Book review: shedding light on our perception of The Middle Ages

"This is a book teeming with interesting themes and lines of enquiry. The dizzying internationalism of the Middle Ages, for instance, is never far away."
Book review: shedding light on our perception of The Middle Ages

Dr Seb Falk: forthright on the curiosity of people in the Middle Ages. Pic: Jason Bye.

  • The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery 
  • Seb Falk 
  • Allen Lane, €16.30

Seb Falk is the latest - alongside the likes of Professor Rodney Stark and James Hannan, author of God’s Philosophers- to enter the lists against glib dismissers of the Middle and (so-called) Dark Ages; those who, scientifically speaking, see little but wasted years dominated by quackery and superstition, stretching from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.

These naysayers have received opinion on their side. An off-hand tweet by a celebrity historian, or a journalist’s lazy invocation of the Middle Ages when pouring scorn on something they don’t like, are merely distillations of centuries of self-serving contempt. Anyone who takes up the cause of promoting a more balanced view of medieval science must fear that they are on a hiding to nothing. Even if many professional historians have moved beyond it, the anti-medieval reflex is now deeply and unforgivingly embedded in popular and media culture. Nothing, surely, can dislodge it?

Seb Falk is undaunted. Though genial and mild-mannered, he is forthright too. Belief in God, he says, “never prevented people from seeking to understand the world around them.” 

Pausing to consider what the term ‘science’ might mean when we place ‘medieval’ in front of it, he encourages us not to brush aside the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages for “failing to be quite like us”. 

Progress, he reminds us, “can be slow and gradual”. Scientific understanding “has sometimes hit a dead end, or taken a step sideways, or backwards. And it still can.” We can only hope that future generations will not belittle us for failing to answer questions we couldn’t possibly have posed.

Falk hangs his story on the life and times of a single, astronomy-obsessed monk, John Westwyk, who entered the monastery of St Alban’s to the north-west of London in the 1370s; a man who, chanting the psalms every day, would have sung of the fingers of God, who had set the moon and stars in place, who had set them to govern the night while the sun governs the day, and who numbers the stars and calls them by their names. 

Monks were desperate to discover more about the book of nature which, in medieval minds, sat alongside the book of Scripture. Studying both was “an integral part of praising God”.

Falk vividly recreates the intensive labour and “noisy conversation” that surrounded, the copying, correcting, amending, expanding, disputing, corrupting and improving of scientific texts. Be warned, therefore: for large portions of the book, he plunges deep into abstruse computations and instrument designs, matching the indefatigability of the knowledge-hungry monks he admires. 

Readers who are not so scientifically minded (I am one) will struggle for air at times. Falk also finds himself picking his way through mists of lost information, often the product of modesty and anonymity, giving his book the air of a detective story of the intellect. John Westwyk himself did not even write his own name in his most important and original work, Equatorie of the Planetis.

Falk keeps us on our toes throughout. Music, he reminds us, was a science too, and it made important advances in the Middle Ages, not least in the theory of mathematical relations underlying harmonies. 

He clears up facile prejudices wherever he can, pointing out, for instance, that literacy was not as rare in medieval England as is often assumed (with around half the population having a basic level); and that scholars of the Middle Ages knew very well that the world was round, not flat, as clearly demonstrated by John of Sacrobosco’s hugely popular text The Sphere. 

Like CS Lewis before him in The Discarded Image, Falk points out that medieval thinkers often pictured the Earth at the bottom rather than the centre of the universe, “as far as possible from the perfection of the heavens”. They were well aware of our puniness within the cosmos.

And Falk is prepared to nail his colours gently but resolutely to the mast when called for. The most significant invention of the Middle Ages? The mechanical clock. All our GPS systems and online-delivery slots stem from the “clockwork revolution” of around 1300 and the dawning possibility of “reliable machines that could keep universally agreed time in equal hours”.

This is a book teeming with interesting themes and lines of enquiry. The dizzying internationalism of the Middle Ages, for instance, is never far away. Latin, “the first pan-European language of scholarship”, allowed masters to work freely “from Paris to Padua, Cambridge to Cologne”. We read of the new numerals from sixth-century India entering Europe and gradually displacing their Latin forerunners, passing through the hands of ninth-century polymath Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (whose name is the source of the word ‘algorithm’) and then their popularizer, Leonardo of Pisa (who was to give a later form of his name to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers).

In twelfth-century Worcestershire, the abbot of Great Malvern, Walcher of Lotharingia (roughly that stretch of northern Europe where the Meuse and the Rhine run in parallel) learns about the true motions of the Moon from Pedro Alfonso, a converted Jew from Aragon. (Pedro had soaked up the best of Islamic scholarship when his hometown of Huesca had been under Arab control.) 

Constantine the African, meanwhile, brings a whole library of medical books with him from Tunisia to the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino. Gerard of Cremona joins the intellectual gold rush to Toledo in Spain, learns Arabic, and proceeds to translate more than seventy scholarly works over forty years. Copernicus, the Polish Catholic canon, worked out the mathematics of his sun-centred astronomy using the outputs of the Maragha School in Iran.

On a fourteenth-century astrolabe built in Norwich, neat letters in Lombardic script spell out the word ‘Algorab’, from the Arabic al ghurab meaning ‘crow’, indicating the constellation Corvus (the Latin term for the same bird). 

Indeed, its English maker inscribed Arabic words all over this beautiful, ingenious and, yes, mobile data-generating device. And commemorated in the cloister windows of John Westwyk’s monastery at St Albans were the Greeks Pythagoras, Euclid and Ptolemy; the Roman Palladius; the Persian Abu Ma’shar; and the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes.

And what of Ireland? The events of The Light Ages happen long after the golden age of Irish monastic scholarship, but Falk nevertheless alludes briefly to the important early contributions this country made to calendrical astronomy (or ‘computus’), the essential science for any medieval monk to learn. 

He also mentions Irish monks corresponding on scientific matters with Charlemagne, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors, probably having in mind the letters concerning eclipses written by the scholar Dungal, whose vocation and studies took him from Bangor to Paris and from Pavia to the last of Saint Columban’s monastic foundations at Bobbio. 

Moreover, John Westwyk himself spent a number of years at Tynemouth, close to Lindisfarne and the epicentre of the immense influence Irish monks had over the Christianization of England and the spread of learning. There he read the Venerable Bede’s famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People and would have learned of the life of Saint Aidan and his followers.

I also noted an appearance by Elmer of Malmesbury. In around 1100, almost five hundred years before Leonardo sketched a similar flying machine, Elmer piloted an experimental glider “not wholly without success” (though at the cost of broken legs). As it happens, Elmer’s home monastery was another originally Irish foundation, established by Máel Dub, the Dark Disciple, in the seventh century. Visitors to Malmesbury today will find Maldulphus (carrying a book and a makeshift cross, hung with a bell) and Elmer (holding a model of his glider) standing shoulder to shoulder in the abbey’s stained glass windows.

Seb Falk is right. It is time for us moderns to show a little humility and admire the light emanating from the Dark Ages.

More in this section

Scene & Heard
Newsletter

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up