Archive for the ‘The Christian Dark Ages’ Category


July 23, 2017

I have mentioned in passing how the Norman Conquest of 1066 fundamentally changed the English Language. When William the Conqueror and his French speaking Normans defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and took over the Kingdom of England, French became the language of administration, the court, literature, and polite society generally. English was relegated to being a language of the conquered, spoken largely by servants and serfs. After about two centuries the Norman kings and nobility began to think of themselves as English and to speak the English language. English became, once again, the language of England and thanks to Chaucer and others, English was renewed as a language of literature equal to French. But it was no longer the language of Beowulf and Alfred the Great. The Old English, spoken by the Anglo-Saxons had become Latinized and Frenchified, the language historians call “Middle English. As a result, fully half the words in the English Language ultimately derive from Latin, either directly or though one of the Romance Languages, mostly French.

What would English be like if William the Conqueror had lost the Battle of Hastings and remained simply William the Bastard, the Norman Duke who failed to capture England? Would we still be speaking Anglo-Saxon? Would Beowulf, the oldest work of literature written in English be comprehensible to the modern English speaker, instead of seeming to be a strange dialect of German? Probably not. Languages change over time, even in the absence of foreign invasions. The Norman conquest marks a decisive breaking point between Old and Middle English, but the language was changing anyway. Still, there would probably be more of a continuity between Old and Middle English without the break of the Norman conquest.

If he had lost…

While there probably wouldn’t be the vast influx of Latin words entering the English Language from French, there would be some borrowing. Latin was the language of the Church and of scholarship and France was just across the English Channel. The vocabulary of Modern English would probably be more German with fewer words derived from Latin. The total number of words might be smaller, but it is really hard to know just how many words there really are in any language. Claims that English has a larger vocabulary than most languages is impossible to verify. Since the Germanic words in Modern English tend to be the more commonly used, perhaps there wouldn’t be as much of a difference as you might think. On the other hand, there are many common Latin derived words. I’m not sure I could write this post if I were confined to words derived from Anglo-Saxon.

There might have be a greater influence from Old Norse. The Vikings or Danes had been raiding and settling in England since around the later part of the eighth century and began to settle in England by the middle of the ninth century. At one point around half of England was under the control of England. Although the Danes were driven out by King Alfred the Great, they returned and from 1013-1042, England was ruled by Danish kings. Shortly before the Battle of Hastings, Harold Godwinson had defeated an invading army of Norsemen. This long relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and VIkings added Old Norse words to the English language including, scarf, skirt, keel, knot, wife, muck, mire, and many others. If the Normans had not conquered England, perhaps the Scandinavians would have. English could be a lot closer to Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Norwegian. England could be considered another Scandinavian country.

If the Anglo-Saxons had managed to maintain control over England, perhaps Modern English would be something like Anglish. Anglish is English which has been purified or purged of foreign words. You can learn all about it at The Anglish Moot, a Wiki devoted to the subject with articles in English and Anglish telling what they are doing towards make the English language more English along with Wikipedia style articles written in Anglish and translations of texts and speeches.

Here is a description of their purpose.

The aim of Anglish/New-English is:

English with many fewer words borrowed from other tongues.

Because of the fundamental changes to our language, to say that English people today speak English is like saying that the French speak Latin. The fact is that we now speak the international language, Ancwe (Ancillary World English). Unlike most nations, we no longer “own” our language. The Anglish/New English project is intended as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people.

Here is a part of their article on the Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (United States of America)

The Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (BFA), mainly called the Banded Folkdoms (BF or B.F.) and Americksland, is a bound groundlawful folkwealth made up of fifty folkdoms and a bound shire. The land is indwelt in midmost Northamericksland, where its forty-eight linked folkdoms and Washington, C.S. (Columbo Shire), the headtown shire, lie between the Great Frithly and Even Seas, landlinked to Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The folkdom of Shoulderland is in the northwest of the landstretch, with Canada to the east and Russland to the west across the Bering Narrowing. The folkdom of Firelands is an ilandcluster in the mid-Great Frithly Sea. Americksland also holds a few landstocks in the Great Frithly and Caribish Seas. Americksland is one of the world’s most heathenly sundry and manibreeding folklands, the outcome of great incomings  from many rikes. The earthlore and weather of the Banded Folkdoms is also sundry.

And a translation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this greatland, a new folkship, dreamt in freedom, and sworn to the forthput that all men are made evenworthy. Now we are betrothed in a great folk-war, testing whether that folkship, or any folkship so born and so sworn, can long withstand. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to earmark a bit of that field, as a last resting spot for those who here gave their lives that that folkship might live. It is altogether meet and seemly that we should do this. But, in a greater meaning, we can not earmark — we can not bless — we can not hallow — this ground. The bold men, living and dead, who struggled here, have blessed it, far above our wretched strength to eke or take. The world will little write, nor long ken what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be earmarked here to the unfullcame work which they who fought here have thus far so highbredly put forth. It is rather for us to be here earmarked to the great task lasting before us — that from these hallowed dead we take increased drive to that belief for which they gave the last full deed of drive — that we here highly settle that these dead shall not have died in idleness — that this folkship, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that lawmoot of the folk, by the folk, for the folk, shall not swelt from the Earth.

