THE TWO CENTURIES THAT FOLLOWED THE period of European emergence are usually pictured in sharp contrast: the thirteenth, sometimes called the Golden Century, an era of affluence and growth, the fourteenth one of catastrophe and contraction. The contrast, however, has been overemphasized at the expense of important elements of continuity.

Throughout the thirteenth century, Europe’s technological advances continued in all sectors, sustained, among other factors, by an era of mild climate favorable to crops.1 Communication between Europe and Asia benefited significantly from the conquests of the Mongols, whose ferocity in war contrasted with the peaceful character of the empire they imposed from Hungary to the Pacific Ocean. Papal ambassador John of Pian de Carpine (1246), friar William of Rubruck serving as an envoy from King Louis IX of France (1253), and merchant Marco Polo (1260) were only the most famous of the Europeans who were now able to make the direct acquaintance of Chinese civilization and technology. One aim of the European visitors, however, Christian proselytizing, had little success among either Mongols or Chinese.

In Europe, the Golden Century shone not only in Gothic architecture but in the rapid expansion of the Commercial Revolution. In its vanguard stood the cities of northern Italy, whose businessmen discovered (or borrowed) new machinery, new processes, and new business techniques. The fall of the Crusader states to Muslim reconquest had little effect on the predominantly Italian merchant colonies in the Levant ports, which continued to govern themselves and do business, now with the protection of the Islamic authorities. Europeans even moved into Egypt, where they had not previously ventured, to pick up the spices brought across the Indian Ocean by the Arabs, for which Alexandria was the chief entrepôt.2 In the fourteenth century, the traffic shifted toward the territory of the friendly Mongol Empire, inspiring Europeans to think grandiose thoughts about gaining control of the whole spice trade. In 1318 a Dominican friar, William Adam, proposed stationing in the Red Sea a blockading squadron of galleys manned by Genoese, whom he esteemed as “the best and greediest of sailors,” to shut the Arabs out of the spice trade altogether.3 The scheme was not so much chimerical as premature, and in the meantime the Mongol Empire first turned hostile to European Christians and then collapsed, helping to deflect European attention toward the possibility of circumnavigating Africa.

The emerging Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, most strategically located for that enterprise, also turned to Genoa for shipbuilding and navigational help. Ugo Venta was the first of several Genoese admirals of Castile. Manuel Pessagno, appointed the first admiral of the Portuguese fleet in 1264, was succeeded by five generations of his family.4 Genoese expertise was part of a substantial input of European naval and military technology to the Reconquista, which among other things signaled a shift in the pattern of technical diffusion between Christian and Islamic cultures: improvements in arms and armor were now copied by the Muslims from the Europeans.5

Among its far-reaching effects, the accelerating Commercial Revolution provoked a demand for more coin metal, stimulating a historic development in central Europe: the opening of the rich silver-copper-gold mines in Bohemia, the Carpathians, and Transylvania, whither German miners from the Harz Mountains brought their skills. Underground mining developed rapidly, with the introduction of the vertical waterwheel for drainage, and the Chinese wheelbarrow.6

In northern Europe, the cities of the Hanseatic League not only successfully battled pirates but, accepting a challenge from the Danes, overthrew Danish hegemony and became the dominant power in the northern seas. Their larger ships reduced freight rates, and they built lighthouses and quays, marked reefs and channels with buoys, trained pilots to navigate coastal waters, and composed their own maritime law.7

The disasters of the fourteenth century came in three shapes: first, the bankruptcies of several of the great Italian commercial and banking houses; second, a series of wars, especially the English-French Hundred Years War; and third, a succession of famine years (1315–1317), followed a generation later by the terrible visitation of the Black Death, which crept across Europe in 1348–49, abating only to return at intervals in this and the following century.

The source of the Black Death remains a mystery (a contemporary chronicler attributed it to the Mongol siege of Genoese-held Caffa, on the Black Sea, where corpses of plague victims were catapulted into the Genoese compound), and even the disease’s identity as bubonic plague has been questioned.8 What is certain is that a European population that was already declining was devastated. Families were extinguished, villages left deserted, cities depopulated. Yet the resilience with which Europe survived and recovered is as noteworthy as the calamity itself. Agriculture and commerce resumed, property was redistributed among survivors, and earlier marriage lifted the birthrate, beginning the restoration of the population.9

In sum, the much-advertised disasters of the fourteenth century only temporarily disrupted economic life and had no discernible effect on technical progress, where the train of improvements continued in cloth making, construction, metallurgy, navigation, and other arts. On the political level, the century saw a shift toward modern political organization, especially marked in England and France, as central monarchies acquired stronger instruments of power, better sources of revenue, and expanded administrative machinery.

