Galileo, Hypatia and the myth of the Dark AgesWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Most everyone has heard of Galileo, but Hypatia, maybe not so much. She was a pagan philosopher of late antiquity who lived and taught in Alexandria during the final century of the Roman Empire. Carl Sagan brought attention to her in his book, Cosmos, a companion to his popular TV series of the same name:
Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised [Hypatia] because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.
Sagan offers Hypatia’s tragic tale as proof of the alleged war between science and religion. In fact, he presents it as a signpost of the moment when the church began to crush the learning and achievements of the ancient world and thrust Europe into the Dark Ages. The trouble is that Sagan’s story – like the broader myth of the Dark Ages themselves – rests on distortions, half-truths and outright fabrications that find no support in the historical record.
Mythical martyrs for science
The revisionist take on Hypatia didn’t begin with Sagan, but was first floated during the Enlightenment. Since that time, she along with Galileo have both been put forward as putative martyrs for science in the face of religious intolerance. The primary historical sources, however, make such a slant untenable.
Hypatia was indeed a pagan philosopher of the Neoplatonist school who specialized in mathematics and astronomy. Together with her father, Theon, she edited and published new editions of works by Euclid, Ptolemy and others. She was admired by Christians, Jews and pagans alike in Alexandria, many of whom were her students. One such student, the Christian bishop Synesius, spoke of her as “mother, sister, teacher, and withal benefactress, and whatsoever is honoured in name and deed . . . my most revered teacher . . . who legitimately presides over the mysteries of philosophy.”
Mob violence was rampant in Alexandria at the time, and Hypatia got caught between two rival factions, one supporting the patriarch Cyril and the other, the city prefect Orestes, both of whom were Christians. The Cyril faction assumed Hypatia was backing Orestes and retaliated by abducting and murdering her. Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian historian and contemporary of Hypatia, described the grisly event with horror and disgust: “This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort.” In short, Hypatia’s murder was the result of political violence, and had absolutely zero to do with her beliefs or teachings.
Galileo’s story – or at least the popular version of it – is of course more familiar than Hypatia’s, but bears some striking parallels to it. As the story goes, Galileo was a courageous man of science who defied the religious dogma of his day at great personal risk. He pointed his telescope to the skies and demonstrated that the earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe, thereby drawing down the wrath of the church. There’s even a well-known image of Galileo, surrounded by angry churchmen refusing to look through his telescope and frowning in condemnation at the heretic astronomer.
But as with Hypatia, the contemporary historical accounts beg to differ. Like most early men of science, Galileo was also a man of faith. He saw his work as a pursuit of God’s truth, and the idea of undermining the Christian faith would’ve been utterly alien to him. Furthermore, the science of astronomy was far from settled in his day. Various models of the universe – including those of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler – were being entertained and debated, both in the academy and in the church. In point of fact, it was some of Galileo’s academic colleagues, committed to Aristotle’s view of the cosmos, who infamously refused to look through his telescope.
As it turned out, it wasn’t so much Galileo’s discoveries as it was his spiky personality that landed him in trouble with the authorities. Given the unstable political and religious climate of the era, church officials urged Galileo to be diplomatic in presenting his findings, but he chose instead to publicly antagonize and humiliate them. Even so, he was neither tortured nor imprisoned for his actions, but merely confined to house arrest during his final years – hardly the stuff of which martyr stories are made.
A few other myths dispelled
In the secular mythmaking of Sagan and others, Hypatia and Galileo serve as bookends for the Dark Ages – even though neither of them actually lived during that era – their stories bracketing a millennium of supposed ignorance and superstition that finally gave way to the light of science and reason. But even the very concept of the Dark Ages has long been challenged by historians as a myth based on historical errors and popular misconceptions.
The most popular and enduring of those misconceptions is the idea that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” and yet it’s patently false. As early as three or four centuries before Christ, the Greeks had demonstrated that the Earth was round via mathematics and observation of shadows, eclipses and the horizon. They’d even estimated the Earth’s size with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Throughout late antiquity and the medieval era, virtually all educated people understood that the world was round. In fact, both ancient and medieval rulers would hold a ceremonial orb at their coronation, symbolizing their authority over the globe of the world.
The fall of the Roman Empire did create an era of disruption and chaos, but this was due not to the rise of religious oppression, but to political instability, barbarian invasions, population decrease and displacement. Far from trying to destroy the culture of antiquity, the church strove to preserve it, curating and copying ancient documents both Christian and pagan. Theologians from Augustine in the 4th century to Aquinas in the 13th encouraged the study of nature because it displayed the handiwork of God (it’s worth noting here that Augustine was also a contemporary of Hypatia). Beginning in the 12th century, Christians in Western Europe came in contact with Greek and Arabic writings on mathematics, astronomy, optics and medicine. This led to a revival of learning 300 years before the Renaissance, and the founding of the world’s first universities – by Christians – to study arts, sciences, philosophy and theology.
In terms of technological progress, the Middle Ages saw the invention of eyeglasses, the mechanical clock, the horse collar, and wind and water mills, among many other things. Agricultural developments such as the rotation of crops in the three-field system yielded levels of productivity unheard of in earlier times. And innovations in engineering and architecture gave rise to the towering Gothic cathedrals that would’ve been impossible to build, even at the height of Greco-Roman civilization.