It’s English, but not quite the English we speak. It seems less abstract, since the Latin roots and affixes that English often uses to create new words do not always have obvious meanings unless one is familiar with Latin, maybe homier is a better way to describe Anglish. It is a language closer to German both in vocabulary and in that homey quality that I wrote about not long ago.

While Anglish is interesting, and if I were a writer who wanted to write a story set in an alternate universe in which William the Bastard lost the Battle of Hastings, I would have the characters speak in Anglish, I do not altogether approve of the idea of language purification. I believe that the idea of  language purity to be almost as silly an idea as racial purity, though not nearly as silly an idea as cultural appropriation in vogue among leftists.

Languages grow by taking words from other languages. Any attempt to keep a language pure of foreign influences only stifles its growth, causing it to become something like a linguistic bonsai tree. It is the glory of English that it has always been willing and eager to take words from other languages without shame and the Latinate words the people at the Anglish Moot disdain as foreign are every bit as English as a word with a pedigree going back to Old English.


St. Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2016

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.

The Demon Whisperer

August 10, 2015

They really don’t make popes like they used to. It is true that many of the Medieval and Renaissance Popes were very bad men and some were actually criminals. The Roman Catholic Church is fortunate that the general character of its popes seems to have improved considerably over the last few centuries. Modern popes may not be as interesting to read about as some of the more notorious popes of earlier ages, but they are perhaps more reliable in performing their pastoral and administrative duties. Still, if there are no remarkably bad popes in the present age, there are also no especially good popes either. Popes today are a rather bland lot compared to their predecessors. If there are no more Borgia Popes who assassinate their rivals or Great Schisms between rival popes, there are also no popes like Julius II who personally led armies into battle, Leo I who faced down Attila the Hun and convinced him not to sack Rome, or Gregory VII who made the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stand in the snow for three days before granting him absolution. Popes were far tougher in the past.

The toughest of these medieval popes had to have been Pope Honorius III. He was not content to vanquish mere earthly foes but, according to legend, he actually summoned demons from Hell in order to battle with them and send them back. Even better, he wrote a book, or Grimoire, on summoning, controlling and banishing demons for the benefit of clergymen who might need such knowledge in their work.  Pope Honorius III was the Demon Whisperer, at least according to legend.

The Demon Whisperer

The Demon Whisperer

The sober facts about the life and papacy of Honorius III are impressive enough even without bringing in fantastic tales of his wrestling with demons to keep in spiritual shape. He was born Cencio Savelli in Rome in 1150. Savelli began his priestly career as canon of the Church of Sainta Maria Maggiore. In January 1188, he was made Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church. This post put Savelli in charge of Papal lands and finances and was perhaps a sign that he was considered honest and trustworthy. In February 1193, Savelli was made Cardinal Deacon of Santa Lucia and was acting Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Roman Church from 1194 until 1198. Savelli was dismissed from his post as Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church in 1198 and given the post of Camerlengo of the Sacred College of Cardinals, making him the treasurer of the College of Cardinals. In 1200, Pope Innocent III raiused Savelli to Cardinal Priest. Meanwhile, in 1197,  Savelli also managed to gain the post of tutor to the future Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

On July 16, 1216, Savelli’s predecessor Innocent III died. Innocent III had been one of the most powerful and active popes of the Middle Ages and his reign would be a tough act to follow. Because of the unsettled political conditions in Italy, the College of Cardinals wanted to select a new pope quickly and they met only two days after the death of Innocent III, on July 18 at the city of Perugia. The College decided on Cencio Savelli as a compromise candidate acceptable to every faction and Savelli, somewhat reluctantly, was consecrated Pope Honorius III on July 24.

Honorius was a popular pope, at least in Rome where the Romans were pleased to have a local as pope. He was also known for his kindness and generosity which endeared him to the people of Rome. Like Innocent III, Honorius III was ambitious for the Papacy to play a leading role in European politics, but he proved to be less inclined to use coercion against the princes of Christendom, preferring to use persuasion. It may be that Honorius was too ambitious and tried to get too much done during his reign. He wanted to recover the Holy Land for Christendom and promoted the Fifth Crusade. This crusade involved a campaign against Egypt from 1218-1221 and ended in failure. Most of the rulers of Europe had their own difficulties at home and were not able or willing to leave their lands for any length of time. Honorius’s former pupil Frederick II became Holy Roman Emperor in 1220 and was an obvious choice to lead a crusade. Although he promised Honorius that he would go crusading in the Holy Land, Frederick II kept putting off and delaying his departure until after Honorius was dead.

In addition to promoting the crusades against the Infidel, Honorius also continued the French crusade against the Albigensians or Cathars begun by Innocent III. He supported the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors and missionary activity to convert the Baltic peoples, the last pagan holdouts in Europe. On a more positive note, Honorius endeavored to promote the spiritual reform of the Church. Honorius approved the Dominican, Franciscan and Carmelite orders and supported their reforming efforts. Honorius was a man of learning and strongly encouraged standards of education among the clergy, going so far as to dismiss illiterate bishops. He granted privileges to the Universities of Paris and Bologna and ordered arrangements made for talented young men who lived far from any universities to be taken to them and learn theology for the purpose of teaching in their own dioceses. Honorius himself wrote many books, including biographies of Popes Celestine III and Gregory VII as well as an guide to Papal finances. Even without the legends of wrestling with the supernatural, Honorius comes across as one of the more impressive figures to assume the Papal tiara.

