Tales from the Gap


Top Tens • Philosophy and Bigotry • Contempt upon All Investigators • Of Popes and Unicorns • Laughed at by a Schoolboy • Scratch and Sniff • The Light Ages • Read with a Critical Eye • An Alternative Saint • Three Types of Dreams • Grayling versus Holland • God of the Gap • goop • Popes and Unicorns, Revisited • Medieval Moriartys • Sweat, Urine, Feces, and Decay • The Writings of Augustine • A Poignant Lost Opportunity

Top Tens

Everyone loves a top ten. Nowadays, no sport is free from a discussion about its ten best ever players, or ten best ever scores, or ten best ever teams. No superhero universe is complete without a rundown of its ten biggest, or fastest, or most powerful characters. The website TheTopTens currently has 187,481 lists on it—including those on musicians, actors, and digital camera brands. There are even a number of lists of what are considered to be the best top ten lists. And yes, at least one joker has ranked those, too—forming a “Top Ten List of Top Ten Top Ten Lists.”1

The UK’s Guardian newspaper has been in on this act for a while, with a regular slot called “The 10 Best . . .” In April 2010 it was the turn of the mathematicians to enjoy the spotlight. Sure enough, some of the big hitters were selected—Pythagoras, Euler, Gauss—but one of the other names to make the grade might be slightly less well known: that of Hypatia of Alexandria.2

Hypatia was a remarkable woman. She was a renowned scholar and a teacher, and she (along with her father, Theon) presided over the school and library of the Serapeum, a temple in the cosmopolitan North African city. Her reputation was superb; she attracted the brightest and best (and richest) of students from lands afar. These learners would sit at her feet in wonder as she unlocked Euclid’s geometry, Ptolemy’s astronomy, or Diophantus’s algebra in her famously lucid style.

We don’t know for sure which decade Hypatia was born in—but we do know precisely when she died. For, as the Guardian explains, in the spring of AD 415 “she was murdered by a Christian mob who stripped her naked, peeled away her flesh with broken pottery and ripped apart her limbs.”3


Philosophy and Bigotry

The shockingly brutal murder of Hypatia has, quite understandably, made her a subject of fascination for historians, authors, and artists alike. The flamboyant Englishman Edward Gibbon (1727–1794) was one of many who have dwelt on her story—it is a key event in his paradigm-shifting The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788):

In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples . . . and Cyril [Archbishop of Alexandria] beheld with a jealous eye the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy. . . . On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics . . . the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.4

More recently, the acclaimed writer/director/composer Alejandro Amenábar has brought Hypatia back to life—in the 2009 film Agora. Praised for its lurid and gritty depiction of end-of-empire Alexandria, Agora has warring factions of Christians, pagans, and Jews taking assorted pot-shots at one another. At its center is the Serapeum—in which are housed precious scrolls of wisdom gathered together, over the centuries, from every corner of the ancient world.

Early on in the film, the black-robed and crazed Christians—who despise Hypatia and all that she stands for—viciously attack the library, smashing its statues, and burning its manuscripts. Hypatia, shaken but undeterred, continues to teach and study for another two decades—but the viewer can sense it will all end in tragedy.

In the period between this first attack and her eventual death, Agora treats us to the stark contrast between Hypatia and Christianity. While the Christians attack and kill Jews, Hypatia makes the astonishing discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun, and that it does so in an ellipse. While the Christians scheme against the pagans, Hypatia tests out her ideas about the Earth’s motion by performing inventive experiments on falling objects. She reminds the archbishop that he, as a man of faith, cannot question his beliefs—whereas she, as a philosopher, is duty bound to.

Ultimately, the inevitable arrives. Hypatia’s atheistic science and her level of influence as a powerful woman prove far too offensive to the Church and, on the orders of Saint Cyril, she is killed. Her extraordinary mind—just like her extraordinary library—is lost to the world, forever.

To describe all this as a haunting injustice seems wholly appropriate. In The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, Cambridge classicist-turned-journalist Catherine Nixey rages at the conduct of the early Church in first destroying the Serapeum:

Nothing was left. Christians took apart the very temple’s stones. . . . The tens of thousands of books, the remnants of the greatest library in the world, were all lost. . . . As the modern scholar, Lucian Canfora, observed: “the burning of books was part of the advent and imposition of Christianity.”5

and then, years later, destroying its mistress:

[they] dragged Alexandria’s greatest living mathematician through the streets to a church. . . . Some say that, while she still gasped for breath, they gouged out her eyes. Once she was dead, they tore her body into pieces and threw what was left of the “luminous child of reason” onto a pyre and burned her.6

This is, perhaps, the perfect example of the conflict thesis in action: it is religion throwing its full weight at science. It is dogma murdering reason. And John William Draper, as we might expect, was appalled by it:

[The Christian Emperor Theodosius I] dispatched a rescript to Alexandria, enjoining the bishop, Theophilus, to destroy the Serapion; and the great library, which had been collected by the Ptolemies, and had escaped the fire of Julius Caesar, was by that fanatic dispersed.

Hypatia and Cyril! Philosophy and bigotry. They cannot exist together. So Cyril felt, and on that feeling he acted. . . . For this frightful crime Cyril was never called to account. It seemed to be admitted that the end sanctified the means. So ended Greek philosophy in Alexandria, so came to an untimely close the learning that the Ptolemies had done so much to promote.

The fate of Hypatia was a warning to all who would cultivate profane knowledge.

Henceforth there was to be no freedom for human thought.7

The Church, then, had nailed its colors to the mast—their empire was to be one of doctrine, not of freethought. No longer would Greco–Roman science and philosophy lead the way, for their new order would be one of blind and subservient faith instead. And, perhaps conveniently, Hypatia’s bloody death would serve as a warning to anyone who was not quite ready to comply.

Contempt upon All Investigators

Draper, Nixey, and Gibbon are not the only ones to see Hypatia’s gruesome end as a bit of a watershed. David C. Lindberg remarks that there are many for whom “Hypatia’s murder marked the ‘death-blow’ to ancient science and philosophy,” and gives some examples:

The distinguished historian of science B. L. Van der Waerden claims that “[a]fter Hypatia, Alexandrian mathematics came to an end”; in his study of ancient science, Martin Bernal uses Hypatia’s death to mark “the beginning of the Christian Dark Ages.”8

Ah, yes—the “Dark Ages.”

In his highly successful 2002 book The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman explains how Christendom effectively called time on the Greeks and the Romans, replacing their science and rationality with an unquestioning trust in Scripture and the Church. Freeman opens his work with two contrasting quotations to illustrate his point. Firstly, here is the Greek literary genius Euripides (c. 480–406 BC):

Blessed is he who learns how to engage in inquiry, with no impulse to harm his countrymen or to pursue wrongful actions, but perceives the order of immortal and ageless nature, how it is structured.9

And, secondly, here is the esteemed Church Father, Saint Augustine (AD 354–430):

There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. . . . It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.10

It is clear, Freeman argues, where the blame for the Dark Ages lies—and it isn’t with the Greeks.

