The Light Ages by Seb Falk reviewed

The Light Ages Book Cover The Light Ages
Seb Falk
Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane, Particular, Pelican, Penguin Classics
September 24, 2020

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.

The Light Ages by Seb Falk

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 Light Ages 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 The Light Ages. 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