Please see the general introduction to Parts 2 - 4 HERE.
CULTURAL INSANITIES DERIVED FROM THE CHURCH’S EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE POSSIBLE THREATS TO DOCTRINE ARISING FROM THE DEVELOPMENT OF (PROTO-)SCIENCE
Part Three deals with a topic that has been much disputed over time by historians: the relationship between the medieval church and science. The pendulum has swung back and forth between seeing this relationship as “science versus religion” (i.e., mainly the Catholic Church) and the Church as a facilitator of science. From my reading, it seems that only a very few of the most recent historians of science and Church have a sound grasp of the balance, and even fewer focus on the key theme that shaped the medieval Church’s relationship to proto-science/science. And, of course, none of the authors address the cultural insanities involved in the dynamics of those relationships.
When Europe began emerging from “darker” times (before the time of Charlemagne), the Catholic Church did help re-establish basic schooling in the reading and writing of Latin, mainly to train the priesthood. Similarly, from the 1200s on, the Church helped to foster the independently evolving universities—especially theology programs. But when it came to the universities, the Church also managed to exercise considerable thought control and, in doing so, constrained the development of some knowledge for centuries. In essence, where proto-science or reason(ing) conflicted with Church doctrine, the Church sought to suppress it. But the premier example of this did not occur until after the Middle Ages, in the 1630s, when Galileo publicly challenged heliocentrism (the belief that the sun rotates around the earth) and, as a result, became “vehemently suspect of heresy” and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
The Church in the 1200s was at the height of its power but still needed to find some way(s) to accept the intrusion of the mind-blowing ancient knowledge and wisdom that university intellectuals were finding in the newly re-emerged, reason-based works of Aristotle. (See text for what was so special, and why.) After initial attempts at suppressing Aristotle’s works and then much debate, the Church opted for considerable integration—while rejecting anything in Aristotle that could not be made compatible with doctrine—all with much assistance from Thomas Aquinas. And throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the Church’s mechanism for control remained the same: anything opposed to doctrine was regarded as heresy (which, unless recanted, was ultimately punishable by death).
Moreover, the Church’s integration of various parts of Aristotle’s thought made it more rather than less difficult to pursue science in many respects, because many prospective realms of science got entwined with Church doctrines. In the late 1200s, the Church clamped down on university masters who were endeavoring to teach Aristotle but who did not immediately correct anything contrary to Church doctrine. Yet, apart from some obvious areas of doctrinal concern, doing so was quite a challenge for teaching masters such as Siger of Brabant because they were not trained in theology. This clampdown eliminated some viable general alternatives for the advance of proto-science—and any improvements in human potential that might have been associated with them. Moreover, as Church doctrine became more integrated with Aristotle’s thought, the effects of this sweeping Church restriction on the teaching masters was the suppression of the rational exploration of ideas in more and more areas that might impinge on Church doctrines—even if suppression was seldom 100% effective. Even asserting regularities in nature was suspect because the Church relied heavily on miracles in its sacraments (e.g., thousands of masses offered every day) and on an interventionist deity. To assert regularity in nature was to pin down or limit the deity; it was to deny his omnipotence and his ability to change anything at any time. Fear in Catholic lands of Church prosecution for heterodox (non-orthodox/potentially heretical) works in natural science lasted well into the 1600s (and there were no Protestant lands until the 1520s).
Even beyond Aristotle’s use of reason, and his emphasis on cause and effect (= knowledge), Aristotle had also demonstrated and recommended systematic, hands-on observation of nature. This approach was exemplified as well in the early to mid-1200s by Albert the Great and Roger Bacon. But a far more prominent feature in Aristotle’s writings was that he had greatly overdone deducing how the world works from far too little factual information. And this was in essence the only approach adopted in medieval Church scholarship (scholasticism) such that, absent an influx of new information, it led to ever-greater semantic distinctions and obscurantist refinements—with everything written up within a doctrinal context (including a very few, sometimes necessarily cleverly-presented, important advances in proto-science). Ignoring Aristotle’s observation-oriented advice (along with the work of the two aforementioned exemplars) was reinforced not only by the Church’s suppression of reason-based investigations but by an upper-class prejudice against hands-on activities (apart from warfare, hunting, etc.). So the teaching masters did not even encourage their students to conduct observation-based knowledge development.
To give credit where much of it is actually due, the advance of proto-science and early science in the Middle Ages and beyond was mainly attributable to advances in technology that were separate from the Church and the universities. These advances were abetted in the 1400s and later by some humanist scholars such as Leon Battista Alberti, who learned technologies from artisans and craftspeople, while teaching intellectual skills to those same artisans, and then spread their broadened knowledge to the learned classes. See the text for some of the startling advances of this kind.
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The author standing by a statue of Charlemagne (from about 1600), Aachen City Hall, Germany.
Photo by the author's wife, Nancy J. Holland.