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Dear students, in fact, dear everyone,

Science existed in the middle ages. Even though possibly well-meaning but definitely misguided early modern (and modern) scholars (and particularly wikipedia et al.) may assert otherwise, it was not, in fact, the invention of printing that produced the human fascination with thinking about the world and attempting to explain it. Nor did printing somehow mean that illustration and diagram could become a feature of these explanations. People had been representing their ideas about the cosmos and the natural world in diagrammatic form for centuries, even if not all of these resemble ways that would be considered scientific drawing now.


Bodleian MS Fairfax 27, f. 38v. Diagram (c. early 14th century) showing phases of the moon in relation to the position of earth and sun. Photo: K. Neal, 2013.

Also, ‘science’, this sense of world-knowledge, is not inherently secular. It is associated with secularism in the Western world now, but there are historical reasons for that which are separate from the essence of scientific thought. To observe the phases of the moon, for example, was not an anti-religious act in itself, although some interpretations of those observations may have been seen as heretical by the (especially Catholic) church at certain times. There are also historical reasons for that.

‘Great scientists’ such as Galileo and those medieval thinkers who preceded him did not set out to ‘disprove religion’. (Yes, there were ‘great thinkers’ before Galileo. He was not the first person to think about the heavens, or any other field of knowledge.) They were often motivated by strong religious conviction to observe and examine God’s creation. The dissonance between the explanations at which they arrived and the existing church dogma was a source of uncertainty and consternation for them. They might sometimes have developed a distrust of the church and a fear of its retribution through observing the sanctions that began to be applied to those who published ‘heretical’ ideas, but it is not probable that they set out with a mission of destroying Christian faith so that the ‘Renaissance man’ could be enlightened in the ways of reason.

‘The Church’ did not inherently and inevitably oppose ‘science’. In the first place, there is no such thing as ‘The Church’, which is merely a linguistic short hand for discussing the sum outcome of the efforts, ideas and actions of thousands of (mostly) men who were part of the institutional structures of (in this case) Roman Catholic faith, or particular subgroups or individuals within it. In the second place, the ideas, actions and efforts of men within the church varied between individuals, times, and places. In other words they were subject to history, just like any other factor of human life. Some of them were suspicious of most new ideas; some were critical of particular new ideas, for example, because they contradicted their own proposals; some were critical of accepting too quickly new ideas that were not adequately proven on scientific grounds. If you read the literature on Galileo, for example, you will find that some of his ideas were criticised not for being ‘against the church’, but because he was asserting as fact ideas that were still merely theoretical (some of which were later disproven).

Reason  existed in the middle ages. It probably comes as a surprise to know that reason is not inherently secular, and once again, there are historical reasons why we may think so. It pays us to be aware of this.

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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