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An illuminating guide to the scientific and technological achievements of the Middle Ages through the life of a crusading astronomer-monk. Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks, proving that th An illuminating guide to the scientific and technological achievements of the Middle Ages through the life of a crusading astronomer-monk. Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks, proving that the Middle Ages were home to a vibrant scientific culture. In The Light Ages, Cambridge science historian Seb Falk takes us on an immersive tour of medieval science through the story of one fourteenth-century monk, John of Westwyk. From multiplying Roman numerals to navigating by the stars, curing disease, and telling time with an ancient astrolabe, we learn emerging science alongside Westwyk, while following the gripping story of the struggles and successes of an ordinary man in a precarious world. An enlightening history that argues that these times weren’t so dark after all, The Light Ages shows how medieval ideas continue to color how we see the world today.


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An illuminating guide to the scientific and technological achievements of the Middle Ages through the life of a crusading astronomer-monk. Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks, proving that th An illuminating guide to the scientific and technological achievements of the Middle Ages through the life of a crusading astronomer-monk. Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks, proving that the Middle Ages were home to a vibrant scientific culture. In The Light Ages, Cambridge science historian Seb Falk takes us on an immersive tour of medieval science through the story of one fourteenth-century monk, John of Westwyk. From multiplying Roman numerals to navigating by the stars, curing disease, and telling time with an ancient astrolabe, we learn emerging science alongside Westwyk, while following the gripping story of the struggles and successes of an ordinary man in a precarious world. An enlightening history that argues that these times weren’t so dark after all, The Light Ages shows how medieval ideas continue to color how we see the world today.

30 review for The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science

  1. 5 out of 5

    K.J. Charles

    Pretty interesting deep dive into a medieval scientist/monk's work, which shows the period as far more multicultural, intellectually curious, techy, and open minded than one might think. There is a *lot* on how astrolabes and such work which completely lost me (yes, I have less technical ability than a medieval monk) but you definitely get the gist: these people were working on, effectively, computers, in multinational collaboration. A good reminder that so much of what we believe about the past Pretty interesting deep dive into a medieval scientist/monk's work, which shows the period as far more multicultural, intellectually curious, techy, and open minded than one might think. There is a *lot* on how astrolabes and such work which completely lost me (yes, I have less technical ability than a medieval monk) but you definitely get the gist: these people were working on, effectively, computers, in multinational collaboration. A good reminder that so much of what we believe about the past is somewhat patronising and self aggrandising.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bradley

    The Light Ages. As opposed to the Dark Ages. Indeed. If I had to compare this to other History of Science nonfiction books, I'd have to rate this rather high. Of course, it debunks the basic idea that there was barely any science in the middle ages, that most people were ignorant savages, etc, but the truth is very different. (I've read a great number of books that say pretty much the same thing.) But the accepted wisdom is different, of course, and should be looked at with a good deal of skeptic The Light Ages. As opposed to the Dark Ages. Indeed. If I had to compare this to other History of Science nonfiction books, I'd have to rate this rather high. Of course, it debunks the basic idea that there was barely any science in the middle ages, that most people were ignorant savages, etc, but the truth is very different. (I've read a great number of books that say pretty much the same thing.) But the accepted wisdom is different, of course, and should be looked at with a good deal of skepticism. No, 50% literacy rate, at least for common word usage, isn't that high for NOW, but it's not insignificant. Learning a ton of memory techniques, working extra hard to copy books by hand, pushing the bubble of science wider against all odds, and spreading the love of learning across the western world isn't exactly nothing. And add to that the fact that the Renaissance came from these times, and so did Oxford and so many other huge educational centers, and we have to ask ourselves WHY we assume that these were the Dark Ages. Is it just because there wasn't a printing press? Knowledge and learning have always been around. This book brings up some of the most delightful aspects that were progressed during this time. My favorites always revolve around the stars, but between proto-calculus tables, charting, medical analysis, alchemy, and of course the big names like Ptolomy, we need to honor those who came before us. This book does a very nice job of highlighting a few great minds of the day and draws direct lines to our modern day. A must-read for those who love the history of science, especially the popular version.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    The framing of the medieval period as 'the Dark Ages' has long since lost its power. Even knowing that, it's still stunning to see just how fundamentally wrong that terminology is. As Seb Falk says in his introduction, the science of this period isn't conceived in the same way as we do today and the people in this book aren’t scientists as we understand the term. But it’s important not to compare medieval concepts and methods directly with our own. Instead, we should look at how important the i The framing of the medieval period as 'the Dark Ages' has long since lost its power. Even knowing that, it's still stunning to see just how fundamentally wrong that terminology is. As Seb Falk says in his introduction, the science of this period isn't conceived in the same way as we do today and the people in this book aren’t scientists as we understand the term. But it’s important not to compare medieval concepts and methods directly with our own. Instead, we should look at how important the ideas were at the time and what impact they had. In doing so, we can feel the wonder of medieval invention and discovery. Imaginatively structured, the book explores medieval science through the life story of one man: John Westwyk. Though the extant source material is scant, Falk recreates the life of this ordinary 14th century monk using tantalising traces left in the historical record and a wealth of contemporary evidence, from the local to the global. If Westwyk’s monastic world is fascinating, then the way Falk links these experiences to the wider story of medieval science is more so. Clocks and calendars, astrolabes and astrology, religion and war. All the varied endeavours of the age are told here through stories, small and large. At the same time, Falk doesn't shy away from revealing what we may consider the crazier side of medieval thinking. Though how anyone who's seen what's on the internet these days can throw shade at people in this period for believing in weird stuff I don't even know. There were times when it got a little too scientific for me, but overall Falk managed to present the information in an engaging way. His book is beautifully presented, with colour pictures, maps, diagrams, charts, and even poetry. A wonderful addition to our understanding of the period and to any bookshelf. ARC via publisher

