The medeival Christian church - champion of science?

So I saw this documentary on TV which put the case for the medeival church actually positively contributing towards science - TMI for me to remember, but the main points were the many inventions (the clock was one) which were discovered and church backed astronomical observations which were commisioned because a good understanding of the heavens was needed to be able to set festival dates.

The presenter put the blame for the conception of the medeival church as stifling science on the business of Galilleo being censored which was not based on his findings being considered heretical, but rather because he portrayed Urban VIII as being a Simpleton (actually using a character named “Simplicio” to state his arguments in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World”) for beleiving in the Copernican explanation of astronomy.

All of this amounts to a pretty convincing argument for me as I have not read about any of this stuff - my idea of this period being of the nebulous “church bad” variety.

But maybe someone who knows a bit more could refute or validate this argument?

The Church was open to the uncovering of new knowledge – as long as it didn’t contradict its teachings.

Modern science would not have been compatible with the medieval Church, not so much in what it teaches (although that would be fairly problematic), but in the way it approaches knowledge and authority.

I agree with TVAA, the Church had a rocky relationship with knowledge. It was not difficult to run afoul of church doctrine and face serious consequences, gravely serious. OTOH, with enough smarm it was possible to pass off seemingly heretical writings as legitimate – until they figured it out and killed you.

Heliocentric versus geocentric is hard to comprimise on. Um, how about Venus, split the difference?

And then, too, the Gallileo incident happened in the Rennaisance, and not in the Middle Ages.


The Church was a lot worse in the Middle Ages.


But Science wasn’t all that hot either.

The major benefit to science was that churchmen, and those closely associated with them, represented the majority of all literate people in Europe at the time. You don’t do much in the way of advancing science without you write it down, doncha know.

The librarians of the world were monks, and the only place that large numbers of documents of any sort other than decrees from princes could be found was in monasteries. So, clerks of large abbeys, and other lay members of the religious communities were the ones able to learn from the few advances being made, and to add to them.

The Renaissance changed that. But in the Middle ages it was not so much that the church was friendly to science, it was that science was pretty much unknown in Europe outside of church communities.

Of course the Heathens from Distant Lands were still studying up to beat the band, but that hardly mattered to the folks squatting in the filth of the streets of Paris circa one thousand AD.


Don’t think structurely, straight line thinkers, Christianity, with it’s ideas based in the individual’s ability to effect free thought, gave birth to the renascence which ultimately led to the explosion of the egalitarian concepts of western civilization.

Concepts that have dominated the direction of world culture for the last 300 years.

Celebrate rather than bitch.

Not really, in terms of tolerance, at least. It was more corrupt in the Middle Ages, but it was more intolerant in the Rennaisance, due in large part to the Protestant Reformation, and Catholic responses to that.

Remember too, that in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the center of learning and education. It was the Catholic Church that ‘rediscovered’ Aristotle, and it was the Scholastic movement in the Catholic Church that argued that Christianity could be understood logically and rationally. The Catholic Church was also the strongest voice in the Middle Ages against astrology and fortune telling, arguing that they were mere superstitions.

There was less to be intolerant of in the Middle Ages. The Church was pretty much all there was in the West. Interesting things were going on in the Middle East at the time, though.

And I believe the Church was opposed to astrology and fortune telling more because they thought they were at least potentially evil than because they thought they were silly superstitions.

Right, but within the Catholic church there was room for a lot of diversity in beliefs, rituals, and opinions, and groups expressing minority beliefs tended to be tolerated unless they directly challenged the Catholic Church or the authority of secular leaders. There wasn’t even a universal mass ordinary until the Council of Trent, and it was the Council of Trent that imposed a good deal of uniformity on the Catholic world.

As for the Middle East, if you’re referring to the Crusades, those were deliberate incitements to religious intolerance by the Catholic Church and secular leaders to try to create a common enemy and bring peace to the Catholic world. Even with regards to the Crusades, though, the Muslims in the Middle East weren’t seen as entirely wicked, and some of the Muslim generals, like Saladin, for example, were held up as models of knighthood. There was the attitude of “How wicked we have become when a pagan like Saladin is more noble a knight and gentleman than are the knights of Christendom”.

And, if you look at the Crusader kingdoms, you’ll see that, after the first generation, the conquerors “went native”, adopted the customs of their Muslim subjects and tried to live in peace with them. In fact, the Crusader Kings grew to hate new crusades, because new armies of Europeans spurred to fanaticism and intolerance, disrupted the balance that the Crusader kings had built up.

