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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Science Has Been Here for Years
The Middle Ages Were Never Dark to Begin With. Reviewing ‘The Light Ages’ by Seb Falk
When picking a tour guide through medieval science, choose a monk. But, wait! Hold up. Medieval science: Isn’t that an oxymoron? You might assume so. We’re so used to thinking in terms of the “Dark Ages,” a supposedly long intellectual slump after the fall of Rome in the fifth century, that we can’t imagine anything like science emerging from the time.
A Bogus Picture
Renaissance humanists were the first to float this narrative. They construed classical pagan antiquity as a golden age which vanished after hoards of unwashed barbarians put their feet up on Roman tables and the Latin Church stifled worldly pursuits.
The humanists’ primary concerns were literary and cultural. But the story eventually stretched over pretty much any field of thought, so that the millennium between Augustine and Petrarch was seen as a thousand backward, benighted years of ignorance and decline.
But then, as the story goes, those same brave humanists resuscitated the classical legacy and swept us into a new period of illumination, discovery, and human flourishing. It’s a self-congratulatory cartoon. And the subsequent centuries of back-patting deformed the caricature even further. After all, what would the Enlightenment be without all its self-positioning and self-praise relative to the Dark Ages?
“Disparaging the ‘Dark Ages’ . . . has always been about making ourselves seem better by comparison,” says Cambridge historian Seb Falk, whose book, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science, offers a fresh picture of the intellectual life in the Middle Ages.
A Better View
As Falk shows, the period was actually marked by advances in mathematics, astronomical observation and prediction, timekeeping, optics, mapmaking, navigation, and more.
There’s so much to discuss, in fact, it would present any author with an organizational challenge. How to structure the materials with this many angles and details? Many might default to a systematic, topical approach. Instead, Falk employs the timeline and itinerary of a largely anonymous British monk, John of Westwyk, to sketch the insights and innovations of the time.
Reproducing the effect in a review is tricky, but the treatment largely works. By following Westwyk from the farm to the monastery at about age twenty, for instance, Falk is able to show the connection between agriculture and astronomy. “Sowing, reaping, farrowing and slaughtering, working and feasting,” says Falk, these were “all dictated by changing conditions in the fields,” changes that “could be read in the heavens.”
Astrolabes and other intricate devices, along with detailed astronomical tables, enabled people to understand the movements of the sky, marking seasons and even telling the time of day.
By following Westwyk’s career, jumping back in time and further afield for context, Falk shows the medieval development of astronomy as a science—including building the conceptual foundations and frameworks that enabled later practitioners like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to derive and develop their theories.
Beyond the trajectory of Westwyk’s life, there are larger reasons to start with the era’s fixation on the firmament. “Astronomy was the first mathematical science,” as Falk explains; “models and formulae of modern science could not exist without it.” Not that medievals were always motivated by the same concerns as moderns.
The monks at Westwyk’s abbey, St. Albans, had their own reasons for keeping track of the stars. Computing the date of Easter, for instance, depended upon celestial observation—as did tracking the hours of the day, which was necessary for following the daily prayer schedule.
Churchmen forefronted timekeeping for religious reasons such as these, developing mechanical clocks to ensure regular observance of the hours and upgrading the slipping calendar they’d inherited from their pagan forebears to better mark holy days.
Westwyk was educated in a religious environment, as most educational institutions were at the time. Abbeys and cathedrals had schools for local children, and education continued for monks who had taken their vows. Fees were required to attend, but some seats were reserved for at least some without means to pay.
The grammar school provided the basics in reading, writing, and mathematics. But universities started cropping up in the twelfth century, beginning with Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. While tensions sometimes existed between these early universities and church authorities, the church nonetheless supported their founding and expansion.
“With growing support from Church and state authorities, universities sprang up all over Europe,” writes Falk. “By 1500, they had educated as many as a million students.” Many of those students were monks. “In an attempt to drive up the standards of monastic learning, in 1336 the Pope called on monasteries to send one in twenty of their monks for a higher education,” Falk explains.
