Thursday, February 25, 2021

Richard Gough Thomas - William Godwin: A Political Life

This was a remarkable accidental discovery. Ironically I came across Richard Gough Thomas' new biography of William Godwin because I was working on a critique of Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus directed the first edition of his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population at the radical ideas of Godwin. In looking to read more, in particular about Godwin's own refutation of Malthus' work, I stumbled upon this new study of his life.

Thomas begins by making it clear that he is writing a political study of Godwin. But neither he, nor the reader, can ignore Godwin's fascinating and complex life. He was married (all to briefly) to Mary Wollstonecraft and was father to Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft's ideas on women's equality and freedom were enormously influential on Godwin and he remained devoted to her memory and ideas long after her death. Godwin devotes a fascinating section to a discussion of how his Godwin's biography of her was a powerful defence of her life, ideas and their relationship, rather than the crude, salacious work that it was portrayed as at the time.

Thomas sees Godwin as an early philosophical anarchist. However he points out that Godwin was not really an activist despite the widespread political activity taking place at the time. Instead Godwin was celebrated for his ideas which became enormously influential. His first book Political Justice was a major work of 800 pages. This "serious philosophical treatise" was aimed at a relatively wealthy audience. But despite it's high price (£1 16s) it sold widely as it was bought by many of the political societies that had sprung up in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Thus his ideas were taken up widely within English radical movements. Godwin's arguments were, as Thomas explains "optimistic and forward-looking". They are individualistic, but fit into a wider social framing. Thomas explains Godwin's central philosophy:

Everybody wants to be happy; evil actions are simply mistakes caused by incomplete information or insufficient consideration on the part of the individual. The philosopher's position seems naïve, but it allows him to frame moral error as something that can be corrected through greater critical reasoning - in short, that we can learn to be better people. In order to do this... we need to recognise that our understanding of the world is shaped by the society we live in. Ignorance, inequality and privation may seem normal to us but as sources of unhappiness, they are wrongs that can ne put right if we critically evaluate (and correct) the things that cause them. We have not yet done so, the philosopher suggests, because too few people have been willing to look beyond the current system for answers.

For Godwin striving to become as knowledgeable as possible about the world, would help us to become a better person, so long as "we are willing to think for ourselves and act according to our own reasoned judgement". In fact this is our duty, as individuals to work towards the best possible society.

Those of us who've sat through seemingly endless meetings that are trying to make a decision through consensus may have heard similar arguments against "leadership" that Godwin articulated. Thomas explains that Godwin was "sceptical that any large group of people can really be of one mind". Individual leaders hold power and influence that means that the collective will be siding with them out of personal loyalty rather than being convinced through argument. This becomes radical when Godwin, as Thomas explains, argues that 

if a leader derives their authority from the people under them, that authority evaporates if those people choose to withdraw their consent. Furthermore, Godwin says, if we have a duty to act according to our own reasoned judgement - and authority cannot actually prevent us from doing so - then a leader that claims to derive their authority from consent has not right to exert authority over those who withdraw their consent.

In an era when only a minority had a vote, and when even the idea of universal suffrage was accepted by barely anyone, these were radical ideas. They also dovetailed with the radicalism of the French Revolution. However the second edition of Political Justice developed these themes in more revolutionary ways. For Godwin the accumulation of wealth was morally wrong and he called for "the abolition of almost all forms of property". Instead possession should be about need. As Godwin says, in a rational society:

The word property would probably remain; its signification only would be modified. The mistake does not so properly lie in the idea itself, as in the source from which it is traced. What I have, if it be necessary for my use, is truly mine; what I have, though the fruit of my own industry, if unnecessary, it is an usurpation for me to retain.
These arguments linked with Godwin's thoughts on population. People procreated because they had to do so to survive. But if there was no economic imperative then "population would settle at a manageable level". Godwin's ideas on population developed though his works. Initially agreeing with much of Malthus he became increasingly critical and his final major work On Population was a systematic critique of Malthus based on the best available information about population. Nonetheless even his early position was far better than Malthus' cynical belief in the inevitability of over-population. In fact, towards the end of his life, Godwin hoped he would demolish Malthus' work: "if I am right the system of Malthus can never rise again, and the world is delivered for ever from this accursed apology in favour of vice and misery, or hard-heartedness and oppression."

