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21.08.33 Falk, The Light Ages

21.08.33 Falk, The Light Ages

How did our medieval forebears tell time? How did they know when to plan a town fair or how to calculate the wages of a journeyman? How did they interpret fevers and stomach cramps? How skillfully did they predict storms and summer droughts? Did their knowledge grow and improve over the centuries? In a beautifully written book, Seb Falk sets out to transform the reader's prejudice against the "Dark" Ages by sharing his own thrilling research into medieval astronomy and its place at the heart of a bustling scientific culture. Originally published in the United Kingdom with the subtitle "A Medieval Journey of Discovery" rather than with the subtitle "the surprising story of medieval science," the book documents how a Benedictine monk acquired layer upon layer of scientific skill--from elementary forms of finger "reckoning" to challenging methods in trigonometry. The reader's own journey of discovery recapitulates the monk's journey: starting out as a farm boy in fourteenth century Hertfordshire, the reader learns to read and write, then learns to count, then joins the Benedictine community at St Albans, acquires higher knowledge at Oxford and becomes skilled in using astronomical tables and instruments. I will address four salient features of Falk's book: its vivid writing, its success in brightening the reader's picture of medieval science, its distinctive contribution to the history of science and its distinctive contribution to the philosophy of science.

First, Falk's narrative approach and writing style. The hero of Falk's story is not a famous Paris master, or the glamorous Roger Bacon, whose name shines like a beacon in the night. Instead, Falk chooses to focus on an obscure and utterly forgotten Benedictine monk, John Westwyk. "Brother John," Falk tells us, "is the perfect guide to the story of medieval science. We do not know much about him--but that is precisely what makes him so suitable" (11). Why? Falk seeks to "represent the ideas and achievements of the nameless majority" whose unrecognized piecemeal efforts over time gave rise collectively, across regional and linguistic barriers, to a "scientifically minded people" (11). Falk's point is that a multi-dimensional desire for scientific knowledge grew slowly but with steady momentum, achieving widespread and deep-rooted results.

How does Falk convince us? He traces John's rural upbringing, education and adult challenges with loving care and scrupulous respect for detail. The effect is to put a new spotlight on invisible struggles nurturing improvement through trial and error. Unlike George Duby, who uses statistics to kindle his reader's interest in ordinary medieval life, Falk appropriates the special narrative methods that we associate with Gustave Flaubert's "Realism." The justly famous beginning of Flaubert's novel Salambo exemplifies the method: "C'était à Mégara, faubourg de Carthage, dans les jardins d'Hamilcar." ["It happened in Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in Hamilcar's gardens."]The trick is that we are not informed or told about the context of the story, we are physically transported there. Falk achieves a similar sensorial immediacy: "If the young John Westwyk was up at first light on the feast of St Luke, 18 October, watching through the chill autumn mist, he could see the Sun rise directly behind the squat Norman tower of St Albans abbey church" (19). Falk's method of historiography is not gratuitous. Based on laborious archival research, it draws as well on a personal familiarity with landscapes and localities to initiate the reader into a lost historical "here and now." Falk prompts us to use what John Henry Newman calls "our faculty of composition." We extend our concrete sense of knowing to things and beings that lie beyond our immediate experience. We give "real assent" to concrete persons and places, gestures and feelings. In short, we believe that John studied and struggled and held an astrolabe in his hands and built an equatorie.

The impact on the reader is powerful. Once we have felt that chill autumn mist, we effortlessly identify with John as he wonders about the seasons and asks questions. As we grow older by his side, we move from a folk astronomy that is "blended with traditional wisdom and put to poetic purposes" to the rudiments of academic learning at the St Albans grammar school. We learn to count with our fingers. We learn that there are many different equivalent methods of counting. Falk's point is that learning grows through living layers that remain rooted in concrete existential questions. John Westwyk is our "guide" though medieval science because, like him, we hesitate at each step. We get it wrong, we fumble the calculation, we fail at first to hold the astrolabe correctly. Through John's patience and perseverance, we rediscover our own inner recalcitrance to science--the same recalcitrance that John had to overcome; and with him, all of Western Europe and all of humanity.

