Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel:
Technology & Invention in the Middle Ages
by Frances & Joseph Gies
"Armed with innovative technology, both borrowed and homegrown, the European civilization that Edward Gibbon believed had been brought to a long standstill by "the triumph of barbarism and religion" had in reality taken an immense stride forward." (p 15)
I read this book as part of a study group to which I belong. The authors argue that the dark ages were not nearly so dark as assumed by many. They demonstrate this by chronicling the developments in technology over the centuries preceding the Renaissance. Some of these included the magnetic compass which would enable the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century, water power for industry, and new designs for ships with full rigging. Europe did not develop ideas in isolation but was able to adopt ideas originating in the civilizations of Islam, India and China.
The book's scope is the thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the discovery of the New World. The authors divide the book into seven chapters into which they arrange most of their material chronologically. In the chapter on "The Not so Dark Ages: A.D. 500-900" the authors debunk the notion that little happened in those four hundred years. The authors discuss warfare, textiles, agriculture, and the ways in which long-distance navigation and trade spurred urban growth in northwest Europe. Using archaeological research published as recently as 1990, the authors describe how "specialized trading settlements called 'emporia' and 'gateway communities' sprang up near the North Sea and Channel coasts" in the seventh and eighth centuries (p. 43).
One of the most valuable chapters is "The Asian Connection." The authors remind us that although the revival of the European economy and the re-urbanization of Europe are often described as a "Renaissance" of classical antiquity, some of the most crucial technological innovations came from beyond Europe. These imports include the trio of gunpowder, the printing press, and the magnetic compass. The physical configuration of early-modern cities, the nature of their intellectual life, and the potential of Europeans to begin a program of overseas expansion depended more upon inventions borrowed from Asia than any revival of Roman technology. The book also chronicles the onset and expansion of the commercial revolution and the consequent growth of cities. The authors explore the environmental impact of land reclamation and deforestation. They note that "the growing pressures of construction and industry brought Europeans for the first time to a consciousness of the forest's limits" (p. 171).
The book concludes with the voyages of Columbus and the products of the genius of Da Vinci as the dawn of the Renaissance was on the horizon.
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