Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 4 of 4)

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul by Karol Tichy

To return to part 3 of this series, click here.

VII. Ethics

The most important way Christianity influenced our world is in terms of ethics (beliefs and theological assumptions).  The ten commandments, the teachings and example of Christ and the Bible in general, would be taken in by Christians down the centuries — resulting in radical changes in society. 

Christianity’s influence in terms of ethics was also important because it pacified the barbarians and united Europe under a single faith.  As noted by historian Dawson:

The Church had to undertake the task of introducing the law of the Gospel and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount among peoples who regarded homicide as the most honorable occupation and vengeance as synonymous with justice.[1] 

With that said, let us look into several key ways Christianity changed our world in terms of ethics.

A. The Crucifixion

When it comes to ethical beliefs and theological assumptions, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth caused great reverberations down the ages. Strikingly, Jesus’ death may have had as much of an impact as His life and teachings.

One way the crucifixion changed the world, particularly in terms of theological assumptions, is its elevation and empowerment of the weak.  In the ancient world, the strong imposed their will on the weak.  The weak had no dignity and those in power had no qualms about treating them callously.  Christianity changed all this, and it did so most clearly through the image of Christ on the cross.

In ancient Rome, the cross symbolized the power of the greatest empire on earth to torture anyone who opposed its rule.  Roman governors could punish rebels in a number of ways, the worst of which was crucifixion. Those who were crucified suffered excruciating pain.  They could be hung upside down, impaled, or have nails smashed through their bones (in this last case, in order to stay alive, they would have to pull themselves up and down resulting in the person feeling the metal scraping against their bone in the process).  Birds would flock around the crucified’s head and he would be unable to stop them from pecking his eye out.  The crucified individual would also have to endure this ordeal naked. 

The cross was also beneficial from a Roman point of view because it was public.  The crucified served as a sort of billboard, advertising their own humiliation and the power of the Roman authorities that were putting them to death.  Christianity, however, upended this symbol of Roman power in light of Christ’s resurrection (following his death from crucifixion).  As historian Holland put it “from degradation — the notion of triumph, from humiliation — glory, from death — life”.[2]  Furthermore, Holland continues, the idea that someone who suffered the death of a slave turns out to be the creator of all Heaven and earth and of all humanity — this taught and communicated that even the lowest in society had dignity and that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty.[3]

The cross also changed the world by serving a moral pedagogical function. It taught, through the example of Christ, that there was merit in lowering oneself for others (as we shall see in the next sub-section on humility). As noted by agnostic historian Tom Holland, the insights from the cross were a great “detonation under the assumptions of Roman power”.[4]  

The cross also had an impact by serving as a powerful symbol of God’s love.[5]  It communicated the primacy of love within the Christian faith, for the cross exemplified God’s love for humanity — God dying and suffering for man.  As Paul himself said: “I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).  In addition to communicating the primacy of love within the Christian faith, the cross also had a profound impact on the way man viewed God — as Love.

Ultimately, the reverberations of the cross had a great impact on Western morality as Christians would look at it, pray before it, and reflect on it down the ages.  It became an object of enormous theological reflection.

The Crucifixion of Christ by Salvador Dali

B. Humility

Christianity also revolutionized the world in terms of humility.  Although our society sees humility as a virtue, the ancient Greco-Roman world did not.[6]   As historian John Dickson notes, humility (humilitas in Latin, tapeinos in Greek) meant “crushed” or “to lower in status”.[7]  It was associated with failure and shame, which were to be avoided at all costs.  In ancient Rome, society was centered around philotimia, “the love and pursuit for honor”.  Aristotle for example noted that “honor” and “reputation” are among the most pleasant things one could contemplate and attain for oneself.

In ancient Rome, people pursued honor and felt at liberty to parade their best accomplishments before others – provided that said accomplishments were true and communicated in a way that did not put down others.  Merit demanded honor and praise, and the latter two were proof of the former.

In antiquity, humilitas (the lowering of oneself) was appropriate before the gods.  It was also fitting before emperors.  However, humilitas before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect because such an action did not accord with the merit one possessed.

How then, did humility become a virtue? How did we go from drawing a straight line between greatness and honor as the ancients did, to drawing a straight line between greatness and humility? How did our culture move from prizing public honor and despising lowering yourself before an equal (let alone a lesser) to one that despises self-aggrandizement and prizes lowering yourself for others? The answer is Christianity – the teachings and life of Jesus.

During his ministry, Jesus upended ancient notions of blessedness in his beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and in saying “the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16).  He also upended ancient notions of greatness, saying that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” for “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt 20:26, 28).  Jesus also urged his disciples to lower themselves: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 14:11). He also told his disciples that whoever lowered themselves would be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven (Matt 18:4). Lastly, Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be God in the flesh, also displayed humility throughout the gospels – His lowly birth, His being the son of a carpenter, His washing of the feet of His disciples during their last meal together, and most importantly, His death on the cross.

It was Jesus’ death on the cross that broke the honor–shame paradigm of the ancient world.[8]  In antiquity, honor was pursued and shame was avoided at all costs.  Honor was proof of merit and shame was proof of failure and worthlessness.  If this was the case, however, then what did that entail for Jesus, who was executed in the (literally) most shameful manner in the Empire – crucifixion.  Either Jesus was not as great as his followers thought (with his crucifixion being evidence of his insignificance) or the notion of “greatness” had to be redefined to fit his seemingly shameful end.  Opponents of early Christianity happily accepted the first option and indeed, this was the common-sense interpretation for those living in a culture that highly prized honor. This is why St. Paul noted that Gentile audiences had a hard time grappling with the idea of a crucified Messiah: “[the] Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified”“foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).  Christians, on the other hand, took the other option.  They did not see Jesus’ crucifixion as evidence for His humiliation, but proof that greatness can express itself in humility — the noble choice to lower oneself for the sake of others.  This perspective can be seen in Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, in which he urges his Christian readers to live in humility and follow the example of Christ (Philippians 2:3-8):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

As historian Dickson notes, the writings of Paul above is evidence of nothing less than a “humility revolution”[9]:

The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became an object not of scorn but of worship and emulation.  Honour has been redefined, greatness recast.  If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service.[10]  

When it comes to humility, the Christian moral universe was a near-complete inversion of the Greco-Roman one, with humility replacing pride as the rightful interior attitude in one’s life.

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown

C. The Primacy of Love

One of Christianity’s most enduring legacies to Western morality is the primacy of love.[11]  When a scribe asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, Jesus told him that it was love —  love for God and neighbor (Mk 12:29-31):

The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.  And the second is namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  There is none other commandment greater than these.

The love called by Jesus of Nazareth was demanding. It was total, radical and universal in scope.  It applied not only to one’s loved ones but strangers and foreigners, as well as one’s enemies (Matt 5:43-48):

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Indeed, Jesus told his disciples that others would know they were His followers through their love (Jhn 13:34):

A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also must love one another.  By this shall all men know that you are my disciples… 

The teachings of Jesus would be taken up after His death by His followers, who spread his teachings across the Empire with great zeal.  One of His followers, St.  Paul, displayed the primacy of love in his writings — letters to the newly founded churches across the Mediterranean (Gal 5:14 and 1 Cor 13:1-13):

The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.

If I speak in the tongues of angels , but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and exult in the surrender of my body, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

The Christian primacy of love has had a huge impact on our history.  As historian Holland notes, because of it, our world stood transformed as a result.[12]  It has also been the driving force behind Christian charity. 

D. Charity

One of the clearest and most important ways Christianity revolutionized the world was in terms of charity.  As stated by historian Woods: “[Christianity] invented charity as we know it in the West”.[13] 

As agnostic historian Holland notes, in antiquity, “the gods cared nothing for the poor” and the efforts of pagan priests went to “dancing, cross-dressing and self-castration” as opposed to helping those in need.[14] Indifference to the poor also extended to pagan philosophers.[15] Whether one looked to the character of the pagan gods or the teachings of philosophers, there was little “to justify any assumption that the poor, just by virtue of their poverty had a right to aid”.[16] In Greco-Roman antiquity, the attitude towards the poor was harsh — “The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control. Only fellow citizens of good character, who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on evil days might conceivably merit assistance”.[17]

In his article, “How the poor became blessed”, scholar Pieter van der Horst elaborates further on the attitudes towards the poor in Greco-Roman antiquity:

In Greco-Roman culture, the well-to-do weren’t expected to support and help the poor. The Greek and Latin verbs for “doing good, being beneficentnever have “the poor” as their object, nor do they mean “almsgiving”. The Greek word philanthrôpia doesn’t have the sense of our modern philanthropy. One is philanthrôpos towards one’s own people, family, and guests – not towards the poor. And eleêmosynê (from which “alms” is derived), in the sense of showing pity or mercy for someone else, never has the poor as its primary object. Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. And while generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it.

When Greeks did speak about the joy of giving to others, it has nothing to do with altruism, but only with the desired effects of giving: namely honour, prestige, fame, status. Honour is the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, and for that reason the Greek word philotimia (literally, “the love of honour”) could develop the meaning of “generosity, beneficence”, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return. These were the “worthy ones” because they acknowledged and respected the principle of reciprocity (quid pro quo), one of the pillars of ancient social life, which was simply stated by the poet Hesiod around 700 BCE: “Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give (in return).” Even though some ancient moralists occasionally said that in the best form of beneficence one does not expect anything in return from the beneficiary, the pervasive view was that a donor should be reimbursed one way or another, preferably with a gift greater than the donor himself had given.

Religion was not much help to the poor: they simply weren’t the favourites of the gods. There was a Zeus Xenios (for strangers) and a Zeus Hiketêsios (for supplicants), but there was no Zeus Ptôchios (for the poor), nor any other god with an epithet indicating concern for the needy. It was rather the rich who were seen as the favourites of the divine world, their wealth being the visible proof of that favour


The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure (not only to the poor). The poor didn’t get more than the rich, and even the poorest class of society was never singled out for especially favourable treatment.”

This attitude toward the poor, however, changed with the arrival and growth of Christianity.  As historian Holland comments:

The roots of Christian charity ran deep.  The apostles, obedient to the Jewish tradition as well as to the teachings of their master, had laid it as a solemn charge upon new churches always ‘to remember the poor’.  Generation after generation, Christians had held true to this injunction.  Every week, in churches across the Roman world, collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked and the sick had been raised.  Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well.  Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge.  Elaborate and well organised, these had progressively embedded themselves within the great cities of the Mediterranean.[19] 

Systems and institutions of charity emerged.  Deacons were assigned the job of distributing the collections at mass to those in need, be it in the form of money or very often in the form of other resources, such as food or clothing.[20]  Collections were also used by the Church to free slaves and to release the innocent from prison, or at least pay the guards to provide better treatment. Eventually, the Church would establish orphanages (so that give those who planned to abandon their infants had an alternative), poorhouses and hostels, hospitals, and leper houses.[21]  Eventually, with the Christianization of the Empire, charity became “normal” as it is today.

There was also a major change in philanthropy in terms of focus.  Prior to the Christianization of the Empire, the wealthy primarily donated temples, public buildings, theatres, bathhouses and other forms of public entertainment.[22]  However, due to the influence of Christianity, philanthropy became more focused on helping the poor, sick, and needy.  As noted by historian Holland:

The days when a wealthy man had only to sponsor a self-aggrandising piece of architecture to be hailed a public benefactor were well and truly gone.[23]  

Christianity’s concept of charity also differed from that of the ancient world due to its emphasis on selflessness, humility, and love for neighbor.  As noted by historian Woods:

The spirit of giving in the ancient world was in a certain sense deficient when set against that of the Church.  Most ancient giving was self-interested rather than purely gratuitous.  The buildings financed by the wealthy prominently displayed their names.  Donors gave what they did either to put the recipients in their debt or to call attention to themselves and their great liberality.  That those in need were to be served with a cheerful heart and provided for without thought of reward or reciprocity was certainly not the governing principle.[24]

When it comes to charitable efforts carried out by Christian individuals, parishes, dioceses, monasteries, religious orders, lay organizations, and the Holy See, a complete history of all these would fill many large volumes.  As historian Woods notes, Christian charity “has had no peer in the amount and variety of good work it has done and the human suffering and misery it has alleviated”.[25]  With that said, let us look at some notable examples of Christian charity.

When pestilences struck Carthage and Alexandria, Christians earned respect and admiration for the bravery with which they consoled the dying and buried the dead.  Pagans, on the other hand, kept to themselves, refusing to aid even their friends and plundering the dead.  St.  Cyprian, bishop of Alexandria, rebuked the pagan population for their behavior saying:

No compassion is shown by you to the sick, only covetousness and plunder open their jaws over the dead; they who are too fearful for the work of mercy, are bold for guilty profits.  They who shun to bury the dead, are greedy for what they have left behind them.[26] 

St.  Cyprian called Christians to action, urging them to aid the sick and bury the dead, including pagans who had been persecuting them (this event took place when the Empire was still persecuting Christians):

If we only do good to those who do good to us, what do we more than the heathens and publicans? If we are the children of God, who makes His sun to shine upon the good and the bad, and sends rain on the just and the unjust, let us prove it by our acts, by blessing those who curse us, and doing good to those who persecute us.[27] 

The remarkable response of Christians during this time was recorded by Dionysius:

[They] did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously … drawing upon themselves their neighbors’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.[28] 

The Christian response during this difficult time resulted in significant numbers of pagans converting to Christianity. 

St.  Paulinus was a wealthy Roman senator and skilled administrator.  He was extremely well-connected and owned a vast array of properties in Italy, France, and Spain.[29]  Paulinus, however, converted to Christianity, and he and his already Christian wife Therasia renounced their wealth — with Paulinus himself renouncing his rank as senator.  Paulinus announced that all of his properties and possessions would be given to the poor and the Church.   He did not, however, give all his wealth in one go but spent it on the poor and the Church over his lifetime, funding many charitable projects.  Paulinus would spend the rest of his life residing in a small hut and living on a modest diet of beans — praying, carrying out vigils, and giving alms to the poor.[30]   After the death of his wife, Paulinus would end up being ordained a priest and assuming the position of bishop of Nola, Italy.  His radical actions sent shockwaves through the circles of Rome’s elite, “thrilling some” and “appalling many others”.[31]  St.  Paulinus does not stand alone in his actions. Many wealthy and pious Christian men and women gave up their possessions to the poor such as St.  Francis of Assisi, St.  Elizabeth of Hungary (a German princess), and St.  Katharine Drexel. 

St.  Vincent De Paul, a French priest, devoted his life to serving the needy.  He was known for his attention to detail, a manifestation of the great affection and love he had for those he served.  To one group of his volunteers he wrote:

Each sick person should have as much bread as he needs, with a quarter pound of boiled button or beef for dinner, and the same amount of roast for supper; except on Sundays when they may be given some boiled chicken for their dinner, and two or three times a week their meat may be chopped.  Those who have no fever should have a pint of wine each day, half in the morning and half in the evening … If fish can be found at an honest price, this shall be given them only at dinner.  Permission to eat meat in Lent and on other forbidden days should be obtained for those who are very ill; and if they are unable to eat solid meat, they should be given bouillon, bread-soup or toasted bread, barley gruel and fresh eggs, twice or thrice a day.[32] 

Each orderly under St. Vincent was instructed to serve the needy “all with love, as if it were her son she were treating, or rather God, who counts as done to himself the good she does to the poor”.[33]

Vincent’s greatest contribution was the founding of the Daughters of Charity, whose “Grey Sisters” would labor in hospitals, hospices, foundling homes, and armies (as the first female military nurses).[34] 

During the period of the Thirty Years War and the plagues and famines that accompanied it, Vincent also rose to the occasion.  He lodged thousands of refugees and 800+ orphans who were put to trade or in service.[35]  Right after the war, in the 1650s, Vincent’s various enterprises fed as many as 15,000 people.[36] 

When it came to the poor, Vincent told those who worked in his organizations the following:

The poor are our masters.  They are our kings; we must obey them; and it is no exaggeration to call them this, since Our Lord is in the poor.[37]

A more ordinary but certainly extraordinary model of Christian charity would be Pier Giorgio Frassati, who carried out exemplary efforts to help the poor before dying at the young age of 24.  Pier Giorgio was a normal young man in many ways.  He loved having fun with his friends, cracking jokes, and playing sports. He also had a passion for mountain climbing.  In addition to these, Pier Giorgio had a deep Christian faith that shone through in his life (in this discussion, we will only focus on his charity though). 

There are many stories of how Pier Giorgio loved the poor.  One time, when Pier Giorgio was a young boy, a frail woman knocked on the door of his home with a barefoot child in her arms. Pier Giorgio quickly removed his shoes and socks, gave them to her, and shut the door before anyone in his family could object.[38]  Another time, during a freezing night, his father asked him where his coat was when he arrived home without it.  Pier Giorgio told him that he gave the coat away: “You see, Dad, it was cold”.[39]  At times, he would also give his train money to the poor and hurry back home on foot.[40] 

Pier Giorgio was also selfless with the money that was given to him.  When his sister, Luciana, got married and gave him 1,000 liras from her wedding gifts, he gave it all away to charitable causes.[41]  Likewise, when his father gave him 5,000 liras instead of a car, Pier Giorgio donated all of it to good causes as well.[42] 

An important event in Pier Giorgio’s life would be when he joined the St.  Vincent de Paul Society at the age of 17.  When Pier Giorgio joined, he was assigned specific poor families to visit and care for.  Pier Giorgio loved these visits.  He saw them as a chance not only to offer material support but also spiritual encouragement.  He visited the poor daily and lifted their spirits.  By the time Pier Giorgio was 21, he was personally helping several families (e.g. purchasing medicines for them, helping them find work, carrying firewood, etc) and making sure that the local children received the sacraments (he would sponsor many of them himself).[43]  

Although a lot more can be said about Pier Giorgio Frassati, one striking aspect of his charitable work is how low-key he was in carrying them out.  Although his family knew that he carried out acts of charity, they did not know the extent to which he did so until after his death. 

