Galileo Was Wrong

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

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.


Enhanced by Zemanta

The Muslim Inquisition

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

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

Gerbert d’Aurillac

The Middle Ages are well-known as the Christian Dark Ages, a time in which the Catholic Church controlled the intellectual life of Europe and in which any learning, science or independent thought was ruthlessly suppressed. This was a time in which people were proud of being ignorant and viewed learning with suspicious as a form of witchcraft. As Ayn Rand put it,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the intellectual stagnation of this period than the life and career of Gerbert d’Aurillac.

English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born...
English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert d’Aurillac.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gerbert d’Aurillac was a French cleric and scholar who lived from 946-1003. He was born in the town of Belliac and in 963 he entered the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac. His intelligence impressed the abbot of the monastery and when Count Borrell of Barcelona visited in 967, the abbot asked the count to take Gerbert with him to Spain so he could study mathematics. At this time Spain was divided between the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate and the Christian Franks, like Count Borrell, who owed nominal allegiance to France. Moslem Spain was experiencing a golden age of learning in philosophy, natural sciences and mathematics and Gerbert eagerly learned all he could from both Christians and Moslems. In 969, Count Borrell took Gerbert with him to Rome where he met Pope John XIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Otto hired Gerbert to tutor his son, the future Otto II and later allowed Gerbert to study and then teach at the cathedral school at Rheims.

Gerbert took back to Christendom the learning he had acquired in Spain. He introduced arabic numerals to Europe, though they didn’t catch on until the time of Fibonacci two centuries later. He also reintroduced the abacus, which had been lost in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, along with astronomical equipment and learning, including an astrolabe and he constructed an organ powered by hydraulics. He became the foremost scholar and scientist in Christian Europe. He experimented with building mechanical clocks. Naturally, there were rumors that Gerbert dabbled in sorcery. He was supposed to have a bronze head that could answer questions put to it. Some said he had learned more than mathematics and astronomy in Spain. He was also said to have learned forbidden arts and to have made pacts with devils.

So, what happened to this scholar in the Age of Ignorance and Superstition. Was he burned at the stake for witchcraft? Defrocked and expelled from the clergy? Executed as a heretic. No, they made him pope. Gerbert d’Aurilac reigned as Pope Silvester II from 999 to 1003. He did not get to be pope because of his scholarship, to be sure, though his intellectual reputation did help. Remember that he was the tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. Otto II thought much of Gerbert and made him the abbot of the monastery of Bobbio. This did not work out well so Otto gave him other posts, including tutoring his son Otto III, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 996 to 1002. Otto III was only 16 when he became emperor, but he already had big plans to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. As part of his dream, Otto III patronised learning and helped the careers of men like Gerbert. Unfortunately, because he took the Roman part of Holy Roman Emperor seriously, he tended to interfere in Italian and Roman politics and to neglect his German subjects.

Pope Gregory V was Otto III’s cousin so he made Gerbert Bishop of Ravenna and when Pope Gregory died in 999, Otto thought he would be a natural choice as pope and used his influence as Holy Roman Emperor to get Gerbert the job. Gerbert took the name Silvester II,  after Sylvester I, who had been pope during the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. If Otto III wanted to restore the Roman Empire, than Gerbert would play the same helpful role that Sylvester I did with Constantine.

English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor
English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvester III wasn’t a particularly successful pope. He Romans resented Otto III for his interest in Italian politics and they disliked having one of his associates imposed upon them as Pope. The Romans viewed Sylvester II as a low-born foreigner and rebelled against him and Otto III in 1001. Sylvester II was obliged to flee to Ravenna. Meanwhile Otto III died in 1002 while campaigning in Italy, his dreams of restoration unfulfilled. Sylvester II was able to return to Rome, but he died the following year. His legacy turned out to be more lasting than his patrons as he had helped to inaugurate the revival of learning in Europe that became known as the High Middle Ages.

