Navigation in the Middle Ages

March 2023

The subject of navigation in the Middle Ages is fundamental to maritime history as it lays the foundation for the exploration, migration, global trade and international wars that followed. It is also a fascinating and multi-faceted topic; one which takes us out into the deep oceans where issues of wind, current, tide and depth are all influential, but also up into the sky where the sun, moon, planet and stars help us find out where we are and WHEN we are: the history of navigation is intimately linked with the question of time at sea. To find out more, Dr Sam Willis spoke with Dr Seb Falk from Girton College, Cambridge, an historian who specialises in the history of astronomy, navigation and mathematics from their ancient origins to modern developments. For Seb 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. Seb is the author of an important recent book: The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery.

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. Now, the maritime historical world is full of wonders. And you don’t really need to look very far at all to discover things that make you stop in your tracks, scratched your head, throw your hands to the sky in wonderment at what they managed to achieve all of those years ago. I remember once coming across a book by an experienced and knowledgeable scholar of the Middle Ages and one whose knowledge transcended all aspects of engineering. he claimed that the invention of the multi masted ocean going sailing ship and its safe navigation was an intellectual and practical achievement to rival the construction of the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe. It’s a wonderful interdisciplinary comparison and one which really struck a chord with me. You can in fact, take the observation a little further because if you look up when you’re in a mediaeval chapel, the one at Hampton Court in London is a great example from the Tudor period. In the timber ceiling, you will essentially see the hull of a boat up turned. Much of the timber work and engineering required to make a timber roof is similar to that of making a ship’s hull. Ship construction, of course, is just one aspect of this extraordinary achievement. There are others seamanship is one, and then today’s topic navigation, which is just one aspect of seamanship. But the topic of navigation in the Middle Ages is multifaceted it is one that takes us into the deep oceans where issues of wind, current tide and depth are all influential. But it also takes us up into the sky where the sun moon, the planets and the stars help us find where we are, and when we are. To find out more. I spoke with Seb Falk from Girton College in Cambridge. Seb is a multi talented man who has helped us actually in a previous episode, as a musician, he used his skills to record a song written in the aftermath of a very famous maritime disaster story that of the wreck of HMS Guardian. Now that episode includes Seb’s rendition of a song, the forecastle sailor, or the Guardian frigate. And the song was written by Mr. Schachter and it was sung by Mr. Darley at Vauxhall gardens. And it all happened in 1790 or 1791. It is most likely that this was the first ever recording that’s ever been made of the song and it all happened on the Mariners Mirror podcast. So if you want to listen to that, please find the episode entitled maritime disasters, HMS Guardian released in August 2022. Today, however, Sam is navigating the waters of his real experience for Seb is an historian who specialises in the history of astronomy, navigation, mathematics, the theories and technologies from their ancient origins to modern developments. He is the author of a really wonderful book called ‘The light ages and a mediaeval journey of discovery’. For Seb. The Middle Ages were a time of wonder, they gave us the first universities the first eyeglasses, 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. Unsurprisingly, Seb has a great deal to say about the history of navigation in this fascinating period, As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. So here is the multitalented Seb.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Thank you very much for having me.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So medieval navigation is what we’re going to try and unpick today. First off bit of a broad question, but how does the study of navigation in this period help our understanding of what’s going on more generally, in the Middle Ages?

     

    Seb Falk 

    Well I suppose navigation, trade, travel, those are things that people have always been doing. And it’s always been a concern of human societies who want to get stuff, who want to move around, who wants to exchange knowledge. So that’s just a kind of a given really, for me, as a historian of science, I see it as part of the development of human knowledge. And navigation is a kind of ancillary science in a way it’s a sort of an application of what was the key science of the Middle Ages, which was astronomy. So I’m a historian of astronomy, a historian of mathematics. And that’s it In a way that kind of the ultimate science in the Middle Ages, it was the most mathematize the most kind of professionalised science in that period. And navigation kind of follows on naturally from that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. And instrumental to the, to the way that navigation develops. Just talking about it more broadly, how would the, as a historian, how do you deal with the fact that there are, I suppose at least three major geographical areas where developments are happening? You’ve got China, you’ve got Latin Christendom, and then you’ve got the Islamic world? How do you get over that?