Despite focusing his book on Godwin's ideas, Thomas does talk about how Godwin's life and ideas were shaped by circumstance. Living perpetually in debt and fearful of debtor's prison, Godwin would have thought constantly about poverty and inequality. Thomas also does justice to Godwin's other works, including lesser known novels, and his children's books. The latter responsible for keeping the wolf from the door. The figures of Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft don't dominate the narrative, but Thomas eloquently shows how Godwin's life revolved around them and was shaped, in part, by their own ideas and actions. I was once again reminded of the repeated and great tragedies at the heart of this extended family.

Thomas's book gave me a new appreciation for Godwin's ideas. These, Thomas concludes, boil down to the idea that "the betterment of humanity was in [Godwin's] view contingent on our ability to foster critical reason and empathy in future generations." While the utopianism at the heart of Godwin's thought might be inadequate for changing the system, it did come from a fundamental desire to make the world a better, more equal, place for all its inhabitants. That is in no small part why his ideas inspired radicals in new and exciting ways and why William Godwin remains important today. As such Richard Gough Thomas' book is a fascinating and exciting look at Godwin's life which I highly recommend.

Kim Stanley Robinson - The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is a detailed future history about humans and the environment. But you'll have to wait to find out my thoughts on it as I've promised to review it for another website. In the meantime have a look at some of my other reviews of KSR's books.

Related Reviews

KSR -Shaman
KSR - Years of Rice and Salt
KSR - Icehenge
KSR - 2312
KSR - New York 2140
KSR - Aurora
KSR - Red Moon

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Georges Simenon - Maigret at the Crossroads

*** Spoilers ***

Somehow Maigret at the Crossroads is the only Maigret that I've read. Georges Simenon's French police detective featured in 75 novels and a couple of dozen more short stories. But even just reading this one novel you can see why the stories were so popular. Published in 1931 this is an insight into a very different France. In fact, the otherworldliness of the book is one of its charms and this is extenuated by the book's is rural setting. At the crossroads of the title is a petrol station and garage and nearby a large country house. The owner of this house, is under questioning at the start of the book as a Jewish diamond trader has been found dead in his house.

Pausing only to have his wife pack him a bag, Maigret travels to the scene of the crime. The Three Widows' Crossroad, as its is known, seems eerie and lonely. Through the night cars and lorries pass on the long road to Paris, and the house itself is strange. Carl Andersen and Else Andersen, the owners, behave strangely. Else keeping herself locked in the bedroom when her husband is away. But Maigret's keen eye quickly notices things aren't right.

Like many detective novels of its era the book is short, but Simenon packs a lot in. There's a surprising amount of gun action, and some interesting backstory for the Andersens. One thing that I didn't appreciate early on is that those found guilty of murder face the death penalty, and in France at the time that meant the guillotine. It makes a the ending denouncement particularly spine-chilling. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Christopher Dyer - Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages

Despite being intended as a university text book this is a interesting and readable study of the living conditions of people in the English Middle Ages circa 1200 to 1520. What shines through first and foremost are the differences due to what Dyer calls the "enormous disparities between rich and poor". These, he emphasises, "were not an incidental by-product of economic activity but an inherent feature of society". Considering the ruling class, he writes:

The important characteristic of the aristocracy in any case was not the size of the income but the means by which it was obtained, that is by lordship. The bulk of their regular revenues came from land, most often rents and other payments enforced through rights of jurisdiction that were exercised in manorial courts.

At the other end of the economic (and exploitative) scale were the peasantry. Dyer takes the reader through the plethora of different types of peasants - from the free to the serfs - and the various types of holding and labour they had to do. While acknowledging that the period covered saw vast changes in types of landowning, Dyer notes that their communities were complex, but the peasantry did form a class. He writes:

We usually envisage the peasantry in three layers, of rich, middling and poor, by reference to the amount of land held... All of them, however, were involved in agricultural production, and had a stake in the common fields of their village. All belonged to village communities which in limited ways governed themselves. All paid rents or worked services, and were subject to the jurisdiction of a lord. Their involvement in acts of rebellion and resistance suggests a recognition of a common interest in the removal of restrictions and irksome dues. For these reasons the peasantry can be regarded as a social class.

