The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science
by Seb Falk
Published November 17, 2020, by W.W. Norton & Company
The common view of the medieval era in Europe is that it was a period of darkness. That it was an age when science was forgotten and books languished in the dusty back rooms while wild-eyed monks burned the relics of the past and the Pope banned every new idea that came along.
Many of our modern views of history come straight from Victorian England, whose historians either praised or denigrated various eras of history depending on how well it fit into their own mythology about the Birth of England. The medieval era, with its strange culture, writings, and devotion to the Pope in Rome suffered the most, becoming known thereafter as the Dark Ages.
But, as medieval historian and Cambridge lecturer Seb Falk argues in his new history of the later medieval era, The Light Ages, these centuries were far from dark. Using the fourteenth century monk, John of Westwyk, as an anchor for his narrative, Falk shows how the medieval era was, in fact, an era of advancement that gave us soaring Gothic cathedrals, mechanical clocks, eyeglasses, scientific works being translated from Greek, Arabic, and Latin, and a robust university culture that spread knowledge across Europe. Ideas came from as far afield as China, and were debated extensively before being absorbed by scholars and built upon. And while the various Popes of the era might have banned books, it was as effective then as it is now, which is to say, not very effective at all. The banned books were still passed around and read by enthusiastic scholars.
Though Falk’s narrative is enthusiastic and sprinkled with humor (take note of the astrolabe that does not come equipped with an ascension app), it does grow a bit dense at times, particularly when Falk explains how to use an astrolabe or the twists and turns of figuring the proper dates for planting and harvesting using the sun and the Julian calendar. But the density at these points serves a purpose, as Falk notes toward the end: if the equations are difficult for a modern person to figure out, they were doubly so for medieval scholars who did not have access to electronic calculators. But figure them they did, and usually to the high degree of precision necessary for figuring out how to make a new calendar, invent the mechanical clock, or develop plans for the grand cathedrals that still stand centuries later.
Though it might take two or three readings to fully absorb the details in The Light Ages, it is a successful in its arguments that the medieval era was filled with intellectual life and scientific advancement. It is a social imaginary of the Western world that the greatest scientific achievements were made by lone geniuses laboring in obscurity until they made breakthroughs that changed the course of history. This is, of course, not the case. Like social history, the events of scientific history are based on what came before– centuries’ worth of incremental advancements that would not have been possible if not for the ones that came before. We might think that the medieval era was an intellectual wasteland, but there was a vast array of scientific breakthroughs that were not opposed by the church or by hordes of peasants armed with pitchforks and torches.
Here in the twenty-first century, we might look back with pity at those poor scholars of centuries past who had to make do without calculators and Google, but those scholars still managed to figure things out by memorizing vast amounts of information, learning new languages, doing extensive calculations without even the benefit of pen and paper, and carefully observing the world around them. They were curious about nature and, like us, they looked to the stars. They can’t be blamed for not figuring out the intricacies of the movements of the planets; no one else would until the twentieth century with its massive observatories and radio telescopes.
In The Light Ages, Seb Falk helps advance the work of rehabilitating the reputation of the medieval era, showing how instead of an age of darkness and anti-intellectualism, those centuries from the 1000s to the 1400s helped advance science and technology, and without those advances we would not have the technologies we enjoy today.
Thank you to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.