IN THE CENTURIES FOLLOWING THE MIDDLE Ages, thinkers of the European Enlightenment looked back on the previous period as a time “quiet as the dark of the night,”1 when the world slumbered and man’s history came to “a full stop.”2 A spirit of otherworldliness and a preoccupation with theology were perceived as underlying a vast medieval inertia. The most influential spokesman for this point of view was historian Edward Gibbon, who in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire described medieval society as “the triumph of barbarism and religion.”3

Images of lethargy and stagnation were persistently applied to the Middle Ages well into the twentieth century. Even today the popular impression remains to a great extent that of a millennium of darkness, a thousand years when “nothing happened.” To the average educated person, the most surprising news about medieval technology may be the fact that there was any.

Yet not all intellectuals of the past shared the negative view of the Middle Ages. In 1550 Italian physician and mathematician Jerome Cardan wrote that the magnetic compass, printing, and gunpowder were three inventions to which “the whole ofantiquity has nothing equal to show.”4 A generation later, the Dutch scholar Johannes Stradanus (Jan van der Straet, 1528–1605) in his book Nova reperta listed nine great discoveries, all products of the Middle Ages.5

Gibbon’s eighteenth-century contemporary Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, finance minister to Louis XVI, looked back on the Middle Ages as a time when “kings were without authority, nobles without constraint, peoples enslaved…commerce and communication cut off,” when the barbarian invasions had “put out the fire of reason,” but he saw it also as a time when a number of inventions unknown to the Greeks and Romans had been somehow produced. Turgot credited the medieval achievement to a “succession of physical experiments” undertaken by unknown individual geniuses who worked in isolation, surrounded by a sea of darkness.6

Today, on the contrary, the innovative technology of the Middle Ages appears as the silent contribution of many hands and minds working together. The most momentous changes are now understood not as single, explicit inventions but as gradual, imperceptible revolutions—in agriculture, in water and wind power, in building construction, in textile manufacture, in communications, in metallurgy, in weaponry—taking place through incremental improvements, large or small, in tools, techniques, and the organization of work. This new view is part of a broader change in historical theory that has come to perceive technological innovation in all ages as primarily a social process rather than a disconnected series of individual initiatives.

In the course of recent decades, the very expression “Dark Ages” has fallen into disrepute among historians. The 1934 Webster’s asserted that “the term Dark Ages is applied to the whole, or more often to the earlier part of the [medieval] period, because of its intellectual stagnation.” The 1966 Random House dictionary agreed, defining “Dark Ages” as “1. The period in European history from about A.D. 476 to about 1000; 2. The whole of the Middle Ages, from about A.D. 476 to the Renaissance,” a description repeated verbatim in its 1987 edition. The HarperCollins dictionary of 1991, however, recognized the term’s decline in scholarly favor, defining “Dark Ages” as “1. The period from about the late 5th century A.D. to about 1000 A.D., once considered an unenlightened period; 2. (occasionally) the whole medieval period.”

Recently, historians have suggested the possibility of a narrower use of the old term. In a presidential address to the Medieval Academy of America in 1984, Fred C. Robinson recommended keeping “Dark Age,” in the singular, and restricting its meaning to our dim perception of the period (owing to the scarcity of documentary evidence) rather than to its alleged “intellectual stagnation.”7

The problem of definition also involves the dating of the Middle Ages. The once sovereign date of A.D. 476 as starting point has been judged essentially meaningless, since it marks only the formal abdication of the last Western Roman emperor. In fact, the now general employment of the round A.D. 500 is an admission by historians that there is really no valid starting point, that the beginning of the Middle Ages overlaps and intermingles with the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. At the other end, the precise but even less meaningful 1453 (the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Hundred Years War) has been widely replaced by the round 1500, suggestive principally of the opening of the Age of Exploration and the historic impingement of Europe upon America and Asia.

From the third decade of the present century, a recognition of medieval technological and scientific progress has been affirmed by scholars such as Marc Bloch, Lynn White, Robert S. Lopez, Bertrand Gille, Georges Duby, and Jacques Le Goff. Most modern textbooks include in their history of invention the medieval discovery or adoption of the heavy plow, animal harness, open-field agriculture, the castle, water-powered machinery, the putting-out system, Gothic architecture, Hindu-Arabic numerals, double-entry bookkeeping, the blast furnace, the compass, eyeglasses, the lateen sail, clockwork, firearms, and movable type.

But while the pioneering work in medieval technology by Marc Bloch and Lynn White was undertaken in an era (roughly 1925 to 1960) that affirmed human progress and regarded advances in technology as self-evidently positive, the climate of the last part of the twentieth century has become less favorable to technology in general and even to the idea of progress. Suddenly, instead of being credited with no technology, the Middle Ages is found by some to have had too much. Activities once universally regarded as beneficent (such as the land-clearance campaigns of the great monasteries) have been condemned: “The deforestation of Europe during the twelfth century—especially during the 1170s and 1180s—may be seen as the first great ecological disaster,” wrote George Ovitt, Jr., in 1987.8

Such present-minded thinking permeated Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine (1976). Drawing a parallel with twentieth-century industrial society, which he envisioned in Spenglerian decline, Gimpel pictured an overindustrialized late medieval Europe suffering from overpopulation, pollution, economic instability, dwindling energy sources, and general malaise.9

But despite the many medieval contributions to technology, to speak as Gimpel does of an “industrial revolution” of the Middle Ages is hyperbole. By the same token, pollution was slight, energy sources were largely untapped, the financial crisis of the fourteenth century was temporary and local, and population was excessive only in respect to the limitations of existing agricultural technology. Advanced though it was over the classical age, medieval technology was still in what Lewis Mumford called the “eotechnic” phase—the age of wood, stone, wind, and water—to be followed, in Mumford’s terminology, by a “paleotechnic” phase in which coal and iron dominated, and finally by our present “neotechnic” phase of electricity, electronics, nuclear energy, alloys, plastics, and synthetics.10

When Gibbon indicted the Middle Ages as “the triumph of barbarism and religion,” he coupled the two great bugbears of the intellectual elite of his day, both widely regarded as hostile to scientific and technical progress. The Catholic Church long stood condemned as the enemy of enlightenment, with the alleged suppressions of Copernicus and Galileo as Exhibit A. More recent historians, however, have pointed to evidence of Church attitudes and policies of a quite different coloration. Lynn White asserted that Christian theology actually gave the Middle Ages a fiat for technology: “Man shares in great measure God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”11

Even earlier, Max Weber (1864–1920) drew attention to the prominent role given by the Benedictine Rule to monastic labor (“Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have a specified period for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.”) and to the well-organized physical self-sufficiency of the monastic community.12 In the same vein, Ernest Benz pointed to medieval iconography showing God as a master mason, measuring out the universe with compasses and T square, and noted that such images, drawing a parallel between God’s labors and those of men, offer an indication of the status of technology in medieval Christendom.13


God as master mason measures the universe. [Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek. Codex 2.554, f. 1.]

More recently, George Ovitt, studying the attitudes of medieval theologians, has found that they advocated stewardship of nature at the same time that ecological evidence shows “an ethic of appropriation” and a “social commitment to the primacy of human habitation” over competing interests.14 Their varying and contradictory attitudes, he has concluded, represent a rationalization “in response to changes in the ‘structures of everyday life’ that were created by others,”15 that is, in response to what was actually going on in the real world.

The forces that impelled medieval men to clear land for cultivation and to develop new ways of exploiting nature were complex, but they were surely social and economic rather than ethical or religious. And while the monasteries were among the great clearers of land, the chief conservationists of the Middle Ages were the kings and great lords, who stringently protected their forests, not as guardians of nature, but in the interest of the aristocratic recreation of hunting (just as latter-day hunters’ organizations help to preserve wilderness).

Did Christian theologians of the Middle Ages believe, as Lynn White wrote, that “it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”? And were the theologians’ attitudes toward labor and the crafts as benign as Ernest Benz thought?

