Book Review: The Light Ages

The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science
by Seb Falk
416 pages
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.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Light Ages

  1. I really enjoyed this review and added the book to my “want to read” list. I love books about science and the history of science, and I’m fascinated by medieval times. So this book seems like a great combination of those, even if dense at times. I hope to read it one day.

  2. I hope you can get to it sooner rather than later! It was so informative and makes me wish that authors who base their stories on the Medieval era knew about all this. There’s a story (perhaps not true, but fascinating all the same) about a monk who built some kind of glider and made a brief flight. Can you imagine a book that took that and ran with it, and suddenly we have the medieval air corps? Fascinating stuff!

  3. This sounds awesome. I always have been curious to learn how people with less access to knowledge and technology managed to pull off some of these amazing things. Like, they had steam-powered clocks in Rome. In Rome! If they had just expanded their minds a bit beyond clocks the whole world would be different by now. Similar ideas seem to fall in here.

    I feel like the “dark ages” get a bad rap because of the Renaissance. Those jerks thought that Rome and Greece were the pinnacles of all things, so they pooh-poohed on the period of time between the Romans/Greeks and them. Obviously, the Renaissance couldn’t have happened without the scientific developments of the dark ages.

    Yeah. I’ll be reading this some day.

  4. It was a super informative book! It’s kind of amazing what you can do with some very simple tools. The Duomo in Florence, for example– Brunelleschi basically used a stick and some string to figure out the dimensions he needed to finish the cathedral. And Eratosthenes needed some shadows at a particular kind of day to figure out, to a fairly accurate degree, the circumference of the Earth. No satellites needed!

    The middle ages definitely got a bad rap from the Victorians, who were really trying to build themselves up and compare themselves to the “great” eras of history by putting down other eras.

    Dark Ages, indeed! Huh!

    I hope you’ll be able to get to it sooner rather than later!

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