I hope the story of Gerbert d’Aurillac aka Pope Sylvester II will help to put to rest the idea of the Christian Dark Ages. The learned men of Europe were aware that they had fallen behind the Muslims of Spain and had lost much that was known in ancient times. They were not proud of this ignorance nor were their minds on strike. They were trying their best to learn what they could from others.  It is curious that when the Europeans began to make contact with other civilizations, the Muslim world, Indian, China, for the most part these other peoples were not very interested in learning about the, by then, superior technology of the Europeans. Perhaps it was this curiosity and willingness to learn from other cultures shown by men like Gerbert d’Aurillac, that caused the West to pull ahead and become the most advanced civilization in the world.



No, I have not decided to write a post about porn. If you look carefully at the first letter in the title, you will see that it is not a p “pee”. It is actually the letter þ or “thorn” which was used in Old English, but has since been dropped. It has the sound that is represented in Modern English by the digraph “th”, so the actual title of this post is “thornography”. I hope you can forgive me for the word play. I have mentioned that the alphabet we use in English was originally the alphabet used by the Romans to write Latin. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, this alphabet continued to be used as the various dialects of Latin spoken in the former provinces of the Empire slowly evolved into the romance languages like Spanish, Italian , or French. The Latin alphabet was carried North and East by Christian missionaries, and so the various Germanic and Celtic peoples used them to write their own languages. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English were among the Germanic speakers. Naturally the speakers of the various languages adapted the letters of the Latin alphabet to suit the needs of their own languages. Letters were dropped or added or the sounds they represented changed. Some languages added diacritical marks such as the accents, circumflexes, dots or curls you may see when studying Spanish, French or some other language. The Latin alphabet originally had 23 letters, the 26 found in English and other European language minus J, U, and W. Before being introduced to the Latin alphabet, the Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples had used the runic alphabet. When they switched to the Latin alphabet, they added four letters to the alphabet and dropped K, Q, and Z for a total of 24 letters. Two of the added letters were taken from the runic alphabet and two were adapted Latin letters. The altered Latin letters were Æ or ash, which was pronounced something like between the vowels A and E, and Рor eth, which was a sound close to D, perhaps DH. The two letters taken from the runes were þ, thorn and Wynn Ƿ which was used for the W sound. The letter Œ or ethel was also used. There was also a letter Ȝ or Yogh which was simply the English form of G. Yogh was used after the Norman Conquest along with the Carolingian G with gradually replaced it. The letter þ was used in Old English and survived into Middle English, though by the fourteenth century it was being replaced by the digraph th. The Letter Wynn had out of use already to be replaced by W or double U (UU). Over time þ began to be indistinguishable from the letter Y in handwriting. By the time William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, þ was only used in a few common words like “the”, which people were unwilling to change the spelling. The printing press had been invented in Germany and Caxton was obliged to import the type fonts from Germany. Since the German language did not use þ, he substituted Y. Over time most people forgot about the letter þ and simply assumed the letter in old printed texts was Y. This is why you will often see something like, “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe” in fake Medieval signage. The “Ye” is supposed to be “The” but since the people who make such signs do not know about þ and “ye” is the archaic second person plural pronoun, “ye” just sounds old fashioned, which is the effect they are going for. þ was used by other Germanic languages, particularly in Scandinavia, but it fell out of use there too. The only living language that uses þ is Icelandic where it retains the pronunciation “th”. In order to write thorn, I had to download an Icelandic keyboard, before I discovered that it is one of the special characters on WordPress’s toolbar. Ð and Æ were also on the Icelandic keyboard but I had to cut and paste Ƿ, Ȝ and Œ. The Icelandic language seems to have retained much of the grammar and vocabulary of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and modern Icelanders can still read the old sagas with only a little effort. þat is all I have to say about þe letters þat are no longer used in þe English language. It seems a shame þat we lost some letters. Perhaps I should start a movement to reintroduce þ into þe alphabet. Maybe not.

