Science versus religion: the medieval disenchantment

JMS Pearce
Hull, England


Engraving of medieval monsters
Fig 1. An engraving showing a monopod or sclapod, a female Cyclops, conjoined twins, a blemmye, and a cynocephali. By Sebastian Münster 1544. Source

History is a novel whose author is the people.
-Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863)


In medieval times, knowledge, beliefs, and faith were largely centered upon a divine being. Christianity had replaced the paganism and barbarism of earlier centuries. Most experiences not explained by religious creed were attributed to mysterious forces of enchantment. The gradual unpicking of a divinely ordered society became known as The Disenchantment. Much of this account reflects the fine academic studies and writings1 of Robert Bartlett and his recent, lucid BBC documentary, Inside the Medieval Mind.2


Fantastical Figures and Superstition

The religious world between the ninth and fifteenth centuries was riddled with superstition. Apart from clerics in churches and monasteries most people were uneducated. The manacles of ecclesiasticism suppressed original thought. Class inequalities ranging from monks and priests, the martial aristocracy, the landed lords and crusading barons, to subservient serfs and peasants were all part of the prevailing order. No effort was made to rectify the cruel social injustices of these accidents of birth. The worth of unskilled workers was only realized after the Black Death because they were then reduced in number; the bonds of feudalism were slowly unbound.

Man’s curiosity and will to explore the unknown produced a quest for rigorous rationalism that assailed traditional theology. In the twelfth century a cultural revolution took place, which subsequently changed Western religions and philosophy. Education too, based on religion and the Greco-Latin classics, was superseded by new dialectic methods of critical investigation of truth through reasoned argument and science.

The reporting of fantastical phenomena and tales of weird animals and monstrous humanoid forms regarded as aliens or “spirit beings” were remarkably common in medieval life. What were these bizarre creatures? Where had they come from? And what did they signify? Strange events in the heavens or in a hidden subterranean world were frequently reported. The received ecclesiastical wisdom gave no explanation.

Several of these creatures appeared in the Hereford Mappa Mundi, produced c.1300, the largest known medieval map. It illustrated recognizable sites in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Jerusalem, but also contained images of mermaids, unicorns, and strangely distorted humanoids: dog-headed, one legged, and one-eyed humans.2 Similarly, the mythical Blemmyes (Fig 1) were known in medieval writings as headless creatures with eyes in their chests. Blemmyes had been earlier recorded in Libya by the Greek historian Herodotus, and later by Pliny the Elder.

But how were these strange notions understood? Were they essentially human—in which case, should clerics try to proselytize them? The ninth-century scholar Ratramnus concluded they were: “A group of moral, rational beings living in a society bound by laws. This is humanity not mere animality.”

To the post-medieval mind it is curious that stories of bizarre creatures and happenings ascribed to daemons, angels, fauns and other forces of superstition were unchallenged, and even more curious that their reality was unquestioned. Many were believed to inhabit distant, unexplored lands. But verification of their occurring abroad was lacking because much of the globe was uncharted. And books as sources of knowledge and explanation were few, laboriously scripted by hand, and seldom available to ordinary folk.

Credence of incredible phenomena thought to be divine began to be displaced by recognition of the laws of nature and science. After the Anglo-Saxon humanism of Charlemagne (768-814) and the monk Alcuin of York (c.735 – 804) a bold excursion from medieval thought gradually emerged in European centers of learning, the so-called Studium Generale. It began with the European,3 and Oxford and Cambridge universities that started to teach not the monastic hegemony of religion but scholarly teachings based on science, mathematics, and logic. Men could now make reasoned choices based on learning, independent of church and monastery.


Reconciling religion with science?

From a huge literature is sketched the work and concepts of a few selected medieval scholars who tried to understand and incorporate into ecclesiastical concepts these varied and much argued ideas about their material world, and its numerous alien tales and superstitions.

