22 November 2006

Getting Medieval

I haven't been following the whole religion/atheism thing or even much science in recent weeks/months. For the past little while, I've been indulging in one of my other nerdly loves: medieval history.

In the past little while, I've read Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (debunking the myths surrounding our view of the Middle Ages), Norman Cantor's The Last Knight (looks at late Medieval society using John of Gaunt as a reference), and I'm just finishing Brian Clegg's The First Scientist (about pioneering friar Roger Bacon). On the side, I'm reading the large and very general Ancient History by J.M. Roberts. I also got a book on Medieval military techniques for my birthday, and I know that I'm getting a book on the Normans for Christmas.

It's been nice to get away from the constant onslaught of religiosity that I get when I go to church with my wife or even talk to her at home. I get enough of the religion-bashing content from Pharyngula. Even reading Carnival of the Godless has become a chore of late, so a little history is a good diversion.

But even then I cannot escape. The Ancient History book contains chapters on whatever religions make a historical impact. Both Terry Jones' book and Norman Cantor's book contain some reference to the church and religion. It makes sense: religion was a huge factor in the lives of Europeans. One could say that without Christianity there would be no Europe. But in these books it was a small part.

Not so for The First Scientist. Like CotG, this book has been a chore. That's what happens when the subject is a friar and works for the pope. It's been an interesting, though frustrating, read; it really makes you wonder how much the church held back intellectual development.

For those who don't know (and I'm sure most don't), Roger Bacon (no relation to Francis Bacon) was an Oxford-trained scholar back in the 1200's. He was deeply interested in the natural world and was arguably the first to combine purely theoretical natural philosophy (a la Aristotle) with the demand for experimental proof - hence the title "the first scientist." Among his topics of study were optics, cartography, astronomy, alchemy, and languages. However, early in his work, political turmoil resulted in the loss of his funding as his family lost their wealth. Always a deeply religious man, he joined the friary as a way to continue his studies, and even arranged a deal to produce a scientific treatise for the pope. Unfortunately for him, the pope he was working for died and the one who replaced him instilled a culture that allowed no dissent from accepted theology; no challenging authority was tolerated. Bacon, always a disturber, was locked away for over 10 years, though this was probably over his religious rather than scientific views. He was eventually released but did not accomplish much else before his death.

His life story just makes me angry.

In a more free intellectual time, Bacon himself might have sparked a scientific revolution 400 years earlier than what actually occured. He was not a very good scientist, and, although he advocated empiricism, he himself was a poor experimenter; nevertheless, his works show a new way of thinking and a new way of skepticism that could have led the way to real scientific discovery had the culture of the time not been rooted in mysticism and religion.

As for Bacon, that mystical and religious culture perverted his memory into that of a magician and alchemist. It was not until the dawning of the scientific revolution that some scholars looked back on Bacon's works and said, "Hey! This guy was on the right track 400 years ago."

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