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If you have enjoyed Bede's Library, you can order my book, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (US) from or God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (UK) from

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Charles Freeman's Comments on Bede's Review of

The Closing of the Western Mind

After reading my review of his The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman was good enough to offer the following comments.  He has kindly agreed to allow me to publish them here.

I am pleased James has enjoyed my writing but I do have to say that his review of The Closing of the Western Mind is somewhat of a caricature of my book. I never suggest that a bunch of crazy Christians came along and destroyed Greek culture. What I spelt out in detail was how the Emperor Constantine integrated the Christian church into the state. He linked it to war (the success of the imperial armies), opulence (in church buildings) and the structure of the state ( by giving bishops political power). Up to 381, debate within the Christian community was sustained at a high level but with the imposition of the Nicene Trinity by the decree of the Emperor Theodosius in 381, debate withered. A succession of decrees attempted to eliminate what was now described as 'heretical' Christianity and pagan thought in general. Any critique of my book which ignores a legislative campaign which culminated, in the east, in Emperor Justinian, must be wanting.

The church had little option but to acquiesce in Theodosius's legislation but those who did sign up to the Nicene faith received enormous patronage from the state. There were, of course, individual Christian groups who went on the rampage against synagogues and pagan shrines but they were marginal to the imperial legislation and, in fact, the state had to rein them in in order to maintain good order. The Eastern and Western Empires suffered very different fates.  The Eastern Empire survived in truncated form until 1453 while the west disintegrated. The 'barbarians' were, of course, Christians too by now, even if of the Arian variety. If one is talking of the survival of the classical tradition one must make sure to distinguish between the east and the west. In the west even such major intellectuals as Augustine could not speak Greek so that tradition (which included the vast majority of important work in philosophy and theology) was lost to them in any case. There is no evidence that when Augustine was writing his De Trinitate that he had access to the works of the Cappadocian Fathers for instance, even in translation. It is impossible to read the later Augustine without being aware of his denigration of intellectual curiosity, reason and secular thought (unless it supports the study of scripture).

After Augustine learning in the west fades. Even Bede had a library of only some two hundred books and Michael Lapidge in his recent The Anglo-Saxon Library shows that this was exceptional. Lapidge shows how the average monastic library had some fifty books and these were the Christian classics. This important book demolishes the idea that monasteries (in the Anglo-Saxon world, at least) were centres of classical learning. It should be read alongside Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation which shows just how comprehensive the collapse of Roman civilization was in the west. The conditions in which intellectual life could take place were simply not there. It is not until the tenth century that the texts preserved by the Arabs begin to filter back into the west and then the revival of the European economy allowed the emerging cities of northern Italy in particular to regain their status and initiate the first universities. (See Philip Jones, The Italian City State: From Commune to Signoria). Recent scholarship, such as Lapidge, Ward-Perkins among others, is beginning to challenge the myths which became established in the 1960s that western civilization was preserved by the church. Latin certainly survived and a structure of administration within the church but not the great works of the past themselves. When learning did revive in the west in the eleventh century onwards it was always within the context of the church decreeing what was and was not acceptable. Look at the struggles of Abelard .One must distinguish between societies in which freedom of speech is accepted and even applauded and those where there is some form of ultimate authority which decrees what is and what is not acceptable.

So many of the arguments I made in The Closing of the Western Mind are not confronted in the review. I have yet to receive a review which deals comprehensively with these and as time goes by the central argument of the book seems to be accepted not only by its readers, learned and otherwise, but by the trend in recent scholarship. My new book AD 381: The Turning Point that Time Forgot, will be out in September 2007 and it will look more closely at the legislative programme of Theodosius (which is the essential area to explore) which, in its range and severity, equals only that of the pharaoh Akhenaten in the fourteenth century BC. The difference is that Akhenaten's programme collapsed after his death while that of Theodosius endured. Any study of this issue which does not give a central place to Theodosius must be flawed. Christians were no more or less crazy than anyone else.  They had, however, to adapt to a political situation if the church was to survive and it was this that introduced the dictatorial elements of the church. I hope this is of use to the debate.

