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“No Astronomical Investigations of Importance” in the Middle Ages? Not True!

David Klinghoffer

Middle Ages

The period from 500 to 1500 is often dismissed as an intellectually barren time, but in his new book, science historian Michael Keas sets the record straight. “In medieval Europe,” wrote astronomer George O. Abell in a 1969 textbook, “no new astronomical investigations of importance were made. Rather than turning to scientific inquiry, the medieval mind rested in acceptance of authority and absolute dogma.” Not true.

As Professor Keas points out in Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion, Christian culture in Europe was at first saddled with the inherited Roman disdain for science, but under the influence of Augustine and other thinkers Christians of the so-called “Dark Ages” developed modern ideas of investigating nature through reason and experimentation. 

Keas notes that Christians invented the institution of the university, in which “30 percent of the curriculum was devoted to science.” He cites the example of Roger Bacon, an English monk and natural philosopher (1214-1292) whose work considered the properties of light and other scientific questions. I’d add that it was not Christians alone in this period who made significant contributions to understanding the “nature of things.” Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), known as Gersonides, was “the only astronomer before modern times to have estimated correctly stellar distances,” as Wikipedia says. For their astronomical investigations, Bacon and Levi both have craters on the Moon named for them.

It pleases modern prejudices, and flatters die-hard secularists, to forget all this. There’s much more in Dr. Keas’s book eye-opening and highly readable book that confutes widespread myths about medieval times, which were not “dark” at all. Unbelievable is an important corrective to falsehoods that students are still learning, in textbooks like Dr. Abell’s, at this very moment.

Editor’s note: The Amazon page says the book “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.” That is not accurate. We contacted the publisher and confirmed that Amazon has reordered and the book will go out in a much more timely fashion than indicated.

Image: Roger Bacon, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, via Wikimedia Commons.