What was the relationship between science and religion in the early middle ages of Europe?

Faith and Reason proposal on Area 51

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    Was there science? – Spencer May 26 '18 at 21:31
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    @Spencer: "Was there science?" -- Precisely! Science did not exist as a discipline during the early middle ages. There were people doing science -- Jean Buridan, a French priest and teacher at the University of Paris in the 1300s came surprisingly close to scooping Galileo -- but mathematics (other than geometry) was not yet developed enough. It took centuries of slow development for people to realize that natural science was worth studying and for it to become an independent discipline. In the middle ages, what science was done, was usually part of philosophy. – Mark Olson May 27 '18 at 0:52
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    @Alex It's much more subtle than that! The ancients did not distinguish science from philosophy from mathematics (and in some cases, e.g., the Pathagoreans, from religion). The neat divisions of knowledge we have today simply didn't exist. Aristotle wrote on science and on pure philosophy and on morals and on literature or oratory. Herodotus wrote the first history, but a big chunk of it was what we'd call "natural history" -- in his day (and in Pliny the Elder's) it was all one. Because the question is framed in modern terms, it to some extent begs its answer. – Mark Olson May 27 '18 at 16:50
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    There's different definitions of "science". I'm currently reading a book by a theoretical physicist and he repeatedly describes what people like Aristotle, Ptolemy and Democritus were doing as "science". (And some did indeed experiment, though the "scientific method" was no formulated.) – Gort the Robot May 29 '18 at 16:09
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    @jamessqf, (the ancients didn't do science).. So Aristotle the father of Biology, you don't believe he actually contributed to Biology. Democritus the father of Atomic theory to your mind never pondered atomism? Eratosthenes never pondered astronomy or geography? Euclid and Pythagorus no impact on Geometry? Hipparchus, Trigonometry? The ancients may not have had the scientific method, but if science begins with asking a question, many of those questions were asked first by those ancients. – JMS May 29 '18 at 17:30

Science and Religion were one in the same, and not just in the early middle ages. Religion dominance of everyday life in the West including Science lasted arguable into the 1900s. This dominance began to change, as we experience the reimergence of it today, on November 24, 1859; when Darwin published "Origin of the Species".

God created heaven and earth and everything about heaven and earth was considered the purview of religion.

With a little more detail, when early christians were assembling the artifacts of Christianity they borrowed heavily from Judaism in the form of the old testament(genesis, etc), but they also borrowed from the Pagan Greeks.

Plato the father of philosophy was enlisted to defend christian doctrine. Plato's thoughts and arguments were used to engage and defeat rival philosophical challengers. Plato at the time of the early middle ages was considered to be the most brilliant man who ever lived. Some still consider him as such. So borrowing some of his ideas for defending the artifacts of the Christian church was natural. Educated people studied and were familiar with the Greeks, so it's natural their ideas would seep into Christianity when difficult problems like explaining/defending the mechanism/reasoning behind the 7 church sacrements, or how exactly a monotheistic religion such as Christianity can recognize 3 distinct God heads, in the Father, son and holy ghost. Or how does bread and wine, blessed by priests turn into the literal body and blood of Christ? .. Turn to the Greeks!! mostly Plato and Aristotle..

Plato’s ideas, such as his theory of the forms, (non physical forms/ ideas represent the most accurate picture of reality) became a bedrock defense of christian ideology. Plato's arguments favoring this thesis, were used to elevate ideas expressed by the church over observations and accepted wisdom. Aristotle's syllogism(constructs for representing logical arguments) were used to further express and justify the church beliefs. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century would use these greek foundation to invent entirely new philosophical defenses, which the church would use against Renascence thinkers.

That's how the pagan Greeks became so influential within Christianity. To study the bible was to study and be fluent with the greek arguments which underpinned Christianity. Beyond philosophy the greeks also pioneered sciences and some of those made it into the Bible. The Greek's Celestial Spheres were written into the bible (Genisis: Firmament), because these ideas from antiquity had been around so long without being challenged that they were accepted as fact. Intelligent educated people accepted them, so of coarse when describing how God created heaven and earth they were part of the discussion.

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and others. In these celestial models, the apparent motions of the fixed stars and planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs. Since it was believed that the fixed stars did not change their positions relative to one another, it was argued that they must be on the surface of a single starry sphere.

Thus when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Nicolaus Copernicus(1473-1543) came along and challenged Plato's theories of planetary motion, they were not just challenging Plato. They were questioning the validity of the bible, which incorporated those ideas.

Not only were the celestial spheres wrong, but earth wasn't the center of the Universe, and Galileo (the father of the scientific method) went further in saying to understand earth, you observe earth's mechanisms. Observation lead to a higher understanding than ideas..

The Catholic church saw these statements as challenging it's foundational ideas. Science and the Church collided and the Church won. Galileo was arrested, tried and found guilty by the inquisition, and forced to recant his blasphemy at the risk of being burned at the stake. Galileo recanted, and spent the rest of his life a branded heretic, under arrest. His previous writings were burned, his subsequent writings collected daily and burned. Copernicus(long dead) books were burned and blacklisted also as heresy. Scientists who refused to recant, such as Giordano Bruno, were burned(feb 1600) at the stake by the church which branded them heretics for professing a philosophy of science which conflicted with christianity. Christianity would continue to burn people at the stake well into the 18th century.. The last occurring in Sevilla Spain, August 24th 1781. María de los Dolores López, although not a scientist she was burned as a heretic under the same laws used to stifle scientists.

Before the Reformation more than 30 people were burned at the stake for heresy by the Catholic Church 956-1498). After the Reformation Christians including now Protestants burned five times that number in half the time (1523-1781) List of people burned as heretics

When science and Christianity ran into conflict, science lost. That began to change on November 24, 1859, when Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species. In the West(Christian World) Charles Darwin is arguable the most influential man who ever lived, not just scientist; and the reason for this is his simple ideas supported by overwhelming evidence, expressed in a way many could follow; ultimately transformed the relationship between the people and religion in the West.

The power of the church over science was irrevocable transformed through the heated discussions the world held when arguing about Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Questions: about Newton...

Newton lived after the Anglican Schism and was subject to heresy laws which Christianity used to dominate scientists. Sir Issac Newton was heavily influenced by religion, he was a theologian and nearly (took Holy Orders ) to became an ordained Anglican minister, as was the custom at trinity college when he attended there. Newton published several theological papers in his lifetime. As his science informed divergent opinions about religious topics; Newton became secretive about his opinions and thus escaped paying the penalty of heresy which in the Anglican church in Newton's time was loss of status, loss of property and death.

Sir Isaac Newton Like many contemporaries (e.g., Thomas Aikenhead) he (Sir Isaac Newton) lived with the threat of severe punishment if he had been open about his religious beliefs. Heresy was a crime that could have been punishable by the loss of all property and status or even death (see, e.g., the Blasphemy Act 1697). Because of his secrecy over his religious beliefs, Newton has been described as a Nicodemite.


Question: Where are celestial spheres in the bible?


In the bible it's called the Firmament, but it was taken from the greeks. Educated people understood it was the Greek Celestial Spheres which was accepted knowledge of the organization of the heavens until Kepler.

Firmament In Biblical cosmology, the firmament is the structure above the atmosphere of Earth, conceived as a vast solid dome.1 According to the Genesis creation narrative, God created the firmament to separate the "waters above" the earth from the "waters below" the earth.2 The word is anglicized from the Latin firmamentum, which appears in the Vulgate, a late-4th-century Latin translation of the Bible.


Celestial Spheres
Christian and Muslim philosophers modified Ptolemy's system to include an unmoved outermost region, the empyrean heaven, which came to be identified as the dwelling place of God and all the elect.[49] Medieval Christians identified the sphere of stars with the Biblical firmament and sometimes posited an invisible layer of water above the firmament, to accord with Genesis.[50] An outer sphere, inhabited by angels, appeared in some accounts.[51]

Edward Grant, a historian of science, has provided evidence that medieval scholastic philosophers generally considered the celestial spheres to be solid in the sense of three-dimensional or continuous, but most did not consider them solid in the sense of hard. The consensus was that the celestial spheres were made of some kind of continuous fluid.[52]


From Comments:
Also, saying that the freedom of science starts with Darwin completely ignores what went on in, for instance, the French Revolution, and ignores people like Ben Franklin, and so many other 18th century scientists. It's hard to buy the claim that religious domination of thought ended in 1859 when you had people like Voltaire running around a century before.

Freedom of thought as we enjoy in the modern sense, dates to Darwin, which includes Science's ability to express itself broadly devoid from religious persecution. That is not to say that free ideas were not expressed in history. Especially when they aligned with geographic isolation, secrecy seasoned with time, or the interests of powerful men willing to stand up to other powerful men to defend some advantage. Such as what occurred with Martin Luther, or as you bring up the Enlightenment Philosophers.

