Friday, February 4, 2011

the middle ages - more interesting than you think

For many people, history is boring - just a succession of dates and wars. I think it is probably often taught very badly at school.

But here is a history book which is anything but boring.

James Hannam is a specialist in the history of science during the Middle Ages (about 1000 to 1600 CE), and he has written a lively account of the development of scientific ideas during that period.

Hannam explains that people used to think that the Middle Ages were a time of intellectual stagnation and repression by the church, so that little progress was made in science and technology. But historians tell us that this is at most only partly true. The Middle Ages saw great progress in 'natural philosophy' (the study of the world around us), primarily via independent universities which were established at this time and in the invention of many technologies - such as the mechanical clock, the lens and hence the telescope and spectacles and the compass (which enabled more accurate observation and measurement of the world and universe), the plough and water mill (which helped provide food for a growing European population), paper and printing (which helped the spread of knowledge) and gunpowder and the stirrup (which changed the face of warfare).

And while the medieval church did sometimes constrain natural philosophers, it was more often a supporter, because it believed that natural philosophy would enrich faith. And so many of the early natural philosophers were priests.

But where Hannam's book was most interesting for me was:

  • The stories of some fascinating people - like Peter Abelard (1079-1142), an eloquent teacher and a champion of logic, who was unfortunately forcibly castrated by his father-in-law because he shut his wife up in a nunnery so he would appear to be celibate; Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349), chaplain to the King, Archbishop of Canterbury for a short time (his tomb is in Westminster cathedral) and an innovative mathematician who first linked mathematics with physics and appears to have first discovered logarithms; and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), so difficult to get on with that he had to keep moving around Europe, and who was eventually executed by the Inquisition for his promotion of magic.
  • The book traces the development of key ideas in mathematics, physics, medicine and philosophy. Contrary to some popular opinion, they already knew the earth was round, but discovering (contrary to common sense, and to some ancient Greek thinkers) that earth rotates and orbits the sun was a long process - the impetus for improving the accuracy of astronomy was actually the desire to cast more accurate horoscopes! Casting off the legacy of Aristotle, who was greatly revered but had many ideas that were contrary to observation, was another long process, but necessary for the development of science. And he documents the slow development of medicine, from the ideas of the ancient Greeks which were often so poorly based that they reduced the patient's chances of survival, to treatments that actually helped recovery.

The book dispels a few myths, tells its stories in a refreshingly non-academic manner, and puts it all together in a package that explains how the building blocks of modern science were developed in western Europe. It's a great read, and I recommend it highly, not just for history buffs, but because you'll enjoy it and learn interesting things at the same time.

tell us what you think

Please let me know you've visited by making a comment, positive or negative.

0 comments so far:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.