In response to Charles's comments, I wrote the following:

Charles Freeman has kindly commented on my review of his book.  He feels I have not been entirely fair in characterising his work as one that reinforces Enlightenment myths about how Christianity put an end to classical intellectual life.  In his comments, Charles suggests that the villains of his book are the Emperors and their policy of religious centralisation.  My own subjective reading of his book does suggest a different emphasis.  I get the impression that it was Christianity that was the problem, not imperial control of the church.  His villains are Paul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan.  The Emperors are portrayed as engaged in realpolitik for which they cannot really be blamed.  The church, however, betrayed its principles by playing along.  Clearly, this is a case of the author’s intention differing from the reader’s impression.

Of course, the main thrust of my review was to demonstrate that intellectual life did not end with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century.  Charles doesn’t comment on this point but it think it is the central to our disagreement.  He simply assumes that because orthodox Christianity became the only official religion, all science and philosophy came to a halt.  He writes that Christianity’s triumph heralded a period of “intellectual stagnation”.  He continues, “It is hard to see how mathematics, science, or their associated disciplines could have made any progress in this atmosphere.”  These remarks are simply false, as I demonstrated in my review.  Thus, Charles’s book is seeking to explain something that never happened. 

However, he does raise a number of important points in his comments that I would like to address here.  With regard to the imperial legislation, we must be extremely careful how we read it.  It is tempting to pick up Pharr’s edition of the Theodosian Code and assume that the various enactments in it all came to be.  We might ask first, though, why the same law seems to have been passed multiple times.  Paganism is not just outlawed, but re-prohibited over and over again.  We could read this as a progressive hardening of legislation, but I think it just means that no one took much notice of these rescripts as they poured the stylus of the Emperor’s secretary.  After all, paganism continued for centuries.  Justinian closed the school of Athens in 529, but is anyone surprised that it still existed?  Or that the pagan teachers there (after an abortive exile in Persia) could write unmolested for the rest of their days.  Or that the pagan Olympiodorus was still teaching at Alexandria even later on?  The Theodosian Code tells us something about politics in Constantinople but very little about the state of pagan/Christian relations in the rest of the Empire.  We know of several pagan enclaves that survived pretty much unmolested until the Arab invasions, most famously Harran.  Thus, I do not believe 381AD is as much a turning point as Charles believes and neither do I think that the Imperial legislative programme tells us as much about real life as we might imagine.

On the other hand, Charles is exactly correct to distinguish between the fates of the eastern and western Empires.  The west fell due to the barbarian invasions.  This caused a collapse in culture and the loss of almost all knowledge of Greek.  The barbarians were either pagan (Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Huns) or Christians (Goths, Vandals, Lombards).  However, I did not really find that chapter 18 of The Closing of the Western Mind gets that across.  I rather thought the blame was laid at the door of Augustine’s anti-intellectualism and Pope Leo the Great’s ego.  Even referring to the ‘later’ Augustine is an anachronism.  Medieval scholars didn’t read the fathers as flesh-and-blood people whose doctrine developed over time, but as a series of proof texts that they rearranged and tried to reconcile.  ‘Early’ and ‘late’ Augustine were one and the same.  The old man awaiting death and the arrival of the Vandals was no more definitive than the younger open-minded version.

I haven’t been able to get hold of Lapidge’s new book but do know something about Anglo-Saxon culture.  Certainly, Christian monasteries were most concerned with Christian writing.  The preservation of the Latin classics was a by-product until the ninth century and the programme of Alcuin of York.  Also, England was very unusual in that it had a thriving vernacular literature.  However, this is not to say that the Church was not responsible for preserving cultural life.  Of course it was.  What other candidates are there?  Even Old English is written with Latin letters and the existence of the written language at all is due to the Church.  I fear Charles will be very badly mislead if he tries to downplay the importance of the Church in the survival and revival of western culture in the Early Middle Ages.  Almost every single word of classical Latin we have was preserved through the agency of the Church.

I also do not find current scholarship supports The Closing of the Western Mind.  My own period is the Middle Ages where most historians now accept the church massively supported and encouraged intellectual endeavour.  David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Olaf Pedersen, William Courtenay and John North among historians of science all follow this view.  Among historians of late antiquity, Lindberg has carefully studied early Christian attitudes to science and finds them many and various.  He rejects the contention that Christianity caused a decline in science.  M.T. Clanchy’s standard biography of Abelard makes clear that he brought most of his problems on himself.  Once his abrasive personality was off the scene, his ideas swept the field and dominated scholastic theology for centuries.  What is more surprising is how open to external Greek and Arab ideas the western Catholics were.  This is not the action of an anti-intellectual close-minded tradition.