In the age of enlightenment, post reformation, criticizing Catholicism was no longer equated with criticizing christianity as it once was, depending upon where you were standing. Voltaire like many enlightenment philosophers lived under the protection of secular governments who were not offended by his criticisms of the once all powerful catholic church, and his defense of religious freedoms. They saw the power of one religion namely Catholism as a mortal enemy to their nationalism.

If Voltaire were a scientist rather than a philosopher, not protected by secular leaders with their own agenda, and expressed Darwin's opinions; he would have faced retribution from religious factions as Darwin did 100 years later. Voltaire rather picked his fights attacking common cause enemies of his protectors, which is not to say he was free or devoid of having to filter his ideas to secure his personal security.

Is there really any question in your mind that the influence and power of religion over peoples lives, including science, hit a brick wall and was much reduced after Darwin Published the Origin of the Species? I'm not saying in the moment everything changed because it took decades, maybe it's even continuing. Through the debate over the theory of Evolution we live in a different world with regard to religious influence than existed in the mid 1850's. Darwin's ideas were the fulcrum which moved that weight. He painted a colorful enrolling picture of the universe devoid from order which came to eclipse the picture painted by christianity which stood for a millennium.

Religion dominance of science until 1900??

I would say Religion dominated peoples thoughts and ideas before Darwin, and that changed dramatically in the decades following Darwin.

I will leave you with this blurb from Will Durrant's Greatest Minds in History. It's a good blurb worth reading, but the last paragraph deals with Darwin and the war between science and religion.

From: Greatest Mind's In History: #10 Charles Darwin by Will Durant
And then Darwin Came, and the war waged anew. We cannot know now what Darwin's work may finally mean in the history of mankind. But it may well be that for posterity his name will stand as a turning point in the intellectual development of our Western civilization. If Darwin was wrong, the world may forget him as it has almost forgotten Democritus and Anaxagoras; if he was right, men will have to date from 1859 the beginning of modern thought.

For what did Darwin do but offer, quietly, and with a disarming humility, a world-picture totally different from that which had contented the mind of man before? We had supposed that it was a world of order, moving under divine guidance and omnipotent intelligence to a just and perfect fulfillment in which every virtue would find at last it's fit reward. But Darwin, without attacking any creed, described what he had seen. Suddenly the world turned red, and nature , which had seen so fair in the autumn's colors under the setting sun, seemed to be only a scene of slaughter an strife, in which birth was an accident and only death a certainty. "Nature" became "natural selection", That is, a struggle for existence; and not for existence merely, but for mates and power, a ruthless elimination of the "unfit" of the tenderer flowers, the gentler animals, and the kindlier meant. The surface of the earth seethed with warring species and competing individuals, every organism was the prey of some larger beast; every life was lived at the expense of some other life; great "natural catastrophes came, ice ages, earthquakes, tornadoes droughts, pestilences, famine, wars; millions of millions of living things were "weeded out," were quickly or slowly killed. Some species and some individuals survived for a little while - this was evolution. This was nature, this was reality.

Copernicus had reduced the earth to a spec among melting clouds; Darwin reduced man to an animal fighting for his transient mastery of the globe. Man was no longer the sone of God; he was the son of strife, and his wars made the fiercest brutes ashamed of their amateur cruelty. The human race was no longer the favored creation of a benevolent deity; it was a species of ape, which the fortunes of variation and selection had raised to a precarious dignity, and which in its turn was destined to be surpassed and to disappear. Man was not immortal; he was condemned to death from the hour of his birth.

Image the strain upon minds brought up in the tender philosophy of our youth, and forced to adapt themselves to the harsh and bloody picture of a Darwinian world. It is any wonder that the old faith fought fiercely for it's life, that for a generation "the conflict between religion and science" was bitterer than at any time since Galileo retracted and Bruno burned at the stake? And do not the victors, exhausted by the contest, sit sadly today amid the ruins, secretly mourning their triumph, secretly yearning for the old world which their victory has destroyed?


Steven Burnap Suppressed where?

Suggesting Galileo's ideas were not suppressed by religious authorities is not a plausible line of discussion. Threatening to burn you at the stake and sequestering you for nearly a decade is in and of itself suppression. Further threatening to execute everyone who possess, discusses or defends your book is further suppression. The fact entire books of Galileo's are still unknown to us is further proof of scientific suppression. Trying to draw some odd distinction between the scientist and the science is also frankly absurd. The entire reason the scientist was threatened was because of his ideas, his science. It was the science they were after.

Steven Burnap There were large swathes of Europe at the time where the Catholic church had no sway.