He is far from being the first to say so—Draper, in Conflict, can barely hide his fury at Augustine:

No one did more than this Father to bring science and religion into antagonism; it was mainly he who diverted the Bible from its true office—a guide to purity of life—and placed it in the perilous position of being the arbiter of human knowledge, an audacious tyranny over the mind of man. The example once set, there was no want of followers; the works of the great Greek philosophers were stigmatized as profane; the transcendently glorious achievements of the Museum of Alexandria were hidden from sight by a cloud of ignorance, mysticism, and unintelligible jargon . . .11

Warfare, too, gets in on the game—initially by praising the ancients:

[the Greeks and Romans] gave scientific freedom. . . . This legacy of belief in science . . . was especially received by the school of Alexandria, and above all by Archimedes, who began, just before the Christian era, to open new paths through the great field of the inductive sciences by observation, comparison, and experiment.12

and then by bashing Christendom for ruining everything:

The establishment of Christianity, beginning a new evolution of theology, arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years . . . there was created an atmosphere in which the germs of physical science could hardly grow . . . the greatest thinkers in the Church generally poured contempt upon all investigators into a science of Nature.13

Here, then, are the Dark Ages. No science, no progress, no wisdom, no quality of life—and, Draper says, no hope either:

If by chance a passing interest was taken in some astronomical question, it was at once settled by a reference to such authorities as the writings of Augustine or Lactantius, not by an appeal to the phenomena of the heavens. So great was the preference given to sacred over profane learning that Christianity had been in existence fifteen hundred years, and had not produced a single astronomer.14

Freeman, when considering a subtitle for his all-encompassing account of the Church’s deadly assault on rational thought, landed upon The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason.

It says it all, really.

Of Popes and Unicorns

Ditching science comes at a cost. Medieval beliefs about the world, according to both Draper and White, soon became nonsensical—for minds were being fueled mostly by drivel. Here is Warfare:

The most careful inductions from ascertained facts were regarded as wretchedly fallible when compared with any view of nature whatever given or even hinted at in any poem, chronicle, code, apologue, myth, legend, allegory, letter, or discourse of any sort which had happened to be preserved in the literature which had come to be held as sacred.15

By rejecting philosophy and the physical sciences, the Church had opened up the intellectual back door to “sacred” silliness. Anyone claiming their ideas were somehow “holy” was given an audience. It was a free-for-all, says White:

The great work of Aristotle was under eclipse . . . in place of it [Christians] developed the Physiologus and the Bestiaries, mingling scriptural statements, legends of the saints, and fanciful inventions with pious intent and childlike simplicity . . . these remained the principal source of thought on animated Nature for over a thousand years.16

The “Physiologus and the Bestiaries” were fantastical zoological catalogues of God’s remarkable handiwork—and no scientific study or evidence, White says, was needed in their composition. He gives some of the laughable results:

Neglecting the wonders which the dissection of the commonest animals would have afforded them, these naturalists attempted to throw light into Nature by ingenious use of scriptural texts, by research among the lives of the saints, and by the plentiful application of metaphysics. Hence even such strong men as St. Isidore of Seville treasured up accounts of the unicorn and dragons mentioned in the Scriptures.17

Oh dear. Archbishop Isidore (c. 560–636) was considered by his contemporaries in the Church to be a God-anointed genius—to be “Solomon revived,” no less—and yet, without hint of a blush, he firmly believed in unicorns.18 And he was not the only one to do so—for here, once more, is our old friend of flat Earth fame, Cosmas Indicopleustes:

This animal is called the unicorn, but I cannot say that I have seen him. . . . When he finds himself pursued by many hunters and on the point of being caught, he springs up to the top of some precipice whence he throws himself down and in the descent turns a somersault so that the horn sustains all the shock of the fall, and he escapes unhurt. And scripture in like manner speaks concerning him, saying, Save me from the mouth of lions, and my humility from the horns of unicorns . . . thus bearing complete testimony to the strength, audacity, and glory of the animal.19

Incredibly, White says, the Church was still trotting out anti-scientific tales like this as late as the 1600s. He quotes the French monk Eugene Roger, who reported that a dragon-like basilisk “appeared in Rome and killed many people by merely looking at them; but the Pope destroyed it with his prayers and the sign of the cross.”20

Draper, not to be outdone, includes his own a story of a medieval pope saving the day:

An illiterate condition everywhere prevailing, gave opportunity for the development of superstition . . . when Halley’s comet came, in 1456, so tremendous was its apparition that it was necessary for the pope himself to interfere. He exorcised and expelled it from the skies. It slunk away into the abysses of space, terror-stricken by the maledictions of Calixtus III., and did not venture back for seventy-five years!21

This, then, is the fruit of twelve hundred years of Christianity: fairy tales of popes and unicorns. The Church, in choosing to ban Hypatia’s math, Plato’s philosophy, and Aristotle’s physics, had deliberately brought about the greatest brain-drain of all time. And, when we do a little more digging, it looks like much of this stupefying silliness was shooed in by a smattering of sanctified statements from some supposedly sacred saints.

Laughed at by a Schoolboy

Some time around AD 55, St. Paul wrote the following to a young church in Corinth, Greece:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor. 1:20–26)

Paul, as it happens, is not the only important Christian thinker to speak strongly on the topic of philosophy. The hugely influential Tertullian (c. AD 155–220), for example, is well known for writing aggressively against pagan thought, and for encouraging his fellow believers to shut their eyes and ears to it. Historian Winston Black explains that Tertullian:

associated the study of Greek science and philosophy with the worship of demons, and in this context uttered his most famous phrase: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” By this rhetorical question, he meant the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers (Athens) have nothing to do with Christ and his teachings (Jerusalem).22

And, of course, there is Augustine.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that this North African bishop had on the Christian world—for he flourished at a time when his religion was in the ascendency, and his extensive writings became both widespread and deeply treasured. Both Draper and White name Augustine as the person most responsible for the Christian Dark Ages—in fact, White mentions him on more than eighty separate occasions in Warfare. Here is a typical example:

St. Augustine, preparing his Commentary on the Book of Genesis, laid down in one famous sentence the law which has lasted in the Church until our own time: “Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind.”23

This holy law can lead only to irrationality, White laments—and, to make his point, he presents an extraordinary pair of claims he has found in Augustine’s masterpiece, City of God:

St. Augustine was certainly one of the strongest minds in the early Church, and yet we find him mentioning, with much seriousness, a story that sundry innkeepers of his time put a drug into cheese which metamorphosed travelers into domestic animals, and asserting that the peacock is so favored by the Almighty that its flesh will not decay.24

Yes, that really does say what it appears to say. Augustine, having purposefully taken leave of his senses because of his faith, is now teaching his flock that drugged cheese can turn men into donkeys, and that peacock meat—for God so loved the bird—never rots. White comments that, in his own more scientific age, such ideas would even be “laughed at by a schoolboy.”25

What chance could the poor passengers adrift in the Middle Ages possibly have, then, when their assorted captains—Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, and more—were consistently rejecting wisdom and teaching nonsense? It is little wonder that the term “medieval” has become synonymous with “backward.”

