Thu, 12 May 2016
Angels Dancing

The Middle Ages gets a bad reputation but in many respects this is unfair and completely unwarranted. It turns out that a lot of the criticism and misconception is because later ages just didn't know the debt they owed to some of the great thinkers of the past. In some cases, people had their own axes to grind. James Hannam's book God's Philosophers tries to set the record straight.

In one chapter, Hannam looks at the medieval university and its syllabus, including the trivium (grammar, dialectic and rhetoric) and then the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). The trivium is the origin of our word trivial, but is far from the easy subjects the word means today.

One of the most famous phrases meant to trivialise so much of medieval learning is the question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

Modern critics of medieval universities have accused them of concentrating too much on useless and obscure logic at the expense of real knowledge. Logic was certainly an important part of the syllabus and it became increasingly complicated through the later Middle Ages. As an intellectual exercise, scholars would invent absurd situations and try to reason their way out of them. Every now and again, the universities would host a special session where students could put their fiendishly difficult questions to a senior professor. No doubt they went to considerable trouble to to come up with the most convoluted riddles they could think of in order to tax the minds of their superiors. The professor gained a chance to show off his mental dexterity by dealing elegantly with whatever his students threw at him. The result was a very rarified form of intellectual entertainment. Questions preserved for posterity include "Should a person born with two heads be baptised as one person or two?" and "Can a bishop who is raised from the dead return to his office?" Even Thomas Aquinas had had to find an answer to the question "Is it better for a crusader to die on the way to the Holy Land or on the way back?" The medieval logical conundrum that everybody knows is "How many angels can dance of the head of a pin?" Sadly, this turns out to be the invention of a seventeenth-century Cambridge academic satirising the admittedly rather abstruse theology of Thomas Aquinas. If a medieval scholar had really asked this, he would have meant it as a joke.

The book isn't long and not hard to read. It is a good reminder that every age has its clever people writing and thinking interesting things, even if they're not as "knowledgeable" as we might be today.