Pierre Abélard, called “Pierre le Pallet” (c. 1079 –1142) was an Olympian, medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian, and logician. He gave rational expression to received ecclesiastical doctrine, reviving the fourth century BC philosophy of Aristotle.4 Humans had choices, the subjective intention of seeking both understanding and the moral value of their actions.5 When he wrote, “By doubting we come to inquiring, and by inquiring, we perceive the truth,” he predicated future rational analysis and scientific thought. Chambers Biographical Dictionary described him as “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the twelfth century.” He attracted students from many countries. Both his intellectual striving and his complex love affair with Héloise d’Argenteuil became legendary.

During Abélard’s childhood the Spaniards in 1085 conquered the City of Toledo, a center of Islamic arts and science with libraries containing ancient Greek texts (including Aristotle) translated into Arabic. How were they discovered?

Around 1170, Daniel of Morley, a priest and philosopher, held the hereditary rectory of Flitcham, near Holkham. He was supported by John of Oxford, Bishop of Norwich.6 Daniel heard stories about the manuscripts discovered in the libraries of Spain. He journeyed to Toledo there to discover a new philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. Enlightened and enthusiastic, he returned to England with many books but was disappointed to find English scholars preoccupied by Roman law, and unreceptive. The Bishop of Norwich asked him to publish his new found knowledge thus prompting Daniel’s Philosophia or Liber de Naturis Inferiorum et Superiorum (c.1175).7 His work included new translations of texts on natural science from Greek and Arabic. It was a comprehensive work, which along with Adelard of Bath’s Quaestiones naturales and William de Conches’s Dragmaticon became provocative and influential in the early twelfth century.8

The Toledo discovery of Arabic science soon infiltrated other European countries. Western art also borrowed from Islamic art generating illustrated manuscripts, textiles, pottery, metalwork and glass, gothic painting, and sculptures.

The explorations of knowledge excited a revolution of dialectical reasoned argument despite continuing European wars. A seminal figure in the thirteenth century thought was Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274) (Fig 2), who was born in Roccasecca in Sicily and canonized in 1323. As a boy he was placed in the monastery of Monte Cassino as a prospective monk. He later joined the Friar Preachers or Dominicans, and after much family dissension9 studied in Paris where faith in the traditional ideas was being challenged.

Etching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, man of religion and science
Fig 2. Saint Thomas Aquinas. 1812. Source

He became the foremost medieval Scholastic philosopher.10 Following Aristotle, Augustine, and Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Aquinas was a major contributor to the scientific method; but he realized that the priesthood must come to terms with Aristotle’s rational world by combining the values of both reason and a divine creed as revealed in the scriptures.11 Aristotle had founded a rational theory and proof of a first and final cause of observable phenomena. But God remained the primary, infinite “mover of the universe.” Similarly, for Aquinas, reason and faith must not contradict each other because they came from the same divine source—a concept known as Scholasticism. But there was a fine line between heterodoxy and ecclesiastical orthodoxy.

From this stance he formulated his views about the metaphysics of personality, creation, and Providence.12 He wrote two masterpieces, the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles, for the classical systematization of Latin theology. His teachings were humane and practical:

“Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do,”


“I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it. I would hope to act with compassion without thinking of personal gain.”

In this climate, rationalism and mechanical developments were growing apace in people’s lives. The eleventh-century Benedictine St. Anselm of Canterbury had proclaimed the power of human reason to illuminate but not deny the mysteries of Christian faith. By contrast, the radical ideas of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1126-1198), a Cordovan Islamist, though much disputed were also influential. He simply argued that religious knowledge contradicted rational knowledge: two truths—one of faith, the other of reason: a view that provoked a storm of religious opposition. The Averroists taught their skewed version of Aristotle’s philosophy in opposition to Christianity. However, Thomas Aquinas argued that reason could operate within faith but according to its own laws. His Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles predicated on canon law went on to an explication of man and nature. Man emerged from this scholastic process with a rational intelligence disciplined for the pursuit of morality.