Summoning Demons for Dummies

Summoning Demons for Dummies

It may have been Honorius III’s reputation as an author and scholar that gave rise to the legend that he wrote a grimoire and summoned demons in his spare time. Naturally, modern historians do not give any credence to such legends. The educated in our secular age reject outright any suggestion of the supernatural, especially stories of witchcraft and demon summoning and few are inclined to suppose there can be any truth to such legends. Aside from that, experts on the history and theology of the Roman Catholic Church point out that any work of witchcraft or magic, including the act of summoning demons, is and always has been strictly prohibited by canon law and it seems unlikely that a pope such as Honorius III, who was at pains to promote Catholic teachings would go against those teachings. Still, the idea of a pope relaxing by summoning demons and then sending them back to Hell is a strangely  appealing one, and I’d like to see one of these wimpy modern popes try to fight a demon.

One of Honorius's demons would chew him up and spit him out.

One of Honorius’s demons would chew him up and spit him out.

The Cadaver Synod

July 16, 2015

In the old days, popes were a lot more fun than they generally are nowadays. Twentieth and twenty-first century popes generally make nice speeches about helping the poor, ending war, and occasionally clarifying some bit of Catholic theology, not at all like the times when popes led armies into battle, appointed their relatives to all the top positions in the Church or had sex scandals with scores of mistresses and illegitimate children. The Papacy has become more tame and while that must be of considerable relief to the millions of Catholics who revere the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, it is a little disappointing to those who relish the scandalous or even the bizarre. Perhaps the strangest episode in the history of the Papacy has to be the notorious Cadaver Synod, the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus, in the year 897.


The term Dark Age is generally very inaccurate when applied to the entire Medieval Period from 500-1500, but the late ninth and tenth century was indeed a very dark time for Europe, perhaps the darkest period except for the aftermath of the destruction of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Empire built by Charlemagne which included much of Western Europe was breaking up, divided between his grandchildren and great-grandchildren wh. fought among themselves incessantly. The all too brief cultural renaissance sponsored by the great king and emperor could not be maintained in a disintegrating empire and the progress made during Charlemagne’s reign was in danger of being reversed. The Carolingian dynasty had devolved from Charles the Great (Charlemagne) to Charles the Bald, Charles the Fat, and finally Charles the Simple. As if internal struggles did not create enough misery for the Europeans, invaders from every direction, the Vikings from the North, Muslims from the South and Magyars from the East, raided across Europe plundering and destroying at will.


The Papacy fared no better in this tumultuous time. The popes of this period were little more than the creatures of the nobility of the city of Rome, the Papal tiara being passed back and forth among the various Roman families. Most of the popes of this era were ineffectual, short reigned, decadent and corrupt, far worse than the notorious Renaissance popes who at least had political skill and patronage of the arts and sciences to recommend them. Not for nothing was this period called the “night of the Papacy”.

This was the background in which Formosus became pope. He was born in Ostia perhaps around the year 816. In 864, Formosus was made Cardinal Bishop of Porto, a suburb of Rome, and he was trusted with diplomatic missions to Bulgaria in 866 and the Franks in 869 and 872. He carried out missionary work among the Bulgarians and impressed them enough that they request Pope Nicholas I appoint him archbishop. Pope Nicholas refused since transferring a bishop from one see to another was a violation of canon law. Upon the death of Pope Adrian II, Formosus was a candidate for the Papacy, but John VIII was selected instead. Formosus seems to have had some sort of disagreement with John VIII, since he left his post as Cardinal Bishop and the city of Rome. Pope John order his return to Rome on pain of excommunication of various charges including opposition to the Holy Roman Empire, conspiring to seek the archbishopric of Bulgaria and the Papacy, and abandoning his post as Cardinal Bishop. His excommunication was withdrawn in 878 but he was forbidden to enter Rome or exercise his priestly functions. John’s successor, Marinus I was more favorably disposed towards Formosus and he restored him to his post at Porto in 883.


Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Pope Formosus, while he was still alive.

Marinus I and his two successors, Hadrian III and Stephen V had short reigns as Pope and by 891 the Papal throne was vacant once more. This time Formosus was elected Pope with no opposition. He would reign from 891 until his death in 896. As pope, Formosus was more involved with political issues, both secular and ecclesiastical, than pastoral matters. He was asked to rule on the status of Eastern Bishops ordained by an ousted Patriarch of Constantinople, and tried to settle a dispute over the crown of West Francia, or France. Formosus did not get along with the Holy Roman Emperor Guy of Spoleto and had to endure an invasion of Italy in 894. As if that wasn’t enough, Formosus had to contend with raiding Saracens ravaging the coasts of Italy.