When Pier Giorgio passed away, his loss was felt in Turin.  To the shock of his family, thousands of people showed up to his funeral, including many of the poor families he helped.  These families gave accounts of how Pier Giorgio helped them and Luciana collected hundreds of these testimonies in a book entitled “The Charity of Pier Giorgio”.[44]  Although Pier Giorgio’s acts of charity were rarely mentioned by him.  He did make a reference to them in a letter to a friend: “Jesus comes every day to visit me sacramentally in the Eucharist; I return the visit by going to find him among the poor”.[45] 

Moving on to another example of Christian charity, historian Woods also notes how the Christian “Church fathers”, who bequeathed to Western civilization a fine corpus of literary and scholarly work, found time to devote themselves to the service of the needy:

Saint Augustine established a hospice for pilgrims, ransomed slaves, and gave away clothing to the poor.  (He warned people not to give him expensive garments, since he would only sell them and give the proceeds to the poor.) Saint John Chrysostom founded a series of hospitals in Constantinople.  Saint Cyprian and Saint Ephrem organized relief efforts during times of plague and famine.[46]  

The impressiveness of Christian charity was also noted by pagan writers such as Lucian, Aristides of Athens, and Emperor Julian the Apostate (a devout pagan who detested Christianity). Emperor Julian’s testimony is especially valuable since despite being a pagan and hating Christianity, he attests to the strong spirit of charity among Christians during his own time, as well as the indifference of pagan priests towards the poor:

The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible.  They spare themselves nothing for this end.  Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren!”[47]  

If the [Christian]  brethren have among them a man in need and they have not abundant resources, they fast for a day or two, so as to provide the needy man with the necessary food.[48]

These impious Galileans [(i.e. Christians)] not only feed their own poor, but ours also …  Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.  Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.[49]

In the end, Christianity revolutionized our world through charity and transformed ancient pagan society in another very important way.  As historian W.  E.  H.  Lecky recognizes, there can be “no question that neither in practice nor in theory, neither in the institutions that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity.  Nearly all relief was a State measure, dictated much more by policy than by benevolence”.[50]

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40)
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati during one of his climbs. He was dubbed by Pope John Paul II as “the man of the eight beatitudes”

E. The Dignity of the Human Person

Another essential contribution of Christianity is the belief in the dignity of the human person.  In the ancient world, only the wealthy and powerful had dignity.  It was not something that the poor possessed.  Christianity, however, taught that all men possessed an equal intrinsic dignity. 

The dignity of the human person is grounded in the belief that all men are created in the image and likeness of God (“Imago Dei”).  The idea that the poor possessed dignity was further reinforced by the fact Christ Himself chose to live and die as one of the poor.  As St.  Gregory of Nyssa said in the 4th century regarding the poor:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect.  Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; that they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour.  For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.[51] 

Historian Holland notes the radical change Christianity brought about on this issue:

Dignity, which no philosopher had ever taught might be possessed by the stinking, toiling masses, was for all.  There was no human existence so wretched, none so despised or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God.  Divine love for the outcast and derelict demanded that mortals love them too.[52] 

With the entire person came the body. For Christians, it followed that the body also had a God-given dignity. St. Paul preached the dignity of the body in his letters.  His writings were a clear challenge to the Roman sexual norms of his day not only when it came to fornication and prostitution but also when it came to the norm of males being able to sexually abuse their social inferiors (i.e. slaves and prostitutes).  To the Romans, sex was an exercise of power.[53]  As historian Holland notes, this is also reflected in their gods — Zeus, Apollo, and Dionysus: had all been habitual rapists.[54]  Historian Holland, commenting on Roman sexual culture notes:

The dynamic in the Roman world was not between, as it is now, men and women.  It was between those who have power, namely Roman free male citizens, and those who were subordinate to them.  And essentially the Roman sexual universe was by our lights very brutal.  It was a very Harvey Weinstein sexual arena.  A Roman man had the right to sexually use anyone who was subordinate to him: Slaves, social inferiors.  He could just use their mouths, their various orifices, as receptacles for his excess sperm.  And so, the Romans had this one word “mayo” for urine and ejaculate.  …  Now, Christianity radically, radically changes that.[55] 

In contrast to Roman sexual norms, Paul preached that everyone’s body was sacred, and so, ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  As stated in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:13; 18-20):  

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body … Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?

 Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? … Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Under Christianity, men were encouraged to respect their bodies and not dishonor them through sexual sin. Men also no longer had the right to sexually abuse the bodies of their social inferiors since their bodies were sacred as well.  The Roman practices and attitudes on sex would cease as they would be replaced by Christian views and attitudes. 

The creation of man by Michelangelo. God (depicted in human form) reaches out with his right arm, creating and giving life to Adam. Adam’s left arm is extended in a pose mirroring God’s, communicating the biblical truth that man is created in the image and likeness of God.

F. Sex and Marriage

Christianity also contributed greatly when it comes to sex and marriage. 

Christianity gave dignity to the institution of marriage and elevated the position of women within it.  Once again, St. Paul’s writings would serve as the key basis for the Christian understanding of marriage, particularly his comparison of  a man marrying a woman being like Christ (bridegroom) marrying the Church (bride):

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church … Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it … Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the Church — for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

This gave as historian Holland put it, an “incredible sacral potency to every man and every woman in a married relationship … The insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took to the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined gave to both a rare dignity”.[56]  Marital relations were modeled on the relationship of Christ and His Church. 

This comparison by St.  Paul also promulgated sexual fidelity.  If the wife was instructed to submit to her husband, then so equally the husband was instructed to be faithful to his wife.  This was a particularly high demand in the ancient world since men were not expected to be faithful to their wives even if they were married.  This double standard was removed with the Christianization of society. As noted by historian Holland and Woods:

That Roman Law … defined marriage as a monogamous institution had not for a moment meant that it required men to display life-long fidelity … The double standards that for so long been a feature of marital ethics had [ceased due to Christian influence][57]

Adultery, according to the Church, was not confined to a wife’s infidelity to her husband, as the ancient world so often had it, but also extended to a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife.  The Church’s influence in this area was of great historical significance.[58]

Christianity also affected the institution of marriage in other significant ways. 

Prior to marriage being brought firmly under the Church via canon law, marriage was seen by many as a means to cement alliances between two families.  However, this changed as the Church taught and enshrined at the foundation of the marital union, consent (free will).  As noted by historian Holland:

No couple could be forced into a betrothal, nor into wedlock, nor into a physical coupling.  Priests were authorised to join couples without the knowledge of their parents — or even their permission.  It was consent, not coercion, that constituted the only proper foundation of a marriage.  … Inexorably, the rights of the individual were coming to trump those of family.  God’s authority was being identified, not with the venerable authority of a father to impose his will on his children, but with an altogether more subversive principle: freedom of choice.[59] 

The Church saw freedom of choice as so central to marriage that it actively pursued efforts to end the practice of clans keeping marriages within the family for purposes of power.  It did so by forbidding through its canons, marriages up to six degrees of separation.  This was done to “smash the power of clan lords — leaders who felt that they have the right to marry one cousin off to another to keep things in the family”.[60]  The Church’s belief in the importance of free will also led to the overcoming of the practice of infant marriage among barbarian tribes.[61] Since infants were incapable of giving consent, they could not enter into a marital union. 

Christianity also made monogamy and permanency marital norms in societies that fell under its influence. As historian Holland notes, the Christian Church imposed on believing Christians this sense that being male does not license you to have multiple wives and concubines — you have to focus on one.[62] 

Christianity also curbed pagan sexual appetites.  In ancient Rome, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus commented that a chaste wife was a rare phenomenon.[63]  The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that widespread promiscuity had caused the Romans to lose the goddess Chastity.[64]  Ovid observed that sexual practices in his day had grown particularly perverse, even sadistic.[65]  Similar testimonies to the state of marital fidelity and sexual deviancy could be found in other writings such as those of Catullus, Marital, and Suetonius.[66]  However, the Church managed to curb this, preaching chastity within the Christian life and the confinement of sexual relationships between a husband and wife.  The second-century Greek physician Galen was so impressed by the rectitude of Christian sexual behavior that he described them as “so far advanced in self-discipline and … intense [in] desire to attain moral excellence that they are in no way inferior to true philosophers”.[67]

In the end, as historian Edward Gibbons affirms:

The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.[68]

G.  Human Rights

Another critical contribution of Christianity to the West is the concept of human rights. As agnostic historian Tom Holland notes the concept of human rights derived “not from ancient Greece or Rome … It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages.[69]  Human rights arose from a belief in natural law and in the dignity of the human person as a result of his being created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27).

Since man is created in God’s image, he possesses an intrinsic dignity that needs to be rightly accorded. The tradition of human rights works out the implications of this conclusion, a conclusion grounded in Judeo-Christian theology.[70] 

H.  Other Social Change

Christianity provoked other major positive social changes.

Christianity spoke out against infanticide and eventually abolished it. Infanticide was common and considered morally acceptable in the ancient Roman empire.  The fate of a newborn was determined by its father, who conferred personhood upon a child by recognizing him or her.[71] History writer Aquilina describes this process. When a mother gave birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and the father was summoned into the room.  The father examined the child with his criteria in mind.  Was the child his — did he suspect his wife of adultery? Was it weakly or abnormal? Was it female (females were less desired in patriarchal societies)? If the father decided to reject the child for whatever reason he left the room.  The child would be drowned in a bucket of water or left to die on the side of a street or in a town or city dump.  If the father accepted the child, he picked him or her up from the floor and recognized the child as his.  Historian Holland paints a picture of infanticide in the ancient world, a practice that was ended by Christian influence:

Across the Roman world, wailing at the sides of roads or on rubbish tips, babies abandoned by their parents were a common sight.  Others might be dropped down drains, there to perish in the hundreds.  The odd eccentric philosopher aside, few had ever queried this practice.  Indeed, there were cities who by ancient law had made a positive virtue of it: condemning to death deformed infants for the good of the state.  Sparta, one of the most celebrated cities in Greece, had been the epitome of this policy, and Aristotle himself had lent it the full weight of his prestige.  Girls in particular were liable to be winnowed ruthlessly.  Those who were rescued from the wayside would invariably be raised as slaves.  Brothels were full of women who, as infants, had been abandoned by their parents — so much so that it had long provided novelists with a staple of their fiction.  Only a few peoples — the odd German tribe and, inevitably, the Jews — had stood aloof from the exposure.  Pretty much everyone else had always taken it for granted.  Until, that was, the emergence of a Christian people.[72]

Another Christian achievement is the abolition of gladiatorial contests, a practice that excited many in ancient Rome.  These contests trivialized human life in a way that went against Christian belief in the dignity of the human person.  As a result, they were eventually outlawed by Christian emperors — in the western half of the empire by the late fourth century, and in the eastern half by the early fifth.[73]  As historian W.  E.  H.  Lecky notes: 

There is scarcely any single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of gladiatorial shows, a feat that must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian Church.[74]

Christianity was also responsible for ending slavery.  The abolition movements that swept Britain then the U.S.  in the 18th and 19th centuries were thoroughly Christian.[75]  The Britain abolition movement, led by Christian leaders, picked up great steam. This momentum further increased when many seized the event of the American Revolution to claim that the British Empire was being punished by God for their slavery.  In 1787, a full-blown abolition movement was at hand, driven out of an evangelical urgency for national redemption and quickly succeeded.  As historian Christopher Leslie Brown notes:

Through the campaign against the Atlantic slave trade, some British abolitionists hoped to make the British people better Christians.  That was the possibility first anticipated by Anglican evangelicals gathered at Barham Court in Teston, Kent during the 1780s and subsequently at Clapham Common south of London.  These evangelicals within the Church of England – Hannah More, William Wilberforce, James Ramsay, Charles and Margaret Middleton – had grown uncomfortable with the distaste for earnest Christianity among certain elements of polite and fashionable society … Slave trade abolition, accomplished with overwhelming public support in 1807 but orchestrated by Clapham Sect leadership, offered concrete proof that the British people had come to embrace in form and substance a devotion to practical Christianity.[76]

In time, the Christian abolitionist movement found its way into the U.S. and gained momentum.  It found complete success after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which next to the Bible, was the second best-selling book of the 19th century.  Its Christian argumentation against slavery and defining abolition as a Christian imperative swung the consensus of the American people against slavery.[77]  Less than 15 years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, America followed the footsteps of Britain and abolished slavery. 

Christianity played a primary role in the fight against racism.  Martin Luther King, a Christian minister, led the charge for racial equality in America in the 20th century.  The movement led by King was driven by Christian conviction and aimed to persuade through religious argumentation — “pricking” the conscience of white American Christians.   As historian Holland notes: 

The campaign for civil rights gave to Christianity an overt centrality in American politics that it had not had since the decades before the Civil War.  King, by stirring the slumbering conscience of white Christians, succeeded in setting his country on a transformative new path …  the spark had set it to flame with a renewed brilliance was the faith of African Americans.  The sound of protest was the sound of black churches…[78]

One more example of Christianity and social change is St.  Pope John Paul II and the pivotal role he played in the fall of communism in his native Poland, and more largely, Eastern Europe.[79]  When it comes to John Paul’s first visit to Poland in 1979, history writer Thomas Bokenkotter described its effect saying that “it was nothing less than a Polish Pentecost, a moral renewal and an incomparable spiritual experience that restored to the Polish people a sense of their nationhood”.[80]  As John Paul II gave a stirring speech to over a million Poles, who were previously burdened and impoverished by their country’s communist-atheist regime, the crowd in reply would chant lines such as “We want God!” and “Christ has conquered, Christ is king and Christ commands our lives”.  A year later, Solidarity, an anti-communist movement founded on Christian ideals, emerged.  Previously, the Poles had rallied against their Communist rulers before — in 1956, 1970 and 1976 — each time ending in violent futility.  Now, inspired by John Paul II, they carried out strikes committed to Christian nonviolence and maintained that heroic commitment throughout.  As historian Timothy Garton Ash comments on this Polish revolution:

It is hard to think of any previous revolution in which ethical categories and moral goals have played such a large part ; not only in the theory but also in the practice of the revolutionaries, not only at the outset but throughout the revolution … This extraordinary record of non-violence, this majestic self-restraint in the face of many provocations, distinguished the Polish revolution from previous revolutions.[81] 

In addition to his role in the fall of communism, John Paul also played a significant role in the collapse of three dictatorships in three South American countries: Haiti, Paraguay, and Chile.[82]  The life and actions of John Paul is another testament to the power of Christian ethics, inspiration, and mobilization in causing social change.

John Paul II greets the people during his first trip to Poland in 1979

I.  Conclusion on ethics and values

Christianity has thoroughly shaped our sense of ethics and values over the last two thousand years.  As agnostic historian Tom Holland notes, to live in a Western country today is to live in a country “utterly saturated by Christian values and assumptions”.[83]  This applies even to Western countries that have largely turned away from the faith.  Indeed, “[t]wo thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable — indeed inescapable — influence of Christianity … Christianity may be the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world, and its emergence the single most transformative development in Western history“.[84]

The primacy of love, the emphasis on charity to the needy, the belief that every person possesses equal dignity, etc — these are all an inheritance from the Christian tradition.  Our sense of ethics, which seems so normal to us, would have been seen as foreign, bewildering, and even repellent (in some cases, such as equal dignity for the weak) to those living in Greco-Roman antiquity.  The fact that these are familiar, normal, and attractive to us shows how deeply our consciences have been shaped by Christianity. As Holland notes, we are like “fish swimming in essentially Christian water”.[85] We hardly even notice that we are doing it.

In addition to deeply influencing our sense of ethics, we have also seen how Christianity has been a powerful stimulus for social change, bringing about the abolishment of immoral societal practices, as well as the healing and renewing of nations.    

VIII.  Conclusion

Blessing of the Wheat by Jules Breton

Christianity has made a tremendous positive impact on history.  It is no understatement to say that it built Western civilization.  The Christian Church was the one fortunate constant of the West after the fall of Rome — nurturing and bringing it out of its lowest point and towards its triumph in the Renaissance (i.e. the Scientific Revolution), as well as shaping its identity and ethics profoundly.

Christian monasteries were powerhouses of activity (agricultural, industrial, intellectual, and charitable). They gave life to Europe and its people, especially during the West’s most turbulent time. 

Driven by a spirit of charity, Christianity innovated hospitals for the general public and was responsible for the spread of these institutions throughout Christendom — to the point that hospitals were found in both major cities and modest villages alike. Due to this second medical revolution, medicine eventually became well-ensconced in Europe’s public life and its universities.

No other institution championed learning and education quite like the Church.  She educated Europe through her monastic and cathedral schools and later on, invented and supported the university — the educational institution we are all familiar with today. Under Her wing, reason was enshrined at the heart of Europe’s intellectual life.

The Christian Church was also a great patron of the sciences. In addition to inventing and supporting the university, She also sponsored the education of Her clergy, and encouraged and funded the scientific endeavors of Her members. The Church was, in fact, the leading patron of science until the late 18th century and many of its priests (e.g. Bacon, Grosseteste, Buridan, Bradwardine, and Oresme) made key contributions to the emergence of modern science. Christian theology also encouraged the study of the natural world, and guided Christians to see and study Nature the right way. In time, it guided Christian scholars to embark on a quantitative inquiry as a way of understanding the universe. 

The Church’s canon law was the first modern Western legal system. It brought back reason with regard to law, made a number of original and important contributions in the field of law, and served as the model for secular jurists in developing the legal systems of Europe’s emerging nations.

Christianity also affirmed the importance of beauty. Its contributions to art and architecture have left a major, lasting and distinctive mark on the West, and moved and uplifted many souls.

Most importantly, Christianity shaped our sense of ethics and values thoroughly. In terms of ethics and values, we are not Greek or Roman. We are Christian.

In the end, Christianity’s mark on our history is indisputably deep, and it is a mark we should all be grateful for.  Without Christianity, it is difficult to imagine what today would even be like — for Christianity shaped the type of civilization we live in and the type of people we are immensely. 