It’s unclear whether Westwyk was one of them, though it’s likely. Westwyk’s abbey pushed 15–20 percent of its members to the university, and his intellectual work shows signs of advanced training.
The Centrality of Books
One thing that stands out from Falk’s treatment is the centrality of books in this intellectual development. Ascending through grammar school and university brought countless books into the orbit of students and graduates, beginning with the sixth-century go-to Institutes of Grammar by Priscian and heading whichever direction their studies took them—Ptolemy’s Almagest for astronomers, for instance.
The content of a medieval education was communicated largely via books—studying, copying, disputing, and writing texts. Studies continued at the abbey, nurtured by the abbot. “The monastery’s book collection grew substantially in the mid-fourteenth century, as abbots enthusiastically purchased copies of texts both classical and new,” says Falk, adding:
The scriptorium was completely rebuilt, so books could be more efficiently copied and repaired when necessary. Some of these books were marked for the abbot’s personal collection, but the abbot granted the more advanced monk-scholars access to them, and also allowed them to borrow books from the common library for extended study. And new books were brought to St. Albans by the brothers who were granted the immense privilege of attending university.
The picture here is one of intellectual hunger and acquisitiveness. “A succession of scholarly abbots had fostered an atmosphere of wide-ranging scientific study [at St. Albans, and] the monks amassed a store of scientific books, which they eagerly read and re-read.”
Being entirely hand-copied with scarce materials, books were expensive. As prized tools and resources, a lively market rose in response. By the twelfth century a “torrent of translations” washed across Europe, especially the works of Aristotle and Islamic scholars, spurring scientific inquiry as churchmen wrestled with the new insights and developed them further.
Valuable as they were, books were sometimes mishandled, shockingly so. Falk quotes Richard of Bury’s Philobiblion, decrying,
some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down; nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture… He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.
I’ve left a lot of coffee stains on my books over the years, admittedly. But snot and cheese! God save us.
What Medievals Knew
Through their reading and observations medieval thinkers recognized the earth was round and had nearly determined its size. They discovered rainbows were created by light reflecting and refracting within droplets of water. They developed the mean-speed theorem and notions of impetus upon which Galileo would later draw. And they refined instruments to compute the height of buildings, navigate oceans, and map the position of planets.
The complexity of the mathematics and conceptual modeling alone should impress anyone looking back at the period. (I, for one, struggled to keep up with it all.) We have the benefit of computers and a vast store of theory and data to work with today. They had to painstakingly work out the calculus manually and then capture their work on parchment—or machine it in cold bronze. And they were developing the theories and datasets that later scientists would employ to advance their fields. Falk finds traces of Westwyk’s life in the midst of all of it.
Rather than the image of intellectual torpor and stultifying conformity inherited from Enlightenment and other modern writers, Falk presents a world of inquiry and debate. The medieval world was one where books were feverishly copied, consulted, shared, and contested; where studying the natural world was a means of encountering the divine.
“Study of the natural world was a fundamental part of medieval life,” he says. “Grounding your position in space and time could be the gateway to transcendence.”
In an era of scientific advancement, it’s easy to look back at the imperfection of medieval knowledge—forgetting that all science, including our own, is imperfect because all knowledge is partial. “Yes, the Middle Ages stumbled into some scientific dead ends,” says Falk. “But so will we.” Some day people will look back at our present understanding of, say, astrophysics or neurology and shake their heads. We could at least afford the medievals the same sort of regard we would hope for own achievements.
Stretching out developments in Falk’s book on a larger timescale we can see the medieval period not as the squelching of inquiry and growth, but as necessary stages in our own development. We can also, as Falk encourages us to do, see them as valuable and worthy of consideration in their own right, on their own terms.
“It is time to redefine the word ‘medieval,’” says Falk. “Rather than a synonym for backwardness, it 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.”
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