When history gets heated ….and personal

In the course of obtaining the necessary information for a hyperlink to the Amazon (UK) page on Dr James Hannam‘s book ‘God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science‘ (in America entitled ‘The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution‘) it came to my attention that opinion on the book appears to be clearly divided into two major camps.

This is worthy of comment, because, where history books are concerned, opinions are normally only divided between those who find such books boring,  tedious and hard-going (which some indeed are) and those who enjoy them. The only exceptions are generally those covering ‘controversial’ subjects or areas where people have certain political or other affiliations. Books on the Wars of the Roses which are critical of the Yorkists, or of Richard III are a good example.

Hannam’s book is neither, yet is has been subject to particularly fierce criticism and attack from some quarters. This is not from Historians, who are usually very quick to criticise something they do not agree with or believe, and find weaknesses in other people’s work. No, the book has in fact received much acclaim from the historical community.

The ones who hate all seem to be of a ‘secularist’ or atheistic scientific persuasion, those who are sometimes called the ‘New atheists’ or ‘militant secularists’. Where Hannam’s work is concerned, some do indeed display militant tendencies.

Why and how, it may be asked could a history book court so much controversy? What iswrong with it? Such questions may indeed be asked as people who belong to, or affiliate themselves with such generally do not pay much attention to history, generally speaking, scientific, social and political issues are more to their liking.

So what is the problem? The answer to this may be found in the book itself for the synopsis says (my italics):

“He (the author)  debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth was flat, nor did Columbus ‘prove’ that it is a sphere. Contrary to common belief, the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science, nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution. No Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. On the contrary, as Hannam reveals, the Middle Ages gave rise to staggering achievements in both science and technology…  Hannam argues that scientific progress was often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity…”God’s Philosophers” reveals the debt modern science and technology owe to the supposedly ‘dark’ ages of medieval Europe.”

It is this claim that the Medieval church did not, in fact stifle scientific inquiry, and was not solely responsible for the lack of progress in some areas of science that is the cause of the controversy. More importantly, Hannam demonstrates that most of the people behind these discoveries were religious, and in so doing casts doubt upon the claim that religion is (and always has been) the enemy of science and reason, and that the two are incompatible.

It is those who espouse and promote this idea today who are in turn the ones who seem to dislike Hannam’s work the most, perhaps because it threatens to undermine something that they stand for. In this regard in is intriguing that many of the criticisms they have levelled at Hannam’s work are ideological, instead of being historical in  nature.

Some have claimed that Hannam is trying to ‘exonerate’ the Catholic church or religion because he himself comes from a religious background, and so has written the book with an ‘agenda’, which reviews like these show.

These claims have sparked some lively, and sometimes heated debate on the subject, in which some of the detractors seem to have acquired a previously unrevealed ‘expertise’ in the field of science history.

The most fascinating and revealing aspect of this debate, at least to me, is the extent to which it reveals that people’s views of history are coloured by their own preconceptions, something which is common to is all (if we are honest about it). We are none of us free of bias, but it seems that some of the reviewers on this page, whilst rallying against the bias of others, seem oblivious to their own.

As well as this it reveals the way some of us respond when our preconceived ideas are challenged and questioned, and the lengths that some people will go to defend these.

Perhaps then the controversy is a good thing, and, whilst any book that challenges preconceptions and misinformation about the Middle Ages is liable to get my seal of approval, a book that makes people think and perhaps review their assumptions also has its benefits.

Buy the Book 'Gods Philosophers'


25 thoughts on “When history gets heated ….and personal

  1. I think your observation that the level of shrillness about Hannam’s book is in inverse proportion to the shrieker’s knowledge of the relevant historical evidence. Most of them are operating from a “everyone just knows it was a Dark Age!” level of understanding of the Middle Ages. As an atheist who is also a Medievalist, I come across this vociferous willfully ignorant position on the topic of the history of science with wearying regularity. See my own review of Hannam’s book for details:

    1. Mr O’Neill
      I am honoured to have another Medievalist comment on my blog at last. I agree with your position, and in no way intended to imply that the people who disliked this book did so because they were athiests, rather I think they disliked it because it challenges thier ideas. I have seen the same sort of response from hardcore neo-Yorkists and Richardians to books which criticise the House of York or King Richard III.

      I supoose some people just do not like to have thier core beliefs challenged.

      On a personal note. thankyou for your post on the Movie ‘Agora’. I was thinking of watching that, and now I will be more informed if I do.

      Thankyou for visiting my site.

  2. Controversy is good. It always helps bring attention to these topics. Let them criticize and point fingers, it does nothing but bring this to light.

    More, I say! More!

