The Ages of Light
W.W. Norton & Co., $ 30
A long-standing myth about medieval history is that the Middle Ages were intellectually obscure. Science has supposedly taken a hiatus between the demise of Rome and the rise of Copernican astronomy and Galileo's physics, some superficial accounts suggest.
“Medieval reality, however, is an Age of Light of interest and scientific research,” writes historian Seb Falk in The Light Ages. Historians have long known that medieval monasteries and universities housed many profound thinkers dedicated to sophisticated intellectual enterprises. In particular, Falk points out, the medieval era produced high-level technical achievements in the field of scientific instrument manufacturing.
Falk tells his story from the perspective of John Westwyk, a monk from St. John's Abbey. Albans in England in the 14th century. Little is known of Westwyk, but Falk recreates his life through an account of the events and duties of the monks at that time. Westwyk is known to have produced two important astronomical manuscripts, both on scientific instruments.
Most notable among the instruments of the day was the astrolabe, a device that contained moving disks to measure and represent the positions of astronomical objects. If you’ve ever wondered how astrolabes worked, down to the last detail, this is the book for you. And if you are curious about the medieval obsession with astrology, a major motivation for building astrolabes, your appetite will be satisfied enough.
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However, if you want more details about medieval science, other books offer more. Falk mentions only in passing the achievements of some serious scholars with a scientific mindset of the time, such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albert the Great, and Nicole Oresme. There is virtually no discussion of the science of mechanics during the Middle Ages, which, although it did not reach modern understanding, still provided the basis for later achievements.
However, Falk’s book offers an illuminating antidote to the myth of the “Dark Ages”. It is fully documented, highly illustrated, and cagedly written (though with occasionally slower sleds through the details of some of those astronomical mechanisms and the launching of horoscopes).
Falk says he "tried to tell the story of medieval science … as an integral part of medieval life and culture," and manages to incorporate scientific activities into the culture of medieval religious life. Science and religion were generally not at odds, as was sometimes supposed, but were dual attempts to understand how God’s creation works. True, sometimes theologians clashed with natural philosophers, but they all operated by understanding that the study of nature was the study of the work of God.
Falk’s account is not the whole story of all the ways in which medieval science was light rather than dark. But it’s still an important part of that story.
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