Those who think of the medieval world—and medieval Catholicism in particular—as the antithesis of open-minded progress, might be surprised to learn that the great Benedictine abbey at St Albans had stained-glass portraits of both Muslim and Jewish scholars adorning its cloisters.
It’s true that St Albans was unusual in its devotion to learning and what we would now call science, but it stood out only by degree. As Cambridge historian Seb Falk sets out to prove in this fascinating new book, medieval Catholicism wasn’t the enemy of progress, it was its engine.
Falk’s starting point is an obscure 14th-century monk named John of Westwick, whose career he traces through his mathematical and astronomical manuscripts. His greatest claim to fame is a treatise on the equatorium, a supercomputer of its day designed to calculate the movements of the planets and the stars, rediscovered in 1951 by historian of science Derek Price.
Westwick was merely one small part of an international community of scholars that transcended cultural and religious boundaries. For monastic scholars to understand planetary and stellar motion was to come closer to an understanding of God; the complex mathematics of astronomy was a kind of prayerful act. Many of the certainties we take for granted today, from timekeeping to GPS systems, were first formulated by candlelight in the monastic libraries, scriptoria and cells that modernity likes to revile.
Price built a working model of Westwick’s equatorium in 1952, but it was quickly forgotten—one inventory had it labelled as King Arthur’s table—until Falk found it in 2012. As medieval scholars knew, but we moderns often forget, learning has to be conserved as well as expanded. Thanks to men like Westwick, the Dark Ages were anything but dark; Falk’s book is a lucid and eloquent reproof to anyone who says otherwise.
The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery by Seb Falk (Allen Lane, £20)