Great human advances were made throughout the ‘Dark Ages’
The major discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were made in universities strongly supported by the church
A 17th century representation of the world system of Copernicus), father of modern astronomy. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
You all know the story, frequently recounted to the present day. Following the fall of Rome (476AD), Europe entered the Dark Ages (476 to 1453), a Catholic-dominated era when, to quote Voltaire, “barbarism, superstition and ignorance covered the face of the world”.
Later, as church dominance waned, the Dark Ages were succeeded by the Renaissance (1400-1600), the Scientific Revolution (1543-1687) and the Enlightenment (1715-1789), allowing people to slake their thirst for knowledge unhindered by theology. The Scientific Revolution was conducted by scientists freed by the Reformation (1517) from blinkered Catholicism.
But this story is a myth, according to social scientist/historian Rodney Stark in his book Bearing False Witness (Templeton Press, 2016). There were no Dark Ages and no Scientific Revolution. Great advances were made throughout the “Dark Ages” and the revolutionary discoveries of the “Scientific Revolution” were simply normal incremental scientific advances.
And as for religion frustrating scientific progress, the major discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were made in universities strongly supported by the church, building on previous work largely done by churchmen.
Anti-Catholic propaganda by Enlightenment philosophers helped the Dark Ages myth to take hold, but most modern historians have revised the interpretations of these philosophers. Stark’s position, which I summarise in this article, is an emphatic synthesis of these revisions, supplemented by his own research.
Contrary to Enlightenment propaganda, major advances were made in all areas during the so-called Dark Ages – science and education (universities), power generation (water and wind mills), architecture (gothic architecture, eg Chartres Cathedral), agriculture (crop-rotation, heavy plough, horse-collar), warfare (cannons, heavy-armoured cavalry), music (musical notation) and much more.
Pursuit of knowledge
The university was invented in the Dark Ages, many universities developing from church cathedral/monastic schools. Universities were tasked with the pursuit of knowledge and innovation was esteemed, eg human dissection was introduced into human physiology studies. The first university was founded in Bologna in about 1088, then Paris (1150), Oxford (1167), Palencia (1208) and Cambridge (1209). About 60 more were added by 1500, over half endowed with papal charters.
Stark records the scientific work done by clerics in medieval universities, including Roger Bacon (1214 -1205) and William of Ockham (1295-1349). For example, space in the solar system was identified as a frictionless vacuum, allowing heavenly bodies to continue in motion forever. It was discovered that Earth turns on its axis and human perceptions that the earth is stationary in space are unreliable.
Such work established the primacy of empiricism over authority and the importance of controlled scientific experiments, making it possible for modern science to arise and come of age later in the Scientific Revolution.
Nicholas Copernicus (1473 -1543), “Father of the Scientific Revolution”, was a university-educated church canon, well acquainted with these advances. Copernicus proposed that the sun sits at the centre of our solar system. This was a significant advance but can justifiably be categorised as a normal incremental advance in scientific knowledge, not a revolutionary breakthrough.
The Copernican planetary orbits around the Sun are circular. This is wrong, and to make his system work Copernicus decorated his orbits with loops. Copernicus was corrected by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who demonstrated that the orbits are elliptical – another incremental advance.
Neither Copernicus nor Kepler understood why planets don’t fly out of their orbits. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity explained this, another normal, albeit brilliant, incremental advance. Newton (1643-1727) acknowledged this: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants .”
Stark identified all famous scientists of the Scientific Revolution era, beginning in 1543 and including all born before 1680. He found 52 such scientists, 13 of whom were clergy. Twenty-six were Catholics and 26 were Protestants. Thirty-one were devoutly religious and 20 were conventionally religious. Only one was a sceptic.
Nobody knows for sure why modern science uniquely arose in medieval Christian Europe. But many point to the primacy of reason in Christian theology combined with belief that God created a world operating on rational principles and amenable to rational analysis. Since God’s creation is worthy of study, but is not divine itself, it can be manipulated to see how it works. And so, science arose.
I’m not dodging Galileo; I will deal with the great man in another article.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC