Christian Science



THE Romans at their Imperial height had valued applied science, but had almost forgotten the pure science of the Greeks. Already in the Natural History of the elder Pliny we find supposedly medieval superstitions on every other page. The indifference of the Romans co-operated with that of the Christians to almost dry up the stream of science long before the barbarian invasions littered the routes of cultural transmission with the debris of a ruined society. What remained of Greek science in Europe was buried in the libraries of Constantinople, and that remnant suffered in the sack of 1204. Greek science migrated through Syria into Islam in the ninth century, and stirred Moslem thought to one of the most remarkable cultural awakenings in history, while Christian Europe struggled to lift itself out of barbarism and superstition.

Science and philosophy, in the medieval West, had to grow up in such an atmosphere of myth, legend, miracle, omens, demons, prodigies, magic, astrology, divination, and sorcery as comes only in ages of chaos and fear. All these had existed in the pagan world, and exist today, but tempered by a civilized humor and enlightenment. They were strong in the Semitic world, and triumphed after Averroës and Maimonides. In Western Europe, from the sixth to the eleventh century, they broke the dikes of culture, and overwhelmed the medieval mind in an ocean of occultism and credulity. The greatest, most learned men shared in this credulity: Augustine thought that the pagan gods still existed as demons, and that fauns and satyrs were real;1 Abélard thought that demons can work magic through their intimate acquaintance with the secrets of nature;2 Alfonso the Wise accepted magic, and sanctioned divination by the stars;3 how, then, should lesser men doubt?

A multitude of mysterious and supernatural beings had descended into Christianity from pagan antiquity, and were still coming into it from Germany, Scandinavia, and Ireland as trolls, elves, giants, fairies, goblins, gnomes, ogres, banshees, mysterious dragons, blood-sucking vampires; and new superstitions were always entering Europe from the East. Dead men walked the air as ghosts; men who had sold themselves to the Devil roamed woods and fields as werewolves; the souls of children dead before baptism haunted the marshes as will-o’-the-wisps. When St. Edmund Rich saw a flight of black crows he recognized them at once as a flock of devils come to fetch the soul of a local usurer.4 When a demon is exorcised from a man, said many a medieval story, a big black fly—sometimes a dog—could be seen issuing from his mouth.5 The population of devils never declined.

A hundred objects—herbs, stones, amulets, rings, gems—were worn for their magic power to ward off devils and bring good luck. The horseshoe was lucky because it had the shape of the crescent moon, which had once been a goddess. Sailors, at the mercy of the elements, and peasants, subject to all the whims of earth and sky, saw the supernatural at every turn, and lived in a vital medium of superstitions. The attribution of magic powers to certain numbers came down from Pythagoras through the Christian Fathers: three, the number of the Trinity, was the holiest number, and stood for the soul; four represented the body; seven, their sum, symbolized the complete man; hence a predilection for seven—ages of man, planets, sacraments, cardinal virtues, deadly sins. A sneeze at the wrong time was a bad omen, and had better be disarmed with a “God bless you” in any case. Philters could be used to create or destroy love. Conception could be avoided by spitting thrice into the mouth of a frog, or holding a jasper pebble in the hand during coitus.6 The enlightened Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons in the ninth century, complained that “things of such absurdity are believed by Christians as no one ever aforetime could induce the heathen to believe.”7

The Church struggled against the paganism of superstition, condemned many beliefs and practices, and punished them with a gradation of penances. She denounced black magic—resort to demons to obtain power over events; but it flourished in a thousand secret places. Its practitioners circulated privately a Liber perditionis, or Book of Damnation, giving the names, habitats, and special powers of the major demons.8 Nearly everybody believed in some magical means of turning the power of supernatural beings to a desired end. John of Salisbury tells of magic used by a deacon, a priest, and an archbishop.9 The simplest form was by incantation; a formula was recited, usually several times; by such formulas a miscarriage might be averted, a sickness healed, an enemy put out of the way. Probably the majority of Christians considered the sign of the cross, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ave Maria as magic incantations, and used holy water and the sacraments as magic rites bringing miraculous effects.