And not only “backward.” Displaying extraordinary flexibility, “medieval” can also stand in for “cruel,” or “filthy,” or “painful,” or even “evil.” For, as Draper and White and Nixey and Freeman and Gibbon and others have already reported, the Dark Ages were a time of fecklessness, of hopelessness, and of desolation; of darkness, of sickness, and of misery.

Even some of their own said so.

Scratch and Sniff

Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) was in despair at the world he saw around him. Petrarch (as he is more commonly known) yearned instead for the glories of the ancients, and dreamed that they might somehow be recovered. Medievalist Dame Janet L. Nelson says that, according to Petrarch:

the Middle Ages began when barbarians destroyed the Roman Empire c. 400, and the succeeding centuries of darkness (tenebrae) would last until western Europeans recovered the civilization of ancient Rome. . . . This fervent hope was what made Petrarch a historian—but a historian who passed over the medieval centuries in near-total silence: “What else is all history if not the praise of Rome?”26

Petrarch—the inventor of the term “Dark Ages”—was not alone in holding such a view. Nelson says Enlightenment hero David Hume (1711–1776) felt much the same, and that Edward Gibbon—perhaps the most famous historian ever to have lived—also saw the Roman Empire as humanity’s high-water mark:

After ending Volume III [of Decline and Fall] with the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, Gibbon recorded “the darkest ages of the Latin world” . . . he had here to confront “the darkness of the middle ages” . . . “The sleep of a thousand years,” thought Gibbon, could end only with a Petrarchian experience of rediscovery of Rome.27

This “sleep of a thousand years,” then, is a bit of a recurring theme. We have now seen it in Draper and White, Freeman and Nixey, Petrarch and Hume—and, of course, the incomparable Gibbon. It was not, they make clear, a peaceful sleep.

Instead, it was riddled with nightmares.

Cities, even the richest and grandest of them that the Middle Ages could offer, were full of the depressed, dead, and dying. A recent BBC documentary, for instance, has presenter Dan Snow touring a reimagined fourteenth-century London.28 In stark contrast to the glistening Gibbonian images of Rome, we are told that London boasted only seven—yes, seven—public toilets for the entire population; and that most of the waste simply ended up coating the already foul streets. The documentary, as it happens, is called Filthy Cities.

Lest anyone watching might fail to understand how horrible it all was, the BBC sent out some “scratch and sniff” cards to accompany the show. In one segment, Snow visits a modern sewage works, and viewers are invited to scrape away at the relevant box on their card. As they get a nice old whiff of human excrement, they are informed that this, for medieval Londoners, was effectively road-surfacing material. And that, it would appear, is what happens when religion takes over from science—people walk around, day to day, in their own bodily deposits.

In the monasteries, however, there was hope—for some still housed a handful of Greco–Roman texts. And yet, it was not to be. These precious books were erased, one by one, so that their pages could be reused—the newly blank leaves were then written over with Bible verses, or quotes from Church Fathers, or some other pious material.

One infamous incident of this—so infamous it has merited its own documentary29 —was when an unknown thirteenth-century monk scratched away what we believe was the only remaining copy of a cutting-edge mathematical text by none other than Archimedes (c. 288–212 BC). The feckless friar then overwrote this potentially game-changing work with a prayer.

Such are the Middle Ages—the Dark Ages—of Draper and White. Here are some miscellaneous highlights (or, more accurately, lowlights) from Conflict:

In the annals of Christianity the most ill-omened day is that in which she separated herself from science. . . . Universal history from the third to the sixteenth century shows with what result. The dark ages owe their darkness to this fatal policy.

Personal cleanliness was utterly unknown; great officers of state, even dignitaries so high as the Archbishop of Canterbury, swarmed with vermin. . . . The streets had no sewers; they were without pavement or lamps. . . . How is it that the Church produced no geometer in her autocratic reign of twelve hundred years? . . . In Christian Europe there had not been a cultivator of mechanical philosophy until Leonardo da Vinci, who was born A.D. 1452. . . . Christianity is responsible for the condition and progress of Europe from the fourth to the sixteenth century.30

And, as always, Warfare has Conflict’s back:

For twelve centuries, then, the physical sciences were thus discouraged or perverted by the dominant orthodoxy. . . . It came to be the accepted idea that, as soon as a man conceived a wish to study the works of God, his first step must be a league with the devil.31

When Carl Sagan wrote his multi-million-selling Cosmos in the 1980s, he included a history of science timeline for his readers—one which charted all of the great scientific developments made by humanity throughout recorded history. Between Hypatia in AD 415 and Leonardo Da Vinci in AD 1490, it goes rather quiet.

In fact, it is entirely blank.

Sagan explains, with obvious regret, that “The millennium gap in the middle of the diagram represents a poignant lost opportunity for the human species.”32


Still, we’ve been here before. So, when we discover that Michael H. Shank—emeritus professor of the history of science and co-editor of the multi-author, bang-up-to-date, 700-page Cambridge History of Science: Middle Ages—says “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 it remains vigorous among popularizers of the history of science”33 we are not, perhaps, as surprised as we previously might have been.

The Light Ages

Dr. Seb Falk has studied at Oxford University and is now researching and teaching at Cambridge University. His area of expertise? Medieval science.

Wait, hang on a second—medieval science? Surely the whole point is that there wasn’t any, was there? After all, Sagan’s timeline was empty. The Middle Ages were a time of superstition, of silly appeals to Scripture, of popes shooing away comets and praying away dragons, and of their faithful subjects spending most of their time covered in—well, let’s be gentle about it—muck.

And yet, here is Falk, describing a medieval monastery:

the cloister itself was decorated to reflect the breadth of monastic learning. . . . The windows included classical philosophers and poets, of course, but also medical thinkers, mathematicians like Pythagoras and Boethius. . . . Geometry and astronomy were represented by the totemic Greek masters Euclid and Ptolemy. . . . Significant recent thinkers in law and theology—Jewish as well as Christian theology—had their own windows, showing that the monks could appreciate both new ideas and the achievements of non-Christians.34

The name of Falk’s book is telling: it is The Light Ages. In it, he chronicles how medieval universities taught the Greek and Roman classics alongside the latest astronomy and calculation; how medieval engineers built the first true and highly technical clocks; how complex numerical analysis was used to produce accurate calendars; how fresh water was piped into London gardens with springs as sources. His picture couldn’t be more different from Sagan’s. In fact, Falk speaks of finding “many handwritten mathematical tables” when researching scientific documents for his project. “No unicorns there,” he says.35 Indeed.

