Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that "faith seeks understanding."

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that “faith seeks understanding.”

This is the second part in a series on Faith and Science and medieval Christendom. (The first part is here, though most blogs in this particular series, including the current one, are standalone.)

Because faith and reason are not fundamentally at odds, Christian orthodoxy has a tradition of affirming that faith seeks understanding. While faith is not just knowledge, but is also an act of trust based upon that knowledge, a gift given freely in the Person of Jesus Christ, faith seeks after greater understanding of the One who gives it. This is not just an abstract theological statement—at least not as it relates to the existence of modern science (or a lot of other, more important things!) —because it is the very essence of the medieval University, and, I will argue, of science as well.

The medieval University viewed theology as “the Queen of the Sciences” because theology is aimed at understanding the Faith most directly, and because it ties together all the other academic disciplines into a coherent whole—a structure where everything relates to everything else (making interdisciplinary study not only possible, but theologically necessary) and ultimately, to the Source of knowledge Himself. A very good case exists that Christian theology provided the atmosphere that led to the creation of modern science—a lot of previous assumptions had to be built up that we take for granted as obvious today. As I continue to blog my way through historian of science James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, discussing some of these intellectual building blocks seems the best route to go. There are four such categories into which Hannam fits these medieval stepping stones: institutional, technological, metaphysical, and theoretical. Each of these categories of scientific precursors could easily take a blog post (…or a book; many have been written!), so I’ll try to cover the latter categories of metaphysics and theories in this blog post, sharing the stories of the forgotten dreamers who contributed to the foundations of modern science.

The first of Hannam’s categories is the metaphysical foundation for science that allowed science to develop when there was no practical benefit to pondering the natural sciences in themselves, and no guarantee that they would work. This seems silly to us as moderns, looking back at hundreds of years of scientific success after scientific success, but medieval people had to have a very good reason to waste significant resources on the precursor to science, known as natural philosophy. There was no obvious “right side of history” about science for our ancestors, as the intuitions we have about science simply did not exist. So what made scientific thinking worthwhile? Since nature was created by God, and reveals something of Him, Hannam notes it must be deserving of study, and that natural philosophy has something to teach those who would listen. (348) Furthermore, since God has revealed Himself to be reasonable, orderly and consistent in His character, nature as His creation is also reasonable, consistent, and law-like. However, nature isn’t like Aristotle’s universe that is bound by necessity, where arm-chair theorizing can get you the answer. In medieval thought (and orthodox Christianity generally), God is not constrained by nature, but only by Himself, ultimately, and His promises. God is free to create natural laws however he wants— and knowing Him— they’re consistent and worth the experimenting and observing. To find out what nature is like, then, it makes sense to go look! That belief in consistent laws of nature that could be one out of many different possibilities but are discoverable through observation and experimentation is the core of the modern Scientific Method we all learned in high school. (349)

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D. Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D.
Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

The second of Hannam’s categories is the collection of theories that made a foundation for science. These are ideas that medieval or very early Renaissance thinkers developed out of the influence of the medieval worldview. Remember how interdisciplinary thinking has a solid justification in medieval theology? Many of these collected theories were arrived at in such a manner. For pre-medieval thinkers, areas of learning such as mathematics and natural philosophy were considered as distinct as most pre-postmodern thinkers would consider language and universal truth to be distinct fields of study. (The analogy isn’t perfect, but it gets the sentiment across.) (350) A perfect example of this fusion of mathematics and natural philosophy is the story of some fellows known as the Merton Calculators. Merton, a college of Oxford University, was a premier British medieval institution of learning and is the setting of very important advances in medieval thought leading to modern science.

At the time the Merton Calculators came on the scene, Aristotle was a big deal. To get an idea of how big a deal, check out the first post in this series, but for now, suffice it to say that even though people had known his natural philosophy had problems for over 500 years, it still hadn’t really been thoroughly discredited by the time the first Calculator arrived on the scene around 1330 A.D. or so. The basic problem was that Aristotle had a commonsense but highly incorrect view of motion. He said something along the lines that an object cannot continue to move without being pushed in some way. That sounds reasonable. If I throw a ball, it will eventually stop moving, right? However, it’s totally wrong, because if I threw that ball without air resisting it, it would really keep going forever. Several scholars objected to this idea of Aristotle’s, the most famous being William of Ockham, but much of Aristotle’s understanding of motion was still in effect and employed even in the calculations of the Calculators themselves.