  1. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 11
  2. Holland, Unbelievable Debate with A.C. Grayling, 2019. Retrieved from:
  3. Holland, T. Tom Holland & AC Grayling — History: Did Christianity give us our human values? Retrieved from and Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 9 and 441.
  4. Holland, T. Tom Holland & AC Grayling — History: Did Christianity give us our human values? Retrieved from
  5. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 87
  6. Dickson, J. (2011). How Christian Humility upended the world. Retrieved from:,associated%20with%20failure%20and%20shame.&text=Humility%20before%20the%20gods%2C%20of,because%20they%20could%20kill%20you. See also Dunnington, K. (2020). Humility: the beginning and end of virtues. Retrieved from:
  7. Dickson, J. (2011). How Christian Humility upended the world. Retrieved from:,associated%20with%20failure%20and%20shame.&text=Humility%20before%20the%20gods%2C%20of,because%20they%20could%20kill%20you.
  8. Dickson, J. (2011). How Christian Humility upended the world. Retrieved from:,associated%20with%20failure%20and%20shame.&text=Humility%20before%20the%20gods%2C%20of,because%20they%20could%20kill%20you.
  9. Dickson, J. (2011). How Christian Humility upended the world. Retrieved from:,associated%20with%20failure%20and%20shame.&text=Humility%20before%20the%20gods%2C%20of,because%20they%20could%20kill%20you.
  10. Dickson, J. (2011). How Christian Humility upended the world. Retrieved from:,associated%20with%20failure%20and%20shame.&text=Humility%20before%20the%20gods%2C%20of,because%20they%20could%20kill%20you.
  11. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 93
  12. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 86-87, pg. 488-489, 495
  13. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 170
  14. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 138-139
  15. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 139
  16. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 139
  17. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 139
  18. Pieter van der Horst, How the poor became blessed. Aeon. Retrieved from:
  19. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 139-140
  20. Aquilina and Papandrea, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World And Can Change It Again, pg. 143
  21. Aquilina and Papandrea, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World And Can Change It Again, pg. 144
  22. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 138-139. See also Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 170
  23. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 141-142
  24. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 170
  25. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 170
  26. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 174
  27. Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, pg. 264
  28. Schmidt, under the Influence, pg. 153-155
  29. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 150
  30. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 150-151
  31. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 150
  32. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 150-151
  33. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 151
  34. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 151
  35. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 151
  36. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 151
  37. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 151
  38. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 79
  39. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 80
  40. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 80
  41. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 80
  42. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 80
  43. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 80
  44. Cruz, Saintly Men of Modern Times, pg. 262
  45. Vogt, Saints and Social Justice, A Guide to Changing the World, pg. 81
  46. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 173-174
  47. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 143
  48. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 143
  49. Baluffi and Gargan, The Charity of the Church, a Proof of Her Divinity, pg. 16
  50. Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, pg. 83
  51. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Love of the poor, 1.
  52. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 141
  53. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 99
  54. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 527
  55. Daniyal, S. (2020). ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland. Retrieved from:
  56. Daniyal, S. (2020). ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland. Retrieved from:
  57. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 282
  58. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 212
  59. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 283
  60. Daniyal, S. (2020). ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland. Retrieved from:
  61. Berman, “Influence of Christianity Upon the Development of Law,” 93.
  62. Daniyal, S. (2020). ‘Christianity gave women a dignity that no previous sexual dispensation had offered’: Tom Holland. Retrieved from:
  63. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, pgs. 80-82
  64. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 212
  65. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 211
  66. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 211
  67. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, pg. 84
  68. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 212
  69. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 400
  70. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 401-402.
  71. Aquilina and Papandrea, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World And Can Change It Again, pgs. 47-48.
  72. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 143
  73. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 205
  74. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, pg. 63
  75. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pgs. 26-51
  76. Brown, Christianity and the campaign against slavery and the slave trade, pg. 528
  77. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Stowe’s Global Impact: Her Words Changed the World. Retrieved from:\
  78. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 140-141
  79. Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History, pg. 193
  80. Bokenkotter, Church and Revolution: Catholics in the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice, pg. 547.
  81. Ash, The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe, pg. 60
  82. Kwitny, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, pg. 592
  83. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 13
  84. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 13
  85. O’Neill, T. (2020). REVIEW – TOM HOLLAND “DOMINION: THE MAKING OF THE WESTERN MIND”. Retrieved from:

Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 3 of 4)

 Scrovegni Chapel, one of the great masterpieces of Christian art. Painted by Giotto.

To return to part 2 of this series, click here.

VI. Law

The Church made important contributions to law.  She is credited with introducing the first modern legal system in Europe — canon law.[1]  In the 12th century, a monk named Gratian produced the Decretum Gratiani (“A Concordance of Discordant Canons”), a prodigious work that took several decades to complete.  Gratian systemically codified remarks from previous ecumenial councils, penitentials, popes, individual bishops, the Bible and the Church fathers into a comprehensive and consistent whole. He also drew from other sources in creating his work.  As a result of the Decretum Gratiani, Church law was now universally applicable throughout Christendom.  Prior to Gratian, Church law was regional in nature.[2]  As legal scholar Harold Berman comments on canon law:

[Canon law] is the first comprehensive and systematic legal treatise in the history of the West, and perhaps in the history of mankind — if by ‘comprehensive’ is meant the attempt to embrace virtually the entire law of a given polity, and by ‘systematic’ is meant the express effort to present that law as a single body, in which all the parts are viewed as interacting to form a whole.

[It] took a variety of texts — the Old Testament, the Gospel, ‘The Philosopher’ — Aristotle, ‘The Jurist’ — Justinian, the Church fathers, Saint Augustine, the Church councils; and by the use of the scholastic method and of a natural law-theory they [(e.g.  Gratian and other canon lawyers of the Church)]  were able to create out of these various sources, as well as out of the existing customs of their contemporary ecclesiastical and secular society, a coherent and rational legal science … it was the church that first taught Western man what a modern legal system is like.[3] 

The foundation of this Christian legal system was Christ’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.  Gratian saw this command as the cornerstone of justice.  So important to him was the command that he opened the Decretum by citing it.[4]  Canon law, the first modern Western legal system, would serve as the model for secular jurists in developing the legal systems of the emerging nations of Europe.[5] 

The Church’s canon law also had an important effect in medieval society — it brought back reason with regard to law.  The barbarian kingdoms determined guilt through “trials of ordeal”, which were primitive tests to determine innocence and guilt. Examples of these trials vary but one example involved a defendant reaching into a pot of scalding water to retrieve a stone at the bottom.[6]  His arm would then be bandaged.  Three days later, when the bandages were removed, the man was declared innocent if the wound had begun to heal and scabs were visible.  If not, his guilt was established.  The rational procedures of canon law hastened the end of concerning methods such as this.  As noted by scholar Berman: “the introduction of rational trial procedures [introduced by canon law]” replaced “magical mechanical modes of proof by ordeals of fire and water“.[7] 

As for the contributions of canon law, there are many.  As noted by historian Woods:

Equally important was the content of canon law, whose scope was so sweeping that it contributed to the development of Western law in such areas as marriage, property and inheritance.[8]  

Let us now look at number of examples of how canon law contributed to the Western legal tradition.  For those who want a deeper treatment of the topic, see scholar Berman’s influential work, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. 

Canon law contributed significantly to the West’s legal tradition in terms of marriage.  It held that a valid marriage required the consent of both the man and the woman, and that a marriage could be deemed invalid if it took place under duress, or if one of the parties entered into the marriage on the basis of a mistake regarding either the identity or some important quality of the other person.[9]  As scholar Berman notes:

Here were the foundations not only of the modern law of marriage but also of certain basic elements of modern contract law, namely, the concept of free will and related concepts of mistake, duress, and fraud.[10] 

This contribution of canon law would shape the West’s legal tradition in a major and enduring way.

Canon law also made significant contributions when it came to determining the criminality of a particular act.  As noted by historian Woods:

When we examine the rules by which canon law sought to determine the criminality of a particular act, we discover legal principles that have since become standard in all modern Western legal systems.  Canon lawyers were concerned with the intent of an act, with various kinds of intent, and with the moral implications of various kinds of casual connections.  With regard to the last point, canonists considered examples such as this: Someone throws a stone to frighten his companion, but in the course of avoiding it the companion runs into a rock and causes himself great injury.  He seeks medical assistance, but a doctor’s negligence causes him to die.  To what extent was the throwing of the stone a cause of the man’s death? This was the kind of sophisticated legal question for which canon lawyers sought an answer.[11]

The same canonists also contributed in terms of the modern principle that extenuating factors could exempt someone from legal liability.[12]  Building on the contributions of the Romans, who distinguished between intentional and accidental acts, canon lawyers made notable refinements and contributions of their own. As historian Woods notes:

Thus, if one were insane, asleep, mistaken, or intoxicated, his apparently criminal actions might not be actionable.  But these mitigating factors could excuse someone from legal liability only if as a result of them the accused could not have known that he was doing something wrong, and only if he had not wrongfully brought one or more of these conditions upon himself, as in the case of someone who purposely makes himself drunk.[13]

They also introduced the initial contributions of the Romans into European societies that had known nothing about these distinctions during the numerous centuries under barbarian influence. 

Another major contribution of canon law is the concept of human rights, which stems from the natural law tradition of Church (an inheritance from Greek philosophy) and Judeo-Christian theology.[14]  The concept of human rights evolved over time but it originated from Christian canon lawyers in the Middle Ages. For more on the subject see the book of leading medieval scholar Brian Tierney, “The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law 1150-1625”.

Medieval commentators of the Decretum, looking at the constant reference to “natural law” in the work, began to see that an adequate concept of natural justice entailed individual rights —  given that all men possessed an equal dignity being created in God’s image (Gen 1:27).[15] As the Church’s canon law tradition developed, specific rights soon began to be identified (to give one example, the right to appear and defend oneself against charges in a court of law) and a firm language of rights was developed.  As stated by historian Kenneth Pennington:

[Canon lawyers]  had developed a sturdy language of rights derived from natural law.  During the period from 1150 to 1300, they defined the rights of property, self-defense, non-Christians, marriage, and procedure as being rooted in natural, not positive, law.  By placing these rights squarely within the framework of natural law, the jurists could and did argue that these rights could not be taken away by the human prince.  The prince had no jurisdiction over rights based on natural law; consequently these rights were inalienable.[16]

Another significant development in the history of human rights came with the commentary of Pope Innocent IV on the Decretum (Innovent IV was himself a great canonist).  Innocent IV, in considering the question of whether fundamental rights of property and of establishing lawful governments belonged only to Christians or to all men, answered that they belonged to all men:

Ownership, possession and jurisdiction can belong to infidels licitly…for these things were made not only for the faithful but for every rational creature.[17]  

This text would be cited significantly by later Catholic rights theorists.  In the 17th century, the concept of human rights was further solidified during the European discovery of America. During this time Spanish scholastic theologians, led by Fr. Francisco de Vitoria, raised questions with regard to the rights of the inhabitants of these new lands. Spanish scholastics developed the idea that the American natives possessed natural rights that Europeans had to respect (these theologians frequently quoted the statement of Innocent IV earlier). They argued that the natives in the New World were not “lesser humans”, they were human — full stop — possessing equal dignity being created in God’s image. As a result, the natives possessed the same rights they did. These scholars condemned the mistreatment of the American natives by Spanish colonizers and they would find a staunch ally in Fr. Bartholomew de las Casas, a fellow Spaniard priest and reformer who shared their beliefs and was stationed in the New World. Writing passionately against the mistreatment of American natives, de las Casas used the term “derechos humanos” (human rights) to describe the inalienable rights these indigenous peoples had.[18]

Ultimately, the concept of human rights stems from the Church’s canon lawyers. As noted by scholars John Witte Jr. and M. Christian Green:

The idea of natural rights emerged from the legal culture of the Christian West in the Early Middle Ages and has been employed by lawyers, theologians, philosophers, political theorists, and social and political activists ever since. The philosophers of the Enlightenment inherited the idea from their Christian forbears; they did not devise it.[19]

Another important contribution of canon law is its approach to crime.  When it comes to crime, canon law was strongly influenced by St.  Anselm’s work, Cur Deus Homo, which tackled the question of why God should have become man in the person of Jesus Christ, and why Christ’s sacrifice was an indispensable ingredient in the redemption of mankind after The Fall.  Summarizing St.  Anselm’s reasoning to these questions, historian Woods explains:

God originally created man in order that he might enjoy eternal blessedness.  Man in a certain sense frustrated God’s intention by rebelling against Him and introducing sin into the world.  In order for the demands of justice to be satisfied, man must be punished for his sin against God.  Yet his offense against the all-good God is so great that no punishment he might suffer could offer Him adequate recompense.  Whatever punishment he did suffer, moreover, would have to be so severe that at the very least he would have to forfeit eternal blessedness, but since eternal blessedness was God’s plan for man in the first place, such a punishment would undermine God’s purposes yet again.  The reason that God cannot simply forgive man’s sin in the absence of some form of punishment is that when man rebelled against God he disturbed the moral order of the universe.  That moral order must be repaired.  God’s honor must be restored, and that restoration cannot occur so long as the rupture of the moral order that occurred as a result of man’s rebellion remains in existence.  Since man owes restitution to God but is incapable of making it, while God could vindicate His own honor through a gratuitous act (but should not), the only way that atonement for original sin can take place is through the mediation of a God-Man.[20]

Anselm’s exposition “rested fundamentally on the idea that a violation of the law was an offense against justice and against the moral order itself, [and] that such a violation required a punishment if the moral order were to be repaired, and that the punishment should befit the nature and extent of the violation”.[21]  These ideas of Anselm were taken in by Christian thinkers and as time passed, it became common to think not just about Adam and Eve and original sin but also about the perpetrator of crime in everyday life: having violated justice in the abstract, he had to be subject to some punishment if the order of justice were to be restored.  As a result of St.  Anselm and canon law, crime became in large measure depersonalized, as criminal actions came to be viewed less as actions directed at particular persons and more as violations of the abstract principle of justice, whose disturbance of the moral order should be rectified through the application of punishment. The legal tradition of the West, adopting the development of canon law on this issue, would bear the distinct imprint of Christian theology.  As scholar Berman notes on the effect of this development of canon law in relation to crimes:

Contracts, it was said, must be kept, and if they were not, a price must be paid for their breach.  Torts must be remedied by damages equivalent to the injury.  Property rights must be restored by those who had violated them.  These and similar principles became so deeply embedded in the consciousness— indeed, in the sacred values—of Western society that it became hard to imagine a legal order founded on different kinds of principles and values.  Yet contemporary non-Western cultures do have legal orders founded on different kinds of principles and values, and so did European culture prior to the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  In some legal orders, ideas of fate and honor prevail, of vengeance and reconciliation.  In others, ideas of covenant and community dominate; in still others, ideas of deterrence and rehabilitation.[22] 

VII. Art and Architecture

A. The Medieval Cathedral

Christianity’s greatest contribution to art and architecture, and one that undoubtedly left its mark on the European landscape, is the medieval cathedral. Particularly stunning are Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, which emerged in Europe in the 12th century. These cathedrals are characterized by three distinguishing features: the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault. The pointed arch came from India and arrived in Europe sometime in the 11th century. The flying buttress and the ribbed vault are medieval innovations.  In Gothic cathedrals, these three elements were molded, as historian Hannam put it, “into a series of aesthetic masterpieces”.[23]  The goal of medieval masons in building these structures was to build upwards and create massive amounts of interior space.  Since the flying buttresses were outside the building, they were also able to fill the walls with glass rather than needing enormous trunks of stone. The result was breathtaking – soaring cathedrals, of monumental size and scope, and ample space and lighting.

Another achievement of Gothic cathedrals is their geometric coherence, which was inspired from an important strain in Christian thought, that God created a rational and orderly universe – setting all things in right order by proportion “by measure, number and weight” (Wis 11:21).  As historian Woods notes regarding the idea that God created a rational and orderly universe: “This idea became common currency among a great many Catholic thinkers, particularly those associated with the great cathedral school at Chartres in the twelfth century. It played a central role in the construction of Gothic cathedrals”.[24]  At the time Gothic architecture was evolving from its Romanesque predecessor, more and more Christian thinkers were becoming persuaded of the link between mathematics – geometry in particular – and God.  At the cathedral school of Chartres, says scholar Robert Scott, Christian thinkers “believed that geometry was a means for linking human beings to God, that mathematics was a vehicle for revealing to humankind the innermost secrets of heaven … [and] that the cosmos was a work of architecture and God was its architect.”[25] These ideas led builders “to conceive of architecture as applied geometry, geometry as applied theology, and the designer of a Gothic cathedral as an imitator of the divine Master.” Professor John Baldwin, commenting on this strain in Christian thought and the building of cathedrals notes: “Just as the great Geometer created the world in order and harmony, so the Gothic architect, in his small way, attempted to fashion God’s earthly abode according to the supreme principles of proportion and beauty.”[26] In the end, the desire for geometric precision and numerical meaning in constructing medieval cathedrals elevated their aesthetic beauty significantly.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of Gothic cathedrals is interior lighting. Builders of Gothic cathedrals paid particular attention to how light entered the building through windows, not only for practical reasons, but also for theological reasons.[27] One popular way in which light was perceived in relation to medieval cathedrals, is influenced by the writing of St. Augustine, who conceived of human beings’ acquisition of knowledge in terms of divine illumination: God enlightens the mind with knowledge. As historian Woods notes: “This idea of God pouring light into the minds of men proved a potent metaphor for architects in the Gothic tradition, in which physical light was meant to evoke thoughts of its divine source”.[28] Continuing, Woods gives an example of the Abbey Church of St. Denis in France, a great church of Gothic style: Here, the religious significance of the light pouring in through the windows in the choir and the nave cannot be missed. An inscription of the doors explains that the light elevates the mind upward from the material world and directs it toward the true light that is Christ”.[29] Scholar Scott notes that light was also utilized to symbolize God’s grace streaming down in benediction, encouraging worship.[30] Ultimately, light was utilized to draw worshippers to contemplate the divine or to represent the divine in the material world.

The beauty of light inside cathedrals is enhanced by another key feature of the Gothic tradition: the use of large-scale stained-glass windows.[31] These windows would cause streams of multi-colored light to enter the building – a sight that continues to enchant visitors of these structures today.  One prominent type of stained-glass window in the Gothic tradition were rose windows – which were enormous in size and circular in shape.[32]

Ultimately, medieval cathedrals are a testament to the age in which they were built.  They point to the Middle Ages being a period of supernatural faith, reason, and innovation. Fast forward several centuries later, these structures continue to awe visitors today. They are indeed, one of the greatest artistic and architectural achievements in history, and to some, the greatest even. As art historian Paul Johnson comments on these phenomenal structures: “The medieval cathedrals of Europe…are the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole theatre of art”.[33]

B. Stained Glass Windows

Although we discussed stained glass windows in the previous section, it does deserve its own section, since it is another significant contribution of Christianity to the field of art.  Colored glass has been made since ancient times.  Both the Egyptians and the Romans manufactured small colored glass objects.  However, it was Christianity that pioneered stained glass windows as an art form.[34]   

Stained glass windows gained recognition as a Christian art form in the 4th century as churches continued to be built.  Centuries later, in the Gothic period (12th-16th centuries), this art form would take center stage in the designs of medieval cathedrals.  As time passed, the size of stained glass windows increased, as well as their complexity.

In addition to providing lighting and aesthetic beauty, stained glass windows served a pedagogical function.  They were used to communicate events in the Bible, Church history, as well as Christian theology visually, and were particularly helpful to parishioners who could not read.[35]  In larger churches, it was not uncommon for stained-glass windows to be biblically comprehensive – communicating the most important stories from Genesis to Revelation.[36] 

C. Art

Christianity also contributed greatly in terms of art in general — paintings, frescos, sculptures, etc.  Countless Western artworks are Christian. If you go to Europe and walk into a museum of medieval or Renaissance art, it will be littered with Christian art.

As art historian Kenneth Clark notes, many of the West’s great artists were devout Christians, and their faith inspired them in their work.[37] Guercino, for example, spent much of his mornings in prayer. Bernini frequently went into retreats and practiced the Spiritual Exercises of St.  Ignatius. Rubens attended Mass every morning before beginning work. Fra Angelico was a priest and has been beatified due to his sanctity.  The great Christian artists of the West would go on to produce many Christian artistic masterpieces.