Carolingian Miniscule

It is still widely believed that Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, around AD 500-1000, was an intellectual wasteland, a dark age in which the vast majority of the people were illiterate and ignorant. During this dark age the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans was completely forgotten by the barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire, and what learning did survive was ruthlessly suppressed by a Catholic Church which worshiped ignorance and superstition. I have attempted to correct these misconceptions in previous posts by writing a little about what historians of the period have to say.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the greatest advances in transmitting the written word from the invention of the printing press all the way back to the invention of writing itself occurred during the so-called Dark Ages. This would be the development of the script called Carolingian minuscule. What is Carolingian Minuscule? In a sense, it is what you are looking at now. That is to say, our modern system of upper-case and lower case letters along with punctuation like periods and commas are derived from Carolingian Minuscule.

The alphabet we use in English comes from the Latin alphabet which the Romans used. They adapted their alphabet from a version of the Greek alphabet, which the Greeks had adapted from the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians. All of these ancient alphabets had only what we call upper-case or capital letters and no punctuation.


This is a little hard to read. Around the first century AD scribes began to experiment with various forms of cursive writing. Some of the Latin letters, when written quickly with a pen, began to resemble the letters we know as lower case letters. These scribes also developed simple systems of punctuation to indicate pauses when reading aloud. There was no difference in meaning between upper case and lower case letters. The differences in the shapes of the letters were simply the result of the handwriting of the individual writer. There was no consistent use of punctuation. As Christianity grew in numbers and influence, there was more interest in creating some sort of system of punctuation to help the reader when reading the Bible or other religious texts aloud during services. There was also a great need for more texts to be copied and any way of increasing the speed of making copies was appreciated.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the experimentation in developing various scripts continued in the monasteries, particularly in Ireland and England. The native Celtic languages of the Irish monks were quite unlike Latin and they felt the need to make the Latin texts they studied and copied easier to read. This, these monks introduced the idea of putting spaces between words. They also started to use different marks to indicate differing lengths of pauses, something like our periods, commas, semicolons, etc. On the continent, the monks and scribes of the Merovingian Franks also used a wide variety of scripts. Because these scripts varied from region to region and even from monastery to monastery and still didn’t have any consistent system of using upper and lower case letters or punctuation, writing in Western Europe was still a mess. These various scripts were not as clear and legible as they might have been and reading and making copies was still something of a chore.

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest gre...
Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest green), and subsequent conquests (other shades of green). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the king of the Franks from 768 to 814 and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800-814. His father Peppin had deposed the last of the Merovingian kings of the Franks and Charlemagne had united the Franks and conquered most of Western Europe, including what is now France, Germany, northern Italy, and a part of Spain. Charlemagne was no mere warlord, though he was fond of fighting. He was aware that education and culture had degenerated badly in his Frankish realm since the fall of the Roman Empire and he was determined to do something about it. He reformed the administration of his empire and put it on a more professional level than it had been for centuries. He introduced new coinage with improved trade and stabilized the empire’s finances. He was a pious Christian and tried to reform the Frankish clergy. Although Charlemagne himself was illiterate, he knew the importance of literacy for administration and established schools to educate the young. He himself attempted to learn to read and write. He had some success with reading but he started too late in life and was never able to learn to write. Since there were few teachers available among the Franks, Charlemagne sent abroad for teachers, particularly from the British Isles. The chief of these teachers was a monk from York named Alcuin.

Minuscule caroline
Minuscule caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York had become a center of learning in England and Charlemagne was eager to hire Alcuin to improve the palace school which had been used to train royal princes for rule. Alcuin introduced a liberal arts and religious curriculum at the palace school and gathered scholars  at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen in the hopes of establishing another center of scholarship in Francia. He also helped to create the new, clearer, more legible script that came to be known as the Carolingian minuscule. This new script included letters with uniform rounded shapes to make reading and copying easier along with clear distinctions between capital and lower case letters, spaces between words and sentences and a standardized system of punctuation. As a result manuscripts produced in any part of western Europe could be read by a scholar in any other part of Europe. Because the letters were smaller, yet more legible, more words could be fitted on a page, thus conserving valuable parchment or vellum. Under Charlemagne and Alcuin’s guidance, scribes made new copies of every Latin manuscript they could find with the result that if a manuscript or book written in Latin managed to survive into Carolingian times, there is a very good chance that a copy made during that time survives today. In other words, if it were not for the reforms in writing that took place in the middle of the Dark Ages, most of the literature from the Roman Empire would have been completely lost.

