Medieval Myths: Scientific Progress and the Church

Cracked has a new article on 6 Ridiculous Myths About the Middle Ages Everyone Believes.

As you might have noticed, I’m really down with historical accuracy and I try to do my part to educate people, especially in regards to the middle ages.

Myth #6: Scientific Progress was Dead

gods-eye-view-of-the-worldThey are right that the church was actually both the repository of knowledge and its largest patron. When the Catholic Church was the only game in town (back when you just called it “The Church,” because there was no other), science was no threat. In fact, the church was eager to use science to support its view that God created an orderly universe and that everything followed natural laws; it was man who was the random element in God’s perfect plan and who kept messing up things because he alone didn’t follow God’s laws to the letter.

(Random fact: The Jewish outlook on science adheres to this idea. Einstein supported the Theory of Everything–which would somehow combine orderly physics and the seeming randomness of particles on the quantum level into one law which could accurately predict the outcome of any natural occurrence–because he said he could not believe that an orderly God would create any randomness in the universe.)

It seems that the Church became less confident, however, after the Protestant Reformation broke out in 1517. Too many people started reading and thinking–many of them outside the control of the church. Soon, the search for scientific truths became dangerous because you didn’t know what else someone might be thinking about. New scientific ideas were being use to bolster the Protestants’ world/God view. The Church clamped down on scientific research and insisted that everything stay the way it was–both scientifically and religiously.

geocentricHad the Reformation failed, as many other heresies before it had, then the Church would probably have loosened up again and accepted radical ideas like the earth circling the sun. But they felt they just couldn’t admit that they were wrong about certain natural truths–like the order of the solar system–without people calling into question their knowledge about religious truths as well.

Would things have turned out different for the Catholic Church had it embraced the new learning, even as it continued to try to put the smackdown on the heretics? Possibly, but not likely in my opinion.

Yes, their refusal to accept any more scientific discoveries did cause many professors and other educated men to defect to the Protestant faith, but they were a very tiny part of the population. Politics, more than anything, drove the Protestant Reformation.

Small-Monasteries-are-Suppressed-by-King-Henry-VIII-to-Raise-MoneyAs the borders of countries stabilized and nationalism (as opposed to regionalism) came into being, kings found themselves more powerful than ever before. But the church was more powerful than any of them–both in terms of the Pope’s influence in politics and in the sheer amount of land and treasure tied up by the Church at the local level. Breaking away from the church meant more power for individual rulers. As Henry VIII demonstrated, he could play by his own rules once he chose to ignore the Pope, and he could confiscate all the land and money owned by the Church and put it in his own coffers, or parcel it out to his own lords, making them more loyal to him.


I want this reproduction carving. It goes with the three we brought back from England and Scotland.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the most damning of Martin Luther’s arguments against the Church, which was its decadence. The Papal office had always had a political element to it, but by the 16th century, it looked like an episode of the Sopranos. And it was probably that feeling that the Church had become corrupt and decadent–and that it was fleecing the average man–that caused the average people to back their leaders’ pushes towards Protestantism.

79904_printing_lgAnd the invention of the printing press cannot be underestimated at this contentious time as well. Stories like that of the miller in The Cheese and the Worms show that common people who had access to books–especially to Bibles–were able to think for themselves. They started to see that certain Church teachings, such as the Doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Trinity were not present at all the Bible (both were doctrinal additions by the First Council of Nicea in 325). This lead to denominations such as the Puritans, who believed only in those things which were in the Bible–a “pure” form of Christianity.

6a00d8341c4e6153ef00e54f2063118834-800wiBy the way, the idea that medieval people thought the world was flat and rested on the back of a turtle seems to have been invented in the 18th or 19th century (I can’t remember which) by a historian who appears to have made it up to make his history book more entertaining. (Early historians weren’t terribly worried about absolute accuracy.) All maps and discussions about the world during the middle ages indicate that medieval people knew the world was round. Simple scientific observation shows that 1) you can’t see forever, as would be expected if the world was flat, and 2) that you could see more when you were high up (like in a church tower) than you could when you were on the ground. Both observations are easily explained by a round earth.

And not only that, but the Greeks taught that the world was round, and medieval people held Greek science and medicine (even where it was wrong–like the notion of “humors”) to be… the gospel truth.

Further Information

I recommend Terry Jones’ (yes, the former Python) DVD series Medieval Lives for more myth-busting medieval information (and it’s really funny; history for people who don’t normally care for history), as well as Connections 1 with James Burke (it has all sorts of fascinating information on medieval science and inventions).


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