Some Popes, particularly Julius II and Leo X, were also huge patrons of the arts and were responsible for the creation of exceptional works such as St.  Peter’s Basilica, St.  Peter’s Square and colonnade, the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel.[38] 

To proceed to part 4 of this series, click here.


  1. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 6
  2. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 191
  3. Berman, Law and Revolution, The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, pg. 143, Berman, “The Influence of Christianity Upon the Development of Law”, pg. 93 and Berman, Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 59.
  4. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 237
  5. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 192
  6. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 11
  7. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 44
  8. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 192
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 193
  10. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 228
  11. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 195-196
  12. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 196
  13. Berman, The Interaction of Law and Religion, pg. 189
  14. Woods refers readers to Tierney’s influential work: The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law on pgs. 197 and 198.
  15. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, pg. 6. See also Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 282
  16. Woods cites Pennington, The History of Rights in Western Thought in pg. 200.
  17. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights, pg. 7
  18. Holland, Dominion How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pg. 347.
  19. Witte and Green, Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction, pg. 42
  20. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 195-196
  21. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 196
  22. Berman, Law and Revolution, pgs. 194-195
  23. Hannam
  24. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 119
  25. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, pg. 125
  26. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pg. 107
  27. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 121
  28. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pgs. 107-108
  29. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, pg. 108
  30. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, pg. 132
  31. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 119
  32. Smith, H. (2020). Gothic Cathedrals: Architecture & Divine Light. Retrieved from:–divine-light/?fbclid=IwAR3Q6Ha1aAdTh2LSMhh03zF8S7UWqAh33O_UkpIPABifg2g4J3Z1WzrLuFY
  33. Johnson, Art: A New History, pg. 153
  34. History of Glass. The history of stained glass. Retrieved from:
  35. Kosloski, P. (2017). This is Why Churches Have Stained Glass Windows. Retrieved from:
  36. Kosloski, P. (2017). This is Why Churches Have Stained Glass Windows. Retrieved from:
  37. Clark, Civilisation, quoted in Joseph E. MacDonnell, Companions of Jesiots: A Tradition of Collaboration.
  38. Chapter 2: Artistic Expression of Jesuit Values. Retrieved from: See also Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 128

Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 2 of 4)

The University of Paris, one of the first medieval universities and arguably,
the most prestigious one during the period

To return to part 1 of this series, click here.

IV. Reason and Education

Another contribution of the Christian Church is that it cultivated a high regard for reason in medieval intellectual life and promoted education. To begin our discussion, let us look into the enshrinement of reason in the Middle Ages.

A. The Medieval Enshrinement of Reason

Reason was enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life because the Church, as educator of Europe, embraced it.  This acceptance of reason could be traced to early Christian thinkers.  As noted by atheist history writer Tim O’Neill:

Christian thinkers who had been trained in philosophy could see it [(Greek philosophy and learning)]  as something to be embraced.  God, they argued, was a rational intelligence and had created the universe along rational lines.  It made sense, therefore, that humans could and should use reason to understand his creation.  Clement of Alexandria [(150 – 215 AD)]  argued that just as the Jews had been given a divine gift of special religious revelation, so had the Greeks been given a gift of rational analysis.  Both were to be embraced and used.[1]

In addition to this, one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of texts survived after the fall of Rome was logic.  This caused medieval thinkers to pay great attention to this area.  As noted by history writer O’Neill:

One writer has compared the long road back from the intellectual catastrophe of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire on learning in western Europe to people after a nuclear holocaust trying to revive modern science with nothing but a few volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a copy of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Scholars in the Eighth or Ninth Centuries had just enough fragments of information to know that they had barely anything at all but not enough to begin reconstructing what had been lost.  What is interesting is what they did with the bits they had – they revered them.  These ancient writers, mostly pagans, were held up as all-knowing authorities and what elements of their works did survive were studied with immense reverence and painstaking scrutiny.  This meant particular attention was paid to one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of works had survived – logic, or “dialectic” as it was known.[2] 

The Church’s acceptance of reason as a tool of discovering the truth about world (in both religious and secular matters), logic being one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of texts had survived after the fall of Rome, and the Church assuming the role of educator of Europe led to reason being enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life.

B. The Founding of the University

After the fall of Rome, the initiative for the spread of learning in Europe would be taken up by the Church.  The Church’s monastic and cathedral schools educated Europe and as historian Joseph Lynch notes, these centers of learning “stimulated a change in the quality and quantity of intellectual life”.[3]  A major development, however, would occur in the 13th century, as a new institution would emerge from the Church — the university.[4]  As noted by historian Jacques Verger:

But at the same time, in the field of teaching, the early decades of the thirteenth century were marked by serious mutations and ruptures, which must also be considered.  Of these, the first and most visible was the appearance of an institutional structure which was completely new, without any real precedent and with an exceptional historical destiny: the university”.[5]

This institution developed from the Church’s cathedral schools.  As noted by leading historian Edward Grant:

The cathedral school was an evolutionary step on the path to the formation of the university, which was a wholly new institution that not only transformed the curriculum but also the faculty and its relationship to state and church.[6] 

As historian Lowrie Daly notes, the Church developed the university because it was “the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge”.[7] 

There are a number of aspects that made the university different from its precedent, the cathedral school, and all other previous institutions of higher learning in history.  The university had degrees (i.e.  graduate and post-graduate), courses of study, standardized curriculum, faculties, examinations, and thesis and thesis defense.[8]  The marks of the university we are intimately familiar with today originate from the Middle Ages.

The Church also introduced the concept of “the right to teach” (i.e.  licentia docendi) in its university system.[9]  Those who completed masters degrees were rendered qualified to teach at other universities across Europe.  This resulted in the creation of an international community of scholars, the effectiveness of which was enhanced by the fact that Europe was united under a single faith and shared Latin as a common language.  As noted by historian Hannam:

The shared religion of western Europe, as well as widespread knowledge of Latin, meant that medieval scholars formed a single international intelligentsia that was more closely knit than it has ever been since.[10]

Medieval universities found a great ally in the Pope, who, as one historian put it, “granted, increased, and protected their privileged status in a world of conflicting opinions”.[11]  To give a number of examples, Pope Honorius III sided with scholars at the university Bologna in 1220 against infringements on their liberties.  In 1231, when local diocesan officials encroached on the institutional autonomy of the university of Paris, Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Parens Scientiarum.  This document effectively granted the university of Paris the right of self-government, whereby it could make its own rules regarding courses and studies.[12]  The document also granted the university a separate papal jurisdiction, which freed it from future diocesan interference.  These decisions were historic because for the first time universities would be recognized as legal entities.  As noted by historian Daly, with Parens Scientiarum, the university “appears in legal history as a fully formed intellectual corporation for the advancement and training of scholars”.[13]  In the same document, the pope also sought to establish a just and peaceful environment for the university by granting a privilege known as “cessatio” — the right to suspend lectures and go on a general strike if its members were abused.[14]  On numerous occasions, the pope also intervened to force university authorities to pay professors their salaries.  Pope Boniface VIII, Clement V, Clement VI and Gregory IX all had to take such measures.[15]  Ultimately, on this issue, historian Henri Daniel-Rops comments:

Thanks to the repeated intervention of the papacy, higher education was enabled to extend its boundaries; the Church, in fact, was the matrix that produced the university, the nest whence it took flight.[16]

At medieval universities, students studied the seven liberal arts, along with civil and canon law, natural philosophy (their term for science), medicine and theology.[17] 

When it comes to the study of science at medieval universities, it is worth noting the access to scientific materials these institutions provided students,  and the proportion science took up in the curriculum.  As noted by historian of science Michael Shank:

Between 1150 and 1500 … Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth and naturalistic arts curricula of medieval universities … About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world.[18]

Indeed, as historian Hannam notes, the Church “even insisted that science and mathematics should be a compulsory part of the syllabus”.[19]

A map of medieval universities

C. Academic Life

Let us now take a look at the academic life for students at these institutions.

The undergraduate or artist (student of the liberal arts) at a medieval university attended lectures and took part in debates in class.  Masters (professors) typically lectured on an important text, often drawn from classical antiquity.  Alongside these lectures, professors also posed a series of questions in class which were to be resolved through logical argument.[20]  These questions were posed in what was known as “ordinary disputation”.  The master would assign students to argue one or the other side of the question.  When their interaction had ceased, it was up to the master to resolve the question.  The final step in the degree program of medieval universities was an oral examination, wherein a student needed to determine a question by himself to the satisfaction of the faculty.  Before being permitted to take this oral exam, however, the student needed to prove that he was adequately prepared and fit to be evaluated.   

After obtaining an undergraduate degree, the student could begin to look for work or continue his studies to pursue a graduate degree (masters).  In order to obtain a masters degree, a student needed to possess and demonstrate competence within the canon of important works of Western civilization.  Historian Lowrie Daly gives an overview of texts with which the student needed to be familiar:

After his bachelorship, and before he petitioned for his license to teach, the student must have ‘heard at Paris or in another university’ the following Aristotelian works: Physics, On Generation and Corruption, On the Heavens, and the Parva Naturalia; namely, the treatises of Aristotle On Sense and Sensation, On Waking and Sleeping, On Memory and Remembering, On the Length and Shortness of Life.  He must also have heard (or have plans to hear) On the Metaphysics, and have attended lectures on the mathematical books.  [Historian]  Rashdall, when speaking of the Oxford curriculum, gives the following list of works, to be read by the bachelor between the period of his determination and his inception (mastership): books on the liberal arts: in grammar, Priscian; in rhetoric, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (three terms), or the Topics of Boethius (bk.  iv.), or Cicero’s Nova Rhetorica or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Poetria Virgilii; in logic, Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (three terms) or Boethius’ Topics (bks.  1-3) or the Prior Analytics or Topics (Aristotle); in arithmetic and in music, Boethius; in geometry, Euclid, Alhacen, or Vitellio, Perspectiva; in astronomy, Theorica Planetarum (two terms), or Ptolemy, Almagesta.  In natural philosophy the additional works are: the Physics or On the Heavens (three terms) or On the Properties of the Elements or the Meteorics or On Vegetables and Plants or On the Soul or On Animals or any of the Parva Naturalia; in moral philosophy, the Ethics or Economics or Politics of Aristotle for three terms, and in metaphysics, the Metaphysics for two terms or for three terms if the candidate had not determined.[21]

After familiarizing himself with the specified texts through classes, the prospective Master needed to pass a series of tests and oral examinations.  After doing so, he would obtain his postgraduate degree and was deemed a Master himself, making him eligible to teach at other universities across Europe.

A medieval university class

D. Reason and the Medieval University

It is also worth expounding on the prominence of reason in medieval universities to better appreciate the impressiveness of academic life during this time.

First, it must be pointed out that logic was strongly emphasized in medieval universities.  As leading historian of science Edward Grant comments in his book “God and Reason In the Middle Ages”:

Judging from the various examples and sophisms that I have cited here, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that medieval logic was an extraordinarily difficult subject, although it undoubtedly appears much stranger to modern eyes than it would have to the medieval undergraduates who regularly grappled with it in their logic courses.  Nevertheless one marvels at the fact that logic courses based on syllogisms, fallacies, sophisms, and numerous other subdivisions of medieval logic were taught to all university students in the arts faculties of European universities … The textbooks and treatises that have been preserved, and from which excerpts have been presented here, were well organized, but enormously complex and difficult.  They are a tribute to the masters who wrote them, but even more remarkable is the fact that medieval undergraduates were required to cope with such difficult textsThrough their high-powered logic courses, medieval students were made aware of the subtleties of language and the pitfalls of argumentation.  Thus were the importance and utility of reason given heavy emphasis in a university education.[22]

Grant then goes on to lament how logic is not given its due importance in universities today:

By comparison to the Middle Ages, logic as a formal subject of study in the modern university is of little consequence.  Students are certainly not required to take it and most shun it as too difficult and demanding.  How ironic it is that although we live in an age of triumphant science, a science the very being and existence of which depends on reason and logical thought, there has been a concomitant diminution of the study of logic, the quintessential embodiment of reason.[23] 

Atheist history writer Tim O’Neill also notes how important logic was in medieval education:

A grasp of logic was central to Medieval education.  A student had to master it, via Boethius’ translations of Aristotle and other works, before they could tackle any other subjects.[24]

Second, the prominence of debate and argumentation at medieval universities must also be stressed further.  As history writer O’Neill notes, debate played a key role in determining advancement and prominence within the university system:

The other radical and crucial novelty in the university system was the way advancement and prominence in this system was not gained merely by mastering material from key texts, but by disputation and debate using set rules of formal logic.  Masters and doctors maintained their positions and their reputations (and therefore their incomes from students) by their ability to win debates, often throwing open the floor to all comers.  And brilliant students could rise quickly in reputation and renown by taking on these masters and beating them.[25] 

Debate was so prominent in medieval universities that disputation events were held at these institutions.  As O’Neill notes:

At least twice a year a university would hold a quodlibeta – a multi-day tournament of rigorous logical disputation where anyone could propose and defend any position on any subject at all.  Often highly radical, controversial, paradoxical or even heretical idea were presented [(as long as it was not presented as fact)], and participants had to defend or attack them using logic and reason alone … quodlibeta debates at Medieval universities were such open free-for-alls where all kinds of radical and even heretical ideas could be proposed to see if they stood up to logical analysis.[26]

A discussion on reason in the Middle Ages would not be complete without a look at the scholastics. 

E. The Age of Scholasticism

It is also worth looking at how reason was enshrined in the minds and writings of scholastic philosophers and theologians, most of whom held formal academic posts at universities.  The use of reason among these thinkers is famously exemplified by their use of the “scholastic method”, which was, as historian Hannam put it, an “extremely methodical and carefully organized system that medieval philosophers used to construct rational arguments”.[27] The scholastic tradition dominated the academe during the high and late middle ages (1000 – 1500 AD). As a result, the period can be referred to as “the age of scholasticism”.[28] Historian Woods, commenting on the scholastics says:

The Scholastics, by and large, were committed to the use of reason as an indispensable tool in theological and philosophical study, and to dialectic — the juxtaposition of opposing positions, followed by a resolution of the matter at hand by recourse to both reason and authority — as the method of pursuing issues of intellectual interest.  As the tradition matured, it became common for Scholastic treatises to follow a set pattern: posing a question, considering arguments on both sides, giving the writer’s own view, and answering objections.[29]

In order to develop a better appreciation of the scholastics, let us look into a number of individuals within the tradition. 

St.  Anselm (1033-1109), like other scholastics, used reason to explore philosophical and theological questions.  In his Cur Deus Homo, for example, Anselm examines from a rational point of view why it was appropriate and fitting for God to have become man.[30]  Anselm is also known for developing a rational proof for the existence of God known as the ontological argument, which he lays out in his Proslogion.  This simple and fascinating argument, would be taken up by later thinkers (e.g.  Lebiniz, Godel, Platinga, etc), who would come up with their own formulations of it.  Today, the ontological argument continues to generate significant discussion and interest in philosophical circles.  Anselm, however, differed from most scholastics in that he did not hold a formal academic post at a university.  He served as abbot of the monastery of Bec and later as the archbishop of Canterbury.

Another scholastic would be Peter Lombard (1100-1160), a master at the university of Paris and a later archbishop of the same city.   Lombard’s work, the Sentences, became the central textbook for students of theology for the next five centuries.[31]  The book employed reason in the explanation of theological points.  Historian Woods describes the work as “a systematic exposition of the Catholic faith, including discussion on everything from God’s attributes to such topics as sin, grace, the Incarnation, redemption, the virtues, the sacraments, and the Four Last Things (death, judgement, heaven and hell)”.[32]

A discussion on the scholastics of course would be incomplete without St.  Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest intellects of all time and the prime exponent of the scholastic method.[33]  His magnum opus, the Summae Theologicae, raised and answered thousands of questions in theology and philosophy, ranging from the existence of God, to the justice of war, to whether all vices should be criminalized (St.  Thomas said no).[34]  Aquinas also developed five rational proofs for the existence of God. Commenting on the influence of Aquinas, historian Hannam notes:

Aquinas was made a saint less than 50 years after his death.  He was a humble and devout man, as no one doubts, but he owes his canonisation to his phenomenal works of philosophy and theology.  They have been one of the intellectual bulwarks of Catholicism ever since, to the extent that the Church has awarded him the title of ‘Angelic Doctor’.[35] 

The legacy of the work and thought of Aquinas has resulted in the philosophical school of Thomism, which enjoys a robust tradition of thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, G.E.M.  Anscombe, Bernard Longeran, Alaisdair Mcintyre, John Haldane, Eleonore Stump, Robert P.  George and others.

Ultimately, leading historian Edward Grant comments that rational argument became so prominent among philosophers during the High Middle ages (1000-1250 AD) that the period deserves to be thought of as “the beginning of the ‘Age of Reason’”.[36] The great mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was a huge admirer of the scholastic tradition, also notes that the period was “preeminently an epoch of orderly thought” and that it was “rationalist through and through”.[37]

St. Thomas Aquinas: Dominican friar, philosopher and theologian
Rome’s Angelicum, the Dominican order’s center of Thomistic theology and philosophy. The pontifical university was founded in 1222 AD.

F.  The Fruits of Reason

The enshrinement of reason at the heart of European intellectual life had profound effects, not only in the fields of philosophy and theology, but in other fields as well.  As historian R.W. Southern states:

The digestion of Aristotle’s logic was the greatest intellectual task of the period from the end of the tenth to the end of the twelfth century.  Under its influence, the method of theological discussion and the form of the presentation of theological speculation underwent a profound change … every department of thought was similarly affected.  The methods of logical arrangement and analysis, and, still more, the habits of thought associated with the study of logic, penetrated the studies of law, politics, grammar and rhetoric, to mention only a few of the fields that were affected.[38] 

The prominence of reason during the Middle Ages would propel the West to excel in the sciences in a historically unprecedented fashion.  As leading historian of science Edward Grant states:

What made it possible for Western Civilization to develop science and the social sciences in a way that no other civilization had ever done before? The answer, I am convinced, lies in a pervasive and deep-seated spirit of inquiry that was a natural consequence of the emphasis on reason that began in the Middle Ages … It was quite natural for scholars immersed in a university environment to employ reason to probe into subject areas that had not been explored before, as well as to discuss possibilities that had not previously been seriously entertained.[39]

When it comes to modern science in particular, the enshrinement of reason at the heart of medieval intellectual life and the emergence of the university were two key factors in its emergement, and these historical occurrences owe their actualization greatly to the Church.  As noted by historians of science James Hannam and Peter Harrison:

Before the edifice of modern science could be built it required the strong foundations that were laid for it in the Middle Ages.  The cornerstone was a widespread acceptance of reason as a valid tool for discovering the truth about our world.  Clearly, this could not happen without the approval of the Church, which at the time was the guardian of almost all intellectual endeavors.[40] 

The medieval universities, which were the chief sites of scientific activity in the later middle ages, were founded and supported by the Catholic Church.[41] 

With that said, let us now look into how else the Church contributed to science.

