Monday, March 07, 2016

Technology of the Middle Ages

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle AgesCathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages 
by Frances and Joseph Gies

"Philosophy in the early Middle Ages was in fact virtually indistinguishable from religion, and science was indeed its handmaid.  Medieval theologians would have been surprised to learn that there was any difference among the three spheres of thought." (p 76)

For more than a century following the publication in 1776 of  Edward Gibbon's massive tome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages were indicted as "the triumph of barbarism and religion".  In doing this he coupled the two bête noires of the intellectuals of his day, with the Catholic Church especially complicit in its rejection of change in science and agriculture. Yet in the present book the authors proffer evidence 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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Brian Joseph said...

This is such an interesting period of history.

The book sounds fascinating. Indeed the "Middle Ages" was a time of really important events. Does the book delve much into the Byzantine Empire? I think that one way of looking at its history is that Rome did not really fall in 476 and continued to thrive in many ways.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. This is a fascinating era to consider and there is more discovered every year. This book focused on Europe and did not address the Byzantine Empire in any detail. However the authors did not ignore the impact on changes in Europe by the Byzantines. Thus there were references to changes in military weaponry, the silk industry, and trading in general - as Byzantium was important in that regard. There was also the interaction with the Crusaders as they modeled their castles after Byzantine architecture. This short book covered a lot of territory but did it well.

M. said...

The Gies's were brilliant popularizes of medieval social history. I especially recommend "A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth Century England." A landed family in the latter decades of the Hundred Years War; England in transition; based on a unique collection of family letters. Unexpectedly touching.