On the recommendation of a source I unfortunately no longer remember, I picked up James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. It’s a history of medieval science, except that it’s actually not; really, it’s a weird propaganda tract masquerading as a history of medieval science.
So the thing is, this isn’t a subject I’m ignorant about. Back in aught-three, I read a pretty scholarly book by David Lindberg on the subject, and realized that even at that point, I already knew most of this stuff, because I majored in history in college, and took a good solid handful of late-medieval/early-modern classes. That’s not expert-level knowledge, to be sure, but enough that when I’m reading a short popular survey, I’m going to be pretty familiar with most of the subjects under discussion.
So when I started this book, and it leaned heavily on the twin themes of a) the medieval period wasn’t a totally backward Dark Ages, and b) the medieval Church was not as bad as people make it out to be when they imagine that the whole thing was the Spanish Inquisition, I was mostly okay with it. Those are reasonable enough points, and if it doesn’t seem to me that many people really hold onto those false beliefs anymore, maybe a popular audience still buys into that myth more than I think.
But… the author was leaning on those themes awfully hard, and in ways that made me scratch my head a bit—if you’re going to rebut Petrarch about the value of medieval thought, for instance, you can’t cite things that happened after he was dead (Petrarch died in 1374; Hannam defines the medieval period in ending in 1500) as demonstrating that the medieval period was great. And similarly, it’s fine to argue that the Church didn’t systematically oppress all thought, but pretending that it didn’t limit thought at all is absurd—in one ridiculous argument, Hannam claims that the Church didn’t “ban” a subject, they just “placed boundaries” on it. (And hey, it’s not like they burned the guy who wandered outside those limits, they just made him recant his statements, ended his career, and exiled him to a monastery, totally fine!)
So as I read further into the book, the sounds of axe-grinding in the background got louder and louder. When I got to a denunciation of the humanists (who, incidentally, aren’t even medieval), it was starting to feel really weird, and when the book got to the (also non-medieval) Protestant reformers, it was holding them in such obvious contempt that I couldn’t keep reading without figuring out what the hell this guy was on about.
And so it turns out that he’s a conservative writer, the book is also published by the conservative Regnery Press under a different title, and it is apparently a pro-Catholic, anti-Enlightenment piece of propaganda. I have no problem with Catholic scholars writing about medieval history, or medieval historians writing sympathetically about the medieval Church; but when the scholarship is so sloppy, and arguments so loose, that the book doesn’t even make sense without being read as propaganda… yeah, no.
I stopped reading there (curiously, there were seven more chapters to go, even though it was already well out of the medieval period sensibly defined), and regret only that I read so far. Not recommended.