V. Science

A. The Guidance of Christian Theology

Earlier, we discussed how reason was enshrined at the heart of medieval intellectual life as well as the emergence of the university.  These factors contributed to the emergence of modern science in Europe in the 17th century (the “Scientific Revolution”).  However, we have yet to discuss another important factor to the emergence of modern science in Europe Christian theology, which, unlike the worldviews of many other cultures in times past, was conducive to a confident and quantitative study of the natural world. 

Fr.  Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., was a prizewinning historian of science and a leading contributor in the field.[42]  In his works, Jaki showed how the Christian tradition conceived of God’s creation as rational and orderly, and how this view of creation led Christian thinkers to study the natural world with confidence, and eventually, led them to study it quantitatively (through mathematics) — resulting in the birth of modern science. Jaki provides ample quotes from the Old Testament, examines the scientific attitudes of the early Church fathers (to show the continuity of biblical culture to the Middle Ages) and looks into the contributions of numerous medieval Christian scholars (in both theological understanding and science) to show how the progression towards a breakthrough in scientific thought was guided by divine revelation.[43]

1. The Path Towards Modern Science

In order to provide an idea of how the Christian tradition viewed the natural world as rational and orderly, see the following passages from the Bible (Ish 40:12-16, Prov 8:22-23 and Wis 11:20):

Who was it measured out the waters in his open hand, heaven balanced on his palm, earth’s mass poised on three of his fingers? … No aid, then, had the spirit of the Lord to help him, no counsellor stood by to admonish him.  None other was there to lend his skill; guide to point out the way … Lift up your eyes, and look at the heavens; who was it that made them? Who is it that marshals the full muster of their starry host, calling each one by its name, not one of them missing from the ranks? Such strength, such vigour, such spirit is his.

The Lord made me his when first he went about his work, at the birth of time, before his creation began. … when I was born, the mountains had not yet sunk on their firm foundations, and there were no hills; not yet had he made the earth, or the rivers, or the solid framework of our world.

I was there when he built the heavens, when he fenced in the waters with a vault inviolable, when we fixed the sky overhead, when he and levelled the fountain-springs of the deep.

I was there when he enclosed the sea within its confines, forbidding the waters to transgress their assigned limits, when he poised the foundations of the world.

I was at his side, a master-workman, my delight increasing with each day…

But you [(God)] have set all things in right order by proportion: by measure, by number, and by weight.

Biblical passages such as these indicated that the natural world was rational and orderly. As a result, Christian theology viewed the natural world this way, and since the natural world was rational and orderly, it could be comprehended by human reason. This belief gave medieval scholars confidence to study and understand creation. It led medieval scholars to affirm that nature operates under fixed laws, to carry out the complete “depersonalization of nature” — that is, to believe that there are no divine forces in nature and that God, though He ordained the laws of nature, did not typically interfere in their workings (besides the working of miracles in salvation history), and finally, to study Nature quantitatively, leading to the emergence of modern science.[44]

2. Against Pantheist-Animist Views

In order for medieval scholars to have proceeded along the path towards modern science, they also needed to reject the prevailing but erroneous pantheist-animist views of the day (antiquity into the Middle Ages).

Pantheism identifies God with the universe itself. The pantheistic beliefs of antiquity also came with other beliefs that dampened scientific study or hindered scientific advancement (e.g. belief in the “cosmic treadmill”). Animism is the belief that divine forces organize and animate the natural world. Pantheism and animism comprised how other cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages viewed the natural world (hence “pantheist-animist”). Pantheist-animist views also influenced the thinking and understanding of the West substantially due to its inheritance of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, which subscribed to pantheist-animist views, particularly, the extremely influential works of Aristotle, which held such views. However, the influence of pantheist-animist views on the West would continue to decline due to Christian theology, which conflicted with pantheist-animist views and led medieval scholars away from them, and in other directions.

As Jaki notes, the beginning of Genesis served as a guard against pantheist-animist views. In it, God, who is distinct from the natural world, creates it out of nothing: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light” (Gen 1:3).  Here, a clear distinction is made between Creator and creation. That God is distinct from the natural world is further solidified by the Trinitarian and Incarnational aspects of Christian monotheism.[45] These steered Christian thinkers away from the erroneous pantheist-animist views of their day, and eventually, Christian thinkers would reject pantheist-animist views wholesale.

3. The Stillbirth of Modern Science in Other Cultures

Jaki also examines the “stillbirths” of modern science in other major ancient civilizations (i.e.  Egypt, India, China, Babylon, Greece and Arabia).[46]  When Jaki says “stillbirth” in reference to these cultures, he is not saying that there was no progress or breakthroughs in science in these civilizations.  In fact, Jaki spends a significant amount of space detailing the technological and scientific achievements of each of these civilizations.[47]  When Jaki says “stillbirth”, he is referring to the failure of science in these cultures to “breakthrough” into a universal enterprise of exact physical laws and systems of laws (i.e.  modern science).  The path of development towards modern science in these cultures “died” — reaching a standstill.[48]

The problem with these other civilizations was their theology, which was pantheistic-animistic.[49]  Under such a theology, the cosmos are understood to be driven by divine forces, and not governed by constant natural laws. This theology led one not to see or look for fixed laws in Nature. It also lead one to study nature the wrong way.  Agnostic historian Tom Holland gives an example of this. He highlights the difference between Christian Europe and Confucian China in the 17th century — to show how Christian theology is conducive to modern science, and how China’s pantheistic-animist theology is not.  Holland narrates how Jesuit priests were invited by the Chinese Emperor to improve China’s calendar, and how the Jesuits outclassed the best Chinese scholars in terms of astronomy, a subclass of physics, due to their theological assumptions:

There was no better way to appreciate, perhaps, just how truly distinctive the Christian understanding of natural philosophy [(i.e.  science)] was, just how deeply rooted in the soil of Christendom, then to be a Jesuit in China.  In 1634, the presentation to the Chinese emperor of a telescope had provided Galileo, [its inventor in Europe], with an unexpectedly global seal of approval; but in Beijing there had been no great wave of excitement, no rush by princes and scholars to stare at the craters on the moon, such as there had been in Rome.  “It is better to have no good astronomy than to have Westerners in China.” So Yang Guangxian, a scholar resentful of the Jesuits’ stranglehold on the Bureau of Astronomy, complained …  Correctly, he [(Yang Guangxian)]  had identified the degree to which their ability to make sense of the heavens was rooted in [theological]  assumptions that were exclusive to Christians.  The obsession of the Jesuits with fathoming laws that might govern the cosmos, Yang charged, had led them to neglect what Confucian scholarship had always known to be the proper object of astronomy: divination … The understanding of the cosmos that underpinned the Jesuits’ ability to draw up accurate calendars did not, it seemed, come easily to scholars from a radically different tradition.[50]

 Just as China’s pantheistic-animist theology hindered the emergence of modern science in their civilization, so did the pantheistic-animist theologies of Egypt, India, China, Babylon, Greece and Arabia hinder the emergence of modern science in their civilizations.  In his work, Jaki examines the cases of each of the above cultures in-depth. 

Looking at the list of the above cultures, one may wonder why Arabia is included as having a pantheistic-animist theology when its religion, Islam, is monotheistic.  Although Islam is monotheistic, it is neither Christological or Incarnational.  This left it vulnerable to a monotheism that approached towards pantheism (there was more leeway to adhere to the prevailing pantheistic-animistic views of the day),– and this is what happened.[51] Many Arabian philosophers adopted the works of the Greeks and their pantheistic-animistic worldview, resulting in a conflict with the the teachings of Islam.  Among these philosophers, there was a separation of science and religion that should have been reconciled but was not.  As Stacy Trasancos, a popularizer of Jaki’s work, notes:

Muslim science made notable contributions in areas that had nothing to do with physical laws.  When it came to a study of physical laws of the world, there was a certain inertia owed to the unwillingness to question the Aristotelian animistic worldview, which is why the study of biology advanced but without an underlying increase in the understanding of the physical world.

This lack of understanding of physics is evidenced by Arab alchemy, which came to stand for the study of materials and compounds.  This field of investigation was a combination of ‘mystical and astrological proclivities,’ fundamentally the result of mixing the organismic, eternal cycles of pantheism with the belief that a Creator created the universe.  It was an attempt to reconcile the conflicting views of Aristotelian philosophy and Muslim theology.

The same paradox occurred in astrology.  The astrologers, working with assumptions in conflict with their religion, gave credence to the pagan doctrine of the Great Year, even to the point of believing it could predict the succession of rulers, religions, reigns and physical catastrophes”.

There was, however, also a problem among faithful Muslim scholars (the problem then was twofold). Muslim theology viewed God as so powerful that He does not submit Himself to anything, such as natural laws.[53] Christian theology, on the other hand, was receptive to the notion of God willing to submit Himself to laws because of its belief in covenants. God, having established covenants with His people, bound Himself to behave in a certain way and would remain faithful to His promise. Since God bound Himself to covenants, He could also submit Himself to natural laws. As historian Holland notes:

The Muslim God, basically, for the emergence of science, is too powerful. The Muslim God does not bind Himself with laws. The Muslim God does not have an equivalent of covenants. The assumption among Muslim scholars is that if you drop an apple from a tree its not because there is a law that says that the apple must drop from the tree, its because God is intervening to ensure every time the apple drops from the tree because to say otherwise would be to limit God’s power. So, in a sense, the impetus for Muslim scholars to try and identify universal laws in the way you get with Newtonian physics is simply not there.[54]

For these reasons, Arabia experienced stillbirth with regards to modern science.

In the end, it was Christian theology that led medieval scholars to reject the pantheist-animist views their day and see the natural world as rational and orderly. This led them to pursue scientific study with confidence, since a rational and orderly universe is comprehensible to human reason. It also led them to affirm that the natural world is governed by fixed laws, not divine and finally, capable of being studied quantitatively — leading to the birth of modern science. As historian of science James Hannam notes: 

Christian theology turned out to be uniquely suited to encouraging the study of the natural world.[55]

Medieval depiction of God as Geometer, 13th century illuminated manuscript
In line with the belief of God creating a rational and orderly universe, medieval Christians honored God through geometry in the building of cathedrals, as well as the use of numbers and proportions of special significance. This manuscript of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence reveals the intricate mathematical proportions of the structure. The three bays shown above were also designed to honor the Trinity

B.  The Medieval Proto-Scientific Revolution

Contrary to erroneous perceptions of the Middle Ages, the period was one of excellent scientific progress. As atheist history writer Tim O’Neill notes:

[T]he period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect.[56] 

In fact, it was during the Middle Ages that the foundations of modern science were laid. Without the advances made by medieval scholars, the Scientific Revolution would never have occurred.

Giving an overview of how the foundations of modern science were laid during the Middle Ages, a large amount of ancient learning flooded back into Western Europe in the 12th century, around the time the first universities were developing.  This large amount of classical learning stemmed from the capture of the Spanish city of Toledo and its great library, which had been under the control of the Arabs since the 8th century.[57]  Once Toledo and its library was captured, knowledge that the Greek-speaking East had benefited from (i.e. the Byzantine and Arab empires) had become accessible to the West.  As historian Hannam notes:

From the early twelfth century onwards, western scholars translated a vast corpus of Greek and Arabic learning into Latin.  Once recovered, these works quickly came to dominate learning throughout Catholic Europe.  The translation movement occurred because western Christians knew that they were missing out on a great deal of knowledge already available to Muslims and Byzantines.[58]

This large amount of learning that flooded back into Europe, and the emergence of the institution that is the university provided a tremendous boost to the intellectual and cultural life of the West. 

Medieval scientists like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon (who were both priests) laid the underlying scientific principles of observation and repeatable experimentation.[60] 

The discussions and conclusions reached at the cathedral school of Chartres were very important and foundational. As historian Woods notes “practically everyone of the period who made any substantial contribution to the development of science was at one time or another associated with or influenced by Chartres“.[61] At this esteemed institution, Christian scholars were committed to developing explanations based on natural causation — that is, without recourse to supernatural explanation.[62] God, they argued, created and set the laws of nature in their place, allowing them to operate according to their nature and typically did not interfere in their workings (“typically does not”, of course, because God can work and has worked miracles in history). As noted by William of Conches, a scholar at Chartres: “The nature with which He [(God)] endowed His creatures accomplishes a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created this very nature”.[63] As noted by historian Goldstein, the scholars at Chartres “were consciously striving to launch the evolution of Western science” and undertook several important steps that were needed to achieve that end.[64]

Then, the Church’s Condemnations of 1227 at the university of Paris (which arose due to conflicts with new works of Aristotle from Spain and the university’s theology faculty) and Aquinas’ influential Summa Theologica, caused medieval thinkers to break free from certain Aristotelian errors, and progress further in the field of science. As noted by historian Hannam and history writer Tim O’Neill:

The condemnations and Thomas’s Summa Theologiae had created a framework within which natural philosophers could safely pursue their studies.  The framework …  laid down the principle that God had decreed laws of nature but was not bound by them.  Finally, it stated that Aristotle was sometimes wrong.  The world was not ‘eternal according to reason’ and ‘finite according to faith’.  It was not eternal, full stop.  And if Aristotle could be wrong about something that he regarded as completely certainly certain, that threw his whole philosophy into question.  The way was clear for the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages to move decisively beyond the achievements of the Greeks

[M]edieval thinkers began to notice that there was something seriously amiss with all aspects of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and not just those parts of it that directly contradicted the Christian faith.  The time had come when medieval scholars could begin their own quest to advance knowledge ….  striking out in new directions that neither the Greeks nor the Arabs ever explored.  Their first breakthrough was to combine the two subjects of mathematics and physics in a way that had not been done before.[65]

The closest the Church came to suppressing science in any way was when, in reaction to some of the ideas being debated in the University of Paris at the height of the rediscovery of Aristotelian learning in the Thirteenth Century, the Faculty of Theology attempted at putting some limits on what could be discussed by the Faculty of Arts.  In 1210, 1270 and again in 1277 the Pope, at the request of the Parisian Theology Faculty, published lists of ideas proposed by Aristotle or implied by his philosophy that were contrary to Christian doctrine and so were forbidden.  What is remarkable about this is, firstly, how little in Aristotle was actually proscribed by these Condemnations.  Secondly, it’s remarkable how ineffective the Condemnations were.  They only applied to Paris, whereas discussion of all these topics continued at Oxford and other universities unaffected.  And, as the fact that they had to be repeated twice indicates, they were widely ignored anyway.  They also had another effect – by arguing that Aristotle was actually wrong on several key points, they stimulated a more critical examination of the Greek philosopher’s work which led to several of his ideas being critically analysed and found to be incorrect (e.g.  the idea that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one).  In a strange way, the Condemnations failed to suppress science and actually helped to stimulate it.[66]

Jean Buridan, a priest-scientist, also made a critical contribution to science through his concept of impetus, which was the first stepping stone towards Newton’s first law of motion.[67]

The biggest developments in medieval science, however, would arise in the 14th century, from a group of Oxford university scholars who would later be referred to as the “Merton Calculators” — Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead and John Dumbeldon.  This group of scholars worked on key issues in physics and made the most revolutionary medieval contribution to the field of science — they introduced the use of mathematics as a language to describe the physical world.[68] This insight is captured well in a quote of one of the Calculators, Thomas Bradwadine, a priest-scientist:

[Mathematics]  is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters.  Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.[69]

The Calculators also overturned the earlier Greek conception of motion by distinguishing kinematics from dynamics (the Merton scholars looked at the persistence of motion via impetus — measurable by material volume and velocity). This effectively laid the foundation for the later key understanding of momentum and helped the Merton Calculators develop the Mean Speed Theorem 200 years before Galileo.[70] As if this was not impressive enough, the Calculators also developed logarithmic functions 300 years before John Napier.[71]  Ultimately, as O’Neill recognizes, these men “laid the foundations for modern physics as we know it”.[72] 

The contributions of Jean Buridan and the Merton Calculators allowed later medieval scholars such as Nicole Oresme and Nicholas of Cusa to develop physics further and begin to apply them to astronomy.[73] The foundation from which modern science was to emerge from was set.  As noted by O’Neill:

The idea that Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton all developed ideas that had no roots in the thinking of the two or three centuries that preceded them is clearly ridiculous, yet this has been the claim of the post-Enlightenment myths about the Middle Ages.  Objective modern research, however, has shown that without the work of people like Grosseteste, Bacon, Occam, the Merton scholars, Oresme and Buridan the “Scientific Revolution” would never had occurred.  That revolution had Medieval foundations.[74]

Chartres Cathedral, the site of the school that contributed so much to science

C. The Church

The Church contributed to science in a number of ways — by inventing and supporting the university, sponsoring the education of Her clergy (many of whom would engage in science) and encouraging and funding the scientific endeavors of her members.[75] When it comes to specific fields, the Church’s contributions to astronomy must be noted, for She was its leading patron for many centuries.  As historian of science Heilbron notes:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.[76]

The scientific contributions of the Church’s members, as a result of missionary work in far-off lands, must also be noted.  As stated by historian of science Lawrence Principe:

But on a broader scale, during the Scientific revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors.  Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike.  This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.[77]

D.  The Priest-Scientist

A great number of priests were also scientists, many of whom made significant contributions to the field. 

St.  Albertus Magnus was a Dominican priest who served a number of important positions within the Church (e.g.  provincial of the German Dominicans and bishop of Regensburg).  He also had a career in academe as a Master at the university of Paris.  Magnus was given the title “the Great” during his lifetime due to, as historian Hannam put it, his “enormous appetite for learning and the sheer size of his output”.[78]  Commenting further, Hannam notes that “his marvellous mind scrutinised everything under the sun, and he questioned and analysed all that he read”.  The standard edition of Magnus’ works fills thirty eight capacious Latin volumes and spans the areas of “physics, logic, metaphysics, biology, psychology and various earth sciences”.[79] After his death, Magnus was named a doctor of the Church. He was given the title “the Universal Doctor”. 