Pope Formosus died in 896 after a short reign of a little less than five years. He wasn’t one of the more notable popes and it is likely that he would be altogether forgotten if it were not for his macabre posthumous career. Formosus was succeeded by Boniface VI who died after only fifteen days as pope and then Stephen VI who convened the Cadaver Synod. In January 897, Stephen VI had Formosus’s corpse disinterred, dressed in his papal vestments, propped up on a throne and put on trial . The charges were  transmigration of sees, from the Bulgarian affair, perjury, and serving as a bishop while a layman. Since Formosus could hardly be expected to answer these charges verbally, a deacon was appointed to answer for him. According to some accounts, when questions were put to Formosus, this deacon moved his head to indicate yes or no. Naturally, the court found Formosus guilty on all courts. Pope Stephen VI had Formosus stripped of his papal vestments and the three fingers of his right hand that were used for blessings cut off. He then invalidated all Formosus’s ordinations (except for his own ordination as Bishop of Anagni) and annulled all his acts and measures and had the corpse thrown into the Tiber.

You might think this would be the end of this bizarre affair, but Pope Formosus got revenge, of a sort. The strange trial of a cadaver turned public opinion against Stephen VI. Formosus’s body washed up on the banks of the Tiber and rumors began to spread that his body was performing miracles. A mob deposed and imprisoned Stephen VI and by August 897 he found strangled in his cell. Formosus was buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In December 897, Pope Theodore II nullified the findings of the Cadaver Synod and future posthumous trials were prohibited.

It is easy to smile at the antics of these Dark Age barbarians. Surely, in our more enlightened time, no one would dig up buried corpses and put them on trial. I am not so sure about that. As I write this, the city council of Memphis, Tennesee has just voted to exhume the corpse of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and move him from the park where he has been buried for the last one hundred and ten years. They also plan to remove his statue from the site and sell it. Forrest was not only a Confederate general, which is bad enough, but also one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, which makes him one of the most evil men in history, clearly unfit to be buried in a public place. There are no plans yet to put General Forrest on trial for hate crimes, cut off his hand that wielded his cavalry sword, and throw his body into the Mississippi, but in this current climate of anti-Confederate hysteria, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

July 10, 2015

The Hundred Year’s War is not really an accurate name for the medieval war between England and France. The war actually lasted one hundred sixteen years, from 1337-1453, and was not a continuous war but a series of conflicts, with off and on fighting depending on the belligerence of kings and the course of the plague. The war began when the last son of Philip IV of France died without issue. As the mother of the English King Edward III was Phillip’s daughter, Edward claimed the French throne, as well as his own. The French refused his claim, citing the Salic Law which prohibited royal inheritance by a female descendant of the king and gave the crown to a nephew of Philip IV, Philip VI. Naturally there was war.

After the death of Edward III in 1377, the fighting died down somewhat as both realms were more concerned with internal matters. Henry V renewed the fighting in 1415, taking advantage of  political unrest between branches of the French royal family, particularly the feud between the Armagnac or Orleans faction and the Burgundians. After his decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry V was able to compel the French King Charles VI to disinherit his own son, the Dauphin, later known as Charles VII, and declare Henry his heir. Henry V died in 1522 leaving an infant son Henry VI who became king of France upon the death of Charles VI later that year. Thus France had an English king from 1420 to 1450, at least in theory.

This English kingdom of France is the subject of Juliet Barker‘s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, which covers the last part of the Hundred Year’s War. It is a fascinating story of a France almost completely defeated rising again to expel the invader, of a disinherited prince with no hope of gaining his throne turning the tide with the help of Joan of Arc, and of an infant king  with a faction ridden council of regents and a land worn out by fighting, growing up into a weak king willing to make peace at any price. It is a story of battles and sieges, of brave knights and treacherous mercenaries and family squabbles that affect the course of nations.


Juliet Barker makes this story come alive with the skill of a novelist. She brings out the personalities of the principals involved in the war and politics of the two kingdoms and describes the events in a way that excites the interest of the reader. By the time I was halfway through the book, I found the narrative so fascinating that I had trouble putting it down. If you like the Game of Thrones, you’ll surely love this history of a real life game of thrones. The only complaint I have is that the maps really weren’t enough. It might have been nice to include one or two maps showing the course of the various campaigns. Other than that, this was an excellent history of a long ago war.

Wheels within Wheels

June 1, 2015

In the previous post, I left off the history of astronomy with Claudius Ptolemy, the last and greatest of the astronomers of ancient times. It was Ptolemy who brought the science of astronomy to its apex in classical times. In his treatise, the Almagest, as the Arabs came to call it, Ptolemy worked out the geocentric model with the complex system of epicycles that the ancients believed described the universe, along with a catalog of stars and constellations and tables of information on the motions of the planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. So well did Ptolemy do his work that the Almagest was the accepted text on astronomy for over twelve hundred years.

The science of astronomy did not stand still after the time of Ptolemy. The Western Europeans were a little distracted by the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and contributed little to the progress of learning for some centuries. Fortunately the ancient learning was preserved in the Greek East and when the Arabs conquered much of the Middle East in the century after the death of Mohammed, they were able to learn much from the peoples they ruled and soon began to make contributions of their own in science and philosophy. The Arabs translated many Greek texts into Arabic which Western scholars discovered and translated into Latin. The contributions made by the Arabs can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s standard text is known by its Arabic title and that many stars still retain names derived from  Arabic

Throughout the Early Middle Ages, the Muslims translated Greek texts into Arabic and so helped to preserve them until Western scholars could translate them into Latin once things had settled down in the West. The importance of the Arabic contribution can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s book is known by its Arabic title, not to mention that many stars are known by names derived from Arabic; Betelgeuse, Algol, Aldebaran, Deneb, Vega, and many others.