Now onto the seemingly trivial but in effect enormous intellectual insight of the Calculators: Aristotle believed that mathematics was a thing and nature—well that was another thing. There is a lot of commonsense in being cautious about using conclusions from one discipline to justify conclusions in another discipline, so Aristotle certainly wasn’t stupid, but according to the Merton philosophers, he was wrong. The first of the Calculators at Merton was Thomas Bradwardine who worked there in the 1320s. He had this to say about Aristotle’s view of math and nature:

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (Bradwardine, qtd. in Hannam, 171)

Aristotle, the Philosopher.  384 - 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

Aristotle, the Philosopher. 384 – 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

While that might be going a little far, Bradwardine succeeded in expressing Aristotle’s (wrong) laws of motion in mathematical form, a huge step forward for the future development of physics, leading to Galileo and ultimately Newton. While Bradwardine’s general formula of motion did not work in the real world because it allowed Aristotle’s mistakes a foot in the door, another Calculator developed a formula that was much smaller in scope, but was one of the most important to the history of physics, as this Middle-Age theory was actually correct: the mean-speed theorem. Along with the other Merton Calculators, William Heytesbury (who lived from 1313-1373 A.D.) showed the nature of the theorem using math in hypothetical situations rather than in the experimentation of modern science, so his work was still medieval, though a huge advance. The mean-speed theorem, or Heytesbury’s theorem, states that if an object moves while constantly accelerating, the distance it covers will be the same as the distance the object would have traveled at its average speed during the same amount of time. (174-175)

In all, the work of the Merton scholars led to further advances in natural philosophy both at Oxford and later on the Continent, and what I’ve covered is but the tip of the iceberg of medieval pre-scientific scholarship that Hannam discusses. I hope it is enough, though, to demonstrate that in the areas of metaphysics and theories of natural philosophy, the Middle Ages made possible what was to come. As Newton himself said of his discoveries, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Bradwardine and Heytesbury are but two of those now oft-forgotten giants, along with many others in medieval Christendom who helped to birth modern science.

Reason Illuminates Faith (in the Middle Ages)

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Two of my favorite topics are science and the medieval world, so I’m really excited to do a blog series for the soapboxguild on some books related to these topics. What do the Middle Ages and scientific ideas have to do with each other? Quite a bit more than you might think. Unlike the thoughts brought to mind by words like the “Dark Ages,” the medieval period was not a totally backwards time of ignorance and superstition (though as in any era, both were present!), but one of intellectual formation that proved critically necessary for modern science to develop. I knew a little of this from various material I’d read in the past, but did not realize the extent of the importance of medieval theology, natural philosophy, and history to the development of science, or how much was accomplished before the Renaissance ever occurred. In the process of trying to learn more about medieval science, I picked up a book by Dr. James Hannam, a British historian of science. His work, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, is incredibly readable for its length and depth, and is a credit to its author. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and the Middle Ages. This series of blog posts is my attempt to gain a deeper appreciation for the issues Hannam raises, and to think alongside him as he dives into the lost world of medieval cosmology, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy.

To begin, then, we should start with one of the most influential figures in medieval thought, on one of the most important issues raised by the period. The man is the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, and the question is the relationship between reason and faith. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 A.D. to upper-class, wealthy parents in Italy. He entered the clergy as a poverty-sworn Dominican while at university, to the displeasure of his parents, who expected him to become a powerful and wealthy Benedictine monk. (We know this because they  subsequently kidnapped him from college for the purpose of putting some worldly sense into him. According to an early biographer, this included hiring a prostitute to tempt him to leave his life of holiness. It only succeeding in causing the captive Aquinas to cast her out of his room.) (Hannam 85-86) After this, Aquinas “transferred” to the University in Cologne to study under one of the most famous philosophers of his time, Albert the Great (as opposed to Alfred the Great, who was an educated king of pre-England who lived much earlier). Aquinas earned his degree and gained a reputation as a skilled thinker, eventually teaching at the University of Paris, a hub of medieval scholarship. There he encountered the Averroists, and there our story of faith and reason really begins in earnest.

Siger of Brabant (upper right, wearing red) appears in this 15th-century illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The writings of classical antiquity were only partially known, thanks in part to the fall of Rome, for much of the Middle Ages. Shortly before Aquinas came on the scene, a Muslim commentator on Aristotle, named Averroes, had been translated into Latin and was causing quite a firestorm. Averroes held to things like determinism, a lack of personal moral responsibility, and an eternal rather than created universe. Needless to say, people concerned about theology had an issue with this interpretation of Aristotle. In the Middle Ages, the ancient authorities Plato and Aristotle were taken very seriously, and different Christian scholars attempted to deal with Averroes in different ways, as usual. Siger of Brabant, a thirteenth-century professor  of philosophy at Paris, accepted to some degree the conclusions of Averroes’ reasoning process. However, he dealt with this in a way we might find very familiar in our modern science and faith discussions. According to Hannam, he posited that we can know by faith that Christian doctrine is true, even though reason shows something else. This is a problem if we are to hold to Christian orthodoxy, or even if people of faith want to engage in truth-seeking. Thus Aquinas- like his forbears Augustine and Anselm-  realized he needed to engage Aristotle with a “faith that seeks understanding,” walking in the confidence that the Author of Faith is also the Author of Reason. In his subsequent grappling with Aristotle, Aquinas went on to create the Summa Theologica, one of the greatest works of theology ever written. As Hannam humorously notes:

Thomas wrote direct rebuttals to some of Siger’s work but concentrated on producing his own synthesis of Christian and pagan philosophy. This found its definitive expression in his Summa Theologica. It is a massive work and, despite the fact he never quite finished it, it remains the highest accomplishment of medieval scholarship. What he had achieved was such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two. (91-92)

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

This account doesn’t square well with what we tend to assume about the Middle Ages. After all, backwards, pre-Renaissance religious people run away from philosophy, science, and reason. We know this from experience, right? How many of us were told that philosophy and science were antithetical to religious belief at their core, and we had to choose one or the other? (Now, there may very well be genuine discord between science and religion on some points these days, but I’m talking about the very natures of scientific inquiry and religion here.) If I had to choose, that choice is made. I will follow Christ, however foolish that might appear to the world. But (surprise surprise!) that choice assumes wrongly about nature’s Creator, according to the long history of Christian orthodoxy. The assumption that Christians bury their heads in the sand comes from our own cultural experiences (or stereotypes, perhaps?) of faith where we or our parents grew up, causing us to project our own experiences- or often prejudices- onto the broader tradition of Christianity. But this simply is not warranted: our forbears, from the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus of Greek philosophy, to Augustine and Aquinas, and on into the 20th century with Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis, would all say that they have confidence that Christian belief can stand up to its opponents in the marketplace of ideas. This is because reason illuminates faith. Since God is a God of truth and the very standard of truth, reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but find their unity in the reasonable, consistent, non-arbitrary Source of wisdom. In other words, faith in Christ Jesus seeks understanding, in order that we might wonder and worship Him better– it cannot bear to remain ignorant of the redeemed soul’s greatest Desire. Augustine famously stated that our hearts are made for God and are restless until they rest in Him. It is just as true that our minds are made for God and are unsatisfied with any lesser answer to their questioning than that of the unanswerable I AM.

The Mystery of The Chronicles of Narnia

ImageAs a medieval literature scholar, C.S. Lewis borrowed his cosmology from the medieval understanding of the heavens, and thus the medieval conception of Beauty. Cosmology means more than just the stars, or how the Big Bang might have occurred. It is a comprehensive view of one’s universe. Questions of cosmology inherently impinge upon questions of beauty. In his Planet Narnia, C.S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward makes a convincing case that each Narnia book’s atmospheric qualities are intentionally meant to represent the influences ascribed to each of the seven celestial spheres in medieval cosmology. The controversy arises from the claim that this cosmology is the “interpretive key” to the Narniad specifically, as Ward puts it— especially in light of the fact that not a peep of such an intention was ever stated by Lewis. Not before, nor after the series was published and became a best-seller did he ever let on that the seven spheres were the unifying connection between the seven books. It is justifiable upon first discovering the thesis to think with Nathaniel Peters

The sensible reader’s first reaction to this revelation will be that it is, basically, nutty. Why has it taken someone fifty years to find this? And why didn’t Lewis inform anyone of this secret? His friend J.R.R. Tolkien, like many others, had criticized Lewis for being a literary magpie, plucking elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world. Who could imagine that a method, in fact, lay hidden in this madness? (Peters 56)

This question is a sensible objection, and needs to be carefully considered before laying out Ward’s textual evidence. Michael Ward realizes this, and spends several chapters addressing these two issues: why the reader should give his thesis serious consideration, and why it took someone fifty years to discover it, if true.

The issue of the author’s silence may be addressed by considering Lewis’ views on Christian apologetics and spiritual truths. Lewis came to view deep truths in terms of Contemplation and Enjoyment. Using the metaphor of a beam of light piercing the darkness of an old toolshed through an opening above, Lewis believed that looking at the beam from the darkness of the shed was one way to approach truth. This method, Contemplation, was logical and analytical, but it did not encompass the full reality of the beam. That would take stepping into the light and looking along the beam. The shed and beam itself, while there, disappear as the blue sky and leafy-green of trees outside are revealed in Enjoyment. Drawing attention to the effects of the beam thus decreases its effectiveness and thus lowers Enjoyment. (Ward 16-17) Lewis viewed the atmosphere of his works in this way, not wanting to draw attention to his hidden meanings. In a precursor to the Narniad, “The Quest of Bleheris,” Lewis explicitly admitted in a letter to a friend that the inner meaning of the romance was carefully hidden. Ward sheds light on the motivation for Lewis to hide his meanings.