Falk is hardly out on a limb here. For, as it turns out, the long-standing myth of the Dark Ages was devastatingly debunked decades ago. But still it hangs around, like one of Dan Snow’s bad smells.

So, let’s try opening some windows—and see if we can’t get rid of it.

Read with a Critical Eye

We shall start by going back to the beginning—to the early Church’s attitude toward Greco–Roman thought. The Draper–White line is that they were having none of it; that the likes of Paul, Tertullian, and Augustine had laid down the law when they pooh-poohed Plato and euthanized Euclid. But is that actually right?

Well, the Church, for a little while, tussled with two main questions: what should Christians be taught, and how should they think about what they were taught? This was a hugely important discussion; souls were potentially at stake. A handful of theologians, such as Tatian (AD 120–180), recommended avoiding everything pagan altogether—but these folk, in the end, proved to be the minority.

The majority position—and the one that quickly won out—was that learning the Classics was a good thing, provided it was done with care. In among the poems, the philosophy, the cosmologies, and the science, it was decided, were lessons that were of value, and lessons that were not. The Christian was to study it all, but also to weigh it for themselves—they were not to take it as a whole, unquestioningly, to heart.

Church historian Odd Magne Bakke has, rather helpfully for us, carefully reviewed what the various church leaders had to say on the matter. Here is his summary:

The leading theologians in the Eastern tradition, from the beginning of the third century to the close of the fifth, all held that the Greek classics, which were the staple of the encyclical studies, contained elements valuable to Christians. . . . The same is true of Western fathers such as Jerome and Augustine . . . they unanimously emphasize the usefulness of this education. . . . They make the point that pagan literature should be read with a critical eye . . . the church did not found any alternative schools, either on the primary or the more advanced level.36

Note that even St. Augustine—the great villain of the Draper and White piece—makes Bakke’s pro-pagan-philosophy list. Likewise, Tertullian—who is characterized as hating all things Greek—was nothing like as negative as many would have us believe. In fact, he writes: “Let us see, then, the necessity of literary erudition; let us reflect that partly it cannot be admitted, partly cannot be avoided. Learning literature is allowable for believers.”37

And what of St. Paul? Well, he was himself a philosopher, as any trained reader of his work would immediately recognize. And, on the scientific front, he taught that study of the natural world could lead to a better understanding of God: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).

But if the Church was not vehemently opposed to Greek or Roman philosophy, and if it did not despise learning, then why did Christians burn libraries? Why did they murder mathematicians?

An Alternative Saint

Perhaps, at this point, our level of mistrust of Draper and White has become so great that we might suspect Hypatia actually died peacefully in her sleep. Sadly, this is not the case. She was, as the various sources all state, violently killed at the hands of those who—rather unconvincingly—claimed to be disciples of the prince of peace.

Because of her death, Hypatia has risen up to become a transcendental figure; she has effectively been canonized as a sort of alternative saint—a martyr who represents reason standing firm against the dreaded arrows of blind faith. Intrinsic to Hypatia’s God-versus-science iconography is her extraordinary prowess as a mathematician, and the burning of her scrolls, and the centuries of further cultural and intellectual devastation that followed her murder—and, of course, the profound sense of loss at what might have been had the Church never got hold of any power in the first place.

Agora and Nixey and the Guardian and Sagan offer modern retellings of the Hypatia story for a new generation—adding details to it as they do so. Agora’s Hypatia put the Earth at the center of the solar system. Nixey’s Hypatia ran a library with tens of thousands of scrolls. The Guardian’s Hypatia was one of the top ten mathematicians of all time. Sagan’s Hypatia was the last scientist before the Enlightenment.

And yet all this is precisely what it looks like—legend.

Firstly, and most importantly, Hypatia was not killed because she was rational, or because she was a scientist, or because she was anti-Christian, or because Christians were anti-science, or because she was an atheist, or because she was a woman. She was a neo-Platonist who believed in the supernatural, and she was killed because she inadvertently got caught up in a complex political power struggle in a violent city famed for its rioting and brutality, and in which murder was the order of the day.38 Here is classicist John Dickson:

The reason the murder of Hypatia simply can NOT be about the church’s opposition to secular learning—to “science”—is at least threefold: (a) our best contemporary source—Socrates Scholasticus—is a Christian, and yet he praises her as the best philosopher of the day and deserving of fame, (b) some of her admiring students were Christians (e.g. Synesius and his brother Eutropius, both of whom became bishops), and (c) scholarly inquiry continued in Alexandria long after Hypatia, including that of the devoutly Christian John Philoponus.39

Investigate yet further, and the legend gets even more badly exposed. The mathematician Michael Deakin wrote a careful biography of Hypatia, and found that the vast majority of the material he came across about her is “fanciful, tendentious, unreferenced or plain wrong.” He continues:

What we know of Hypatia is little enough; what we know of her Mathematics is only a small subset of that little. . . . We have no evidence of research Mathematics on the part of either father or daughter. What we can reconstruct of their Mathematics suggests to us that they edited, preserved, taught from and supplied minor addenda to the works of others. A great deal of Theon’s work survives and at most a small part of Hypatia’s. In other words Theon was seen as the better text-writer.40

The Guardian’s placing of Hypatia on its top ten list is unjustifiable on her mathematics alone, for we have next to nothing to judge her on—it seems her murder has given her mathematical reputation a significant boost.

Agora, for what it is worth, simply made up the bit about Hypatia figuring out the solar system—she did nothing of the kind, and those discoveries weren’t made until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Still, it is a movie, so artistic license is permitted. Nixey’s claim about the vast number of books burned in the Serapeum, however, is supposed to be a factual one. Does it stand up to further scrutiny? Well, philosopher David Bentley Hart thinks not:

As it happens, we have fairly good accounts of that day, Christian and pagan, and absolutely none of them so much as hints at the destruction of any large collection of books. Not even Eunapius of Sardis—a pagan scholar who despised Christians and who would have wept over the loss of precious texts—suggests such a thing. This is not surprising, since there were probably no books there to be destroyed. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the Serapeum not long before its demolition, had clearly spoken of its libraries as something no longer in existence.41

Hart, in fact, reckons he can pinpoint the source of this myth:

The truth of the matter is that the entire legend was the product of the imagination of Edward Gibbon, who bizarrely misread a single sentence from the Christian historian Orosius, and from it spun out a story that appears nowhere in the entire corpus of ancient historical sources.42

Nixey and Hart, then, differ on the contents of the Serapeum. But why? Either there was a library, or there wasn’t. Either it did have books in it, or it didn’t. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of historical fact.

