A.D. 500–900

THE ROMAN EMPIRE, WITH ITS WIDE GEOGRAPHICAL extent, sophisticated political and military organization, and stately monuments, made a powerful impression on generations of later historians, who were correspondingly appalled by its collapse. The immediate cause seemed obvious. “The Roman world,” wrote Gibbon, “was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.”1 Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain were overrun by assorted Goths, Huns, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, Lombards, and Anglo-Saxons, driven west and south by forces that are still unexplained. The Western Roman Empire, long sovereign over the Mediterranean basin, was shattered into fragments governed by these “barbarians.” Several generations of scholars debated the sources of the weakness that permitted the calamity. But in the twentieth century, largely owing to the pioneering work of Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne (1862–1935), historians began to shift the sense of their question. Instead of asking what caused the fall of Rome, they began to ask, What exactly wasthe fall of Rome?

Primarily, the fall of Rome was a political event, the disappearance, or radical alteration, of a governmental system. Even in the political sphere it was limited geographically to the western half of the Roman Empire, leaving the eastern (Byzantine) half, with its capital of Constantinople, to survive another thousand years. The fall was also limited in scope, the new local rulers retaining much of the Roman administrative apparatus. Pirenne employed the metaphor of an ancient palazzo that was not razed but subdivided into apartments. Not until the rise of the Arab empire in the seventh century, Pirenne believed, did the classical world collapse, commerce and urban life dwindle, and the Roman administrative framework disappear.2 The Pirenne thesis stirred controversy and revision, ending with a consensus among scholars, aided by recent archaeology, to the effect that a general social and economic decline took place, later than historians had previously believed, but before the Arabs arrived on the scene.

What actually fell in the “fall of Rome”? In the realm of technology, very little. Lynn White went so far as to assert that there was “no evidence of a break in the continuity of technological development following the decline of the Western Roman Empire.”3 In some regions, certain Roman craft skills were lost for a time. The potter’s wheel disappeared from Britain, but when it returned from continental Europe in the ninth century, it had been improved by the kick wheel, which allowed the potter to use both hands to manipulate the workpiece.4 Roman mining operations contracted under the late Empire, and their scale was not again reached until at least the central Middle Ages, but techniques were not lost, and by the eighth century new mining regions in central and eastern Europe were beginning to open up. Along with mining, metallurgy went into a late Roman decline but by the ninth century showed an upward trend.5 Similarly, Roman irrigation works in Spain and Africa were lost through neglect in the wake of invasion and war.

Lynn White made his case a little too strongly when he asserted, “In technology, at least, the Dark Ages mark a steady and uninterrupted advance over the Roman Empire.”6 Nevertheless, early medieval technical innovations had an unquestionable impact, helping to bring about Europe’s first great transformation. Most of the innovations applied to agriculture, and most were borrowed. In the words of Carlo Cipolla, “What the Europeans showed from the sixth to the eleventh centuries was not so much inventive ingenuity as a remarkable capacity for assimilation. They knew how to take good ideas where they found them and how to apply them on a large scale to productive activity.”7

The post-Roman world was divided geographically not only between Byzantine East and barbarian West but even more meaningfully between rich South and poor North. The Mediterranean littoral, though the scene of a good deal of political and military turbulence, remained in the late fifth century populous and productive, dotted with cities, towns, and landed estates. To the north, also, little was changed—a sparse population dwelling in temporary farming settlements, few cities worth the name, much empty forest, heath, and swamp. The population density of Gaul in the sixth century has been estimated at 5.5 per square kilometer, that of Germany and Britain at 2.2 and 2.0 respectively. The scattered inhabitants of these cold lands evidently did not live well; their skeletons indicate malnutrition. Famine, plague, and typhus were probably even more endemic here than in the South.8 Yet this northern region had important natural assets: abundant forests, fast-growing vegetation, accessible metal ores, and numerous rivers and streams, many swift flowing and ice free, with potential beyond transportation and communication. Like the steady winds in other regions of the North, they promised energy sources of immense value. “They were to the people of the time what coal, oil, and uranium are to an industrialized society” (Carlo Cipolla).9

While the round-number dates of A.D. 500 to 1500 are now widely accepted for the whole period of the Middle Ages, divisions within the era remain arbitrary. As a terminal date for the early part of the period, the year 900 may be satisfactory, bearing in mind that nothing in particular transpired that year, any more than in the commencement year of 500. As it happens, however, each of the four centuries thus encompassed is marked by its own special catalog of events.

Sixth century, A.D. 500–600: the barbarian century, with the last of the Great Migrations, the establishment of the barbarian kingdoms, and the counteroffensive against the Goths by the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire that turned Italy into a battlefield. “At the end of the sixth century, Europe was a profoundly uncivilized place,” Georges Duby observes.10 There is also reason to believe that the population of the Mediterranean West declined through this century and into the next.

Seventh century, A.D. 600–700: the Muslim century, with the explosion of Islam in North Africa and the Near East. By the end of the century, all the southern regions of the old Roman Empire, plus Persia, were Muslim. Almost overnight a major new power thus appeared, positioned geographically between Europe and Asia-Africa.

Eighth century, A.D. 700–800: the Carolingian century. The first great Carolingian, Charles Martel, halted the Islamic advance into Europe at the battle of Poitiers (or Tours); his grandson Charlemagne founded a short-lived ersatz Roman Empire and promoted the scholarly and artistic revival known as the Carolingian renaissance.

Ninth century, A.D. 800–900: the Viking century, marked by raiding and pillaging of towns and monasteries of western Europe by Scandinavian pirates. Muslim raiders did the same for southern Europe, where the Mediterranean was turned into “a no-man’s land between Christian and Muslim naval forces” (Richard Unger).11

Most of the violent events that formed the traditional history of the early Middle Ages were, however, essentially superficial. The basic wealth of a peasant economy is land, and land is immune from theft and pillage. Over the four centuries of the early Middle Ages, the value of European land was substantially enhanced by the operation of a demographic phenomenon of much larger effect than all the marauding and pillaging. This was the northward expansion of the population. By the time of Charlemagne, as Pirenne pointed out, the center of gravity of Western civilization had shifted from the Mediterranean to the plains of northern Europe. Coincidentally, and probably somewhat causally, a major meteorological change had occurred. The southward drift of the glacial front that commenced in the fifth century reversed itself in the middle of the eighth. As the frost retreated, northern Europe became more hospitable to agriculture.12 Scanty data indicate yields per acre well below what the best farmlands of the ancient world produced,13 but by the seventh century the farming communities of Britain, Gaul, the Low Countries, and Germany were harvesting surpluses sufficient to support a modest but definite population increase.

There was even a little urban growth. In the seventh and eighth centuries, specialized trading settlements called “emporia” or “gateway communities” sprang up near the North Sea and Channel coasts as the Frankish (Merovingian and Carolingian) kings exchanged goods with Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian chieftains in treaty arrangements called “trade partnerships.” The more advanced Frankish rulers offered prestigious commodities such as wines, glassware, and wheel-thrown pottery in return for raw materials like wool and hides, collected as taxes from the chieftains’ subjects. By the mid-eighth century emporia such as Hamwih (later Southampton) and Ipswich, in East Anglia, laid out in a grid pattern of workshops, stalls, and storehouses, were among the largest towns in England.14 London at the time was a “beach-market” (ripa emptoralis), serving mostly local traders, farmers, and fishermen, who sold their wares directly from their boats without benefit of docks, shops, warehouses, or middlemen.15 Across the channel, Dorestad, base of the Frisian traders, and Quentovic, south of Boulogne, flourished until their decline in the ninth century, with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire.16

Meanwhile two widespread, technologically related developments changed the face of Europe: a new form of agricultural organization, equipped with a new type of plow; and the rise of a new military caste, composed of armored horsemen, who became for a considerable time the ruling European elite.