Does Falk succeed in changing the reader's picture of the Middle Ages from "Dark" to "Light"? As we mature with John and follow him into the daily life at St Albans, we become aware of a vast manifold of small daily challenges--from making reliable calendars for feast days to determining when to ring the monastery bell to mark liturgical hours. Falk beautifully conveys the emergence of concrete needs for improved knowledge in an increasingly organized local environment that involves a wide variety of human skills all madly crisscrossing and straining the boundaries of custom. Chapter 2 on "The Reckoning of Time" leads naturally to chapter 3, which traces the rise of European universities in tandem with the massive translation activity that turned Greek and Arabic scientific texts into Latin. Falk does an admirable job of synthesizing sixty years of scholarship. He keeps a sharp eye on the trees while mapping out the forest as a whole. If I had to find something to criticize in this very successful chapter, I would cite a couple of missed opportunities. First, Falk nicely refers to John Murdoch and Edith Sylla for their pioneering work on the Oxford calculators, but he does not evoke Murdoch's deep insight that a "critical temper" developed at Oxford in the fourteenth century, questioning Aristotelian syllogism and exploring new standards of evidence. Secondly, when Falk turns briefly to alchemy, he makes no mention of William R. Newman's landmark thesis that duplicating results gave rise to improved methods and knowledge. Nevertheless, chapter 3 tells a fluent, coherent story. It also keeps our feet on the ground since we follow John Westwyk to Oxford and to Gloucester College--the remains of which we glimpse in a charming 1675 illustration showing Gloucester Hall (where Kenelm Digby studied in 1618, tutored by the mathematician and astrologer Thomas Allen.)

Chapter 4, "Astrolabe and Albion," sees John return from Oxford to St. Albans. Falk offers a single, but very effective sentence of transition: "Some came back with a doctorate, others after only a short summer." The whole agony of educational access comes alive in this pivotal sentence. Falk recognizes that the Church played a key role in advancing scientific learning, but also that it sponsored social mobility. (Tocqueville makes a similar point in his Introduction to La démocratie en Amérique:"Le clergé ouvre ses rangs à tous, au pauvre et au riche, au roturier et au seigneur.") Falk emphasizes that Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St Albans and pioneer inventor of the mechanical clock, was the son of a town smith. His invention had vast ramifications, transforming the experience of time in the fourteenth century. [1] In chapter 4, the reader sits with John in the Scriptorium of St Albans to plunge into Richard of Wallingford's two instrument treatises by copying them, testing them, editing them and mastering their content. Critically, John (and we) learn that "thinking three-dimensionally" is difficult and that armillary spheres are very useful as a first step, before we go on to master the rectangulus and the astrolabe. By now, the modern reader is humbled and is no longer tempted to dismiss the fourteenth century learning as "dark."

But wait. chapters 5 and 6 vividly demonstrate that a key motivation to master astronomical tables and instruments came from astrology and was tinged with both "white" and "black" magic. As John (and we) travel North to the bleak "windswept crag" of Tynemouth, we grapple with inclement weather, which means that we must grapple with Ptolemy's trigonomical table and planetary positions in the zodiac if we want to improve weather forecasting. Astrology and planetary influences are now paramount. In chapter 5, "Saturn in the First House," Falk argues that the ubiquitous importance of astrology in fourteenth century life was no obstacle to intellectual curiosity and experimentation. On the contrary, it prompted vigorous debates, physical, astronomical and moral. Do planetary influences on Earth vary with distance? Do they affect our emotions? Do they bend our free will? How precise are nativity charts? Falk emphasizes that the paradigm of astrology raised more scientific questions than it answered--even as it increased the need for more exact astronomical instruments.

