The Light Ages by Seb Falk

The Dark Ages is a term still used – although maybe not as often as it used to be – for the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, bringing to mind images of people living in an intellectual darkness, a time when little scientific progress and cultural advancement took place. In The Light Ages, historian Seb Falk dispels this idea by showing how this period was actually a time of discovery, invention and learning, and that the word medieval ‘rather than a synonym for backwardness should stand for a rounded university education, for careful and critical reading of all kinds of texts, for openness to ideas from all over the world, for a healthy respect for the mysterious and unknown.’

Instead of concentrating on the work of famous historical figures, Falk has chosen to focus on a man whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us: Brother John of Westwyk, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth century. Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about John, Falk takes us through the known facts and uses his general knowledge of the period to flesh things out, describing what John’s life may have been like at St Albans Abbey where he was ordained and outlining the type of education he would have received at Oxford University. Later, John continued his mathematical and astronomical studies at Tynemouth Priory and then went on crusade with Henry le Despenser in 1383 before returning to London where he produced his biggest scientific accomplishment:

He had made an equatorium – an equation-solver, a computer – and he was calibrating it to give the precise positions of the planets.

I won’t pretend that I understood the descriptions of John Westwyk’s famous Equatorie of the Planetis (once believed to have been the work of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) – like a lot of the information in this book, it went completely over my head. However, before we get to the discussion of the Equatorie, Falk explores several of the other scientific, mathematical and astronomical advancements and discoveries that made such an invention possible. The topics covered include the Babylonian base-60 system of numbering, the development of early clocks, mapping and the magnetic compass, and the functions of the device known as the astrolabe. Some of it is fascinating (did you know how to count to 9,999 on your fingers?), but there are also a lot of geometric diagrams, equations and calculations that will probably be of much more interest to people with a background in physics and mathematics than to the general reader.

A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people – who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics – were not stupid.

Although the book often became too technical for me, I did enjoy all the insights we are given into medieval life. I loved the image of John trying to work on his astronomical tables in his room in St Albans while pigs roam the streets outside:

According to local tradition, pigs too small to sell were donated to the hospital. As they trotted through the streets, Londoners fed them up from runts to valuable livestock, in small but frequent gestures of civic charity. The hospital marked its porcine property with bells to prevent their confiscation and deter theft. For John Westwyk, though, the grunting and clanging from the street cannot have aided his attempts to comprehend Ptolemaic planetary theory.

The Light Ages has clearly been thoroughly researched, drawing on medieval documents and texts ranging from Pierre le Pèlerin’s Letter on the Magnet to Bernard of Gordon’s Lily of Medicine and making occasional diversions to other parts of the world to discuss the impact of the Crusades or to highlight the work of the Persian polymath, Tusi, to give a few examples. For readers who want to explore further, there’s a large selection of primary and secondary sources provided at the end of the book. This wasn’t the ideal book for me as I would have preferred something slightly less academic, but for the right reader I’m sure it would be a wonderful read!

Thanks to Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

5 thoughts on “The Light Ages by Seb Falk

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    You seem to have been reading in the Medieval period lately and since I have been looking for books about that period, you are helping me a great deal! I also learned, from Will Durant in The Age of Faith, that the roots of our economic and banking systems can be found in that era!

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