Contrary to the idea that the church stifled knowledge and inquiry during the Middle Ages, almost every pioneer of science in medieval as well as Renaissance Europe was a Christian. They believed that since a God of wisdom and order had created the cosmos, it was intelligible and worth exploring. And not one of these early scientists was tortured or burned at the stake for their work, but rather they were esteemed for their learning and insights. Roger Bacon, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occam – and later, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo – all studied the created order because they believed it glorified the Creator.
According to the secular narrative, the discovery that Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe dealt a severe blow to Christian belief and removed humanity from its privileged status, which is why it was strenuously opposed by the church. But this, too, is simply not the case. Heliocentrism was only a threat to those who were committed to Aristotelian cosmology. For Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus it was a liberating principle that elevated the Earth and opened a wider vista of wonder at God’s cosmos. In Ancient Greek thought, the Earth wasn’t so much the centre as the bottom of the universe, an inferior world lying beneath the perfect heavens. But as Galileo argued, “I will prove that the Earth does have motion . . . and that it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.”
The myth’s origins and power
Where did these popular historical myths originate, and why do they still hold sway over otherwise intelligent people? The first trickles can be found during the Middle Ages themselves. Far from viewing the ancient pagan world with disapproval, medieval Christians had a nostalgic yearning for the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece. They even tried to recreate it at times, the empire of Charlemagne in the 9th century being a prime example. Later medieval writers like Petrarch began to speak disparagingly of their own culture as compared with antiquity.
By the time of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, this admiration of the ancient world had grown into outright adulation. Cultural elites of the era saw themselves as heirs of the Greco-Roman tradition, striving to recover and emulate the ideas and styles of classical antiquity. They began to view the previous thousand years as a Dark Age from which Europe was just beginning to recover. They downplayed the learning and achievements of medieval scholars and labelled the magnificent architectural style of the preceding centuries as Gothic, after the barbarian invaders that had sacked and destroyed Rome.
However, it was only during and after the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries that the myth of the Dark Ages took its modern form and swerved ever farther from real history. Skeptics with an animus against Christianity began to spin their tale of a sophisticated ancient world destroyed by an ignorant and intolerant church that kept Europe in darkness until its shackles were broken by enlightened secularists. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon was especially influential, and others followed his lead. Lacking any true martyrs for the cause, they crafted them from the stories of Hypatia and Galileo and others. And lacking compelling evidence for a backward medieval culture – universal belief in a flat earth, for example – they simply made it up.
The myth has proven spectacularly effective, having lodged in the public imagination and repeated ad infinitum in textbooks, classrooms and science programs like Cosmos. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, secularists have little incentive to question or examine it. And Christians often find themselves embarrassed by it, trying to explain it away to their non-believing relatives and friends.
Present and future implications
Not everyone is a close student of history. And yet, our understanding of it can shape how we view our faith, our culture and ourselves. Traditional biblical Christianity has come under a fair amount of criticism in recent times. Social media is replete with anti-Christian vitriol that would make Enlightenment secularists blush. The Dark Age myth, or various facets of it, only supplies ammunition for that hostility.
In such a cultural moment, Christians can’t afford to take our historical conceptions for granted. We need to examine them, to question them, and to bring them in line with reality, as may be necessary. We must be able to engage our non-Christian friends and neighbours winsomely, with grace and truth. As the Apostle instructs, “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
What that looks like will differ from person to person, from situation to situation. But it may well begin with a simple discussion about Galileo or Hypatia or the myth of the Dark Ages.
Sources and further reading
Sandra Alvarez and Peter Konieczny, “15 myths about the Middle Ages,” Medievalists, June 27, 2014.
John H. Arnold, “10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Middle Ages,” History Extra, October 3, 2018.
Jamie Frater, “Top 10 reasons the Dark Ages were not dark,” Listverse, June 9, 2008.
Matthew Gabriele, “Five myths about the Middle Ages,” Washington Post, September 23, 2016.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “The misleading myth of the ‘Middle Ages’,” The Week, November 28, 2016.
James Hannam, “Articles on the history of science and of Christianity,” Medieval Science and Philosophy, 2017.
Tristan Hughes, “Why was 900 years of European history labelled ‘the Dark Ages’?” History Hit, November 1, 2018.
Cornelius Hunter, “Erroneously, evolutionists recruit the Galileo affair to their service,” Evolution News and Science Today, March 29, 2017.
Michael Keas, “In the Beginning: Episodes in the origin and development of science,” Salvo, No. 26, Winter 2018.
Michael Keas, “Atheism’s myth of a Christian Dark Ages is unbelievable,” Evolution News and Science Today, January 22, 2019.
Bryan C. Keene and Rheagan Martin, “Misconceptions about the Middle Ages, debunked through art history,” The Iris, February 20, 2015.
J. Steve Lee, “The myth of the Dark Ages,” Is Christianity True? September 11, 2015.
Tim O’Neill, “‘Agora’ and Hypatia: Hollywood strikes again,” Armarium Magnum, May 20, 2009.
Tim O’Neill, “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam (book review),” Armarium Magnum, October 17, 2009.
Tim O’Neill, “Why are the Middle Ages often characterized as dark or less civilized?” Slate, January 15, 2015.
Tim O’Neill, “How the Middle Ages really were,” Huffington Post, December 6, 2017.
Sarah Pruitt, “6 reasons the Dark Ages weren’t so dark,” History, May 31, 2016.
John Tertullian, “The myth of the ‘Dark Ages’,” Contra Celsum, April 13, 2011.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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