Science in the Dark Ages


In 1992, the Roman Catholic Church officially admitted to erring in condemning Galileo Galilei, a 17th-century Italian astronomer, who maintained that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo Galilei observed the moon and Mars with the telescope he invented, and his experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa became a cornerstone of modern physics. He is called the father of modern science for his contribution to the new physical science. But he was brought to trial because he advocated the Copernican heliocentrism, and in 1633 he was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. It took nearly 400 years for him to be reinstated.

The Loss of Right and Wrong

Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, the representative French Enlightenment thinkers, perceived the Middle Ages as a dark period of human history. Being overwhelmed by the power of the papacy, which was strong enough to make an emperor kneel down in the snow, the European society lost the ability to tell right from wrong. In a complete darkness without a steak of light, the papal Inquisition executed those who did not follow the Catholic Church, denouncing them as heretics. The witch-hunt during the 16th and 17th centuries was a good example.

The age of darkness gave no room for the truth of God, and even all knowledge was under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Knowledge only existed to support the Church’s ideas. True to its name “Catholic” which means universal, they accepted everything that suited its taste. If people went against the papacy, however, even the truth was persecuted and scientific knowledge was no exception.

In the 4th century, when Augustine—one of the medieval philosopher—lived, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. With the pretext to help people understand the Catholic doctrine, Augustine established Patristic philosophy by accepting the theories and ideas of Plato who was an ancient Greek philosopher.

In the 12th century, the Catholic doctrine developed from Patristic philosophy to Scholastic philosophy. It was compiled by Thomas Aquinas. He inherited the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s idea and set up Scholasticism, and contributed to Greek philosophy’s becoming part of Catholic doctrines. This brought Ptolemy’s geocentric theory, which succeeded Aristotle’s view of the world, to be the truth and anything contrasting to it was not accepted.

Copernican Revolution

The trial of Galileo was mainly caused by Copernican heliocentric theory. In the time when the geocentric theory, which was established by Ptolemy the Greek astronomer, was dominant, Copernicus, who was a theologian and astronomer, had doubts about complex explanations with many circles of geocentricism and tried to set up another idea about the universe which was created by God in a simple and logical manner. Yet it was a dangerous attempt to deny the geocentric theory created by Aristotle.

As he observed stars, he was more assured of heliocentric theory—planets revolve around the sun, not the earth. So he published a book that briefly explained his new astronomical system and distributed it to astronomers. Some of them opposed it, saying that it was a wicked theory that contradicted the Bible—the Catholic doctrine, actually and exactly. As Copernicus was conscious of their objection, he put off publishing his book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” even after he finished it.

Just a few days before his death, the book got into print, and he added the preface explaining that the new system was to “provide a correct basis for calculation” in order to avoid criticism. Thanks to the preface stating that it was just a conceptual tool and not a real description of the universe, it was excluded from the list of banned books for a while.

Copernican theory was not only attacked by the Catholics but also by the Protestants. Martin Luther did not hesitate to call Copernicus a fool who thought the earth was moving. As Christianity stood up to it, there were only a handful of people who supported the heliocentric theory up until the 17th century. In 1616, 70 years after its publication, the book was banned by the papacy and gave cause for Galileo’s trial.

Ptolemaic Geocentric Model
Source: By Fastfission [Wikimedia Commons], via Public domain
Copernican Heliocentric Model
Source: [Wikimedia Commons], via Public domain

The Italian scholar Giordano Bruno was among the ones who agreed with the Copernican heliocentric theory before Galileo. He once entered a monastery, but he felt skeptical toward Catholicism and Protestantism that followed the same old manners of Catholicism. When he learned about the Copernican theory around that time, he boldly argued that the universe was infinite, on the belief that the sun was at the center of the universe.

On the charge of spreading heretical beliefs, he was driven out and lived in exile, traveling many countries and cities. When he was handed over to the Inquisition, he was placed in prison for eight years, but he did not give up on his conviction. In 1600, Pope Clement VIII declared that he was “an unrepentant heretic,” and burned him at the stake. His last words to the judges who were reading the sentence were as follows: “Maybe you who condemn me are in greater fear than I who am condemned.”

Copernican Revolution is now used to refer to a major upside-down in theories and ideas that have been believed. It was a revolutionary theory that shook the foundation built by Ptolemaic system. Heliocentricism was persecuted in particular among many contemporary theories because it turned over the Aristotle’s vision of the universe, which in turn irritated the Catholic Church.

Galileo’s Trial and Scientists Under Persecution

With the telescope he invented, Galileo observed sunspots, the surface of the moon, Venus as a waxing and waning crescent, Jupiter with its companion moons, and had confidence in heliocentricism.

He was accused for spreading heliocentricism and warned to abandon what was “foolish and absurd in philosophy and heretical in theology,” and the Catholic Church banned Copernicus’ book, but he published another book entitled “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” and did not stop advocating heliocentric theory.

The Inquisition summoned the 68-year-old Galileo and convicted him. He was severely tortured to renounce his belief. On June 22, 1633, he made an abject and humiliating confession before the public; he knelt down, apologized, and swore that he would never support the heliocentric theory. By this, his death sentence was reduced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

“And yet it moves.”

This famous quote, which is believed to be said by Galileo when he left the court, appeared after his death, but there wouldn’t be any other words that could speak of his mind precisely than this.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti (1857)
Source: ​Cristiano Banti [Wikimedia Commons], via Public domain

Galileo’s trial influenced many scientists, leaving no room for further discussion about new cosmology. Rene Descartes stated his views about the structure of the universe based upon Copernicus’ theory, but he didn’t announce it, fearing the objections. His book was published after his death.

Johannes Kepler, who was Galileo’s contemporary, supported the Copernican theory as well. Thanks to his close relationship with the emperor, he escaped punishment, but he had to struggle for years as his mother was branded as a witch and was on the verge of being burned at the stake. Roger Bacon, who is thought of as a forerunner of modern science, was imprisoned for ten years and his book was banned for three hundred years because his experimental science was regarded as a miracle with the curse of the devil.

The Catholic Church abolished the Sabbath, the Passover, and other commands of God, making up for them with pagan theories and beliefs. To support their doctrine, they fit the Bible under the Aristotle’s philosophy and set up a concept of the universe that the human-inhabited earth was the center of the universe and that everything had to revolve around the earth.

In the process, the scientific truth was branded as heresy and persecuted because it pointed out the errors of the logic of the Catholic Church. Many scientists yielded to the authority of the Catholic Church and shut their mouths; others who were with their own beliefs had to risk their lives to maintain them.

Darkness can never defeat the light, though. The torch of scientific development, which was ignited by Copernicus, was carried over to Galileo and to Newton. As a prelude to the remarkable development of modern science, there was Scientific Revolution. Many laws and formulas were invented during that period.

The advance of modern science now proves that the Bible is fact. The Dark Ages when there was no light of the truth was truly the age of darkness when even scientific truth was persecuted. By unearthing a fragment of scientific history, we can find the dark shadow of the Catholic Church.

James E. III McClellan, Science and Technology in World History
Jon Balchin, Science: 100 Scientists Who Changed the World