I've only done a small amount of reading on the middle ages, and on the history of Western philosophy, but from what I can glean education and religion were tightly coupled during the period, so most thought coming from that time came from religious thinkers.

It seems to me that secular thought started to come to the fore-front again during the late early-modern period, toward the enlightenment, but, if it ever existed during the middle ages it was mostly hidden away, or thinly veiled.

So, were there prominent secularists during the middle ages in which is now modern day Europe? Who were they?

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    This may get a better reception at the philosophy stack exchange. Dec 9, 2014 at 2:29
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    Maybe I am missing someone, but I cannot think of any secular thinkers before Baruch Spinoza, 1632-1677. People like Roger Bacon were empiricists, but not secular.
    – Mike
    Dec 9, 2014 at 3:19

3 Answers 3


The most prominent voice for secular thinking in medieval Europe was undoubtedly Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (1214-1292). Even though Bacon was a monk, the experimental work he did led many people to start thinking and believing in natural phenomenon, whereas previously the trend was consider everything the "work of God". In this way he was the first great modern voice for reason over faith and presaged the Enlightenment.

Continuing in the vein of Bacon were such thinkers as Nicholas of Cusa and Rene Descartes who were also men of faith, but who emphasized natural phenomena and reason in their writings, thus promoting a secular view of the world.

In terms of secularist agitation, advocating the removal of the church from authority over daily life and separation of church and state, this was rare in the middle ages because it would have been considered heresy, a capital offense. A typical example of such a person was Reginald Pecock (circa 1395–1461) who was convicted of heresy and narrowly avoided being burned at the stake.

There are a number of philosophers who avoided heresy charges by simply never mentioning the church and focusing entirely on secular subjects, as though the church did not exist. An example is Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), who was never charged with heresy, but nevertheless the church banned all of his books. Another such philosopher was Mirandola, who was arrested and escaped execution for heresy only through the influence of powerful Italian nobles.

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    +1 for Roger Bacon. The others are Renaissance rather than Medieval philosophers.
    – Michael
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:26

I cannot think of any examples in mediaeval Western Europe. However, the Persian philosopher Muḥammad ibn Zakariyā ar-Rāzī (died 925) taught that all religions (Christianity, Islam etc.) were taught by false prophets who received their revelations from evil spirits. The Greek philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon (died ca. 1452) wanted to abolish Christianity and revive the religion of the ancient Hellenes.

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    I'm not sure that either of these are "secular" as I understand the term.
    – MCW
    Dec 9, 2014 at 12:51
  • What is your definition of secular?
    – fdb
    Dec 9, 2014 at 13:55
  • Not religious. worldly, apart from religion. Related to worldly concerns - I started to second guess myself and had to go look it up to confirm that I wasn't barmy.
    – MCW
    Dec 9, 2014 at 13:57
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    @Rajib - Yes, (there are exceptions, but that discussion is definitely outside the scope of comments and probably outside the scope of H:SE). And now this will be my final comment <smile>
    – MCW
    Dec 9, 2014 at 14:20
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    Understood. I was hoping to bring in "nastika" and atheism in Hinduism- but I agree this is a bad place.
    – Rajib
    Dec 9, 2014 at 14:22

Nicolo Machiavelli was a Modern era Philosopher. Machiavelli lived during the height of the Northern Italian Renaissance. Rene Descartes lived during the 1600's...about 200 plus years AFTER the end of the Middle Ages. Both Machiavelli and Descartes are widely considered to be the earliest Founders or Pioneers of Early Modern Philosophy-(and have no chronological connection with The Middle Ages).

Wikipedia has an interesting article on George Gemistos Plethon, (who is perhaps one of the lesser known Philosophers and Scholars in World History).

Plethon lived during the 1400's and was at a chronological and historical crossroads. He was part of two worlds; a Medieval Byzantine world, as well as a Modern Northern Italian Renaissance world. On the one hand, Plethon had a Medieval Greek Eastern Christian orientation, though also lived part of his life in Northern Italy and had a Modern Western orientation. He was quite radical for his time, in that he wanted to end Christianity, revive the Ancient Greek Pantheon, as well as revive the intellectual legacy of Ancient Greece.

So perhaps due to his chronological position, George Gemistos Plethon, was both a Medieval and Modern secular Philosopher.....(a historical and chronological paradox).

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