    (Oh, and I loved your article on Joan)

    1. I agree that certain types of controversy are good. That which makes us think and challenge our preconceived notions (particularly if they are wrong) is beneficial.

      This stands in stark contrast to those History books which are promoted as being purposefully ‘controversial’ but their ‘controversy’ is nothing more than tabloid style sensationalism designed to boost sales.

      I do not think Hannam’s falls into the latter category, which is why I like it.

      I am glad you like my article on ‘Saint’ Joan of Arc and hope there is enough on interest on my site to bring you back.

      Thanks for visiting.

  3. As a third generation atheist, and a person very interrested in medieval times, but as a person who has not read the book I would say, that it is no surprice that such critique, as you describe, would surface just for the reasons you mention. I guess history is full of these legends, “that everybody knows”, that actually have been invented by people for various reasons. The joke in this story is that the legends of the “Dark Ages” are not invented by the atheists, who now feel their core ideals are threatened by a historian challenging them. They are mostly stories told by people who were Christians themselves, who wanted to slander the catholic church in comparrison to their new kind of Christianity, or just promote their own identity by declaring how clever their own generation was.

    On the other hand, there actually are reasons why the era after the fall of Roman empire is called the Dark Ages. A lot of information was lost. It would be naive to think that all religion, or religious people have brought to us is misery. Both of the churches of the middle ages sought controll, some clergy members wanted it for the sake of power, but if you were a person who wanted to do good, clergy was the group you wanted to join in order to achieve anything. Because they had power. It is typical to all organizations with power, that they seek to keep it. Sometimes this is achieved by learned scientific work, and sometimes by suppressing new information from others. Both methods seem to require the controll of information.

    Holding peoples minds at a grip has propably a lot to do with what is behind the qritique towards this book, but it has also given birth to such modern movements as the so called intelligent design, young earth and creationism, wich are to say the least, scary contradictions to science and mind controll themes. Wich to me seems to be the main purpose of religions in general.

  4. Rautakyy
    First of all thankyou for visiting my site and leaving some interesting and insightful comments.

    You are right in saying that Renaissance Protestant historians went some way towards propagating the myth of the ‘dark ages’ but academic studies on a subject known as historiography (which basically just means the history of historical writing) has shown that enlightenment historians had particular contempt for the Medieval period in general, and that this contempt resulted in a large part from their antagonism towards religion.

    The enlightenment writers deliberately sought to cast the Middle Ages in a negative light, or dismissed the period altogether, and their writing had been just and influential as the renaissance writers if not more so. So I would say to this degree, it is not only Christians who are responsible for creating the myth of the Dark Ages.

    It is rather ironic I think that many Historians do not have such a high opinion of the Enlightenment writers as humanists and prominent athiests do.

    I would also say that the political upheavals and instability of the ‘Dark Ages’ were a major if not the major cause for the lack of scientific progress in this period. The problem is that people have lost sight of these other causes and tend to focus only on religious factors.

    To put it another way, the collapse and gradual rebuilding of centralised systems of government, successive waves of invaders, and almost incessant warfare probably distracted the attention of Dark age people from studying science and mathematics.

  5. Thank you for the response. I absolutely agree with what you say.

    Among the enlightment people were the first actual atheists who “came out of the closet”, and they naturally had political agendas against religion. I think the reason we assume them to have some historical integrity, is that they made a big fuss about it. But all people have bias. A nother reason is, that it is percieved, that during the struggle of theirs, the true form of modern secular state saw beginning in the French revolution. Now, that is the general image, though you and I who have studied the middle ages know, it is not such a black and white concept. As most often is the case about the truth.

    Trouble is that all people feel more or less personally offended if someone questions their ideals. One would expect atheists, to understand this as when one is open about ones atheism, it is often faced as a direct personal attack towards the religious people. But even with the natural ability to empathy, people far too easily have little compassion toward other peoples ideals. I for example have none towards nazism.

    It should be obvious as you say that the political upheaval and the great migrations were much more major reasons for the “darkness” of the age that followed the fall of western part of Roman empire. It was after all the monks who have passed all the knowledge we have about the sciences of Antiquity. On the other hand we can not deny the open hostility of religious fanaticism towards some aspects of science, like in the case of Hypatia of Alexandria. I suppose it is the change that science seems to demand, or maybe the fact science even when not intended against any religions sometimes challenges the religious facts, that arrouses the fear and anger in religious fanatics.

    If you happen to know any good books about how big part did the Christianity in itself play on the actual fall of the Roman empire, I would be very thankfull. When I have studied the subject it seems it certainly was the adoption of Christianity as sole religion, wich had a great part in deteriorating the status quo of the Roman empire in many ways and created a double organization, sort of an empire within empire. I know that is not exactly medieval times, but in order for us to understand the medieval mind, it is good to know where it came from.

