The phrase “medieval science” is often understood as a contradiction. Here, the historian and Cambridge University lecturer Seb Falk provides a lucid explanation of why it is not. In fact, the “Dark Ages”, one name for the period between the fifth and 15th centuries AD, is itself a misnomer. “The medieval reality is a Light Age of scientific interest and inquiry,” Falk states, in this beautifully illustrated book
It seems to me that Gibbon’s attitude still prevails and most people think the medieval world-view foolishly muddled. Before diving in to Seb Falk’s counter-narrative, focusing on astronomy, it might be worth trying out this brief thought experiment. We speak of the Sun rising and setting, but we say that it just looks as though the Sun goes around the Earth. Really, we say, the Earth goes around the Sun. Yet the explanation of the Sun’s apparent rising and setting is not, as many unthinkingly say, that the Earth goes around the Sun. That takes a year. The explanation is that the Earth spins on its axis.
Far from being isolated in ignorant bubbles, medieval scholars from all over the known world worked with each other. The Light Ages shows how Islamic, Jewish and Christian scholars were constantly borrowing ideas from one another. One well known example is the monks’ reading of Islamic translations of Aristotle. Christians loved the ancient Greek philosopher. True, they believed in God, and science and religion were intertwined. But does that make them superstitious and ignorant?
Falk doesn’t only paint the Middle Ages as a time of intellectual sophistication; he allows room for some of its more outlandish ideas as well – such as the writers interested in the effect of garlic or onions on lodestone (naturally occurring magnets) or a monk named Eilmer who, inspired by the myth of Daedalus, attached wings to his hands and feet and leapt from a tall tower at Malmesbury Abbey. According to the abbey chronicle, he flew two hundred feet before being felled by a gust of wind. He broke his legs and was disabled, but survived into old age. As Falk says, “studying medieval scholars’ errors, as well as their magnificent achievements, helps us to appreciate human endeavour in all its fascinating complexity”.