As I said, class plays a key role in the book. One interesting nugget among many in Dyer's work is the relatively small numerical size of the upper class in the Middle Ages. He suggests that in England it amounted to a total of 50,000 people, about two percent of the population. This includes "20,000 monks, nuns and beneficed clergy" who lived of land revenues. No wonder they were so terrified of revolt from below. But the aristocracy in particular did not have it easy. We get a real sense of them struggling to manage their livestyles in the face of economic crisis and change - including events like the Black Death and plague. Dyer describes them as a "remarkably resilient and flexible class" prepared to change and adapt to maintain their position. They were also in constant change as different families lost personal or lands.

The aristocracy were judged by different standards today. Dyer holds an interesting discussion about a 14th century poem, Winner and Waster which shows the different aristocratic behaviours with wealth as having different roles - demonstrating wealth and power through spending, as well as holding society together through their ability to display restraint.

Returning to the other end of the scale, Dyer shows the difficulties in estimating the standard of living of the peasantry as their wealth was not recorded in estate accounts. In addition, he highlights how the changing roles of the peasantry within their own lives, makes it difficult to pin down exactly how people lived.

"There was no medieval proletariat" he explains, but "a high proportion of the population worked for others at some stage of their lives, and employers were numerous, including not just the wealthy gentry, clergy and yeomen, but also a wide range of craftsmen and peasants... As the unit of production was the peasant holding or the craftsman's workshop, few employees worked in a group large than two or three."

It was the slow changes in the later part of the period that began to upset the old order. Contrary to common belief (repeated frequently through the Covid-19 pandemic) the Black Death didn't simply lead to a quick rise in wages. "In fact the rise in wages was a first modest, and the striking improvement often came in the last quarter of the 14th century". Whatever the reasons, the employers felt a "deep sense of shock at the 'unnatural; demands of their servants". The "new deal for wage-earners" arose from a complex combination of different factors, but it did open up a new era of social exploitation. Nonetheless, Dyer emphasises that most people were underemployed through the period. This helps explain the peasant rebellions that took place after the Black Death, but also aspects of more personalised resistance, such as a constant changing of jobs for those who were able to. Perhaps its this, in the aftermath of the Black Death, that made the biggest contribution to ending serfdom and feudalism. 

Dyer concludes his book by noting that in the Middle Ages wealth did not mean happiness. A well off peasant with ample food and work, might be unhappy at their legal position, while a monk who had taken a vow of poverty and begged for his living might be very spiritually happy. Nonetheless the life of the majority of the population was not one of ease - but of restriction, exploitation and oppression - something that highlights once again that the Middle Ages were not a time of stagnation - but one of dynamic economic and political change. 

Christopher Dyer's book is an excellent introduction to the period - which combines well an academic study with a real feeling for the lives of people from different classes. Highly recommended as an introduction to the period.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150 - 1500

Friday, February 12, 2021

Diane Cook - The New Wilderness

*** Warning Spoilers ***

In some not so distant future, urban areas are over-crowded, polluted, violent and poor. The countryside has all but disappeared, rural areas being subsumed by ever expanding concrete. With one exception - the New Wilderness. Guarded by rangers, carefully monitored by drone and home to a small ragged band of randomly selected humans who are encouraged - forced even - to lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The band wanders around gradually losing the equipment they brought with them, from station to station where they receive the occasional piece of post from the outside world and meet rangers who give them instructions, and fines for transgressing the rules of the Wilderness.

Its a compelling, if unbelievable scenario. Diane Cook's cast of misfits have to cope with a variety of problems - some environmental, but most social - and not all of them survive. Cook is clearly influenced by William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and this book combines elements of that story with more contemporary environmental disaster novels.

The problem is that the setup is interesting. But it falls apart because it is riddled with inconsistency and plot holes. For instance, there's no rational reason behind the "experiment". In fact the elements of behaviour by the group that would be of interest to any scientists studying them are actively discouraged by the rangers, under threat of violence. The author hopes to create an air of mystery but not explaining anything, but in reality it leaves the reader befuddled. Why would a state go to such lengths to create an elaborate version of hunter-gatherers, but do so little to make it work? In addition, the exceptions make no sense at all. Why would those under the experimental microscope continue to receive mail, and mail that includes baked goods, pieces of equipment and (in one case) a university's departmental minutes. It doesn't even appear to be an elaborate Survivor reality TV show.