Over time, the Arabs, and later the Europeans, developed better instruments for observing the positions of the stars and planets in the sky and to predict the motions of the planets. As their techniques improved, astronomers were able to revise and update the information on planetary motions collected by Ptolemy, and they also found that more epicycles were needed to explain and predict planetary motions. The Ptolemaic model began to seem increasingly over complicated. The last major revision of the tables of planetary motions was commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile in the thirteenth century. Alfonso, called “the Wise” was known as a patron of many branches of learning and was himself conversant in the science of astronomy. He is supposed to have remarked that if God had consulted him during the creation, he might have suggested a simpler system than the complicated bicycles of Ptolemy. The king almost certainly did not say this, but the sentiment was shared by many who began to believe the universe shouldn’t be so complicated.

Among these was a Polish priest who lived some two hundred years after Alfonso. This priest was named Mikolaj Kopernik, better known by the Latinized version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus was a true renaissance man who was learned in such diverse fields as mathematics, canon law, medicine, economics, classical languages, diplomacy, politics, and astronomy. It is in that last subject that he is remembered today. Copernicus came to realize that understanding the motions of the planets would be much easier if he simply assumed that the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth.



The retrograde motions of the planets could simply be explained by their overtaking the Earth as they orbit the Sun. Copernicus seems to have developed his heliocentric theory by 1514 and spent much of the rest of his life working on his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. Although Copernicus showed the manuscript to his friends and interested scholars, he was reluctant to actually publish his masterpiece for fear of the public ridicule such a radical theory might bring him. It was only after his friends assured him that the book would be favorably received and he was dying that Copernicus agreed to publish De revolutionibus in 1543.

De revolutionibus was favorably received by the few people who actually read it. The fact was that Copernicus’s book was so abstruse and technical that only astronomers and mathematicians could really appreciate and understand it.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

Copernicus’s heliocentric model was not generally accepted for some time. The fact that the assumption that the Sun was at the center of the Solar System made calculating the motions of the planets less complicated did not necessarily made that assumption true and there was good reason not to believe the Earth moved. In fact, the Copernican model did not make the calculations that much less complicated. Like Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus believed that the planets moved in perfect circles and his theory still required some epicycles to agree with observations. It was not until 1610 when Johannes Kepler proposed his first law of planetary motion, that the planets orbit the Sun not in circles that the need for epicycles was finally done away with. The heliocentric model then clearly provided a simpler means of understanding the motions of the planets and so was quickly adopted by most astronomers even though there was not yet clear proof that it was actually true.

Which brings us back to Galileo and the Church. In 1632, the year Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, the heliocentric model was rapidly gaining acceptance, yet from a strictly scientific viewpoint, the Church was quite correct in regarding the model with skepticism, even if it was not correct from any viewpoint to put Galileo on trial, although as I said Galileo himself was mostly to blame for his troubles. And, here I have to ask again, why was the heliocentric theory adopted a century before it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

Scientists like to portray themselves cool, logical, unbiased observers interested only in the facts, that is the results of their observations and experiments. Any hypothesis, no matter how attractive, must be put aside if the observations do not agree with it. In fact, scientists are subject to the same sorts of biases as everyone else and a candid view of the history of science will show many instances when scientists have clung to a hypothesis even when the facts seem to show otherwise. This is not always a bad thing. I would even go further and state that this is often a good thing. Sometimes intuition serves as a better guide to discovering the truth than logic and sometimes finding the truth requires ignoring the facts that seem to point in a certain direction while pursuing an underlying truth.

One of the biases that has proven to be most useful in understanding the nature of the universe we live in is the idea that the universe is, as bottom, a simple place that we can understand. If things get to be overly complicated, it is usually taken as a sign we are moving in the wrong direction and should seek a simpler explanation. This is no scientific reason for believing this is the case, yet this bias has proven to be useful over and over again. Ptolemy’s epicycles became more and more complicated, so astronomers switched to the simpler heliocentric system, and were proven right. Physicists and chemists in the nineteenth century were dismayed to discover more and more chemical elements with no clear pattern, until they discovered that all these elements could be explained by the three particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons found in the atoms of every element. Physicist were then confused by the many sub atomic particles they kept discovered, until they learned that these particles were composed of a handful of still smaller particles called quarks. This is really the essence of science, to find simple patterns to explain complex phenomena and this process requires intuition and imagination as much as it requires logical thinking and careful observation. So, Galileo was right, even when he was wrong.

Galileo Was Wrong

May 31, 2015

That is the idea behind an odd website that I found which promotes the theory of geocentrism or the idea that the Earth is the center of the Solar System and that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Geocentrism was, of course, the idea held by every astronomer and scientist up until 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his heliocentric, or Sun centered, model of the Solar System. For about a century there was a fierce debate among scientists and philosophers over the true structure of the universe. Heliocentrism won out, of course, and no educated person of the twenty-first believes that the Earth is at the center of the universe. Because of this, those who historically had supported Copernicus’s model, such as Galileo are held to be on the right side of science and history, while those who clung to the older geocentrism, such as many officials of the Roman Catholic Church, seem to have been backwards and on the wrong side. This website contends that in the controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church, the Church was, in fact, in the right and Galileo was in the wrong, hence the title. The strange thing is that the website is actually correct, in a funny sort of way. Galileo really was in the wrong and the Church was right to be skeptical of Copernicus’s theories.