Belief in witchcraft was next to universal. The Penitential Book of the bishop of Exeter condemned women “who profess to be able to change men’s minds by sorcery and enchantments, as from hate to love or from love to hate, or to bewitch or steal men’s goods,” or who “profess to ride on certain nights and on certain beasts with a host of demons in women’s shape, and to be enrolled in the company of such”10—the “Witches’ Sabbath” that became notorious in the fourteenth century. A simple witchery consisted in making a wax model of an intended victim, piercing it with needles, and pronouncing formulas of cursing; a minister of Philip IV was accused of hiring a witch to do this to an image of the King. Some women were believed able to injure or kill by a look of their “evil eye.” Berthold of Regensburg thought that more women than men would go to hell because so many women practiced witchcraft—“spells for getting a husband, spells for the marriage, spells before the child is born, spells before the christening… it is a marvel that men lose not their wits for the monstrous witchcrafts that women practice on them.”11 Visigothic law accused witches of invoking demons, sacrificing to devils, causing storms, etc., and ordered that those convicted of such offenses should have their heads shaved and receive two hundred stripes.12 The laws of Cnut in England recognized the possibility of slaying a person by magic means. The Church was at first lenient with these popular beliefs, looking upon them as pagan survivals that would die out; on the contrary they grew and spread; and in 1298 the Inquisition began its campaign to suppress witchcraft by burning women at the stake. Many theologians sincerely believed that certain women were in league with demons, and that the faithful must be protected from their spells. Caesarius of Heister-bach assures us that in his time many men entered into pacts with devils;13 and it is alleged that such practitioners of black magic so disdained the Church that they travestied her rites by worshiping Satan in a Black Mass.14Thousands of sick or timid people believed themselves to be possessed by devils. The prayers, formulas, and ceremonies of exorcism used by the Church may have been intended as psychological medicine to calm superstitious minds.

Medieval medicine was in some measure a branch of theology and ritual. Augustine thought that the diseases of mankind were caused by demons, and Luther agreed with him; it seemed logical, therefore, to cure illness with prayer, and epidemics by religious processions or building churches. So Santa Maria della Salute at Venice was raised to check a plague, and the prayers of St. Gerbold, Bishop of Bayeux, cured that city of an epidemic of dysentery.15 Good physicians welcomed the aid of religious faith in effecting cures; they recommended prayer, and the wearing of amulets.16 As far back as Edward the Confessor we find English rulers blessing rings for the cure of epilepsy.17 Kings, having been consecrated by religious touch, felt that they might cure by imposition of hands. Persons suffering from scrofula were supposed to be especially amenable to the royal touch; hence the name “king’s evil” for that ailment. St. Louis labored assiduously with such impositions; and Philip of Valois is said to have “touched” 1,500 persons at one sitting.18

There were magical means to knowledge as well as to health. Most of the old pagan methods for divining the future or seeing the absent flourished throughout the Middle Ages despite repeated condemnation by the Church. Thomas à Becket, wishing to advise Henry II about a contemplated invasion of Brittany, consulted an aruspex, who foretold the future by watching the flight of birds, and a chiromancer, who predicted by studying the lines of the hand.19 This art of palmistry claimed divine sanction from a verse in Exodus (xiii, 9): “It shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand.” Other prophets tried to foretell events by observing the movements of the winds (aëromancy) or the waters (hydromancy), or the smoke rising from a fire (pyromancy). Some, imitating the Moslems, marked points at random upon the earth (or upon any writing material), connected the points with lines, and told fortunes from the geometrical figures so formed (geomancy). Some, it was alleged, learned the future from the evoked dead (necromancy); Albertus Grotus, at the request of Frederick Barbarossa, evoked (we are told) the spirit of the Emperor’s wife.20 Some consulted prophetic books, like those purporting to contain the predictions of the Sibyls, or Merlin, or Solomon. Some opened the Bible at random (sortes sanctorum) or the Aeneid (sortes vergilianae), and told the future from the first verse seen. The gravest medieval historians nearly always found (like Livy) that important events had been directly or symbolically foretold by portents, visions, prophecies, or dreams. There were heaps of books—e.g., one by Arnold of Villanova—offering the latest scientific interpretation of dreams (oneiromancy)—not much sillier than those which famous scientists have written in the twentieth century. Nearly all these modes of divination or clairvoyance had been practiced in antiquity, and are practiced today.

