The Light Ages by Seb Falk review – banishing the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’

The strange and complex world of the 14th century, as seen through the eyes of a pioneering astronomer

In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction film, Marcellus Wallace tells Zed that he is going to “get medieval on your ass”. The precise nature of this punishment is never revealed. Any medievalist watching Pulp Fiction would assume that Zed’s ass was being offered great works of art, rich and strange literary works, relentless invention, scientific inquiry and foundational philosophy. But the wider audience likely assumes it means something barbaric, unspeakable – a punishment from “the dark ages”.

In The Light Ages, Seb Falk unpicks many of these popular assumptions. He points out that several accounts of the history of science begin sometime around 1600, as though scientific inquiry just popped out of the ground like a mushroom. But a mushroom is just the visible surface growth of a larger organism. And the same applies to medieval scientific thinking, which was complex, interconnected and wide-ranging. Far from being resistant to foreign ideas, medieval thinkers systematically translated works from Greek, Hebrew and Arabic by writers from Iberia to Persia. Falk speaks of the “irresistible medieval drive to tinker, to redesign, to incrementally improve or upgrade technology” and the same was true of scientific thought.

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The Light Ages by Seb Falk review – banishing the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’