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Interview: Seb Falk

In our latest instalment of New Generation Thinker interviews, Seb Falk ponders the medieval monastic life and talks about why he still considers himself a teacher.


Seb Falk is a medieval historian and historian of science whose research centres on the scientific instruments made and used by monks, scholars and nobles in the later Middle Ages. His research has led him to make wood and brass models of the instruments he studies. His new project will be an investigation of the sciences practised by medieval monks and nuns.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the medieval history of science. Can you explain more about the scientific enterprises of monks and nuns and why you decided to research more about it?

SF: One of the things I love about history is the opportunity for escapism - getting inside the minds of people who had wholly different experiences to ours, but still shared basic human characteristics, needs and concerns. In this respect I find medieval monasticism particularly fascinating, as the idea of cloistering oneself away from society in order to contemplate the Divine is so alien to our modern, hyper-connected world. Naturally monks and nuns wanted to study in order to approach the mind of God, and this didn't just mean studying the Bible; for many, it could mean studying God's Creation - the world, and anything in it. Many medieval monks had attended the new universities that were founded from the twelfth century onwards, and didn't want to abandon their interests in things like astronomy. And these sciences could be useful: mechanical clocks were developed in the monasteries because they helped to maintain the regular daily routine of prayer and work. Monks and nuns have an astounding combination of awe-inspiring commitment and impressive ingenuity - I find that irresistible.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

SF: I'm not sure I do want to be an academic! Calling myself that makes me afraid of the stereotype of inward-looking academia. I used to be a school teacher and I loved having the opportunity to explain exciting ideas and ways of thinking. Working in a university allows me to find out things no-one else knows, about topics that few people have ever studied, and to explain those to more people: students, historians and the wider public. But I still consider myself a teacher, and every time I get the thrill of making someone else as excited as I am about something I've found out, I know I'm in the right career.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you're working on at the moment that really excites you?

SF: Right now I'm just starting a new project, trying to reconstruct the social networks that scientifically minded monks formed to share their ideas, texts and instruments. They weren't as isolated as we might expect! It's amazing to read the letters monks write to other scholars describing eclipses that they've observed, and to imagine them working through and sometimes seeking help with difficult theoretical and technical problems.

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for science in the middle ages?

SF: It would have to be Geoffrey Chaucer's "Treatise on the Astrolabe". Many people have read Chaucer's amazingly rich, complex and often hilarious poetry, but few people know that he wrote an introduction to the quintessential medieval scientific instrument. It was apparently for his ten-year-old son Lewis, and Chaucer wrote it in the most beautifully clear, didactic Middle English: "it seems better to write unto a child a good sentence twice, than he forget it once," he says in the prologue. It's far more than an excellent introduction to an intriguing instrument; it's fascinating medieval literary theory, a touching document of a father-son relationship, and a reminder that interest in science and nature pervaded medieval society.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

SF:Not really - our heroes usually end up disappointing us! I'm often most fascinated by the people in history who did things that we now consider strange or bad, for reasons that they themselves thought virtuous or honourable. I love reading about crusaders or colonisers, for example, but I'm not sure I identify with them!

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

SF: Academic life is hugely varied, so be clear about which parts of it interest you most and pursue them single-mindedly. Be prepared for many setbacks, and be willing to change your plans in order to build the career you want. You may find, for example, that what you really enjoy about your work is most easily accomplished somewhere other than a traditional university setting. Remember that you didn't go into this for the money (unless you're a fool!), so don't give too much weight to money in your career choices. And learn to say no!

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

SF: I am a little sceptical of learning the "lessons of history". Nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice, and claims and analogies that are made are often simplistic. So an important role for academics can be to call out public figures who misuse history. We saw that on both sides of the EU Referendum debate: the Brexiteers who harked back to a Great Britain without European immigration and influence (of course Britain has never been without those things); and the Remainers who suggested that it was only the EU that had prevented Europe sliding back into World War in the late twentieth century. Of course history considers how and why we got to where we are now, so its study allows us to evaluate humanity's successes, failures, and what could be done differently. But different people will draw different conclusions - often according to their preconceived views - so the job of academics is to be constantly questioning, bringing new ideas and facts to light, and challenging lazily accepted opinions. And of course, we are an important source of entertainment and fascination for millions of people who read books, watch TV or browse the internet.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

SF:There are so many! I'd love to visit 12th-century Spain, when contact with Islamic cultures and ideas spurred a renaissance in Christendom: it must have been such an exciting time. But really, I'd want to go and find out something entirely new. Our picture of the medieval world depends so heavily on the sources available to us, and inevitably there are gaps in our knowledge. Of course deduction, extrapolation and even speculation can be vital, and are certainly part of the fun! But I'd love to go and speak to some of those people we've never heard of, because their names were literally never recorded. I'd love to interview some unknown women and children about their experiences of life, particularly in the midst of tumultuous events like the Norman Conquest or Black Death. And then I'd have to fast forward to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and save some of those thousands of priceless manuscripts that were destroyed!

AH: Do you have any top tips about early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

SF:I've only just started! But I'd say keep putting your ideas out there, and be patient! Opportunities exist, but you can't wait for them to come to you. You have to be bold, be prepared to network, and to have many promising conversations that don't lead to anything. And of course, make your ideas accessible. That doesn't mean dumbing them down, but it's up to you to show why what you know is worthy of other people's interest.

AH:How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

SF:It's been a steep learning curve! Finding the balance of preparation and spontaneity is very tricky. And playing the role of an expert is hard when I'm so conscious of how much I don't know! But luckily, I don't mind the sound of my own voice too much...

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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