Pope Benedict’s trip to Ole Blighty is over, and that sanctimonious gasbag Dawkins didn’t manage to arrest him in the name of secular humanism. While I’m not a believer myself, I often wonder at such professional atheists who cover themselves in the mantle of “science.” Don’t they know any history?
What we refer to today as “science” is something which was invented by humans, rather than springing forth from Jove’s forehead in some ancient time before time. There is a definite date before which there was no science and a date after which there was science. This isn’t controversial or mysterious: We know exactly when it happened, and some of the original manuscripts which invented science and modern thought still exist.
Science was invented in the “High Middle Ages.” This was an era of great prosperity in Europe (and everywhere else, really). It was warmer than it is now: Grapes grew in Northern England. Since Europe was an agricultural economy, this meant much more prosperity than in years previous. During this era, Europe was wealthy enough to fund the Crusades, something we arguably can’t afford today.
The Black Death ended this era. Had this disease not spread to Europe in the 1340s, we might have had a different world. Europe didn’t reach the High Middle Ages’ economic development or population densities again until the Industrial Revolution. Considering that Europe’s economy at the time was agricultural, Europe never really rose to those heights again.
This was a time of knights. It was a time the Vikings’ descendants reached their true potential as civilized people. The pagan Vikings were fierce warriors, but the civilized Christian Normans were unstoppable. This tiny tribe of supermen conquered southern Italy. They conquered Byzantium (with help from the treacherous Venetians). They were the last people to conquer England. They conquered the Holy Land. The other Christian Vikings, the Kievan Rus, founded a prosperous trading state on the Volga, which remains one of the highest forms of Russian civilization (also destroyed by the treacherous Venetians’ connivance). Great conquerors such as El Cid and Gualdim Pais forced the Saracens from Spain and Portugal during this time. The great European universities were founded during this era: Bologna, Coimbra, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, Cambridge, Montpelier, Padua. The very idea of a university was invented at this time, and it came straight from Roman Catholic monasticism. Venice, Genoa, Kiev, and the Hanseatic League made vast fortunes in international commerce. Musical notation was invented. Windmills, eyeglasses, printing, and improved clocks were all invented around this time, with inventions such as paper, the spinning wheel, and the magnetic compass being introduced from abroad by the great commercial city-states.
We have visual evidence of this era’s glory and prosperity in the form of the Gothic cathedrals. Sleepy little towns such as Chartres were so wealthy and had so much free time, they were able to construct these magnificent structures. Think about Chartres Cathedral for a moment. Chartres could not afford to build such a thing today with all of our technology and wealth because it doesn’t have any spirit as it did in those days. In fact, no place in modern Europe has either the artistic spirit to build such a magnificent object or the spiritual will to make something so grand. This is an object which required 75 years to complete. When was the last time a modern culture had the spirit to create something which takes 75 years to construct? Yet, it was built by semi-literate laborers in an agricultural economy, as were dozens of other such things all over Europe at around the same time. One can look at the Gothic cathedrals as the physical crystallization of the heroic spirit which produced science in the same sense that one can look at the Parthenon of Pericles as the physical crystallization of Plato and the Greek philosophers’ spirit.
History’s first scientist was Robert Grosseteste, although his work is little known in popular education today. He was born in 1170 or so to a humble Suffolk family. He found his calling in the Catholic Church, as important a source of social mobility then as the university system is now. It was Grosseteste who formulated the first description of the scientific process. He was the first European in centuries to study Aristotle’s works and the first to study Arab natural philosopher Abu Ibn al-Haytham’s writings. From these thinkers he developed the idea of “composition and resolution,” which is the scientific method in itself. He advocated using mathematics to learn about reality. He also developed the idea of peer review. He built upon the notion that one could learn natural law’s general principles by studying specific examples. He developed the all-important idea of falsification, to separate true from false ideas.
Grosseteste was a deeply moral and pious man. He made sure the common people had proper moral instruction in English and that everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. He fired all of the clergymen under his authority who led immoral lives and was a passionate advocate for religious instruction in his native tongue of Middle English. We have this idea from the 1800s of a scientist as a sort of deranged Promethean character bent on upsetting the natural order, but Grosseteste was practically saintlike, and he was the first scientist. I think this is why we don’t hear more about these guys. They were not what we expect of scientists from popular culture. They were clerics. They were extremely good and moral clerics; examples to the others in a time where there was no shortage of very bad and immoral clerics. They were not the mad scientists of yore, nor did they cut the antinomian figure of modern charlatans such as Dawkins; they were extremely pious figures. Their study of science was a form of prayer or religious devotion, not a way of rebelling against their societies’ constraints. Science was invented to give glory to God by examining his natural laws, not to overthrow him from his throne.
Roger Bacon could probably be considered the great systematizer of Grosseteste’s work. He put science in the form and words we know now. He used the terms we know today: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and independent verification. He also detailed many of the ways in which people can fall into error: resort to authority (a particular peeve of mine), custom, cultural opinion, and pretentious blather. Bacon’s the one medieval scholar you’ve likely heard of, and his contributions to human knowledge were many.
Another important early scientist of the era is Albertus Magnus. The Catholics canonized him as St. Albert the Great. He is considered one of only 33 Doctors of the Church; no Promethean he. One of his most important contributions was the idea that experiments were imperfect, so you could be surer of your conclusions if you did multiple tests on different systems to prove a given natural law. He also discovered arsenic, almost invented photography, and wrote books on mineralogy, botany, physiology, metallurgy, zoology, and a host of other topics. Albertus’s intellectual achievements are so numerous, he makes the entire concept of “Renaissance man” ridiculous. We have no thinking men alive today who can compare to Albertus Magnus, and only a few thinkers in human history can be considered as wide-ranging and important to modern thought. Yet most of you have never heard of him.
Other figures from the era: Petrus Peregrinus, a crusader and monk-knight, wrote detailed accounts of his experimentation with magnets. Witelo of Silesia developed perspective optics, which eventually led to the beauties of Western painting. Johannes de Scartobosco made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy that we take for granted today. William of Ockham—yes, the guy who invented Ockham’s razor—made important contributions to logic and physics.
All of these guys were deeply pious. They didn’t come from the rebellious clerics, of whom there were no shortage in that time. They were religious, but not ignorant mystics; they were their era’s most learned men. They were not provincial rubes as we like to portray the religious today: They were greatly inspired by men from other cultures. They were religious men, not rebels against the Church, as is the modern conception of science opposed to religion. They also came from a time of spirit and prosperity of a magnitude the world hasn’t seen since. In my opinion, this was one of the high points of human history, like the time of Pericles.
Modern atheists with no sense of history like to think of the Church and religious people as the forces of darkness, but in reality, the Catholic Church was the birth of the light of reason. Those religious people are the ultimate heroes of reason; without them, no science would have come into being. The High Middle Ages is also an unsung era because modern people don’t like to think of a historical decline having happened so recently. We safely dismiss the Gothic cathedrals’ knightly era as a time of primitive post-Roman rapacious barbarians rather than an era of high culture and achievement. Thinking about this era is painful, as it was the peak before a big decline, the likes of which are only happening now. Europe’s current depopulation is the first one since the end of the High Medieval times. We like to think of history as a story of steady progress from barbarism, and we like to imagine the enemies of progress as all wearing clerical robes, but history is much more complicated. We move forward and we are hurled back by titanic forces, whether disease back then or anomie and apathy today.
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