The controversy between Galileo and the Church has often been depicted as part of the never ending battle between the light of science and religious ignorance. It is generally accepted by historians today that Galileo’s troubles had far less to do with an alleged anti-science position taken by the Catholic Church and more to do with contemporary Italian politics and Galileo’s own irascible personality. What is generally less well known is that the Church had good scientific reasons to oppose Galileo. Neither Copernicus or Galileo had any way to prove that the Earth moves around the Sun. With his telescope Galileo did discover the four largest moons of Jupiter and the fact that Venus shows phases, which indicates that it orbits the sun. These discoveries were certainly  suggestive in that they showed that not everything in the sky directly orbited the Earth, but it was possible that while Venus and the Galilean satellites orbited the Sun and Jupiter, the Sun and Jupiter revolved around the motionless Earth. In fact, there wouldn’t be any conclusive proof that the Earth moves until eighty years after Galileo’s death when the astronomer James Bradley discovered the phenomenon of the aberration of light caused by the Earth’s motion through space.  By this time, there was hardly any doubt about the Earth orbiting the Sun.

Why were astronomers so quick to discard the millenia-old and common sense idea that the Earth rests motionless at the center of the universe without any direct proof? The answer is that a heliocentric Solar System better accounted for the motion of the planets. In order to understand this, we will have to go back to the origins of the science of astronomy.

No one knows where or when people began to really observe the night sky and take note of the motions of the heavenly bodies. It must have seemed obvious that the Earth was a flat surface with the sky a dome enclosing it. The Sun, Moon and stars rose into the sky moved from East to West across the sky and then set beneath the Earth. At some point, these early observers noticed that not all of the objects in the sky moved along with the background of stars. These objects seemed to wander about the sky, so the Greeks referred to them as planetes, or wanderers. There were seven of these “planets”. the Sun and Moon, and five star like objects that were named Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It may seem strange to refer to the Sun and Moon as planets but they like the other planets, moved across the sky against the background of the fixed stars.

The Greeks and the Romans knew that the Earth is round and the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held that the circle was the perfect shape. Because they believed that the Heavens were perfect and unchanging, as opposed to our corrupt and changing Earth, they believed that the seven planets orbited the Earth in perfect circles. This was the model proposed by the ancient Greek astronomers, especially the last and greatest of the Hellenistic astronomers, Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD. For this reason the geocentric model is often called the Ptolemaic model.

There was a major problem with the model proposed by the ancient Greeks, the planets do not move in perfect circles across the sky from West to East against the background of the stars. The planets moved in different paths across the sky and at different speeds. Sometimes they seemed to move backwards in what was called retrograde motion.

This image was created as part of the Philip G...

The retrograde motion of Mars(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will t...

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will temporarily appear to reverse its motion across the sky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This apparent retrograde motion is is observed because the planets revolve at varying distances from the Sun and so orbit at varying velocities around the Sun. The Earth being closer to the Sun than Mars travels faster than Mars and so occasionally overtakes the other planet. Venus and Mercury travel faster than Earth and overtake us occasionally. You might be able to get an idea of how this works by considering a group of cars travelling on an Interstate. If I am driving at 60 miles per hour and pass a car that is going at 55 miles per hour, that other car will seem to be going backwards even though we are both going in the same direction. As a car travelling 65 miles per hour passes me, I will seem to be moving backwards to them.


In order to account for these dependencies between Aristotelian theory and astronomical observations, Greek astronomers hypothesized that while the planets move in perfect circles, they also moved in smaller circles within the circles. Thus, the heavens were full of wheels within wheels. It was Claudius Ptolemy who developed this system to the form that was used in Medieval astronomy.


It is easy to disparage Ptolemy for developing such a cumbersome system of concentric circles, but remember he did not have the telescope or many of the instruments invented to observe the motions of the planets that came into use in later years. He certainly cannot be blamed for assuming that the Earth is motionless. After, we cannot feel the Earth move and if we had to go by our own personal observations, we could only conclude the same. In fact, Ptolemy’s system was able to predict the motions of the planets with a high degree of accuracy and this was what the ancient and medieval astronomers were most concerned with.

There is much more to say about how later generations of Islamic and European astronomers refined and improved Ptolemy’s model as better astronomical instruments were invented and how Ptolemy came to be at last dethroned, but I am afraid that will have to wait for another post.


Saint Patrick’s Day

March 17, 2015

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.


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The Muslim Inquisition

February 6, 2015

At a prayer breakfast recently, President Obama admonished his audience that any religion, including our own, can be twisted into promoting the most atrocious behavior. As an example, the President cited the Crusades and the Inquisition.