But our time, despite some effort, has not yet equaled the Age of Faith—in Islam, Judaism, or Christendom—in belief that the future is decipherably written in the stars. If the climate of the earth, and the growth of plants, could be so clearly-influenced by the heavenly bodies, why should not these affect—nay, determine—the growth, nature, illnesses, periods, fertility, epidemics, revolutions, and destinies of men or states? So nearly every medieval mind believed. A professional astrologer could be found in the household of almost every prince or king. Doctors bled their patients, as many farmers still plant their seeds, according to phases of the moon. Most universities gave courses in astrology, meaning by it the science of the stars; astronomy was included in astrology, and progressed largely through astrologic interest and aims. Sanguine students professed to have found predictable regularities in the effects of celestial bodies on the earth. Persons born under the ascendancy of Saturn would be cold, cheerless, saturnine; those born under Jupiter, temperate and jovial; under Mars, ardent and martial; under Venus, tender and fruitful; under. Mercury, inconstant, mercurial; under a high moon, melancholy almost to the point of lunacy. Genethlialogy predicted the entire life of the individual from the position of the constellations at his birth. To draw a proper horoscope, therefore, one had to observe the hour, take the precise moment of birth, the precise position of the stars. Astronomic tables were compiled chiefly to aid the drawing of such horoscopes.

Certain names stand out in this period as pundits of the occult. Peter of Abano almost reduced philosophy to astrology; and Arnold of Villanova, a famous physician, had a predilection for magic. Ceceo d’Ascoli (1257?-1327), who taught astrology at the University of Bologna, boasted that he could read a man’s thoughts, or tell what he concealed in his hand, by knowing the date of his birth. To illustrate his views he cast the horoscope of Christ, and showed how the constellations at the Nativity had made the crucifixion inevitable. He was condemned by the Inquisition (1324), abjured, was spared on condition of silence, went to Florence, practiced astrology for numerous clients, and was burned at the stake for denying the freedom of the will (1327). Many sincere students—Constantine the African, Gerbert, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Vincent of Beauvais—were accused of magic, and of relations with devils, because the people could not believe that their knowledge had been obtained by natural means. Michael Scot earned the suspicion by writing famous treatises on the occult: a Liber introductorias on astrology; a Physiognomia on the correlation of qualities of character with peculiarities of body; and two texts of alchemy. Michael condemned magic, but enjoyed writing about it. He listed twenty-eight methods of divination, and seems to have believed in all of them.21 Unlike most of his contemporaries he made careful observations, and some experiments; on the other hand he suggested that carrying a jasper or topaz would help a man to preserve continence.22 He was clever enough to keep on good terms with both Frederick II and the popes; but the inexorable Dante consigned him to hell.

The Church and the Inquisition were part of the environment of European science in the thirteenth century. The universities for the most part operated under ecclesiastical authority and supervision. The Church, however, allowed considerable latitude of doctrine to professors, and in many cases encouraged scientific pursuits. William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris (d. 1249), promoted scientific investigation, and ridiculed those who were ready to see the direct action of God in any unusual event. Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln was so advanced in the study of mathematics, optics, and experimental science that Roger Bacon ranked him with Aristotle. The Dominican and Franciscan Orders made no known objection to the scientific studies of Albertus Magnus or Roger Bacon. St. Bernard and some other zealots discouraged the pursuit of science, but this view was not adopted by the Church.23 She found it hard to reconcile herself to the dissection of human cadavers, for it was among her basic doctrines that man was made in the image of God and that the body, as well as the soul, would rise from the grave; and this reluctance was fully shared by the Moslems and the Jews,24 and by the people at large.25 Guido of Vigevano in 1345 spoke of dissection as “forbidden by the Church”;26 but we find no ecclesiastical prohibition before the bull De sepulturis of Boniface VIII in 1300; and this merely forbade the cutting up of corpses and the boiling away of their flesh in order to send the sterilized bones of dead Crusaders back to their relatives for burial at home.27This may have been misinterpreted as forbidding post-mortem dissection, but we find the Italian surgeon Mondino boiling and dissecting corpses about 1320, without any known ecclesiastical protest.28

If the achievements of medieval science in the West should seem meager in the following summary, let us remember that it grew in a hostile environment of superstition and magic, in an age that drew the best minds into law and theology, and at a time when nearly all men believed that the major problems of cosmic and human origin, nature, and destiny had been solved. Nevertheless, after 1150, as wealth and leisure grew, and translations began to pour in from Islam, the mind of Western Europe was aroused from its torpor, curiosity flared into eagerness, men began to discuss the brave old world of the unfettered Greeks, and within a century all Latin Europe was astir with science and philosophy.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!