Perhaps most significant, if least obtrusive, was the advance toward modern business methods and organization. “Unstinting credit was the great lubricant of the Commercial Revolution,” according to Robert Lopez.10 The formation of large trading companies dealing extensively in credit transactions gave rise, first in Italy, then elsewhere, to commercial banking, dominated by such swiftly growing family-based institutions as the House of Medici. To serve the more complex business world, new record-keeping devices, notably double-entry bookkeeping, were invented.

The Countryside: Estate Management and the Black Death

The European countryside experienced the vicissitudes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the most marked degree. The thirteenth was a period of intensive cultivation, from which most of our information about medieval estate management derives; the fourteenth one of crop failures, plague, and agrarian disorders, and subsequent adjustments.

Thirteenth-century agriculture produced little new technology but a change in management methods and a substantial increase in production. Many lords had previously been content to “farm” their estates, that is, turn them over to outside entrepreneurs who paid a fixed yearly sum and collected rents, fines, and other proceeds. As the market grew with the population, opening the way to cash profits, the lords tended to assume direct control. Their tenants also benefited from prosperity and the money economy to buy their way free from many of the old manorial obligations. A few acquired land and even got modestly rich.

A sign of the lords’ new interest in their agricultural affairs was the appearance of medieval Europe’s first practical treatises on agronomy. Columella, Varro, and other Roman writers had long been read in the monasteries, and a few Arabic works from Spain had been translated, but the value of both Roman and Muslim authors was limited by their focus on Mediterranean-style farming methods, designed for conditions quite different from those of northwest Europe. In the second half of the thirteenth century, a number of treatises appeared, written in the vernacular and addressed to contemporary estate owners.11

One of the most influential, the Husbandry of Walter of Henley, was written by a former English bailiff (manorial officer). Walter began with some Poor Richard advice on the need for prudence, forethought, and honesty (“He who borrows from another robs himself,” “Put [your] surplus in reserve,” “Have nothing from anyone wrongfully”), then covered every aspect of agricultural management: surveying and evaluating demesne, pasture, buildings, gardens, woods, tenants, yields; selecting stewards and bailiffs and overseeing laborers; plowing, sowing, drainage, seeding, marling and manuring, dairying; raising of sheep, pigs, and poultry; and, a significant new element in agricultural management, the keeping of accounts.12

“The manorial account in the form historians know it is a late twelfth- or thirteenth-century innovation,” according to Michael Postan.13 Drawn up at the end of the agricultural year by the reeve, a villein often elected by the villagers themselves, the accounts painstakingly detailed receipts, expenses, stores on hand, and stock. The illiterate reeve kept track of the figures by marks on tally sticks, which he read off to the lord’s steward or clerk. Formal accounts came to be adopted on most estates, always following the same pattern, the uniformity suggesting the quick spread of information among administrators.

The emphasis of the new agricultural treatises was on conservation—maintenance of yields, protection of livestock, avoidance of waste—rather than on increasing output. The bias suited the lords to whom the advice was addressed. Like Roman landlords, they had little interest in effecting capital improvements. They were essentially consumers rather than producers, and consumers on a liberal scale, whose openhanded generosity toward retainers, staff, and guests enhanced their reputations, giving the impression that “the springs of wealth were inexhaustible” (Georges Duby).14 Yet Walter of Henley and the other authors of treatises encouraged improvement of livestock breeds (“Do not have boars and sows unless of good breed”) and of seed (“Seed grown on other ground will bring more profit than that which is grown on your own”),15 and at least to some extent they were heeded. The great ecclesiastical estates in England imported breeding stock from the Continent, and thirteenth-century lay lords made capital investments in animals, land, tenants’ houses, barns, bridges, mills, and fishponds. Henry de Bray, a petty landholder in Northamptonshire, widened a stream to provide a fishpond and built a mill and a bridge. Benedictine abbot John of Brokehampton built sixteen water mills and a number of windmills on his large estate.16

With affluence and progress came the first recognition of limits to growth. Increasing population dictated increase of the cultivated area. The resulting impingement on the wilderness, combined with the growing pressures of construction and industry, brought Europeans for the first time to a consciousness of the forest’s limits. Royal and seigneurial regulations curtailed land clearance and tree cutting, as well as restricting other activities less obviously harmful to the forest—grazing animals, gathering nuts, and collecting deadwood for fuel. The more valuable trees, especially beeches and oaks, were objects of special protection. Despite such measures, in the fourteenth century French forests had diminished by more than half since the time of Charlemagne, while those of England had fallen by a third from the Domesday accounting.17

Growth was already slowing down and the era of prosperity coming to a halt when the first disaster of the fourteenth century struck: famine, following two successive harvest failures brought on by bad weather (1315–1317, possibly part of a long-term climatic change), and epidemics of murrain and cattle disease that infected flocks and herds. The poorest households were the hardest hit. Faced with bad times, many lords turned back to farming out their demesnes, once more becoming absentee rentiers, and in England the beginnings of a major shift appeared, away from crop farming and toward sheep grazing.