A Revolution in Agriculture

The old notion that agriculture stood still or regressed for several centuries in the Middle Ages has long been exploded. Instead, two separate revolutions in the organization of agricultural work took place, one in the early Middle Ages, the other, to be described in chapter 5, in the central Middle Ages.

The first revolution, reinforced by the introduction of two tools that may also be called revolutionary, brought about the disappearance of the old Roman latifundium, slave manned and market oriented. In its place, by the eighth century, stood the estate, equally large but based on a different principle of exploitation: farm labor performed by tenants who divided their time between the lord’s land and their own small holdings. Those who were classed as unfree (eventually called “serfs,” or in England “villeins”) were subject to a varying list of obligations and liabilities not imposed on free tenants. Yet the serfs as well as their free neighbors had a recognized (in the medieval vocabulary a “customary”) right to the use of their land, a right, moreover, that was inheritable. Alongside serfdom, slavery persisted but as a marginal and declining institution.17

Instead of profit in the marketplace, the new agriculture sought local self-sufficiency and, though falling short of complete success, created a highly decentralized rural landscape. At first its technology was somewhat retrogressive, as such Roman skills and practices as the grafting of fruit trees and application of lime for fertilizer slipped into disuse in many regions. Roman agricultural treatises were neglected and no new ones written. The techniques of cereal-crop production, the main form of agriculture, remained for a time unchanged.

But beginning in the sixth century, a radical improvement in farming’s most basic tool was introduced. Pliny had described secondhand a heavy plow, mounted on wheels and drawn by several oxen, reported in use in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Its diffusion must have been limited; in effect, it waited in the wings for five centuries before appearing in numbers sufficient to attract notice, first in the Slavic lands, then in the Po valley, and in the early eighth century in the Rhineland. Sometimes it was mounted on wheels, sometimes not; the main function of the wheels was to allow adjustment of the plowshare to the depth of furrow.

An improved harness for harnessing in tandem (one animal behind the other) facilitated the use of multiple-ox teams to pull the heavy plow in attacking new ground. The combination of plow and team supplied the technological key to the prodigious task of clearing the forestland of fertile northwest Europe. Other new or little-used implements came into wide service: the harrow, which by crumbling the clods after plowing saved laborious cross-plowing; the scythe, rarely employed by the Romans, now needed to cut hay to feed the numerous oxen; and the pitchfork, to handle the hay. When Charlemagne proposed a new nomenclature for the calendar, he renamed July “Haying Month.”18


Light plow, without coulter or mouldboard, as seen in the Utrecht Psalter (c. 830). [British Library, Harley Ms. 603, f. 54v.]

Toward the end of the period, an innovation as important for agriculture as the heavy plow made its appearance in Europe: the rigid, padded horse collar, long known in Asia, which converted the horse for the first time into an efficient draft animal. Developed back in Roman times, probably by the horse-dependent nomads of the central Asian steppes, the horse collar progressed westward in a course that has been traced by scholars through linguistic and iconographic clues. The first pictorial evidence of its appearance in Europe occurs in an illumination of the Trier Apocalypse (c. 800), which shows a pair of horses pulling an open carriage or wagon. The earliest text reference—to a horse-drawn plow—is from late-ninth-century Norway.19


Heavy plow, with coulter and mouldboard, drawn by four oxen. From the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter. [British Library, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 170.]

The new device replaced the old throat-and-girth harness which choked the horse when the animal pulled against it. The padded collar, instead of bearing on the trachea, exerted its pressure on the sternum, freeing the respiratory channel and at least tripling the weight a horse could pull. Another practical harness, the breast strap, arrived from China at about the same time but was never widely used in the West.20

Faster-gaited and longer-working than the ox, the horse proved under most conditions a superior plow animal and a far better transport beast. The nailed iron horseshoe, also arriving from Asia in the ninth or tenth century, further improved his quality and durability on the farm and on the road. The first pictorial representation of a horse pulling an agricultural implement—a harrow—occurs in the Bayeux Tapestry of circa 1080; by that time the sight was doubtless common.21

Yet the ox, the age-old “engine of the peasant,” did not retire from the scene. Slow moving but very strong, he had the advantage over the horse in difficult ground, as in first-time plowing of newly cleared land. He was cheaper to feed and in England enjoyed the added appeal of being edible. Pope Gregory III in 732 barred horse meat from the Christian table, an injunction that for unknown reasons was respected only in England. On the Continent, old plow horses were eaten with as much relish as old oxen.22


The three main forms of horse harness: (a) throat-and-girth (Western antiquity); (b) breast strap (ancient and early medieval China); and (c) padded horse collar (late medieval China and medieval Europe). [From Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press.]

As the new plow, pulled by whichever traction animal, proved its ability to cultivate the rich, heavy soils of northwest Europe, the region’s forest, moor, and swamp were attacked with ax and spade. Even the sea was made to contribute new land for cultivation. The inhabitants of the low-lying Netherlands coast built dikes to protect themselves from storms and abnormally high tides; gradually the deposits of silt that collected became new dry land at normal high tide. The Netherlanders appropriated it by building new dikes farther out, leading them into a history of hydraulic engineering destined to be unparalleled in the world.

Playing a conspicuous role in the expansion northward were the monks of the Benedictine Order, founded in Italy by St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century. St. Benedict’s Rule prescribed labor as both a material and a spiritual benefit: “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are truly monks.”23 Besides their enthusiasm for clearing land and draining swamp, the Benedictines developed strains of fruit that could prosper in the cold northern climate, wearing a symbolic pruning hook on their belts as they revived the old grafting skills and horticultural arts of the Romans. The need for sacramental wine supplied a stimulus to northern viticulture, which quickly proved commercially viable.

The Benedictines also contributed to the spread of the water mill. “The monastery,” declared the Rule, “ought if possible to be so constituted that all things necessary, such as water, a mill, a garden, and the various crafts might be contained within it.”24Both city and country followed the Benedictine lead in exploiting fast-flowing year-round streams. Gregory of Tours (538–594) described several mills, including one at Dijon, where the river Ouche “turns the millwheels round at wondrous speed outside the gate,”25 and another on the Indre, constructed by Ursus, abbot of Loches, “made…with wooden stakes packed with large stones and sluice-gates to control the flow of water into a channel in which the mill-wheel turned.”26

The law code issued by Frankish king Clovis in about 511 imposed fines for stealing grain or iron tools from another man’s mill or breaking into his mill enclosure.27 That of Lombard king Rothair, promulgated in 643, stipulated fines for burning another man’s mill, breaking his dam, or building a mill on a neighbor’s part of the riverbank.28 By the time of Charlemagne, mills were important enough to be taxed in the imperial Capitulare de villis (800).29

Built on many of the great estates of the ninth century, water mills represented a substantial investment but produced lucrative profits in the form of “multure,” a percentage of the peasants’ grain or flour exacted at the mill.30 On one manor of the abbey of St.-Germain-des-Prés, millers delivered as much grain in multure from the peasants every year as the lord’s own fields produced. The polyptych (estate survey) of the abbey, dated 801–820, lists no fewer than fifty-nine mills, including eight new and two recently renovated.31

Hardly anything is known about the configuration of these early medieval mills. The horizontal wheel, needing no gearing, was easy to build and repair, and consequently popular. Wealthy lords, however, may have built the more powerful and efficient vertical wheels.32

By the tenth century, the water mill had achieved a status and value far beyond what it had possessed under the Roman Empire. It made a significant contribution to the agricultural revolution wrought by the horse harness, the heavy plow, and the self-contained tenant-farmed estate.