I don’t think that there can be much doubt among those who have actually studied history that holy war has been much more typical of Islam than Christianity. The Crusades were a response to centuries of Islamic aggression against Christendom and the idea of a holy warrior was always somewhat controversial among Christians. In Islam, on the other hand, jihad is an integral part of the faith. Inquisitions seem to have been more of a Christian problem. One never hears of any Muslim Inquisition in history. Yet there was an organized Inquisition at least once in Islamic history.

In general Christianity lends itself more to the formation of something like an Inquisition and the punishment of heretics than Islam. In part this is because in Christianity salvation is not obtained by correct behavior as in Islam, but holding correct doctrine. What a Christian believes about God can have eternal consequences. This is not as unreasonable as it might seem to the modern mind. A doctor with incorrect information about the practice of medicine might kill his patient. A lawyer mistaken about the law cannot serve his client. In like manner, to the Medieval Christian, a priest or preacher who taught incorrect theology placed the souls of his flock in danger. We do not punish heretics, but we do prosecute people who make fraudulent claims and we can punish professionals for malpractice. The Medieval Inquisition, then, pursued cases of theological malpractice. I do not want to defend the Inquisition here, but I do think it is important to try to understand why such an institution was thought to be necessary during the Middle Ages.

The Muslims never absorbed the Greek passion for hair splitting philosophical discussion to the extent that the Christians did, so there is no equivalent in Islamic history to the furious debates over to what extent Christ was God or man or the precise relationship of the persons of the Trinity to one another. Islamic theology is relatively simple and straight forward compared to Christian theology, so there is less scope for heresy in Islam. Most disputes between Muslims have involved differences in legal jurisprudence or the correct succession to the Caliphate rather than fine points of doctrine. This is not to say that Islamic authorities were more tolerant of heresy. Denying a fundamental doctrine of Islam such as the existence of God or proclaiming oneself to be a new prophet with revelations that supersede those of Mohammed was always a good way to lose your head.

Another reason why there haven’t been Inquistitions in Islam is that unlike Christendom, church and state have never been separate entities. There has been no organized institutional church with a hierarchy of clergy as a separate source of political power and moral authority,to a greater or lesser extent opposed to the state in the Islamic world. The Caliph was always a religious leader as well as a political leader and laws were made by religious scholars based on Koranic principles. Among the functions of the state were the promotion of virtuous behavior and the propagation  of the faith. Heresy could be punished by the state and there was no need for a separate ecclesiastical institution for that purpose. Nevertheless, as I said there has been at least one Inquisition in Islamic history, though it was sponsored by the Caliph and its purpose was as much the suppression of his political opponents as the eradication of heresy. This Islamic Inquisition was called the Mihna and only lasted from AD 833 until 848.

This Mihna, the word means trial or testing in Arabic, was instituted by the Caliph al-Ma’mun for the purpose of imposing the beliefs of the Mutazilite school of philosophy on his government officials and judges. The Mutazilites or Rationalists were those philosophers and scholars who had studied Greek philosophy and sought to reconcile the teachings of such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle to the precepts of Islam. In particular, they adopted Greek ideas that the world is a rational place ruled by natural, logical laws that could be discovered through the use of reason. They even went so far as to teach that the nature God could be discovered by reason, supplemented by His revelations. To more orthodox or conservative Muslim thinkers, already suspicious of pagan learning, the idea that God could be known at all seemed close to blasphemy. A world ruled by natural laws seemed to infringe on the divine sovereignty of God.

al-Ma'mun is furthest on the left

al-Ma’mun is furthest on the left

The particular issue on which the Mutazilites and their opponents contended was whether the Koran was created by God or is the untreated, eternal Word of God. This may seem to be a trivial cause for argument, but the controversy helped to determine the course of Islamic theology and philosophy. If the Koran was created by God, than it does not necessarily possess the entirety of God’s perfection. Not every word of the Koran need be the literal Word of God. Some verses could be allegorical or influenced by some historical or cultural context. If the Mutazilites had prevailed, it is possible that the Islamic view of the Koran would be closer to the view held by many Christians on the Bible, inspired by God but with not every verse interpreted literally. On the other hand, if the Koran is uncreated and eternal, then, in a sense , it partakes of the essence of God. There can be no historical or cultural context. Verses which seem to relate to Mohammed’s life existed before Mohammed was born or the world created. Divine laws promulgated in the Koran are for all times and places.

The Mutazilite school was a movement of the intellectual elite rather than a popular movement and much of its influence came from the support of the Caliphs, especially al-Ma’mum who reigned from AD 813-833. In the year 827, al-Ma’mun using his authority as Caliph, proclaimed that the Koran was created. In 833, al-Ma’mun instituted the Mihna to compel acceptance of his proclamation. The Mihna continued after al-Ma’mun’s death the same year, through the reigns of his successors al-Mu’tasim and al-Wathiq. The Caliph al-Mutawakkil ended the Mihna two years into his reign in the year 848. The Mihna, then, was not a permanent institution as the various European Inquisitions were, nor was its effects as immediately far reaching. The Mihna was primarily directed at government officials and Islamic scholars in the Caliph’s capital of Baghdad. Muslims out in the provinces and among the common people were not affected by this inquisition. The Mihna was still unpopular,  however, since the men targeted by it were widely respected religious scholars and jurists, including Ahmad ibn-Hanbal, one of the most famous Islamic theologians and founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Like many such persecutions, the Mihna was a failure. The men targeted became martyrs and heroes of the faith. The Caliphs responsible were reviled as tyrants.