One final point.  Charles says, “One must distinguish between societies in which freedom of speech is accepted and even applauded and those where there is some form of ultimate authority which decrees what is and what is not acceptable.”  Well true enough.  But what pre-modern society does he suggest applauded freedom of speech?  Not ancient Greece and Rome, surely?  Rome was one of the most brutal military despotisms in history where any dissent was crushed utterly.  The fact we have the musings of a few upper class Romans does not make them free.  Cicero’s efforts at freedom of speech cost him his life and he was the best orator there was.  Likewise Socrates in Athens. There is a constant temptation to romanticise the pre-Christian world but historians must resist it at all costs.  I am not sure that Charles is quite careful enough to compartmentalise his concerns about modern religious fanaticism, his love for the ancient world and his writing of history.

I understand Charles’s frustration that no review deals comprehensively with the arguments of his book.  Sadly, any review is far too short to properly do justice to a book long study.  I’d love to write a full-length history of late antiquity that deals with all the relevant evidence.  Perhaps one day.  In the meantime, I must stand by my contentions that The Closing of the Western Mind is seriously misleading for the reasons given in my initial review.  The western mind closed because of the barbarian invasions.  The Greek mind never closed.  Christianity doesn’t get a look-in either way.

Charles has continued our discussion.

I am delighted to contribute to this debate because the issues relating to freedom of thought and the best climate within which to stimulate intellectual creativity are such important ones.

First some general points. James calls my book ‘notorious’. This has passed me by. I have not had a single critical letter among those passed to me by my publishers; the vast majority of reviews have been supportive, including in such well respected journals such as Professor Richard Schlagel in The Review of Metaphysics; and sales have been brisk, about 45,000 internationally at the last count. (Interestingly two well known medieval historians condemned Closing although it was clear from the reviews that they had not read it - theirs seem to have been a gut reaction to the title.) Anyone can write a review on, Christian and non-Christian, and I think there would have been more hostile reviews if my book was ‘notorious’. The average of four stars seems to reflect the level of response of the reviews I have had in the media. What I have found is an unexpected amount of agreement from Christians who remain deeply concerned about the relationship of the church to traditional power structures. I might add that Yale University Press approached me on their own initiative, as a direct result of their editor reading Closing, and I am in the final stages of negotiating a two book deal with them. James’ review seemed to suggest that I was somehow an academic persona non grata - my experience has been rather the opposite.

Villains: In Closing, I am largely concerned with the relationship between the church and the empire in the fourth century. Ambrose was a local imperial governor who was appointed a bishop before he had even been baptised. I am sorry not be sympathetic to a man who spent vast amounts of money on huge churches (mostly, it seems, to glorify himself), openly said he was willing to take responsibility for burning down synagogues and was generally a control freak, as at the council of Aquileia, which he rigged in his own interests. If he represents Christianity . . .! (Neil McLynn’s biography, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital, has the details.) I cannot warm to Paul. I suppose it is a matter of temperament (some people really seem to like him) but I find his self-obsession, insecurities, etc, wearing. I spent much of a year reading him and about him from all angles and my feelings deepened with time. I simply don’t go for his punitive god who can only be appeased through faith. Sorry. However, I know from letters and reviews that a lot of people agree with me and I was pleased to get a letter from a prominent historian who told me that it was my chapter on Paul which was the first to make sense to him. (Few theologians attempt to relate the content of Paul’s letters to his personality -yet they make so much sense when one does. It is worth asking where his portrayal of a punitive god which fills the first chapter of Romans come from.) On Augustine - see further below. What a tragedy that such a brilliant mind ended up so narrow and pessimistic. What a greater tragedy that it was the pessimistic Augustine which became absorbed into the western theological tradition. As a result, few people seem to know of his earlier, more optimistic, works.

I am not sure where, in his review, James demonstrated the point that intellectual development in the sciences and mathematics continued after the fifth century. Opinion among historians of science and mathematicians is that this was a dead period in both east and west and I can provide quotations from Morris Kline (the well-known historian of mathematics) and others if that is what is needed.  The case can be sustained by:

  1. the lack of any mathematical or scientific advance, certainly between 500 and 1100;
  2. by the extensive denigration of reason in so many theological works of this period.

