The Light in the “Dark Ages”

The Light Ages is an exceptionally artful book about the history of medieval science. With lucidity, vast learning, and a light touch, the book works on three levels with seamless simultaneity: (1) as a meticulous, microhistorical following of the scant parchment trail left by the nearly anonymous John Westwyk, a learned monk and astronomer in England’s major Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in the late fourteenth century; (2) as an approachable introduction to the culturally cosmopolitan, intellectually vibrant, and ecclesiastically approved world of medieval astronomy to which Westwyk belonged, highlighting the concrete instruments and actual practices through which astronomical ideas were embodied and theories refined; and (3) as a demolition of popular (in both senses), stubborn stereotypes about the supposedly chauvinistic and closed-minded Christian intellectual culture of the European Middle Ages.

Seb Falk needs only a few archival toeholds about “the scientific life of an unknown monk” who was “working at the coalface of astronomy” to provide a firm footing for his reconstruction of the relationships of medieval astronomy to liturgy, agriculture, mathematics, medicine, alchemy, weather forecasting, astrology, physics, optics, clockmaking, navigation, mapmaking, and more. He builds connections between these different areas “to tell the story of medieval science,” as he puts it, “as an integral part of medieval life and culture.” By showing and not merely telling, Falk subverts two self-serving myths that persist in the twenty-first century for ideological reasons, notwithstanding abundant counterevidence. The first myth is that of the alleged scientific backwardness of the Middle Ages, and the second is the putative, perpetual conflict between science and religion. This book makes either claim indefensible. “Dark Ages” and “medieval” retain their polemical utility among the ignorant quite sure of their own enlightenment; “The medieval reality, however, is a Light Age of scientific interest and inquiry.”

The decision to make John Westwyk, OSB the figure around which to reconstruct a history of medieval astronomy seems at first sight decidedly unpromising. We don’t know his family background, when he was born, his education, when he professed vows as a Benedictine monk, whether he spent time at Oxford, or when he died. We have no personally revealing sources from him or about him. Yet Falk turns Westwyk’s virtual anonymity into an important point about “an age of selfless scholarship”: that we know so little about Westwyk “is precisely what makes him so suitable” for a study of medieval science, most of which wasn’t practiced by Roger Bacons or Nicolas Oresmes, and certainly not by any medieval equivalent—because there were none—of careerists craving lead-author recognition for articles in professional science journals. The faintness of Westwyk’s surviving traces coupled with the forbidding challenge of interpreting alien astronomical manuscripts showcases Falk’s technical skills as a medievalist: only in 2015 was Westwyk definitively identified as the author of his anonymous treatise, the Equatorie [Computer] of the Planetis (1392), which consists of 14 pages of Middle English didactic, technical prose following over 140 pages of tabular numerical columns giving precise astronomical calculations for the sky as seen from London. Even among historians of science and medievalists, these are not sources for the faint of heart.

Those familiar with medieval science in England are likely aware of Bacon and his thirteenth-century teacher, Robert Grosseteste, just as they probably know about the calculatores of Merton College, Oxford, in the early fourteenth century. Almost certainly they don’t know that observationally based astronomical calculations were being done at 55° North by an unfamous Benedictine monk in the late fourteenth century at Tynemouth Abbey, one of the most remote and climatically inhospitable among all English monasteries, perched high above the cliffs of the North Sea just south of the Scottish border. Tynemouth is one of the places where Westwyk spent time, having departed St Albans in late 1379 or 1380 (we don’t know the exact reason, though Falk contextualizes some possibilities), and he donated to its library two treatises by England’s greatest medieval astronomer, Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). These he had copied himself, probably during or after time spent in the 1370s at Gloucester College, Oxford, the Benedictines’ establishment at the university that opened in 1283, fifty miles up the road from St Albans.  

As all professional historians of science know, the allegedly intrinsic incompatibility of science as such and religion per se is an ideological construct of the nineteenth century. It’s false.

When we next hear of Westwyk, it’s the spring of 1383 and he is, in a different register of improbability altogether, one among some 8000 men in an army raised by Henry Despenser, the bishop of Norwich, in response to a call by Pope Urban VI for a crusade against the French due to the latter’s support of the rival Pope Clement VII, several years after the beginning of the Western Schism within the Latin Church. For Falk, the army’s crossing of the English Channel provides the occasion to discuss medieval knowledge of navigation, mapmaking, and ocean tides in relation to astronomy, just as he uses the army’s large-scale contraction of dysentery during its siege of the Flemish city of Ypres that summer as a cue to explore medieval disease, medicine, and humoral theory with reference to the science of the heavens. We don’t catch sight of Westwyk again until a decade later, when he’s in London, dodging the only pigs permitted to roam the city’s streets freely, those wearing identifying bells and belonging to the Hospital of St Anthony. The hospital is just behind St Albans Inn, Broad Street, the residence and office of the monastery’s abbot when he was in London on business, and likely in the neighborhood where Westwyk stayed while working on his Equatorie of the Planetis. At the Inn, an urban social crossroads for intellectual exchange, he might have met Geoffrey Chaucer, who in addition to being a poet, city customs officer, and overseer of major building projects was avidly interested in astronomy and wrote a Treatise on the Astrolabe for his ten-year-old son in 1391. It’s virtually certain that Westwyk knew Chaucer’s treatise: at least seven words from his Equatorie “appear in Chaucer’s Astrolabe but nowhere else before this time.”