     

    Seb Falk 

    I mean, I suppose the short answer is most people specialise in one or another. I think China is kind of separate. I mean, there are some examples of cooperation or some examples of collaboration or sharing of ideas. But broadly speaking, for most of the period I deal with from the about 1000 to 1500, there’s not a huge amount of contact and where there is contact, we don’t really see the exchange of technologies that much. There are some technologies which were developed first in China and then used in Europe later, and we might get onto those, but trying to track the progress of development trying to track the exchange of ideas between China and the rest of Eurasia is is very tricky. The Islamic world and Western Europe is much more porous, there’s much more going on much more exchange of ideas. And those you can almost treat kind of as a whole sort of ebb and flow of ideas over time, mutual development, mutual exchange, and that I think, is not so problematic. But of course, generally, people with their own cultural backgrounds or their own linguistic skills tend to specialise in one or another and, and then examine the other culture simply as a kind of an input or an output.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I suppose the whole question of studying astronomy does share a lot with navigation, terms of the difficulty, the difference between theory and practice, but I suspect that it’s more the case that navigation suffers from gaps in the history because you’ll you’ll, it’s such a practical skill must have necessarily lost quite a large amount of it to history.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Yeah, yeah. I mean, how do we know about past navigational practices? Some stuff gets written down in manuals. We have archaeological records, of course, in the broadest sense, obviously, shipwrecks and instruments that survived in one way or another, we have pictorial illustrations. I mean, you have to as a historian, I mean, as a mediaeval historian, in general, you have to kind of use what sources you have. And sometimes they’re not the ideal sources. So some, you know, one of one of the best sources actually, for English, kind of high, late mediaeval navigational practices is actually a language textbook. Broadly speaking, that was written by a guy called Alexander Neckam, who just uses the vocabulary of navigation as a way of teaching English grammar, or I should say, Latin grammar. But but but English people. And, and so it’s kind of by the by that we get all this information about the sorts of things that people had on board ship. Because otherwise, you know, you’re just relying on accounts, chronicle accounts, or, as I say, pictures and that kind of thing, to work out what it was that people were doing. But the kind of the cutting edge science of it is, is tricky, because some of it was written down in manuals, but but large amounts of it were really passed down, from, from master to pupil, or  within families. And we don’t always have a huge amounts of detail about what people really did on board ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah. And some of the, the techniques and the objects that they created to help them with their navigation are so complicated as well. It always, I’m always slightly suspicious that we think we know how they were used, but actually, we’re wrong

     

    Seb Falk 

    I mean my real specialism is astronomical instruments. Listeners won’t be able to see but I’ve got an Astrolabe behind me and I got another one here that I can jingle at the microphone that maybe people will be able to hear at least, and astrolabe is the kind of quintessential mediaeval astronomical instrument I use the word astronomical carefully because although we do later get mariners astrolabes, which kind of became popular around 1500, they were really stripped down versions. I mean, some historians have kind of argued they actually almost have nothing to do with the real smart planispheric that you see in museums and fans of Philip Pullman will recognise in Lyra as an alethiometer from from the Golden Compass the film of those books.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I tell you what, why don’t you just describe what an astrolabe looks like to someone who doesn’t know what an astrolabe looks like?

     