But it's the inconsistencies that get the reader. Getting to the New Wilderness is so difficult that others make their way there, seemingly using underground networks to avoid the authorities. Yet one main character leaves the group, returns to her home (which despite references to resource shortages seems to be still available) and then comes back a few months later. The characters lose all track of time (one of the heroines doesn't know her age) but the band seems to have a good understanding of the seasons, moon and stars. The rules don't make sense. The nomads have to hide sweets, yet they get post that includes cake (how does it survive?). They are given illogical and inconsistent instructions by the rangers, who always hate them, but there's no explanation why. They are joined by a new group of ill-equipped, naïve volunteers who everyone expects to die, but none of them do. This new group of people have apparently been following news about the original nomads but haven't learnt any lessons - turning up in sandals and summer dresses with no equipment. 

The central mother-daughter (Bea/Agnes) story barely works - not least because Bea behaves so irrationally. At one point I thought I understood the reason Bea randomly threw herself at the unpleasant and idiotic Carl was because she had concocted a clever power game with her beloved husband. In truth it seems the author wanted to, Lord of the Flies style, suggest that a powerful man is sexually attractive simply because of his power. The central message seems to be that people reduced to nothing will get on with each other only because they have to, but really would prefer to be alone. 

This is a bad novel. It is illogical, irrational, unwieldy and unpleasant. Its characters behave irrationally and stupidly. How it got nominated for the Booker Prize I don't know. I'd recommend you avoid it.

Related Reviews

St. John Mandel - Station Eleven
Montag - After the Flood
Jameson - The Last
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Robinson - Aurora

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Robert Seethaler - The Tobacconist

The first novel I read by Robert Seethaler was the whimsical and beautiful A Whole Life. In some ways The Tobacconist is a very different book, but like the previous work it deals with those complete experiences that serve to make a up a life. 

It's 1937. Franz lives an idyllic, lazy life on the shores of a beautiful Austria lake. Insulated from the outside world by his home town's isolation and his youth, Franz suddenly finds himself thrown into a very different world as his mother's partner dies and they are short of money. Franz is sent to a friend of his mothers, the eponymous tobacconist who owns a booth in central Vienna. The elderly, one-legged, gruff Otto turns Franz into an experienced cigar salesman. At the same time, the naïve Franz begins to learn about the reality of the wider world as Hitler enters Austria. 

The theme of the innocent, bewildered outsider entering the dark and gloom of the real world is not new. Seethaler handles it well, probably more so for his Austrian readers who might know more about the reality of Nazi rule in Vienna. For Franz though the graffiti, Gestapo and anti-Jewish boycott's are confusing - especially as he is himself distracted through falling in love for the first time. In a not to subtle nod to Freudianism itself, Seethaler links Franz's growing awareness of love and sex, with his developing understanding of the wider political world, through the character of Sigmund Freud himself. Franz repeatedly pigeon holes Freud as he struggles to understand his emotions of love and betrayal at the hands of a young woman. There's even a phallic cigar or two to ram the point home. 

Otto's gruff exterior belays a deeper kindness - having lost his leg in the trenches of World War One, he's not prepared to forgo his own ideals. Serving Jews at the Tobacconist however draws the attention of local fascists and eventually the Gestapo arrive. As Freud is also forced from Vienna, Franz grows up remarkably fast and, inevitably, draws attention to himself. Franz's letters home to his mother, who he imagines remains in the bucolic countryside, actually show him that that world is also becoming corrupted. There seems to be no escape anymore.

It's a fine novel - compelling, intense and painful - and well worth reading, even if it didn't quite live up to Seethaler's earlier classic in this reader's mind.

Related Reviews

Seethaler - A Whole Life

Saturday, February 06, 2021

John Hultgren - Border Walls Gone Green: Nature & Anti-Immigrant Politics in America

The growing climate crisis places a new importance on discussions around migration, refugees and immigration. The environmental movement has come late to these questions. But in recent years as the movement has begun developing an appreciation of the role of colonialism, imperialism and racism in the the environmental crisis, there has been growing awareness around issues about racism, refugees and migration. But as John Hultgren's important book shows, there are right-wing and racist approaches to these issues that link them to a different approach to nature. He also argues that particularly in the United States (though not limited to it) the dominant approach to nature opens up activists to a racist agendas. He writes:

This shortcoming is reflective of a broader theoretical lacuna in environmental thought: greens lack an adequate understand of the political terrain on which struggles over nature intersect with the norms, practices and institutions of sovereignty. As nature is increasingly being deployed in projects of boundary drawing.. a failure to grapple with this emerging form of territorialisation disables effective responses to 'environmental restrictionism' and opens up space for anti-immigrant logics to subtly influence well-intentioned greens.

