It is commonly stated that science was “suppressed” in the Middle Ages by the Church. By later standards, there were definitely few giant leaps in technology or theory. The explanation often given is that science was too problematic for an age of faith, as it raised uncomfortable questions about Creation, miracles, and cosmology in general.

From the perspective of an early medievalist, this view of the “Middle Ages” is quite odd. For a start, the “Middle Ages” was not a thousand years of homogeneous belief, culture, and practice. The world c. 500 was nothing like the world c. 1500, and both contained great diversities of beliefs and practices. So, find me an example of “the suppression of science in the Middle Ages”, I’ll find you an example of people doing the opposite.

Or would I? Because there are problems with what we mean by “science” here.

First, if we really mean the distinctive theories, practices, and applications of “modern science” – itself not a homogeneous body – it is a bit strange to imagine that it was being suppressed before the particular people, institutions, and contexts that generated it existed. If you had the power and could remove “the Church” (actually a diverse body of etc etc) from history, that would in no way guarantee the scene would be set for electricity and the destruction of the ecosystem a millennium earlier because the people, ideas, and contexts would be different. Context matters in science, because it is still something done by people, in ways, for reasons.

Second, “medieval science” wasn’t so much a rubbish forerunner of “modern science”, as something that wasn’t really a distinct thing in its own right. For the early Middle Ages, there was no word for science in the way we mean it. There was scientia for wisdom. There was philosophia, for more-or-less the same thing. (“Natural philosophy”, terminology fans, was only a subcategory within proto-scientific thought in Isidore and elsewhere until later). There were individual disciplines such as astronomia and mathematica that fed into later versions of sciences. These were not “suppressed” but key parts of early Christian education and the liberal arts that everyone was supposed to be trained in. The theory, right back to Cassiodorus and other early efforts to define a Christian syllabus, was that you had to have a grasp of numbers and the workings of nature to understand Scripture and to understand Creation.

Also note here commentators in the early Middle Ages abhorred didn’t like purely literal interpretations of the Bible because meaning always went beyond the literal, just in case you were wondering, so it minimises the amount of “oh but that’s not what the Bible says…”. Plus there are lots of things the Bible doesn’t cover.

The real battle, then as now, became to establish what belonged to nature and what didn’t. And sure, Augustine and other “authorities” were lukewarm about philosophical investigations into nature that ran contrary to Scripture. But in general Augustine still maintained that Creation was rational and rule-driven, and that many of the laws of nature that God had established could be understood. He didn’t think nature was all mystery magic. Indeed, his harshest criticism on this front was generally left for people engaged in variations of divination and astrology – trying to read meaningful patterns into what was otherwise just normal stuff happening. Similar gripes crop up all over in the early medieval world, from Gregory of Tours to John of Damascus.

It doesn’t mean that people couldn’t be dismissive of some types of learning. Venantius Fortunatus, writing to his friend Jovinus, the governor of Provence, criticised his wide reading of non-Christian authorities. “How did their learned tongue benefit scholars destined, as they were, to die, though they could describe the curved vault of the heavens? […] There is one means of salvation.” (Poem VII.12). But such talk hardly stopped even his friends from studying the stars and their motions. Gregory of Tours wrote a treatise on the subject, On the Course of the Stars, albeit to aid with liturgical timekeeping rather than “to advance science.” Still, the accurate observation of the regularities of nature was useful to the Church (or Gregory’s anyway), not something to be covered up.

Gregory’s work represents a different kind of issue for the history of progress: he was more interested in the practical utility of knowledge about nature than the cause of advancing humanity’s understanding of it. In many ways, this ought not be an issue, because the point of “scientific” knowledge is that it is produced by people to be used. Yet it is exactly this kind of thing that is often portrayed as the problem with the Middle Ages. It is not progressive enough. Knowledge stood still while people did stuff with it … thus ensuring that it didn’t actually stand still.

What often gets left out here is intention. What many historians and commentators find problematic is that pre-modern sciences/ philosophies/ wisdoms were pursued to address different problems than they would like, such as how to devise accurate calendars or how to tell the difference between miracles and natural phenomena. And worse, it was rooted in cosmologies such as geocentrism that turned out not to be objectively true. The right or wrong of it not always the issue though. The mathematical modelling of the motion of the heavens, for instance, was sufficiently robust in itself to incorporate the available data and to be applied for the purposes for which it was needed… even though it was build on some false premises. And that, give or take, is how scientific paradigms have a tendency to develop, framed by convention and practicality even when they are a bit creaky. I’m not saying it was all good science – far from it. I’m saying you are making history up to make present political points if you claim rational knowledge about nature was rejected in its entirely for a millennium.

For the period I work on (say pre-1100), there are literally hundreds of manuscripts on nature, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and how they fit within Christian worldviews and questions. These manuscripts were not the product of suppression, but rather of curiosity, reading, book-collecting, and practical need. The scientific cultures that produced them – their intellectual, social, and political contexts – were not all the same and were not like later ones or like ones now. They just had different logics, ethics, and uses. That’s what one finds in the sources. I am yet to find “science” being suppressed. Maybe everything went wrong with the Twelfth-Century Renaissance and the rise of universities and scholasticism… but that’s not generally what people who work on those things say. It is supposed to get better, not worse. But clearly sometimes it got worse.

The flipside to this is that when science is “suppressed” in 2019 by political movements it is not “medieval” – it is a distinctly modern problem. It is not as if there were massive medieval repositories of accepted data, large-scale scientific networks across the world, and thousands of rigorous scholarly publications on climate change, disease, and technology, and a pope went “nah” and shut it all down. Call it what it is.