    Seb Falk 

    Right so an Astrolabe is a brass disk. And it’s typically sized to fit in the palm of your hand. Although generally, they’re a little bit bigger than that. Normally, they’re kind of up to about 20 to 30 centimetres in diameter. So you’ve got a brass disc, and it’s flat, engraved on that disc is a kind of grid-lines of the heavens, the sky, as well as the horizon for your particular area. Now, the shape of the sky and the horizon for your area. And crucially, the location of the North Pole will vary depending on where you are. So Astrolabe typically have little brass plates that you can slot in for different latitudes. So whether you go north or south, you can have a plate a grid, grid line of the sky, showing the zenith directly above your head showing the North Pole around which all the stars rotate, showing your local horizon. Then on top of that, you have a kind of cut out net shaped plate, which shows you the stars, it’s called the Rete. That rotates over your plate of grid-lines. So you basically have the stars rising and setting as you turn the Rete.. So as you turn that you can watch the stars rise and set, you can locate the sun among the stars, because the sun was was seen as a planet in many ways. And you can think of it in that way, as something that moves among the otherwise fixed stars, they were known as fixed because they stayed in the same positions relative to one another. And by doing that, you can work out what time a star or the sun will rise and set you can work out what time it is, you can work out the direction of north, you can work out how long the day will be, you could also do some things in surveying, like figuring out the height of a building. So it’s it’s got many uses in navigation, but it’s also got other practical uses. It’s got uses in astrology. And this is a kind of all purpose astronomical tool. So I like to liken it to a mediaeval smartphone, because it’s got all these functions which brought together the functions of other pre existing devices. But also, it was kind of a neat, elegant package a bit like a smartphone is today so that people don’t just have them for their practical use, they also have them to show off to their friends and the people who made them kind of would pride themselves on on the design innovations and making them look good, as well as what they could do.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And if dropped, they would also break.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Well, perhaps not as much. But certainly a lot of the surviving instruments have been repaired over the years. And we do kind of like to look at how that how that happened. But the other thing is because they were quite valuable, people might not have taken them to sea as much as we might assume. So when we look at the ones, yeah, the thing about museum objects is that the things that survived to be in museums today are not necessarily the ones that were kind of purely functional objects, because people took pride in them people were, we’re very careful about them. So we do have some Astrolabes with sort of navigational markings on them things for calculating the tides and so on. Some historians have argued that they’re largely symbolic that they wouldn’t have gone to sea because they were too valuable. No one wants to risk dropping them overboard. And the ones that we find the mariners astrolabes that we find, from largely the 16th century that have been kind of washed up on coasts and so on, and found in shipwrecks are much, much simpler. So they, you know, rather than have this brass disc, they’ve got holes cut through so that you can hold it up in the wind and not have it be blown around when you’re trying to use it on board, a ship in the wind and so on.

     

    Sam Willis 

    When do we know when was the first we’re not the first one invented? When was the idea that only in the Astrolabes sort of first settled on.

     

    Seb Falk 

    So the idea goes back basically to the ancient Greeks. Ptolemy, the ancient Greek astronomer who lived in the second century AD and Alexandria writes something called the planetarium, which is this basically, it’s how you get the three dimensional sphere onto a two dimensional disk. So it’s a little bit like a projection of a world map, right? You’ve you’ve got a globe, but how are you going to make it work as a flat sheet? And the same problem exists for the heavens, right? You can, you can, you’ve got the heavens, but how are you going to actually make them usable as a flat disc, especially when you’ve got your own local horizon which is at a fixed angle to to the equator. And also, you’ve got to factor in the angle of the ecliptic, which is the line that the sun follows on its path through the stars, which is essential if you if you want to tell the time, you need to understand where the sun is on its passage through the sky.  You can’t do that unless you understand those angles. So you’ve basically, you’ve got three planes, you’ve got the plane of the ecliptic, the plane of the Equator, and the plane of the horizon. or in modern terms, you’ve got the plane of our own horizon, the plane of the rotation, the Earth’s daily rotation, and the plane of the earth revolution around around the Sun, which is about 23 and a half degrees angled to the to the Earth’s rotation. So you’ve got to understand those three,  angles, those three planes, and in order to, to map that on a flat surface, it takes quite a lot of complicated geometry. That was the product of ancient Greek mathematics in about the second century AD, although it goes back further. But Astrolabes as an instrument, we don’t know whether Ptolemy really made one or whether he just came up with a theory, but they existed by the second century AD. Then certainly the ideas and the instruments were developed in the Islamic world, in the kind of seventh, eighth, ninth century, they came into Europe, and were developed further in the 10th 11th centuries and really hit their peak of popularity around about 1500. And then they kind of died down a bit because people get more interested in things like clocks, and clockwork and or automatic instruments, if you like, rather than the sort of hand operated instruments. And then they carry on being popular in the Islamic world, particularly in what’s now Pakistan, but the sort of Mughal Empire right up into the 19th century, because a lot of Muslims still find them useful to find prayer times and potentially find the direction of Mecca and so on. So they have quite a long life.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Essentially, you mentioned people became more interested in clocks a little later. So one of the key things I suppose that’s missing from the navigation challenge in the Middle Ages is this question of time? How did they cope with that?

     

    Seb Falk 

    They don’t really bother very much with longitude? I mean, I guess you’re talking about longitude, right? So well, so why do you need to know time I suppose is is another question. And in terms of navigation, you want to know the time because you want to know when local noon is potentially, but actually in a way, that’s flipping the problem around. So you want to know when local noon is, because you want to know when the sun is highest in the sky, so that you can measure your latitude by measuring the height of the sun in the sky. But if you just watch the sun till it gets to its highest point you found local noon, or potentially, when the sun is in the south, that’s also local noon, I mean, those things are both actually quite tricky, because the sun moves least closest to noon. So if you’re measuring your position by the height of the sun, it’s quite hard to do in the daytime. Whereas at nighttime, it’s a bit easier because you just assuming that you’re, well, if you want to be really precise about it, you take multiple measurements of the North Star because mediaeval people were aware that the North Star wasn’t actually exactly at North, but for most purposes, you could just take a reading an altitude siting on the North Star, and that will tell you your latitude. So that’s simple enough, then longitude, when they were doing that kind of navigation, which maybe might need to look back and explain that they weren’t doing that very much. They weren’t really worrying very much about longitude, frankly, because they understood that it wasn’t something that could be done without knowing essentially, the time or having some kind of insight into the conditions at your home port. Because, you know, as probably most listeners to this podcast understand, latitude is an absolute thing. Latitude is a real measurement north of south of the equator, because that’s, you know, the, the way that the axis of the Earth runs, whereas longitude is a kind of human concept. And you could you could put your Prime Meridian anywhere, and it’s just a measurement of distance around the Earth from your Prime Meridian, Which is a measurement of time because the Earth spins once in 24 hours. Without having some way of knowing what the time is at your Prime Meridian, knowing the time where you are is is not helpful.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, so the key thing is, is that you’ve got these complex things like an astrolabe, you’ve certainly got a complex understanding of the stars in the heavens in the sky, but then you’ve got quite a rough way of working out where you’ve been, dead reckoning, whatever it might be. I love the mix between people kind of doing their best, with charts with pegs in trying to work out how far they’ve gone with the wind and tide it compared with the elaborate beauty of something like an astrolabe.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Yeah, and remember that mapping in the Middle Ages was more figurative, shall we say it was it had different purposes. So most of the maps that we have from the Middle Ages are more like itineraries, it’s more like the sort of thing that you might draw for your, for your friend, if you’re trying to say, well, this is the way to the station from my house, you know, you go down the road to the pub, and you draw the pub, and then you turn left until you hit the traffic lights, and you draw the traffic lights. And it’s a little bit like that. Because I think there wasn’t as much sense of use in making maps for popular consumption, partly because without printing, if you draw a really complicated map, there’s no guarantee that the person who comes along and copies it is going to copy it accurately. So you know, the more complicated you make your map, the less likely it is to be copied accurately. In fact, the less likely it is to be copied at all. Because when somebody comes along and sees a really complicated map, or a really complicated diagram of any kind, we can see as historians, the more complicated they are, the more they just get left out by copyists, when when copyists come and copy manuscripts because they think, Oh, this is just too complicated, I’ll probably get it wrong, and I’ll leave it for someone else. So there’s a real skill in a way when you when you write a book in the Middle Ages, or when you write a navigation manual, when you write anything, to keep the diagrams really simple. So you can make sure that the essential details will get copied and will get copied accurately. Of course, then printing comes along in the in the mid or in Europe in the mid 15th century. And and that changes the game completely, because then maps can be copied reliably. And if you notice a mistake in a map, you can go back to the printer and say, Oh, this is wrong, sort it out in your next edition, which you couldn’t do with hand copied manuscripts. So there’s a real kind of incentive, and there’s a real mechanism for making maps better. But what happens basically, in the, in the period before printing, is that you get the development. And I’m sure you’ve probably covered this in previous episodes of your podcast, but if not, it would be great to have an episode on Portolan charts.

     

    Seb Falk 

    I think let’s briefly describe what those are. They’re wonderful. They’re my favourite type of source of maritime history,

     

