Illuminating medieval science

 

There is a widespread popular vision of the Middle ages, as some sort of black hole of filth, disease, ignorance, brutality, witchcraft and blind devotion to religion. This fairly-tale version of history is actively propagated by authors of popular medieval novels, the film industry and television, it sells well. Within this fantasy the term medieval science is simply an oxymoron, a contradiction in itself, how could there possible be science in a culture of illiterate, dung smeared peasants, fanatical prelates waiting for the apocalypse and haggard, devil worshipping crones muttering curses to their black cats?

Whilst the picture I have just drawn is a deliberate caricature this negative view of the Middle Ages and medieval science is unfortunately not confined to the entertainment industry. We have the following quote from Israeli historian Yuval Harari from his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), which I demolished in an earlier post.

In 1500, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most buildings were constructed of mud, wood and straw; a three-story building was a skyscraper. The streets were rutted dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter, plied by pedestrians, horses, goats, chickens and a few carts. The most common urban noises were human and animal voices, along with the occasional hammer and saw. At sunset, the cityscape went black, with only an occasional candle or torch flickering in the gloom.

On medieval science we have the even more ignorant point of view from American polymath and TV star Carl Sagan from his mega selling television series Cosmos, who to quote the Cambridge History of Medieval Science:

In his 1980 book by the same name, a timeline of astronomy from Greek antiquity to the present left between the fifth and the late fifteenth centuries a familiar thousand-year blank labelled as a “poignant lost opportunity for mankind.” 

Of course, the very existence of the Cambridge History of Medieval Science puts a lie to Sagan’s poignant lost opportunity, as do a whole library full of monographs and articles by such eminent historians of science as Edward Grant, John Murdoch, Michael Shank, David Lindberg, Alistair Crombie and many others.

However, these historians write mainly for academics and not for the general public, what is needed is books on medieval science written specifically for the educated layman; there are already a few such books on the market, and they have now been joined by Seb Falk’s truly excellent The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science.[1]  

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How does one go about writing a semi-popular history of medieval science? Falk does so by telling the life story of John of Westwyk an obscure fourteenth century Benedictine monk from Hertfordshire, who was an astronomer and instrument maker. However, John of Westwyk really is obscure and we have very few details of his life, so how does Falk tell his life story. The clue, and this is Falk’s masterstroke, is context. We get an elaborate, detailed account of the context and circumstances of John’s life and thereby a very broad introduction to all aspects of fourteenth century European life and its science.

We follow John from the agricultural village of Westwyk to the Abbey of St Albans, where he spent the early part of his life as a monk. We accompany some of his fellow monks to study at the University of Oxford, whether John studied with them is not known.

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Gloucester College was the Benedictine College at Oxford where the monks of St Albans studied

We trudge all the way up to Tynemouth on the wild North Sea coast of Northumbria, the site of daughter cell of the great St Alban’s Abbey, main seat of Benedictines in England. We follow John when he takes up the cross and goes on a crusade. Throughout all of his wanderings we meet up with the science of the period, John himself was an astronomer and instrument maker.

Falk is a great narrator and his descriptive passages, whilst historically accurate and correct,[2] read like a well written novel pulling the reader along through the world of the fourteenth century. However, Falk is also a teacher and when he introduces a new scientific instrument or set of astronomical tables, he doesn’t just simply describe them, he teachers the reader in detail how to construct, read, use them. His great skill is just at the point when you think your brain is going to bail out, through mathematical overload, he changes back to a wonderfully lyrical description of a landscape or a building. The balance between the two aspects of the book is as near perfect as possible. It entertains, informs and educates in equal measures on a very high level.

Along the way we learn about medieval astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, cartography, time keeping, instrument making and more. The book is particularly rich on the time keeping and the instruments, as the Abbott of St Albans during John’s time was Richard of Wallingford one of England’s great medieval scientists, who was responsible for the design and construction of one of the greatest medieval church clocks and with his Albion (the all in one) one of the most sophisticated astronomical instruments of all time. Falk’ introduction to and description of both in first class.

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The book is elegantly present with an attractive typeface and is well illustrated with grey in grey prints and a selection of colour ones. There are extensive, informative endnotes and a good index. If somebody reads this book as an introduction to medieval science there is a strong chance that their next question will be, what do I read next. Falk gives a detailed answer to this question. There is an extensive section at the end of the book entitled Further Reading, which gives a section by section detailed annotated reading list for each aspect of the book.

Seb Falk has written a brilliant introduction to the history of medieval science. This book is an instant classic and future generations of schoolkids, students and interested laypeople when talking about medieval science will simply refer to the Falk as a standard introduction to the topic. If you are interested in the history of medieval science or the history of science in general, acquire a copy of Seb Falk’s masterpiece, I guarantee you won’t regret it.

[1] American edition: Seb Falk, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, W. W. Norton & Co., New York % London, 2020

British Edition: Seb Falk, The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discover, Allen Lane, London, 2020

[2] Disclosure: I had the pleasure and privilege of reading the whole first draft of the book in manuscript to check it for errors, that is historical errors not grammatical or orthographical ones, although I did point those out when I stumbled over them.

5 Comments

Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of science, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science

5 responses to “Illuminating medieval science

  1. Pingback: Illuminating medieval science — The Renaissance Mathematicus (Reblog) – The Elloe Recorder

  2. Brilliant post, I will have to get this book. I think we are going to have to revise a lot of our histories. Thank you 🙏🏻

  3. Based on your first paragraph, you could do a good job writing film scripts. Of course, it would be a devil’s bargain…

  4. Jim Harrison

    The Middle Ages have been reinvented many times. The era was idealized in 19th Century England, partly in reaction to its vilification during the Enlightenment; but an imagined, glorified version of chivalry and feudalism had already been constructed during the 15th and 16th Centuries, a process famously described by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in the Waining of the Middle Ages. In pop culture, recent portrayals of the Middle Ages seem to compete to see how grungy and wretched a picture they can paint—the Spamalot version of Camelot—but the cliches reworked in the other direction not so long before and had a long run. “Maidens fair in silk bedecked.” It was expected. As Danny Kaye promised in the prologue to the Court Jester, “Each tried and true effect for the umpteenth time we’ll resurrect.” Obviously, the realities of a thousand years of history have very little to do with either of these canned images. AD 500 was very, very different than AD 1200, and people didn’t always live in ruins. Still, the history of the memory of the past has its own interest distinct from the history of the past itself. That’s a particular interest of mine, but you can’t think about such things very deeply without having some idea of what actually happened. I’ll read Falk’s book precisely for that reason.

  5. Pingback: Seb Falk’s The Light Ages: book review – For Better Science

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