In 1347–48 a countryside already weakened by famine was visited by the Black Death, which left thousands of holdings vacant, temporarily crippling the manorial system by making it impossible to collect rents or enforce labor services. Surviving manorial records are tersely grim: “Rent lacking from eleven cottages…by reason of the mortality.” “Three capons and no more this year because those liable to chevage are dead.” “Of divers rents of tenements which are in the hand of the lord owing to the death of the tenants.”18 Yet within a year, life had returned to the appearance of normality. In the Midlands manor of Halesowen, where the plague had struck in May 1349, killing at least 88 out of 203 male tenants and wiping out some households, a modern study reports: “The records of the [manorial] court held between August 1349 and October 1350 show that the villagers harvested their crops and pastured their animals. They married and bore children in and out of wedlock,” and in short carried on business as usual. Vacant tenancies were taken up by sons and daughters, wives and brothers, or other relations, the average size of holdings increasing as land that might previously have been divided was passed intact to a single heir.19 The price of land fell, and the pressure on the forest relented, to such effect in England that total forest area thenceforth remained stable until the nineteenth century.20

In some places, notably England, the Black Death contributed to social unrest as manorial officials, backed by a royal “Statute of Laborers,” sought to enforce work services more strictly on surviving tenants. The addition of heavy war taxes stimulated the Peasants’ Rebellion, of 1381, only one of a number of European outbreaks. “A chain of peasant uprisings clearly directed against taxation…exploded all over Europe” (Georges Duby).21

There was a deeper-seated cause of the rebellions than taxation, noted by Shakespeare in a much-quoted line put into the mouth of one of the rebels of 1381: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (Henry VI, Part II, IV, i). Lawyers were indeed killed and manorial records destroyed in revolutionary violence aimed against the institution of serfdom. The revolts were suppressed, but as often happens with revolutionary movements, their aim was attained in the aftermath, as over the course of the fifteenth century serfs and villeins succeeded in buying freedom from, or simply refusing to pay, the old servile dues.

In the last half of the fourteenth century, peasant holdings grew while the abandonment of some arable land provided more pasture and stimulated an increase in livestock, which in turn provided more manure and probably benefited crop yields. Wealthy townsmen entered into sharecropping arrangements with peasants. “The conduct of village economy,” says Georges Duby, “passed decisively into the hands of peasants backed by townsmen’s money.”22

Labor-intensive one-crop grain cultivation, to which both lord and peasant had clung almost superstitiously, retreated in many areas, its place taken either by land-intensive stock raising, which supplied wool, hides, meat, and cheese for the market, or by diversified fruit and vegetable farming, also for the market.23 A more resilient agricultural economy gradually emerged, less vulnerable to the disasters visited on cereal-crop farming.

Cloth, Paper, and Banking

By the thirteenth century, the Flemish wool cloth industry had moved out of the villages and into the towns of the Scheldt valley, where a new organization of production appeared, to spread presently to Italy, England, and southern Germany, and to survive into early modern times, particularly in eastern Europe. This was the putting-out system. The cloth merchant, already strategically situated as middleman between weavers and the market, now took over the role of middleman between the weavers and their source of supply, the English sheep farmers. From there it was only a step to make himself the entrepreneur in what has been called “a factory scattered through town.”24

A unique document from thirteenth-century Douai gives an intimate picture of the putting-out system at work. The record of a legal proceeding in 1285–86 against the estate of Sire Jehan Boinebroke, cloth merchant and notorious skinflint, by forty-five clothworkers and other claimants illuminates the human as well as the economic aspect of the system. Boinebroke contracted through his agents to buy wool from Cistercian monasteries in England, making a down payment of about 3 percent. When the wool arrived, he sold it to the weaver, who took it home to sort, card, spin, and weave, with the help of his wife and children. The weaver then sold the unfinished cloth back to Boinebroke, who sold it to a fuller for cleaning and treating, after which he bought the finished cloth back and either sold it to a dyer or sent it to his own dye shop behind his house. Finally, he sold the fulled and dyed cloth to his agents, who took it to sell at either the Douai cloth market or the Flemish or Champagne Fairs. Thus Boinebroke bought and sold the wool four times. A sack of fleece that cost seven pounds in England might sell as cloth for forty pounds in Champagne, with a large proportion of the markup going to Boinebroke, who was protected at all stages of the transaction against market fluctuations and other reverses. If war interrupted traffic to the Champagne Fairs, he could simply refuse to buy back the cloth at any stage in its manufacture, or could buy it back at a low price.

