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I ordered this book as it’s the reading for the Royal Society, History of Science Book Group’s August meet-up. I might not be able to make that event (it’s clashing with a late at the Science Museum), but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read a book that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. The book was long-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Medieval conceptions of science were totally different to our own, and are often very difficult to grasp, given their completely different world view. But Hannam smooths the corners away, helping us understand the important role of magic and astrology in moving knowledge forward, and how medieval Catholicism was actually often a force for improved scientific knowledge rather than against it. He even manages to, half, rehabilitate that dread organisation: the Inquisition! And he does all this while making us aware of the, often unacknowledged, debt that ‘modern’ scientific thinkers from the renaissance onwards owe to their medieval forebears.

My only quibble with this book is that Hannam defends medieval thinkers a little too zealously. I have no doubt that their contribution to the birth of modern science, and the advancements that were made in the Renaissance, has been woefully underestimated. But I also think that Hannam goes a little too far the other way. Whilst he bemoans the use of the term the ‘dark ages’, the period up to 1000 AD (so the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) get a scant 20 pages in his book – for a very good reason – not a lot happened.

In fact, there’s only another 40 pages from that up to the 12th century, which Hannam calls a renaissance in itself. And if you accept that the Renaissance ‘proper’ began in the late 13th century, then most of the book isn’t actually taken up with the medieval period at all. However, the section that is does describe some interesting advancements, especially in architecture,  mathematics, and related to that astrology and clock-making.

But much of the time of medieval scholars seemed to be spent either in darkness, or in trying to access and understand the knowledge of the Islamic world. Hannam seems to be playing a sleight of hand by taking a large period of time which most people accept as the early Renaissance and rebranding it as the late medieval period, so he can hold up the accomplishments of medieval scholars.

That aside, it is a fascinating book, making a dry and difficult subject accessible and enjoyable. And I can forgive Hannam his zeal as he does illuminate the debt modern science owes to those scholars who went before them – whatever period they were working in.


I know I’m a bit of a saddo for being into the history of railways, but please stick with me here, I promise that they’re interesting. What I find especially interesting is the social history – how the railways changed the country and our society, and this book is rich in that as well as more factual railway information.

The book covers the whole history of British railways, from the opening of the first ‘proper’ railway, the Liverpool to Manchester, through the Edwardian golden age, through the Beeching cuts and privatisation (which Wolmar disagrees with, or at least disagrees with the way it’s been done) of the railways and the channel tunnel link.

Through this Wolmar weaves the social elements, bringing the narrative to life. So, we hear about opposition to the railways from interested parties, and how the railways transformed life. Villages that had been remote and cut off from the world suddenly had links to market towns, regional cities and even the capital. Goods which had expensive because of transport costs became affordable to everyone. Perishable food items could be brought into the heart of conurbations, so that even the poor could have fresh milk and vegetables, and there was no longer any need to have cows roaming the streets of London.

And then the decline: the growth of the car, the rise of subsides making railways look unaffordable to government, and anyway they were old-fashioned. But now we have come full circle again, and railways are seen as a clean alternative to cars and lorries, often providing faster journey times than on crowded roads. Christopher Wolmar paints a bright and necessary future for rail, and he, and I, are pleased about it. 

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