With the rise of the New Atheists, the idea that religion “teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding our world” has been branded into our culture, forcing the formation of caricatures that portray religion as a hindrance to human knowledge and scientific exploration. The Middle Ages is often cited as being the epitome of scientific impediment and benightedness, with the church accused of being the primary obstruction to scientific advancement during that age. However, James Hannam, in his book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, dismantles the distorted views of the Middle Ages, and he proves that Christians were responsible for the advancement of modern science.
James Hannam—a physicist and historian of science—guides readers through a general, historical chronology of the Middle Ages, focusing on key medieval thinkers and highlighting how their work is responsible for many philosophical and technological advances.
The first chapter briefly discusses inventions from the early Middle Ages, the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam, and how the new Roman Empire emerged due to the efforts of Charlemagne.
Next, Hannam devotes the majority of chapter two in describing the life and influence of Gerbert Aurillac. Hannam then leads the discussion towards addressing two myths: the myth that medieval Christians believed the earth was flat and the idea that the earth was in an exalted position in the universe. It is here where Hannam demonstrates the importance of analyzing beliefs and events in its proper historical and cultural context.
The discussion of Gerbert’s advances in astronomy and his interest in ancient philosophy carries over to the next chapter, where Hannam examines the rise of reason and the influence of Anslem of Cantbury. Hannam describes how reason and logic began to play a monumental role in understanding orthodox beliefs such as the Eucharist, the Trinity, and combating heresies that arose during that period.
With the rise of reason and its struggle with faith, chapter four continues by explaining how an enormous amount of ancient philosophical, medical, and scientific writings were discovered and translated. Thus the birth of the first universities and the twelfth-century renaissance came about.
In chapter five, Hannam delves deeper into the discussion of heresy and reason. The church was growing increasingly worried with the amount of heresies and unorthodox beliefs associated with Greek philosophy. As a result, a legal process called the Inquisition was formed. Hannam provides a very straightforward and insightful look at many of the myths and false caricatures associated with this controversial legal process.
Next, chapter six focuses predominantly on St. Thomas Aquinas and how his interactions with other controversial thinkers of his day shaped the platform for the church and natural philosophers to pursue the sciences without restraint.
Chapter seven is a brief chapter on magic and medicine during the Middle Ages. Here Hannam describes the common practices and techniques used to treat various illnesses and the reasons Doctors used to justify their treatments.
In chapters eight, Hannam scans the issues of astrology and alchemy, and how these arts were utilized to study the natural effects of the heavens and the earth. This discussion crosses over to chapter nine as the focus shifts to specific inventions and some of the physics involved to create them. Hannam devotes the latter portion of the chapter to discussing the life of Roger Bacon and how Bacon felt it was imperative that the Church used the “full armory of the sciences to further the spread of Christianity” (p. 137).
Hannam transitions smoothly into chapter ten where he highlights another brilliant scholar named Richard Wallingford. In this chapter, Hannam takes a brief moment to paint the intellectual climate of Europe and how Richard invented the astronomical clock and a new instrument to study astronomy called an Albion.
In chapters eleven and twelve Hannam demonstrates just how profound Aquinas’s Christianized Greek philosophy impacted the church. Hannam’s expertise in physics illuminates as he elaborates on many of the scientific and philosophical breakthroughs made in the universities of Oxford and Paris. Aristotle’s physics, the mean speed theorem, and Ockham’s razor are some of the issues that Hannam breaks down to allow readers to follow the work involved in the mathematical and scientific breakthroughs made during the 14th century.
Chapter thirteen scans some pivotal inventions that had an effect on European society, such as the invention of the printed book, and how ancient geography underwent a giant revision. Moreover, the invention of the printed book helped preserve many philosophical and scientific developments from being destroyed by the Humanists. Chapter fourteen highlights how the humanists—known as being “someone who was interested in classical Greek and Latin literature”—destroyed a lot of their predecessors work because they felt “nothing good could have come out of the early Middle Ages” (p. 211). While discussing the few positive contributions by the humanists, Hannam also introduces the Reformation as another major movement during that time.
Chapter fifteen onward surveys the discoveries of the Middle Ages and how they directly impacted modern science. In chapter fifteen, Hannam connects all the major themes in the former half of the book and thus begins the transition of medieval science into modern science.
The explosion of knowledge in the area of medicine and anatomy is explored in chapter sixteen. Here Hannam discusses how surgeons, who had the freedom to innovate, led to the beginning of human dissection and other medical practices. Inevitably this discussion leads Hannam into debunking yet another myth attributed to the medieval Church. Namely, that the medieval Church was opposed to human dissection. Hannam explains how the assumption that our bodies have been designed by God with a certain telos, or purpose, influenced surgeons and doctors to discover what the “system” of our bodies was created to do.
The life and influence of Nicholaus Copernicus is the center of chapter seventeen. Hannam is careful to emphasize the fact that Copernicus was not a “lone genius” but his work was “part of the long-running European school of natural philosophy” that can be traced back to the ancients (p. 279).
Though many rejected Copernicus’ hypothesis that the earth orbited the sun, his idea was taken seriously by Johannes Kepler. If I may pun, chapter eighteen oversees the debate revolving around Copernicus’ ideas and many other discoveries in astronomy, with half the chapter devoted to explaining how Kepler proved Copernicus was correct.
The final three chapters focus on the life of one of the most influential men known to modern science, Galileo Galilei. In the opening of chapter nineteen, Hannam debunks the myth that the inquisition threw Galileo into prison because he proved Copernicus correct. Like Copernicus, Hannam emphasizes the fact that Galileo was dependent upon the work of his predecessors during the Middle Ages. Moreover, Hannam uses this chapter to establish Galileo’s personal background and note some of the contemporary thinkers involved in influencing his work. Chapter twenty focuses primarily on Galileo’s contributions and discoveries in astronomy. The final chapter deals with the trial of Galileo. With the church still arguing over the controversy created by Copernicus’ heliocentrism and Galileo’s work, Galileo was left to defend his conclusions through writing books and demonstrating the science behind his work.
Overall, Hannam does an excellent job of guiding readers through a survey of the Middle Ages and rebutting the claim that religion is a hindrance to science. He captures history in a story like and readable manner, turning a dense and pedantic subject into an enjoyable and informative read, without sacrificing the depth involved in explaining history. This valuable book provides Christians, whether an academic or laymen, with an enriching look into the medieval history and relationship of science, the church, theology, and philosophy.
During a time in our culture when religion is being pushed aside and secularists are uprooting society from its religious roots in every aspect, Hannam delivers this work which seeks to place religion, more specifically Christianity, in its rightful place as the foundation and queen of the sciences.
David Rodriguez, Jr.