Carolingian minuscule was adopted throughout Charlemagne’s empire and its influence survived even after his empire fell apart during the reigns of his grandsons.  Over time this script developed into the Blackletter script which was used in Germany until the twentieth century. Italian humanists came to believe that this script was barbaric and “Gothic” and looked back to the original Carolingian minuscule as the way that properly civilized Romans wrote, believing that the Carolingian manuscripts were original Roman texts. The humanists went on to develop new scripts based on the Carolingian minuscule and when printing was invented, printers used these scripts as models for their typefaces. So, if you can read this, be sure to thank Charlemagne and the medieval scholars who invented our modern letters and punctuation.

Charlemagne. Painted in the year of 14. This i...
You’re welcome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian Dark Ages II: The Early Middle Ages

In the previous post, I wrote against the all too widely held belief that the Middle Ages, that period of time between around AD 500-1500 was a Dark Age of ignorance, poverty, and religious fanaticism. No historian has held such a view for more than a century or longer, yet the idea of the Dark Ages still has many followers, mostly, it seems by anti-Christian polemicists eager to revive the outdated trope of an eternal war between science and religion. Since the Middle Ages were a very religious period of time, there could have been no scientific advances. Thus, there are quotes like the ones I copied from an atheist.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

And Ayn Rand.

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Along with this picture


In my previous post, I hope I showed that the High Middle Ages, from AD 1000-1350, were far from being a dark age. The High Middle Ages were, in fact, among the most dynamic and brilliant in human history. What of the period before the High Middle Ages, the Early Middle Ages from around 500-1000?

The Early Middle Ages could more justly be called the Dark Ages. This was a prolonged period relative economic and cultural stagnation. There were immense dislocations during the fifth century, when the Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions and migrations of the Germans tribes and the Huns. Trade and urbanization declined as did education and literacy. It proved to be very difficult to maintain a high level of civilization in the face of incessant war. Still, when the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and others settled down in the kingdoms they carved out of the Roman Empire, their kings invariably tried to restore Roman civilization with varying degrees of success. Then, when things began to get better, new waves of invaders, the Avars, Bulgars, Moors would disrupt things once more.

Europe, after the "fall" of the Roman Empire
Europe, after the “fall” of the Roman Empire

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe. Their greatest king, Charlemagne, even tried, with partial success, to restore the Roman Empire in the West. He realized how far civilization had declined and set about trying to improve education and culture in his vast realm. This is the period known as the Carolingian Renaissance and it is thanks to efforts of Charlemagne’s scribes that many Latin texts survived from antiquity.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne’s empire broke up within a century of his death due to quarrels among his grandchildren and more invaders, this time the Viking, the Magyars and the Saracens.

In the East, the Roman Empire remained intact for two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were hard beset by the Arab invasions of the eighth century. For a century, the Roman or Byzantine Empire, as it is often called in its Medieval incarnation, fought for its life against the Arabs fired with enthusiasm for their new faith of Islam and during this century, even Byzantium suffered from a relatively dark age. The Byzantines withstood the attacks, and incidentally saved Western Civilization just as it was beginning and after their borders were secure, around 800, the Byzantine Empire quickly recovered to become the most powerful and advanced state in Europe.

The history of the Dark Ages, then,was not the history of ignorant religious fanatics wantonly destroying knowledge and suppressing science. It was not a era of intelligence on strike. Rather, the Early Middle Ages were an era in which men worked valiantly in the face of seemingly insuperable difficulties to maintain some level of civilization. Christianity, far from suppressing knowledge and science, played a key role in the preservation of culture. Christianity is a religion of the book and therefore requires, at least in theory, a literate clergy. To meet this need, the Church established cathedral and monastic schools, which kept literacy alive even through the darkest periods. The expansion of Christianity into northern and eastern Europe spread literacy to hitherto illiterate peoples. Western Catholic missionaries taught the Latin alphabet to the Irish, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and eventually the Northmen. Eastern Orthodox missionaries introduced the adapted Greek letters that we call the Cyrillic alphabet to the Slavs.