As for astrology and fortune telling, the main opposition was philosophical. If astrology and fortune telling were true, that would mean that the future was fixed and predetermined, and that was an attack on the doctrine of free will, which held that the future, and our futures specifically, were dependent on the free moral choices we made.


My first thoughts were of mathematics. Great stuff that algebra. Not to mention zero.

A disproportionate number of key advances in mathematics throughout the ages (including Middle Ages) were made by men who trained as ministers/priests as well as mathematics. Some gave up mathematics to devote themselves to the ministry. Others gave up the ministry to devote themselves to mathematics. Still others managed to do both. I’d dig out the names of some from the Middle ages if you wish, but my History of Mathematics book weighs a ton.

This is absolutely correct. I worked on many of their texts as an undergraduate. Here are but a few examples:

Jean Buridan

The Oxford Calculators

Countinghouse Theory

The great Nicole Oresme

This is borne out neither by empirical evidence nor scholarship. For a very instructive book on this topic, see R.I. Moore’s *SocietyThe Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250. The church of the Renaissance greatly enlarged a legacy of persecution, offering the West such goodies as the Spanish Inquisition, the repression of Galileo, the extirpation of Jan Huss, and of course, the wars of religion following the 91 Theses.

The medieval church, however, was a fertile ground for institutional and theological creativity. Go figure.

And as for the medieval church being more corrupt, dare I mention the Borgias…

Don’t think that chimes with any version of history I’ve ever heard or read.
IICR, the Renaissance was mostly a breaking free from the ignorance and bureaucracy of the church, and a rediscovery of proof-based, logical, subjective knowledge. Most of the scientific knowledge came originally from the Ancient Greeks - pre-Christian, and had been lost in the west for a number of reasons, not least deliberate suppression by the Church. Plus a lot of precious scientific manuscripts were over-written with religious junk because of the expense of velum or parchment.
During the Middle-Ages much of the knowledge that the modern world is founded on had in fact died out in the west, and in one of history’s great ironies, survived only in the Islamic world (hence words like “Algebra” and “Algorithm” have Arabic roots). The Islamic world has always had the same, “Unchanging, revealed, religious Truth” Vs “Scientific enquiry” struggle - sadly the wrong side won IMO (- tho the right side won in the West).

So the Renaissance was based on Ancient Greek works and ways of thought (and works from the Indian sub-continent, also not-Christian), preserved and expanded in the Islamic world

Perhaps the Alabama Renaissance was different, I seem to remember Evolution works differently in some States ( - and there are moves to repeal the Third Law of Thermodynamics as being un-Godly) :wink:

Religion is the enemy of knowledge, and knowledge is the enemy of religion.

I think you’ll find that there were religious people (ok then christians) on both sides of the argument. The motive of many scientists was to explore what God had made and find out how it worked. Gallileo would have to be the classic on that. An unfortunate example of christians persecuting christians.

The fact remains (and it is especially true of the Renaissance) was that a huge number of mathematicians (I won’t speak for other disciplines) were committed and sincere believers.

medeival church did nothing for science.
PLEASE NOTE: medeival europe under christianity -a monarchy where most of the people lived in their own shit.
middle east under islam -world center for science were luxuries such as running water were common.

If anything, the medeival christian church did more to hinder science than contribute to it.

Because modern pedagogy is still enslaved to 18th century English neo-classicism and 19th century German romanticism. Unfortunately, these trends have proven to be very difficult to extirpate from America.

I do not believe that this is borne out by empirical evidence or by (at least) modern scholarship. In fact, the “bureaucracy” of the church waxed during much of the Renaissance, stamping out reform, intellectual advancement, and proof-based knowledge. The depredations of the Renaissance church, particularly the sale of indulgences, was perhaps the most proximate cause for the Reformation and the ensuing wars of religion.

This is in part untrue and in part downright misleading. A lot of texts were lost. However, medieval philosophers made staggering progress on what texts did survive, and unsurprisingly, all of them did so within the confines of the church. What the church found objectionable was not so much science as heterodoxy, and even this repression of heterodoxy is more of a Renaissance reaction than even a medieval one. I maintain that Galileo would have had a much better reception two hundred years before he lived.

Furthermore, some of the most sophisticated spheres of medieval scientific inquiry were downright abandoned during the Renaissance, especially number theory and optics. Most aspects of Renaissance science were, in fact, quite retrograde. Aside from mercurial examples like Galileo and da Vinci, Renaissance science was not so impressive.