The atmosphere [of a story] should be entered into so that it comprises our whole imaginative vision. If we attempt not to Enjoy, but rather to Contemplate, the deathliness of Hamlet or the ‘redskinnery’ of The Last of the Mohicans (which is the opening example of [atmospheric hiddenness] in [Lewis’] ‘On Stories’) we will find the quality going dead and cold in our hands, because we will have stopped ‘living the story.’ (Ward 17-18)

Thus we see that Lewis had placed hidden meaning in stories similar to Narnia before, and that he did not desire to bring his organizing principle or “atmosphere” in a story to the forefront of a reader’s mind. It is also important to remember that Lewis did not write the Chronicles in a personal vacuum. He wrote them after his infamous debate with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, in which he was defeated in his defense of his book Miracles. Lewis acknowledged his defeat, and re-wrote a second edition of Miracles to deal with the objections Anscombe had raised for his Argument from Reason for the Existence of God. (4, 35) During this time, he also began the first book of the Narnia series, partially out of his conviction that analytic reason alone could not fully experience the deep spiritual truths of the Christian faith. (35) These considerations shed some light on why he wouldn’t broadcast his intentions for hidden layers of beauty and organization in what otherwise appear to be the “plucking of elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world.” Considering the influence that Dante held for Lewis, it is also significant that

One debt is secrecy, for Dante thought of poetry as something ‘to be adorned as much as possible,’ to have its ‘true sense’ hidden beneath a rich vesture of ‘rhetorical colouring.’ Another debt is the Christianization of that cosmos, for Dante was the only poet, in Lewis’s view, to have infused the medieval model of the heavens with ‘high religious ardor.’ (41)

The second objection to consider before making the positive case involves the fact that no other literary scholar “wised up” to Lewis’ intentions before Michael Ward fifty years later. The explanation is actually much simpler than one might expect, and it is twofold. First, a few did, though they did not consistently apply the astrological planetary references they noted in a few books to all the books. The second reason has to do with the organizing principles critics were looking for, versus what Lewis was actually doing: using astrology to (seemingly paradoxically to most critics) represent Christian truth. This is strange considering the abundance of astrological, planetary influences Lewis employed in the Space trilogy and his other previous works. (244-252)

With the scope of this paper, a fleshed-out representation of Ward’s positive argument is not possible, so the following is more a summation of much more detailed and textually careful work in Planet Narnia. Ward begins by analyzing Lewis’ previous works, especially his poem “The Planets” and The Ransom Trilogy, as well as “The Discarded Image.” Ward shows that Lewis had quite an interest in astronomical and astrological matters. The Space Trilogy follows in the tradition of his previous poem “The Planets” in Christianizing the medieval cosmology as his forbear in that regard Dante did. (41) Lewis uses the planetary gods as archangels or spiritual powers subservient to and yet representing different aspects of their Maker, depending on the astrological influences traditionally ascribed to each planetary deity. This is made abundantly clear in the Ransom trilogy, especially “The Descent of the Gods” in chapter 15. (47-51) The imagery Lewis explicitly employs in these works is nearly identical to the planetary imagery implicitly used in the Chronicles. Ward examines each of Lewis’ books in light of an “Enjoyed” atmosphere related to each of the planets. As Schuurman succinctly reviews the associations in First Things,

For example, as hinted above, the planet Jupiter is represented in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The joviality, kingliness, and even redness of Jupiter are all celebrated in The Lion in ways they do not appear in other books in the series. The Jupiter link also helps explain what otherwise seems incongruous. The appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion has brought on the ire of a number of critics who considered this addition to the story to be out of place. Ward champions him, saying “Father Christmas is, in modern culture, the jovial character par excellence, loud-voiced, red-faced, and jolly.”

So it goes for all seven books, with this interpretive key: Aslan particularly embodies the best of each planet in turn, and thus offers different windows onto the person of Christ, “in whom all things hold together.” To complete the key, Mars features in Prince Caspian, Sol saturates The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Luna reflects in The Silver Chair, Mercury dances through A Horse and His Boy, Venus plays throughout The Magician’s Nephew, and Saturn begins the final book The Last Battle. (Schuurman 442)

While I am ambivalent about Lewis’ choice to use astrological imagery to represent God’s creative majesty when medieval astrology is often misunderstood as inquiring of the stars, (which often did occur and was recognized as a condemned activity in Scripture for its occult nature– however, Lewis, like Dante and other medieval Christians before him, viewed the heavens as influential to, but not determinative of, life on this earth. This rejection of determinism in favor of free will here deserves its own post, which I plan to do later) his love of medieval cosmology influenced the beloved Narnia books both in content and in atmosphere, bringing the beauty of the cosmos to us moderns and reminding us that the world is intentional, meaningful, and beautiful.



Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Peters, Nathaniel. “The Music of the Spheres.” First Things (vol. unknown) (2008): 56-58. Web.

Schuurman, Peter. “Book Review: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.” Calvin Theological Journal (vol. unknown): 441-443. Web.