The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science

Seb Falk. Norton, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-00293-2
Falk, historian at Cambridge University, makes an auspicious if occasionally hard-going debut with this look at the “scientific life of an unknown monk” in 14th-century England. The cleric, John Westwyk, is known only through a handful of obscure manuscripts dealing with the creation of astronomical tables and instruments. Nonetheless, Falk skillfully uses Westwyk as a vehicle to explore the nature of medieval science, arriving at a number of somewhat surprising conclusions. He argues that medieval Christianity, rather than blocking intellectual progress, “took support from science–and, in turn, spurred its progress”; that the denizens of English monasteries, far from being isolated, were “profoundly influenced” by an “international scientific fraternity of Jews and Muslims, Italians and Germans”; and that the period’s healthy scientific debates contradict the “stereotype of the Middle Ages as an era of scholastic conformity.” He also explains that the “study of the natural world was a fundamental part of medieval life,” and that despite settling on many incorrect answers, medieval scholars made significant advances. Falk spends a great deal of time demonstrating the complex mathematics used to understand astronomical patterns and may lose some of his audience in the process. Nonetheless, his enthusiastically delivered study will entrance those fascinated by the history of science or the Middle Ages. (Nov.)
Reviewed on : 05/22/2020
Release date: 11/17/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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