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nigel

    In brief - I found this fascinating at times and rather too technical at other times. Full review nearer the time of publication This book seeks to address the idea that the Middle Ages were not dark times. The author, a Cambridge science historian, opens the book with a discussion on this subject. While this is something of an overview he quickly looks at the particular too. In the course of this book Seb Falk manages to bring in many aspects of medieval science and discovery. The author consider In brief - I found this fascinating at times and rather too technical at other times. Full review nearer the time of publication This book seeks to address the idea that the Middle Ages were not dark times. The author, a Cambridge science historian, opens the book with a discussion on this subject. While this is something of an overview he quickly looks at the particular too. In the course of this book Seb Falk manages to bring in many aspects of medieval science and discovery. The author considers a manuscript from 1392 which appears to be possibly from Chaucer about an unknown scientific instrument - the Equatorie or Equatorium. After detailed investigation during the latter part of the last century the Chaucer theory seemed unlikely. However eventually the path led to a Brother John of Westwick (or Westwyck) as being the likely author. For a time he was a monk at St Albans. The book then uses what information that can be gleaned about this monk and, more generally, the lives of other people around that time. This book manages to be very wide ranging in the topics it covers. From looking at the importance of agriculture the book then considers that in the context of lunar and solar positions and seasons. From seasons and planting it is but a short jump to the history of numbers! I found the information about Hindu-Arabic, Roman and more recent numbering systems fascinating. This in turn leads to clocks, saints days and calendars. The importance and complexity of clocks in that era was remarkable. Another area that fascinated me was the birth of universities and their development. The fact that books and text books which were emerging were copied but at the whim of the person who was doing the copying was again interesting. Among a number of other subject maps, magnetism and medicine make an appearance and that is in just one chapter! I really enjoyed the information on maps and navigation. At the end the book returns to the subject of the Equatorie or Equatorium and gives a round up of the Middle ages generally. I'm a little conflicted in my views on this book. I may well not be the target audience for this book - the science I did was a long time ago. Even the history that I studied is a fair way back. That said I really did find parts of this book truly fascinating and I learned a lot from it. Sadly some subjects went into too much depth to retain my interest to any real degree and there were parts that I found myself skipping a little. For me it is quite an academic book and on that level should work fairly well I imagine. I guess that might not be the case for a more casual reader. That said I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a real interest in the subject. Note - I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review https://viewson.org.uk/non-fiction/th...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lou

    Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks. As medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky, they came to develop a vibrant scientific culture. In The Light Ages, Cambridge science historian Seb Falk takes us on a tour of medieval science through th Soaring Gothic cathedrals, violent crusades, the Black Death: these are the dramatic forces that shaped the medieval era. But the so-called Dark Ages also gave us the first universities, eyeglasses, and mechanical clocks. As medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky, they came to develop a vibrant scientific culture. In The Light Ages, Cambridge science historian Seb Falk takes us on a tour of medieval science through the eyes of one fourteenth-century monk, John of Westwyk. Born in a rural manor, educated in England's grandest monastery, and then exiled to a clifftop priory, Westwyk was an intrepid crusader, inventor, and astrologer. From multiplying Roman numerals to navigating by the stars, curing disease, and telling time with an ancient astrolabe, we learn emerging science alongside Westwyk and travel with him through the length and breadth of England and beyond its shores. On our way, we encounter a remarkable cast of characters: the clock-building English abbot with leprosy, the French craftsman-turned-spy, and the Persian polymath who founded the world's most advanced observatory. The Light Ages offers a gripping story of the struggles and successes of an ordinary man in a precarious world and conjures a vivid picture of medieval life as we have never seen it before. An enlightening history that argues that these times weren't so dark after all, The Light Ages shows how medieval ideas continue to colour how we see the world today. Written in an engaging tone and in an accessible fashion, this is one of the nonfiction reads of 2020 for me as it crackles with interesting information and fascinating stories illustrating exactly how we reached the level of modernity at which we currently find ourselves. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Allen Lane for an ARC.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Brian Clegg

    In this chunky title, Seb Falk sets out to prove very effectively that, certainly from the scientific viewpoint, the suggestion that medieval Europe spent a period of time in the 'dark ages' is misrepresentation. Historians, of course, dumped the 'dark ages' title some time ago, but it still lingers on in our imaginations. The backbone of Falk's book is the life and work of a fourteenth century English monk by the name of John Westwyk, who spent most of his adult life at St Alban's Abbey. Westwyk In this chunky title, Seb Falk sets out to prove very effectively that, certainly from the scientific viewpoint, the suggestion that medieval Europe spent a period of time in the 'dark ages' is misrepresentation. Historians, of course, dumped the 'dark ages' title some time ago, but it still lingers on in our imaginations. The backbone of Falk's book is the life and work of a fourteenth century English monk by the name of John Westwyk, who spent most of his adult life at St Alban's Abbey. Westwyk enters the story with a 1951 discovery of a manuscript on an astrolabe-like device, found in Cambridge: a manuscript that was first attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. (If this seems bizarre, bear in mind that as well as Canterbury Tales and his other titles, Chaucer was the author of a beginners guide to using that versatile medieval astronomical tool, the astrolabe.) It turns out that Westwyk was the author of the manuscript, as well as a number of other astronomical contributions, but Falk uses his story as a stepping off point to a whole range of different topics, bringing in all the well-known names of the period from Roger Bacon to the Oxford Calculators. There's loads of fascinating detail on astrolabes, but also on everything from calculating techniques to medicine, and crusading (Westwyk took part in an ill-fated venture against the 'other side' when the Catholic Church briefly split under two opposing popes) to clocks and timekeeping - the latter tied into both astronomy and St Albans, where the abbot, Richard of Wallingford, was responsible for a remarkable early astronomical clock. Falk obviously knows and loves his subject, often delving into scrupulous and richly imagined detail. This attention to detail is, perversely, the only flaw in the book - it makes it a wonderful reference source, but takes away from the readability of a book that promised so much. (It's not often you get a history of science title with a prologue that manages to mention Lord Mountbatten, Chaucer and Steve Bannon.) I found myself getting rather bogged down in the detail on a number of occasions and skip-reading forward until it got interesting again. That said, there is so much to like here. I wouldn't recommend it as a primer on the medieval European science of this period - there is just too much detail - but if it's a period you already know a little and want to immerse yourself in, it's brilliant.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Tim O'Neill

