Science Book a Day Interviews James Hannam


Special thanks to James Hannam for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

I am a historian of science specialising in the relationship between science and Christianity in the Medieval and Early Modern eras.  I took my Masters (2003) from Birkbeck College, University of London and my PhD (2008) in the History and Philosophy of Science at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. My reviews and articles have been published in the popular press and academic journals. – From James’ Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for God’s Philosophers?

My first degree was in physics and I have never personally found a conflict between science and my Christian beliefs. However, it is a common view that science and religion are locked in an existential conflict and that scientific progress has been held back by the Church. I wanted to find out more about the history of science to see if the conflict thesis was borne out. One of the first books I picked up was David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science. It deals with ancient Greek and Roman science (which is why I bought it) but also medieval science, a subject about which I knew nothing. To my surprise, I found that science in the Middle Ages was vibrant and interesting, not to mention an important stepping stone towards modern science. It looked like the popular view of the Middle Ages was as wrong as the popular view of religion being opposed to science. I realised that there was a story here with which the public was completely unfamiliar. So I decided I would try to tell it.

#2 – What are some of the misapprehensions that people have about the Medieval Age and science?

Most people don’t think there was any science to speak of in the Middle Ages. It is widely believed that medieval people were superstitious savages who thought that the Earth was flat. The Church was supposedly busy burning scientists at the stake and holding back what scientific progress there was. The Pope allegedly tried to ban everything from human dissection to the number zero. Even people who know a bit about medieval science think that it consisted of stolid recycling of Aristotle’s theories.

But, in reality, there was important scientific progress in the Middle Ages and the Church often supported it. Medieval scholars saw science as a way to understand God’s creation and as an essential precursor to theology. Critical parts of the work of Copernicus and Galileo were first formulated by medieval philosophers at the universities of Paris and Oxford in the fourteenth century. The scientific revolution was not a break with the past, but built on the achievements of earlier centuries.

#3 – How did you go about the research for this book? How long did it take?

It took about five years. As well as doing all the research, I needed to read a lot of Latin (the language of intellectual life in the Middle Ages) and become a properly qualified historian. So I took a career break and went to the University of Cambridge to do a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science. That also gave me the time and resources to properly research the book, not to mention access to lots of academics to discuss my ideas with. Researching a history book is mainly about reading as much as possible and collating all that information into a readable form. I also tried to visit some of the places mentioned in God’s Philosophers, like Padua and Paris. The most enjoyable part of the research was visiting many of the oldest libraries in Oxford and Cambridge to consult their magnificent collections of rare books and manuscripts.

That said, by far the biggest challenge was finding a publisher. It was hard to convince people that there was a market for a book about medieval science. I got a lot of rejections before it was eventually picked up by Icon Books in the UK.

#4 – What has the response to your book been? From the public? From academics?

I have been thrilled by the response to the book. It turned out that there is a market for a book about medieval science after all. God’s Philosophers has been translated into Dutch, German, Portuguese and Italian, not to mention re-edited for the American market as The Genesis of Science. It was short listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize, which is intended for popular science books. And it was also short listed for the British Society for the History of Science book prize which is awarded to an academic book accessible to general readers. For me, the most satisfying review was from Professor Edward Grant, the doyen of medieval science. In a long and detailed essay review for an academic journal, he was very positive (although he had some nits to pick as I would expect from someone who had been studying the subject for fifty years longer than I have).
Not all reviewers have been happy. I’ve been accused of being anti-Catholic by conservative Christians, and also as an apologist for the inquisition by some anti-clerical reviewers. The New Humanist published an extremely critical review by the historian Charles Freeman which I felt compelled to respond to. I probably deserved Charles’s ire as I had previously rubbished one of his books on my website.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Unfortunately, I won’t have a new book out any time soon as my day job always gets in the way. But I am slowly gathering materials to write about the English Reformation, centred on the experience of ordinary people, including the miller and his wife from my own village in Kent, England who were burnt at the stake in 1558.

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