One of the early Church Fathers, Tertullian (c. A.D. 160–240), commented eloquently on the effects of human enterprise on the earth: “Farms have replaced wastelands, cultivated land has subdued the forests, cattle have put to flight the wild beast, barren lands have become fertile, rocks have become soil, swamps have been drained, and the number of cities exceeds the number of poor huts found in former times…Everywhere there are people, communities—everywhere there is human life!” To such a point that “the world is full. The elements scarcely suffice us. Our needs press…Pestilence, famine, wars, [earthquakes] are intended, indeed, as remedies, as prunings, against the growth of the human race.”16

Tertullian anticipated Malthus in his gloomy view. He was echoed by St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430), who cited Adam’s Fall as the dividing point between man’s living in harmony with nature and his exploiting it. Prelapsarian (before the Fall) Adam dwelt peacefully in a world where conception occurred “without the passion of lust,” childbirth without “the moanings of the mother in pain,” where man’s “life was free from want…There were food and drink to keep away hunger and thirst and the tree of life to stave off death from senescence…Not a sickness assailed him from within, and he feared no harm from without.”17 But where prelapsarian Adam lived wholesomely within nature, postlapsarian Adam lived greedily off its bounty. Only by recovering their moral and spiritual innocence could Adam’s successors restore the perfection of the world before the Fall.

In the eighth century Anglo-Saxon theologian and historian Bede expanded on Augustine, picturing Adam and Eve before the Fall as vegetarians, living on fruits and herbs and practicing agriculture as an idyllic pastime, symbolic of the cooperation between human beings and a benign nature. With the Fall, as man turned exploiter, Bede agreed, he lost his natural sovereignty.18 Five centuries after Bede, at the height of the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas echoed his and Augustine’s message and further rationalized it by asserting that “by the very course of nature…the less perfect fall to the use of the more perfect,” and therefore man holds power over the animals and the rest of the natural world. Before the Fall, all remained obedient to man, like domestic animals, but man’s reign was not exploitative. Adam governed by reason, for the common good. Only with the fall of reason was the providential order overthrown.19 Thus medieval theologians’ interpretation of the Creation and the Fall revealed a God-ordained world dominated by human beings, whose role in respect to nature, however, was not exploitation but stewardship and cooperation.

Commentaries on Adam’s Fall illuminated one aspect of the Church’s fundamental posture in respect to technology. Another lay in the theologians’ attitudes toward labor and toward crafts and craftsmen. Ambivalence was characteristic of both.


Benign Adam names the animals. [Bodleian Library. Ashmole Bestiary, Ms. Ashmole 1511, f. 9.]

From its earliest beginnings, Christian monasticism emphasized the importance of labor in the interests of the communal life and of humility. In the religious settlements founded in Egypt by Pachomius (A.D. 290–346), productive labor was treated as beneficial both materially and spiritually. Bishop and chronicler Palladius (A.D. 363–431) reported that at one Pachomian settlement he saw monks working at every kind of craft, including “fifteen tailors, seven metalworkers, four carpenters, twelve camel-drivers, and fifteen fullers.”20 St. Jerome (A.D. c. 347–420) described a similar community: “Brothers of the same craft live in one house under one master. Those, for example, who weave linen are together, and those who weave mats are looked upon as being one family. Tailors, carriage makers, fullers, shoemakers—all are governed by their own masters.” Labor was accompanied by spiritual exercises and discipline.21

The Benedictine Rule, composed in the sixth century, similarly mingled labor and prayer. Labor supported the community, discouraged idleness, and taught obedience and humility; its ends were primarily spiritual. In the following centuries, monasticism struggled to keep the balance between spirituality and economic self-sufficiency. In the course of time, Benedictine monasteries became the victims of their own success, as they grew wealthy from rents, church revenues, gifts, tithes, and other fees, and labor ceased to be performed by the monks but was delegated to peasants and servants.