    By the way, I really like your blog.

  6. Dear Rautuakky

    Tim O’Niell who is an Austurlian Medievalist historian and athiest has written a fascinating article on Hypatia on his blog here- http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com.au/
    Considering what you say about her I am surmising (perhaps incorrectly) that your view of the church’s hostility towards hee ‘science’ has been shaped by the movie ‘Agora’.
    Mr O’Neill demonstrates how this movie has been a source of much misinformation on Hypatia, (she neved ‘discovered’ geocentrism for instance) and is clearly intended to promote the view that religion is the enemy of science. I suggest you read it as it says things better than I can.

  7. Thanks to Lady of Winchester for her kind words about my blog. One small corrective note: I’m not a “historian” in anything but the broadest sense of that word. I have a degree in history and am an avid student of the work of scholars who are definitely historians – professional academics. But I’m just another amateur with a blog.

    I make this clear whenever I can because certain amateurs whose work I have given critical reviews have complained that I am “attacking” them when I point out they aren’t historians, despite their claims to that status. I reply that since I’m an amateur myself, that is hardly an “attack”, just a statement of facts. I’m not a fan of how the internet, blogging and self-publishing has turned everyone into instant experts. Expertise is not earned that way.

    1. Hello Mr O’Neill
      I apologise for any misunderstanding caused by calling you a ‘Historian’. I think there was some misunderstanding on my part here to as I thought having a degree in History made a person a Historian. I am sorry if this has caused you any problems.

      I find there are another kind of self-appointed history experts- people who are desparate to defend thier favourite ‘historical’ movies when people point out that there are errors in them. The knowledge of historical research and textual criticism that they suddenly aquire is really quite staggering.

  8. No need for any apology. In a sense a person with a history degree is a historian, but I tend to reserve the term for those with a teaching or research position at an accredited higher learning institution who publish within the context of rigorous peer review.

    One person who is a trenchant opponent of the ideas James Hannam popularises in his book is a certain Richard Carrier. Critics of Hannam’s book like to call him “historian, Dr Richard Carrier”. He has a doctorate in Classics from Columbia, so the “Dr” part is fine. But Carrier is merely a blogger who publishes mainly via online print-on-demand vanity presses. He’s also a vociferous atheistic anti-Christian activist who lets his ideology get in the way of his objectivity. Very little of his critiques of the idea that Christianity didn’t significantly inhibit science would make it past peer review, but if the only people “reviewing” your work are commenters/anti-theistic fanboys on your blog, that doesn’t really matter. The “historian” Richard Carrier can preach to his choir all day long and never hear a contrary word. That doesn’t exactly make for academic rigor.

    So I find in this age of self-anointed online experts, it’s good to keep the distinction between the professionals and the hobbyists clear. And I’m doing so as a hobbyist myself.

  9. Dear Lady of Winchester and Tim ONeill,

    I have not seen that movie Agora, mentioned previously, but certainly it sounds interresting even with the mistakes mentioned in it. I have yet not seen a historical movie wich has no mistakes. But since the great public seems to form up their vision of history based on movies and other popular culture, it is crucial what kind of mistakes are worse than the others. Entertainment is far too often also politics.

    There is no doubt that the darkness of the so called middle ages has been greatly exaggerated. There is a tendency in our western society to put religion and science on collision courses. The reasons are manyfold, but one is that the scientific research sometimes challenges the myths of a religion. This is not the purpose of science, it is just something that happens, because some parts of religious world view come as a tradition from people who did not have later discovered scientific knowledge. Most major religions in the world have embraced the scientific world view, wich has removed some absolute religious “everybody knows” stuff to be seen more as metaphors. For example the creation myths. This shows that religions and science are not automatically set against each other, but because this sort of shift brings more shades of gray to the pallet, some modern religious people have gone to dismiss scientific research results as “just a theory”. Then there are the atheists, who are a minority in any given society and you have fanatics among them just like there are fanatics among religious people. What is common to fanaticism, is that usually it is based on minimum amount of information.

    Religions are human organizations and bigger an organization grows, the more likely it is all about power. It is individuals who decide wether they use that power for altruistic, or for selfish purposes. If scientific research challenges fundamental “truths” given by the authorities of an organization, often the authorities see this as an attack against that authority. The reaction may be to assimilate the new information, or to counter attack that research or researcher. History of religion is full of examples of both models of behaviour. Even in the middle ages.

