Book Proposal: The Genesis of Science
I am writing a history of medieval science for the general reader called The Genesis of Science. The book rehabilitates the scholars of the Middle Ages and shows how the Church had a profound and often positive effect on the development of science. Along the way, it covers such misunderstood events as the witch trials and inquisition. While I make no effort to defend the crimes of the Catholic Church, they are put into their proper historical context and shown not to have had the disastrous effect on science that is often assumed. I also examine the unappreciated role of magic, alchemy and astrology in the rise of modern science.
My literary agent in London, Andrew Lownie, is presently pitching the book to likely publishers. If you are an editor and would like to see a sample chapter, then please contact Andrew or myself. And if you are a prospective reader and like the sound of the book, then let me know! Finally, if you know any editors, then feel free to point them to this page if you want to see the book come out!
• The Genesis of Science tells the unknown story of science in the Middle Ages and shows how it relates to the modern world.
• It is based on well-regarded academic work by the world’s leading historians of medieval science such as David Lindberg, Edward Grant, William A Wallace, Alan Debus, Lynn Thorndike and Lynn White.
• This is the first history of medieval science intended for the lay reader and makes available the exciting developments in modern scholarship.
• It is written by a historian with degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities. The author is currently completing a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.
• The book begins in 1000AD and takes the reader through to the trial of Galileo and the beginning of modern science. Familiar names like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon join the undeservedly forgotten heroes of medieval science like John Buridan and Nicole Oresme.
• It debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages but also explains where the myths came from. For instance, we now know that the belief that medieval people thought the earth was flat dates from the nineteenth century. The causes of the inquisition and witch trials are explained. Misconceptions are corrected without any attempt to justify or rationalise these atrocities. We will also hear the strange story of how the Spanish Inquisition tried to put a stop to witch trials.
• Academics now utterly reject the idea that science and religion are locked in a great conflict through history. The Genesis of Science shows how the Church supported but also set boundaries for science in the Middle Ages.
• The book is intended for intelligent laypeople. It assumes no specialist knowledge but neither does it dumb down. Difficult concepts like Aristotle’s logic and Ockham’s Razor are explained with everyday examples.
• Recently, several books have been released in the United States that have opened up the debate about the history of Christianity. The Genesis of Science contributes to this debate but does not nail its colours to any political or confessional position.
• Today, science and religion are the two most important intellectual forces in the world. Furthermore, they are widely believed to have been in conflict throughout their respective histories. Despite contemporary debates about evolution, this is untrue. The Genesis of Science will help foster understanding between science and religion by demonstrating that their past association has not always been antagonistic and sometimes it has even been harmonious.
The Genesis of Science: Chapter summaries
The Genesis of Science begins with a summary of the popular view of science in the Middle Ages. I explain that modern scholars have overthrown this picture and that I will tell a new story. I briefly lay out my argument so that readers will know what to expect. I also explain why medieval science is not the same thing as modern science, even if one led to the other.
Chapter One: A New Millennium
The first chapter lays the foundations for the book by giving readers a potted history of the early Middle Ages to 1000AD. I cover the barbarian invasions that toppled the Western Roman Empire and point out that the Eastern Byzantine Empire remained in control of a large area, even after the expansion of Islam in the seventh century. The loss of scientific culture in the West is explained as due to the disappearance of knowledge of Greek after the barbarian invasions. I also look at the activities of those monks who tried to preserve classical learning. The reign of Charlemagne marks a resurgence of western culture, the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire and the preservation of the remaining classical heritage. Using the scholar who became Pope in 999AD, Gerbert of Aurillac, as an example, I look at how people in the early Middle Ages understood the world. The importance of purpose in nature is explained and contrasted to modern ideas about a blind watchmaker. Some of the most common misunderstandings about the medieval period are debunked. For instances, readers will learn about the flat earth myth and come across some of the advances in technology in the period up to 1000AD. That is why modern historians rarely use the term ‘Dark Ages’. The chapter ends with an examination of how Christians treated pagan learning and how the pagan philosopher Plato influenced medieval theology through the writings of the early Church Fathers like Augustine of Hippo.
Chapter Two: The Twelfth-Century Renaissance
In the twelfth century, Western Europe rediscovered ancient Greek philosophy, most especially the works of Aristotle. This led to the foundation of the first universities and a new emphasis on the role of reason pioneered by Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm’s ‘ontological argument’ is an example of the use of logic in theology. However, the threat posed by rational heretics like Berenger of Tours led to concerns about the place of reason. These concerns were partly allayed when theologians were able to use reason to refute the heretics. We follow the debate about logic through the life of Peter Abelard. His tempestuous love affair with Heloise sets the scene for his far greater battle with Bernard of Clairvaux over faith and reason. While Peter lost the contest with Bernard, his ideas ultimately triumphed. We also meet two other twelfth century philosophers, William of Conches and Adelard of Bath to discover the state of science at the time. Other aspects of the twelfth-century renaissance include the foundation of the universities that would become the home of science later in the Middle Ages.
