and his England to Donald R. Howard's sprawling and gossipy Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, so I was not expecting Ackroyd's short (170 page) overview to give me much new insight. But the first volume in his "Brief Lives" series, Chaucer, shows that he has the kind of deft and judicious touch that a good biographer needs. Apart from the deceptively autobiographical sketches we get from Chaucer himself, which are slippery things to work with, most of the material from which a biographer can construct his life are terse, obscure and context-free entries in royal account books and a couple of legal records, which are even harder to work with.

One example is the puzzling reference to a Cecily Champain releasing Chaucer from all court actions tarn de raptu meo, "concerning my rape" - a note that has been raising the eyebrows of Chaucer scholars for several centuries. Many have gone down the path of reading "raptus" as abduction rather than rape and others have taken comfort in the fact that the poet was not convicted and painted Champain as a hysteric or an extortionist. Ackroyd cuts through the mystery rather deftly and makes a good case for Champain not only being Chaucer's younger mistress but also the mother of his son Lewis, to whom the Treatise on the Astrolabe was directed. In this and other such knotty problems, Ackroyd is judicious and reasonable and, like a good novelist, the story he tells feels complete rather than a patchwork of guesses. Certainly, coming to this book directly after reading the three above, I felt right at home in the London that Ackroyd describes, complete with the smell of roasting beaver and the sight of gongfermours bathing in the Thames as the sun goes down.


This is just a quick post to apologise for the long silence on this blog. I won't bore you with the personal detail, but let's just say it's largely been due to the Global Economic Crisis generally and some of its repercussions on my life in particular. I'll try to make up for it by reviewing not one, not two, not three but four books in my next post.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Reply from Charles Freeman (of sorts)

Well, I did mention in my review of Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind (below) that he likes to respond to critics directly. Though I wasn't quite expecting a response by him within five days. Anyway, rather than reply in the "Comments" section of the review, I thought it was worth writing my reply as a separate post.

Charles writes:

Dear Tim,

I have been put onto your review through the grapevine. I won’t reply to it first because Closing came out in 2002, and was written in the two years before that so it is based on material mostly ten or more years old. I have written four more books since then. Secondly much of my thinking now will be in my Yale book on early Christianity - to 600 - which comes out in September and you will be able to review that.

Well, I'd be happy to review it (especially if Yale is good enough to send me a free copy), but I can't really see how the fact you have written some other books since then means you don't need to reply to a detailed review of this one. In one of your e-mails to James Hannam you noted that you've yet to see a comprehensive critique of your book. To write a comprehensive critique of it I would have to write something almost book length in itself, but my review weighs in at just under 5,000 words and, while far from comprehensive, it's the most detailed analysis of your arguments that I've seen so far. So simply noting that you've written some other books, which don't correct the flaws in this one that I can see, doesn't really absolve you of a proper reply to my analysis.

Nor does noting that you wrote it eight years ago, especially since you go on to say:

I have to say that despite extensive reading , I haven’t much changed my views.

Okay, so why point out that it was written some time ago and drew on works ten years or more old? If I had written a review of it eight or ten years ago I would have highlighted precisely the same strange omissions and critical flaws.

But now we get this rather strange cluster of comments:

The archaeological evidence for Christian destruction is now building up ( See Sauer’s book on The Archaeology of Religous Hatred, Tempus Books, 2003. Sauer is professor of Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh.His evidence ties in well with the literary evidence e.g. Martin of Deacon’s Life of Porphyry, which details P (the Bishop of Gaza’s) destruction, with imperial approval, of the pagan temple in Gaza.) Fergus Millar, surely a top name, has much on Theodosius’ activities against pagans and heretics in his A Greek Roman Empire, Power and Belief under Theodosius II, 408-450, University of California, 2006.

Sorry Charles, but I fail to see the relevance of any of this to anything I said in my review. Or to anything to do with reason and rational science and philosophy. Did I dispute that the post-Constantinian emperors and the Christians of the Fourth to Sixth Centuries did what they could to eliminate their pagan rivals? No, I didn't. More to the point, how does this "mounting evidence" of something no-one has ever disputed support your thesis? They destroyed temples and oppressed pagans? Yes, they did. And? What's that got to do with any supposed "closing of the western mind"?