    Seb Falk 

    Well, the word Portolan is related to the word port, of course, and they basically come out of harbour diagrams essentially. So you can imagine those, those those listeners who’ve done any sailing, you know, what we’ll think be able to think about the kinds of charts that people have of harbours that have, you know, this is a safe place to anchor and this is a, you know, place that there’s a big rock, and you don’t want to go over that side, and so on and so forth. This is a more sheltered side, and this is the less sheltered side. And they come out of those sorts of things. So again, it’s quite similar to the kind of word of mouth handwritten diagrams. And then people gradually accumulate charts of the basically just coastlines with safe harbours, marked along them. So, you know, we’ve got a lot of surviving ones of Western Europe and the Mediterranean and the northern part of West Africa. This is from kind of the middle of the 15th century onwards, but there are some slightly earlier ones. But they really take off with the popularity of the magnetic compass, as well. And this is another thing, that it is a real factor. But yeah, so you get these basically just coastlines that are just made up of these forest of names written all the way down the coastline. And, and they’re just the names of safe harbours, places that you can go. And then rhumb lines get added. So just compass direction lines, what they don’t have, initially is lines of latitude and longitude. And that’s really interesting, because mediaeval people didn’t know about latitude and longitude, they just didn’t quite see the point, initially of putting them on their maps. Because I think, you know, most people were quite content, either to follow a coastline, or just to kind of strike out in a direction for, you know, sail north for 12 hours kind of thing, and then hit a bit of coastline. And if you don’t recognise it sail in one direction, or the other direction to find a bit that you do recognise. So it’s a sort of hand railing technique, I suppose, in a way, where people you know, it’s not like they, they completely sail within sight of land, because of course, they cross the channel all the time. But generally speaking, most navigation was done within familiar waters. And so you didn’t need to spend too much time out of out of sight of land.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s why those views of of the land from the sea are so important to the history of navigation. So people coming across, you know, coast distinctive coastlines, and they must have loved. I just come back from Western Australia. There’s a very distinctive bit of coast just north of Perth, and they must have rubbed their hands together with glee knowing that you know, only 10 miles south of there is a nice safe harbour but fascinating that the views of coasts, I think particularly, I’ve looked at some wonderful ones from the 17th century in the Caribbean. I’ve  started me rambling here but I’ve also thought that the Seamanship of, of discovery is really interesting. I don’t think people have done enough about that. Like, how do you actually explore a coastline without endangering your ship? Yes, loads of ships got wrecked, but a huge number didn’t which is why we managed to discover the world.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Yeah, I mean, I think the short answer is slowly right. You know, you you go not in your big ship, you go in little row-boat, and you sail up and down and you drop lead lines and you kind of you go until you bump into a rock then you back up kind of thing.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And you don’t even the big ships that you’ve come from are quite small ships. So they’re relatively speaking, you know, the Dutch would send off you know, the much lighter Jacht and then from them they’d explore.

     

    Seb Falk 

    The other thing is also those of us that are used to kind of poodling about in fibreglass things are, you know, a bit panicky when we run into a rock or something if you if you’re in a big wooden ship, you’re used to patching it up every now and again and bailing it out. And, and I think probably it was just kind of a fact of life, they always let in a bit of water, and when they let in a lot of water, you fix the problem and you carried on so

     

    Sam Willis 

    I always explained it. When I used to teach this stuff about seamanship, long, long time ago is you just get a wooden pencil, he break it in half. And there is not a catastrophe. You’ve just got two brilliant pencils. Just sharpen one end, off you go. And I made some wonderful discoveries of people making rudders out of masts and masts out of rudders and, you know, sort of patching up holes in the hull with sails, the whole thing was a kind of organic Lego kit.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Yeah. And I think, you know, it’s worth saying it’s not really my field. But it’s worth saying that the Middle Ages is a time of a lot of experimentation in that area, you know, centreline rudders, better ways of sailing up wind different kinds of rigs. And all of those contribute to the sort of European desire and ability to explore more efficiently and further afield. Because it’s not just like suddenly, Europeans, we’re all looking at Europe. And then suddenly 1492 Columbus goes over and discovers America, there are lots of stages in that process. And some of those stages involve better mapping, the use of the compass, better understanding of tides, and better understanding of kind of navigation. But also there’s these practical, you know, how are we going to store water? How are our boats going to sail up wind? You know, how can we steer close to the wind and hold, of course better? And those are all things that that develop through the 12th, 13th,14th centuries in order to make the kind of the 15th century, the century when, when the sort of big flagship discoveries happen.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I love the idea there of just rowing ahead of your boat and dropping down a lead line to find out, you know, what the, the sea floor was like? And it kind of raises a broader question of the an understanding of the natural world and how the mediaeval kind of brain approached that.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Yeah, I guess one of the things I suppose that I would say is that mediaeval people were were as curious as we are today. You know, there was a huge amount that they understood that they didn’t know. And that they were kind of curious to know, obviously, for a lot of mediaeval people, understanding, learning about about the natural world was in a kind of religious context. So for them, it was about understanding God’s creation. So the metaphor was very popular in the Middle Ages, that you could learn about God through two books, The Book of scripture of obviously, the Bible, and the book of nature. So that sort of nature had been put there, to learn about, learn about God. So for them, that was kind of background motivation that, you know, the more you found out about nature, the more you know, you you were kind of being a devout Christian, you were being a good religious person. But, I mean, fundamentally, I think there’s a real practical desire, you know, whatever reason you’re doing it for, there’s, there’s a desire to find out more about nature, that is desire to kind of discover new things. And, and, and just to kind of curiosity, and we find curiosity, not only in, you know, what’s at the bottom of that body of water, but also, you know, how do I make this instrument work better? How do I tinker with this sailing ship to make the rig more efficient and so on?