Cloth Making: Women’s Work

Agriculture developed a new social and economic function in the early Middle Ages while improving its technical equipment; cloth making retained its equipment while undergoing modest alterations in function. As in Roman times, women dominated manufacture. Their tasks, as indicated by a statute of 789, included not only spinning and weaving but shearing sheep, crushing flax, combing wool, and cutting and sewing garments.33

Free women and serfs worked in their homes, slave women in the workshops (gynaecea) of the great estates. Almost every estate of any importance had a gynaeceum. Gregory of Tours mentions “the women who worked in the spinning and weaving room” of the royal manor of Marlenheim.34 At the council of Nantes in 660, the prelates chided aristocratic women for attending public assemblies and “usurping senatorial authority” when they “ought to be sitting among their girls of the cloth shop and ought to be talking about their wool processing and their textile labors.”35 Several Germanic law codes mention women’s workshops, while the Carolingian Capitulare de villis prescribed that women in the gynaeceum should be supplied with “linen, wool, woad, red dye, madder, carding implements, combs, soap, oil, containers, and other small things that are needed there.”36

The workshops were sometimes located in sunken huts, whose earthen floors were excavated two or three feet below ground level, the interiors lighted by an opening in the roof. Alternatively, a two-story building provided sleeping quarters in the upper floor. If the cloth was to be dyed, the shop included a hearth to heat water. In summer the looms might be set up outdoors in open, roofed structures or under canopies.37

As in Roman times, linen and wool remained the principal textiles. The manufacture of cotton cloth, a Roman luxury import, was carried by the Arab conquest to Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy as early as the tenth century, but it was not mastered by Christian Europe until the twelfth. Silk, China’s most celebrated export, became the object of a historic coup of industrial espionage in the sixth century. Two Greek monks journeying to China are said to have secreted silkworm cocoons in their staffs and returned to Constantinople to launch the Byzantine silk industry. The story, as Joseph Needham has pointed out, leaves puzzling questions: presented with the cocoons, how did the Byzantine textile workers acquire the techniques of unreeling and processing the fibers?38Evidently the information was somehow made available, for the Byzantine court soon had its own silk-weaving establishment, in addition to privately owned workshops. Silk manufacture, however, did not penetrate western Europe until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Wool cloth, indispensable in the cold climate of newly developed northern Europe, retained its dominant position among textiles, as the center of gravity of the industry moved northward to northern France and the Low Countries. When Harun-al-Rashid, the caliph of the Thousand and One Nights, sent Charlemagne gifts that included “many precious silken robes,” a linen tent, perfumes, ointments, an elaborate water clock, and an elephant, Charlemagne replied with a present of Spanish horses and mules, hunting dogs, and “some [woolen] cloaks from Frisia, white, gray, crimson, and sapphire-blue”—made of the expensive cloth traded by Frisian seamen. (Harun, unimpressed, “cast a careless eye” over everything but the hunting dogs.)39 Linen, an article of commerce in the Roman period, in the early Middle Ages retreated to the status of a domestic industry, supplying local needs but no longer profitable enough to transport to distant markets.40

Techniques of manufacture remained unchanged over a long period. Wool fleece was given a preliminary washing, then combed to remove the tangles and impurities and draw out the fibers parallel to one another. Yarn was spun with the spindle, usually “suspended”—free hanging—in a process unchanged since its description by Catullus in the first century B.C. Holding in her left hand the distaff, a short forked stick around which a mass of the prepared raw fibers was wound, the spinster took some of the fibers between the finger and thumb of her right hand, twisting them together as she drew them gently downward. When the thread thus produced was long enough, she tucked the distaff under her arm or in her belt and tied the thread with a slipknot to the top of the spindle, a toplike rod with a disk-shaped weight attached to the bottom to increase rotation, and gave it a turn. The suspended weight pulled the fibers slowly through the spinster’s fingers, while the rotation twisted them together into yarn. The process depended on the practiced skill of the spinster in controlling the release of the fibers. Drawing out more fibers from the distaff, she repeated the operation until the spindle reached the floor, when she picked it up and wound the spun thread around it. When the spindle was full, she wound the thread into a ball.41

The process never ceased, and the skill was universal, especially for women of the lower classes, who always had spindle in hand, even while cooking, feeding livestock, or minding the children (or, to believe one medieval miniature, having sex). Spinning was so identified with women that the female side of the family was known as the “distaff side,” or the “spindle side.” Primitive though the technology seems, hand spinning created an excellent product, one not easily matched by machinery even centuries later.


Distaff and suspended spindle: women carried them even when performing other tasks. [British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 166v.]

It took many hand spinners to supply a single weaver, who operated one of two types of vertical loom, either warp-weighted or two-beam. In its most primitive form, the warp-weighted loom consisted of a pair of wooden uprights joined at the top by a wooden “cloth beam” that could be turned to roll up the cloth as it was woven. Warp (lengthwise) threads, hanging from the cloth beam, were held taut by clay weights at the bottom. To produce a plain weave, the weaver might first pass the weft (lateral) thread from right to left over each even-numbered warp thread and under each odd-numbered one, then on the next row return from left to right, reversing the procedure, lifting the warp threads with one hand as the weft was passed under with the other. A ninth-century saint’s life describes a woman weaver in “the winter work halls” of an estate weaving “with bent fingers,” holding a small skein or ball of weft in her hand and passing it through the warp.42 After a row was completed, the weft was pushed up to join previous rows at the top of the loom (beaten upward), using the fingers, a bone weaving comb, or an iron “weaving sword” with a long, flat blade.


Vertical warp-weighted loom (schematic drawing).

In a more advanced version of the warp-weighted loom, the process was simplified by the introduction of the “heddle,” a device that made it possible to raise a complete set of warp threads with a single movement. The odd and even warp threads hung down alternately in front and in back of a fixed horizontal “shed rod.” A second, adjustable bar called the heddle was loosely joined by loops of twine to the rear warp threads. The weaver first passed the weft through the “natural shed,” the space between rear and front warp threads created by the shed rod. On the next row, she moved the heddle forward in its brackets, pulling the rear warp threads to the front and creating a space known as the “artificial shed,” through which the weft was passed. Alternating these two positions and sheds produced plain weave. Variations in pattern could be created by changing the arrangement of warp threads and by increasing the number of heddle rods.43

The vertical two-beam loom was operated similarly, except that it was usually smaller and narrower, and the weft was beaten downward instead of up. The Utrecht Psalter (c. 834) shows a woman in a gynaeceum weaving outdoors under a canopy, using a two-beam loom, separating the warp threads with her fingers.

Linen was spun and woven by the same processes as wool, but the raw fibers required a more extensive treatment: first hanging the bundles of flax to dry so that the seeds could be shaken out, then “retting”—soaking in water—and pounding to remove the bark, finally “hackling,” drawing the stalks across a board set with rows of spikes to remove the rest of the stem and to separate the fibers.44


Vertical two-beam loom, from a twelfth-century copy of the Utrecht Psalter. [Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R 17, 1, f. 263.]