Robert Grosseteste was a priest who served as chancellor to Oxford university and later on, as the bishop of Lincoln.  He produced works in a number of fields — optics, astronomy and a number of earth sciences.  Grosseteste is most known for introducing the notion of controlled experiment.  As noted by history writer Tim O’Neill, Grosseteste “proposed that  scholar[s]  should not only derive universal laws from particulars and then apply laws to particular cases (Aristotle’s “principle of induction”), but they should also use experiment to verify the particulars”.[80] 

Roger Bacon was a Franciscan who taught at Oxford university.  His scholarly range of interests included mathematics, optics, astronomy and the philosophy of science.  Thanks to Bacon’s development of Grosseteste’s ideas, the medieval period possessed the rudiments of the scientific method (Grosseteste and Bacon are considered forerunners of the scientific method). As stated by history writer Tim O’Neill:

Roger Bacon developed this idea [of Grosseteste]  further, proposing a method based on a repeated cycle of observation, hypothesis and experimentation.[81] 

Bacon also identified a number of obstacles to the transition of truth such as uninstructed popular opinion and long-standing but erroneous custom.[82]

Moving past the Middle Ages, another priest-scientist is Bl.  Nicholas Steno.  A Lutheran convert to Catholicism, Steno had quite the career.  He taught as a Master at the University of Padua, served as a court physician to the grand duke of Tuscany, and was appointed later on as the bishop of Titiopolis.  In the field of science, however, Steno secured his reputation in the study of the earth’s strata and fossils, in which he was a pioneer.  Steno is credited for proposing the idea that rocks, fossils, and geological strata told a story about the earth’s history, and that geological study could illuminate that history.[83]  Writers prior to Steno had assumed, with Aristotle, that the earth’s past was fundamentally unintelligible.  As noted by Alan Cutler, a recent biographer of the priest:

Steno was the first to assert that the world’s history might be recoverable from the rocks and to take it upon himself to unravel that history.[84] 

Steno is also credited with “setting down most of the principles of modern geology”.[85]  Of the many insights in Steno’s influential work,  De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis produmus (“Preliminary Discourse to a Dissertation on a Solid Body Naturally Contained Within a Solid”), three have been generally referred to as “Steno’s principles” — superimposition, original horizontality and lateral continuity.[86]

Another priest-scientist, this time, during the period of the Scientific Revolution, was Marin Mersenne — and he played a significant role in it.  Mersenne was a polymath who made a number of contributions to the sciences.  Mersenne is considered the founder of acoustics.  He pioneered “the scientific study of the upper and lower limits of audible frequencies, of harmonics, and of the measurement of the speed of sound, which he showed to be independent of pitch and loudness.”[87]  Furthermore, Mersenne also “established that the intensity of sound, like that of light, is inversely proportional to the distance from its source.”[88]  He also developed three laws in acoustics, describing the relationship between frequency and tension, weight, and length of strings.[89]  Mersenne’s seminal work on acoustics, Harmonie universelle, represented the sum of musical knowledge during his lifetime.  Mersenne also did work on pendulums. He discovered that the frequency of a pendulum is inversely proportional to the square root of its length.  He also discovered the length of a seconds pendulum, and that pendulum swings are not isochronous (against Galileo).[90]  Furthermore, Mersenne’s suggestion to Christiaan Huygens, that the pendulum could be used as a timing device, played a role in inspiring the pendulum clock.[91]  Mersenne also made contributions in terms of scientific study.  His “insistence on the careful specification of experimental procedures, repetition of experiments, publication of the numerical results of actual measurements as distinct from those calculated from theory, and recognition of approximations marked a notable step in the organization of experimental science in the seventeenth century.”[92]  Mersenne also made contributions to the field of mathematics, telescope theory and the study of the motion of falling objects, but if there is one more achievement to point out, it is his role as a terrific facilitator and correspondent of scientific ideas and information.  Mersenne had many contacts in the scientific world and had an exceptional ability to make connections between people and ideas.  In total, Mersenne corresponded with 140 key thinkers throughout Europe (and as far away as Tunisia, Syria, and Constantinople).[93]  His compiled correspondence now fills 12 volumes.  For this reason, Mersenne was called “an architect of the European scientific community”.[94] 

One more example of a priest-scientist is Fr.  George Lemaitre.  Lemaitre was a mathematician, physicist and astronomer.  After receiving the Belgian Cross (an award for military virtue on the battlefield) as an artillery officer in WW1, Lemaitre returned to school to earn a doctorate in mathematics.  After doing so, he turned down academic offers to pursue what he believed to be his calling as a devout Catholic — the priesthood.  After his ordination, Lemaitre went to Massachusetts to study astronomy at Harvard Observatory. Then he went to MIT to earn a doctorate in physics.  After his studies, Lemaitre would assume a professorship at the Catholic University of Louvain and begin a distinguished career in the sciences.  He would, in time, make a discovery that would shake the field of cosmology.  In 1927, Lemaitre proposed his theory of the “primeval atom”, which suggested that the universe was expanding and that it had a beginning in the finite past.[95]  This theory, which would later be dubbed the “Big Bang theory”, would continue to be corroborated by a number of different discoveries in the next several decades, making it one of the most comprehensive and rigorously established theories in contemporary cosmology.  In addition to the Big Bang theory, Leimaitre also found an important inhomogeneous solution of Einstein’s field equations, the Lemaitre-Tolman metric (1933).[96] He was also an early adopter of computers for cosmological calculations (introducing the first computer to Louvain) and was one of the inventors of the Fast Fourier transform algorithm (1958).[97]

There are many more priest-scientists (or monks) who contributed significantly to science.  These include Jean Buridan, Thomas Brawardine, Nicolaus Copernicus, Benedetto Castilli, Pierre Gassendi,  Jean-Framcois Niceron, Vincenzo Coronelli, Ismael Boulliau, Edme Mariotte, Gregor Mendel (Father of Genetics), Jean Picard, Rene Just Hauy, Lazzaro Spallanzani, etc. 

Fr. George Lemaitre with Albert Einstein after Lemaitre’s lecture at the California Institute of Technology in 1933

E. The Jesuits

The Society of Jesus, a priestly order founded in the 16th century by St.  Ignatius of Loyola, contributed so excellently to the field of science that they deserve a section of their own. So impressive are the Jesuits that by the 17th century, just one century after their founding, the order had become as historian Hannam notes: “the leading scientific organization in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world”.[98]

The Jesuits hold the honor of being the first to introduce Western science in far-off places such as China and India, doing so in the same century they were founded — the 16th century.[99]  The Jesuits in particular made a great impact in China, which was, at the time, the second most sophisticated civilization in the world after Christian Europe.  As noted by historian Udias, the Jesuits:

[M]ade an enormous effort to translate western mathematical and astronomical works into Chinese and aroused the interest of Chinese scholars in the sciences.  They made very extensive astronomical observation and carried out the first modern cartographic work in China.  They also learned to appreciate the scientific achievements of this ancient culture and made them known in Europe.  Through their correspondence European scientists first learned about Chinese science and culture.[100]

By the 18th century, the Jesuits had accomplished so much in the sciences that historian Wright provides the following list of achievements:

They had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity.  They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the coloured bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings.  They theorised about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.  Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics—all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.[102]

In addition, the Jesuits were also “the single most important contributor to experimental physics in the seventeenth century”, as recognized by historian J.L.  Heilbron.[103]  This achievement is only strengthened by their “detailed studies of other sciences, such as optics, where virtually all-important treatises of the period were written by Jesuits”.[104] Many of the great Jesuit scientists during this period also performed the extremely valuable task of recording their data in massive encyclopedias, which played a significant role in spreading scientific research throughout the scholarly community.[105]  As noted by historian Ashworth:

If scientific collaboration was one of the outgrowths of the scientific revolution the Jesuits deserve a large share of the credit.[106]

The Jesuits also contributed greatly to science through the universities they established. Due to the order’s intense missionary effort to evangelize and promote education, it had established, by 1749, 700+ colleges and universities in Europe and another 100+ in the rest of the world.[107] 

In addition to scientists, the Jesuits boast many top-notch mathematicians, who made a number of important contributions to their discipline.  As historian Woods comments:

When Charles Bossut, one of the first historians of mathematics, compiled a list of the most eminent mathematicians from 900 BC through 1800 AD, 16 of the 303 people he listed were Jesuits.  That figure – amounting to a full 5 percent of the greatest mathematicians over a span of 2700 years [(900 BC – 1800 AD)]  – becomes still more impressive when we recall that the Jesuits existed for only two of those twenty-seven centuries![108]

The Jesuits are also major contributors to the field of seismology (the study of earthquakes).  In fact, they contributed so much to the field that seismology has sometimes been called “the Jesuit science”.[109]   The Jesuits’ involvement in this field has been attributed to the order’s consistent presence in both universities and the scientific community, as well as the desire of its priests to minimize the devastating effects of earthquakes as a service to society.  In 1908, Fr.  Frederick Louis Odenbach came up with an idea that eventually resulted in the Jesuit Seismological Service (JSS).  He noticed that the far-flung system of Jesuit colleges and universities across America had the potential of a network of seismographic stations.  Odenbach worked to actualize this vision and the result was the JSS, which, as stated by scholars Udias and Suauder, was “the first seismological network established of continental scale with uniform instrumentation”.[110]

The marks of the Jesuits in science can also be seen in the names of the moon’s craters, 35 of which are named after Jesuit scientists and mathematicians.[111]

Another notable achievement of the Jesuits is their development of the modern calendar.  The calendar we use today, “the Gregorian calendar”, was developed by Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius, and enacted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.[112] 

To close this discussion on the Jesuits, let us look at three renowned Jesuit scientists to better appreciate the excellence of this order when it comes to the sciences.

One remarkable Jesuit scientist is Fr.  Giambattista Riccioli.  He is credited with being the first to determine the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body, introducing the current scheme of the moon’s topography (he studied the moon extensively) and for discovering the first double star.[113]  Fr.  Ricciolis’ most notable achievement, however, is his magnum opus, the Almagestum Novum, which is a massive encyclopedia of astronomy.  The text consists of over 1500 pages (approx.  15 x 10 inches) densely packed with text, tables and illustrations.  The work became a standard technical reference book for astronomers all over Europe.[114]  Historian Heilbron described the Almagestum as “a deposit and memorial of energetic and devoted learning”.[115] 

Another Jesuit scientist is Fr.  Roger Boscovich, a terrific polymath who was accomplished in atomic theory, optics, mathematics, astronomy and poetry. He was also elected to prestigious scientific academies across Europe.[116]  Fr. Boscovich is credited with developing the first geometric method for calculating a planet’s orbit based on three observations of its position.[117]  He was also a prolific scholar, publishing 22 scientific dissertations during his lifetime.  Boscovich is most known for his exceptional “Theory of Natural Philosophy”, which was a precursor to atomic theory.[118]  Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy attracted a great number of admirers in his day.  Historian of science, Lancelot Law Whyte, speaking of Boscovich’s Theory, said that it “gave classical expression to one of the most powerful scientific ideas yet conceived and is unsurpassed for originality in fundamentals, clarity of expression, and precision in its view of structure — hence, its immense influence … [Boscovich’s novel contributions] anticipated the aims, and many of the features of twentieth-century atomic physics.  Nor is this all that stands to the credit of the [Theory].  For it also qualitatively predicted several physical phenomena that have since been observed, such as the penetrability of matter by high-speed particles, and the possibility of states of matter of exceptionally high density”.[119] For these reasons, historian Whyte calls Boscovich “the true creator of fundamental atomic physics as we understand it”.[120]  Another notable achievement of Fr.  Boscovich was his work on St.  Peter’s Basilica (the Church at the Vatican).  In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV (who was himself a great scholar) turned to Fr.  Boscovich for expertise after concerns had arisen that cracks in the dome of the Basilica signaled possible collapse.  In response, Fr.  Boscovich wrote a report recommending five iron rings to be used to circle the cupola.  This recommendation was taken up by the Pope to great success.  Today, Fr.  Boscovich’s report, which investigated the problem in theoretical terms, earned “the reputation of a minor classic in architectural statics”.[121]

One more example of a Jesuit scientist is Fr.  J.B.  Macelwane, who would end up becoming the most distinguished seismologist of the order.  In 1925, Macelwane reorganized and reinvigorated the Jesuit Seismological Service (which is now known as the Jesuit Seismological Association).  A brilliant researcher, he also published the first seismology textbook in America, Introduction to Theoretical Seismology, in 1936.[122]  Macelwane also served as president of the Seismological Society of America and of the American Geophysical Union.  In 1962, the latter organization established a medal in his honor, which is still awarded today to recognize the work of exceptional young geophysicists.

There are many more Jesuit scientists who contributed significantly to science such as Christoph Scheiner, Francesco Grimaldi, Francesco Lana Terzi, Honore Fabri, Athanasius Kircher, Niccolo Cabeo, Gaspar Schott, etc.  As historian of science Ashworth states: “The roll could be extended considerably without great drop-off in quality”.[123]

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, saved from collapse by Fr. Boscovich
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (exterior)

F.  Conclusion on Christianity and Science

In the end, the Church played an indispensable role in the emergence of modern science in the West.  The Church affirmed reason as a way to knowing more about God and his Creation. She educated Europe through her monastic and cathedral schools and ultimately, invented the university, and was a firm ally of it. The Church sponsored the education of Her members, and encouraged and sponsored their scientific endeavors. Her theology also inspired scientific study and guided Christian thinkers to study the world in a quantitative manner.  With the Church playing the leading role in shaping and cultivating Europe’s intellectual life, medieval scholars laid the foundations for modern science.  As historian of science Peter Harrison affirms:

[W]e  might regard this period, [the Middle Ages,] as one that saw Christianity set the agenda for the emergence of modern science.[124]

The Church and her clergy continued to contribute to science during and after the Scientific Revolution.  Overall, Her contributions in the field of science has led historian of science Lawrence Principe to state that “it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic Church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history”.[125] Historian of science James Hannam likewise comments that  “the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research” until the French Revolution (1789-1799).[126]  Noah Efron, another historian of science, notes that the Church was the leading patron of science for “a crucial millennium”.[127] 

Today, the Church’s interest in and support of the sciences can be seen most prominently in its Pontifical Academy of the Sciences (PAS), a scientific academy that aims to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences.  The academy boasts a member roster of the most respected names in 20th century science such as Alexander Fleming, Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger and others.  The Church also has her own observatory, the Vatican Observatory, which is located in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. 

Young Stephen Hawking at the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in 1975, his year of induction. In the picture, Pope Paul VI awards him with the Pius XI medal for exceptional promise in the sciences. Hawking would go on to become a longtime member of the academy.
Pope Francis greets Stephen Hawking during an audience with PAS members (2016)
Fr. Emmanuel Carreira operates a telescope at the Vatican Observatory in Castelgandolfo, Italy. Carreira is a man of many talents: physicist, astronomer, patented inventor, painter, photographer and poet.

To proceed to part 3 of this series, click here.


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  4. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 47.
  5. Verger, “The Universities and Scholasticism,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume V c. 1198–c. 1300, pg. 257
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  7. Daly,The Medieval University, 1200–1400, pg. 4.
  8. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 47.
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 48
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  28. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 58
  29. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 58
  30. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 58
  31. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 61
  32. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 61-62
  33. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 96
  34. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 62
  35. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 93
  36. Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages, pg. 30
  37. Carrol and Shiflett, Christianity On Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 72
  38. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, pgs. 181-182
  39. Grant, God and Reason In the Middle Ages, pg. 356
  40. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pgs. 6-7
  41. Harrison in Numbers and Kampourakis (both editors), Newton’s Apple and Other Myths About Science, pgs. 197-198
  42. Jaki was very qualified to write on the subject. Not only was he a great historian but he was also a theologian and physicist (he had doctorates in theology and physics). Jaki refined his thoughts on the subject throughout his life but his most comprehensive work on the subject is his “Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe”.
  43. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 45
  44. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pgs. 101-165
  45. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, 161
  46. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 52
  47. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pgs. 48, 51
  48. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 45
  49. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 79
  50. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 357-358
  51. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 83
  52. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 85
  53. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 79
  54. Cameron Bertuzzi Interview with Tom Holland: Why Science & Secularism Come from Christianity. Retrieved from:
  55. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. xviii
  56. O’Neill, T. (2009). The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”. Retrieved from:
  57. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 70
  58. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 69
  59. Madden, T. The Real History of the Crusades. Retrieved from:
  60. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 94-96
  61. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 85
  62. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 87
  63. Goldstein, Dawn of Modern Science: From the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance, pg. 82
  64. Goldstein, Dawn of Modern Science: From the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance, pg. 77
  65. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pgs. 104-105
  66. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  67. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pg. 156
  68. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  69. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 176
  70. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from: See also O’Neill, T.  The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”. Retrieved from:
  71. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  72. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  73. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  74. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  75. Hannam, J. (2011). Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  76. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church, Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, pg. 3
  77. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pg. 104
  78. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 92
  79. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 92
  80. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  81. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  82. Crombie and North, “Bacon, Roger” in Dictionary of Scientific Bigraphy, ed. Cjarles C. Gillispie, pg. 378
  83. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 97-98
  84. Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop, pg. 106
  85. Ashworth, Jr., Catholicism and Early Modern Science, in Lindberg and Numbers, eds., God and Nature, pg. 146
  86. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 98-99
  87. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  88. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  89. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  90. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  91. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  92. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  93. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  94. Kassebaum, A. (2015). Marin Mersenne: A Priest at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution. Retrieved from:
  95. Spitzer, R. (2016). Evidence for God from Physics and Philosophy. Retrieved from:
  96. Lemaitre-Tolman metric. Retrieved from:
  97. George Lemaitre. Retrieved from:
  98. Hannam, J. (2011). Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  99. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 101
  100. Udias, Searching the Heavens and the Earth: The History of Jesuit Observatories, pg. 53
  101. Stasancos, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, pgs. 60-61 and 63-64.
  102. Wright, The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories, pg. 189
  103. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: A Study of Early Modern Physics, pg. 2
  104. Ashworth, Catholicism and Early Modern Science, pg. 154
  105. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 100-101
  106. Ashworth, Catholicism and Early Modern Science, pg. 155
  107. Faithful Philosophy. Christianity’s Progress. Retrieved from:
  108. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 101
  109. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 109
  110. Udias and Suauder, “Jesuits in Seeismology,” Jesuits in Science Newsletter 13 (1997); Benjamin F. Howell, Jr., An Introduction to Seismological Research: History and Development, pgs. 31-32.
  111. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 101
  112. Christopher Clavius. Retrieved from:
  113. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 102-104
  114. Almagestum Novum (Book). Retrieved from:
  115. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 102
  116. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 105
  117. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 106
  118. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 107
  119. Whyte, Boscovich’s Atomism, in Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich, pg. 102 and 119
  120. Whyte, Boscovich’s Atomism, in Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich, pg. 105
  121. Markovic, Boskovic, Rudjer J., in DSB, pg. 326
  122. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 110
  123. Ashworth, “Catholicism and Early Modern Science” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, Lindberg and Numbers (editors), pg. 154
  124. Harrison in The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pg. 6
  125. Lawrence Principe in Numbers (editor), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pgs. 102
  126. Hannam, J. (2011). Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  127. Noah Efron in Numbers (editor), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pg. 81

Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization (Part 1 of 4)

Note: If you want to read a correction of historical misconceptions of Christianity
before reading this series, click here.

Monte Cassino today, the mother monastery of the Benedictine order

When it comes to the importance of Christianity to the history of humanity, “indispensable” is the right word to use here. Its contributions to the world are immense and span many areas — learning and education, science, healthcare, law, art, architecture, and ethics.

