The abbot who left time for the dedicated pursuit of heavenly knowledge

God's Clockmaker

November 17, 2006

Intellectual life in the high Middle Ages is mostly a mystery to those of us in the 21st century who are hard put to declare who came first: Dante Alighieri, Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey Chaucer or Leonardo da Vinci. And fewer still will have heard of Richard of Wallingford, much less know where to place him in the sequence. That he was the cleverest calculator-astronomer-clockmaker in 14th-century England is a detail that will have escaped most readers. He seems even more obscure than his contemporary at Oxford philosopher William of Ockham, known for his razor.

John North, a historian of science in residence at Oxford University, is determined to put Richard on the historical map - and what a map it is. Its sweep and fine-grained detail make his account a veritable tour de force of erudition.

Here we learn far more than about Richard's days as a student and don at Oxford, or his nine years as abbot of St Albans, a Benedictine monastery second in wealth and power only to St Augustine's Canterbury Cathedral. We find out that a flock of 300 sheep would be needed to provide the vellum for a single Bible, and we discover that the numbers of kidnapping for ransom, assassinations and beheadings in England in the 1320s and 1330s rivalled those in today's Iraq. We also learn about the foundations of Oxford University, the rivalries of the Catholic orders, the history of horology, how Islamic science flowed into the Latin West, and much else.

Richard was born probably in 1292 in Wallingford, a village a dozen miles south of Oxford. His father was a blacksmith, a fact of some consequence in his later years when his considerable knowledge of metal-working informed his plans for a giant clock in the St Albans Abbey church. Like Nicolaus Copernicus two centuries later, Richard was orphaned at an early age and "adopted" by a churchman who provided for his education, in this case at Oxford. Afterwards, he became a monk at St Albans, was ordained a priest in 1316 and was eventually sent back to Oxford for nine years of advanced study, which included original work in astronomy.

Both Richard and Copernicus were kept on short fiscal leashes - especially acute for the festivities at the time their degrees were awarded.

Copernicus solved the problem by leaving Padua (where he was studying medicine and where his friends lived) and then taking his doctorate at Ferrara (where he had never studied, presumably knew no one, and hence saved the cost of a party). Richard made a trip back to St Albans to ask for funds, but while he was there the abbot died and, to his surprise and his rivals' chagrin, he was elected abbot.

Despite the apparent wealth of the monastery, Richard promptly discovered that the foundation was deeply in debt and that the townspeople were on the brink of revolt because of the arrogant ways of the landowning Benedictines. To confirm his new title, Richard was obliged to travel to Avignon, then the seat of the papacy, with enough money to buy off the corrupt papal court.

After returning, he set about putting the affairs of the abbey in order, and soon he embarked on his grandest achievement, the building of an enormous mechanical clock. At about the same time, he discovered that he had contracted leprosy. Although he heroically continued the construction of his horological masterpiece, his health deteriorated and he died in 1336. The clock was completed posthumously, apparently shortly before the Black Death wreaked such destruction on the intellectual aspirations of England.

North, whose many in-depth specialities include early scientific instruments, defers the technical description of the clock and Richard's other devices to the final sections of his book. Having produced, 30 years ago, a three-volume edition of Richard's writings together with translations and commentaries, North is in a strong position to single out the most salient features of the instruments and clock without attempting to include every detail of their construction and use. This is particularly true for the clock, which occupies a central, well-illustrated segment of the book, for Richard's is the earliest entirely mechanical clock of which we have detailed knowledge.

Furthermore, North provides a succinct primer before describing the multipurpose brass or paper instrument called the albion, a word-play on "all by one". This device brought an analog equivalent to the Alfonsine Tables' digital computation of planetary positions and eclipses; it influenced the design of paper calculating devices for the next two centuries. North calls this "Richard of Wallingford's greatest achievement in astronomy".

Owen Gingerich is emeritus professor of astronomy and history of science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

God's Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time

Author - John North
Publisher - Hambledon and London
Pages - 464
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 85285 451 0

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