“Men of Iron”

In contrast to cloth making, military technology was an area that in the early medieval centuries experienced radical transformation, embracing weapons, defensive armor, fortifications, and, historically most intriguing, the equipage of a riding horse, especially the stirrup.

At the outset of his career, the late Lynn White proposed a bold hypothesis: the stirrup, imported from Asia, made possible shock combat by mounted knights, whose endowment by Charles Martel with Church lands to pay for their expensive gear laid the foundation for feudalism.45 White’s essay stirred controversy, research, and critical analysis that yielded a more complex picture. It is now established that the campaigns of Charles Martel and Charlemagne were dominated by sieges and raids, with little evidence of shock combat, and that a nobility of birth already existed, with origins in the old Frankish aristocracy; it merely gained an infusion of blood from the knights, who appeared on the scene in the tenth century. The foundations of feudalism included customs of both Germanic and Roman society, and the system reached maturity only in the thirteenth century.46

Nevertheless, if it was not the catalyst White suggested, the stirrup had military impact and social repercussions sufficient to justify the term “revolution.” Its beginnings trace to India in the second century B.C., in the form of a loop into which the rider thrust his big toe. Such a stirrup could give only slight assistance to staying on the horse and even less in mounting, besides being limited to barefoot, warm-weather riders.47 Iconographic evidence of the true stirrup dates from the early fourth century A.D. in China, whence, like so many innovations, it gravitated westward. Turkish Avars, who appreciated its steadying effect in firing arrows from the saddle, brought it to Hungary, whence it passed to the rest of Europe, evidently valued mainly for assistance in mounting: the words for stirrup in Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old English all derived from words for climbing (heretofore horsemen had used a mounting stool or vaulted onto horseback). The earliest representation of a stirrup in the West occurs in a St. Gall manuscript of the late ninth century; the Utrecht Psalter of circa 834 shows many mounted warriors but none with stirrups.48


This ninth-century equestrian statue of Charlemagne shows no stirrups. [Louvre.]

When European horsemen finally adopted the stirrup and matched it with the contoured saddle, they gained a dramatic advantage. From their newly secure seat, they could deal heavy blows, at first with the existing battle-ax, later with long sword and heavy lance. The last weapon especially created true “shock combat” by permitting a blow to be struck with the energy derived from the mass of the charging horse. How much the advantage was used, and when (outside tournaments) is still an open question. In the Bayeux Tapestry of circa 1080, mounted combatants on both Norman and English sides are shown hurling spears and lances, rather than driving them couched.49

Besides the nailed horseshoe, which arrived from the East at about the same time as the stirrup, Europeans added to cavalry accoutrements two native inventions, spurs and the curb bit, providing effective control for a rider who had only one hand free for the reins.50


Norman knights at the Battle of Hastings (1066) are equipped with stirrups, but throw their spears. Bayeux Tapestry. [Phaidon Press.]

Fighting from horseback encouraged the adoption of heavy defensive armor, which quickly gave cavalry the ascendancy on the battlefield. Charlemagne’s biographer Notker describes the formidable appearance of Charlemagne and his army at the siege of Pavia (774), in full battle gear:

That man of iron [was] topped with his iron helmet, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his broad shoulders clad in an iron cuirass. An iron spear raised on high against the sky was gripped in his left hand. In his right he held his still unconquered sword…[His thighs] were bound in plates of iron…his greaves [lower-leg coverings] too were made of iron. His shield was all iron. His horse itself gleamed iron in color and in mettle. All those who rode before him, those who accompanied him on either flank, those who followed, wore the same armor, and their gear was as close a copy of his own as it is possible to imagine…The rays of the sun were reflected by this battle-line of iron. This race of men harder than iron did homage to the very hardness of iron.51

In picturing a whole army clad in plate armor, Notker exaggerated; plate armor was for kings and leaders. The universal armor of the ordinary mounted soldier of the early Middle Ages was “mail”—metal scales, strips, or rings sewn on a leather or padded-cloth tunic. A coat of mail was expensive; so were the helmet, shield, and arms, not to mention the large, specially bred horses (chargers, destriers); in the marketplace such a horse was worth as much as four to ten oxen or forty to a hundred sheep. A coat of mail, made up of tens of thousands of individually forged iron rings, was worth sixty sheep.52 As the cost of equipment rose, a social transformation followed the military one, and from soldier of mediocre status the knight was elevated to member of a prestigious caste, graced with a code of conduct that exerted strong influence on posterity.


Shock combat: knights charging with couched lances, from the twelfth-century Life, Passion, and Miracles of St. Edmund. [The Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 736, f. 7v.]

The military landscape of the ninth century featured another technological innovation that became a symbol of the Middle Ages: the castle. The disorders that followed the disintegration of Charlemagne’s empire, exacerbated by the Viking raiders, made northwest Europe look to its defenses. Towns rebuilt long-neglected walls, reviving the half-forgotten art of stonemasonry, while in the countryside, fortresses appeared, but fortresses of a novel description. Masonry was too costly for the thinly populated rural districts, and the new structures were of timber and earth—“motte and bailey,” the motte a mound, natural or artificial, the bailey a palisaded court below. Even more distinctive than their physical form was their social character. Public forts manned by professional garrisons were of long standing, but the motte-and-bailey castle was a private fortress, not exactly by design but by an inevitable progression. Originally intended as command post for a Carolingian imperial officer, the “castellan,” who lived in it with his family, servants, and retainers, it soon became an independent hereditary possession and the castellan the ruling authority of his local district.

Cheap and quick to build, requiring little skilled labor, the motte-and-bailey castle was nevertheless militarily effective. It could not only block the invasion of a region but control the local population. Chronicler Jean de Colmieu describes the building of a motte:

It is the custom of the nobles of the neighborhood to make a mound of earth as high as they can and then encircle it with a ditch as wide and deep as possible. They enclose the space on top of the mound with a palisade of very strong hewn logs firmly fixed together, strengthened at intervals by as many towers as they have means for. Within the enclosure is a house, a central citadel or keep which commands the whole circuit of the defense. The entrance to the fortress is across a bridge…supported on pairs of posts…crossing the ditch and reaching the upper level of the mound at the level of the entrance gate [to the enclosure].53

In times of peace, the lord and his family lived in the keep on top of the mound, the garrison, horses, and other livestock in wooden structures in the bailey (courtyard) below. Threatened with attack, everyone withdrew to the keep.


Remains of motte-and-bailey castle built by William the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. The motte (mound) was topped with a timber stockade. Berkhamsted was unusual in having a wet moat. [Aerofilms Ltd.]

The economy and effectiveness of the motte-and-bailey castle led to its survival into the high Middle Ages, in competition with its more elaborate and far costlier masonry counterpart. A thirteenth-century motte-and-bailey described by the priest Lambert of Ardres had three stories: on the ground floor, storage rooms; on the second, the hall where the family lived and ate, the “great chamber” where lord and lady slept, and the nursery; on the third, a dormitory for the adolescent children and the servants, and a chapel.54

At the other end of Europe, where the surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire, now frankly Greek, or Byzantine, was beset by enemies, a piece of military and naval technology more dramatic than the stirrup suddenly appeared in the seventh century. If “Greek fire” alone did not preserve Byzantium, it certainly helped.