     

    Sam Willis 

    What were the major? What do you think the most important scientific breakthroughs were? Say? Up to 1200

     

    Seb Falk 

    Up to 1200. I mean, I think you can have because what we have in the 12th century, so obviously the 1100s is a really big  influx of of new information into into mediaeval Europe. Some people have called it the 12th century Renaissance even. And this is largely a kind of rediscovery of ancient learning. So some people listening to this will say, Well, that doesn’t count because they’re basically just picking up on what Aristotle knew or what Plato knew or what, what Ptolemy knew. But you know, they build on that. And, and also that’s filtered through discoveries and accomplishments that had been made in the interim in Islamic world. So everything, you know, a lot of what mediaeval people in Europe were really excited to discover, that Aristotle had known, had also been added to by people like Avicenna, even Sina, who lived around about the year 1000. And, and so there’s this really important period of kind of rediscovery, if you like, or discovery of stuff that the ancients had known. But that really can’t be put down as a kind of achievement of Europeans, you know, learning what other people already knew. But they did kind of build on that. And that goes into the foundation of the universities, the mediaeval universities really took off from around 1200. And that’s a place where, you know, new ideas about how to understand the properties of substances, for example, how to understand things like temperature, weight, speed, things that previously hadn’t really been measurable, because you know, things were just hot or cold or fast or slow, or wet or dry. Mediaeval people start to figure out ways to theorise that which are essential for later developments in physics, but they don’t really bear fruit until, you know, they’re sort of physicists of the of the kind of 16th 17th century sort of see what to do with them if you like. So in a way, the mediaeval period is a kind of period of, of consolidation in scientific ideas, but it’s also a period of technological development, because we see around about in the 13th century, we see the development of the clock and mechanical clock, which is really absolutely essential, in many ways, probably the most important technological development of the Middle Ages, or also lenses. You know, everybody focuses on the telescope, which the date normally put on that is 1608, 1609 but that is dependent on mediaeval glassware,  mediaeval lens grinding, we get the first eyeglasses, spectacles in the 13th century. And, and then also kind of technologies which are often ignored, and which historians still today argue about whether they were kind of parallel tracks are whether they’re influential ideas and engineering, like milling techniques, which use gearing camshafts, again, which have a kind of impact on later engineering work, whether those were just kind of separate tracks that didn’t really have much influence on science, or whether that was something that really fed into latest scientific developments is a kind of moot point if you like, but the stuff that I focus on in my work is, is astronomical. So it’s understanding that the stars it’s it’s the theories that allow later astronomers to come up with, you know, like Copernicus, and so on, to come up with their ideas were dependent on mediaeval theories of the stars and mediaeval ideas about making models of the planets that really worked.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, well, I think all of this should encourage us to rethink, you know, what we know about mediaeval science and the importance of it to navigation said thank you very much indeed for talking to us today.

     

    Seb Falk 

    Thank you so much for having me on the podcast.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now, if you’re interested in this topic of navigation, and particularly the question of time, do you please check out our forthcoming episode on the history of time in relation to the sea and maritime history, in which I speak with David Rooney who served as the keeper of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Please check out our YouTube channel. It’s fantastic and showcases maritime history in ways you will never have seen before I promise who can ever forget our use of digital artistry to recreate Nelson’s face from a plaster mask taken during his lifetime? Among other wonders of modern technology, there’s even a 3D rendition of the Titanic based on her original lines. This podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the Society for Nautical Research you can find at snr.org.uk it’s a fantastic way both to meet people, and to learn about our maritime past from the world’s best maritime scholars, and the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation you can find at hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. These guys have been doing wonderful things in maritime history since 1760. Now they’re still leading the way more recently with a wonderful project to film the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment to find that just Google maritime innovation in miniature

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