Late in the eleventh century, the new Cistercian Order attempted to return to the letter of the Benedictine Rule. Founding communities in the wilderness, far from centers of population, the Cistercians divested themselves of many of the sources of income exploited by the Benedictines and at the same time tried to restore the model of manual labor performed by the community itself. The order’s outstanding leader, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), believed that work and contemplation must be kept in balance. The ideal monk was one who mastered “all the skills and jobs of the peasants”—carpentry, masonry, gardening, and weaving—as a means of bringing order to the world.22

The Cistercians, however, soon attempted to solve the problem of balance by splitting St. Bernard’s ideal monk in two, assigning prayer and work to different categories of brothers, drawn from different social classes. Alongside the regular monks, with aristocratic backgrounds, they established an order of lay brothers, conversi, recruited from the lower classes, to perform their communities’ skilled labor, supplemented by hired unskilled laborers. Like their predecessors, the Cistercians grew rich, and as the numbers of conversi declined and communities relied increasingly on hired labor, they found themselves following the very practices that they had renounced.

Much the same fate befell similar efforts by other monastic orders, and the exemplar of the Benedictine Rule, the monk who prayed, labored with his hands, and studied the Bible, was abandoned.23 Where the Cistercian pioneer Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110–1167) “did not spare the soft skin of his hands,” according to his biographer, “but manfully wielded with his slender fingers the rough tools of his field tasks,”24 his contemporary, Premonstratensian monk Adam of Dryburgh, expressed feelings shared by many fellow monastics in complaining that “manual labor irritates me greatly” and declaring that agricultural work should be performed not by educated and ordained men but by peasants accustomed to hard labor.25 Work was no longer an integral part of the service of God.

An element in the failure to incorporate labor successfully into the monastic life on a permanent basis was the fact that, as Europe’s new intellectual class, the churchmen were the inheritors of a long tradition of disdain for what Aristotle called the “banausic,” or utilitarian arts, “the industries that earn wages,” that “degrade the mind” and were unworthy of the free man.26 These arts might have practical value, Aristotle conceded, but “to dwell long upon them would be in poor taste.”27 Aristotle’s prejudice was sustained by most of the Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers. Even Cicero, who extolled man’s ability to change his environment through technology, thought that “no workshop can have anything liberal about it.”28

The Church Fathers retained some of the classical attitude but showed a new interest in and enthusiasm for what St. Augustine called “our human nature” and its “power of inventing, learning, and applying all such arts” as minister to life’s necessities and “to human enjoyment.” Augustine pointed to “the progress and perfection which human skill has reached in the astonishing achievement of clothmaking, architecture, agriculture, and navigation…in ceramics…drugs and appliances…condiments and sauces.” These accomplishments were the products of “human genius,” but, he added, this genius was often used for purposes that were “superfluous, perilous, and pernicious.” What was most needed, in Augustine’s eyes, was a capacity for “living in virtue” in the grace of God.29

Boethius, the last great Roman intellectual (c. 480–524), followed the classical tradition in devising an educational curriculum composed of the seven liberal arts, organized into the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), with no room for the vulgar “banausic” arts frowned on by Aristotle. Boethius’s elitist classification became the basis of the medieval educational system, but other contemporary writers included the crafts at least as secondary adjuncts. The Greek historian Cassiodorus (c. 490–c. 585) wrote enthusiastically about inventions used in the monastery that he had founded: the “cleverly built lamps,” the sundials and water clocks, the water-powered mills and the irrigation system, the Egyptian-invented papyrus—“the snowy entrails of a green herb, which keeps the sweet harvest of the mind, and restores it to the reader whenever he chooses to consult it.” Mechanics, he judged, was a wonderful art, “almost Nature’s comrade, opening her secrets, changing her manifestations, sporting with miracles.”30