    It's always a pleasure when a book you've been waiting for since its publication was announced turns out to be every bit as good as you expected. And it's a double pleasure when a book on a subject you thought you knew quite a bit about teaches you something new on almost every page. After about 30 years studying medieval science and battling the popular misconception that there was no science in the Middle Ages, I look forward to any book that might bring this fascinating subject to a wider aud It's always a pleasure when a book you've been waiting for since its publication was announced turns out to be every bit as good as you expected. And it's a double pleasure when a book on a subject you thought you knew quite a bit about teaches you something new on almost every page. After about 30 years studying medieval science and battling the popular misconception that there was no science in the Middle Ages, I look forward to any book that might bring this fascinating subject to a wider audience. Seb Falk's The Light Ages does this in superb style. While he doesn't stint on the details and gets reasonably technical in places (a reader will need to follow the diagrams closely), Falk is something many historians are not - a great storyteller. He choose to anchor his tale of science in the Middle Ages by tracing the life of a medieval scientist. Instead of choosing one of the better known examples - such as Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste or Roger Bacon - he uses a reasonably obscure fourteenth century English monk, John Westwyk, as his protagonist. Falk begins with a detective story about the authorship of the Middle English work the Equatorie of the Planetis, a manuscript discovered in 1952 and originally attributed to the poet and amateur astronomer, Geoffrey Chaucer. The Equatorie - a technical work describing the construction and use of a complex instrument that calculates the positions of the planets - has since been identified as a work by Westwyk, and Falk uses this monk's life and work to structure his story of medieval people's rational analysis of the physical world. It's an effective narrative device. Falk ranges over a broad array of topics, from the folk astronomy used by medieval farmers, to the importance and difficulty of drawing up accurate calendars, to detailed descriptions of medieval astronomical instruments, their use and their attendant mathematics. Some readers may find these sections hard work, but they go a long way toward dispelling the myth that the medieval period was a scientific "dark age". Falk's detailing of the degree of precision and the relatively difficult and laborious calculations these instruments required puts paid to the popular image of monks as superstitious idiots copying prayer books all day. And it's the way he expands this theme in various directions to illuminate this supposedly "dark" period and bring it to life that makes this book far more than dry recitation of obscure ancient astronomical terms. Digressions on medieval agriculture, international exchanges of ideas with the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, ship development, trading networks, book making and book selling, university life and warfare all find their way into his tale. In the process we see why medieval monks' fascination with light lead to their invention of eye glasses, why the need to mark hours of monastic prayer lead to the development of mechanical clocks that were actually mechanical computers and we even get treated to the criminally neglected story of Ailmer of Malmesbury and his medieval flying machine. Falk avoids the trap of pretending medieval people and their world were more or less like us and our world view. He explains the very different ways they saw the world clearly, and so avoids the other pitfall of reducing their differences to them being merely "weird" or, worse, "stupid". What emerges is a highly detailed, vivid and fascinating picture of a world that is too often ignored because of Renaissance and Enlightenment era prejudices and silly Hollywood clichés. Falk makes it clear that people in the Middle Ages were every bit as intelligent and as interested in the universe around them as anyone in the Classical world before them or the Modern world since. His book has won well-deserved praise and is the latest in a number of popular works that are, slowly, changing popular misconceptions about this unfairly maligned period of our history.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    This is a really excellent book and has absolutely transformed my view of medieval history, science and culture. I didn't even think that I was particularly interested in either medieval science, the history of science or medieval monasticism, but I have learnt so much about all three and also about medieval life and culture, in what is a really page-turning book of the best sort of narrative history. This is a really wide-ranging book which nominally follows the life of a monk, John of Westwyk, This is a really excellent book and has absolutely transformed my view of medieval history, science and culture. I didn't even think that I was particularly interested in either medieval science, the history of science or medieval monasticism, but I have learnt so much about all three and also about medieval life and culture, in what is a really page-turning book of the best sort of narrative history. This is a really wide-ranging book which nominally follows the life of a monk, John of Westwyk, and his scientific studies, but on its way the reader learns so much about the medieval mindset and how any sort of reductionist view of medieval thinkers as 'primitive', ignorant or essentially unmethodical, unscientific religious zealots is way off the mark. The author dispels many of the received myths about medieval science and culture, and the reader learns about medieval medicine, mathematics, astronomy, cultural exchange, the importance of Islamic mathematicians and scientists, and makes it very clear that the idea of a cultural and scientific dark age only ending with the sudden turning on of the lights of the Renaissance is a simplistic and quite frankly erroneous view of history. All in all, I found this a cracking good read, and enjoyed it tremendously, at the same time as learning a huge amount about astronomy, the history of science and thought, and the international cultural exchanges that took place at such an early date. I am also totally impressed with what was achieved with no computers to ease the way! Falk's book certainly shows us a world beyond the cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts usually presented as the essence of the medieval mind, and I really do recommend it wholeheartedly. Thanks are due to Netgalley and the publishers for providing me with an advance copy for review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    raffaela

    Can I just say that I love the idea of calling the medieval period the Light Ages instead of the Dark Ages? Also that cover 😍

  10. 4 out of 5

    Uudenkuun Emilia

    An excellent book on medieval European science, debunking the all-too-common assumption that medieval people were all backward and that science only reappeared in the Renaissance. As a researcher in medieval and early modern science, I was already familiar with the basic stuff, but since Falk's book dealt a lot with astrology/astronomy, there was a lot of new information for me. And way too much maths that I didn't understand :D I appreciated the attention to the Arabic and other non-European sou An excellent book on medieval European science, debunking the all-too-common assumption that medieval people were all backward and that science only reappeared in the Renaissance. As a researcher in medieval and early modern science, I was already familiar with the basic stuff, but since Falk's book dealt a lot with astrology/astronomy, there was a lot of new information for me. And way too much maths that I didn't understand :D I appreciated the attention to the Arabic and other non-European sources and influences on medieval science. Also, having a single monk, John of Westwyk, and his life as the narrative thread weaving through the whole book was a brilliant idea, and worked really well to achieve cohesion and preserve the human nature of scientific endeavours. The prologue and epilogue should be mandatory reading.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Some people would dispute the very existence of science as a discipline during the Early Middle Ages; not Seb Falk. He takes as his starting point a manuscript giving detailed instructions for the manufacture of an astrolabe. At one time thought to have been written by Chaucer, it was subsequently attributed to a monk called John Westwyk. Falk uses Westwyk's work as a way of focusing on the astronomy and mathematics underlying the use of astrolabes. In the process he explains how the observation Some people would dispute the very existence of science as a discipline during the Early Middle Ages; not Seb Falk. He takes as his starting point a manuscript giving detailed instructions for the manufacture of an astrolabe. At one time thought to have been written by Chaucer, it was subsequently attributed to a monk called John Westwyk. Falk uses Westwyk's work as a way of focusing on the astronomy and mathematics underlying the use of astrolabes. In the process he explains how the observation of the stars and the movement of the sun were used for navigation, for time keeping, for measuring distance, for determining the liturgical calendar, for deciding when to administer medical treatment, for choosing the auspicious time to set out on an expedition – in fact for just about everything of any importance in the medieval world. What is fascinating is to see how completely embedded so much of this knowledge was in the society of the time. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I struggled as I got further into this book because the maths was, frankly, quite difficult. There was rather a lot of trigonometry involved and I frequently got lost. (I shall never scoff at the middle ages again.) Moreover, if, like me, you are not especially good at visualisation, the task gets steadily harder. We don't spend our time observing the stars in the way that medieval folk did – for one thing, we can't really see them – so it gets harder and harder to remember whether we are talking about an angle in relation to the equator or the ecliptic, or why exactly the difference between the tropical year and the sidereal year mattered. Despite these reservations, I found this an extremely interesting book, wonderfully well-researched and, true to its title, highly enlightening. I'm just not convinced it's pitched at the general reader. You have to be quite mathematically minded to follow it properly. Of course, there's still a lot in here if you're not (for example, I now know how to tell the time using an astrolabe) but it's by no means an easy read. Those monks put in a lot of hours of observation and calculation; if you want to meet them on equal terms, you need to be prepared for a certain amount of hard thinking.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Josh Hedgepeth