In western Europe, knowledge of the ancient Greek scholars was lost and few people could read any Greek.  In that sense the Early Middle Ages might be considered a dark age, yet there was a continuing Latin literary tradition. Contrary to what is still widely believed, there was no general decline in technology during the Early Middle Ages. In most respects there was a steady progress in technological innovation including some important inventions.  Such inventions included the moldboard plow, the horse collar, stirrups and horse shoes, the Carolingian miniscule, the three field crop rotation as well as increased use of legumes to replenish the soil. Better iron smelting techniques were developed and there was wider use of watermills. There was a decline in some areas, especially in architecture, mostly because the various successor states to the Roman Empire lacked the resources to erect large buildings or maintain extensive networks of roads.

To put the matter simply, there was no such thing as the Christian Dark Ages. Christianity did not cause a thousand-year dark age of ignorance and squalor. If it had not been for the advances made during the Middle Ages, it is likely that modern science would never have developed and it was not a coincidence that modern science developed in Christian Europe. Had it not been for the Christian Dark Ages, we would not be exploring the galaxy by now. Perhaps we would only be starting to explore the Earth.

The Christian Dark Ages I:The High Middle Ages

I have seen this graphic here and there on the Internet.


The atheist blog where I stole that particular image provides an explanation of the Christian Dark Ages.

I am sure you have heard of the Dark Ages, but if not I’ll help you out. This was when, basically, science was outlawed, to the extent that if you were doing something that the church deemed blasphemous you were killed. This is when we hunted for witches because the bible says to kill witches, homosexuals, those who commit adultery, and the list goes on. If you were not a believer in god you were killed.

In addition this was also the time when the Crusades were going on. So we were killing both our own people and the people of other nations in the name of god. Following god’s laws was one of the worst times in history (IMO).

Ayn Rand described the Dark Ages by having John Galt, the protagonist of her book, “Atlas Shrugged” saying,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Is any of this true? Were the Middle Ages a period of Darkness in which religious fanatics ran amok,  science was a crime punishable by death, and men of intelligence went on strike? Well, no. The idea that there was a thousand-year period of poverty, ignorance and stagnation caused by fanatic Christians who were opposed to any sort of intellectual endeavor is the result of a dramatic oversimplification of Medieval history and anti-Christian bigotry. It is simply not the truth.

There are not many historians nowadays who would fell comfortable labeling any period of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages. This is not simply due to political correctness, but an acknowledgement that the period from around AD 500-1500 in European  history was too complex and diverse to be so simply labeled. There were indeed times and places in that period of history that were very dark, but there were also very bright times and places which attained a very highly developed civilization. Any two word phrase simply cannot do justice to the vast sweep of Medieval European History.

In general, historians divide the Middle Ages into the Early Middle Ages, from around 500-1000, the High Middle Ages, from around 1000-1350, and the Late Middle Ages, from around 1350-1500. I will ignore the Late Middle Ages since that period of time is usually referred to as the Renaissance, except to say that there was a sort of mini-dark age in the wake of the Black Death of 1349 and the general breakdown of Medieval institutions throughout the fourteenth fifteenth century.

Europe in 1190
Europe in 1190

I have already dealt with the Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and the important role they played in paving the way for the development of modern science. The High Middle Ages were the period in which the university was developed. European scholars gained access to ancient texts in Greek, and Arabic.  The population throughout Europe increased dramatically. More lands were cleared for settlement. Long distance trade expanded and modern banking and capitalism began to develop. Politically, this was the age in which nationalism began to develop and European states began to be more centralized and more efficiently governed. This was also an age in which the city states of Italy and norther Europe could flourish. Culturally, new movements in art and architecture began and literature began to be written in vernacular languages. The High Middle Ages saw an increase in religious devotion, along with the intellectual ferment, which should put to rest the idea that Christian piety and science are forever at odds. The Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were introduced and there was an increase in religious activity among the laity which foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. Among the new technologies either invented by Europeans or introduced to Europe were paper making, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the wind mill, the spinning wheel, the first mechanical clock, gunpowder and Arabic numerals, along with the re-introduction of the abacus.

