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.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Quicksilver Quicksilver is the first of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, a series of novels set during the 17th century. I had been interested in reading this book for a long time but was putting off reading it because of its length (over 900 pages) and its reputation for being a very difficult, challenging read. I don’t have a problem with long, difficult books but need to be in the right frame of mind to begin reading them.

At the beginning of the novel, the mysterious Enoch Root arrives in Boston, Massachusetts, to deliver a letter to Daniel Waterhouse, an English Puritan and natural philosopher, asking him to return to England to solve a dispute between the mathematicians Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over who was first to invent calculus. As Daniel voyages home across the Atlantic, pursued by the pirate Edward Teach, we are given a series of flashbacks to the 1660s and his time at Trinity College, Cambridge where he first met Isaac Newton and the other famous scientists of the period.

At the end of the first part, we leave Daniel Waterhouse’s story behind for a while, to be picked up again later. The middle section of the book follows the adventures of Jack Shaftoe, a ‘vagabond’, who rescues a beautiful slave, Eliza, from a Turkish harem during the 1683 Siege of Vienna. Together they travel across half of Europe, ending in Amsterdam, where Eliza becomes involved in the world of trade and banking. We then rejoin Daniel Waterhouse again just before the death of King Charles II and the Glorious Revolution.

In the two paragraphs above I have only given a very basic outline of what Quicksilver is about. It would be impossible for me to mention everything! The book covers almost every important historical event of the period including the plague, the Great Fire of London and the Restoration – and there are appearances from everyone you can think of, from Newton and Leibniz to Samuel Pepys, William of Orange and Benjamin Franklin. Stephenson also mixes some different forms of writing into the novel, so that although most of the book is written in normal prose there are also some sections presented as a play or as minutes from a meeting or letters written in code.

As I said, I had been curious about this book for a while but now that my curiosity has been satisfied I can safely say that I won’t be continuing with the other two books in the trilogy! There were parts of the book that I enjoyed but overall I thought it was too much effort for too little reward – and I say that as someone who is usually happy to read big, complex books that require effort from the reader. Part of my problem could have been that I probably tried to rush through the book too quickly (if you can call spending two months on a book ‘rushing’; I started reading one day in November and finished just before the New Year). Maybe I should have tried reading it over six months or even a year, putting it aside for a while when I got bored with it – looking at other reviews, this seems to be what a lot of people recommend. But really, once I got halfway through I just wanted to be finished with it.

I should point out that I didn’t actually hate Quicksilver and there were times when I became completely immersed in its world. I enjoyed reading about the early days of the Royal Society and the work of its members and here I was reminded of An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. There were detailed descriptions of their experiments and discoveries and we learn about a wide range of scientific topics including sundials, clocks and telling the time, the development of language and vocabulary, the formulation of the laws of gravity and the development of calculus. Most of this was fascinating (though be warned that there are some gruesome experiments on animals described in graphic detail) and I particularly loved the characterisation of Isaac Newton as an eccentric genius, forgetting to eat and sleep, and sacrificing his health in the name of science. Often, though, the story seemed to disappear under pages and pages of exposition (sometimes complete with diagrams and notes) and I felt I was reading a science textbook rather than a work of fiction.

There were also a few other things that I found very irritating, such as the spelling of the word fancy as phant’sy and the fact that, in the middle section of the book in particular, there is absolutely no attempt to use dialogue suitable to the time period. I understand that this is not your average ‘historical fiction’ novel and Stephenson probably had a good reason for his choice of language, but modern slang spoken by historical characters is something that nearly always annoys me, whatever the reason.

But the biggest problem, for me, was that the novel has no real plot – or at least, there’s no single plot that runs through the book from beginning to end. Instead there are lots of disjointed subplots, lots of ideas and concepts, but they never come together at any point to form an engaging story. When I came to the end of the book I didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that I felt on finishing other long books like War and Peace, for example, or Clarissa or Les Miserables; all I felt when I finished Quicksilver was relief – and that was disappointing after the time I’d invested in it and the high expectations I’d had. On a more positive note, I do feel that I’ve learned a lot about 17th century science, religion and politics – though whether I understood it all is a different matter!

I think I’ll end this post here before it becomes as long as Quicksilver itself. Clearly there are a lot of people who have loved this book and the other two in the Baroque Cycle, so if this sounds like something you would enjoy please don’t let me put you off it!