So how can there be disagreement?

Three Types of Dream

Roger Bagnall is a very well-established and highly decorated professor of ancient history—and his specialism is long-lost collections of books. One of the things he has learned along the way is that sorting historical truth from historical fiction is not always as easy as those outside of the discipline might have thought.

And he has a great example to prove it.

Centuries before the pseudo-events portrayed in Agora, there was already a library in Alexandria—perhaps the most famous library to have ever existed. All sorts of assertions are made about it: that it held every book written up to that point; that it was the center of all the world’s wisdom; even that, if it had not been destroyed, we might have got to the moon before the turn of the first millennium AD.43

Here, for instance, is Sagan’s take on it in Cosmos:

Only once before in our history was there the promise of a brilliant scientific civilization. . . . it had its citadel at the Library of Alexandria, where 2,000 years ago the best minds of antiquity established the foundations for the systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. . . . From the time of its creation in the third century B.C. until its destruction seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient world.44

Bagnall, however, suggests that people calm down somewhat—for, as we saw with Hypatia, we don’t know quite as much about all this as many seem to think we do:

No one, least of all modern scholars, has been able to accept our lack of knowledge about a phenomenon that embodies so many human aspirations. In consequence, a whole literature of wishful thinking has grown up, in which scholars—even, I fear, the most rigorous—have cast aside the time-tested methods that normally constrain credulity, in order to be able to avoid confessing defeat. . . . I shall talk about three types of dreams that have beguiled commentators ancient and modern: dreams about the size of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina; dreams about placing the blame for its destruction; and dreams about the consequences of its loss.45

Bagnall goes on to explain that we don’t even know how or when or by whom the original library was built, let alone which documents were in it. Oft-repeated claims that there were 700,000 or 500,000 or even 200,000 scrolls are entirely beyond the pale, he says: such “outlandish” figures “do not deserve any credence” and “lead to impossibilities and absurdities.” He puts the total number as likely nearer to ten or fifteen thousand—and even this is assuming multiple copies of most works.

What’s more, despite Sagan appearing to think that the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Hypatia’s Serapeum were one and the same (hence his “seven centuries”), Bagnall makes it clear that they were two entirely separate institutions—the former a long-distant memory by the time Theon and his daughter were around. The Serapeum perhaps had a handful of scrolls in it for classes—but it may well have housed none at all. After all, there are no ancient records, anywhere, of it holding books or of those books being burned—not by Christians, and not by anyone else.

It is beginning to look like the “tens of thousands” of manuscripts Nixey believes in are just as much an article of the conflict thesis faith as Hypatia herself has become. Bagnall again:

Passions still run high on this matter . . . I wrote an article on the Alexandrian Library. . . . The editor did not like my caution about the accounts of the destruction of the Library and, without telling me, rewrote the article to blame everything squarely on the Christians. Whether he hated Christianity or just liked a simple story line, I do not know.46

Still, there is one thing we can be certain of—those libraries aren’t there now. They weren’t there at the end of the fifth century either. What’s more, any scrolls in use at Hypatia’s time were highly susceptible to climatic wear and tear, and would have rotted away—even in storage—long before AD 600.47

Remarkably, though, we know what was written in some of them. How?

Grayling Versus Holland

Anthony Clifford Grayling is a stalwart of the British intelligentsia. A philosopher and a prolific author, he has written more than thirty books and is currently master of London’s New College of the Humanities. In his sweeping 2019 volume, The History of Philosophy, he appears to line himself up somewhat with Draper and White’s version of events. Grayling says that, from Augustine onward:

A vast amount of the literature and material culture of antiquity was lost, a great deal of it purposefully destroyed. Christian zealots smashed statues and temples, defaced paintings and burned “pagan” books. . . . It is hard to comprehend, still less to forgive, the immense loss of literature, philosophy, history and general culture this represented.48

This assertion made classicist Tom Holland rather angry. We know this because, at the time, he was sat less than four feet away from Grayling, and the two men were being filmed. Holland’s response was direct:

Anthony is a great scholar and professor, and you would think that this would be a simple thing for him to go and check. This is a myth that essentially is propagated in the eighteenth century. The figure who underlies it is Gibbon.49

The truth, he said, is not only that Christians didn’t burn pagan books—it is that they were the ones who kept them alive:

Monks were systematically copying, they were copying Virgil in the Latin West, they were copying Horace, they were copying Ovid, that’s why they survived. . . . In Constantinople they were copying Homer, they were copying Herodotus, they were copying Thucydides, that’s why they survived.50

Indeed, the major point missed by those complaining about twelfth-century monks erasing Archimedes is this: how did twelfth-century monks have Archimedes—which, by then, would be 1400 years old—in the first place? The answer is a simple one: their predecessors had been carefully studying and producing copy after copy of it, generation after generation—hardly the behavior of an unscientific bunch.

Perhaps we can let Holland sum up:

The idea that there was a systematic campaign by evil Christians to eliminate the legacy of classical civilisation could not be less true—and this is so clear and transparent a historical fact that it stupefies me that Anthony could even begin to think otherwise.51

Well, then. That appears to be that.

God of the Gap

So, if Christians didn’t do what Draper and White would have us believe—if they didn’t burn up the Greco–Roman intellectual world; if they thought Greco–Roman education was useful; if they played the major role in keeping it available; if they decorated their monasteries with famed mathematicians and scientists; if they were open to ideas from other cultures—then why was there a millennium of darkness between AD 500 and AD 1500? What happened in between Rome and the Renaissance? Why does Sagan’s empty timeline just sit there, all white space?

Well, in the last half-century or so (at least), scholars have looked again at this gap—and they have been rather busy filling it in. We already had an example of this in Falk’s Light Ages, with its clocks, mathematical tables, and calendars—and these turn out to be just the tip of an intellectual iceberg.

In God’s Philosophers, James Hannam tells the stories of many major medieval thinkers and their contributions to human progress. He relates how Christians committed themselves to the study of any Greek science or philosophy they could get their hands on, and that they energetically pursued studies such as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. In his introduction, we come across some rather familiar names:

Daniel Boorstin’s history of science The Discoverers referred to the Middle Ages as “the great interruption” to mankind’s progress . . . Charles Freeman wrote . . . that this was a period of “intellectual stagnation” . . . John William Draper and Thomas Huxley introduced this thesis to English readers in the nineteenth century. It was given intellectual respectability through the support of Andrew Dickson White. . . . But anyone who checks his references will wonder how he could have maintained his opinions if he had read as much as he claimed to have done.52

In the Draper–White–Gibbon–Petrarch–Nixey–Freeman–Boorstin–Sagan–Agora–Grayling gap, as one might call it, researchers keep on finding people who are not supposed to be there: people who resolutely believe in God, live squarely in the Dark Ages, and are doing some pretty clever open-minded thinking.