    Thanks to NetGalley for granting me this arc in exchange for fair and honest review. Released in November 2020, The Light Ages is a fairly new release. When I saw this on NetGalley I was extremely intrigued. The first thing I thought of were the different machines we see used in Game of Thrones like that big spear they used against the dragons. Obviously, I know that's part is fiction, but I was curious to see how advanced was that period. The book ended ip not really being about that. It focused Thanks to NetGalley for granting me this arc in exchange for fair and honest review. Released in November 2020, The Light Ages is a fairly new release. When I saw this on NetGalley I was extremely intrigued. The first thing I thought of were the different machines we see used in Game of Thrones like that big spear they used against the dragons. Obviously, I know that's part is fiction, but I was curious to see how advanced was that period. The book ended ip not really being about that. It focused more on more esoteric areas of science, if science is even the right way to describe it. The story is structured around this religious text by a medevil monk. Falk tries to focus in on this particular period as a way of talking about the science, but as others have noted, this focuses on a tiny sliver over the "dark ages". Unfortunately, I just don't think that's effective. It feels like it's trying to be more of a medieval history book than a science history book. Perhaps that is to be expected since Falk is an expert on medieval history. Nevertheless, I was expecting it to be more grounded in the science. Instead it felt like we were being forced to listen to extremely obscure figures in history and seeing some the esoteric forms of science fit into the conversation. I found it extremely difficult to follow. The writing wasn't particularly bad, and since I read this after publication, I was able to listen to the audiobook on scribd. The author narrates his own book doing an excellent job. It suggests he has the ability to communicate, so it's probably more that this book just wasn't the book I wanted it to be. It was intriguing at times, but for the most part I just wanted to get it over with. I did not feel like I got much out of this book. I couldn't we give you a general overview of it. I can tell you a few scientific accomplishments--vecause that's what I was really looking for. Overall though, the book just wasn't focused enough for me, or perhaps a fairer way of putting it is, it wasn't focused on what I cared about. 3/5

  13. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    “Rather than a synonym for backwardness, [the term ‘medieval’] 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...Why, then, do we persist in belittling the Middle Ages? In part it is certainly to exalt ourselves.“ Seb Falk has written a wonderful, passionate story of scientific curiosity in the Middle Ages. Challenging the frustratingly commo “Rather than a synonym for backwardness, [the term ‘medieval’] 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...Why, then, do we persist in belittling the Middle Ages? In part it is certainly to exalt ourselves.“ Seb Falk has written a wonderful, passionate story of scientific curiosity in the Middle Ages. Challenging the frustratingly common misconception of the medieval era as a ‘Dark Ages’ devoid of creativity or innovation, he chronicles the various technological, natural, and intellectual advancements in what he instead dubs the ‘Light Ages.’ The book centers around one fourteenth-century English monk, John Westwyk, and the writings attributed to him. Falk uses this one individual as an entry point into the greater medieval world, covering how medieval scholars approached astronomy, astrology, geometry, natural history, medicine, navigation, time, music, memorization, and more. I appreciated his inclusion of non-Latin-Christians, as he never shied away from the monumental contributions of translators, commentators, writers, inventors, etc. from the Muslim diaspora. It was perhaps a bit detailed for the average reader, especially if they have little background experience with medieval history or with math/science. I am comfortable with the former, not the latter, so some passages went over my head. But, overall, Falk does a great job drawing from medieval texts and objects to make a compelling and accessible history. [4/5: Highly recommend for anyone interested in medieval history, the history of science, or both. If you don’t fit either of those but it doesn’t scare you off, give it a chance! It is a fascinating read.] Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michael Cayley

    This book uses the life - about much of which relatively little is known - of the 14th century monk John Westwyk, who produced an important astronomical work, to explore medieval developments in science, with especial reference to astronomy and astronomical instruments, time measurement, navigation and medicine. Along the way there are insights into the life of minks and the wider social history of the time. It is a book which conveys the curiosity of people of this period about their world, and This book uses the life - about much of which relatively little is known - of the 14th century monk John Westwyk, who produced an important astronomical work, to explore medieval developments in science, with especial reference to astronomy and astronomical instruments, time measurement, navigation and medicine. Along the way there are insights into the life of minks and the wider social history of the time. It is a book which conveys the curiosity of people of this period about their world, and dispels the myth of opposition between science and religion. Many monasteries owned scientific manuscripts, and some were real centres of scientific endeavour. I would have liked more about the contribution of Islamic and Jewish cultures to science. Some of the description of how astronomical instruments worked and were engineered is hard to follow. But all in all, a fascinating read. With thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for letting me have an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    The common view of the medieval era in Europe is that it was a period of darkness. That it was an age when science was forgotten and books languished in the dusty back rooms while wild-eyed monks burned the relics of the past and the Pope banned every new idea that came along. Many of our modern views of history come straight from Victorian England, whose historians either praised or denigrated various eras of history depending on how well it fit into their own mythology about the Birth of Englan The common view of the medieval era in Europe is that it was a period of darkness. That it was an age when science was forgotten and books languished in the dusty back rooms while wild-eyed monks burned the relics of the past and the Pope banned every new idea that came along. Many of our modern views of history come straight from Victorian England, whose historians either praised or denigrated various eras of history depending on how well it fit into their own mythology about the Birth of England. The medieval era, with its strange culture, writings, and devotion to the Pope in Rome suffered the most, becoming known thereafter as the Dark Ages. But, as medieval historian and Cambridge lecturer Seb Falk argues in his new history of the later medieval era, The Light Ages, these centuries were far from dark. Using the fourteenth century monk, John of Westwyk, as an anchor for his narrative, Falk shows how the medieval era was, in fact, an era of advancement that gave us soaring Gothic cathedrals, mechanical clocks, eyeglasses, scientific works being translated from Greek, Arabic, and Latin, and a robust university culture that spread knowledge across Europe. Ideas came from as far afield as China, and were debated extensively before being absorbed by scholars and built upon. And while the various Popes of the era might have banned books, it was as effective then as it is now, which is to say, not very effective at all. The banned books were still passed around and read by enthusiastic scholars. Though Falk’s narrative is enthusiastic and sprinkled with humor (take note of the astrolabe that does not come equipped with an ascension app), it does grow a bit dense at times, particularly when Falk explains how to use an astrolabe or the twists and turns of figuring the proper dates for planting and harvesting using the sun and the Julian calendar. But the density at these points serves a purpose, as Falk notes toward the end: if the equations are difficult for a modern person to figure out, they were doubly so for medieval scholars who did not have access to electronic calculators. But figure them they did, and usually to the high degree of precision necessary for figuring out how to make a new calendar, invent the mechanical clock, or develop plans for the grand cathedrals that still stand centuries later. Though it might take two or three readings to fully absorb the details in The Light Ages, it is a successful in its arguments that the medieval era was filled with intellectual life and scientific advancement. It is a social imaginary of the Western world that the greatest scientific achievements were made by lone geniuses laboring in obscurity until they made breakthroughs that changed the course of history. This is, of course, not the case. Like social history, the events of scientific history are based on what came before– centuries’ worth of incremental advancements that would not have been possible if not for the ones that came before. We might think that the medieval era was an intellectual wasteland, but there was a vast array of scientific breakthroughs that were not opposed by the church or by hordes of peasants armed with pitchforks and torches. Here in the twenty-first century, we might look back with pity at those poor scholars of centuries past who had to make do without calculators and Google, but those scholars still managed to figure things out by memorizing vast amounts of information, learning new languages, doing extensive calculations without even the benefit of pen and paper, and carefully observing the world around them. They were curious about nature and, like us, they looked to the stars. They can’t be blamed for not figuring out the intricacies of the movements of the planets; no one else would until the twentieth century with its massive observatories and radio telescopes. In The Light Ages, Seb Falk helps advance the work of rehabilitating the reputation of the medieval era, showing how instead of an age of darkness and anti-intellectualism, those centuries from the 1000s to the 1400s helped advance science and technology, and without those advances we would not have the technologies we enjoy today. ----- Thank you to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with a free eBook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sean Guynes

