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In the Middle of Things

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January 27, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
In the Middle of Things

Today's entry was written by Amy Carleton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

As a graduate student in literature, I have been taught to read carefully, think critically, and to synthesize my interpretations with other critical perspectives on a given topic or text.

This is often more difficult than it sounds.

While the capacity that humans possess for understanding and analysis is vast, these abilities are also often hindered by an individual’s own subjective inclinations—particularly in the humanities, where objectivity is in short supply.

For example, this may come as a surprise to some but the term “medieval”, used colloquially to refer to something that is closed minded, antiquated, or static actually stems from such a “subjective” perspective. This common usage is largely owed to a flawed interpretation of a comment made by the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, who remarked that the literature and culture of the later (i.e. Medieval) Roman Empire was “dark” in that it lacked the “light” of any cultural production from the earlier Classical period.

Petrarch was simply noting stylistic attributes, however—not making any evaluative distinctions.

Yet in subsequent centuries, the millennium falling (roughly) between 500-1500 B.C. was referred to as “The Dark Ages”. In addition, since many in the following period (c. 1453-1789) were actively engaged in a recovery project to reintroduce classical literature and culture, they decided that the era sandwiched in between wasn’t terribly important. It was, therefore, in the middle of things.

Thus the term “medieval” (from the Latin medium aevum) was coined in the late 15th century by early Renaissance historians to suggest that the preceding period was in the middle of things—as history was only understood at this point as having three epochs, bookended by the ancients and the early moderns. These essentially neutral coinages, based on subjectivities, served to negatively characterize an era for later centuries.

In reality, though, the medieval period was one of great cultural achievement and inquiry—not only in terms of science, but also in other areas of intellectual thought and composition, including theology and literature.

Scientific advances of the period included the systematizing of what we now know as the Scientific Method. Many classical mathematical texts that were temporarily “lost” in the early part of the millennium were recovered, expanded, and made applicable by a number of eastern mathematicians including Bhaskara, who applied the principles of ancient Greek mathematicians to develop the method of differential calculus. The Islamic scientist Alhazen is often referred to as the “father of modern optics” after his Book of Optics proved the theory of vision. The list of those who made important contributions to scientific thought is long and varied.

In the world of theology, biblical hermeneutics was further systematized to approach sacred texts on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (mystical). This liberation of biblical interpretation from scholastic (that is, literalist) interpretations allowed for the proliferation of non-literal biblical commentaries. Which, incidentally, accounted for the largest percentage of texts in print by the 17th century in England.

Further, theologians like Thomas Aquinas typified this spirit of interpretation when he emphasized that truth is known through reason and faith—but not through one without the other. The notion, then, that intellectual inquiry was discouraged (or prevented) by the church is another misconception of the Medieval period.

Contemporary historians of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led. There was no warfare between science and the church.”

In addition, historian Edward Grant writes: "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities".

In my field of literature, works of the medieval period engaged with debates on science (or cultural advancement) and religion in varied ways. Many of them also helped shape our modern tendencies to accept and encourage open discourse and debate.

During the medieval period, the study of literature was also expanded and developed to include aspects of scholarly inquiry found in science and theology. In fact, Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (1321) evidences the cooperative nature between these three disciplines. Dante’s poem takes the reader on a journey through his vision of the afterlife that begins in hell (Inferno), moves through purgatory, and finally ascends to heaven—or Paradise. Modeled on the three places Dante visits in the text, the poem’s system of order, terza rima, uses three verse stanzas with a complicated rhyme scheme which has the first and third lines in the tercet rhyming and the last word in the middle line providing the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next stanza. Thus, “threes” are emphasized throughout the structure in a way that readers cannot help but notice.

As if that were not enough complexity, Dante also intends the structural geometry to emphasize other (thematic and symbolic) concepts in the poem—most obviously the Holy Trinity, but the number three has additional significance as well. For example, as I mentioned above, there are three worlds represented in the complete poem (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) and within these three worlds, there are also three levels.

Throughout the poem, other instances of threes abound: Satan has three heads and chews on three sinners, three holy women provide the narrator with a guide, and each of the poem’s sections has thirty-three cantos (which alludes to the age of Christ). Beyond its structural geometry, the Divine Comedy also includes a number of scientific themes, such as a spherical earth and the importance of the experimental method.

Dante also has his narrator encounter Adam in the final section of the poem (Paradiso, 26.80), where he answers questions that medieval Christians had wondered about—including the length of his stay in Eden (7 hours); the number of post-Eden years that he lived on Earth (930); and how long he had spent in Limbo (4302 years). In this passage, Adam also talks about language and maintains that it was his own creation (not God’s) and that it was extinct before the Fall of Babel. In making this claim, Dante’s Adam is not only validating Dante’s use of a Florentine vernacular form in writing his poem (i.e. by suggesting there is no such thing as “normative” speech) but his claim also suggests that any human creation is flawed—or at least subject to change when it is not created by the Creator.

As we can see in these examples from three different fields—science, theology, and literature—during the medieval era, people were interested and engaged. They were not shrouded in darkness and anti-progression, yet for centuries the period was characterized in this way.

In our contemporary times, we should also embrace this spirit of cooperation and dialogue between the disciplines, recognizing that it is science that supplies us with data, while theology and literature—such the Bible—provide us with narrative and analytical tools to further contextualize that information in a way that laypeople can understand. As such, though science and religion are independent entities (as each has a different function), they can be interdependent—as each enriches the work of the other.