Boethius (c. 477–524) and John Philoponus (c. 490–570), for example, analyzed and developed Greek philosophy and Greek physics, respectively. Philoponus discussed the idea of forces being the true cause of motion and even argued, against what he had read in Aristotle, that different weights would fall at the same speed.53

The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) was a historian and natural philosopher whom Allan Chapman refers to as “Britain’s first astronomer of international standing.”54 Bede did not confine himself to matters of cosmology: when wondering how the sea could be salty when it was fed by rivers, he dismissed the old Roman theory he found in Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79). The classical case was that there were tunnels under the sea by which the fresh water returned to the rivers. Bede, employing empirical evidence, disagreed: “But fresh waters flow above salt waters, for they are lighter; the latter certainly, being of a heavier nature, better sustain the waters poured over them.”55

Alcuin of York (c. 735–804) was schooled by one of Bede’s students, and he delighted in education of all kind. He is famous, alongside his more scholarly and clerical work, for inventing logic puzzles specifically designed to train young minds in reason—such as this one:

A man had to take a wolf, a goat and a bunch of cabbages across a river. The only boat he could find could only take two of them at a time. He had been ordered to transfer all of these to the other side in condition. How could this be done?56

Some of the other names involved in medieval science include: Leo the Mathematician (c. 790–869), an archbishop of Thessalonica who wrote an encyclopedia of medicine; Gerbert of Aurillac (946–1003), a mathematician and astronomer who was eventually made pope; Constantine the African (c. 1020–1087), a physician who translated Hippocrates and Galen; Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–1152), who penned Questions on Natural Science; Robert Grosseteste (c. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and hands-on experimentalist who uncovered many of the properties of light; St. Albert the Great (c. 1200–1280), an expert in logic, psychology, metaphysics, meteorology, mineralogy, and zoology; and Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), perhaps the first truly mathematical physicist and a serious proposer of hot air balloons, motorboats, and flying machines.

Then, from AD 1300 to 1500, there were such luminaries as William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), a scientist and philosopher who is quoted in theoretical physics books to this day; Jean Buridan (c. 1301–1358), whose logic regularly features in modern economics and psychology; Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1300–1349), who calculated the mathematics of acceleration; Nicole Oresme (c. 1320–1382), who represented motion graphically; and Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), who first took people’s pulse rates, and who theorized the motion of the Earth through space.

These lists are far from being exhaustive, of course. Each name here (and many others besides) comfortably merits a book of their own to detail their extensive work—indeed, most of them now have more than one. Almost every day new discoveries are made about the science going on in the gap.

Progress was not limited to scientific thinking, either—there was plenty of scientific doing, too. The specialist in medieval technology, George Ovitt, picks out multiple life-changing devices and techniques such as the magnetic compass, the stirrup, crop rotation, water- and wind-powered mills, spectacles, flying buttresses, ploughs, horse collars, the crossbow, batch production of wool, cannon, and the new skeleton-style construction of stronger and lighter ships.57

What’s more, Ovitt suggests that these tinkerers of Christendom “were moved to invention out of some restless spirit of creativity,” whereas their Roman forebears—the ones so vaunted by Gibbon et al.—“displayed little interest in original invention.”58

So the gap, then, is pretty full—full of God-fearing and thoroughly medieval minds that were making scientific, philosophical, and technological progress right across the board. Sagan missed several tricks, it would seem.

But what about the death, and the filth, and the superstition that dominated the Dark Ages? What about the monster-killing, comet-dismissing popes? What about the unicorns?


Well, there is no denying it: superstition in the Middle Ages was rife. Peter Dendle, an expert on folklore, lays out just a few of the many examples:

[There were] unlucky “Egyptian” days, and anyone daring to have his blood let or to eat goose meat on those days would, according to some sources, die shortly thereafter. . . . Springs, brooks, rivers, and wells were thought to be inhabited by sprites or spirits. . . . People were sometimes believed to turn into wolves during a full moon. . . . one can easily generate an amusing list of quaint beliefs and absurd practices.59

But matters are not quite so simple, and Dendle cautions us against making snap judgments. Greek and Roman giants such as Plato, Theophrastus, Cicero, and Plutarch, he says, also describe a world full of ungrounded fantasies. They tell of astrology and divination, of panic caused by sweating statues, and of the simultaneous defecation of two oxen being a dangerous omen.60

Superstition, then, pre-dates the Dark Ages. And, more to the point, it is still very much with us now—right here in the supposedly rational and post-Enlightenment world of modernity.

Take goop, for instance. Marketed as a health and wellness company fronted by Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, goop had to pay out a large sum of money in September 2018 after a ruling it had made “unscientific claims.” These included selling a flower essence which could apparently “cure” depression, and eggs cut from jade which could—when placed in the right spot anatomically—help balance a suffering woman’s hormones.61

Undeterred by this lawsuit, the brand pressed on—and it now has a Netflix hit with the goop lab. A documentary series about goop’s “science,” it features one episode in which a certain Dr. John Amaral treats people by manipulating their “energy fields.” He does this using only his bare hands, and can do so from as far as 6 feet away: “I have a hypothesis: If you just change the frequency of vibration of the body itself, it changes the way the cells regrow.”62

Talking a thrilled Paltrow through it all, Amaral cites famous experiments from “quantum physics.” Well, Professor Phil Moriarty of Nottingham University just happens to be a quantum physicist—and, somewhat wonderfully, his live reaction to this particular episode of the goop lab is available for all to watch on YouTube. It contains such highlights as “this is bonkers,” “I’ve only got to the titles and I’m already p***** off,” and “this is just nonsense, this really is just nonsense.”63

For what it’s worth, goop has half a million followers on Facebook. The company is valued at a quarter of a billion dollars.64 Here is Dendle once more: “It is not a given that, even from an absolute standpoint, people in the Middle Ages entertained more superstitions than, for instance, twenty-first century Americans do.”65

Yes, the Middle Ages were superstitious. So were the Greeks and Romans. So are people now.

Popes and Unicorns, Revisited

Just as superstition seems to be a human constant, so do stories of mysterious beasts. White made it sound like only medieval folk were enchanted by such ideas, but that is far from the truth. The ancient Greeks went in for them big time, with Hesiod (fl. c. 700) writing about dog-headed tribes and Empedocles (c. 494–433 BC) making seemingly serious claims about disembodied hands and feet bounding around of their own free accord. Even Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC) leaves room for the existence of half-lion-half-eagle griffins—although, to his great credit, he appears to favor the side of skepticism.66

And, of course, we ourselves indulge in such fantasies—rarely an evening goes by without a mainstream TV channel somewhere searching for the Loch Ness monster, or the Abominable Snowman, or extraterrestrials who, having built the pyramids, are occasionally popping back to the Earth to abduct and probe yokels. It would appear that we still, in our own distinct way, very much believe in unicorns.