In this post, we will take a look at these contributions, in order to better appreciate what Christianity has given the world and indeed, how it built the West.

Let us start our discussion on this subject with the fall of Rome.

I. The Fall of Rome

In the late second century AD, the Roman Empire began to deteriorate, entering the period known today as “the Military Anarchy”.[1] Roman generals began devoting themselves to making and unmaking emperors instead of guarding the nation’s borders, civil wars ensued, and barbarian tribes poured into the gaps of the Empire’s defenses, resulting in series’ of invasions.[2] This political instability and chaos weakened the Empire and substantially disrupted intellectual and cultural life.

Cities that had been peaceful for centuries began building defensive walls. Resources that once went into buildings and public works went into continuous wars. Learning and scholarship declined considerably and fewer and fewer scholars were literate in Greek. This was a serious problem because Greek was the language in which intellectual works were written. As a result, “works that were only available in Greek, especially technical, philosophic and detailed scientific works, were read and copied far less and began to be neglected”.[3] Greco-Roman learning was increasingly preserved only in the popular Latin encyclopaedic tradition rather than studied in detail via the original Greek works.

In 476 AD, the last Roman Emperor was deposed by Odocacer, leader of the Goths — signifying the end of the Roman Empire. The former western Roman Empire stood as a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms and the next several centuries would be characterized by invasions, fragmentation and chaos — with few brief periods of stability and centralized authority.[4] Learning and scholarship which had been in decline since the late second century had reached a low ebb. As historian Will Durant notes, the basic cause of regression was “barbarism” and “war”, the “human inundations ruined or impoverished cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and made impossible the life of the scholar or the scientist”.[5] At this point, the whole intellectual tradition of the Greco-Roman world was literally in danger of being lost.[6] 

It was from this low point that the Christian Church gradually took the West under its wing and worked to re-establish the groundwork of civilization.

II. The Indispensable Monks

In the third century AD, some Christian individuals began to retreat into remote solitude to renounce worldly things and concentrate intensely on the spiritual life. These hermits typically lived alone or in small groups of two or three. They would find shelter in caves or simple huts and support themselves on what they could produce in their small fields or through tasks such as basket making. In the same period, Christian women also began to commit themselves to lives of celibacy, prayer and sacrifice, and looking after the poor and sick. These phenomena were the beginnings of the Christian monastic tradition (i.e. monks and nuns).[7] In the fourth century AD, cenobitic monasticism, or monks and nuns living together in monasteries, arose in recognition that individuals ought to live in a community. In time, these monastic communities would play a critical role in the survival, development and flourishing of Western civilization.

Christian monasteries were powerhouses of activity: carrying out agricultural, industrial and technical, learning, educational and scholarly, and charitable activities. Following the principle of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), they gave life to Europe and its people.

A. Agriculture

When it comes to agriculture, the monks developed large tracts of land, making them fertile and accessible. As noted by Carroll and Shiflett, Christian monasteries took “a leading role” in “the painstaking efforts of ‘clearing, planting and building’” that would be important to Europe’s future economic excellence.[8]

Most of the lands the monks developed were uncultivated and uninhabited, covered by forests or surrounded by marshes or swamps. The monks often worked on these lands for two reasons. One, monks chose the most secluded and inaccessible sites to reinforce the communal solitude of their life. Two, this was the type of land that lay donors could more easily give the monks.[9] When the monks cultivated these lands through manual labor, they did so embracing the difficulty and unattractiveness of their work. This was because they saw such tasks as channels of grace and opportunities for mortification of the flesh.

After cultivating the lands, the monks raised crops, bred livestock and pursued other agricultural activities. Many times their agricultural work led to innovations such as in wine, beer, cheese, animal breeding, etc.[10] In addition to these, the monks also introduced crops, industries and production methods with which the people in the regions they had settled in had not been previously familiar.[11] As Henry H. Goodell, former President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, notes:

Everywhere we see the monks instructing the population in the most profitable methods and industries, naturalizing under a vigorous sky the most useful vegetables and the most productive grains, importing continually into the countries they colonized animals of better breed, or plants new and unknown there before; here introducing the rearing of cattle and horses, there bees or fruit; in another place the brewing of beer with hops; in Sweden, the corn trade; in Burgundy, artificial pisciculture; in Ireland, salmon fisheries; in Parma, cheese making. They taught the necessity of letting the land be fallow for a time after several years of continuous cropping; they practiced rotation of crops, using clover as the last in the series; they improved the different varieties of fruits and learned the art of grafting, budding and layering; they taught by precept and example the value of drainage and irrigation. In short, in everything making for progressive agriculture we find them blazing the way ...  It was the monks of Fulda who started the celebrated vineyards of Johannesburg, the Cistercian monks that of Clos Vougeot. The Benedictines brought vines from Beaune to plant on the banks of the Allier. The monks of Mozat set out walnut trees, still so abundant in Lower Auvergne … it was the monks of the abbeys of St. Laurent and St. Martin who first brought together and conducted to Paris the waters of springs wasting themselves on the meadows of St. Gervais and Belleville; and in Lombardy it was the followers of St. Bernard who taught the peasants the art of irrigation, and made that country the most fertile and the richest in Europe.[12]

The monks shared what they knew with local communities — teaching them agricultural methods. Indeed, as historian Alexander Clarence Flick notes, “every Benedictine monastery was an agricultural college for the whole region in which it was located”.[13]

The monks’ efforts also inspired others to return to agriculture, when its practice reached a low ebb after the fall of Rome. As people saw the monks digging ditches and plowing fields, they once more turned back to agricultural practice. As historian Woods notes:

In many cases, the monks’ good example inspired others, particularly the great respect and honor they showed toward manual labor in general and agriculture in particular.[14]

Ultimately, the efforts of the monks in this area were so substantial that historian Francois Guizot referred to them as “the agriculturists of Europe”.[15] Historian Henry Hallam likewise comments that “[w]e owe the agricultural restoration of a great part of Europe to the monks”.[16]

Medieval monks farming

B. Innovation and Technological Achievement

The innovation and technological achievement of the monks went beyond agriculture. As noted by French historians Gregoire et al:

In effect, whether it be the mining of salt, lead, iron, alum, or gypsum, or metallurgy, quarrying marble, running cutler’s shops and glassworks, or forging metal plates, also known as firebacks, there was no activity at all in which the monks did not display creativity and a fertile spirit of research. Utilizing their labor force, they instructed and trained it to perfection. Monastic know-how spread throughout Europe.[17]

The best example of how impressive the monks were in terms of technology however, would be the Cistercians, a reform-minded Benedictine order who were especially known for their technological sophistication.

The Cistercians impressively employed waterpower in their communities, greatly improving their productivity. They used it for crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning, among other activities, and this technology of theirs spread across Europe. As noted by historian Jean Gimpel:

[The Cistercians] played a role in the diffusion of new techniques, for the high level of their agricultural technology was matched by their industrial technology. Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor.[18]

These “complex sequences” says historian Landes, were “designed to make the most of the waterpower available and distribute it through a series of industrial operations”.[19] Ultimately, The Cistercians were so impressive activity-wise that historian Gimpel commented  that their monasteries “were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time”.[20] The Cistercians were the first in wool production in England and the top iron producers in England and France.[21]

The monks also boasted skillful clock-makers among their ranks (time was important to the monks due to their strict prayer schedule). Gerbert of Aurillac, a monk, renowned scholar and future Pope Sylvester II, holds the honor of building the first recorded clock in 996 AD, for the German town of Magdeburg.[22] Even more sophisticated clocks were built by later monks. Richard of Wallingford for example, a 14th century abbot, designed a large astronomical clock for his monastery, the Benedictine abbey of Saint Albans. This clock was so impressive that it has been said that a clock that matched it in technological sophistication did not exist for at least two centuries.[23]

The monks also aided their fellowmen in a significant way by serving as technical advisers. Since they were adept in technical matters, the monks were approached by people for advice on these issues. As noted by historians Gregoire, Moulin and Ourself, the monks were “the skillful and unpaid technical advisers of the third world of their times —that is to say, Europe after the invasion of the barbarians”.[24]

Other innovations by the monks also testify to their ingenuity. Champagne was innovated by Benedictine monks from the abbey of Saint-Hilaire, France, in 1531. A century later, a monk by the name of Dom Perignon made important contributions to the making of champagne. The fundamental principles he established continue to govern the production of champagne today.[25] In the area of music, Guido of Arezzo, another Benedictine monk, invented modern staff notation and the learning technique “ut–re–mi–fa–sol–la”, deriving these pitches from a hymn to John the Baptist.[26] In time, this learning technique would be slightly altered to today’s “do-re-mi” (“ut” was changed to “do” and “ti” was added). Another innovation of the monks, and a critical one, was the Carolingian Miniscule — which introduced the use of lowercase letters, spaces between words and the use of question marks in writing.[27] This innovation had a great impact on readability, and was crucial in building the literacy of Western civilization. The scripts prior to the Carolingian miniscule were difficult to read and write. In addition to this, a variety of scripts also existed due to regional isolation. This made it difficult for people to decipher what what their counterparts in other regions were saying. For these reasons, the introduction of the Carolingian Miniscule was of great importance.[28] As stated by historian Philippe Wolff:

It would be no exaggeration to link this development with that of printing itself as the two decisive steps in the growth of a civilization on the written world.[29]

C. The Intellectual Life

1. Collection, Preservation and Copying of Manuscripts

A critical contribution of the monks in terms of learning is their collection, preservation and copying of ancient manuscripts. As mentioned earlier, after the fall of Rome, intellectual and cultural life was severely disrupted. Learning and scholarship reached a low ebb and warring and chaos threatened the survival of works of antiquity. During this period, the monks carried out vigorous efforts to preserve classical learning — saving as many ancient works as they could. First, they sought out books. As noted by historian Woods:

Throughout the history of monasticism we find abundant evidence of the devotion of monks to their books. Saint Benedict Biscop, for example, who established the monastery of Wearmouth in England, searched far and wide for volumes for his monastic library, embarking on five sea voyages for the purpose (and coming back each time with a sizable cargo). Lupus asked a fellow abbot for an opportunity to copy Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, and implored another friend to bring him Sallust’s accounts of the Catilinarian and Jugurthan Wars, the Verrines of Cicero, and any other volume that might be of interest. He asked to borrow Cicero’s De Rhetorica from another friend, and appealed to the pope for a copy of Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutions, and other texts. Gerbert possessed a like enthusiasm for books, offering to assist another abbot in completing incomplete copies of Cicero and the philosopher Demosthenes, and seeking copies of Cicero’s Verrines and De Republica.[30]

Of course, in addition to seeking out books, the monks preserved them — by safekeeping them in their monastery’s library. They also carried out heroic efforts in copying classical texts, ensuring their survival and spread across the former Empire. These efforts took place in a monastery’s scriptoria, a room dedicated to the copying of written texts.[31] It must be noted that copying ancient manuscripts was no easy task. Inscribed on one monastic manuscript are the words: “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor; but though three fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary”.[32]

In order to better appreciate the efforts of the monks, we can look to Alcuin of York, who oversaw a major monastic copyist effort in the Carolingian Empire in the 8th century. According to historian David Knowles, Alcuin “insisted on the necessity of good copies of all the best models in the field of textbooks”.[33] This resulted in a “great age” of copying, the effects of which would reverberate down the centuries — almost any classical text that survived until the Carolingian Renaissance has survived until today.[34]

We can also look at the major efforts carried out in the 11th century at the mother monastery of the Benedictine order, Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino enjoyed a cultural revival during this period. In addition to the outpouring of artistic and intellectual endeavor at this monastery, a number of texts were collected, preserved copied and saved from being lost to history. As historian Thomas Goldstein notes:

At one swoop a number of texts were recovered which might have otherwise been lost forever; to this one monastery in this one period we owe the preservation of the later Annals and Histories of Tacitus (Plate XIV), the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De lingua latina, Frontinus’ De aquis, and thirty-odd lines of Juvenal’s sixth satire that are not to be found in any other manuscript.[35]

Ultimately, the value of the monks’ collecting, preserving and copying efforts were inestimable. They preserved classical learning during the turbulent period after the fall of Rome. As historian Dawson notes:

It was the monks who kept the light of learning from being extinguished.[36]

2. Education and Scholarship

Catholic monasteries were also centers of education and monks themselves would set up schools within their monastery complex.  As Woods states:

Although the extent of the practice varied over the centuries, monks were teachers. Saint John Chrysostom tells us that already in his day (c. 347-407) it was customary for people in Antioch to send their sons to be educated by the monks. Saint Benedict instructed the sons of Roman nobles. Saint Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany, and in England Saint Augustine [of Canterbury] and his monks set up schools wherever they went. Saint Patrick is given credit for encouraging Irish scholarship, and the Irish monasteries would develop into important centers of learning, dispensing instruction to monks and laymen alike.[37]

Certain monasteries were also known for their specialization in particular branches of knowledge.[38] Lectures in medicine, for example, were given by the monks of Saint Benigus at Dijon. The monastery of Saint Gall had a school of painting and engraving, and lectures on the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic languages could be heard at certain German monasteries.

Monastic schools and learning played a crucial role in the early Middle Ages because they were virtually responsible for preserving literacy itself (until cathedral schools became prevalent after the Carolingian Renaissance).[39]

When it comes to the effectiveness of the monks as educators, their effectiveness stemmed from the fact that they loved learning. The monks had a strong devotion to their books. This is captured well by a saying from a monk at Muri: “Without study and without books, the life of a monk is nothing”.[40] This love for learning not only enabled monks to be capable teachers. It also allowed them to be good scholars — they produced valuable intellectual works of their own. The monks were also educators in a different sense. Since they were learned men, the monks were also individuals whose advice was sought after, even among emperors and kings.

A great example of all this is Gerbert of Aurillac. As a teacher, Gerbert taught his students logic and brought them to an appreciation of the classics such as Horace, Juvenal, Lucan, Perseus, Terence, Statius and Virgil. As a scholar, he produced a number of works on mathematics. He also helped popularize Arabic numerals into the West by incorporating them into the Abacus, resulting in a more efficient instrument (his modified abacus used beads with numbers inscribed on them, rather than having each of the beads represent a single unit).[41] German king-emperor Otto III also sought out Gerbert for both education and advice on how to govern his Empire. As he wrote the monk in a letter:

Come and help me. Correct what has been ill done and advise me on the proper government of the Empire … encourage the things I have inherited from my Greek forebears. Expound the book of arithmetic which you sent me.[42]

Another notable example is Alcuin of York (who was himself, the pupil of another esteemed monk-scholar, Saint Bede the Venerable). In 781, Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, met Alcuin on a trip to Italy. Impressed by his intellect, Charlemagne invited him to serve at his court, a decision that would literally change the course of history. Alcuin strongly believed in education, a view shared by Charlemagne. The importance these men gave education stemmed from religious conviction. They both saw education as essential to the cultivation of a robust Christian society.[43] As a result, they strove to strongly promote it. Charlemagne issued legislation requiring bishops and abbots to organize schools in their bishophorics (i.e. cathedral schools) and monasteries, causing centers of learning to sprout across the Carolingian Empire. These schools were based on the seven liberal arts (i.e. astronomy, music, arithmetic, geometry, logic, grammar and rhetoric).[44] Alcuin himself also oversaw a great monastic effort to spread classical learning through the copying of ancient manuscripts. Charlemagne, with Alcuin as his chief adviser for “all matters related to education” in his Empire, would usher in a critical period and turning point in the Middle Ages, the Carolingian Renaissance. During this period, cultural and intellectual activity flourished within the Carolingian Empire. The intellectual legacy of the Carolingian Renaissance would also be permanent and leave a lasting mark on the West as a whole. After the Carolingian Renaissance, the Church began to focus more and more on education and truly assume the position of educator of Europe. When it comes to academic life, Alcuin was the headmaster of the cathedral school at York. As a teacher, he primarily dedicated his energies to teaching Latin, since knowledge of the language made possible both the study of the Church fathers and the classical world of Rome. As a scholar, Alcuin produced a number of works on theology, logic, grammar and rhetoric. He also served as a close advisor to Charlemagne.[45]

3. Conclusion: The Intellectual Life

In the end, the monks played an essential role in preserving classical learning and cultivating Europe’s intellectual life. As noted by atheist history writer Tim O’Neill and historian Alexander Clarence Flick:

The institution which managed to keep this faltering [Greco-Roman] tradition from dying out altogether during these centuries of barbarian invasion and disintegration was actually the one the Enlightenment myth (wrongly) blames for causing the decline in the first place. The Christian church.[46]

[The monks] not only established the schools, and were the schoolmasters in them, but also laid the foundations for the universities. They were the thinkers and philosophers of the day and shaped political and religious thought. To them, both collectively and individually, was due the continuity of thought and civilization of the ancient world with the later Middle Ages and with the modern world.[47]

Monk in scriptorium
Illuminated manuscripts were done by monks usually on religious texts. This one (ca. 1410 AD) is found in a Book of Hours, a Christian devotional, and depicts the Annunciation of Mary

D. Charity

Christian monasteries were also known for their charitable work, which they carried out in a remarkable number of ways. 

They provided free food and lodging to travelers and the poor, following the rule of St. Benedict: “All guests who come shall be received as though they were Christ”.[48] 

Monastic communities also gave alms to the poor and sought them out. Certain monks called “almoners” were given the task of seeking the poor in the surrounding areas of the monastery and providing them with alms.[49]

Monasteries also provided relief during droughts.[50] The monks would store up waters from springs and distribute them to local communities during these times, an act appreciated by them.