Incendiary weapons were not themselves new to warfare. Naphtha (a petroleum distillate) was known as early as the fourth century B.C., and petroleum, sulfur, bitumen, and resin were used in both land and naval warfare in the first centuries of the Christian era. The new Greek mixture, credited by the Byzantine historian Theophanes to Callinicus, a Syrian refugee from the Arab conquest, was discharged from tubes mounted in ships’ prows and could not be extinguished with water. Its chemical composition has defied positive analysis, and the method of ignition is even more puzzling. Probably it was a mixture of distilled petroleum, not unlike modern gasoline, thickened with resinous substances and sulfur to slow its dissipation in water and keep it from being washed away from the target by wave action. Reports that it ignited on contact with water were probably the result of faulty observation. A similar Chinese weapon of the tenth century, “fierce fire oil” (distilled petroleum), was ignited by a charge of gunpowder, but the Byzantines had no gunpowder in the seventh century. It has been conjectured that they projected their mixture with a force pump, the Hellenistic device credited to Ctesibius. Still another puzzle is how the Byzantine sailors managed to store so volatile a mixture safely aboard their own ships. A modern conjecture is that the mixture was not volatile until heated and pressurized below decks immediately before combat.

The secret was the more easily guarded because of its inherent complexity, comprising not only the mixture but method of preparation and means of discharge. The weapon was first used, with devastating effect, against an Arab fleet attacking Constantinople in 673, and again in 717. An eighth-century account describes iron shields that protected the men who worked the bronze flamethrowers, and the thunderous noise of the flaming jets, sometimes hand-held, sometimes mounted on the ships. “Thanks to the cooperation of God through His wholly immaculate Mother’s intercession,” recorded the chronicler Theophanes, “the enemy was sunk on the spot. Seizing booty and the Arab’s supplies, our men returned with joy and victory.” Eventually the Arabs acquired at least a version of the weapon, while its secret, limited to a very small ruling circle, was meantime (before 1204) lost by the Greeks themselves.55

Swords and Plowshares

Notker’s description of Charlemagne as “that man of iron” reflects the aristocratic role the “democratic metal” had assumed in early medieval Europe. Metal mining and production of all types had fallen off sharply with the loss of the powerful sponsorship of the Imperial government, and some of the old Greco-Roman techniques had been lost. But small-scale open-pit mining and local forges continued operations on both sides of the old Roman frontier, and as the population grew, the need for more and better agricultural equipment, such as the new heavy plow, supplied a stimulus in addition to that of the knightly “men of iron” with their swords, battle-axes, helmets, and chain mail.

The medieval blacksmith enjoyed high prestige, including the reputation of being in league with diabolic powers; a smith might be consulted to cast or break spells, to cure disease, or to repair broken bones. As a fabricator of armor and weapons, in Wales he sat at the table next to the royal chaplain, and at Tara, the ancient Irish royal hall, he joined the royal verse maker, brewer, and teacher on the king’s right hand.56 In time the allied professions of armorer and locksmith became spin-off specialties, and the blacksmith limited himself to farm-implement manufacture and repair, nail making, and horseshoeing. Throughout the early Middle Ages he remained the most important of the skilled craftsmen. The tenth-century Anglo-Saxon writer Aelfric composed an imaginary debate among craftsmen on their relative importance in which the smith triumphantly pointed out that none of the others could work without the tools he made them.57

Hardly any relevant documents survive on early medieval metallurgy, and though archaeological sites have turned up a wealth of evidence, such as the twenty-four-furnace array at Zelochovice, Czechoslovakia, dating and interpretation are difficult. The first step in smelting was washing and roasting the ore and breaking it into chunks suitable for the reduction furnace. After centuries as a mere depression in the ground with clay lining and dome, the furnace began its rise by adding a stubby chimney of clay and sandstone. Besides the gas exit, two openings were provided, a charging hole for introduction of the ore and an aperture near the bottom to allow extraction of the “bloom” of iron—soft and glowing but not molten—and introduction of a draft supplied by a pair of bellows. In its appetite for fuel, the furnace was rapacious, typically burning twelve pounds of charcoal to smelt a pound of iron.58

The hot bloom was pummeled on a flat stone to expel the slag (sand and clay) and consolidate the iron into bars and plates suitable for the smith. The master ironworkers “only knew how, they did not know why, they did certain things” (W. K. V. Gale). They knew that their charcoal created iron; they did not know that it did its job by drawing the oxygen out of the ore (iron oxide) to unite with carbon and escape as a gas. They knew that if the heat was maintained too long, something went wrong; they did not know that the iron having got rid of its oxygen began taking on carbon. Much later, when furnaces produced high enough temperatures to melt iron, the molten metal could be cast in molds (hence the name “cast iron”), but in the early Middle Ages the accidental production of solid lumps of metal too brittle to be worked was merely a nuisance. If all went well, several hours’ work produced a few pounds of usable iron.59 Certain ores, rich in manganese, produced a naturally steely iron.60

The medieval bellows consisted of a wooden box closed by a piece of leather that could be pressed by hand or foot, forcing the air out of a small hole into a pipe leading to the tuyere (nozzle) and thence to the fire. A cord and a springy piece of wood pulled the bellows skin up again, admitting a fresh charge of air. In the smelting furnace, bellows were paired, so that their alternate blows kept a steady draft going.

The smith who received the iron from the reduction furnace relied, like the iron smelter, on his skill, experience, and the knowledge passed from generation to generation at the forge over a thousand years. He knew how to harden his metal by reheating it to a high temperature and holding it there for a certain length of time, not why the effect occurred: the iron was absorbing from the charcoal a small amount of carbon (less than one percent), and here too if the process was allowed to go on too long, the product became brittle and unusable. He did not even realize that the hardening he achieved was only surface deep—“case hardening” in modern metallurgical vocabulary—only that the improvement made the metal far more valuable.61

More and more iron now went into plowshares, harrows, sickles, and billhooks, and even some church bells were made of iron, the smith welding or riveting four pieces together. But the most famous products of the smith were the formidable long swords wielded by the armored knights, produced by stretching and refolding the case-hardened strips back on each other. The finished blade had a characteristic appearance, “rather like streaky bacon” (Leslie Aitchison), and a high price.62 In Charlemagne’s time a good sword cost as much as three cows and was correspondingly treasured. Its owner might give it a name and even have religious relics enclosed in the hilt. A legendary character came to be attached to the swords of great heroes: Roland’s Durandal, Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, King Arthur’s Excalibur, El Cid’s Tizona.63

Chain mail, known in ancient times, may have had an Eastern origin, but medieval smiths and armorers fabricated it in previously unheard-of quantities. How it was made is not certain; the mature version of the hauberk or coat of mail consisted of hand-drawn iron wire soldered into rings, each ring linked to its neighbors. The rings-sewn-on-leather version was retained for foot soldiers and archers.

More and better iron improved the smith’s own tools and those of his frequent partner, the carpenter. Few new devices were introduced, but many old ones became for the first time widely diffused, including one machine very important for woodworking and carpentry, the lathe. Designed to rotate a workpiece rapidly against a cutting tool, the medieval version came in two forms, the pole lathe and the bow lathe. In the first, a cord was wound around an axle and fastened by one end to a pole, which bent downward as the other end of the cord was pulled to rotate the axle; released, the pole supplied spring action to spin the axle in the opposite direction. The bow lathe substituted a bow, fixed overhead, for the pole.64


Waist-level hearth with bellows. [British Library, Sloane Ms. 3983, f. 5.]