    Falk's book is an incredibly thorough tour through the history of medieval science, so thorough that it would make a great resource for anyone writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages or interested in bringing medieval science to a fantasy world. Each chapter traces a different set of scientific problems faced by medieval people (how to calculate time, what numerals to use, how to think about the natural world, how to sail, etc.) using a somewhat anonymous monk, John Westwyck, and the a Falk's book is an incredibly thorough tour through the history of medieval science, so thorough that it would make a great resource for anyone writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages or interested in bringing medieval science to a fantasy world. Each chapter traces a different set of scientific problems faced by medieval people (how to calculate time, what numerals to use, how to think about the natural world, how to sail, etc.) using a somewhat anonymous monk, John Westwyck, and the abbey he lived in, St. Alban's, as a frame for weaving together all these aspects (and histories) of medieval science. While the frame is sometimes a bit stretch (i.e. Westwyck signed up for a crusade to fight in Belgium, that means he crossed the North Sea, that means we should spent 20 pages on the science of sailing, etc.), Falk nonetheless provides a unique way to survey the breadth and complexity of medieval thinking, demonstrating that these were not "dark ages" at all, but instead a period of immense growth, learning, and scholastic contention.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Shoshi

    Once past the prologue, this is a romp of a history of science (the trig and astronomy is very detailed). The prologue has a bit of vitriol which surprised me, but I realize that may be a result of when I completed my undergrad degree and where - my teachers were clear that medieval science existed and the conflict with religion is more complicated but that may not have been what popular science or popular histories have said. Also nice to have more voices than the standard Greek, Roman, Medieval Once past the prologue, this is a romp of a history of science (the trig and astronomy is very detailed). The prologue has a bit of vitriol which surprised me, but I realize that may be a result of when I completed my undergrad degree and where - my teachers were clear that medieval science existed and the conflict with religion is more complicated but that may not have been what popular science or popular histories have said. Also nice to have more voices than the standard Greek, Roman, Medieval Christian and handful of Islamic scholars discussed.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    An interesting, but sometimes heavy going, read that illuminates an underappreciated area of history. There’s a heavy focus on medieval astronomy, which was surprisingly central to life in those times. This dominates the book a little too much to my taste, at the expense of some of the fascinating monastic history, which I could happily have read much more about. Even in a period often dismissed as ignorant and brutish, the scope of human ingenuity and inquisitiveness impresses.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Timoer Frelink

    An excellent book showing us that the “Dark Ages” were far from dark and that science in the middle ages was very much alive. Not only in the islamic world, but also in medieval England and especially in its monestaries. Well writtem, packed with detail. Everyone interested in the history of science should read this.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Dixon

    For full transparency: I myself am a medieval researcher and, tangentially, know the author. When I heard the premise of this book I was extremely excited, and Falk does not disappoint - this was a story that urgently needed to be told. Falk's work is an excellent example of rigorous academic research that has been written, and made interesting, to a non-specialist audience. Falk creates a compelling narrative. He humanises his discussion of medieval science not only by grounding his discussion For full transparency: I myself am a medieval researcher and, tangentially, know the author. When I heard the premise of this book I was extremely excited, and Falk does not disappoint - this was a story that urgently needed to be told. Falk's work is an excellent example of rigorous academic research that has been written, and made interesting, to a non-specialist audience. Falk creates a compelling narrative. He humanises his discussion of medieval science not only by grounding his discussion in the joy he finds in his own research, but by sharing the story of one medieval individual: monk and astronomer John Westwyck. The extensive and accessible notes for further reading are impressive, ensuring 'The Light Ages' is a starting point for interested readers rather than the final word.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jemima Pett

    I have always been mystified by the term ‘the Dark Ages’. Cambridge historian Seb Falk obviously felt there was a need to change people’s opinions of this period. There is no doubt from his research: this era was a hotbed of scientific thought, and wondrous inventions. He also shows the international collective reasoning that tried to establish the why and how of our world. This tour de force of a book collects evidence across several centuries. Falk often delves into obscure original manuscripts I have always been mystified by the term ‘the Dark Ages’. Cambridge historian Seb Falk obviously felt there was a need to change people’s opinions of this period. There is no doubt from his research: this era was a hotbed of scientific thought, and wondrous inventions. He also shows the international collective reasoning that tried to establish the why and how of our world. This tour de force of a book collects evidence across several centuries. Falk often delves into obscure original manuscripts, or contemporary copies. Notes, references and further commentary take up 20% of the book’s length. That may help relax you as you start tackling the vagaries of addition and multiplication in Roman numerals. That was the common practice at the start of this period. Introducing Indo-Arabic numbers must have been a bigger revolution than decimalisation! I can multiply in pounds, shillings and pence, and in stones, pounds and ounces. We learnt this in primary school. You may well be completely baffled by the monk’s way of counting: in 60s – the quinquegessimal system. I sort of got the hang of it, but at a cost of completely losing the plot of the book. And I think this was still chapter one. The problem with the book? The ease in which the author dives from one subject to another, in very long chapters. When you reflect on the whole they make some sense, but at the time of first reading, seem completely random. Yes, he is taking the obscure monk John of Westwyk. He is filling in the world he lived in as he moves through his monkish path. But he leaps from Chaucer (with quotes in Chaucerian English), to the Pope of the time, and then his twice removed predecessor. These are trials of memory and understanding. These may have been taxed enough by the detailed examination of copying manuscripts, or the role of an Arabic scientist in learning to build armillary spheres. By the time we got to the summing up–which I recognised as such, because I suddenly understood what he’d been talking about beforehand–I had lost enthusiasm. The problem is, I think, that as the author says: schools teach the Dark Ages simply as strings of kings and battles, with occasional explanation of why they were fighting. This was probably a Victorian invention (along with ‘not invented here’ which wiped out the Islamic contribution). It turns out (to me, you probably know this) that the Crusades were entirely driven by the Catholic popes. By the time of the crusade that our monk John went on, the Pope was paying them in remission of sins (i.e. ticket to heaven) for participation in a war against people who merely disagreed with the pope’s way of running the christian world. I’ve made that very simplistic. So I did find the Light Ages interesting, but not as a whole. And it was very much worth switching from reading on my kindle, to reading on my app on my iPad. The illustrations changed from pretty much unintelligible, to something much better. I think as a reference book, this book belongs on the bookshelf. I recommend all libraries – and all school, college and science libraries, hold at least one copy. After all, if it wasn’t for Seb Falk, Merton College library would still have one of the priceless contemporary copies of an early scientific instrument consigned to a cupboard and labelled ’round table?’ One for science and history enthusiasts, but check out an ebook copy visually before you buy it, rather than a physical copy.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ed Taylor

    This is a fascinating book which takes a new look at the so-called "Dark Ages" and the science of the era. Exceptionally well researched and terrifically engaging, this is an easy read, even to those of us without a background in either history or science. Seb Falk is an engaging writer who discusses the advances made during the Dark Ages in a very approachable book. However, the Dark (or Light) Ages spanned a few centuries, and from the point of view of a layman, given the time that the book cov This is a fascinating book which takes a new look at the so-called "Dark Ages" and the science of the era. Exceptionally well researched and terrifically engaging, this is an easy read, even to those of us without a background in either history or science. Seb Falk is an engaging writer who discusses the advances made during the Dark Ages in a very approachable book. However, the Dark (or Light) Ages spanned a few centuries, and from the point of view of a layman, given the time that the book covers, although progress was undoubtedly made, the rate of advance seems very slow, parrticularly as the timeline seems to jump around a bit. A timeline would have been helpful. Nevertheless, a very enjoyable book, highly deserving of a five star review, and one that I would recommend - one or two members of my family may well get a copy as a Christmas present!.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Martin Empson

    A cracking book - beautiful as well as astonishing. It places medieval European science in the context of wider interchanges of knowledge with the rest of the world, and the needs and interests of the people of England. Wonderful.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Angela Moore Garden Tea Cakes and Me

    This is an in-depth account of science and math and astronomy in the middle ages.  I found the first half of the book akin to a history study/textbook, containing translations of manuscripts, formula to the science of astronomy.  There is a good use of photos, diagrams, and poems to support detailed text and manuscripts.  The section on arithmetic and the use of a counting-board and the abacus I found of particular interest.  I certainly enjoyed following the journey of John Westwyk during this ti This is an in-depth account of science and math and astronomy in the middle ages.  I found the first half of the book akin to a history study/textbook, containing translations of manuscripts, formula to the science of astronomy.  There is a good use of photos, diagrams, and poems to support detailed text and manuscripts.  The section on arithmetic and the use of a counting-board and the abacus I found of particular interest.  I certainly enjoyed following the journey of John Westwyk during this time, how he was educated, and where he traveled. The fact that he was traceable during his life I still find amazing.  There is an extensive list of resources within the book. 3.5 / 5 stars

  25. 5 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    In the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm had a nightmare in which Asians loomed over him as yellow threats. He told others about his dream, and the Yellow Peril came into existence, tarring Asians with the absurd slur of yellow skin ever since. Seb Falk thinks the same sort of thing happened to the Middle Ages, often called the Dark Ages. In his The Light Ages, he follows the life of an English monk to represent the scientific advances that continued to occur, despite the negative adjectives slapped In the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm had a nightmare in which Asians loomed over him as yellow threats. He told others about his dream, and the Yellow Peril came into existence, tarring Asians with the absurd slur of yellow skin ever since. Seb Falk thinks the same sort of thing happened to the Middle Ages, often called the Dark Ages. In his The Light Ages, he follows the life of an English monk to represent the scientific advances that continued to occur, despite the negative adjectives slapped on the era. His passion was the astrolabe, the smartphone everyone had to have. It became indispensible. The action took place around St. Albans, reputed to be the best school in England in the 1100s. It was progressive enough to save 16 places for Poor Scholars, who paid no fees to attend. Our hero, a monk called John Westwyck, was in and out of the picture there, traveling to other churches within his Benedictine Order, and always, always focused on astronomy, his real passion and life’s work. The Middle Ages was a time of settling on standards. The various calendars in use converged towards our current system of 12 months with plus or minus 30 days each. Different cultures began the day at sunrise or noon, sunset, or midnight. Some number systems used base 20 or ten or even 60, making figures difficult to understand. For example, the French (base 20) still call 70 sixty-ten, and 80 is four-twenty. Base 60 numbers take a lot of getting used to in print, with their component parts separated by commas. English money made no sense to anyone outside the country until the 1970s, as it stubbornly refused to follow the rest of the world into decimalization until then. Actual numbers transitioned from Roman numerals to Arabic-Hindu numbers, popularized by Leonardo of Pisa – aka Fibonacci. The systems all coexisted for a long time, requiring the educated to be “bilingual” or “trilingual”: comfortable in all of them and able to switch between them. It was also at this time that English started to compete with Latin, thanks in no small part to Geoffrey Chaucer. Clear winners were not yet evident. It was just the way everything was. It was a time to leverage the astrolabe, an instrument invented in the Arabic world. It kept improving, until with Westwyk’s help, it could allow the user to tell the time of day, the positions of the planets, the direction north and true north, and much more. It was the smartphone of its day. People wore them hanging from their belts. They became a status symbol, if not a fashion statement. Their encyclopedic data informed legal and medical decisions. And of course, they kept travelers on the right path, often literally. These were all key apps from this one CPU. Westwyck spent years running up tables of endless tiny numbers, describing the movements of stars and planets throughout the day down to the second. In a time before actual mathematics, observations of great accuracy were the state of the art for scientists. The movement of a star or the moon was so tightly measured, users could tell the time of day to within a minute. In an era when it was assumed that all days had twelve equal daylight hours, summer and winter, this was an order of magnitude higher science. The astrolabe was an incredibly intricate slide rule. Lining it up with the sun, a plate attached to one side would indicate everything that was possible to know about the universe from that location at that instant. Since the stars looked different at different locations on Earth, interchangeable plates (think floppy disks, if you can) had to be laboriously eked out and etched out for every latitude the end user might find himself in. The encyclopedic knowledge built into every astrolabe was nothing less than astonishing. Never mind that it was perfected by an English monk in the Dark Ages. But really, the only other major innovation of the era was another measurement device, the mechanical clock. Richard of Wallingford, another St. Albans superstar, (its Abbot in the 1320s) built the world’s most accurate mechanical clock – and by far the most expensive one ever attempted, for his church. Falk calls the mechanical clock the most significant invention of the Middle Ages. This major development changed mankind, and Falk wants credit to go to the Middle Ages. It, along with Westwyk’s work on the astrolabe, made St. Albans the Silicon Valley of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the Middle Ages were a time of narrowly focused advances, shrouded in ignorance. Progress was all derivative, not original, Falk admits. It was also the era of Crusades, where ragtag armies were raised, then decimated by dysentery, in a neverending quest to impose Christianity on the western world and the Middle East. It was a time of dueling popes, papal armies and constant wars. The church, as well as local kings, laid siege to walled towns, starving them to submission, or death, or both. The clergy ruled, and ruled absolutely and arrogantly. They would withhold sacraments unless substantial donations were forthcoming. Indulgences could buy a parishioner’s way out of any dilemma in life. And all of the knowledge accumulated in the era seems to have come from monks, as they made up the majority of those who could read and write, and who had the time to pursue their hobbies without fear of starving to death themselves. How much farther ahead mankind could have come without these constraints is outside the scope of the book, which looks at the glass as half full, despite everything. The icing on the cake was astrology. It was in this era that people like Westwyk devised the divisions of the sky. The final blow was the pie slices of “houses”, in which planets crossed into the purview of 12 different constellations that rotate around the north pole every night. Monks fabricated attributes, values and meanings for these events and cosmological bodies. Far too quickly, the meanings became set in concrete. The suddenly self-evident attributes of planets, cross-fertilized with the suddenly self-evident attributes of constellations, could portend success or failure, sickness or health, life or death. All without even the slightest hint of evidence. Or even theory. There were philosophers who spoke up, showing there was not only no proof of the significance of the stars in people’s individual lives, but there was no possibility of a faraway star having any effect whatsoever, never mind its presence at a time of day, or month or year, in or outside the star of a constellation. These philosophers were overruled, and ignorance solidified around the unfounded theories. Expertise in the effects of the planets and stars became the key to success around the world. Even Galileo had to produce horoscopes for clients. In France, 1437 “arbitrators” ruled that: “all physicians and surgeons must have a full almanac, showing the sign of the moon on any day, and which planets it relates to, good or bad. And with it they must have an astrolabe to select, for any day, hour, and fractions of hours, the ascendant sign corresponding to the sign where the moon is, at the hour chosen for bloodletting or laxatives.” People like Westwyk, despite their claimed total devotion to Christianity, were actively complicit in the invention of modern astrology. The astrolabe, a sophisticated instrument of pure observational science, incorporated the nonsense. As the ignorance took hold, France banned even discussion of alternative/rejected theories. That was in 1277, a couple of hundred years before the Renaissance threw open the doors to other possibilities. So while the Middle Ages was a time when experiments became a way of scientific endeavor, and instruments and gadgets became must-haves, poverty, greed and ignorance still ruled. A tiny minority had the freedom to tinker. Falk cobbles a biography out of the fragments of evidence that Westwyk even lived. He makes (probably decent) assumptions about where and how he lived, and who he served. But it also gets to be a bit much, as Falk examines Westwyk’s handwriting, spacing and layout of his thoughts on parchment. He guesses what was a last minute addition and what was a correction to an earlier oversight. It becomes tedious at times, because the book is supposed to be about how bright the Middle Ages really were. Westwyk might be an unsung hero, but he did not represent the Middle Ages in any way. That the book is not always fascinating is a clue. Readers will be left wondering whether Falk made his case. But the astrolabe still rocked. David Wineberg

