Myths about Science and Religion: That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science

According to Michael H. Shank, myth is easy to manufacture. The myth of the medieval church’s opposition to science is such an example. Yet it is unlikely to go away—in part because it “dovetails so nicely with other cherished myths about the Middle Ages.”

The crude concept of the Middle Ages as a millennium of stagnation brought on by Christianity has largely disappeared among scholars familiar with the period, but remains vigorous among popularizes of the history of science—perhaps because, instead of consulting scholarship on the subject, the more recent popularizers have relied upon their predecessors uncritically.

Actually historians of science have presented much evidence against the myth, however. Shank points to John Heilbron’s work, who wrote: “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions.”

Put succinctly, the medieval period gave birth to the university, which developed with the active support of the papacy. The university was an unusual institution, developing first around famous masters in towns like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford before 1200. By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe. The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth. Even those who did not complete their degrees gained an elementary familiarity with natural philosophy and the mathematical science. As Shank puts it, “If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating—to say nothing of supporting—the university.”

A short list of accomplishments from the period suggests that the inquiry into nature did not stagnate in medieval Europe. During the period the camera obscura was first used to view solar eclipses; mathematical analysis was applied to motion, coming up with theoretical ways of measuring uniformly changing quantities; impetus theory was used to explain projectile motion, the acceleration of free-fall, and even the unceasing rotation of the celestial sphere; arguments for the rotation of the earth were put forth; and much more.

Between 1150 and 1500, more literate Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth, and naturalistic arts curricula of the medieval universities—which the church gave unyielding support.


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