When History gets personal…

Bone of Contention: The little book that is the subject of this post, keep reading to find out why!

One of my own personal ‘pet hates’ in History, pedantic Medievalist that I am is to see how misconceptions and myths about the Middle Ages are still alive and well today, despite all of the best efforts of historians to put them to death. Just a few days ago a television personality again cited the still seemingly widespread fiction that people in the middle Ages thought that the earth was flat. Even the most superficial examination of medieval sources reveals that this is simply nonsense, especially as the source of it was a Fictional novel by American author Washington Irving written in the Victorian period.

Though this has been demonstrated to be false and inaccurate by historians in both recent and past years, many people believe it, often because they were taught it at school. Some even believe it is spite of knowledge to the contrary.

This begs the question, why? Why has such a ludicrous myth been accepted almost universally as a fact for over a century, when it should by rights have never even been taken seriously at all? How can such misconceptions lodge themselves so firmly in the popular imagination so as to be seemingly impossible to shift?

I do not have the answer to this question, and can only speculate, but personally I think it is a result of the widespread perception of the Medieval period as a whole as synonymous with ignorance and general backwardness. Some elements within our society (not historians) seem to have sought to actively promote this idea, in order to discredit certain groups.

The reception of Dr James Hannam’s recent book ‘God’s Philosopher’s: How the Medieval World laid the foundations of Modern Science’ (Icon Books, London, 2010)  is a good example of this. Hannam goes much further than just dispelling popular myths such as flat-earthism in this book, he even goes as far as to demonstrate that the medieval church at times encouraged and even fostered scientific enquiry, and to reveal that many scientific and technological innovations were made by clergymen. These went from the mundane, such as the improvements in the design of components of machinery, to the downright radical, such as highlighting the 11th century Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury’s theological arguments in which he asserted that logic and reason were important to faith.

The author James Hannam.

A glance at the reviews on Amazon and other sites reveals that the book has received much acclaim from historians, and has also proved very popular with the general public.

There is, seemingly, only one group who do not like it, a group who describe themselves as ‘secular humanists’. Many of these are not actually professional scientists (though some are) but interested and clearly well-informed laypeople or those trained in other disciplines that pride themselves upon rational scientific or logical enquiry.  They all have one thing in common, however. They are atheists who frequently assert that religion is the enemy of science and reason.

For the record, in writing this I am not intending to ‘bash’ atheists, humanists or anyone. Some of my dearest and closest friends and relatives fall into both categories. I merely seek to examine why those who hold to a particular position are so vehement in their opposition to a mere book.

The people mentioned above do not simply dislike Hannam’s book, they despise and attack it, and even its author sometimes viciously. Not only do they say that some of the author’s conclusions and historical assertions are wrong, but also claim that he was writing to further his own personal agenda. In doing this the detractors make one issue clear, James Hannam is religious; to be specific he is a practicing Roman Catholic. This, they argue is the reason why he argues that the Medieval period was not a time of intellectual and scientific stagnation, because he wishes to vindicate the Catholic church, who they hold responsible for the stifling of scientific inquiry.

I do not know if the author’s personal religious affiliations did indeed inform his work. They may well have done, but it seems to me that the ideological position of those who attack Hannam’s work also motivates their own opposition, and in a sense they may be as ideologically driven as he. Personally, one thing that I find fascinating about the debate surrounding this book is that the critics, who do not seem to have taken much interest in history otherwise, and have no qualifications in the subject, appear to have suddenly acquired and extensive knowledge and expertise in the field of scientific history and also source criticism.

 It is amazing how people some people suddenly become self-appointed history ‘experts’ when they want to argue against somebody who does not hold the same position as them. I do not say this to seem arrogant, as there ant many people who are not academically trained in the historical discipline that are genuinely knowledgeable and very well-informed. I refer to people I have myself seen or encountered whose historical ‘expertise’ only becomes apparent when they want to attack or refute others. Such is the case with many of the critics of Hannam’s work.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not stating that people should not be able to criticise the work of any historian or academic, or say that they have got things wrong. Quite the contrary, I think that anyone who holds a differing view should be freely allowed to express it, within the constraints of politeness and courtesy of course. I write this because it appears to me absurd that an innocuous history book, intended for the mass market should be received with suspicion and even outright hostility by people outside the historical community. It seems to me that the reason for this hostility (from that I have seen on reviews and comments) is that the central argument proposed by God’s Philosopher’s threatens to undermine bring into question one of the fundamental assumptions made by members of the groups who are attacking it. Namely that science and religion are not only incompatible, but also enemies. Hannam it appears, has demonstrated the exact opposite, that in the ‘Dark’ Middle Ages men of science were also often men of religion, and that the two were not so incompatible, and could even complement one another.

Whatever your personal views on this subject, God’s Philosopher’s shows that history has lost none of its potency to incite debate, argument and discussion. There are some historical books that are designed to be deliberately ‘controversial’ and sensational, apparently with the aim of increasing sales, but Hannam’s work does not seem to fall into this category, and such intentional almost tabloid style sensationalism has never held much appeal for me.

What exited my interest in Hannam’s work, which I purchased shortly after it first came out in paperback, was the way that in challenged not only misconceptions and myths about history, which I knew to be such, but also apparently some people’s preconceptions arising from personal bias. Such challenges can make people think, and perhaps re-examine their ideas in light of the evidence. Whether they choose to change these is up to the audience themselves, the book can only serve as a catalyst for change, or a source of annoyance.

I confess that I have not read even half of it yet, but I can say that although God’s Philospher’s is not without its shortcomings (it can be tedious and even ‘rambling’ in some places)  it is well worth a read. Perhaps most importantly of all, it reminds me that history is still relevant, and is still very much alive and well today, and can still, to some extent still stand as a positive force for change.

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2 thoughts on “When History gets personal…

  1. “Attack the argument, not the historian” – sound advice that I think these critics have not taken under their belts. The fact is that most people don’t like having their preconceived views challenged, and that seems to be the case here. Let’s face it, religion steeps into every aspect of life, and even more so in the Middle Ages. Why should it be inconceivable that science and religion can be symbiotic? Both are desires to learn and understand. Silly people.

    Anyway – I like the sound of this book, I may have to get my hands on it.

    1. Hi
      Thanks for doing me the honour of placing what I think is the first ever comment on one of my posts.
      I agree with your opinion and have to confess that it was the controversy surrounding the book, and the animosity towards it by some parties that attracted me to it as well.

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