Even the Crusades were a positive development.  As we will see, the Early Middle Ages was a period in which Europe was continually invaded from without. The Crusades were not just the result of mindless religious fanaticism, in which Christian barbarians slaughtered anyone who worshiped the wrong god. The Crusades were an attempt by the nations of Christendom to go on the offensive against enemies who had been threatening them for centuries. Transporting armies across a continent and defeating the Moslims on their own ground took a considerable amount of wealth and preparation. The fact that the Crusaders were victorious in the First Crusade is an early indication that the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in technology.

The High Middle Ages were not a Dark  Age by any means. Instead, the High Middle Ages must be counted among the most brilliant and dynamic in human history. We would not be where we are today if the High Middle Ages had really been the Christian Dark Ages.

I had intended to take up the subject of the Early Middle Ages which could more justly be called a Dark Age but this post is getting long so I think the Early Middle Ages will have to have a post of its own.




How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

This is a question that is supposed to have been hotly debated throughout the Middle Ages. The idea is that instead studying questions that might be of some use to people, the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages debated abstruse questions that could not be decided by any evidence and made no difference to anyone living in the real world. This question has become a byword for any intellectual endeavor that is abstract and meaningless.

In fact, the Scholastics specialized in using logic and reason to discuss all sorts of philosophical issues and to reconcile contradictions in philosophy and theology. They were particularly concerned to resolve the differences between ancient Greek philosophy, especially the newly discovered teachings of Aristotle, and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Their method was usually to ask a question concerning some philosophical point. Arguments contrary to official dogma would first be given, then the official or generally accepted position would be stated, with arguments in its favor, and finally the opponents arguments would be rebutted. These arguments often took the form of citations from the Bible or writings of the Church fathers, but a rigorous system of logic was used to explain and expound on the citations and logic was used to reconcile or reject positions. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were not upheld by faith alone or the authority of the Church. Since the Scholastics held that reason and faith both pointed to the same Truth, reason could and should be used to defend the faith. Perhaps the best example of the Scholastic method would be Thomas Aquinas‘s Summa Theologica. In his masterpiece, he examines point after point of Catholic doctrine in the way I explained.

This Scholastic method could be used with other subjects, including the natural sciences. The work that the Scholastics did was not quite what we call science. They were more interested in abstract reasoning about observations than in performing experiments. While the Scholastics made many contributions to mathematics, including introducing Arabic numerals to the West, the extensive use of mathematics to describe and explain  the natural world generally had to wait until the time of Galileo.  Modern science is only possible if you believe that the universe is an orderly, reasonable place that can be studied using reason and observation. By emphasizing rather than rejecting the use of reason, the Scholastics laid the foundation for the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

To get back to the subject, although medieval theologians were much concerned about angelology, including the question of whether angels take up physical space and whether an angel traveling from point A to point B travels through the points between, there is no evidence that the questions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin or the point of a needle was ever seriously debated. It is most likely that the question was made up by later critics of Scholastic philosophy to demonstrate the supposed stupidity and triviality of Medieval thinking. It might also have been a joke among the Scholastics or the type of riddle that students might ask to trip up their professors, perhaps something like the question, “what happens when an irresistible force meets an immoveable object”.

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I had always thought that the number must be infinite since angels   are not composed of mass or energy and do not take up any physical space. I may be wrong, however, since I have not taken quantum effects into account. Recent research in quantum angelology, a field of theological physics, indicates that the number is, in fact, finite. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents any two angels from occupying the same quantum states. Angels may not have any mass, but they do contain information and any individual angel cannot be smaller than the Planck length of 1.616 X 10 -34  meters. According to the  article I linked to, the maximum number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is 8.6766 X 10 49 angels.

8.6766X10 49 angels are dancing on this pin.



Enhanced by Zemanta