John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a Franciscan friar, philosopher, and theologian stressed the contingency of the universe and its dependence on God’s infinite creative will.13 Human will held supremacy over intellect and other faculties (voluntarism). And in the fourteenth century William of Ockham (1285–1347/49) taught that God fashions the universe as he wishes. He tried to separate natural intuitive knowledge of actual objects or things—a form of realism— from supernatural intuitive knowledge—a guess, abstraction or belief without substance—of which God is the cause. His views of nominalism, which promoted chance and individuality as governing reality, boldly indicted papal “heretical error” for defending the wealth of the Church when the reform movement towards apostolic poverty remained vital.

(Perhaps of more utility he also left us with Ockham’s razor: the precedence of simplicity: of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred.)


Experimental science and new technology

In this way there emerged the idea that observable phenomena were to be explained by science and its instruments. Bartlett cites the measurement of time as one example.2 Clocks were primitive and inaccurate. What was needed was a wheel that tuned with precisely equal movements at each “tick,” an escapement. The ancient Wells Cathedral clock measured seconds, minutes, and hours reliably. The mechanism was used in other clocks, which afforded a new, accurate means of timing all meetings and occasions.

A major proponent of medieval technical and experimental science14 was Roger Bacon (“Doctor Mirabilis”) (c.1220-c. 1292), a philosopher and Franciscan friar, who was learned in mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. After Robert Grosseteste, Bacon initiated the conception of science as the inductive study of nature, tested by experiment. Constrained for many years by the Franciscan order, his scientific concepts were the subject of his Opus maius, summarized in the Opus minus and the longer Opus tertium, submitted for papal approval. However, Pope Clement IV died in 1268 without giving his opinions of Bacon’s works. The practical outcome was that Bacon described the manufacture of gunpowder, and before Leonardo da Vinci he proposed flying machines and motorized boats and carriages. An unflinching advocate of experimental science against authority, he was held by Humboldt to be “the most important phenomenon of the Middle Ages.” A man of prodigious energy, his spirit of experimental science supplanted many divine edicts declared by churchmen.15 Because of his heretical ideas and his attacks on theologians and scholars, in 1277 he was condemned to prison by his fellow Franciscans because of the “suspected novelties” in his teaching. He died in Oxford not long after his release. But his precocious expression of the empirical spirit of experimental science continued, leading to a more objective, measurable physical world.



Brave and hardy adventurers sought new knowledge, power, and wealth in Europe, Byzantium, and Asia. Travel to foreign parts now increased. The next problem was how to employ and spread their discoveries. One aim was to seek the source and meaning of the bizarre spirit creatures.

A Franciscan missionary, William of Rubruck travelled via Constantinople and the Crimea to Karakorum the Mongol capital in 1253, in search of the monopods, dog-heads, and unicorns described in the Mappa Mundi. But he found the eastern natives had seen none of them and believed they resided in western lands.

Merchants and missionaries including the Pope’s emissary embarked on similar ventures. The East China Sea and the Silk Road were routes, which until the collapse of the Mongol empire in 1368 enabled explorers to trade not only ideas but goods and mechanical implements. The Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1324) in 1270 went to Asia and China along the Silk Road. In an exploration that lasted more than two decades he encountered wild and dangerous places, endless deserts, but also kingdoms of astonishing wealth and power: palaces glistering with gold, silver, and jewelry. On return, his book The Travels Of Marco Polo aroused astonished disbelief and admiration, which encouraged other expeditions.

Christopher Columbus, a man familiar with Marco Polo’s travels3 and with the Mappa Mundi, in 1492 sailed for the East via a western route. By accident he landed in America, believing he was in the eastern kingdoms of Marco Polo’s travels. He thought he had discovered the Garden of Eden. Long after the Greeks and Romans established colonies in Europe, Columbus had opened the New World for conquest and the European colonization of the Americas.