The monks also provided free medical care for the sick.[51] Hospital buildings were set up within the monastery complex and run by members of the community. As noted by leading historian of medicine Guenter Risse:

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, monasteries gradually became the providers of organized medical care not available elsewhere in Europe for several centuries. Given their organization and location, these institutions were virtual oases of order, piety and stability in which healing could flourish. To provide these caregiving practices, monasteries also became sites of medical learning between the fifth and tenth centuries, the classic period of so-called monastic medicine.[52]

Commenting further on monastic medical care, historian A.C. Crombie states:

Medicine was studied at the earliest Benedictine monasteries and the long series of medical works written during the Middle Ages, and continuing without a break into the 16th century and modern times, is one of the best examples of a tradition in which empirical observations were increasingly combined with attempts at rational and theoretical explanation, with the result that definite medical and surgical problems were solved.[53]

Monasteries also provided residence for poor communities.  Monasteries were generous and easy land-lords, making land available at low rents and for leases of long duration.[54] This is why Henry VII’s decision to outlaw Catholicism, dissolve the monasteries, and distribute their lands to rock bottom prices to men of influence in his realm ended up hurting the poor in England greatly. As noted by historian Philip Hughes, the dissolution of English monasteries resulted in “ruin to scores of thousands of the poorest of the peasantry, the breakup of the small communities which were their world, and a future that was truly beggar”.[55] Historians Reynolds and Wilson also note how the new owners of the monastic lands (replacing the monks) managed them in manner that was purely business:

The new owners [of these lands], shopkeepers, bankers or needy noblemen…exploited their lands in a spirit that was solely business-like. Rents were increased, arable land converted to pasture and large areas enclosed. Thousands of unemployed farm hands were thrown on to the streets. Social distinctions became accentuated and pauperism increased in an alarming fashion.[56]

The loss felt by the poor by the dissolution of the monasteries is reflected in a petition of an English commoner to the King:

[T]he experience which we have had by those [monastic] houses that already be suppressed shows plainly unto us that a great hurt & decay is thereby come & hereafter shall come to this your realm & great impoverishing of many your poor obedient subjects, for lack of hospitality & good householding that was wont in them to be kept to the great relief of the poor people of all the [areas] adjoining the said monasteries.[57]

Ultimately, The loss of monastic charity was so felt by the English people that it resulted in a popular uprising known today as “The Pilgrimage of Grace”. Historian Claire Cross describes this uprising as “the most serious of all Tudor rebellions”.[58]

Historian Thomas Woods also notes other ways through which monasteries provided charity:

In some cases, the monks were even known to make efforts to track down poor souls who, lost or alone after dark, found themselves in need of emergency shelter. At Aubrac, for example, where a monastic hospital had been established amid the mountains of the Rouergue in the late sixteenth century, a special bell rang every night to call to any wandering traveler or to anyone overtaken by the intimidating forest darkness. The people dubbed it “the bell of the wanderers”.

In a similar vein, it was not unusual for monks living near the sea to establish contrivances for warning sailors of perilous obstacles or for nearby monasteries to make provision for shipwrecked men in need of lodging. It has been said that the city of Copenhagen owes its origin to a monastery established by its founder, Bishop Absalon, which catered to the needs of the shipwrecked. In Scotland, at Arbroath, the abbots fixed a floating bell on a notoriously treacherous rock on the Forfarshire coast. Depending on the tide, the rock could be scarcely visible, and many a sailor had been frightened at the prospect of striking it. The waves caused the bell to sound, thereby warning sailors of danger ahead. To this day, the rock is known as “Bell Rock.” Such examples constituted only a small part of the concern that monks showed for the people who lived in their environs; they also contributed to the building or repair of bridges, roads, and other such features of the medieval infrastructure.[59]

In the end, monasteries were great sources of charity. They were, “the patrimony of the poor”.[60] As historian W.E.H. Lecky commented on the charitable activities of the monks:

As time rolled on, charity assumed many forms, and every monastery became a center from which it radiated. By the monks the nobles were overawed, the poor protected, the sick tended, travelers sheltered, prisoners ransomed, the remotest spheres of suffering explored.[61]

E. Impact on Europe

In order to more fully grasp how big of an impact the monks had on Medieval Christendom, one must look at the numbers, since the monastic movement was very popular during the period. The most prominent order, the Benedictines, numbered 37,000+ communities at their peak.[62] Based on a 12th century report, we also know that the Cistercian order numbered 742 communities at that time.[63] Other medieval monastic orders include the Cluniacs, Carthusians, Premonstratensians, Beguines and Beghards.[64] Ultimately, monasteries dotted the lands of Christendom and gave life to Europe and its people.

The life, spirituality and order cultivated in monasteries would also bear great fruit for the Church. By the fourteenth century, the Benedictine order supplied the Church with 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops, 15,000 bishops and 1,500 canonized saints.[65]  The monastic ideal was so looked up to, the tradition so prominent within society, that by the fourteenth century, the order had already enrolled many members of royalty including kings, queens, princes and princesses.[66] Even the various barbarian groups were attracted to the monastic life, and leaders among them such as Carloman of the Franks and Rochis of the Lombards eventually pursued it themselves.[67] As historian Woods notes:

Thus a great many of Europe’s most powerful would come to pursue the humble life and spiritual regimen of the Benedictine order.[68]

Another important aspect about monastic communities was that they possessed “extraordinary recuperative power”.[69] Its members could work quickly and dramatically to repair the destruction brought about by invasion and political collapse. As stated by historian Dawson:

Ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt and the monks killed or driven out, and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor, and the desolate sites could be repeopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up again the broken tradition, following the same rule, singing the same liturgy, reading the same books and thinking the same thoughts as their predecessors. In this way monasticism and the monastic culture came back to England and Normandy in the age of Saint Dunstan from Fleury and Ghent after more than a century of utter destruction [as a result of Viking invasions]; with the result that a century later, the Norman and English monasteries were again among the leaders of Western Culture.[70]

Looking into the history of Monte Cassino, we see an example of the endurance of the monastic tradition. As historian Woods notes:

During a period of great turmoil, the Benedictine tradition endured, and its houses remained oases of order and peace. It has been said of Monte Cassino, the motherhouse of the Benedictines, that her own history reflected that permanence. Sacked by the barbarian Lombards in 589, destroyed by the Saracens in 884, razed by an earthquake in 1349, pillaged by French troops in 1799, and wrecked by the bombs of World War II in 1944— Monte Cassino refused to disappear, as each time her monks returned to rebuild.[71]

The contributions of the monks to civilization are immense. They were indispensable to the revival of civilization after the fall of Rome. In the late 19th century, the Count and historian de Montalembert wrote a six-volume history of the monks of the West. In his work, he complained every now and then of his inability to provide anything more than a cursory overview of great figures and deeds, and could only refer his readers to the references in his footnotes.[72]

In concluding the contributions of the monks to humanity, we may turn to the study of historians Gregoire, Moulin and Oursel, The Monastic Realm. In it they note that the monks gave “the whole of Europe . . . a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, spiritual fervor, the art of living … readiness for social action — in a word … advanced civilization that emerged from the chaotic waves of surrounding barbarity. Without any doubt, Saint Benedict [the most important architect of Western monasticism] was the Father of Europe. The Benedictines, his children, were the Fathers of European civilization”.[73]

III. The Hospital Revolution

A. The Invention of Hospitals for the General Public

Another gift of Christianity to the world was the innovation of hospitals for the general public (i.e. hospitals as we know them today).[74]  Hospital-like establishments called valetudinaria existed in the ancient Roman Empire but these only catered to soldiers, and in some cases, to slaves of wealthy families. The only civilian valetudinaria that existed were those privately built by very wealthy Roman households in the countryside. These were rare and existed only for that family. This practice also seems to have ended by 80 AD. Healing shrines also existed in ancient Rome but these places did not provide healing through medical care but through religious ritual. In ancient Rome, the general population was not served by healthcare facilities. This would change once the Empire became Christian. As noted by historian of medicine Ann Hanson:

The general public was not serviced by hospital facilities until the empire had become Christian and charity for the sick and dying was considered part of the Christian’s duty.[75]

A few decades after Christianity was legalized by Constantine, the first hospital that served the general public was established by St. Basil in 369 AD. Basil was a well-educated lawyer and son of a wealthy family. After converting to Christianity, he decided to dedicate his energies and fortune to Christ. He began building a large complex on the outskirts of Caesara (located in modern day Turkey) for the poor and the sick. One of the buildings in this complex would end up becoming the first hospital for the general public. As noted by agnostic historian Tom Holland:

Other Christian leaders before him had built ptocheia or ‘poor houses’ — but none on such an ambitious scale. The Basileias, as it came to be known, was described by one awe-struck admirer as a veritable city, and incorporated, as well as shelter for the poor, what was in effect the first hospital.[76]

The efforts of St. Basil would be quickly emulated by other Christians, to the point that by the fifth century, hospitals were ubiquitous in the Christian East (the Middle East, especially Asia Minor).[77] In time, this revolution would sweep the West (Europe) as well — resulting in hospitals being ubiquitous throughout Christendom, in major cities and modest villages alike.[78] Being institutions of charity, the services provided at these hospitals were free. They were also run mostly by monks and nuns. Scholar Pieter Willem van der Horst comments on Christian hospitals in detail:

For reasons of space, I now skip a discussion of developments in second and third century Christianity and turn briefly to an important and interesting new form of Christian charity in the fourth century [(the century Christianity was legalized in the Empire)], the care for the sick and the creation of hospitals … It would seem that such a system is a Christian innovation, for it cannot be regarded as a part of the Graeco-Roman heritage in early Christianity either. To be true, in the Roman Empire we do find on a small scale health centers (valetudinaria, infirmaries) for specific groups, for instance courtiers, soldiers, or gladiators, but no hospitals with health care … As a rule, it can be said that we have no evidence from Graeco-Roman antiquity of any institutionalized care for the sick, let alone the sick who were poor. It was the family or household that was the main locus of health care in pagan antiquity. For the poor in need of health care there were very few options beyond the family. In this respect, it is important to notice that from the beginning Christian communities (including monastic communities) regarded themselves as surrogate families for everyone, including the poor and the destitute. The first hospitals in the full sense of the word came into being in the fourth century when Christian pilgrim hostelries (xenodocheia) opened their doors also for poor and ill pilgrims for free treatment. But what began as mixed institutions, for healthy and ill alike, was soon transformed into more specialized institutions for treatment of health problems (nosokomeia), with doctors and nurses, although this development took place mainly in the Eastern part of the Empire, especially in Egypt and Asia Minor, only much later in the West. Since pilgrim hostelries were usually buildings under the supervision of abbots or bishops, it was most often clergymen who helped to create, or who initiated this new form of health care. Most often hospitals were part of a monastery (complex). The reason for this is simple. “The monastic health care system, as a social system, by definition entails the actions and interactions of participants in a social organization.” … What began at a modest scale in the fourth century developed into a large world-wide network of Christian hospitals, a development of which we can still see the heritage up till the present day … [the healthcare provided at these institutions] was offered for free, which was unprecedented in the ancient world.[79]

Ultimately, Christianity was responsible for the “second medical revolution” — the innovation of hospitals for the general public, their spread across the East and West and the establishment of the study of medicine in the universities of Europe (as we shall see in part two of this series, the university developed out of the Church’s cathedral schools). As noted by scholar Albert Jonson:

The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.[80]

In addition to hospitals, Christian leper houses (“lazar houses”) also began to emerge in the 4th century.[82]  This was a heroic development since workers at these institutions had to face the fear of contracting the disease, the putrid smell of festering sores, and the sight of putrefying flesh. In addition to all these, workers at these institutions knew that there was no real cure to offer. The caretakers at lazar houses had a double purpose, to care for these outcasts and make sure that they were as comfortable as possible, and to attend to their spiritual needs.  By the 5th century, lazar houses in Europe and Asia already numbered over a thousand.[83]

Monks tending the sick

B. Saint John’s: A Model of Charity and Excellence

One other development in the history of medieval healthcare worth noting is the establishment of poor house-hostel in Jerusalem in 1080 by the Knights of Saint John (also known as the Knights Hospitaller), a Christian military organization. This institution would eventually became an impressive hospital. Before discussing what made this hospital significant in the history of healthcare, let us go through the institution’s history. 

The institution in Jerusalem founded by the Knights of Saint John was initially established to provide for the poor and render safe and secure lodging for pilgrims. After Godfrey of Bouillon donated a string of properties to the institution, its operations expanded significantly. This institution had many admirers, whose praise for it was documented in writing. Fr. John of Würzburg and a pilgrim named Theoderic for example, commented the following after witnessing what took place at this institution.

The house feeds so many individuals outside and within, and it gives so huge an amount of alms to poor people, either those who come to the door, or those who remain outside, that certainly the total expenses can in no way be counted, even by the managers and dispensers of this house.[84]

[G]oing through the palace we could in no way judge the number of people who lay there, but we saw a thousand beds. No king nor tyrant would be powerful enough to maintain daily the great number fed in this house.[85]

An important development for the institution would come when Raymond du Puy was elected as its administrator in 1120. Du Puy placed a dramatic emphasis on service to the sick and expected the staff to carry out radical service.[86] As stated in article sixteen of his code regarding the administration of the hospital — “How Our Lords the Sick Should be Received and Served”: “…when the sick man shall come…let him be received thus: let him partake of the Holy Sacrament, first having confessed his sins to the priest, and afterwards let him be carried to bed, and there as if he were a Lord”.[87] It was after du Puy became administrator that the institution became to look more and more like a hospital. Under his watch, its mission became more specifically defined as the care of the sick. The hospital was also impressive for being excellently run. As historian Woods notes:

Saint John’s was also impressive for its professionalism, organization, and strict regimen. Modest surgeries were carried out. The sick received twice-daily visits from physicians, baths and two main meals per day. The hospital workers were not permitted to eat until the patients had been fed. A female staff was on hand to perform other chores and ensured that the sick had clean clothes and bed linens.[88]

The example put forward by Saint John inspired a significant number of similar institutions to emerge across Europe. As stated by historian of medicine Guenter Risse:

Not surprisingly, the new stream of pilgrims, [following du Puy’s decree,] to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and their testimonials concerning the charity of the Hospitallers of Saint John spread rapidly throughout Europe, including England. The existence of a religious order that strongly expressed its fealty to the sick inspired the creation of a network of similar institutions, especially at ports of embarkation in Italy and southern France where pilgrims assembled.[89]

As Woods notes, the sophisticated organization of Saint John’s, coupled with its intense spirit of service to the sick, ended up serving as a model for many similar charitable institutions in Europe.[90] By the 13th century, the Hospitallers were running around twenty healthcare facilities (including leper houses).[91]

To proceed to part 2 of this series, click here.


  1. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:

    I know this is a Quora post but I’m quoting it because of the author, Tim O’Neill, who is a highly acclaimed history writer. His “History for Atheists” blog has been praised by scholars such as Tim Whitmarsh, Tom Holland and James F. McGrath.
  2. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  3. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  4. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from: See also Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 9
  5. Durant, Caesar and Christ, pg. 79
  6. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages. Retrieved from:
  7. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 25
  8. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 65
  9. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 30
  10. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 31-32
  11. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  12. Goodell, H. (1910). The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization. Retrieved from:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-
  13. . Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, pg. 223
  14. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  15. See John Henry Newman, Essays and Sketches, vol. 3, Charles Frederick Harrold, ed. Pg. 264-265.
  16. Hallam, Middle Ages, III, pg. 436
  17. Reginald Gregoire, Leo Moulin, and Raymond Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 271
  18. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, pg. 67
  19. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, pg. 58.
  20. Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe, pg. 57
  21. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 65
  22. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 36
  23. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 36
  24. Oursel: Reginald Gregoire, Leo Moulin, and Raymond Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 271
  25. O’Connor, Monasticism and Civilization, pgs. 35-36
  26. Barnes, M. (2011). 5 More Things No One Knows Are Ridiculously Catholic, But Should. Retrieved from:
  27. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 18
  28. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 18
  29. Philippe Wolff, The Awakening of Europe, pg. 57
  30. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 43
  31. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 40
  32. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 39
  33. David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, 2nd ed., pg. 69
  34. Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pg. 18
  35. Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 3rd ed., pgs. 109-110
  36. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 22
  37. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 44
  38. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 41-42
  39. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 5
  40. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 43
  41. Hannam, God’s Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science, pg. 28
  42. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 23
  43. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 210-213
  44. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 17-18
  45. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 209-210
  46. O’Neill, T. (2020). “Why did science make little progress in Europe in the Middle Ages, par. 12. Retrieved from:
  47. Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, pgs. 222-223
  48. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 38
  49. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 185
  50. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 31
  51. van der Horst, “Organized Charity in the Ancient World: Pagan, Jewish, Christian in Jewish and Christian Communal Identities in the Roman World, pgs. 129-132)
  52. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pg. 95
  53. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 67
  54. Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, pg. 112
  55. Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, pg. 205
  56. Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 3rd ed, pg. 83
  57. Montalembert, The Monks of the West: From Saint Benedict to Saint Bernard, vol. 5, 227-228
  58. Cross, C. (2009). Participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Retrieved from:,Participants%20in%20the%20Pilgrimage%20of%20Grace%20(act.,in%20the%20autumn%20of%201536.
  59. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 38-39
  60. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 184
  61. Lecky, History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne, vol. 1, pg. 89
  62. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  63. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 33
  64. A Quick Guide to Medieval Monastic Orders. Retrieved from:
  65. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  66. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  67. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  68. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  69. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pg. 66
  70. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, pg. 66
  71. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 28
  72. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 45
  73. Gregoire, Moulin and Oursel, The Monastic Realm, pg. 277
  74. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 176
  75.  Hanson, A Companion to the Roman Empire, 492-523, esp. 505)
  76. Holland, How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, pgs. 142
  77. Nutton, Ancient Medicine, pgs. 306-307
  78. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 180
  79. van der Horst, “Organized Charity in the Ancient World: Pagan, Jewish, Christian in Jewish and Christian Communal Identities in the Roman World, pgs. 129-132)
  80. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 148
  81. Albert Jonson. A Short History of Medical Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2000, 13
  82. Faithful Philosophy. The Christian Origins of Modern Universities and Hospitals. Retrieved from:
  83. Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, pg. 149
  84. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 178
  85. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pg. 138
  86. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 178
  87. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 178-179
  88. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pgs. 179-180
  89. Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals, pgs. 141-142
  90. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, pg. 180
  91. Margotta, The History of Medicine, Paul Lewis, ed., pg. 149.

Correcting Historical Misconceptions Against Christianity

What the world would look like without Christianity according to the TV series Family Guy (season 8, episode 1) — an example of bad history being promoted in popular culture. Among historians, the idea that the Church suppressed science in the Middle Ages has been long debunked.

Popular culture (Hollywood, Netflix, popular personalities, the media — you name it!) often trots out narratives and claims such as the Church being hostile to science in the Middle Ages, the medieval period being a period of backwardness and ignorance, the Crusades being driven by power and greed, Christmas hijacking Saturnalia, a pagan winter festival, etc. How accurate are these though? What is true and what is false?

In this post, I will list several articles by acclaimed history writer Tim O’Neill to “set the record straight” on these subjects. Although O’Neill is an atheist, he puts good history first. He is frustrated by the amount of bad history that gets promoted in atheist and skeptical circles as well as in popular culture in general. His blog, History for Atheists, communicates the findings of contemporary secular scholarship (which unfortunately, have not sufficiently penetrated popular culture) on different historical events related to Christianity. His blog has also been highly praised by scholars, with historian Tom Holland for example, calling his blog “brilliantly erudite”.[1] 

Personally, I am a big fan of O’Neill. His write-ups are very educational and a pleasure to read. I strongly recommend checking out his work!

Feel free to check out the following articles by O’Neill below.


  1. See the sidebar of O’Neill’s blog for Holland’s endorsement. Retrieved from:
  2. I took a picture of the relevant portion of the article because it is located deep within O’Neill’s article, which is long. If you want to access the article in full you may do so here.