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January Books 1) God's Clockmaker

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1) God's Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time, by John North.

So as one year turns to another, I've returned to a youthful passion: the fourteenth century scholar Richard of Wallingford, who as Abbot of St Albans designed an elaborate astronomical clock capable of predicting lunar eclipses, as chronicled once again by John North, who published the definitive edition of Richard of Wallingford's works thirty years ago, and here attempts to give a more accessible account (at a cost of £15 rather than the £400 that the 1976 version will cost you).

I'm sorry to say that I don't think he has succeeded. The first half of the book, a biographical treatment of Richard and his times, just somehow doesn't sparkle; lots of detailed description, but I came away without really much of a feeling of context, or even of the internal chronology of the eight years of his time as abbot up to his early death (he was not yet 45).

In addition, North is very much an old school historian of science. He goes out of his way to reject two ideas that I wrote about while doing my M Phil - first, that the technology of the watermills so important to the monastery's finances might have had some relevance to the construction the clock (this on p 195 despite the evidence offered in his own footnote 98 on page 395) and second, that there was any economic motive whatsoever in trying to regulate time by building clocks (see pp 219-220). I don't claim ownership of (or even particular attachment to) either idea, but I think North's arguments against in both cases are poor, and it feels a bit as if he is taking an ineffective swing at the whole concept of sociology of knowledge.

There are some annoying slips in presentation as well, most of them minor, but one particularly tantalising - note 21 on p 387 refers to text on page 59, but the marker for note 21 is way back on page 34 and comes after a completely irrelevant paragraph; working out what is going on is rather reminiscent of North's own description of putting together Richard of Wallingford's plans for the clock from the much hacked-about surviving manuscript in the Bodleian.

Having said all that, most of the second half of the book provides a completely superb summary of the state of knowledge in medieval physics, tackling not just astronomy but also optics, theories of motion, and the intellectual legacy of Aristotle, and the transmission of learning from the Arab world via Al-Andalus and Sicily in as lucid a presentation as I have read. To be honest one would happily pay the cover price for a text book including just those chapters. If ever I go back to my medieval research I'll take the astronomy chapter as a starting point.

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