Prospect: The Light Ages by Seb Falk

There are few easier ways to enrage a medievalist than to refer to the era they study as ‘the Dark Ages’. But those who think of the medieval world – and medieval Catholicism in particular – as the antithesis of reason and progress, might be surprised to learn that the great Benedictine abbey at St Albans had portraits in stained glass of both Muslim and Jewish scholars adorning its cloisters.

It’s true that St Albans was unusual in its devotions to learning and what we would now call science, but that was only a difference of degree, not of kind: as Sebastian Falk has set out to prove in his fascinating new book, The Light Ages, medieval Catholicism wasn’t the enemy of progress, it was its engine.

Falk’s starting point is an obscure 14th-century St Alban’s monk named John of Westwick, son of a yeoman, whose career he traces largely through the mathematical and astronomical manuscripts that Westwick worked on. Westwick greatest claim to fame is a treatise on the construction of an equatorium, a supercomputer of its day, designed to calculate the movements of the planets and the stars, which was re-discovered in 1951 by the maverick scholar Derek Price. (Price initially ascribed the treatise to Chaucer.)

But as Falk makes clear, Westwick was merely one small part of an international community of scholars that transcended cultural and religious boundaries, all dedicated in different ways to comprehending the laws of time and space. For scholars in the Christian West – who were almost exclusively members of religious orders – to understand planetary and stellar motion was to come closer to an understanding of God; the mathematics of astronomy was, in its way, a kind of prayerful, meditative act.

At one level, of course, the connection between religion and science is explicable through the structures of knowledge in the period. Monasteries, since the fall of the Roman Empire, had been the principal repositories of learning in all its forms – and arguably even more so after the explosion in the number of translated texts from, primarily, Greek and Arabic sources, that began to circulate from the 12th century onwards. Monastic houses were both store houses and copy houses for these texts, keeping them safe and circulating new iterations of them.

We tend to think of the work done in scriptoria as passive, preservative, neutral activities. But we are wrong. Falk makes the important point here that both copying and memorialisation – both learning techniques it is fashionable to deride – were deeply creative practices, at once embedded in meditative cognitive processes and also the root stock of new ideas.

Reproducing a manuscript was an expressive intellectual process full of agency and choice. The fixed replicability of print gives us a sense of permanence to the text of a book that is actively misleading when we come to think of manuscript works. Falk notes that astrolabes and other scientific instruments were listed like books in library catalogues, and just as every instrument was readable in the way that books were, so manuscripts were modifiable, capable of reworking, adaptation and improvement, in just the way that instruments could be.

But the interconnection of astronomical study with the rituals and cycles of both religious and secular life was so deep-rooted and so profound in the medieval period it is hard to overstate. Because monasteries under the Benedictine Rule, which was most of them, needed accurate time-keeping to adhere to the Rule’s daily cycle of prayer, they were at the forefront of time-measuring technology. The position of the stars was typically used to regulate prayers at night, while the sun – or the movement of the shadows it made – was used during the day.

Absent other measures, monastics often used the length of their various prayers – fixed, reliable quantities of time – to calculate the passage of the hours. (I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but one of my favourite mental images is of Cardinal Bellarmine, Galileo’s inquisitor, sitting on a beach at sunset and trying to calculate the speed of the sun’s rotation around the earth by reciting Psalm 51, the miserere, as a known measure of time.) The need to mark time was at once practical and spiritual.

Outside monastic walls, vital areas of medieval life, like agriculture and navigation, were governed by close observation of the sky. In significant respects, the folk astronomy of farmers and seamen gave them a better understanding of what happened in the heavens than the scholars had, for all their astrolabes and armillary spheres; they knew, for instance, that a new moon could rise as much as two days in advance of when the astronomical calendars said it should.

Meanwhile, if land management required a practical understanding of the changing seasons, so monastic life relied heavily on land management for its income, whether in the form of rents or as agricultural produce, which supported the house directly by putting food on the table and indirectly through commerce.

Monastic houses – and the wider civil society – needed precise measures of time, not just for daily prayer but for the numerous religious festivals and feast days that filled the medieval calendar. Those festivals – the movable feasts – which were descended from the Jewish ritual calendar required accurate knowledge of the 19-year-long lunar cycle, which then needed to be reconciled with the solar year which formed part of Christianity’s Roman inheritance.

Again, it’s hard to over-emphasise how pervasive this was, how important it was to everyday life. Before the Reformation, people did not mark time by days of the month, but by holy days; they thought in what you might call Catholic Standard Time. Even as late as the 1530s when Henry VIII was dismantling Catholic hegemony in England, daily life was still structured around the ritual year. (I find it fascinating that even the men around Thomas Cromwell, who were hardly papistical recidivists, thought like that: the date of Bishop Fisher’s trial in 1535, according to Cromwell’s papers in the National Archives, was described as being on the “Thursday after St Barnabas”, rather than 17 June; the trial of three Charterhouse monks – actually the following day, 18 June – “on Friday next after the quinzaine of Holy Trinity”; and so on.)