    In my opinion the church and religious fanatics are not allways the same, but sometimes they are. My comment about Hypatia was based on a radio show I heard ages ago, in which a historian (whose name I have long forgotten) told about a research of Hypatia’s life. I was convinced then, by that researcher, that she was indeed killed by religious fanatics because of her scientific work. Have I misunderstood that event?

    The link graciously provided by Lady of Winchester to the Blog of Tim ONeill did not let me enter. Maybe one of you would be so kind as to help me to read it. I am very interrested in the subject and what Tim ONeill has written about it. Historian or not.

    As for the record, I am not a Historian myself. I have studied archaeology in the Helsinki university years ago, so the scientific methodology and integrity are familiar concepts to me. However, I am just a nother blogger, to whom medieval times are a passion of sorts.

    Also this is a very interresting conversation and I must say I am honoured to have it with you. I hope my comments are not too long.

    1. No you not think that the scientific and educational establishment is also more than capable of acting in the way that religious organisations do, namely by closing ranks and attacking all those who challenge thier ideas?
      Why else would a simply book on the history of science have been subject to such vitrolic hatred and bile from some within the humanist community, but not from historians?

      People who are members of the categories above also dogmatically state ‘everyone knows thatt’ to certain things, like the idea that ‘everyone’ in the Middle Ages knew the earth was flat.

    2. I’m not sure why the link to my blog can’t be accessed, but if you simply Google “Armarium Magnum” + Hypatia you should get my articles come up. In brief, the idea that she was killed for her learning is a myth that has no basis in the evidence. The only source that mentions a motive tells us what it was: “political jealousy”. She got caught up in a political faction fight of the kind for which ancient Alexandria was renowned.

      A generation after her another female pagan philosopher, Aedisia, researched and taught in Alexandria. She had no problems with religious mobs and died in old age, unmolested. Of course, unlike Hypatia, she didn’t get entangled in the vicious city politics of Alexandria. The idea that Hypatia’s death had anything to do with her science and learning (or because she was a woman, or an atheist, or a pagan) is a modern myth – a projection of modern ideas onto the basis. It has no basis in fact.

  10. Lady of Winchester, yes I know very well that wall you refer to. I have banged my head on it, allready during my studies, by simply asking a controversial question. The ranks closed before me because I had the audacity to ask if religious convictions had influenced a particular “everybody knows” view on the general image of certain area of research.

    Tim ONeil, thank you for your insight. I tried out your advice on google, but it only opens up a red page with the title Armarium Magnum on top. There is a possibility to “sign up”. Is that necessary for one to read your articles, or what?

    1. I have read this article, and I did not have to sign up to anything. I will try and put up another link on this later.

      As to your comment above, I think this is common in many academic circles for those who challenge the accepted wisdom, and has happened for centuries. Whether is is related to religion or not is only a secondary issue

      Here is another Hyperlink to the article about Hypatia, I hope it works. You might want to try clicking the link directly on this site, rather than on any notification that you get about a reply to your comment.

  11. Thank you very much. The new link worked and I really enjoyed the article. I believe there are other articles by Tim ONeill, that I shall find fascinating in the future. It is a very good thing indeed, that there is someone dedicated to remove historical fallacies and point out myths and legends to be what they are.

    As for my previous comment, religious convictions just happened to seem like the reason for “the accepted wisdom” I challenged. It could just as well be that I was totally wrong, but it was the reaction to my sincere question which alarmed me.

    I was by no means implying here, that it was a direct result of religion as such. More like why the book in your post got the bad reaction. Simply because even in academic circles, people do not like their core values being challenged.

    1. I am glad you got onto the article at last, and I think you have summed up the issue well that ‘people do not like having thier core beliefs challenged’.

      The problem I find is that some people of the ‘new athiest’ camp cannot admit that they have a problem, they always think the problem is with other people.

  12. Yes I know some people dont like the use of the word ‘religion’, but I do think it is appropriate in some sense as a systematic belief system whose adherents espouse similar beliefs can apply to some within this camp.

    I know of none of have threatened violence, but I know of a large number who believe all those who do not share thier beliefs are incapable of ‘rational thought’ and some even go so far as to argue there are biological reasons why they are more intelligent then people who are not athiests. Such staggering arrogance can I believe be dangerous if taken too far.

    I have never seen Agora, I merely directed you to the article as you mentioned Hypatia. Regardless of what the movie does or does not imply, people clearly have come to believe she was ‘killed for her science’ and have made her into another false ‘martyr’ for science, like Galileo.

  13. I do not fully understand how being polythiestic could make Christianity ‘more militantly aggressive’ than Roman paganism, especially as Roman Paganism and most other pagan religions had gods specifically devoted to war.

