“Positively medieval” has become a universal put down for everything considered backward, ignorant, dirty, primitive, bigoted, intolerant or just simply stupid in our times. This is based on a false historical perspective that paints the Middle Ages as all of these things and worse. This image of the Middle Ages has its roots in the Renaissance, when Renaissance scholars saw themselves as the heirs of all that was good, noble and splendid in antiquity and the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and their own times as a sort of unspeakable black pit of ignorance and iniquity. Unfortunately, this completely false picture of the Middle Ages has been extensively propagated in popular literature, film and television.
Particularly in the film and television branch, a film or series set in the Middle Ages immediately calls for unwashed peasants herding their even filthier swine through the mire in a village consisting of thatch roofed wooden hovels, in order to create the ‘correct medieval atmosphere’. Add a couple of overweight, ignorant, debauching clerics and a pox marked whore and you have your genuine medieval ambient. You can’t expect to see anything vaguely related to science or technology in such presentations.
Academic medieval historians and historians of science and technology have been fighting an uphill battle against these popular images for many decades now but their efforts rarely reach the general lay public against the flow of the latest bestselling medieval bodice rippers or TV medieval murder mystery. What is needed, is as many semi-popular books on the various aspects of medieval history as possible. Whereby with semi-popular I mean, written for the general lay reader but with its historical facts correct. One such new volume is John Farrell’s The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without.
Farrell’s book is a stimulating excursion through the history of technological developments and innovation in the High Middle Ages that played a significant role in shaping the modern world. Some of those technologies are genuine medieval discoveries and developments, whilst others are ones that either survived or where reintroduced from antiquity. Some even coming from outside of Europe. In each case Farrell describes in careful detail the origins of the technology in question and if known the process of transition into European medieval culture.
The book opens with agricultural innovations, the deep plough, the horse collar and horse shoes, which made it possible to use horses as draught animals instead of or along side oxen, and new crop rotation systems. Farrell explains why they became necessary and how they increased food production leading indirectly to population growth.
Next up we have that most important of commodities power and the transition from the hand milling of grain to the introduction of first watermills and then windmills into medieval culture. Here Farrell points out that our current knowledge would suggest that the more complex vertical water mill preceded the simpler horizontal water mill putting a lie to the common precept that simple technology always precedes more complex technology. At various points Farrell also addresses the question as to whether technological change drives social and culture change or the latter the former.
Having introduced the power generators, we now have the technological innovations necessary to adapt the raw power to various industrial tasks, the crank and the camshaft. This is fascinating history and the range of uses to which mills were then adapted using these two ingenious but comparatively simple power take offs was very extensive and enriching for medieval society. One of those, in this case an innovation from outside of Europe, was the paper mill for the production of that no longer to imagine our society without, paper. This would of course in turn lead to that truly society-changing technology, the printed book at the end of the Middle Ages.
Along side paper perhaps the greatest medieval innovation was the mechanical clock. At first just a thing of wonder in the towers of some of Europe’s most striking clerical buildings the mechanical clock with its ability to regulate the hours of the day in a way that no other time keeper had up till then gradually came to change the basic rhythms of human society.
Talking of spectacular clerical buildings the Middle Ages are of course the age of the great European cathedrals. Roman architecture was block buildings with thick, massive stonewalls, very few windows and domed roofs. The art of building in stone was one of the things that virtually disappeared in the Early Middle Ages in Europe. It came back initially in an extended phase of castle building. Inspired by the return of the stonemason, medieval, European, Christian society began the era of building their massive monuments to their God, the medieval cathedrals. Introducing architectural innovation like the pointed arch, the flying buttress and the rib vaulted roof they build large, open buildings flooded with light that soared up to the heavens in honour of their God. Buildings that are still a source of wonder today.
In this context it is important to note that Farrell clearly explicates the role played by the Catholic Church in the medieval technological innovations, both the good and the bad. Viewed with hindsight the cathedrals can be definitely booked for the good but the bad? During the period when the watermills were introduced into Europe and they replaced the small hand mills that the people had previously used to produce their flour, local Church authorities gained control of the mills, a community could only afford one mill, and forced the people to bring their grain to the Church’s mill at a price of course. Then even went to the extent of banning the use of hand mills.
People often talk of the Renaissance and mean a period of time from the middle of the fifteenth century to about the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, for historians of science there was a much earlier Renaissance when scholars travelled to the boundaries between Christian Europe and the Islamic Empire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in order to reclaim the knowledge that the Muslims had translated, embellished and extended in the eight and ninth centuries from Greek sources. This knowledge enriched medieval science and technology in many areas, a fact that justifies its acquisition here in a book on technology.
Another great medieval invention that still plays a major role in our society, alongside the introduction of paper and the mechanical clock are spectacles and any account of medieval technological invention must include their emergence in the late thirteenth century. Spectacles are something that initially emerged from Christian culture, from the scriptoria of the monasteries but spread fairly rapidly throughout medieval society. The invention of eyeglasses would eventually lead to the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early seventeenth century.
Another abstract change, like the translation movement during that first scientific Renaissance, was the creation of the legal concept of the corporation. This innovation led to the emergence of the medieval universities, corporations of students and/or their teachers. There is a direct line connecting the universities that the Church set up in some of the European town in the High Middle Ages to the modern universities throughout the world. This was a medieval innovation that truly helped to shape our modern world.
Farrell’s final chapter in titled The Inventions of Discovery and deals both with the medieval innovations in shipbuilding and the technology of the scientific instruments, such as astrolabe and magnetic compass that made it possible for Europeans to venture out onto the world’s oceans as the Middle Ages came to a close. For many people Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492 represents the beginning of the modern era but as Farrell reminds us all of the technology that made his voyage possible was medieval.
All of the above is a mere sketch of the topics covered by Farrell in his excellent book, which manages to pack an incredible amount of fascinating information into what is a fairly slim volume. Farrell has a light touch and leads his reader on a voyage of discovery through the captivating world of medieval technology. The book is beautifully illustrated by especially commissioned black and white line drawing by Ryan Birmingham. There are endnotes simply listing the sources of the material in main text and an extensive bibliography of those sources. The book also has, what I hope, is a comprehensive index.
Farrell’s book is a good, readable guide to the world of medieval technology aimed at the lay reader but could also be read with profit by scholars of the histories of science and technology and as an ebook or a paperback is easily affordable for those with a small book buying budget.
So remember, next time you settle down with the latest medieval pot boiler with its cast of filthy peasants, debauched clerics and pox marked whores that the paper that it’s printed on and the reading glasses you are wearing both emerged in Europe in the Middle Ages.
 Disclosure: I was heavily involved in the production of this book, as a research assistant, although I had nothing to do with either the conception or the actual writing of the book that is all entirely John Farrell’s own work. However, I did compile the index and I truly hope it will prove useful to the readers.