As a humanist with a fondness for most aspects of the ancient and Medieval past, I'd certainly lament the destruction of pretty buildings. And the oppression of pagans by Christians is about the same as the oppression of Christians by pagans to me, since (i) I'm a non-believer and (ii) I avoid value judgements about the supposed sins of the distant past. But how "mounting evidence" that Christians closed down the irrational, superstituous cults of their religious rivals and no longer allowed painted priests to shake rattles and intone chants at incense-wreathed statues of Olympian gods somehow supports your thesis I really can't fathom. The fact that the Flamen Dialis in Rome could no longer wear his magical hat, no longer observed his strange taboos against touching raw meat or beans and no longer had to carefully guard against sleeping in a bed whose legs were smeared with clay (?!) may be sad if you're into that kind of thing, but I can't see what the death of such weird superstitions have to do with any argument about rationality.

Some people make a lot of Edward Grant but it is Grant who quotes (in his Science and Religion 400 BC - AD 1550, Johns Hopkins, 2004, p.145 ) the view that ‘Bede’s ‘ establishment of the port” is the only original formulation of nature to be made in the west for some eight centuries’.

And Grant is right (though he was quoting Duhem there). He makes similar remarks in several of his books about the centuries that he refers to as "Europe at its nadir". Again, my response is "Yes. And?" No-one is arguing there was no Dark Age in the west or that this "nadir" didn't see science, mathematics and philosophy collapse to the lowest imaginable level of sophistication. What is being disputed is your claim that this "nadir" was caused by a rejection of reason and the rational tradition. That claim - central to your thesis but very poorly and selectively supported - is complete garbage. From Justin Martyr to Clement to John of Damascus to Agustine, there was a tradition that argued for the preservation of that very tradition. So, despite the other traditon that you highlight at such length in your book, there was a strong western traditon of rationality that led Boethius to enshrine dialectic in general and Aristotle's books of logic in particular at the heart of what was to become the Medieval syllalbus. The "nadir" was caused by the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the collapse of civilisation in the west. Having wave after wave of Lombards, Avars and Vikings sweeping through your study tends to make reading Aristotle's Posterior Analytics a bit difficult. Especially if all copies have been lost for centuries.

So that means while Europe rode out the centuries long storm of invasion, collapse, disintergration, disruption and eventual recovery, there were always a few people keeping the seeds of the rebirth of the Twelfth Century nutured. The western mind did not "close" to that tradition. On the contrary it preserved it, both in the west and (something else ignored in your book) in the academies of Alexandria and Constantinople in the east.

My feeling is that since 2000, when I first started on this subject, the debate has come more my way than yours, but clearly debates will and should continue.

If those irrelevant examples are your idea of evidence that brings the debate your way then I can only conclude you simply don't understand why I find your thesis unconvincing.

2). You can download Richard Schlagel’s review of Closing in the Review of Metaphysics from Amazon. com. He is a Professor at George Washington University, who is well known as a historian of science and he has written extensively on this period.He liked it and it seems you must have missed it.
I don't think I said you didn't get any favourable reviews. And I can't download Schlagel's review actually - Amazon says it's due to "geographical restrictions", which I assume means it's only available to those in the US for copyright reasons.

3) I don’t know of any savagely condemnatory reviews from professional academics
Mark Edwards wrote a pithy and scathing review in History Today which was the kind of tartly barbed and succinct smack-down you'd expect from a don of Christ Church, Oxford. Professor Robert Markus of the University of Nottingham wasn't exactly complimentary in The Tablet. Professor Mary Beard of the Classics Department at Cambridge and Classics editor of the TLS took you to task for your romanticisation of the Greeks and Romans as rationalists. And while he's too gentlemanly to be "savage", David Lindberg's round dismissal of your thesis in the latest edition of his magisterial The Beginnings of Western Science carries the full weight of that great scholar's stature. They are some rather well-informed and fairly heavy duty scholars that have weighed your arguments and found them wanting. And for much the same reasons I have.

- there was a negative one from Bowersock in the Los Angeles Times

Yes, that one is worth reading as well.

I enjoy the rough and tumble of debate but must bring this one to a close especially as I am sure you will start it again when you have read the Yale book!
Good reading ,
Charles Freeman.
Well, I can't say I saw much evidence of any "debate" in this response, since you didn't manage to touch on a single one of my criticisms of your selective evidence, strange silences and weird (seeming) ignorance of whole areas of relevant material. But yes, I will be reviewing your new work and if it contains the same kind of sloppy/slippery pseudo argument as Closing you can be sure I'll have my flensing knives well-honed and ready.

Best regards from one amateur to another,
Tim O'Neill