  26. 5 out of 5

    Catalina

    The Middle Ages and Science? Do you think they are incompatible? Well you'll think differently after reading Seb Falk's book. His aim, as stated in the Prolog, is to give The Middle Ages a better name. If you'd ask me, he was more than successful in his quest. To begin with I was a bit won over anyway, but after going through this book I am actually impressed. Gosh, what the monks were doing was so very hard. I am amazed at how smart they were!! No matter where you stand in regards to religion/t The Middle Ages and Science? Do you think they are incompatible? Well you'll think differently after reading Seb Falk's book. His aim, as stated in the Prolog, is to give The Middle Ages a better name. If you'd ask me, he was more than successful in his quest. To begin with I was a bit won over anyway, but after going through this book I am actually impressed. Gosh, what the monks were doing was so very hard. I am amazed at how smart they were!! No matter where you stand in regards to religion/the Church, I believe the Church was instrumental in the development of science and Universities; in writing and distributing books etc. This is particularly well explored in this book through Westwyck's story. I found the idea of following a normal monk, someone we never heard of, to show that science is not only about the most famous, but mostly about those tinkering on a daily basis, doing their bit to help the advancement of science, brilliant. From this point of view, this book is an ode to everyday heroes that are so very important, yet they never make it to the news. I found particularly interesting how science and religion use to go hand in hand. I think nowadays we mostly view religion as antiscience, yet it seems that the Dark Ages were better than us. They were able to study science and embrace scientific discoveries without refuting the existence of a God. Also very illuminating how information used to circulate and propagate all over the world. Falk puts an accent on the Muslim thinkers alongside Greeks, making us aware that it was not only Europe that contributed to scientific advancement. Truth be told, I've found parts of this book very hard to go through. Bits like: how to use an astrolabe or how they were calculating planetary trajectories etc went over my head as they were very hard to follow and understand. Probably for someone already interested in such things, this is going to be a treat. The good part is that one can still read and enjoy the book regardless if they get the mathematical bits or not :D As a side note I've enjoyed reading about Tynemouth Priory as I was scheduled to visit it at the end of September. I can attest to the horrendous force of the North Wind up on the exposed rock where Tynemouth Priory proudly sits. I was so taken with the book, that I even told the English Heritage guy about it hahahahaha. Oh and I am adding St Albans and Gorhambury Estate to my "to see" list. Spring with its flowers is outlawed there, summer warmth is banned, but the north wind and his allies stay permanently, as if King Aeolus claims our land as his capital city, chafing the country with deadly cold and snowy shackles. *Book from NetGalley with thanks to the publisher.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Vivienne