To emphasise Hultgren's point:

Nature is not merely captured to advance exclusionary social agendas; it is commitments to certain conceptions of nature that give rise to such agendas. [Hultgren's emphasis].

Hultgren explores three successive approaches that have coloured understanding of nature - Malthusianism, romanticism and Darwinism. He concludes:

From the late 1800s to the late 1930s an articulation between romantic and Darwinian natures intersected with a hegemonic, racial nationalism [in the US]  through a shared commitment to natural and national purity. By contrast, from the early 1940s to the early 2000s, the overt racial essentialisations present in the earlier wave of restrictionism were subsumed by a dominant neo-Malthusian nature that cut across an increasingly complex social terrain, enabling restrictionists to reinforce American sovereignty through the exclusion of immigrants, but provoking strong opposition in the process.

In contemporary discourse around climate change it is the question of the nation-state that dominates. The UN's COP process begins and ends with the idea that nations are responsible for certain amounts of emissions, and per-capita or national figures are quoted with abandon. The problem with this is, as Hultgren points out, is that this turns "socially constructed borders into natural facts" and excludes "ecosystemic or transnational" approaches. These approaches then inform wider understandings. Nature is associated with social conceptions like carrying capacity, or purity.

This can lead into an approach that blames immigrants for destruction of natural systems - because of racist beliefs about their behaviour or culture; or sees immigrants as only wanting to adapt to particular social norms which carry an associated environmental "foot print". Hence US anti-immigrant rhetoric sometimes takes the alleged per-capita emissions of an American and contrasts it with that of (say) an average Mexican. The implicit argument being that more immigrants mean more destruction. Finally immigrants are often portrayed by the right as being uncaring about the environment, in supposed contrast to white people. 

We should not fall into the trap of believing these are just modern arguments though. Hultgren emphasises how historical approaches to nature coloured particular arguments around immigration. Eg the idea that humans are inherently destructive, or fears of unrestricted population growth leading to automatic resource shortages.

These historical sections are fascinating and lay the ground for the later chapters that look at contemporary right-wing ideas around nature/immigration in the US. But it is the contemporary sections that are likely to be the most useful to left-wing and environmental activists today. Hultgren explains that

social nativists depend on a variety of epistemological strategies that deploy nature as a marker of order supporting white political supremacy; however they are quite ambivalent in their dealings with nature as an intrinsically valuable entity.

He continues by pointing out that there is no reason that "social nativists" could not be green (in fact he goes on to show some anti-migration activists that definitely are). But because environmentalism is associated with "progressive, Democratic politics" there isn't likely to be a major shift towards this sort of politics from the right of the political spectrum. However he continues that there are sections of the right in the US that consciously have attempted to use debates around environmentalists to further their agenda. Writing about one activist, Hultgren says "he is an environmentalist wedded to a specific construction of nature that is itself embedded in exclusionary notions of nationalism, race and culture. These commitments to an nationalised and racialised nature have led him into activism aimed at securing American sovereignty from the supposed threat posed by immigration".

One thing that I took from Hultgren's book is that left activists need to constantly be aware of how debates around the environment and population can be used, and articulated by the right. But, more importantly, what Hultgren concludes is that environmentalism cannot succeed in defeating right-wing anti-immigrant (and I would extend this to over-population arguments) unless it adopts a critical approach that sees nature as intimately connected to social questions like racism, class, gender, colonialism and capitalism.

John Hultgren's book is an illuminating read for all activists today. His conclusion is worth quoting by way of encouraging others to read this excellent book:

The "wes" of an environmentalism of migration "are an evolving," but the immediate challenge is to confront the power of a dominant mode of sovereignty that operates through militarised neoliberalism, a form of power that depends on the continued construction of border walls. Resistance, then, requires a global alliance geared toward tearing down border walls of all sorts - including the green variety.

It isn't enough for environmentalists to be anti-racist, pro-migrant or pro-refugee, we must also be against the dominant approaches to the environment that see the nation state, neo-liberal concepts like natural capital and blaming individuals as the answer. We need an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, pro-migrant environmentalism. John Hultgren's book offers much to those trying to get there.

Readers interested in the question of climate change and refugees/migrants should read this article by Camilla Royle on Migration in an era of Climate Catastrophe.