A century later encyclopedist Isidore of Seville showed a lively interest in technology, devoting six of the twenty books of his Etymologies to the vocabulary of crafts—the types and elements of ships, buildings, clothing, weapons, harnesses, and household utensils—and classifying mechanics, astrology, and medicine as elements of physics and philosophy.31 A major innovation in semantics followed in the era of Charlemagne when philosopher John Scotus Erigena invented the term artes mechanicae(mechanical arts), describing these as supplements of the liberal arts.32 Following his lead a tardy three centuries later, scholar Honorius of Autun described ten liberal arts: the usual seven, plus physica (medicine), economics, and mechanica: “Concerning mechanics…it teaches…every work in metals, wood, or marble, in addition to painting, sculpture, and all arts which are done with the hands. By this art Nimrod erected his tower, Solomon constructed his temple. By it Noah fashioned his ark, and all the fortifications in the entire world were built, and it taught the various weavings of garments.”33

Finally, the economic revival of the high Middle Ages, accompanied as it was by a flood of technical advances, stimulated the exploration of new ways of integrating technology into the circle of human knowledge, usually as a physical and material side of theoretical science. The most comprehensive of these systems was that of Hugh of St. Victor (1096–1141), a German theologian who taught in Paris and who compiled an encyclopedic work called the Didascalicon. Hugh advocated a life of contemplation that, however, included secular learning. In correspondence with the seven liberal arts of Boethius, he envisioned seven categories of mechanical arts: textile manufacture, armament, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theatrics, describing each in detail, for example:

Textile manufacture includes all types of weaving, sewing, and spinning which are done by hand, needle, spindle, awl, reel, comb, loom, crisper, iron, or any other instrument out of any material of flax or wool, or any sort of skin, whether scraped or hairy, also out of hemp, or cork, or rushes, hair, tufts, or anything of the kind which can be used for making clothes, coverings, drapery, blankets, saddles, carpets, curtains, napkins, felts, strings, nets, ropes; out of straw, too, from which men usually make their hats and baskets. All these studies pertain to textile manufacture.34

In Hugh’s classification, the mechanical art of navigatio (navigation) included not only the techniques of sailing but commerce itself—“every sort of dealing in the purchase, sale, and exchange of domestic or foreign goods.” Hugh extolled all those who courageously penetrated “the secret places of the world,” approaching “shores unseen” and exploring “fearful wildernesses,” bringing peace and reconciliation to all nations and commuting “the private good of individuals into the common benefit of all.” His “armament” was a similarly broad category, including architecture, carpentry, and metallurgy; “hunting” included food gathering, cooking, and selling and serving food and drink; “theatrics” all kinds of games and amusements.35

Although ranking technology lowest among the arts, Hugh accorded it a moral value, conferred by God as a partial remedy for man’s fallen condition. Other creatures were born clothed: “Bark encircles the tree, feathers cover the bird, scales encase the fish, fleece clothes the sheep, hair garbs cattle and wild beasts, a shell protects the tortoise, and ivory makes the elephant unafraid of spears.” Only man “is brought forth naked and unarmed” therefore man was equipped with reason, to invent the things naturally given to the other animals. “Want is what has devised all that you see most excellent in the occupations of men. From this the infinite varieties of painting, weaving, carving, and founding have arisen, so that we look with wonder not at nature alone but at the artificer as well.”36

Other twelfth-century thinkers adopted Hugh’s classification, accepting technology as a part of human life, inferior to intellectual and spiritual elements but necessary and natural. Technology made life easier, freeing the mind from material concerns and supplementing man’s innate powers. Hugh’s influence extended to such thirteenth-century luminaries as Albertus Magnus, St. Bonaventure, Vincent of Beauvais, and Robert Kilwardby. In his De ortu scientiarum (On the origin of sciences) Kilwardby (d. 1279) dignified the mechanical arts by explaining them as practical divisions of the speculative sciences. Every speculative science had a practical aspect. Science explained the propter quid, the reason for being, the cause; the mechanical arts the quia sunt, the way things are. The two lent each other mutual support. Geometry was necessary to carpenters and masons, astronomy to navigation and agriculture. Wool manufacture was subject to mathematics, since it “examines the number and texture of threads and the measurement and form of the warp, stating in each of these matters that it is this way or that way, while mathematics examines the causes. Similarly all other mechanical arts are found to be under some speculative science or sciences.”37