Chapter 6 holds a surprise. We embark with John on "The Bishop's Crusade." We cross the Channel to pillage and torch Dunkirk in the name of defending Pope Urban in Rome against Anti-pope Clement in Avignon. At a first level, chapter 6 corrects our misunderstanding that medieval society was neatly parceled out into static métiers. It reveals a restlessness, but also a ferment. At a second level, chapter 6 brings to light the neglected arrière pays that persisted through political turmoil. Falk shows us a diligent world of early map making and improved navigation thanks to the slow harnessing of magnetism to create the compass. As Falk reminds us, seaways in the fourteenth century were the main highways. A whole cluster of new practices, from banking to ship-design flourished along with new nautical instruments of measurement. By the end of chapter 6, feudal warfare seems like a stubborn but archaic behavior. The momentum is on the side of trade, industry, science.

The Light Ages culminates with a detailed analysis of John Westwyk's crowning achievement. John wrote Equatorie, a treatise on the equatorium, in 1396, while residing at the St Albans inn in London, with the "buzz of Broad Street" in the background (179). Chapter 7, "Computer of the Planets," takes up where the Prologue left off. John of Westwyk's manuscript was discovered in December 1951 by Derek Price "in the medieval library of Peterhouse, Cambridge's oldest college" (1). The discovery prompted great excitement because it was thought to be Chaucer's work. Since Chaucer had written a popular treatise on the astrolabe just the previous year, and since he had promised in it to compose further parts, including a "theorike to declare the moevying of the celestiall bodies," the hypothesis of Chaucer's authorship was not unreasonable.

John Westwyk's distinctive handwriting clarified that John is the author. Falk concedes, however, that "there are striking parallels between Chaucer's blueprint and John Westwyk's production" (260). Falk emphasizes that John followed Chaucer's lead in writing in the vernacular English rather than in Latin, borrowing "at least seven words that appear in Chaucer's Astrolabe but nowhere else before this time" (270). Falk points out that Chaucer was in London in the 1390's, so that an "acquaintance between the monk and the poet is not as unlikely as it may appear" (255). At this fascinating point, I was a little surprised not to find Chaucer's patron and brother-in-law John of Gaunt mentioned. John of Gaunt had close ties to St Albans and to Abbot Thomas de la Mare in particular, but he also suffered from a very deteriorated reputation after followers of his otherprotégé Wycliff stormed the monastery in 1381. Might John of Gaunt's ties to St Albans be involved in some way? Falk refrains from any speculation in this regard, limiting himself to a very interesting thesis concerning the transmission of scientific knowledge to a non-clerical audience. Commenting on John's citation of Chaucer in the Equatorie, Falk writes: "A more important reason why Westwyk wished to cite Chaucer, I believe, was the early success of his Astrolabe manual, and Chaucer's pioneering use of English for science. In this manuscript, sometime before September 1393, John Westwyk adopted Chaucer's data and...Chaucer's scientific English. It seems he saw himself as an astronomical apprentice to the great London writer" (255).

In my view, Falk's most distinctive contribution to the history of science in The Light Ages lies in connecting a forgotten Benedictine monk to the dissemination of scientific knowledge in vernacular languages. Falk's contribution is all the more thought-provoking in that John of Westwyk's Equatorie includes hands-on instructions for building the instrument--instructions that are clearly based, as Falk proves, on John's own experience. Falk also makes a distinctive contribution to the philosophy of science. In the Epilogue, he warns the reader against a characteristically modern complacency. Just because we use advanced technologies in every aspect of our daily life does not mean that we are scientifically proficient or smart. Important scientific strides were made in the Middle Ages precisely because obscure and average people humbly yearned to have a little more control over their lives. Like Jean Gimpel in La Révolution industrielle au moyen-âge, Falk emphasizes the poignant human desire for labor-saving devices. Falk is distinctive, however, in bringing to light the angst that stimulated medieval efforts. Obscure and anonymous men like John Westwyk guide us best through the history of medieval science because they struggled with the challenges of daily life in ordinary and obscure ways. They strove to acquire new knowledge and new methods of organizing and storing information out of a sense of lack, out of a desire to decrease hardship--Locke would say "out of uneasiness."



1. See Jacques Le Goff, Pour un autre moyen-âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), 46-90.