Related Reviews

Angus & Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

Monday, February 01, 2021

Seb Falk - The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery

When I learnt history at school we understood the "Dark Ages" as a period when little happened. The Romans had left England and there was an essential collapse into chaos and barbarism. Everything, from the towns and the economy, to education and agriculture stagnated at best or even went backwards. Today these views are a lot less common, but you still find it expressed in TV series, news reports or popular history books.

So it is wonderful that Seb Falk has written this new history of the science of the "Dark Ages" and quite rightly, relabelled them the Light Ages. Falk tells the story by telling the story of the monk John Westwyk who spent much of his life at a monastery in St Albans. Little is known about Westwyk's life, but Falk draws out the little we know. However the key material centres on the writing that Westwyk did, particularly his work in describing and transcribing texts that discuss how to use key astronomical instruments of the time - particularly the astrolabe. Westwyk also designed, though never built, a complex instrument called an equatorie.

In telling this story Falk draws out the deep scientific knowledge of the times. One important aspect to this is Falk's discussions of astrology. Today there is a tendency to dismiss astrology as being unscientific - that is absolutely correct. But in the Middle Ages astrology was a key part of much wider knowledge. The positions of stars, planets and the sun and moon, were considered a key part of medicine, agricultural knowledge, navigation and weather prediction. So Falk explores the contemporary knowledge of the how the planets, sun, moon and stars moved and how to predict and time events. It is remarkable how detailed this knowledge was and time and again I was surprised by the expertise of the monks who wrote and taught this material. As Falk jokes about his own book - if the reader finds some of the trigonometry difficult in the book, then they'll realise that medieval people were not stupid.

Another aspect to this is the exchange of ideas. Firstly monks like Westwyk drew heavily on the work of scientists from across the world - in particular figures like Aristotle and Ptolemy - as well as writers from Asia and the Middle East. Readers might be surprised at the extent to which Christian monks respected the work of Muslim and Jewish scholars. There's a popular idea that monks in the Middle Ages simply copied verbatim, knowledge from the past. But as Falk shows these copies were updated, annotated and corrected by those who copied. 

When Westwyk copied one scientific document the Albion treatise,

he added two pages of his own commentary about the relationship between Richard's [original author] compendious invention and some of the older instruments it incorporated. The first of the was the saphea of Arzachel... [who] worked in Muslim Al-Andalus in the late eleventh century, first in Toledeo and later... in Cordoba. He was a prolific astronomer, compiling user-friendly tables and developing new theories to account for long term changes in the motions of the Sun and stars.

Copies of books were circulated, borrowed and shared - though the work required skill, time and money. There was also extensive travel. John Westwyk began at St Albans, he travelled to Northumberland for several years, joined the Bishops crusade and likely also attended university. The idea that "science" or "knowledge" in these times was stagnant or limited to a small number of people is simply false.

That said, Falk makes clear that medieval science was not science as we know it. In fact the role of science and knowledge, as well as instruments like the astrolabe, was also about illuminating society and the positions of people within it. As he explains:

The astrolabe was a key to understanding - understanding both God and yourself. If Nature was a book which, like Scripture, contained clues to the divine plan, and if the world sphere, as Sacrobosco said, was a machine, then in the intricate movements of a man-made celestial machine you could find clues to the craftsmanship in Creation - a windows in to the mind of God. Moreover, studying the astrolabe could help to find your place in the world, not merely geographically, but existentially too... Medieval science... was artificially separated from Subjects that dealt with moral questions. Degrees of altitude and social status shaded subtly into one another.

Chaucer's treatise on the astrolabe was "not even just a general astronomy textbook. It was part of an all-round education". In this vein, the design of the Albion instrument was intended to "direct the minds of many people to higher things".

In trying to summarise the key points of Falk's book here I have neglected much fascinating detail. There is an amazing section on the design and manufacture of medieval instruments, as well as a step by step guide to using an astrolabe - though this is a little difficult to follow. Falk spends a great deal of time explaining precisely what the monks were trying to understand about the universe, and how this information was passed on - including the spectacular mechanical clock that was built at St Albans. 

Seb Falk's book is fascinating and illuminating. It is also a beautiful work. Lavishly illustrated with colour plates and many diagrams that clarify the text and the mathematics, this book should be on the shelf of anyone who is interested in the history of science and the middle ages. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Wickham - Medieval Europe
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society
Miller - Empire of the Stars
Panek - Seeing and Believing
Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Hewitt - Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey