November 20, 2020

The Light Ages

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Chances are, if asked about life in the Middle Ages, one might describe a landscape from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with mud-covered peasants throwing not-quite-dead relatives into plague carts. And if asked about medieval science, one might simply ask, “What’s that?” However, in The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, Cambridge historian and lecturer Seb Falk reveals how far from reality these perceptions are.

Instead of smothering science, Falk argues, the church actually nurtured it during the Middle Ages. Observance of daily devotions and holy days required accurate methods for measuring time, which required sophisticated mathematical skills and precise astronomical observation. Astrolabes and other beautiful scientific instruments originally developed to tell time were found to be useful in other fields as well, triggering advances in optics, navigation and medicine. Friars, monks and priests went to universities, where, in addition to theology, they learned about scientific and mathematical advances developed by Islamic scholars. The medieval scholar was a member of an international society devoted to the precise understanding of creation, not a benighted isolationist.

In The Light Ages, Falk uses the story of John Westwyk, a 14th-century monk-mathematician-astronomer-warrior, to explore the scientific explosion that occurred well before the Renaissance. Westwyk, an almost anonymous brother in the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans, serves as the reader’s guide to the intellectual world of medieval Europe. This ordinary monk shows up in the most extraordinary places: the University of Oxford, Chaucer’s London and even the middle of a doomed crusade. A talented mathematician and astronomer, Westwyk refined the measurements necessary to locate exactly where a planet was on any given day in its revolution around the earth. Ironically, this increased precision necessitated evermore elaborate and unlikely explanations for the glaring discrepancies between the geocentric theory of the universe and observed reality.

The work of these early scientists revealed that the universe couldn’t revolve around the earth. Without their work, Copernicus’ calculations would have been neither possible nor necessary. In this magisterial and informative book, Falk makes a convincing argument that The Light Ages gave birth to our own age.

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