With respect to logic, we inherit the Aristotelian logical tradition that was worked out by the end of the 13th century. New logical tools were integrated within the existing tradition as new texts were discovered, but to infer that medieval science is not logical and proof-based reflects, in my opinion, a pedagogical failure.

Perhaps I am understanding you incorrectly, but there is a great deal in Greek philosophy and science that is as dubiously connected to “fact” as belief in the invisible pink unicorn. Perhaps if you read some Plato you would see what I mean.

Wow, I never knew that. Evidently neither did Robert Grosseteste, one of the greatest scientists of the age and, lo and behold, the Bishop of Lincoln and Chancellor of Oxford University.

I bow to your superior knowledge,
As you can tell history isn’t my strong point (although it wasn’t in America that I learned the little that I did pick up)

It was not my intention for that inference to be drawn. I was reacting to Milum’s assertion that:-

My point being that the logical and proof-based nature of science during the Renaissance was not due to the Christian nature of the scientists or the society they operated in, I should have clarified that this held for medieval science as well.

As for many scientists being believers or even holding positions within the Church, a point also made by other posters, this I totally concede. However the Church was an all-pervasive power, politically culturally, artistically etc. Many scientists in the USSR where card-carrying party members, some where true believers in communism. Does this mean the science done in the USSR was a due to the wonderful, nurturing nature of the communist system? No it was done despite it. The suppression of Mendal’s ideas in favour of Lysenkoism might be seen as parallel to Galileo’s treatment in the Renaissance, a rare case of direct conflict of ideology with science, rather than more subtle pressures and distortions (and the battles to ignore them) that must have been the norm.

I realise my post gave a somewhat caricatured view of history, I’m glad it provoked your post - which casts light on the OP’s question about the state of science under the medieval church

True, But I found Plato at his most interesting when he was chasing the shadows of pink unicorns! Aristotle had his own foibles of course, and set off down some blind alleys. But at least I can see how these, and others from outside the Christian Church positively influenced science, I can’t see the Christian Church doing more than tolerating it, (more at some times, less at others) and that applies equally to Islam.

Do you (or anyone) think that the Church, or some aspect of Christian thinking positively encouraged, or advanced, science - rather than just permitting it. (In the middle Ages, the Renaissance, or at any time)? This is not a rhetorical question - I’m genuinely interested

I saw the same programme Meta-Gumble did, and this was the point the presenter tried to make – that the Christian astronomers took the knowledge that had been developed in the Middle-East, and developed it even further. He claimed that, in contrast to the Muslim scientists, the Christian astronomers considered that the polytheistic tendancies of astrology didn’t fare well next to their monotheistic beliefs, so they ditched that part. (Not sure why the Muslims didn’t, but hey.) This allowed them to find out logical and physical reasons for the movement of the spheres.

As for other scientific endeavours, others have already mentioned logic and maths. I know that in terms of biology and anatomy the medievals mostly stuck to Galen and his pig-gutting, and it was only until the Renaissance that proper anatomical research was carried out (this is from what I remember of GCSE history, mind). Not sure how the Church felt about that, but presumably dissections were sanctioned by them.

I personally feel that people tend to denigrate the importance of Christian philosophy which was developed mightily in the Middle Ages. Some of it may seem arcane and esoteric now (angels dancing on the head of a pin, etc) but in constantly studying the nature of God and his relation to Man, people started to think about the individual and his place in the world, humanism and suchlike, which you could claim was the beginning of modern psychology. (Okay, it’s a stretch.)

Yes, I certainly do. The study of astronomy and music, two of the disciplines in which medieval scientists made the most progress, were all essential parts of the quadrivium, or the curriculum for the educated man. Furthermore, the very institution of the university, the locus for so much scientific advancement, was purely ecclesiastical. Men studied at the great universities to be churchmen, government functionaries, lawyers, and doctors. The students were all clerics of minor orders, and the dons were certainly all churchmen. Virtually all medieval learning and research was conducted in an ecclesiastical setting. I would argue that this is rather as much encouragement as one could expect in a world with limited communications.

I’ll leave you with one more crucial medieval thinker, Albertus Magnus, the Patron Saint of Natural Scientists.

In a word, I maintain that scientific and mathematical research was not conducted despite the church but, in many places and at many times, was encouraged by it.

While I believe that the christian church of the medeival era worked to hinder science, I also believe that it was the source of scientific advancement in Europe.
If that makes any sense.