The massive swords and battle-axes of the men of iron required sharpening when first fabricated and at intervals afterward. So did many of the agricultural and household implements. For long ages, blades had been honed by reciprocal rubbing against a naturally abrasive stone (usually sandstone). The Chinese had invented a rotary grindstone much earlier, but whether the idea migrated westward or originated independently in Europe is unknown. Its significance lies in its character as the earliest application of the crank principle, and its first representation in Europe is in the Utrecht Psalter (834), illustrating the Sixty-third Psalm: a rotary grindstone is being operated by a man turning an unmistakable right-angled crank. Lynn White pointed out that the wicked (“those that seek my soul”) are depicted sharpening their swords on an old-fashioned whetstone, while the righteous, preparing to battle them, sharpen theirs with the new, technically innovative rotary grindstone.65

One of the simplest and historically most valuable of machine components, the crank presents a mystery in its slow diffusion westward or independent invention and reinvention. From the rotary grindstone, the medieval crank moved to the hand organ or hurdy-gurdy (originally a church instrument), then to the crossbow and the brace and bit, before at last, nearly at the end of the Middle Ages, becoming a machine component.66

The Romanesque Church

Like mining and metallurgy, building construction suffered after the fall of Rome, at least in the troubled western half of the Empire. In the eastern half, sixth-century Constantinople acquired an elaborate sewage system and the magnificent domed cathedral of Santa Sophia, which rose in the incredibly short time of five years.67


Illustrating the Sixty-third Psalm, a rotary grindstone is operated, lower right, while man at lower left sharpens sword on old-fashioned whetstone. From the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter. [Utrecht University Library, Aev. med. script. eccl. 484, f. 35v.]

In the early medieval West, lords and prelates stripped the Roman temples and public buildings of their marble facings and despoiled walls of their bricks to ornament their own palaces, churches, and country houses. Stonecutters turned to odd jobs and ceased transmitting their skills, while brick making disappeared from northern Europe until the high Middle Ages. Charlemagne, restoring some of the majesty of Imperial power, had difficulty in rounding up enough skilled masons to build the royal palace and chapel in his new capital of Aachen. Masonry structures of the Carolingian Age show a reliance on mortar, troweled thickly on the stone courses, in contrast to the elegant Roman practice of using no mortar at all, or thin layers only. The secret of Roman cement and concrete was lost, not to be recovered until the nineteenth century.68

Financial and technical constrictions notwithstanding, the early Middle Ages did a considerable amount of building. Greek and Roman temples had been rarities, the Roman religion being practiced mainly at home rather than in a church. The triumph of Christianity, institutionalized in community worship, demanded churches in numbers the Western world had never seen. The “basilicas” designed to accommodate city congregations were large, built of stone, and modeled on the Roman public hall, divided by rows of columns into nave and aisles. In the sixth century, Gregory of Tours recorded the dimensions of the new basilica of Tours, built over the tomb of St. Martin, as 160 feet long by 60 feet wide and 45 feet high, with 52 windows, 8 doors, and 120 marble columns. The new cathedral in Gregory’s native Clermont was equally impressive.69

The monastic movement launched by St. Benedict also required large buildings, such as the abbey of Jumièges in Normandy (seventh century) and the abbey church of St. Denis, near Paris, rebuilt from a fifth-century church in about 760. Nearly all the “Romanesque” (Roman-like) churches were built on the plan of the basilica, often with a transept projecting on either side and a rounded apse at the eastern end. Churches in Gaul often had bell towers, in the middle, over the crossing, or as separate structures. Charlemagne’s renaissance stimulated the rebuilding of many Merovingian churches on a still larger scale, for example, at Cologne and Rheims.70

Most churches were merely roofed with timber, but some were provided with vaulting, in the form of the tunnel-like barrel vault, which with its massive supporting walls cost fifteen to eighteen times what timber roofing did and permitted only small window openings. Yet in the meager windows of the early medieval basilica the first stained glass appeared. The historian Bede describes the glazing of the windows of monastic buildings at Monkwearmouth (County Tyne and Wear) in the seventh century by craftsmen imported from the Continent, to ornament “a stone church built…in the Roman style.”71 By the tenth century, stained glass (actually not stained but emerging colored from the glassmaking process) was already a glory of Christian cathedrals.


Interior of ninth-century abbey church of St. Philibert, near Nantes, showing heavy piers of the nave.

Rivers, Roads, and Bridges

In addition to the Christian churches, a few Roman-type public works were built in the ninth century. Charlemagne restored the famous Roman lighthouse at Boulogne, and St. Aldric, bishop of Le Mans, caused a 4½-mile-long aqueduct to be constructed to serve his city, while along the upper Loire, levees were erected to aid navigation.72

The rivers of northwest Europe, comparatively free from winter ice and flowing year round, served commerce well even in a natural state. They carried a substantial part of the increasing traffic in wine, which benefited from the now general substitution of a variety of wooden barrels, vats, and tubs for the amphorae and skins of the ancient world. Like the Mississippi flatboatmen of a later era, medieval river men poled their craft downstream, sold them for timber at their destination, and walked back. Where water traffic was heavy, oxen trod towpaths hauling barges.73 Charlemagne conceived a grandiose project for a canal linking the Danube with the Rhine, which was actually started but left unfinished until a thousand years later.74 Whether ninth-century engineers could have solved the problem posed by the different levels of the two rivers is conjectural; the canal lock did not yet exist, even in China.

Lords who enjoyed locations on busy rivers copied the Roman authorities in levying tolls but not in applying the revenue to improve navigation. Excessive tolls actually reduced traffic in some cases, and some lords were no better than pirates, or, in the phrase they added to Western languages, “robber barons.”

Roads were less important in commerce than rivers. Hardly anything is known of early medieval road building and maintenance except by implication. Roman roads probably deteriorated more quickly in the wet, cold northern climate than in the South, but all roads require extensive maintenance, for which no adequate governmental or even regional authority now existed. Barbarian kings who inherited the Roman Empire’s taxing power often allowed it to lapse out of indifference, their traditional governmental responsibilities imposing no demand for large revenues. The need for road maintenance only slowly gained the stature of a government problem.75

A further complication arose as the northward and westward movement of agriculture and settlement created whole new route orientations, notably from the old Lyons-centered network of Roman Gaul to the Paris-centered web of Merovingian France. Unused pavements acquired overlays of soil and vegetation, under which they slumbered until disturbed by modern archaeology. The Roman road that best retained its importance was that traveled by English pilgrims on their way to Rome, crossing France from Boulogne to Langres to the Alpine passes, a route preferable to the risky sea voyage even in the ninth century, when the passes were infested with Saracen bands.76

“Incomparably more important” than roads in the improvement of medieval transportation and communication, according to Marjorie Boyer, were bridges.77 Of the three kinds of river crossings in existence, fords were often unfordable, ferries inadequate, bridges, if they existed, in need of repair. The general substitution of permanent, well-maintained bridges for fords and ferries has been called (by C. T. Flower) “the great public work” of the Middle Ages.78 Pack animals could negotiate even a bad road, but not a river served only by a skiff, or nothing at all. In the obscurity of the early Middle Ages, at least a beginning was made in solving the river-crossing problem.

All that we know of early medieval spans is that they were made of wood and stone, certainly more wood than stone. Descriptions are entirely lacking, and hardly a fragment survives. We do know that Charlemagne and his successors imposed responsibility for bridge building and maintenance on the local inhabitants, with a military function primarily in mind. A fortified bridge could not only block a crossing but control traffic in the river. A bridge over the Marne at Treix prevented the Vikings from ascending the river. The problem of financing construction was met by a double collection of tolls, for both land and water traffic.