Chapter Three: The Battle for Science
The pagan works of Aristotle frightened some theologians who tried to censor them. Over the thirteenth century, the University of Paris was the centre of a battle over the roles of science and theology that resulted in science obtaining both autonomy and protection – as long as it avoided religious questions. The chapter begins with the burning at the stake of one Amalric and his followers for heresy based on the work of Aristotle. The medieval Inquisition and the ban on Aristotle is examined. Then Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas showed how science and theology could co-exist with the result that Aristotle’s philosophy came to form the foundation of the university syllabus. Finally, the bishop of Paris condemned many radical opinions in 1277 and accidentally freed science to speculate on Aristotle’s limitations. The result was that by 1300, science had an autonomous place in the universities and thinkers could speculate as they wished as long as they avoided strictly theological matters. However, as most men of science were also theologians, this restriction did not apply to many people.
Chapter Four: Magic and Medicine in the Middle Ages
Magic sometimes works. This chapter explains what medieval people believed and sets out the logic behind the magical worldview. Pseudo-sciences like astrology and alchemy are also examined to establish where they stood in relation to medieval science. The theory behind medieval medicine is set out, which goes some way to explaining the popularity of magic! Along the way, we meet the notorious case of the Duchess of Gloucester’s attempt to bewitch the King of England (later featuring in Shakespeare’s Henry VI). The terrible fate of Cecco D’Ascoli in 1327 illustrates the limits of the Church’s tolerance of magic. Cecco cast a horoscope for Jesus Christ and paid for it with his life.
Chapter Five: Science at Medieval Oxford
We follow an imaginary medieval student through his career at the University of Oxford to see what he would have learnt to gain his degree. Oxford produced a succession of important thinkers through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some, like Roger Bacon, are still familiar today but others have been undeservedly forgotten. The most important to our story are a group called the Oxford Calculators who worked at Merton College in the fourteenth century. Their pioneering work on mathematics paved the way for modern science. This chapter introduces several other important Oxford figures from Robert Grosseteste to William of Ockham. Ockham’s famous razor is not what most people imagine it to be, certainly when it is in Ockham’s own hands. Through the Middle Ages, technology continued to advance. This was an important factor in the advance of science. For example improvements to glassmaking in Venice led to the invention of spectacles and the ability to manipulate light with lenses.
Chapter Six: The Scientific Pioneers of Paris
The action returns to Paris in the mid-fourteenth-century. There, the two greatest medieval men of science, John Buridan and Nicole Oresme built on the work of the Oxford Calculators to refute the physics of Aristotle. They solved the problem of why we cannot feel the motion of the earth and proved the mathematics that describes how objects fall under gravity. However, Buridan and other scholars had to steer clear of areas that might be contentious religiously. We see some examples of that and ask what difference these restrictions actually made. Despite being the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Aristotle was wrong about almost everything. Buridan and Oresme began to challenge him in new ways, partly because Aristotle contradicted Christianity and partly because he contradicted nature. With the rediscovery of the best ancient Greek geographical book in 1400, another Parisian scholar asked if it might be possible to sail around the world. His work influenced Columbus but was based on a very important mistake. This led Columbus to think that the Far East was where we now know the Caribbean to be. The greatest voyage of discovery was due to a very lucky accident.
Chapter Seven: Renaissance and Reformation
The Renaissance brought to light the original version of Plato’s philosophy and launched a challenge to the supremacy of Aristotle. However, the humanists had an obsession with the classical world that led them to reject their medieval heritage. Instead, they tried unsuccessfully to harmonise Plato and Aristotle. At the same time, the invention of printing helped spread learning and literacy in a way unprecedented in history. On the other hand, gunpowder spread European civilisation in a less peaceful way. The Reformation split the European Church into several diverse sects. Despite this, intellectual links remained between denominations. Protestants brought new ways of thinking to bear on science. In particular, their literal reading of the Bible led them to reject much of the symbolism inherent in the medieval picture of nature.
Chapter Eight: The Occult Renaissance
Among the Greek books that humanists studied were the ancient occult classics of the Hermes Trismegistus. These helped drag magic into the mainstream and the Renaissance saw an upsurge of interest in astrology and alchemy. This in turn drove new developments in mathematics and astronomy. However, as magic became more popular, concerns about it increased, resulting in the tragedy of the witch trials and the burning of Giordano Bruno. I briefly recount the causes of the witch trials and the strange story of how the Spanish Inquisition tried to stop them. Medicine in the sixteenth century developed along two paths. Paracelsus rejected Greek medical theory in favour of a mixture of occult and chemical lore. Vesalius and Harvey trained within the ancient tradition and reformed it from inside.
