Our medieval technological inheritance.

“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.[1]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.[2]

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.

[1] John W. Farrell, The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without, Prometheus Books, 2020.

[2] 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.

11 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, History of Technology, Mediaeval Science

11 responses to “Our medieval technological inheritance.

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx veery much for this, and congratulations on your contributions to the book.

    I remember a most entertaining session in a historians’ conference which examined the depiction of the Middle Ages in popular film.

  2. Sounds like another good book I read at some B&B: Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel.

    You note that the High Middle Ages are incorrectly portrayed in most popular media. True enough. The popular conception isn’t quite as far off for the Low Middle Ages in Western Europe. One must always add the caveat that the Byzantine Empire kept going just fine for centuries after the fall of Rome.

  3. Great, another book I have to read! (grin)

    I’d also like to point out that another “so common you never think of it” item that we owe to Medieval Europe is the button (as a clothes fastener). People had been sewing bits of stuff onto clothing as a decoration for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 13th century Germany that someone noticed “Hey, if you stick these into a slit in the fabric or a little loop of cord, you can make your clothing fit better! And it’s easier to take off and put on!”

  4. DCA

    Well, paper, gunpowder, and the compass might be imports from the East (along with distillation–I’m drawing on the set of Needham behind me in my office at home). But eyeglasses, whippletrees, and windmills–all European
    (Lynn White, on the same shelves).

  5. “Another abstract change, like the translation movement during that first scientific Renaissance, was the creation of the legal concept of the corporation.”

    If anyone wants to read more about this, I recommend “Money Changes Evertyhing” by William N. Goetzmann. He deals with the origins of the corporation in Europe in Chapter 17.

    • This book is the first I have bought on Thony’s recommendation that has disappointed me. Let me explain why.

      Yes, there are undeniably pearls of wisdom in this book, but it is rather like being handed a bag that you are told contains a pearl necklace and opening it to find a heap of unconnected pearls.

      I will take as an example the part I know most about: medieval church architecture, which figures in Chapter 6 – The Cathedral Crusade and introduces the origins of Gothic church architecture. Reading the book one might think that the apse had some sort of religious significance (the reason for it is nowhere explained) but in reality it comes directly from civil Roman buildings. The magistrate gave his judgements seated on his chair (cathedra) at a point midway between the back wall of the apse and its centre of curvature, the apse then acted as a sound shell to direct his voice down the hall. Those who have attended outdoor classical music concerts will be familiar with the use of a sound shell above and behind the orchestra to direct the sound towards the listeners.

      Moving on to Romanesque architecture, which Farrell merely calls transitional, the barrel vault (also called a tunnel vault) was an essential feature in many churches. The churches with this design used Gregorian plainchant in their liturgy and the tunnel vault provided the ideal acoustic for this. [1] So important was the liturgy, primarily for the monasteries associated with Cluny, that they pushed the boundaries of what was achievable with this design. At the same time pilgrimages were growing rapidly in popularity amongst the laity, amongst them the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and large pilgrimage churches were built along the routes. One route began in Paris and passed through Orleans and Tours, where it was joined by a route from Chartres, then through Poitiers, Bordeaux and southwards to the Spanish border. [2]

      Indeed, when one looks at Romanesque churches, one can find all the features of Gothic architecture, just not all in one church. One particular problem for Romanesque church builders came with aisles where there are two sets of arches, one parallel to the nave axis and one at right angles to the nave axis. This vaulting (called groin vaulting) requires the stones to be cut with two different curvatures in the two directions and must have encouraged church architects to move to the simpler-to-construct rib vaulting.

      Similarly we can find flying buttresses in Romanesque churches, for example Vézelay. It only took the architects of St Denis to combine the innovations of Durham and Cluny III to create the prototype of the Gothic style. [3] Farrell even shows a drawing of a flying buttress, without explaining the significance of the shape or even the benefit of of the pinnacle on top. A brief discussion of the mechanics of the flying buttress would not have gone amiss.

      So my disappointment with this book is that while buried within it is a good story about medieval civil engineering, Farrell fails to tell it. As I don’t have the expertise to judge his other chapters, I don’t know if there are failings there also.

      [1] Liturgy and Architecture: From the Early Church to the Middle Ages, Allan Doig, Ashgate (2008)

      [2] Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200, Kenneth John Conant, Pelican 2nd ed. (1978) p20

      [3] op cit pp459-62

      • Several times in my review I emphasise that this is an introductory book for non experts or laymen. The outline of some aspects of medieval architecture that you give in your comment written out in full would produce an academic monograph on medieval architecture, probably longer than John Farrell’s entire book. It is significant in this context that the quotes you bring are from specialist academic books on the subject.

      • Thony,

        I wouldn’t have called the Pelican History of Art series of books academic. This is how Pelican Books are described in Wikipedia:

        “Pelican Books is a non-fiction imprint of Penguin Books. Founded in 1937, Pelican Books combined important topics with clear prose to create inexpensive paperbacks for a broad audience. Before being discontinued in 1984, Pelican Books published thousands of accessible, stimulating books covering a wide range of subjects from classical music to molecular biology to architecture.”

        You also said: “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 ” (my emphasis). To me, Farrell’s treatment of the Romanesque-Gothic transition is on a par with those popular treatments of Galileo that you rightly rant about.

  6. I had never come across John of Westwyck before (although he comes from just up the road at St Albans), but this new book by Seb Falk looks interesting:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/25/the-light-ages-by-seb-falk-review-banishing-the-idea-of-the-dark-ages

    • Seb’s book, which I copyedited, is excellent and there will be in due course, when I receive my copy a revue here. I opted for the American because the cover is prettier and it doesn’t appear till after the presidential election. Very few people have heard of John of Westwyck but what we can reconstruct from his life makes for a nice introduction the medieval science.

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