At least one critic suggests that “[Dante] envisages a God who wishes to be known in and through his creation by those who are moved, in intellectual love, to admire the wisdom of God’s creation” and so we too should follow on this path. After all, as the modern poet Robert Frost once said, “Thinking is not to agree or disagree. That is voting.”

Amy Carleton received a bachelor's degree in English from Simmons College in Boston and master's degree in literature from Northeastern University. She has worked as a manuscript editor in the North American offices of the Journal of Physics and Chemistry of Solids, has taught at several Boston-area universities, and run several short-term study abroad programs.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #49309

January 27th 2011

Thank you for this illuminating essay.

However it does also seem appropriate to point out the fact that the Middle Ages did mark the break down of the old classical order, not as the result of Christian influence, but as the result of foreign invasion. 

The Middle Ages are important because they mark the beginning of a process of inventing the West by integrating the old classical order, the new Christian influence, and the contributions of the “Barbarian” rulers of Europe.  The West is not a restoration of the classical as many would have us think, but a brand new creation which goes far beyond the classical and made possible by these three elements.

merv - #49317

January 27th 2011

Thanks for this essay.  It is a reminder to me of how over-simplified we teachers make things when we tell students, for example, that “Newton and Liebniz gave us calculus” as if they invented it from scratch.  We forget Newton’s own words about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  I’ll have to learn more about Bhaskara & others before him. 


merv - #49318

January 27th 2011

—-sorry—I still get the i & e switched around in “Leibniz”

sy - #49371

January 28th 2011

Wonderful essay, that requires a few readings, since it is full of information and ideas. I have always been a bit confused by the nomenclature of that historical period. The first few hundred years after the fall of Rome was really quite dark. I think it could safely be said that the slow and difficult recovery of Europe might not have happened without the Church. I also think, as you imply that modern western science owes a great debt to Christianity.

Jon Garvey - #49415

January 28th 2011

@sy - #49371

Sy, I wouldn’t disagree about the Church’s role (though the article also refers to Islamic culture, of course). Nevertheless one has to question exactly what “dark” means in the post-Roman period.

It’s hard to look at the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasure without seeing that even the pagan Saxons were smart kids with regard to art and metallurgy. Saxon poetry is relatively rare (now) but excellent. Anglo-Saxon law and land divisions are still normative here in England, as of course is the language. Norsemen navigated to America, Iceland and Greenland. And I’m sure similar stories could be told outside the Anglo-saxon sphere.

Ancient and formal learning was certainly restricted to the monastry (and the mosque), but culture was alive and well throughout the period. The Church was part of, rather than isolated from, these cultures. They may have been somewhat uncouth and violent - but we too have reality TV and Afghanistan.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #49432

January 28th 2011

The strength of evangelicalism is that it recognizes that relativism is a dead end.  The weakness of evanglicalism is that modernism is also a dead end.  The classical world had to die, so the modern world could arise to take its place.  That happened in the West.  It did not happen in the Middle East where the classical world never died.  Most people in the Middle East are still living in it.  It remains to be seen if people in other parts of the world can maike the transition to modernity.

The problem in the West is different.  We must accept that the intellectual foundations of our culture are no longer viable.  Both modernism and postmodernism are not viable.  Only a third option beyond traditional philosophical thinking can show the way to the future.  If we Christians take our faith seriously we must do the hard work of rediscovering it devoid of traditional philosophy in order to make it the true foundation of post-post modern thinking.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #49434

January 28th 2011

I seem to have lost half of my previous post.  My main point was that the classical ancient world died in Europe so a new modern Western world could arise which combined Germanic institutions, Christian values, and Greek concepts.  The Ancient classical world did not die in Asia where Islam was founded and developed until al-Ghazzali put an end to innovation. 

Now we need to move completely beyond the classical thought to build a brand new post-post modern world.

sy - #49536

January 29th 2011


I almost always agree with your comments, but this could be an exception. My view of the history of that period is that “somewhat uncouth and violent” is a gross exaggeration. Of course the Saxons, Vikings, Huns, Lombards, etc. had cutlures. As did the Gauls, Germans and Goths who lived in the lands of the lost empire. But those cultures were based on conquest, warfare, and violence. The first victim of the fall of Rome was the rule of law. We have seen examples of what happens in failed states on a small scale (Somalia, Haiti, some urban neighborhoods in the the West). The darkness of the dark ages was due to the loss of the civilizing (literally, since the cities went into enormous decline) force of Rome. And this descent into darkness took place elsewhere as well, China, South America, Africa, at roughtly the same time.

This is a huge topic, and might seem to be unrelated to the major themes of Biologos. But I think that the study of darkness in our history, can be useful to understand the role of light (Jesus Christ) in our lives, and the firm connections between reason and faith that grew out of it.

Jon Garvey - #49557

January 30th 2011

@sy - #49536

No argument with this - but one has also to remember that the Roman Empire was also “based on conquest, warfare and violence.” After all, this was the culture that crucified the Lord against all due process of law, and which (as far as we know) had Paul executed after his appeal to their highest tribunal. And of course, John the Divine called it a beast ridden by a prostitute. You should hear some of the medieval archaeologists over here inveighing against Rome’s undeserved halo (bearing in mind we had both a Roman invasion and a Germanic one - before we eventually had a Scandinavian one which established our present Aristocracy!)

The arguments between “force for good in spreading civilisation” and “rapacious conqueror” comes into sharper relief when considering a post-imperial power like Britain. In my own lifetime, the overall thinking has shifted from the former to the latter, with some justification.

But as you rightly say, darkness is inherent in all human history and we should recognise it, as well as the light - even in a forum like this. We, and our nations, are after all participants in that history.

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