Falk, historian at Cambridge University, makes an auspicious if occasionally hard-going debut with this look at the “scientific life of an unknown monk” in 14th-century England. The cleric, John Westwyk, is known only through a handful of obscure manuscripts dealing with the creation of astronomical tables and instruments. Nonetheless, Falk skillfully uses Westwyk as a vehicle to explore the nature of medieval science, arriving at a number of somewhat surprising conclusions. He argues that medieval Christianity, rather than blocking intellectual progress, “took support from science–and, in turn, spurred its progress”; that the denizens of English monasteries, far from being isolated, were “profoundly influenced” by an “international scientific fraternity of Jews and Muslims, Italians and Germans”; and that the period’s healthy scientific debates contradict the “stereotype of the Middle Ages as an era of scholastic conformity.” He also explains that the “study of the natural world was a fundamental part of medieval life,” and that despite settling on many incorrect answers, medieval scholars made significant advances. Falk spends a great deal of time demonstrating the complex mathematics used to understand astronomical patterns and may lose some of his audience in the process. Nonetheless, his enthusiastically delivered study will entrance those fascinated by the history of science or the Middle Ages. (Nov.)
Compulsive, brilliantly clear, and superbly well-written, The Light Ages is more than just a very good book on medieval science: it’s a charismatic evocation of another world. Seb Falk uses the monk John of Westwyk to weld us into the medieval ways of imagining as well as thinking. And there are surprises galore for everyone, no matter how knowledgeable they may think they are. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Seb Falk has framed a fascinating book around his personal quest to understand how scientific thinking flourished. The Light Ages reveals the intellectual sophistication that flourished against a backdrop of ritual and liturgy. It offers for most of us a novel perspective on a ‘dark’ historical era, and should fascinate a wide readership.
Like a fictional scientist cloning dinosaurs from wisps of DNA, Seb Falk takes barely surviving fragments of evidence about an almost forgotten astronomer in a storm-chilled, clifftop cell to conjure the vast, teeming world of scientific research, practice, and invention in the Late Middle Ages…Profoundly scholarly, wonderfully lucid, and grippingly vivid, The Light Ages will awe the pedants and delight the public.
If you think the term ‘medieval science’ is a contradiction then you should read this hugely enlightening and important book.
A wonderful book, as at home bringing to life the obscure details of a Hertfordshire monk as it is explicating the infinite reaches of space and time. Required reading for anyone who thinks that the Middle Ages were a dark age.
Long before the word ‘scientist’ was coined, John of Westwyk devised a precision instrument to explore the universe and our place in it. Falk recreates the schooling of this ordinary (if gadget-obsessed) medieval monk in loving detail. There’s a world of science on every page.
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Expert account of the medieval era’s scientific developments.
A broadcaster, historian, and lecturer at Cambridge, Falk reminds us that scholars no longer consider the centuries after the fall of Rome as the Dark Ages. Rather, “the medieval reality…is a Light Age of scientific interest and inquiry.” The author concentrates on Europe, where literacy was a church monopoly largely confined to monasteries. The greatest of these were wealthy institutions with branches, libraries, and schools whose scholars took part in an international community, which also included Muslims and Jews. Eschewing historical superstars—Roger Bacon makes a few appearances—Falk builds a story around John Westwyk, an obscure 14th-century monk who composed (or most likely copied) manuscripts on astronomical instruments, designed and built others, and traveled widely, making observations along the way. The author makes a convincing case that medieval times produced major advances in technology, mathematics, and education as well as some correct but many more fanciful explanations of natural phenomenon. Important inventions included spectacles, the compass, and Arabic numerals, but almost all of what passed for research confined itself to a single field: astronomy, which had always included astrology and would do so well into the Enlightenment. Fascinated by the heavens, medieval researchers produced precise descriptions of its movements and detected the minuscule variations in the earthly day and year. Much of this was in the service of astrology and the timing of holy days, but it had genuinely practical use in the creation of calendars. Although lacking telescopes, they designed exquisitely complex clocks and astronomical instruments—astrolabes, armillary spheres, equatoriums—that were both impressively accurate and works of art. Falk excels at bringing alive the personalities, theological doctrines, cosmology, and often cutthroat monastery politics of the era, but most readers will prefer to skim the lengthy descriptions of the construction and operation of medieval astronomical devices.
An impressive chronicle of human progress.