The Light Ages
The Middle Ages were a time of wonder. They gave us the first universities, the first eyeglasses and the first mechanical clocks as medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky.
In this book, we walk the path of medieval science with a real-life guide, a fourteenth-century monk named John of Westwyk - inventor, astrologer, crusader - who was educated in England's grandest monastery and exiled to a clifftop priory. Following the traces of his life, we learn to see the natural world through Brother John's eyes: navigating by the stars, multiplying Roman numerals, curing disease and telling the time with an astrolabe.
An enthralling story of the struggles and successes of an ordinary man and an extraordinary time, The Light Ages conjures up a vivid picture of the medieval world as we have never seen it before.
The Light Ages is published by Penguin/Allen Lane in the UK, EU and Commonwealth - now available in both hardback and paperback. Find it in your local bookshop, or online via Amazon, Blackwell's, Bookshop, Fox Lane Books (with signed bookplates!), Foyles, Hive or Waterstones.
It is also available as an audiobook from all the usual suppliers – with illustrations supplied in a bonus PDF.
It was shortlisted for the Hughes Prize, awarded every two years by the British Society for the History of Science to the best book in the history of science published in English and accessible to a general audience.
'turns our understanding of medieval science on its head.'
History Books of the Year 2020, The Telegraph
'dazzling ... an uncontainably tentacular monograph. Falk excises errors about the Middle Ages without filleting their enchantment.'
Books of the Year 2020, The TLS
'stunning: both exquisitely written and so very clever... Falk opens up for us the sophisticated and utterly different ways in which people in the Middle Ages thought and makes us question our assumptions about the medieval past.'
Suzannah Lipscomb, Books of the Year 2020, BBC History Magazine
'a book to change historical presuppositions.'
Books of the Year 2020, The Tablet
'as fascinating as it is exquisitely written... the range of mathematics, astronomy, and engineering (the mechanical clock is a true medieval marvel) is impressive. More impressive still is the elegance with which he tells the tale.'
Science Books of the Year 2020, The Times
A 'brilliant study of medieval astronomy and learning ... riveting.'
'Magnificent... By the end of Mr. Falk's book, even previously indifferent readers will, I promise, never want to use 'medieval' as a slur word again.'
'takes the reader on a journey … treats the reader to some terrifying cures and amusing vignettes'
'illuminates not just the visionaries of the past but also the troubled state of anti-intellectualism in the modern world ... draws an engaging portrait of a time of expanding horizons.'
'The Light Ages is unambiguously and successfully an antidote to the cliché of the ‘Dark Ages’ as a millennium of stagnation and regression. It does not achieve this by inviting us simply to marvel at inventions that confound our expectations, though many of them are surely worth marvelling at. Rather, Falk’s approach is to explain the things we share with our medieval forebears and the things we differ on: to reveal, in other words, how they saw the universe.'
'Anyone who takes up the cause of promoting a more balanced view of medieval science must fear they are on a hiding to nothing... Seb Falk is undaunted. Though mild-mannered, he is forthright too... This is a book teeming with interesting themes and lines of enquiry... Seb Falk is right. It is time for us to show a little humility and admire the light emanating from the Dark Ages.'
'fascinating ... lucid and eloquent'
'carefully constructed narrative and prose as plain as a well-forged astrolabe.' Five Stars.
'The phrase “medieval science” is often understood as a contradiction... Seb Falk provides a lucid explanation of why it is not... “The medieval reality is a Light Age of scientific interest and inquiry,” Falk states, in this beautifully illustrated book.
'Lays out the wonders of medieval science.'
'irresistible ... Falk is a marvelous guide. ... By the time readers are finished with this book, they’ll know their way around an astrolabe with the familiarity of a 14th-century alchemist. And Falk is such an agreeably wonkish enthusiast ... “The Light Ages” has a gamesome clarity that makes it the most unlikely quick read of the season. The book is a revelation'
'an expansive survey of Eastern polymaths, squabbling theorists, political schemers, and optimistic overreachers.'
'Falk’s bubbling curiosity and strong sense of storytelling always swept me along. By the end, The Light Ages didn’t just broaden my conception of science; even as I scrolled away on my Kindle, it felt like I was sitting alongside Westwyk at St. Albans abbey, leafing through dusty manuscripts by candlelight.'
'How blissful it was to leave the 21st century behind and immerse myself in this début... We embark on a wondrous voyage of discovery: navigating by the stars, multiplying Roman numerals, curing disease and telling the time with an astrolabe, the medieval answer to a smartphone.'
'A wonderful book, as at home bringing to life the obscure details of a Hertfordshire monk as it is explicating the infinite reaches of space and time. Required reading for anyone who thinks that the Middle Ages were a dark age.'
‘If you think the term 'medieval science' is a contradiction then you should read this hugely enlightening and important book.’
‘Compulsive, brilliantly clear and superbly well-written, The Light Ages is more than just a very good book on medieval science: it’s a charismatic evocation of another world. Seb Falk uses the monk John of Westwyk to weld us into the medieval ways of imagining as well as thinking. And there are surprises galore for everyone, no matter how knowledgeable they may think they are. I can’t recommend it highly enough.’
‘We marvel at Europe's ancient abbeys and monasteries but have little conception of the intellectual life within their cloistered walls. Seb Falk has framed a fascinating book around his personal quest to understand how scientific thinking flourished. The Light Ages reveals the intellectual sophistication that flourished against a backdrop of ritual and liturgy. It offers for most of us a novel perspective on a 'dark' historical era, and should fascinate a wide readership.’
Long before the word “scientist” was coined, John of Westwyk devised a precision instrument to explore the universe and our place in it. Falk recreates the schooling of this ordinary (if gadget-obsessed) medieval monk in loving detail. There’s a world of science on every page.
'Like a fictional scientist cloning dinosaurs from wisps of DNA, Seb Falk takes barely surviving fragments of evidence about an almost forgotten astronomer in a storm-chilled, clifftop cell to conjure the vast, teeming world of scientific research, practice and invention in the late middle ages. He makes readers share the experience of making an astrolabe, computing the heavens, and studying everything ‘from the colour of a patient’s urine to the ninth sexagesimal place in a table of apogees’. Profoundly scholarly, wonderfully lucid and grippingly vivid, The Light Ages will awe the pedants and delight the public.'
The published version of The Light Ages contains a guide to further reading and full endnotes. To download the full bibliography, click here.
We travel the length and breadth of England, from Saint Albans to Tynemouth, and venture far beyond the shores of Britain. On our way, we encounter a remarkable cast of characters: the clock-building English abbot with leprosy, the French craftsman-turned-spy and the Persian polymath who founded the world's most advanced observatory.
US cover (W. W. Norton)
"As fascinating as it is exquisitely written" – The Times
An illuminating guide to the scientific and technological achievements of the Middle Ages through the life of a crusading astronomer-monk.
UK cover (Penguin: Allen Lane)