As early as the sixth century, supplemental roles were found for bridges. One important one was conceived during the siege of Rome by the Goths in 537, when the enemy shut off the aqueducts whose water drove the city’s gristmills. Belisarius, theByzantine general defending the city, ordered floating mills installed close to the Tiber bridges, whose piers constricted and accelerated the current. Two rows of boats were anchored with waterwheels suspended between them. The arrangement worked so well that cities all over Europe were soon copying it.79 The Grand Pont in Paris, probably a combination of wood and stone, built water mills under its roadway and houses on top of it, inaugurating one of the Middle Ages’ most picturesque architectural fashions.

Navigation: Lateen Sail and Long Ship

While land transportation struggled with roads and river crossings, at sea two new shipbuilding traditions emerged, the northern and the southern. By the year 900, both had achieved important advances in design over the ships of the ancient world.

In the Mediterranean the triangular (or near-triangular) lateen sail was at last successfully rigged on large vessels. The Byzantines, who may have learned the technique from their Muslim enemies, passed it on to other Europeans, and by 800 it had become the dominant sail on the Mediterranean. Hung from a long, sloping yard, one end of which rose well above the masthead while the other reached nearly to the deck, the lateen could take the wind on either side, improving a ship’s ability to sail close to the wind. This was especially valuable in helping a ship fight off a lee shore. The old picture of medieval sailing ships hugging the coast is a misconception, since the coastal rocks and shoals represented the main danger to a vessel. But much navigation in coastal waters was unavoidable.80

Manipulating the lateen was not easy. To come about (change tack) required lifting the yard over the top of the mast, calling for extra skill and extra manpower, but the advantages outweighed the difficulties. The Byzantine navy’s sail-and-oar “dromons” made good use of the lateen in getting into position to project their Greek fire.81 Though designed specifically for war, the dromon also proved a practical cargo carrier.

Simultaneously with adoption of the lateen sail, Byzantine and other Mediterranean shipbuilders introduced a radical new system of hull construction. After long following the Roman method of building up the hull plank by plank, each succeeding plank fastened edge to edge to its predecessor by mortise and tenon, and the supporting skeleton inserted late in the job, they now reversed the procedure and built the skeleton first. Much skilled labor was saved, and though the resulting hull was not as strong as the Roman, the savings in labor translated into cost savings for carrying commercial cargo.82

Meanwhile, northern European shipbuilding was pursuing its own long line of evolution, entirely isolated from the Mediterranean tradition. Two very early specimens of northern ships, one prehistoric, the other from the Roman period, have been discovered by archaeologists. The older, found at Als, Denmark, dating to about 350 B.C., was forty feet long and clinker built, that is, with its planks overlapping, lashed together rather than nailed. The ship had no mast or keel and no oarlocks, and was evidently paddled by its crew, canoe fashion.83 The second, recovered from a burial site at Nydam, Schleswig, and dating from the third century A.D., was seventy-five feet long, its clinker-built planks nailed as well as lashed, making the hull both flexible and durable. Still lacking a mast and limited to coastal navigation, the Nydam ship embodied a large advance in power: its twenty-eight crewmen faced sternward and pulled on oars.

These premedieval examples foreshadowed the configuration of an eighty-foot-long Anglo-Saxon ship found at Sutton Hoo, England, near Ipswich, dating from about A.D. 600, clinker built but by a more advanced technique, its short planks riveted together lengthwise to form long strakes (ship’s-length timbers), eliminating the need for hard-to-find long, straight tree trunks. Still lacking mast and keel, the ship was apparently used for coastal and cross-Channel navigation, probably in the trade partnerships with the Merovingian kings. The space taken up by the two dozen or more rowers, however, left little room for cargo.84

By this time, northern ships probably included sailing craft, but no evidence of them has survived. The first northern ship to combine sail and oar propulsion that archaeology has uncovered is a late-ninth-century Viking vessel found at Gokstad, Norway. Its keel was fashioned from a single giant oak trunk, providing great strength and supporting a mast anchored firmly in a strong socket (keelson). Such a ship could sail all night in the open sea before a favorable wind, vastly increasing its range and potential.85

The principal weakness of the galley had always been its lack of sleeping room for the crew, virtually imposing nightly landings. A ship equipped only with oars had to inch its way along the coast to the English Channel and home again to Denmark or Norway. An open-sea sail-and-oar ship could reach the Channel coasts from Scandinavia in a few days and there exploit its shallow draft (about 3½ feet) and maneuverability by ascending rivers to trade or raid.


Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship, c. A.D. 600. [British Museum.]

The deck of a Gokstad-type ship was composed of loose planking, which kept out the sea but was easily opened to load cargo. Its overlapping hull timbers were secured by wooden pegs (treenails) driven through holes bored to receive them, the pegs split and wedged for snug fit; gaps between the planks were made watertight by pressing in moss. Its oar holes were keyhole shaped, to permit oars to be passed out from inside the ship, and equipped with shutters to close them against the sea when oars were shipped. Like its predecessors, it could readily be beached for landing, loading, and unloading, taking advantage of the tides. The mast, probably at first immovable, could by the ninth century be unstepped and the square sail shifted to face in different directions, even fore and aft. Clumsier than the lateen sail, it nevertheless served its purpose.86 A nineteenth-century replica of the Gokstad ship sailed from Bergen, Norway, to Newfoundland in twenty-eight days.87


Model of the Gokstad ship, c. A.D. 900. [Science Museum, London.]

The product of a lengthy evolution, the longship of the Gokstad type was not deliberately designed for raiding but turned out to be ideal for the purpose. Its maturing coincided with a moment when Europe was both a vulnerable and an inviting target. Though ethnically and culturally homogeneous, the Vikings were geographically divided in three, a circumstance that led them in three different directions. Those from Norway tended to sail west to the Shetlands, then turn south into the Irish Sea, thence to the French and Spanish coasts. Those starting from Denmark turned into the English Channel, raiding Britain and the Low Countries, while those from Sweden crossed the Baltic to Germany, Lithuania, and Russia. The hit-and-run character of Viking (as well as Saracen) raids foiled the uncoordinated defensive efforts of Europe’s dispersed political and military authority. Loaded with plunder, the longship turned merchant-trader, often setting up temporary shop in a district next door to the one it had just victimized. In the Viking mixture of raiding and trading, trading gradually came to predominate, mainly in the form of an extensive commercial empire in parts of eastern Europe and in Russia. Here the Vikings met Muslim merchants coming up the rivers from the other direction and traded furs and slaves, weapons and amber for the Muslims’ silks, spices, and silver coins.

A Muslim diplomat described the arrival of Viking ships at a trading post on the Volga: the Northerners were “tall as date-palms, blond and ruddy,” never parted from “axe, sword and knife…the filthiest of God’s creatures…lousy as donkeys.” Each trader went ashore to make an offering before “a large wooden post with a face like that of a human being,” placing bread, meat, onions, and beer at the foot of the image and then announcing, “Oh, my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such-and-such a number of slave girls and such-and-such a number of sables,” and enumerating his other wares, then praying the idol to “send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhems, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say.”88Returning to northern Europe, the Vikings exchanged the silver dinars and dirhems for Rhenish wine, glassware, querns, and weapons, with the Frisians acting as go-betweens.