    My thanks to Penguin Press U.K. Allen Lane for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey’ of Discovery by Seb Falk in exchange for an honest review. While I had taken a course on the History of Science some years ago, it only covered the Early Modern Period, i.e. the Renaissance onward. So from the opening pages this was such an eye opener! Falk is writing for a general readership guiding us through the Middle Ages, a time of wonder that gave us the first universities, the first My thanks to Penguin Press U.K. Allen Lane for an eARC via NetGalley of ‘The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey’ of Discovery by Seb Falk in exchange for an honest review. While I had taken a course on the History of Science some years ago, it only covered the Early Modern Period, i.e. the Renaissance onward. So from the opening pages this was such an eye opener! Falk is writing for a general readership guiding us through the Middle Ages, a time of wonder that gave us the first universities, the first eyeglasses and the first mechanical clocks as medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky. Falk provides a real-life guide to the world of medieval science: a fourteenth-century monk named John of Westwyk - an inventor, astrologer, and crusader. While only traces of Brother John’s life are known, Falk follows these so that we encounter the natural world through Brother John's eyes. Along the way we meet other fascinating characters. Falk makes a persuasive case for the medieval period being reconsidered as The Light Ages. He also contrasts the attitudes towards religion between medieval science and the science of today. He writes: “Medieval science was not trying to understand the workings of a coldly mechanistic natural world but a living cosmos endowed by God.“ Also, he takes time to consider examples of scholarly cooperation during this period: “We have seen, too, that religion was no impediment to scientific progress. Time and again we have witnessed medieval Christians respecting and absorbing learning from other faiths without prejudice.” Reading of these, it seems that in some ways the medieval period was more progressive than the following period of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Falk rounds out the book with a comprehensive list of primary and secondary sources. Again, he notes that articles, books and online resources have been slanted towards general readers, though full bibliographic notes are included so the book is also suitable for academics. I have always been interested in history and science and so my little grey cells were delighted by this book. It provided much food for thought while always remaining accessible. The book contains many illustrations from the period and concludes with suggestions for further reading, including fiction as well as the more traditional works. There is also a handy index. An excellent work of nonfiction that takes its readers on an amazing journey. Highly recommended.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    This is a serviceable introduction to European science before the Renaissance. However, its strengths are also its weakness. Islamic sources are glossed over; Byzantine science and technology isn't even mentioned; Chinese contributions are mostly confined to magnetism. Thus, this is mostly a retread of eurocentric histories. You can read the same themes in numerous tomes. The only thing that is somewhat novel is viewing the period through the eyes of John Westwyk. However, this approach doesn't This is a serviceable introduction to European science before the Renaissance. However, its strengths are also its weakness. Islamic sources are glossed over; Byzantine science and technology isn't even mentioned; Chinese contributions are mostly confined to magnetism. Thus, this is mostly a retread of eurocentric histories. You can read the same themes in numerous tomes. The only thing that is somewhat novel is viewing the period through the eyes of John Westwyk. However, this approach doesn't work. Besides the treatise that bears his name, nothing is known about him or his science. It's all guesswork based on the fact that he just happened to live in the fourteenth century and probably knew the usual science of his day. In other words, insert any name on a monastic role, and you would have the same book. While reading, it's easy to forget about Westwyk as the the science of the period is discussed. He gets overshadowed by discussions of university teachings and overly-detailed descriptions of calculating methods. Falk does shine when he is describing difficult astronomical calculations and medieval computational tools. However, one is left to wonder why the reader is taught how to calculate time through heavenly motions and how to use astrolabe when these skills are no longer necessary. The history slows down and dies as the reader is asked to follow unnecessarily complicated descriptions of outdated science. Finally, the idea that the Middle Ages are one monolithic period of darkness was destroyed years ago. Westwyk is a product of the Twelfth-century Renaissance and the High Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages are remarkably different from what Falk suggests. It is well documented that the 14th century was a time of great progress in the arts and sciences. It has been know for centuries that the High Middle Ages were full of "light" relative to the Early Middle Ages. Falk's title is frustratingly misleading. It suggests that the Early Middle Ages had light. However, this is just another description of the work of others who have shown that Europe came out of the Dark Ages during the Crusades and the twelfth-century translation movement that reintroduced Aristotle to the West and stimulated the growth of universities culminating in the relatively "light" High Middle Ages. There is not much new here. The strengths Falk has of describing ancient calculators and calculations techniques really belongs in a technical manual.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Originally published on my blog: Nonstop Reader. The Light Ages is a beautifully annotated and layman accessible survey of astronomy, mathematics, engineering, science, and learning in the middle ages viewed through the lens of a real 14th century monk called John of Westwyk. Due out 24th Sept from Penguin UK on their Allen Lane imprint, it's ca. 320 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats (other editions possibly available in other formats). I love reading history, especial Originally published on my blog: Nonstop Reader. The Light Ages is a beautifully annotated and layman accessible survey of astronomy, mathematics, engineering, science, and learning in the middle ages viewed through the lens of a real 14th century monk called John of Westwyk. Due out 24th Sept from Penguin UK on their Allen Lane imprint, it's ca. 320 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats (other editions possibly available in other formats). I love reading history, especially of the middle ages. I spent a lot of time in my past, dressed up in medieval garb (or as close as I could get), recreating and demonstrating the nicer parts of the period with my fellow history nerds. I'm also an engineer (day job), and a calligrapher (hobby), so finding this book, which is an intersection of the venn diagram of my life, was a delight. Dr. Seb Falk has taken what could've been the tweediest, driest, most academic treatise and made it both accessible and human. The subject matter is admittedly academic, there's enough annotation and chapter notation and bibliography to satisfy the staunchest pedant but at the same time, there's a clear and compelling biographical narrative. I'm amazed that there's enough period record to reconstruct the story of Brother John's life in a cold monastic cell in Hertfordshire in the 14th century, but there's enough extant record to create a rough timeline and the author has clearly noted and rigorously supported and annotated where extrapolations are made. There were so many revelations for me in this book about medieval education, numeracy, literacy of the general population, lifestyle, and more. Throughout the book, where middle English is quoted in the book from period records, it's written verbatim, with an interpretation below it in modern vernacular. There are numerous photographs and illustrations which I enjoyed very much. Well written, meticulously annotated and researched, with a clear and engaging narrative. The author has a rare gift with written English. Five stars. Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Rucha

    "If the world could be made predictable, understandable, then to improve the instruments that replicated it's workings was to imitate God". The Middle Ages or Medieval Period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, at which point starts the 'Age of Discovery'. While, in popular knowledge, a majority of the inventions are attributed to the ages of discovery, the groundwork was laid, surprisingly, in the so called Dark Ages And so begins Seb Falk’s ambitious project – The Light Ages! Written in se "If the world could be made predictable, understandable, then to improve the instruments that replicated it's workings was to imitate God". The Middle Ages or Medieval Period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century, at which point starts the 'Age of Discovery'. While, in popular knowledge, a majority of the inventions are attributed to the ages of discovery, the groundwork was laid, surprisingly, in the so called Dark Ages And so begins Seb Falk’s ambitious project – The Light Ages! Written in seven parts - from the basics of monastic life to universities, astronomy and medicine, The Light Ages by Seb Falk attempts to summarize the pathbreaking research that occurred in the middle ages in 570 odd pages. Although this book has all the makings of a thoroughly researched book complete with empirical evidence, it does not read like a dry academic paper. On the contrary, set against the backdrop of quaint English villages, looming cathedral and a slow simmering civic unrest, the overall aura of the book is very vintage and reminiscent of a simpler time. What I loved: The Light Ages is very thoroughly researched; the data and manner of presentation is impeccable and faultless. Personally, my favourite part was the chapter on Astrolabe, which was so visual in the way it has been written. "The Astrolabe was a key to understanding"- understanding both God and yourself. Additionally, the insight it provides us in the amount of time our ancestors in the middle ages actually dedicated trying to understand and thereby lay the groundwork in the basics of astronomy. The sun moves at a variable rate through the stars, this is today explained by the earth's Elliptical orbit. However, astronomers previously had achieved same results thinking of the Sun's annual motion as an "eccentric circle" What was challenging: This book is very academic and gets really detailed. As such it is intended for an extremely niche audience. The book demands a basic understanding of medieval history, mathematics and astronomy. A keen interest in both is a given, considering the fact that you're considering reading the book! I’d like to thank Penguin Press UK and Allen Lane for sending me an advanced readers copy.

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