    As to being ‘more organised to gain politcal power’ there is certainly some truth in how Constantine used ‘Christianity’ to try and re-unite the empire, but there was already ar organised system of emperor worship which had served Rome for years.

  14. Some years ago I had to do a seminar paper on Ribera’s infamous drawings of Inquisition proceedings, essentially torture imagery. It was an eye-opener, not because anyone who witnesses anything at an Inquisition session is by the very nature of these activities implies that you are either a witness AS a victim, an Inquisitoner, or the one doing the torture. An uncomfortable position for an artist to put their Viewer in.

    But it was what I had to learn to get to that point that made my skin crawl, whatever the Church could do to those being questioned pales to invisible next to secular “justice” and interrogation. For one thing, the Church could not break the skin, cause bleeding nor death. Even if they found you guilty of some form of heresy they could only turn you over to secular authorities who would most certainly execute with delight, heresy was close enough to treason: questioning the authority of the Church was akin to questioning the King!

    I was able to research a rare book in the excellent library at Princeton (USA) on torture techniques, used by secular authority, to compare with what I saw in the Ribera drawings. I did not get 20 pages into the book before I could not stomach what was allowed, and done routinely, by a king’s authority. It really makes the Inquisition look like a game of checkers in contrast.

    Perhaps the best known Inquisition interrogations that we know on a popular level are the ones conducted on Joan of Arc, and you will notice, while they tried very hard to wear her down with endless inane repetitive questions she was NOT subjected to the heinous torture that Anne Askew was, the yougn woman who was racked to the point where her limbs were all pulled apart and she had to be tied to a chair in order to be taken her execution by being burned alive at the stake. Under who’s orders? the pope? No, that was the gentle and loving secular authority of Henry VIII.

    1. The problem with things like herecy trials is that is can be too easy to make generalisations and think all religious authorities were evil fiends who loved to inflict torture on innocents.

      I read a book a while back on the Lollards (a 14th century sect in England) in which the author, one KB Macfarlane argued that burning was very much seen as a last resort, and something which even the church authorities were very reluctant to implement this ‘punishment’.

      The author also demonstrated how few people were actually burned, and how most were just released. I think that some regimes and individuals were more extreme than others in this regard, but one has to look at the circumstances.

      For example I read a book yesterday in which the author tried to ‘prove’ that Henry V was an evil bigot by stating that he had 7 people burned at the stake in one year – what the author neglected to mention however was that most of those people had been involved in an uprising against Henry with the apparent intention of deposing him, and that only the leaders were executed thus.

    2. I think we also have to be careful about judging the past by modern standards (something that I was taught it is bad practice for Historians to do) and try to see things from the perspective of people who were around at the time.

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  16. The politicization of Christianity by Constantine and his fellows was to the great detriment of the genuine Christianity which Jesus and the Apostles and the New Testament taught I think. It became little more than a tool used to gain political power, and to hold onto it, and it may be questioned to what extent those who did such things truly believed in Christian ideology.
    Of course, there were some precedents for Christians (or Jews) in positions of power, but in many respects the expectations placed upon them were greater. I think many of the so called ‘Christian’ rulers of the past times would be counted alongside wicked rulers of biblical times.

    Religion may indeed ‘dehumanize’ people, but I think the principles of genuine Christianity do not support the notion that ‘the right kind of Christians are more moral’, as the Bible really teaches that no human being can possibly be perfect or attain perfection by his or her own effort (or belief system). Someone like St Paul calling himself ‘the chief of all sinners’ might be a good example.
    Ultimately, true Christians believe that is is only through grace and the redeeming power of the Holy Spirit that a person may leave in a manner that is pleasing to God, not to become more ‘moral’ to to avoid doing those things which are not pleasing.

    As far as morality is concerned Christianity and Judaism go, the fundamental notion is that there is an absolute standard by which a person’s behavior and ‘morality’ may be measured, and an absolute right and wrong which exists innately in humans. This may be an unpopular notion, but it is one which exists in most societies, and is an important foundation of law. Of course their are circumstances where things may be difficult, and even the Bible for instance draws a distinction between murder and manslaughter for instance.

    It could be argued that the notion of Archangel Michael as a warrior was one which arose from way in which ‘Christianity’ came to be influenced by paganism after Constantine, which may be seen in the Catholic church in many ways. Christianity and Judaism may have denied other Gods, but I think if anything it was the polytheistic society which reacted negatively to this as a threat (perhaps in a similar way to how the Catholic church viewed the threat of Protestantism.)
    Not sure about Roman ‘conservative’ values, as some of the values of the emperors were awful and some Romans and others even seem to have converted to Judaism because they were so tired of the immorality of paganism.

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