These were the roots of a new era when people of divergent cultures would travel, meet, and exchange ideas, knowledge, technical inventions, and languages.

Science and experiment complimented by new technology made significant incursions into the hegemony of staid ecclesiastical beliefs and practices. These new ideologies and explorations have to be set against the violent and turbulent events that affected everyday medieval life:

The twelfth century marked the Crusades that were organized by European Christianity to reclaim from Muslim states the territories in the Middle East.

After a papal dispute, King John’s excommunication in 1209 was succeeded in 1214 by his loss of Normandy and French possessions after the Battle of Bouvines.

On 15 June 1215 at Runnymede, King John and his barons signed the Magna Carta, which was to change the legal rights of the monarch and the common man forever.

From 1300 climate began to change with the “Little Ice Age,” which contributed to the Great European Famine of 1315 – c.1320 in which millions perished.

Plague, the Black Death, arrived in in England in 1347/8 killing half the population in a year, only to return in 1361, 1374, and in 1665.

These major disasters inflicted sufferings and stress of such gravity that men started to question the traditional, encrusted values of the church, and perhaps made them more receptive to rational knowledge and its practical consequences in their daily existence. The importance of the manual work of peasants was eventually appreciated.

The medieval age of enchantment ended with the Tudor dynasty and Columbus’ voyages. Silk working, the compass, papermaking, and porcelain were all derived from China. New devices such as the sailors’ compass and the use of gunpowder marked the post-medieval world and its diverse cultures, inventions, and humanism initiated by secular men of letters rather than by clerics. As well as new philosophies, the post-medieval Renaissance was to bring the art of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael; the writings of Dante, Erasmus, and Montaigne; and the scientists Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Paracelsus, and Descartes—to highlight just a few. The Renaissance was primarily a fifteenth and sixteenth century revival of Classical scholarship: a rational explanation of observed phenomena linked to new explorations and ideas. Inventions and technology brought practical consequences to the growth of engineering and commerce, which in turn brought a more comfortable life to some of those previously condemned to serfdom or slavery.

Arguably, the most important advances were the invention of paper and Gutenberg’s printing press that made knowledge accessible to the common man.



  1. Bartlett R. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  2. Bartlett R. Inside the Medieval Mind. BBC4. Feb 2020.
  3. Bartlett R. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350. Penguin 1994.
  4. Pierre (Peter) Abelard of Le Pallet, introduction and short biography.
  5. Robertson GC, Shotwell JT. “Abelard, Peter”. In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press 1911; pp. 40–41.
  6. Silverstein T. ‘Daniel of Morley, English cosmologist and student of Arabic science’, Mediaeval Studies, 10 (1948), 179–96
  7. Daniel of Morley, ‘Philosophia’, ed. G. Maurach, Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch, 14 (1979), 204–55
  8. Silverstein T. ‘Daniel of Morley, English cosmologist and student of Arabic science’, Mediaeval Studies, 10 (1948), 179–96
  9. Chenu Marie-Dominique. St. Thomas Aquinas, Italian Christian Theologian And Philosopher. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  10. Gilson, E. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. University of Notre Dame Press, 1990; The Spirit of Thomism (1964),
  11. Lisa, A J. 1998, Aquinas’s Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  12. Finnish, J, “Aquinas’ Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
  13. Ryan J. K., Bonansea B. M. (eds) ‘The Life and Works of John Duns Scotus’, 1265-1965, Washington The catholic Univ, 1965.
  14. Molland G. Bacon [Bakun], Roger (c. 1214–1292?) Dictionary of National Biography, OUP Sept 2004.
  15. Sidebottom E. Roger Bacon and the beginnings of experimental science in Britain. J R Soc Med. 2013 Jun; 106(6): 243–245.



JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is an emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England.



Much of this account was stimulated by Prof. Robert Bartlett’s recent BBC 4 documentary, Inside the Medieval Mind, and from the details and learned interpretations in his books.


Spring 2020  |   Sections  |  History Essays