Many of the certainties we take for granted today – from timekeeping and measures of speed to the mathematics underpinning GPS systems – were first formulated by candlelight in the monastic libraries, scriptoria and cells modernity likes to revile. The hours and minutes that wind down our days are, as Falk says, merely conventions, and conventions need to be codified and established. Arguably those we use today are less accurate than those in the great religious houses of the medieval period. When the first mechanical clocks were invented c1300, they measured real time; since the advent of time zones in the 19th century, we have adjusted ourselves to using mean – that is, average – time. Falk describes these clocks as the single greatest invention of the Middle Ages, and they were certainly profoundly transformative. Prior to the regularisation of the day that they introduced, hours did not have fixed durations. There were twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness whatever the time of year, so the further you travelled from the equator, the hours of your summer nights shortened, while the hours of your winter nights were long and dark indeed.

These debts to the medieval past are something we have forgotten – or have allowed to be erased. Copernicus’ earth-shattering 1543 publication On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was closely modelled on the Almagest of 2nd-century Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy. He used data from what are known as the Parisian Alfonsine tables, compiled in the 12th century by a team led by two Jewish mathematicians – under the patronage of Alfonso X of Castile – but based on the 11th-century work of Muslim astronomer, al-Zarqali living in Toledo, then controlled by the Moors. The ninth-century Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar was among those celebrated in the cloisters of St Albans.

But it’s through close study of the work of men like John of Westwick – often lying neglected in libraries and manuscript collections – that we can re-establish these debts and obligations. One of the many strengths of Falk’s book is the story it has to tell about the transmission of learning through the copying, writing and exchange of manuscripts – right down to the present day and the 20th century archival work of scholars like Derek Price and John North. Through such documents we can track the minds of these long dead monks and friars as they look up into the sky, map the reach of their thought, their conversations, their dead ends, errors and revisions. In this sense, The Light Ages is not merely a book about medieval learning, but about how knowledge and learning advance tout court.

We have a lot of prejudices still to unlearn. The idea that the fall of Rome heralded an age of darkness is almost as old as the fall of Rome itself. Which is to say, as Falk notes, it is a medieval conceit; Gildas was at it in The Ruin of Britain as early as the sixth century. But Renaissance self-fashioning, metastasised by Reformation anti-Catholicism, rendered the idea toxic and vengeful: when even as nuanced and sensitive thinker as Tudor historian William Camden can refer to the medieval period as “overcast with… [a] thicke fogge of ignorance”, the self-aggrandising group-think has sunk deep.

To think that the medieval mind was wholly attuned to the defence of dogma and reaction is to be mistaken, both about medievalism and intellectual progress: medieval scholars were critical of inherited knowledge because reform of knowledge was a defence of the Catholic faith, of Christendom, not an attack on it. Through astronomy you could perceive the divine order of creation and understand your place – literally and figuratively – within it. Comprehending the operations of time and space was a kind of divine proof of concept, an affirmation of God’s authority, not a challenge to it. In this way, the medieval world also confounds another commonplace, but distorting, trope about intellectual change: rebellion against an oppressive orthodoxy isn’t the only means by which progress occurs.

The book is based on Falk’s doctoral thesis and, in places, it shows – in particular with its detailed dissections of the science behind instruments like the astrolabe and Westwick’s equatorium. The chapter on medieval medicine – arguably the hardest ‘science’ to make sense of in modern terms – by contrast perhaps feels a little under-developed. That’s a pity, both because Falk is more than up to the challenge of explicating medieval understanding of health and the body, and because the very difference of that understanding from our own makes it all the more important that we do attempt to take it seriously on its own terms, and not dismiss it because it’s so alien.

I would also have been interested in Falk’s thoughts on any intellectual distinctions between the monastics and the mendicants. The latter were hugely important to the foundation and expansion of the universities – and of knowledge more generally – from the 13th century onwards. They were, after all, teaching orders. And it’s not a coincidence that they produced important figures like Roger Bacon and John Somers – not to mention Robert Grosseteste, whose theory of light at the starting point of creation, Falk notes, seems to prefigure the concept of the Big Bang.

However these are small regrets – tantamount to wishing the book were simply longer – about what is a profoundly illuminating, and at times enthralling, exploration of medieval astronomy and its place in both the wider medieval world and our own.

To return to Westwick, Price built a working model of his equatorium in 1952 – at the same workshop where Crick and Watson made their DNA double helix the following year. But it was quickly forgotten – one inventory had it labelled as King Arthur’s Table – until Falk rediscovered it in 2012. As medieval scholars knew, but we often forget, learning has to be conserved as well as extended. Thanks to the work of people like Westwick, the Dark Ages were anything but dark; and Falk’s book is a lucid and eloquent reproof to anyone who says otherwise.

This is a greatly extended version of a review that first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Prospect.

To buy a copy of The Light Ages from my book store, please click here. Profits from sales through the website go to support independent bookshops across the UK. I also receive a 10% commission on any purchases through my store.

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