Kilwardby, in a word, replaced Hugh’s concept of the moral value of technology with that of an intellectual value, a more modern view but one that subordinated technology to the theoretical sciences. The English Franciscan Roger Bacon (c. 1220–1292) carried the relationship a daring step further, awarding precedence to technology; in Bacon’s eyes the practical arts gave man a power over the natural world that theoretical science could never provide. Practical science, he speculated, had almost unlimited application and, like all other knowledge, was given to man “by one God, to one world, for one purpose,” as an aid to faith and remedy for the ills of the world.38

Thus the Church’s attitude toward technology, evolving from diverse sources over time—Adam’s Fall, the monastic experience, the classifications of knowledge—may be described as ambivalent, but on balance positive.

How large was technology’s role in the social changes that took place during the thousand years of the Middle Ages? Pioneer historian of technology Richard Lefebvre des Noëttes, writing in the 1930s, saw the adoption of a new harness that transformed the horse into an important draft animal as the chief factor in the decline and near disappearance of slavery.39 In 1940 and subsequently Lynn White broadened Lefebvre’s thesis with the bold assertion that the dominant social and political systems of the Middle Ages owed their origins to technological innovations: feudalism to the stirrup, the manorial system to the heavy wheeled plow.40 Such radical determinism could not fail to provoke a flood of research and analysis by other scholars, and we now acknowledge that, as usual, the truth is far from simple. Technology is only one of the forces, along with new social and economic patterns, that formed medieval society, but for a long time, until Lefebvre and White, it was the most neglected.

Human history records a number of technological “revolutions,” the first to be pointed out and labeled being the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century. The first to take place, however, was the invention of tools, in effect, the discovery of technology itself, a determining factor in the distinction between man and the other animals. The second, what anthropologist Gordon Childe called the “Neolithic Revolution,” was the shift from hunting and gathering to cultivation. A third was the creation of the great irrigation civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China, which generated cities, governments, and most of our institutions.41

Today we recognize that one of the great technological revolutions took place during the medieval millennium with the disappearance of mass slavery, the shift to water- and wind-power, the introduction of the open-field system of agriculture, and the importation, adaptation, or invention of an array of devices, from the wheelbarrow to double-entry bookkeeping, climaxed by those two avatars of modern Western civilization, firearms and printing.

A historical surprise uncovered by recent scholarship, especially through the work of Joseph Needham and his colleagues at Cambridge University, is the size and scope of technology transmission from East to West. Scores of major and minor inventions were introduced from China and India, often through the medium of Islamic North Africa and the Near East. The channels of transmission to Europe are sometimes easy to trace, or to postulate, sometimes more mysterious. Technology traveled with merchants on their trade routes, both overland and by sea; it moved with nomads, armies, and migrating populations; it was carried by ambassadors and visiting scholars, and by craftsmen imported from one country to another. Sometimes the transmission was direct and total. Sometimes, as Needham proposes, “a simple hint, a faint suggestion of an idea, might be sufficient to set off a train of development which would lead to roughly similar phenomena in later ages, apparently wholly independent in origin…Or the news that some technical process had successfully been accomplished in some far-away part of the world might encourage certain people to solve the problem anew entirely in their own way.”42

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. The Romans so congenial to Gibbon would have marveled at what the millennium following their own era had wrought. More perceptive than Gibbon was English scientist Joseph Glanvill, who wrote in 1661: “These last Ages have shewn us what Antiquity never saw; no, not in a dream.”43

Technology—Aristotle’s “banausic arts”—embraces the whole range of human activities involving tools, machines, instrumentation, power, and organization of work. What follows in this book cannot attempt to be, even in a compact or shorthand sense, a complete history of Western technology from A.D. 500 to A.D. 1500. Its intention is limited to the identification of the main technological elements that entered significantly into medieval European history, their known or probable sources, and their principal impacts.

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