Well, OK, but what of the unicorns in the Bible? Wasn’t White’s point that otherwise sensible people like Isidore were being misled by Scripture itself?

An unlikely candidate to sort this particular chestnut out is arch-atheist and science writer Isaac Asimov. In his Guide to the Bible, Asimov soundly debunks the idea that the biblical writers ever claimed such a creature existed—and he also shows that they never sought to convince anyone else that it did, either:

The Hebrew word represented in the King James Version by “unicorn” is re’ em, which undoubtedly refers to the wild ox (urus or aurochs). . . . When the first Greek translation of the Bible was prepared about 250 b.c. the animal was already rare in the long-settled areas of the Near East and the Greeks, who had had no direct experience with it, had no word for it. They used a translation of “one-horn” instead and it became monokeros. In Latin and in English it became the Latin word for “one-horn”; that is, “unicorn.”67

The mystery of the Scriptural unicorn, then, is one of a bad translation. When the Bible spoke of a “unicorn”—which it only ever did in a few translations—it was speaking of a wild ox. And it never mentioned somersaults. Sorry, Cosmas—wrong again.

Isidore and other readers then presumably conflated this animal with the older idea, present in Greek texts, of a single-horned horse that lived in India. They were hardly being naïve—for on what grounds should they not believe in such an easily imagined creature? After all, there are far, far stranger creatures out there that really do exist—the Alaskan wood frog, for instance, freezes solid all winter long and thaws out again in the spring. And, if folk in the Middle Ages wanted to fantasize further about unicorns—which they did, a great deal—is that really any different to our documentaries on Nessie?

That’s unicorns dealt with, then. What about popes?

Well, the “pope excommunicates comet” storyline from Conflict also turns out to be rather disappointing in reality. In that it didn’t happen. There is no mention whatsoever of the idea in any primary source at all and the whole thing, upon further investigation, disappears in a puff of smoke as a nineteenth-century urban myth. In fact, the tale’s lack of provenance was exposed by careful historians within Andrew Dickson White’s own lifetime—and not just once, but twice.68

And, while we are still pontiff-icating, there is also (sadly) no primary evidence that a pope ever killed a laser-eyed basilisk in Rome—or anywhere else, for that matter. These travelers’ tales were written as entertainment for the masses, not careful history for the academy—and their readers treated them as such. Eugene Roger’s journal is to medieval science what the goop lab is to quantum physics—in that it really doesn’t tell us anything about it.

Which leads us, in fact, to an interesting question: were there any Professor Moriartys around in the Middle Ages? Were there people prepared to challenge irrationality or silliness when they saw it? The answer is yes—there were.

Medieval Moriartys

In Hannam’s gap-stuffing God’s Philosophers—which was, incidentally, nominated for the Royal Society’s Prize for Science Books—he discusses the mighty theologian Thomas Aquinas’s (1225–1274) thoughts on the practice of astrology:

[Aquinas’s] views represent something approaching the medieval consensus and are worth quoting: “If anyone attempts from the stars to foretell future contingent or chance events, or to know with certitude future activities of men, he is acting under a false and groundless presumption, and opening himself to the intrusion of diabolic powers. Consequently, this kind of fortune telling is superstitious and wrong. But if someone uses astronomic observation to forecast future events which are actually determined by physical laws, for instance drought and rainfall, and so forth, then this is neither superstitious nor sinful.”69

Aquinas, it needs to be pointed out, was massively influential—indeed, he is perhaps the most influential thinker in the entire history of the Church, with the possible exception of Augustine. This matters because, as Hannam records, his views were much more Moriarty than goop:

In particular, Thomas stood up for the doctrine of secondary causes as a valid way for a Christian to investigate the world. He did not accept that it was impious to say that a plague was caused by a disease rather than attributing it directly to the will of God.70

Indeed, the average sick person throughout the Middle Ages would both pray and seek medical treatment from wherever they could get it. In his 2019 book The Middle Ages: Facts and Fictions, medievalist Winston Black says:

We first need to dismiss those mythmakers who claim that medieval people resorted only to prayer and magic to treat disease. Medieval medicine recognized most diseases as having natural causes, treatable by natural remedies, which could be understood and prepared by men or women, the learned or the uneducated.71

The pray-and-get-treated approach is consistent with what St. Paul suggested in Scripture (as we saw in our previous chapter) and is what remains, by far, the most common practice of Christians today. The assertions coming from Draper and White that prayer somehow replaced medicine entirely are, as Black makes abundantly clear, wholly untrue.

Another medieval Moriarty was St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). This French abbot takes a real beating from White in Warfare as being a typically dogmatic Christian and, correspondingly, a curse to rationality. And yet, in Bernard’s Apologia of AD 1125, there is a passage about the beasts of the bestiaries so scathing that White could probably have written it himself:

Here [in the cloisters] on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. . . . Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?72

Not everyone in the Middle Ages, then, was a superstitious nutcase—at least, there were no more of them then than there are now. And, more often than not, those questioning the more eccentric ideas of the time were the supposed anti-science villains of Conflict and Warfare—the dedicated clergy.

Sweat, Urine, Feces, and Decay

So is nothing about the Dark Ages myth sacred? Surely, if we know anything at all, we know that the medieval period stunk, and stunk pretty bad—didn’t it? After all, those scratch and sniff cards provided by Dan Snow didn’t bother with patches which smelled of antiseptic. Or of toothpaste. Or of deodorant. Or of soap.

Even this core belief, though—a key line in the Gibbonian creed—requires some re-evaluation. Firstly, things weren’t all that olfactorily pleasant in the glorious ancient world. Here’s Odd Bakke again:

People in antiquity were dependent on chamber pots and on holes in hills that functioned as latrines; the contents had to be emptied into open sewers, into which other domestic rubbish also was thrown. In many cases, however, people could not be bothered to do this, and simply emptied their chamber pots out of the windows during the night. Ventilation in the apartments was ineffective. . . . As Rodney Stark says, “The smell of sweat, urine, feces, and decay permeated everything.” He points out that things were not much better out of doors on the street: “Mud, open sewers, manure, and crowds. In fact, human corpses—adult as well as infant—were sometimes just pushed into the street and abandoned.”73

Medieval London, by comparison, doesn’t come off quite as badly as we might have thought—in fact, in many ways, it was a significant improvement. Norwegian historian Dolly Jørgenson explains that there were strict laws about what you could do with your mess; that these were enforced, when necessary, by the courts; that breaches of protocol were rare; and that specific taxes were collected to keep the river and streets clean. She rails against common and lazy claims that “hygienic conditions fell far below the standard of Imperial Rome,”74 and seeks to set the record straight:

Certainly there were transgressions of waste disposal norms in the Middle Ages, but just as we have people who litter or throw a sack of garbage on a countryside lane today, those were the exception, not the rule. Medieval city dwellers did not trample through ankle-deep refuse in the street every day—they would have found that as loathsome a prospect as Snow did in Filthy Cities.75

All things considered, it seems that the Middle Ages—and the often clever, resourceful, and sensibly pious people who lived during them—deserve a genuine rethink on the popular level. Perhaps, instead of our children being told some rehashed Petrarchan tale about how everyone was stupid, horrible, and smelly, they could be taught about some of the heroes who threw themselves into science, philosophy, and math. Perhaps they could be treated to live demonstrations of ingenious medieval inventions—and asked if they could ever have come up with the same ideas.

