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Medieval Europe’s satanic ciphers: on the genesis of a modern myth. (English) Zbl 1466.01005
The article under review begins with a delicious string of titbits quoted from recent idiocies written by mathematicians, science-writers, history-writers (if this neologism emulating the previous category be allowed) and an evangelical. They are then distilled (p. 110) into these theses: (i) the number zero was feared [in the Middle Ages] for being associated with the Devil; (ii) it was therefore outlawed by church or state (or both); (iii) owing to these prohibitions, zero and Hindu-Arabic numerals were for some time only used under the cover of secrecy.
After this appetizer follows a meticulous history of the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals into Latin Europe, drawing on the best scholarship on the topic from 1865 until today; it can be recommended as an excellent and very full critical bibliography. Slightly more than the final half of the article then traces the origin of the myth, finding this to be an independent parallel to the 19th-century “warfare between science and religion” thesis, going back to an article by Leo Jordan from 1905, a fanciful combination of quixotic or outright false readings of select passages from medieval documents. At first, Jordan’s theses were taken over uncritically but rather peripherally by otherwise decent historians (David Eugene Smith, Louis Karpinski, Charles Singer, Florence Yeldham, Karl Menninger) and embroidered upon by the mathematician Tobias Dantzig and by the biologist and eminent popularizer Lancelot Hogben. Expansion with added free inventions (as the “sending over-keen algorists to the stake”) occurred from 1987 onward, with highly applauded books by mathematician and philosopher Brian Rotman (1987), mathematics teacher Georges Ifrah (1994, the second edition of his Histoire universelle, source of the words just quoted – not so much the cautious first edition), mathematician Robert Kaplan (1999), journalist Dick Teresi and Charles Seife, professor of journalism.
The reviewer adds to this list of writers of problematic books that they have been published (in original or translation) by Penguin Books, Macmillan and Oxford University Press. So much for the quality of presumed peer reviewing by commercial publishers.
MSC:
01A35 History of mathematics in Late Antiquity and medieval Europe
01A85 Historiography
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