Meanwhile, in the West, resistance finally hardened, and the Scandinavian rovers gave up piracy and settled down in England and Normandy to crop and stock farming, supplemented by commercial dealings. The famous longship, however, was less well adapted to peaceful pursuits than to raiding and plundering. Better fitted to carry cargo—or settlers—especially on long voyages, was the Viking version of the round ship, the “knorr.” Broad in beam, with six or eight oars positioned at the ends of the ship but with main reliance on sail, the knorr required a much smaller crew than the longship.89 It was clinker built, but by the tenth century clinker construction was obsolescent. A better round ship had already appeared, originating in Sluys, in the Low Countries. The “cog” employed carvel construction, borrowed from the Mediterranean, and a flat-bottomed hull design that helped in navigating the shoals of the southern shore of the North Sea and facilitated beach landing on sandbanks.90 Both cog and knorr found a valuable new role in the mysterious migration into the Baltic of herring, unknown there in ancient times. Preserved in salt, herring made an excellent cargo for the English Channel and Bay of Biscay, where salt could be taken on as cargo for the return voyage.

Northern navigation, like southern, continued to suffer from serious deficiencies: inadequate rigging, weakness of hulls against storms, lack of maps, charts, and instruments. Both northern and southern sailors stayed home through the winter, except in rare cases. One such was recorded by St. Willibald, who was hardy enough to sail from Tyre, in Syria, to Constantinople, a coastwise distance of perhaps a thousand miles, in November of 726. He arrived the following spring, a week before Easter.91

“Nature’s Secret Causes”

Commenting on the intellectual climate of the early Middle Ages, science historian R. J. Forbes has written, “Science was no longer the handmaid of philosophy; instead both were made to serve religion.”92 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. Although St. Augustine believed that man could best perceive God directly through faith rather than through observing the created world, most medieval thinkers were followers of an alternate tradition, that of Boethius, who believed that knowledge of God could be attained through examination of the beauty and order of the universe. The man of reason, Boethius wrote, “sought the causes of things—why the sighing winds vexed the sea waves, what spirit turns the stable world, and why the sun rises out of the red East to fall beneath the western ocean…what tempers the gentle hours of spring…what causes fertile autumn to flow with bursting grapes in a good year,” in short, “nature’s secret causes.”93

Boethius conducted experiments with the monochord, the single-stringed instrument that had been used by Pythagoras to demonstrate the mathematical order of the universe. Dividing the string proportionally produced the notes of the Pythagorean scale, which the Greeks believed represented divine proportions existing elsewhere in the universe, for example, in the distances separating the planets. Boethius and his successors elaborated on the Pythagorean conception of a mathematical universe, with the conviction that it must have (in the words of John Benton) “a musical, harmonious, beautiful, and ordered pattern…if only one can find it.”94

In the service of science-philosophy-religion, medieval churchmen did much to conserve knowledge (at least Latin knowledge) and even to add to it. Theologians such as Isidore of Seville, Hrabanus Maurus, Martianus Capella, and John Scotus Erigena devoted themselves to expositions of learning, their works providing students for the next several centuries with textbook information (not all of it reliable) on the liberal arts, medicine, agriculture, natural history, astronomy, and other secular topics. The Venerable Bede (673–735) described the earth as a sphere, which like his ancient predecessors he located in the center of the universe, and gave a lucid account of eclipses and phases of the moon. He also composed a history of the world, for which he invented a new system of dating: backward and forward from the birth of Christ.

Charlemagne’s counselor Alcuin (732–804) promoted the adoption of “Caroline [Carolingian] minuscule,” a more readable and regular version of several lower-case scripts invented by the clergy in the preceding century to replace Roman upper case (majuscule) in order to economize on expensive parchment or vellum. The new script facilitated the copying of the Latin classics, rescued from oblivion by the monasteries, “islands in a sea of ignorance” (Charles Homer Haskins).95 Caroline minuscule came to be universally adopted in the West, where a version of it eventually contributed an essential element to the invention of printing: the typeface. Most typefaces in use today are descendants of Caroline minuscule.


Boethius, from a manuscript of On the Consolation of Philosophy. [Bodleian Library, Ms. Auct. F 6.5, f. lv.]

The monasteries manufactured their own writing materials, trimming the skin of a calf, sheep, or goat, soaking it in lime, stretching, scraping, and cutting it into sheets. A better ink introduced in the seventh century, gall-iron ink, made with a soluble iron salt, supplanted the old carbon-black-and-gum solution. The scribe, sitting on a bench with his feet on a low stool, worked at a writing desk equipped with inkhorn, quill pen, and erasing knife, copying sometimes directly from a manuscript, sometimes from the dictation of a reader. To test their pens, scribes jotted comments in the margins: “How hairy this parchment is!” “It is cold today.” “It’s dinnertime.” Manuscripts commissioned by the wealthy required the additional services of a painter, who decorated the initials and added other embellishments in colored inks and gold leaf.96


The scribe Eadwine, from the twelfth-century Canterbury Psalter. [Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R 17, f. 1.]

The Christian clergy also served science and technology as teachers. The Benedictine monk was “the first intellectual to get dirt under his fingernails” (Lynn White),97 as he explored and taught agricultural science, stock breeding, forestry, metalworking, glassmaking, and other useful arts. The great monasteries maintained their corps of artisans. The abbey of Corbie, near Amiens, had six blacksmiths, a fuller, two goldsmiths, a parchment maker, and four carpenters; St.-Riquier, on the Channel coast northwest of Corbie, also had shoemakers and saddlers. The famous plan of St. Gall (Switzerland) shows workshops for cabinetmakers (“turners”), harness makers, saddlers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, fullers, and sword polishers.98


The new motte-and-bailey castles dominating local regions visually dramatized the developing political order, known to future historians as feudalism. As Vikings and Saracens retreated, the local lords could turn their attention and their innovative military technology against each other, creating a sort of Europe-wide anarchy on horseback. “The strong built castles, the weak became their bondsmen” (James Bryce).99

But under the untidy surface, more meaningful change had taken place. By the beginning of the tenth century, notwithstanding the fall of Rome, Vikings, Saracens, and the loss of Greek science, the new Europe had in its technology clearly surpassed the ancient Mediterranean world. In agriculture, metallurgy, and sources of power it had introduced significant improvements, inherited, borrowed from Asia, or invented independently. Its continuing demographic surge was beginning to be reflected qualitatively, in the growth of cities. Slavery, decaying as an institution, no longer supplied the basis of agricultural labor, and the Church pronounced emancipation of slaves to be “good work par excellence.”100 (On the other hand, the Christian religion lent a moral cover to the slave trade, limiting it to non-Christian Slavs and Arabs, while Islam limited it to non-Muslims.) For everyone the standard of living was rising—in Robert Reynolds’s words, “not from high to higher, but from very low to less low.”101

The revolution in agriculture that introduced new implements, new techniques, and a new organization of work was largely a revolution from below, not above. “The hero of the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages,” wrote Lynn White, “is the peasant, although this cannot be discovered from Gibbon.”102

Less conspicuous than the castle but more significant for the long future was the above-ground reduction furnace, feeding iron to local forges whose smiths shaped it into parts for plows, spades, pitchforks, and shoes for horses beginning to pull with the aid of the new horse collar. As the horse trod Europe’s fields to cultivate the crops, the waterwheel turned “at wondrous speed” to grind the grain, while the triangular lateen sail drove ships on the Mediterranean—three more symbols of progress in a not so Dark Age.

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