To talk about the war between science and religion, initially one talks about the Catholic Church, because it was the early home for Christianity in western Europe, but the war waged across all christian persuasions. As christendom diverged it's branches continued to try to dominate ideas of their laity. The war between the christian world and science was not limited to the Catholic Church. Protestants and Orthodox Christians also had heresy laws and they also burned people at the stake for expressing ideas which challenged their doctrines. The crime science was accused of.

In nineteenth and 20th centuries religions no longer burned people at the stake, but that didn't mean the war ended. People were still persecuted for running foul of religious principles. Denial of property, income, and freedom remained penalties for violating religious doctrines well into the 20th century.

Steven Burnap But regardless of that, your answer pretends that science was under the sway of the Church in the 18th century, which is just flat out wrong

I said religion waged it's war for supremacy of ideas with science into the 20th century. It was in the twentieth century when religion took a back seat with respect to science in certain narrow fields of study. It was in the 20th century when distinction was made between faith and reason in this conflict, arguable for the first time for the majority of people. Hell in the 18th century religions were still burning heretics at the stake. In the 19th century scientists like Darwin were still being branded heretics and christians broadly being forbidden to discuss, or learn of them. In the 20th century people were still being prosecuted by secular courts for violating secular laws enforcing the supremacy of the bible over science.

Steven Burnap and the Darwin who created the theory as a young man was by his own admission more religious than his predecessors (Lamarck, etc.)


Giordano Bruno was a Catholic monk(franciscan), and he was burned at the stake for his ideals in the 1600's. Individual faith did not excuse heresy. For trivia value, I will throw in Darwin's religious background in his youth was nonconformist Unitarian, not christian.

Why do you think Darwin waited 20 years to publish his theory of Evolution, and only did so when one of his peers was going to publish a parallel theory? One of his stated reasons was the reaction from the Church. Another was because of conflict with his wife, along religious grounds.

Your central thesis is the religion did not try to suppress Evolution. And that is just not supported by the facts. There are still religions trying to stifle the discussion of Evolution. But in the late 1800's and early 1900's main stream religions were more prevelent and motivated in suppressing Darwin's ideas, which were branded heresy.

To pick on Catholics again(not that they were alone, or even the worst offenders in attacking Evolution). Pope Pius IX invented the concept of Papal infallibility. The same Pope in Vatican Council I, literally forbad Catholics from defending evolution, under this infallibility.

Vatican Council II (1870)
9. Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth. ...

  1. Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.

As Late as 1925 teaching evolution in the United States, was a criminal offense(Scopes Trial). A trial prosecuted by a three time presidential nomination, former secretary of state, and ordained minister in William Jennings Bryan in which the bible featured prominently for the prosecution. A trial in which Evolutionists lost (conviction overturned some years later after Bryan's death).

Mark Olson @Spencer: "Was there science?" -- Precisely! Science did not exist as a discipline during the early middle ages. There were people doing science -- Jean Buridan, a French priest and teacher at the University of Paris in the 1300s came surprisingly close to scooping Galileo -- but mathematics (other than geometry) was not yet developed enough. It took centuries of slow development for people to realize that natural science was worth studying and for it to become an independent discipline. In the middle ages, what science was done, was usually part of philosophy. – Mark Olson 2 days ago

Do you believe that's a coincidence? Would you associate even a portion to the lack advancement in science, architecture and culture during the early Middle Ages to the dominance of Europe by a religion who professed all the answers and thus systemically devoid of curiosity and pursuit of deeper understanding? Christianity from the fall of Rome through the fifteenth century burned the writings of Greek and Roman thinkers who didn't conform to their beliefs. Think absence of these foundational Renaissance thinkers had any stifling effect on science in the west for the nearly 1000 years in which they were suppressed?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. May 29 '18 at 14:49
  • @JMS Thanks for the answer about that Celesital Sphere = Firmament in the middle ages. Here is another essay speaking about firmament with some basics of the definition of the Hebrew word רָקִ֫יעַ. – axsvl77 May 30 '18 at 2:14
  • @axsvl77 thank you for the interesting read, but I see nothing there which conflicts with my answer or my source. – JMS May 30 '18 at 4:43
  • @JMS I'm not criticizing or pointing out conflicts, but suggesting an additional source. – axsvl77 May 30 '18 at 4:50
  • @axsv177, thank you for the source. I actually spent some time looking into in further. Genesis predates Plato by like 500 years. Also the Firmament in Genisis isn't an exact match for the Greek Celestial Spheres, notable water in the outer sphere and of coarse heaven location, I was taught they were the same but for minor changes. It would be nice to have a source to know which predated which. The Firmament in the Bible or the Greek spheres, or where they both based on something else. – JMS May 30 '18 at 16:13

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