I ordered this book as it’s the reading for the Royal Society, History of Science Book Group’s August meet-up. I might not be able to make that event (it’s clashing with a late at the Science Museum), but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read a book that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. The book was long-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Medieval conceptions of science were totally different to our own, and are often very difficult to grasp, given their completely different world view. But Hannam smooths the corners away, helping us understand the important role of magic and astrology in moving knowledge forward, and how medieval Catholicism was actually often a force for improved scientific knowledge rather than against it. He even manages to, half, rehabilitate that dread organisation: the Inquisition! And he does all this while making us aware of the, often unacknowledged, debt that ‘modern’ scientific thinkers from the renaissance onwards owe to their medieval forebears.
My only quibble with this book is that Hannam defends medieval thinkers a little too zealously. I have no doubt that their contribution to the birth of modern science, and the advancements that were made in the Renaissance, has been woefully underestimated. But I also think that Hannam goes a little too far the other way. Whilst he bemoans the use of the term the ‘dark ages’, the period up to 1000 AD (so the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) get a scant 20 pages in his book – for a very good reason – not a lot happened.
In fact, there’s only another 40 pages from that up to the 12th century, which Hannam calls a renaissance in itself. And if you accept that the Renaissance ‘proper’ began in the late 13th century, then most of the book isn’t actually taken up with the medieval period at all. However, the section that is does describe some interesting advancements, especially in architecture, mathematics, and related to that astrology and clock-making.
But much of the time of medieval scholars seemed to be spent either in darkness, or in trying to access and understand the knowledge of the Islamic world. Hannam seems to be playing a sleight of hand by taking a large period of time which most people accept as the early Renaissance and rebranding it as the late medieval period, so he can hold up the accomplishments of medieval scholars.
That aside, it is a fascinating book, making a dry and difficult subject accessible and enjoyable. And I can forgive Hannam his zeal as he does illuminate the debt modern science owes to those scholars who went before them – whatever period they were working in.