Westwyk was not a mere theorizer but a practitioner of astronomy. He did science. Falk uses Westwyk like a flickering torchlight providing enough illumination to offer initial glimpses of scientific practices and instruments related to astronomy. These instruments include the mechanical clock, “surely the most significant invention of the Middle Ages,” the world’s most advanced exemplar of which, courtesy of Richard of Wallingford, was at St Albans in the early fourteenth century; the armillary sphere, which modeled the nestled concentric spheres of the heavens in a brass exoskeleton; and especially the astrolabe, the quintessential medieval astronomical instrument, a two-dimensional adaptation of the armillary sphere used to calculate both the changing lengths of days and nights and the annual course of the sun at a given latitude. Falk also describes the detailed plans for even more advanced medieval astronomical instruments: Richard of Wallingford’s Albion (“all-by-one”), a “planetary supercomputer,” and Westwyk’s own Equatorie, which was intended to enable users to calculate the frustratingly irregular motions of all the planets on a single device—with a six-foot diameter (a size necessary to mark the polished, incised brass with sufficient precision). Falk explains how these devices worked, or in the case of the Albion and Equatorie, were intended to work, rendering arcane abbreviations and sophisticated trigonometric calculations of daunting numerical columns into articulate prose, supplemented by many clear diagrams.

The Light Ages also conveys the intellectually and linguistically cosmopolitan tradition of astronomical theory and practice to which Wallingford, Chaucer, and Westwyk were indebted. Falk is a learned guide to its ancient contributors such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and to the ways in which medieval Islamic and Christian heirs contributed to its hybrid character from distinctive commentarial positions and diverse institutional settings. (Spoiler alert for anyone expecting rote transmission of fixed texts by ancient authorities considered irreproachable.) So too, Falk’s book shows the observationally based progress in medieval European astronomical theory, tables, and astrolabe construction, enriched by translations from medieval Persia, India, and the Arabian peninsula. Falk persuasively reckons astronomy as the most fundamental among the natural sciences in the Middle Ages, linked as it was not only to the seasonal rhythms of agriculture and the Christian liturgical calendar, but also to so many other sciences and their applications, including, quite sensibly, astrology. Only a fool would have denied the Sun’s influence on the weather and change of seasons; a relationship between the Moon’s phases and tidal patterns had been known since antiquity. If these heavenly bodies so obviously affected human lives on Earth, why not also the planets and the stars?

Falk’s aim for the highest standard of scholarly excellence extends to his subversion of misperceptions about the character of the Middle Ages and the relationship between religion and science that converge in the history of medieval science. The Light Ages not only addresses these misperceptions, but does so through the aperture of Benedictine monasticism—you know, the guys who since the sixth century had supposedly committed themselves to mind-deadening vows of curiosity-killing obedience. Those invested in myths about the Middle Ages or the incompatibility of religion and science, like those committed to nineteenth-century fairytales about medieval people thinking the Earth was flat, might grudgingly concede a scintilla of intelligence in Grosseteste or Bacon, or acknowledge that what was afoot in fourteenth-century Oxford would eventually lead to something useful centuries later. But astronomy among Benedictine monks? And not just at a powerful monastery such as St Albans, but at Tynemouth, on the chilly, rainy, fog-shrouded coast of Northumbria?

The Light Ages explodes self-serving, liberationist narratives whose supersessionist template still runs something like this: back in the bad Middle Ages, the Church and clergy controlled everything, and people were closed-minded, dogmatic, backward, irrational, and unscientific, but thanks to the good Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment, we’re now modern, secular, open-minded, sophisticated, rational, and scientific. Sigh. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, 15-20% of Benedictine monks attended university, a percentage that would have been higher had higher education been less expensive (sound familiar?). Among the intellectual giants commemorated in the cloister windows at St Albans were the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the ninth-century Abbasid Persian astrologer Abu Ma‘shar. Abundant evidence demonstrates that “deeply devout people had no problem with adopting theories from other faiths” and Westwyk’s own understanding, use, and improvement of scientific instruments “was an act of respect to his monastic forebears, and to God.” The Light Ages shows that “belief in God never prevented people from seeking to understand the world around them. Loyalty to texts and traditions never meant the rejection of new ideas.” The Renaissance was not a break from but a continuation of centuries of medieval enthusiasm for the recovery, translation, and use of earlier texts. Hence Copernicus was employing the fourteenth-century Parisian tweaks of the Alfonsine astronomical tables two centuries later; his access to a wide range of astronomical texts depended on another medieval invention, Gutenberg’s printing press; and he relied heavily on astronomical research inaugurated in the thirteenth century by the Islamic polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in Persia’s Maragha observatory, an institution created under the Mongol patronage of another medieval science enthusiast, Genghis Khan.

As all professional historians of science know, the allegedly intrinsic incompatibility of science as such and religion per se is an ideological construct of the nineteenth century. It’s false. The “territories of science and religion,” to use Peter Harrison’s phrase, have a much longer and more variegated history than the one suggested by anti-Darwinian, modern Christian fundamentalism. The Light Ages shows how utterly different their relationship was in the Middle Ages: “religion was no impediment to scientific progress. Time and again we have witnessed medieval Christians respecting and absorbing learning from other faiths without prejudice. Pious faith motivated investigation of the natural world; institutions from individual monasteries to the papal monarchy itself instigated and supported science.” As for the wider connotations of “medieval,” Falk says, “Rather than a synonym for backwardness, it 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 unknown.” In other words, “medieval” should connote any number of things quite conspicuously and regrettably in short supply in the early twenty-first century.

The Light Ages is an important, beautifully written book, filled with evocative descriptions, insightful analogies, and dozens of illustrations, including eight full-color pages. That it began life as Falk’s doctoral dissertation at Cambridge (2016) is, as anyone familiar with that genre can attest, itself something of a miracle. Let’s hope that it helps to make the adjective “surprising” unnecessary in the subtitles of future books about medieval science.