Perhaps, even, they could be set some of Alcuin’s fun, imaginative, and more-than-a-millennium-old puzzles—for it might help to sharpen up their twenty-first-century brains.

The Writings of Augustine

One last task remains before us in this chapter: the gentle rehabilitation of a battered saint.

Augustine was blamed by Draper for the Dark Ages; Augustine was mocked by White for his credulity. The picture the pair paint is of a dangerously useless but influential man with his eyes stuck in Scripture and his ears deaf to reason. But they are wrong—and it is really rather easy to prove it.

Draper, for instance, had said that any medieval astronomical question “was at once settled by a reference to the writings of Augustine,” and that the Middle Ages had therefore “not produced a single astronomer.”

This, however, is bunk—on both counts. Firstly, there were thousands of astronomers throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, many of whom were monks, or cardinals, or even popes. Some made their own machines called astrolabes to track the planets and stars; others wrote manuals on how to build them; still others wrote instructions on their correct use—all this is detailed, complete with images of manuscripts, in Falk’s Light Ages. Secondly, Draper was wrong to imply that Augustine was hopelessly unscientific—for he was actually rather capable in that regard.

Take the widespread and ancient practice of astrology, for instance. Augustine, in his mammoth theology The City of God, takes it to task—and he uses the power of reason to do so.

Twins, Augustine says, are born under the same stars, and yet their lives can dramatically diverge—an awkward fact for the astrologer, and one which our theologian thinks is already enough to entirely undermine the practice. What’s more, he references both Cicero and Hippocrates on the matter—giving a lie to any idea that he ignored the classics.

Hippocrates, according to Cicero, had famously decided that two brothers must be twins when they fell ill at the same time—but Augustine, mentioning this, argues that one event does not necessarily follow from the other. Instead, he thinks the better explanation is that both boys lived in the same environment, ate the same food, and were treated alike by their parents. The bishop even goes on to say that he thinks Hippocrates, if the Greek physician were around to hear it, would agree with the logic of his newer assessment.76

This is all well and good, but what of White’s accusations about immortal peacocks and transmogrified donkeys? Is there anything that can be said in the Church Father’s defense about these bizarrest of bizarre charges?

Let’s deal with the cheese-donkeys (mascarponies?) first. Augustine, again in City of God, says this story had indeed been passed on to him—that cheese had turned people into asses somewhere in Italy. His response is as follows:

These things are either false, or so extraordinary as to be with good reason disbelieved. . . . I cannot therefore believe that even the body, much less the mind, can really be changed into bestial forms and lineaments by any reason, art, or power of the demons.77

So, in short, he rejected the report. However, he does not go on to rule it out entirely—for he believes that God can do anything. This approach—one of rational skepticism paired with an open mind—would go on to become hugely important in the unfolding story of science, as we shall see later in this book.

And now peacocks. The legend that the bird’s meat did not go moldy was hardly a new one—it had circulated among the ancient Greeks. Augustine, however, doesn’t just take their word for it:

This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shriveled, and drier.78

Any biologist, chemist, or physicist worth their salt will immediately recognize the passage above for precisely what it is: a fully fledged—and surprisingly modern—science experiment. Many popular histories of science suggest that experiments of this form only first appeared in the 1600s with the likes of Galileo, and Boyle, and Hooke. Yet here we are, at around AD 420, and Augustine has beaten the lot of them to it. He has a hypothesis, he has a method, he has data, he has a conclusion. By referencing other meats, he has even built in a control variable of sorts.

What we have got here, effectively, is a dogmatic theologian using the scientific method more than a thousand years before the so-called scientific revolution. Draper and White were horribly mistaken. Augustine’s writings didn’t lower the bar, they raised it—and, in doing so, set high standards for the non-gap that was to come.

A Poignant Lost Opportunity

Frustratingly, despite all the contrary evidence on offer, the miserable middle ages picture just won’t go away. Nixey’s book, for example, was widely panned by classicists from universities all over the world, but was lavishly praised in high-circulation newspaper reviews. Agora—which has Oscar-winning superstar Rachel Weisz playing Hypatia—is always going to hit a far bigger audience than Bagnall’s carefully corrective article in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.

Amenábar’s inspiration for Agora was the TV version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—which was itself watched by half a billion people, exposing each and every one of them to the gap.79, 80 Just like so many of Draper and White’s other ideas, then, it is now deeply embedded in the minds of the public.

All of which is incredibly frustrating to those academics who know what they are talking about. Here is a telling passage from the comprehensive Cambridge History of Science: “The timeline reflected not the state of knowledge in 1980 but Sagan’s own ‘poignant lost opportunity’ to consult the library of Cornell University, where he taught.”81

There is some sort of strange irony in the fact that Sagan worked at Cornell, the very same university founded by Andrew Dickson White. There is another in the fact that the libraries there—one of which still bears White’s name—could actually, if they had been checked, have put an end to the gap once and for all.

Had Sagan done just a little more research, he could have told 500 million people that there actually was plenty of science and technology in the Middle Ages. He could have told them that medieval folk were often quite clever, and inventive, and practical. He could have righted Draper and White’s wrongs.

In 2014, however, Sagan’s Cosmos franchise was given a chance to set the record straight: America’s PBS commissioned a TV series of the same name, intending it to be a part-sequel-part-reimagining of the original for a new generation.

The resulting show—Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—went down a storm with both fans and critics alike, and won four Emmys, including one for its bold new script. Does this mean the revised and updated Cosmos had learned the lessons of its predecessor? Had it finally moved on from Petrarch and Gibbon, and from Draper and White?

We will answer these questions in the next chapter. For now, though, here is a clue: the presenter this time around was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whom we previously encountered in Chapter 3. Back then we found him confidently informing his huge Twitter audience that, although the ancient Greeks had figured out we lived on a globe, such knowledge had been “lost to the Dark Ages.”

It doesn’t bode well, does it?

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