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The Light Ages - Seb Falk ****

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.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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