‘The Light Ages’ argues for a rebranding of the medieval period

The Dark Ages were not solely about battles and plagues, says historian Seb Falk. Instead, they included a flourishing of scientific inquiry. 

W.W. Norton & Company
“The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science” by Seb Falk, W.W. Norton & Company, 416 pp.

“Positively medieval” has been a choice put-down for years. But University of Cambridge historian Seb Falk, in his irresistible new book “The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science,” maintains a certain impatience with that usage. 

“Medieval” shouldn’t be an insult at all, he argues. Instead, he wants readers to discover the scientific inquiry that existed during the so-called Dark Ages. 

According to Falk, this period was a time rich with vigorous research and experimentation. And yes, he acknowledges, the Catholic Church was an all-encompassing power in the European Middle Ages. But to think of science and religion “as two separate, inevitably antagonistic opponents, or to suggest that such close-mindedness as does exist has always been on the side of religion, is far too simplistic,” he writes.

A pervading belief in God never prevented people from investigating the world, Falk insists. “Loyalty to texts and traditions never meant the rejection of new ideas.” 

Some readers may immediately think of figures like Galileo, who were hounded, oppressed, imprisoned, and in many cases executed explicitly because their new ideas conflicted with texts and traditions. Those readers may need to prepare themselves for a certain amount of frustration in reading “The Light Ages.”

Falk, however, has found someone who embodies his claim that medieval faith and science were compatible: Brother John of Westwick, a 14th-century “crusader, inventor, [and] astrologer” who elaborated an obscure but groundbreaking scientific treatise, the “Equatorie of the Planetis.” The far better-known Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “A Treatise on the Astrolabe” puts him in the same ranks of amateur scientists, is passed over. “It is entirely appropriate that a book about medieval science should centre on an almost unknown figure,” Falk puckishly declares, and Brother John is just one of many such esoteric figures who come to life in the pages of “The Light Ages.”

These figures range across continents – the medieval Persian concept of i’tibar or “careful consideration” is their ruling ethos – and many of them epitomize seemingly modern outlooks. Falk points out that Brother John’s contemporary, the Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon, believed in scientia experimentalis: “the science of trial and experience.” 

Falk is a marvelous guide to the whole of this now-forgotten epoch in proto-scientific fumbling, and he omits no detail. By the time readers are finished with this book, they’ll know their way around an astrolabe with the familiarity of a 14th-century alchemist. And Falk is such an agreeably wonkish enthusiast that it’s easy to smile and nod along with lines like “You might well wonder why any astronomer would care to calculate down to the level of sexagesimal ninths.”

Despite the mass of minutiae about the era’s ideological obsessions, “The Light Ages” has a gamesome clarity that makes it the most unlikely quick read of the season. The book is a revelation on these early thinkers and strivers, and its only flaw is downplaying the degree to which resistance from the church scuttled scientific exploration – and slightly overestimating 14th-century achievements to make his points. 

“Disparaging the ‘Dark Ages,’” Falk writes, “has always been about making ourselves seem better by comparison.” He might be right. But when he adds that “viewing the past as an imperfectly developed version of the present day can lull us into complacency about the state of our own knowledge,” he sounds willfully naive. Medieval science may have been more multifaceted than is commonly portrayed, but it was indeed an imperfectly developed version of present knowledge. The strivers of the 14th century didn’t understand the scientific world differently than we do today – they understood it worse. 

“Rather than a synonym for backwardness,” Falk writes, “[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 the unknown.” It’ll be an uphill battle to rebrand the Dark Ages, but by showing the century’s science in such vivid detail, “The Light Ages” does everything it can.

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