I have to disagree with James on the impact of Theodosius’ legislation. Of course, all imperial legislation had its limits but there is no precedent in the ancient world for such a sweeping programme of legislation. It went hand in hand with well documented assaults by Christians on pagan shrines and on synagogues (to such an extent that Theodosius II had to pass laws forbidding unprovoked attacks by Christians). As to implementation, Caroline Humfress in 'Roman Law, Forensic Argument and the Formation of Christian Orthodoxy' in S. Elm, E. Rebillard and A. Romano (eds.), Orthodoxie, Christianisme, Histoire (Rome, 2000) shows how law at an everyday level was developed to deal with heretics after 381. She shows how the concept of maleficium was broadened to include dissident Christians. To suggest that Theodosius’ laws only dealt with Constantinople cannot be sustained. There are well documented cases of destruction by Christians of important shrines throughout the east, often with imperial support (and, if you visit ancient sites in the east, you can often see the destruction for yourself). The point surely is not that the Platonic Academy survived until 529, it was that it was closed down at all! Justinian’s legislation can be seen as the culmination of Theodosius’s, although it seems to have been even more severe and thorough in its implementation. The crucial point about this legislation is that it targeted so many Christians. If pagans alone had been involved then debate WITHIN Christianity might have been sustained, but as the legislation was concerned with those who were decreed to be heretics, freedom of theological thought withers. ‘Clever theologians soon make heretics,’ as one Armenian bishop put it in the 450s. As I have said to more than one 'Christian' critic, it was Christianity which suffered as much as paganism from Theodosius’s legislation and this is a point I am expanding in ‘AD 381, The Turning Point That Time Forgot’.

As someone who has enjoyed reading freely all his life, I was particularly saddened by a law of 409 targeted at the books of ‘heretics’ which requires their codices to be burned. ‘If perchance any person should be convicted of having hidden any of these books under any pretext or fraud whatever and of having failed to deliver them [for burning], he shall know that he himself shall suffer capital punishment, as a retainer of noxious books and writings and as guilty of the crime of maleficum.’ I don’t think one can explain away laws such as this simply by saying they may not have been fully implemented. They represent what the imperial authorities believed was right to do and in some cases must have done. In a response to a proconsul who was concerned about the definition of heresy in a case before him in 395, the Emperor Arcadius replies ‘Those persons who may be discovered to deviate, even in a minor point of doctrine, from the tenets and path of the Catholic religion are included within the designation of heretics and must be subject to the sanctions which have been issued against them.’ (e.g. in the later law of 409 to death for hiding books!).

The barbarian invasions did not in themselves cause the loss of knowledge of Greek. Augustine had a traditional education far away from the invasions which did not include Greek, certainly not at a high enough level to allow him to understand Greek texts, even the gospels and letters of Paul (which he read in often poor translations), let alone the more sophisticated works of the Greek fathers. Even conservative theologians, such as the late Colin Gunton, note how Augustine’s work suffers from his failure to be able to read the works of the Cappadocian Fathers. Of course, the barbarian invasions led to enormous destruction in the west. Until recently, however, conventional historians have suggested the transition from empire to post -empire was relatively smooth (and hence learning ,etc, was preserved). See now the critique of these approaches in Ward-Perkins 'The Fall of Rome'. Certainly the 'barbarian' invasions were one result of the collapse of western civilization but having just returned from taking a study tour which included Ravenna, one is reminded that some of the finest mosaics were those commissioned by Theodoric the Goth (and that he contributed to the restoration of Rome)!

Early and late Augustine were not one and the same. One of the most fascinating, if deeply depressing, things about studying Augustine is to see how his thought changed between youth and age. In the 380s he is ready to support reason as a way of finding knowledge and he is optimistic about the possibilities of free will. A crucial moment comes about 395 with his new ideology of original sin, in contrast to free will; a denigration of secular learning (in De Doctrina Christiana); and an increasing denigration of reason, which he believes original sin has corrupted, takes over. (It may be possible to relate this to his obsession with Paul’s letter to the Romans which is so evident in these years.) It is the later Augustine which gets incorporated into Christian theology but it is only fair to Augustine to show that he was not as pessimistic in his youth as he later became. He needs some defending from his critics - it was hardly his fault that his later works seem to fit better with the zeitgeist of the times than his earlier ones.