Chapter Nine: Reformation in the Heavens
In 1543, when Copernicus first suggested that the earth orbited the sun, no one was too bothered. All the evidence pointed to him being wrong so he was no threat. This chapter shows how the ideas of Nicole Oresme helped Copernicus sell his theory. But he also made important mistakes that were not solved until the work of Kepler in the early seventeenth century. For Kepler, science was about studying the work of God and this drove him to find the truth about the solar system. At the same time, William Gilbert was working on his important book on the magnet. He also thought that the earth circled the sun and even suggested a mechanism to explain how it did so.
Chapter Ten: The Trial of Galileo
My story ends where many histories of science begin, with the work of Galileo. Galileo solved experimental problems that had defeated his predecessors, he correctly described how objects fall under gravity and he lobbied for the work of Copernicus. However, many of his ideas had medieval antecedents which he chose not to acknowledge. His mechanics and his scientific method both show clearly the influence of those who came before him. At the end of his life, the Inquisition put Galileo on trial. I conclude with an in-depth examination of why the Catholic Church made this colossal mistake. After being the guardian of scientific truth for so long, the Catholic Church thought that it had a right to decide on matters of nature. Although it was advised by the foremost philosophers of the day, the Church got it wrong and quickly realised that it could only look foolish if it made such mistakes. Today, the Catholic Church accepts evolution because it has learned the lesson of Galileo.
Epilogue: A missing person, a missing word and a missing concept
Leonardo da Vinci is deservedly famous. However, he had no impact on the history of science. I explain why he is missing from my story. The word ‘scientist’ was invented in 1832. It describes a professional researcher who did not exist in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. Thus, ‘scientist’ never appears in my book before now. Finally, as we owe so much to the Middle Ages, I ask if it is really fair to talk about a ‘scientific revolution’.
Recent Related Books
Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages (Harcourt, 2003).
This book covers the twelfth and thirteenth-century debates about science, logic and theology. It introduces the thought of Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas and other leading medieval thinkers. This material is covered in chapters two and three of The Genesis of Science. Rubenstein does much to rehabilitate medieval philosophy but does not really explain how it relates to the modern world. It should serve to foster interest in the subject.
John Gribbin, Science: A History: 1543 – 2001 (Allen Lane, 2003).
Gribbin’s book is really a collection of potted biographies of the ‘great’ scientists of the last five hundred years. It is blessed by his characteristic easy style. His biggest virtue is that he makes no effort to defend the conflict model of relations between science and religion. He admits that most great scientists were religious men and does not accept that there have been any ‘martyrs of science’. The Genesis of Science will appeal to anyone wanting to know the story of science before 1543.
Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005).
Stark’s book does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a sequel to For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003). Stark is a sociologist of some distinction whose work on religious origins is highly regarded. Unfortunately, his last two books on Christian history have been partisan and polemical. This has meant he has only convinced those who want to be convinced. However, given the size of the Christian market in the US, that has not precluded his commercial success, as the move from academic to trade publisher demonstrates. Stark has opened up the debate and The Genesis of Science provides the historical data, both for and against Christianity, that he breezily skips over.
Edward Grant, Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Greenwood Press, 2005).
This is a textbook for undergraduate students. As such, it is packed with information and is as dry as dust. It is extremely unlikely to break out into the trade market. That said, Grant’s scholarly work is one of my major inspirations and this textbook provides backing for many of my most contentious points. It is helpful for The Genesis of Science to have a book from the world’s most highly regarded historian of science that provides the necessary scholarly ballast.
Thomas E Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery, 2005)
If anything, Woods is even more partisan than Rodney Stark. That has not stopped this book selling well as a preacher to the Catholic Choir. Unlike Woods, The Genesis of Science does not shy away from the inquisition and other atrocities although I do try to place them in context.
Some Suggested Marketing for The Genesis of Science
By the time The Genesis of Science should come to be published, I will have completed my PhD. Thus, it can be marketed as a book written by a professional historian. I believe that for a subject that will appear highly contentious compared to the conventional wisdom, my professional qualification as an academic is an important factor. I am a competent public speaker and will be addressing various student societies here in the UK where I can promote the book. I have a popular website that receives about 30,000 visitors a month. I have written the website (www.bede.org.uk) from the point of view of a liberal Christian who accepts evolution, modern historical scholarship and secularisation. I intend to use the website as a promotional tool for the book. Its penetration into Christian cyberspace is considerable and will do much to sell the book to that market. The website has many American readers who are very positive about the concept of the book. They should help promote it and will write reviews for Amazon.com and their websites. However, I will also construct another website that addresses a mainstream audience specifically to promote The Genesis of Science. As well as the usual links to reviews and endorsements, it will contain several of my articles on history of science, details of my academic achievements and a more detailed bibliography than provided in the book. I will use my contacts on the web to ensure a high Google rating for the new website (this is determined by how many other sites link to a page and so having plenty of friends with websites is invaluable).
© James Hannam 2006.