In the longer run, the effects of the Mihna were devastating for the Mutazilites and perhaps for the Islamic world as a whole. The Mutazilites were seen, somewhat unfairly, as the sponsors of the Mihna and their faction and its teachings were increasingly discredited afterwards. By the year 1000, the Mutazilites were universally viewed as heretics, a judgment that has continued to this day. More unfortunately, Greek philosophy,with its emphasis on the use of reason was also discredited, which may have been a leading cause in the decline of science in the Islamic world after around 1000. In order to do science, the thinker must believe that the world is a rational place, governed by rational laws that can be discovered by the human mind. If one believes that the world is governed by the arbitrary dictates of a deity beyond human understand, then it may be possible to make chance empirical discoveries, but there is less motivation to try to fit such discoveries into consistent, logical world view.

It is strange that the Islamic Inquisition ended up doing more damage to Islamic progress than the longer lasting and more extensive Christian Inquisitions did to progress in Europe. The history of the Islamic world seems to be full of these sorts of wrong turns and I have to wonder whether there is something in Islam, perhaps less tolerant of free thought than Christianity ever has been, even at its worst. Or, perhaps the backlash against the intolerance of the Islamic Inquisition ended up being greater intolerance, while the backlash against the Christian Inquisitions was to ultimately  discredit the idea of religious coercion. Such questions, perhaps, are unanswerable.

Progressive Prayer

December 15, 2014

Normally the events at a City Council meeting in Lake Worth, Florida wouldn’t get much attention outside the city and still less outside the state of Florida, but a recent invocation given at the the beginning of the meeting seems to have gotten nationwide notice. I read about this unusual opening blessing from the Tea Party News Network.

The old adage that “liberals are so open-minded that their brains have fallen out,” has just reached new heights. Leftists have always shown disdain towards God, Christianity, Judaism, and most religions in general (with the exception, perhaps, of Islam. They’re cool with the beheadings and stonings of women, homosexuals, or anyone who won’t convert, apparently). However, now they are striking a new chord as represented by the opening “prayer” given at this City Council meeting in Lake Worth, Florida, earlier this month, where God and Jesus are mocked and Satan is praised.

At the meeting, and as you can see from the video below, “activist” Preston Smith delivered the following heathenistic invocation:

I am not sure that Mr. Smith’s problem is that he is too open minded. Here is a transcript of his remarks.

Mother Earth, we gather today in your redeeming and glorious presence, to invoke your eternal guidance in the universe, the original Creator of all things.

May the efforts of this council blend the righteousness of Allah with the all-knowing wisdom of Satan. May Zeus, the great God of justice, grant us strength tonight. Jesus might forgive our shortcomings while Buddha enlightens us through His divine affection. We praise you, Krishna, for the sanguine sacrifice that freed us all. After all, if Almighty Thor is with us, who can ever be against us?

And finally, for the bounty of logic, reason, and science, we simply thank the atheists, agnostics, Humanists, who now account for 1 in 5 Americans, and [are] growing rapidly. In closing, let us, above all, love one another, not to obtain mythical rewards for ourselves now, hereafter, or based on superstitious threats of eternal damnation, but rather, embrace secular-based principles of morality — and do good for goodness’ sake.

And so we pray.

So what?

When I first read this, before watching the video, I thought perhaps Preston Smith was theologically confused. He seemed to be trying to be multicultural and open-minded by throwing out as many divine names as he could in an effort to appeal to any and all religious tradition. A closer look at the transcript as well as an actual viewing of the video caused me to realize that I was very wrong about his motivation. Here is the video from YouTube.

The disrespectful, mocking tone of his “invocation” is quite unmistakable. Preston Smith does not believe in any of the deities he has named and clearly wished to mock those who do. By equating names given to what believers regard as the One God, Allah, Jesus, Krishna, with the names of deities regarded as mythological, he was clearly promoting Richard Dawkins’s idiotic “I just disbelieve in one fewer god” meme. He was simply going out of his way to be obnoxious.

Why? Is Preston Smith a member of their City Council? There is no indication that he is. He is only described as an “activist”. Why was he asked to deliver the invocation? If he objects to an invocation before City Council meetings, surely there are more appropriate and respectful ways to raise an objection. If the majority of the people want to continue to have an invocation, why can’t he respect that? If he wants to promote Atheism, how does making Atheists look like obnoxious bullies promote that objective? I suppose the answer to these questions is that Preston Smith is an “activist”, which these days is simply a synonym for a bully, a busybody or a control freak, a person who cannot bear to leave others alone to live their lives as they see fit.

I take particular exception, by the way, to his crediting Atheists with the “bounty of logic, reason and science”. Leaving aside the simple fact that we derive our ability to use reason from the Source and Creator of reason, without which any science would be impossible, I would like to point out that the scientific revolution that began in the sixteenth century owed a lot to the development of the use of logic and reason by the Christian Scholastic philosophers of the High Middle Ages and that the founders of nearly every branch of modern science were not Atheists, but Christians. But, perhaps being an activist leaves little time to study history

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