The Ages of Light, by Seb Falk
It’s a review I’ve been sitting on for a while, because I’ve been too busy working on my own book to spend a morning writing it. It’s kind of fitting, though, as perhaps the highest praise I can offer Light ages is that it made me want to revise in depth certain sections of my own book in progress.
Light ages is a book on medieval science that to many casual readers seems like an oxymoron. The pot history of human knowledge that most educated people in the United States and Europe are not so much taught as absorbed by the environment is that the period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance was essentially scienceless. The basic story is that the ancient Greeks were good at science, the Romans were great engineers, and then it all went to shit for about a thousand years until Galileo showed up and put everyone clear on the scientific method.
This story, despite its ubiquity, is not even close to being true. True, the medieval period lacked the spectacular highlights of Rome in its heyday, but there were slow and steady advances in science and technology even in the darkest of “dark ages”. Falk’s book is an attempt to put this story straight, through a close examination of the state of human knowledge in Britain in the 1300s. It turns out to be surprisingly rich and profound, especially if you are used to it. to the common myth of medieval times as the age of ignorance.
The starting point of the journey is an unusual manuscript first described in the 1950s, which describes the making of a new kind of astronomical instrument. This was, for a time, attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer – yes, the type “Whan that April with his shoures soote” – based on his age and location, but later determined to be the work of an otherwise unknown monk, “Brother John of Westwyk. Falk frames his story around the possible career of this John Westwyk, based on ephemeral and fragmentary mentions of a monk by that name in the abbey’s registers. Brother John serves as a guide to all of the intellectual culture of 14th-century Europe, using John’s journey through parish schools and university to explore the structure of the predominantly religious institutions that anchored the science of l ‘time.
These turn out to be much more vital and innovative than we often think. Monks in Britain (and Europe more generally) did not simply copy ancient texts by heart, they discussed and debated them, and developed new and improved techniques for understanding the world. John Westwyk’s home base in St. Alban’s was particularly noteworthy in this regard, in part thanks to Father Richard of Wallingford, whose large list of scientific contributions included the invention of a remarkable mechanical clock in the early 1900s. 1300s. Falk paints a clear picture of a culture invested in sharing not only dusty scrolls, but new ideas and technologies, resulting in the development of “Equatoria” invented by Brother John and described in this manuscript which gave kick off.
Along the way, there are in-depth discussions of the day’s important tools, including step-by-step instructions on how to properly use an astrolabe (drawing on a manual written by Geoffrey Chaucer, which makes the attribution original of the equatoria less fanciful than it might have seemed). It also provides an answer to the question “How do you multiply and divide with Roman numerals?” Asked by many students over the years. The answer is a process that doesn’t sound much like modern arithmetic with Arabic numerals and positional notation, but is, in fact, much more powerful and flexible than is commonly believed.
I was especially inclined to like this book because, as mentioned at the beginning, my own current book is partly about the science of this period – it’s A brief history of timing, scheduled for early 2022, and features discussions of medieval astronomy and mechanical clocks. (In fact, I haven’t done any substantial rewrites because of Falk’s book, although it will certainly come across as recommended additional reading.) Light ages is such a quick and engaging read, however, that I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, science, or arbitrary linear combinations of the two. It will completely change the way you think about the 1300s, a lot for the better.