Chapter 29

Ten Great Medieval Innovations

In This Chapter

● Creating new countries and languages

● Banking, buying and selling

The medieval period is certainly full of more violent wars, horrid plagues, nasty murders and arguing clerics than you can shake a mitre at. But some amazing developments also took place during the 1,000 years of the Middle Ages, and I describe several of them in this chapter.

Creating Europe

Europe as a landmass had been around for millennia and in a sense just the names changed during the medieval period. But, on the other hand, many of the countries that you now know, and the idea of national character, came into being during the Middle Ages. For example, the Treaty of Verdun in 843 (see Chapter 6) was intended to divide the Carolingian Empire into three parts; in doing so it created the land areas known today as France and Germany, from which these two countries developed their very different identities and cultures. The medieval period also saw the creation of Portugal and Spain, and by the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the vibrant identities of England and France were well-established - as was their mutual rivalry.

Developing New Languages

One thing that helped to develop distinct national identities was the birth of modern European languages. Throughout the medieval period, the major language of official life was Latin but the actual everyday languages that people spoke varied hugely. French and German were born in the Middle Ages, as was the predecessor of the language that we now know as English.

The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the fifth century (check out Chapter 3) led to the development of a new language that blended with the French spoken by the Norman conquerors after 1066. This combined language eventually became Old English - the language of Chaucer and the immediate predecessor of modern English. By the fifteenth century, new languages were being widely spoken and appearing in mass-produced books.

Inventing Books

The invention of the Gutenberg Press in the middle of the fifteenth century led to the creation of printing, publishing and the book. What you’re holding in your hands now was possible only because of the invention of Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith and printer from Germany. Books had existed before Gutenberg but had to be laboriously copied by hand and were expensive and unavailable to all bar the elite. The books produced by Gutenberg changed this. Although not accessible to everyone during the period, because of their cost, books began to be reproduced with much greater frequency and variety.

Bringing About Banking

Banking as you know it came into being during the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth century, the Italian merchant cities developed vastly more complicated banking, accountancy and insurance systems (turn to Chapter 18 for more details). These systems in turn led to the expansion of trade (see the following section, ‘Establishing World Trade’) and more international money exchange between countries. Medieval investors were the first to be able to buy shares in a company, and as a result companies began going international. The next time you fill in a tax return or get charged for unarranged borrowing, remember that you have the Middle Ages to thank!

Establishing World Trade

The Middle Ages saw trade become truly international. During the fourteenth century, Italian cities such as Genoa, Pisa and Venice began to develop colonies and outposts abroad as permanent bases for their merchants to use.

These usually took the form of small settlements of dwellings close to a big city or port. Huge companies and corporations developed, enabling merchants to stay at home and send their goods to agents to sell for them. The same thing happened in northern Europe with the Hanseatic League. This period saw incredible expansion but also new threats, such as the rapid spread of diseases (the Black Death rampaged throughout Europe from 1348).

Improving Navigation and Cartography

To satisfy the demands for expanded trade (see ‘Establishing World Trade’), navigators and cartographers had to refine their skills. The travels of men such as Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1529) and Christopher Columbus (c. 1451-1506) broadened people’s horizons, answering questions about the shape of the Earth and about its inhabitants. The introduction of the compass in around 1300, probably from China, also helped matters immensely.

Map-making improved during the Middle Ages too. One of the greatest surviving documents of the time is the Hereford Mappa Mundi (‘Map of the World’), which was produced around 1300. The document is drawn on a single sheet of vellum and measures around 150 x 130 centimetres (59 inches x 51 inches) - by far the largest surviving medieval map. Marked with a mixture of geographical, historical and religious sites, the map is a great example of how the medieval mind was trying to synthesise new discoveries with the traditional teachings of Christianity.

Setting Up Universities

The universities of the Middle Ages collected and developed much of the new learning of the time. In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, universities were created in France, England and Italy. The first of these was the University of Bologna, established in 1088.

Initially these new institutions taught mostly theological subjects and some practical skills such as financial controls and logical debate. By the fourteenth century, universities had become home to a different type of intellectual who was interested in all aspects of academic inquiry. With the renewed interest in humanism (the rediscovery of the literature and learning of the ancient world), which developed during the early years of the Renaissance, Europe’s universities flourished even more (flip to Chapter 24), becoming centres for artistic and cultural study, often using the new languages of Medieval Europe.

Combating with the Cannon

Of all the military developments during the Middle Ages, such as crossbows and plate armour, cannons are probably the most significant. They weren’t invented by Europeans and probably came into being through the work of Arabs or Mongols, but they were first introduced to Europe in the fourteenth century, figuring at the siege of Metz during the Hundred Years’ War. Within a few decades, they were vital to military tactics and crucial in ending the Hundred Years’ War - the final battle of the war (at Castillon, in 1453) was won by French cannons. Cannons also helped the Ottoman Turks to seize Constantinople in the same year (check out Chapters 23 and 24, respectively). The cannon was the first step towards the era of gunpowder warfare.

Taking On Sports

Medieval people spent much time trying to kill animals (through hunting) or each other (through jousting and tournaments), but also had time to develop two of the most popular sports in the world today. The form of football that I mention in Chapter 26 was more of a violent, lawless mob scrap than a match for the World Cup, but was still the game on which modern football is based.

A form of tennis - now known as real tennis - also came into being in the Middle Ages. You can still see a real tennis court in Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, but the game started much earlier, developing from a handball game that was played in France. The first English monarch that we know to have taken an interest was Henry V, and the game became massively popular across Europe in the two centuries that followed. Although a tough and energetic game, it was still considerably less dangerous than jousting!

Innovating and Inventing

The Middle Ages introduced many small but important innovations to the world. I don’t have enough space to describe them all, but here’s a list of some of the most interesting medieval inventions:

● Horseshoes (ninth century)

● Arabic numerals (introduced to Europe in the tenth century)

● Oil paint (thirteenth century and then developed by Jan Van Eyck in The Netherlands around 1410)

● Mirrors (twelfth century)

● Magnets (twelfth century)

● Wheelbarrows (twelfth century)

● Hops in beer (eleventh century)

Having finished writing this book, I intend to take advantage of this last invention!

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