My book was meant to end at 600. However, I wanted to make the point that reason did return to Christian theology in later centuries, which is why I added a chapter on Thomas Aquinas. In Closing, as readers will see, I am very positive about Pope Gregory the Great and it is worth quoting the ending lines of my chapter 18 (I quote from the US edition). Having shown how learning had become diminished, I go on:

Yet, at the same time, what was now the Roman Catholic Church was assuming responsibility for the poor and unloved. The tradition of learning was narrow, particularly by comparison with the classical world, but in so far as education was preserved it was through the Church, as was a system of health care. These centuries were also a time when imperial authority had disappeared and the Church in the west had begun to fill the vacuum. The Church preserved Roman law and the bishops a structure of institutional authority. The different cultures of western Europe may have adopted different kinds of Christianity as they fused their local cultural and spiritual traditions with those of the church, but there was a sense of a common language, even if it was a restricted one, with which communities could communicate with each other across Europe. If imperial Christianity - the Christianity of the empire in its death throes, in which even Jesus emerges as a warrior - was far removed from the Christianity of the Gospels, Christianity now takes on a new role as an agent of social cohesion in a world built out of the ruins of the empire.

I quote this, not only to make the point that I believe Christianity moved into a new phase after the collapse of the empire, but to show that this book is not a polemic against Christianity. I think James could have been more sensitive to my belief that Christianity is not a constant (whatever the Catholic Church proclaims), but has shown remarkably different facets in different contexts. It also shows that I am open to what the church did sustain in the Anglo-Saxon world. However, I follow Lapidge in believing that this has been vastly exaggerated. It is also not correct to say that the church preserved classical Latin. Church Latin was very different from classical Latin and it was not difficult for the scholars of the Renaissance, who did go back to the original classical texts, to show, through the comparison in language alone, that the notorious Donation of Constantine was a forgery. I am happy to support Bede’s quality of Latin although surely one of the problems of his age is that there are so few other written sources. This is certainly the complaint of the historians (e.g. Alan Thacker) in the new volume of the Cambridge Medieval History for this period.

I am willing to accept that medieval thought was much more varied that it is sometimes portrayed. This was the main reason why I included a chapter on Aquinas. So the debate about science in the Middle Ages is not an immediate concern. However, I haven’t been convinced by what I have read by supporters of medieval science - the ‘scientists’ seem amateurs compared to Galen, Ptolemy, Archimedes etc. etc, and certainly there is virtually no evidence that they made any advance on them. I don’t think one need romanticise the intellectual achievements of the ancient world. They are self-evidence in that philosophy (and its major fields such as logic, metaphysics, philosophy of language, theory of knowledge, political philosophy etc) mathematics, science and the methods of doing science (other than experimentation), history, drama, rhetoric, political theory, astronomy, a scientific approach to medicine, all draw on ancient models of conceiving and analysing problems. This was possible because there was a tradition of competitive debate which ensured intellectual standards remained high and shoddy thinking exposed. I sympathise with Abelard when, hundreds of years later, he wrote in his Collationes, "Human understanding increases as the years pass and one age succeeds another . . .yet in faith - the area in which threat of error is most dangerous - there is no progress . . . This is the sure result of the fact that one is never allowed to investigate what should be believed among one’s own people, or to escape punishment for raising doubts about what is said by everyone . . .People profess themselves to believe what they admit they cannot understand, as if faith consisted in uttering words rather than in mental understanding." I am not sure what James means by Abelard bringing his problems on himself but he sure knew what the problems were of working within a climate where new thought was discouraged! One could hardly condemn him for what he was trying to do - to get some form of reasoned debate back into the Christian world - even if his personality did sometimes get him into difficulties. (Goodness knows how impoverished western thought would be if we excluded the work of all those with arrogant personalities!)

One must also remember, and this is the major fault of Rodney Stark’s appalling (and I speak only about the quality of the history not his religious views) The Victory of Reason, that the European economy revived under its own steam and much of intellectual life was a response to economic change, which was completely independent of the Church. (Stark seems to imply that anything happened in medieval Europe (especially in so far as it involved nascent capitalism) was as a result of the church but his knowledge of the background history is virtually non-existent so his book just becomes an embarrassment - I am glad that those reviewers on who know anything about European history have given it the drubbing it deserves). Of course, the church was involved in the universities - how could it not be - but much of their impetus came from the need for administrators and lawyers in the growing cities of northern Italy and one can only examine the development of medieval thinking within this wider context (as well, of course, in relation to the massive contribution of the influx of texts from the Islamic world) .

My book is about the fourth and fifth centuries where I feel that there specific circumstances which made Christianity something very different from what it had been in its first centuries. But that is another story and the subject of one of the books which Yale University Press have commissioned me to write. Watch this space!

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© James Hannam and Charles Freeman 2006.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009