Boinebroke was a landlord as well as an employer, renting whole streets of houses to his workers in the old lower town of Douai and the marshy area between the lower and the upper town. He was also a recurrent member of the patrician town council, which elected its own successors every fourteen months and governed without apology in its own class interest.25

The claims against Boinebroke in the lawsuit show him to have been a grasping and heartless tyrant in his dealings with the clothworkers, though the fact that the suit could be brought—and a third of the claims honored by the court—shows that justice was not entirely lacking in the cloth cities. The main revelation of the document, however, supported by information from other sources, is that the age placed few restrictions on the exploitation of labor. The result was endemic class warfare in Flanders and Italy.

In all the disturbances, the key figure was the weaver. The most important component in the industry, he employed a loom that was the only complex implement involved in the many steps of the cloth-making process. The chief adversary of the merchant-entrepreneur, he was the first worker in history to bring an industry to a halt by going on strike (in Douai, in 1245).26


Two thirteenth-century innovations: the spinning wheel, left, and the carder with metal teeth. [British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 103.]

An important further step in the mechanization of the cloth industry was signaled in the late thirteenth century by the introduction into Europe of the spinning wheel, which may have originated in the Near East or India (the earliest clear illustration is from Baghdad in 1237). Arnold Pacey believes that “the westward dissemination of the silk and cotton industries may have stimulated local responses…Some form of wheel for spinning may have been suggested to the minds of a number of individuals in quite different places.”27 In its earliest Western form, it consisted of a small spindle mounted on bearings and connected by a belt to a large wheel. The spinner held the mass of fiber on a distaff in her left hand, imparting a twist as with her right she fed it to the spindle, which she kept in rotation by intermittently giving the big wheel a turn. The invention is noteworthy for its early embodiment of belt transmission and its use of the flywheel to maintain a steady flow of power.

Resistance to the new device in the wool cloth industry surfaced immediately, principally from the merchants, who saw it as impairing quality by producing thread that was rough and uneven. Lacking the pedal and flyer that were added later, the early spinning wheel was not well adapted to produce an even thread. The earliest documentary evidence of its introduction in the West comes from statutes of the drapers’ guilds in the 1280s banning its use. Nevertheless, the machine gradually came to be employed under the spur of the chronic imbalance between spinning and weaving. Several hand spinners were needed to supply one weaver; the wheel roughly halved the number.28

The spinning wheel was at first reserved for the spinning of weft, which did not need to be as strong as warp. “The spinner…much values her thread which was spun on the distaff,” says a verse in the Livre des mestiers (Book of crafts) of Bruges (c. 1340), “but the thread which is spun on the wheel has too many lumps and she…earns more to spin warp at the distaff than to spin weft with the wheel.”29 A fourteenth-century document of the Florentine Arte della Lana, giving detailed instructions for the preparation of wool for weaving, directs that the long fibers left after combing should be sent to the country to be spun on a spindle for the warp, the short fragments spun on the spinning wheel for the weft.30

Warp and weft were usually spun in opposite directions, clockwise (Z-spun) for warp and counterclockwise (S-spun) for weft, so that a merchant or weaver could tell at a glance whether yarn was intended for warp or weft. Meanwhile, spinning remained the most poorly paid occupation in the cloth industry, and spinners (all female) were not included in the craft guilds.

Another innovation in wool cloth manufacture made its appearance in thirteenth-century France and Flanders: a carding instrument with metal teeth, to replace the old bone or wooden wool comb in preparing fibers for spinning. Again, the innovation met with resistance because of the threat to quality—the device saved time, but the finished product was slightly rougher, with shorter fibers. Little by little, as techniques were improved, metal carders came into wider use, first with the weft, later with the warp. The fibers were oiled or buttered, one part of them attached to the card held in the right hand, the other card drawn across it, an operation that was repeated eight to ten times. Carding was usually done by the spinners.31

Still another textile invention was the toothed warper, for preparing bundles of warp threads of equal length to be placed on the loom. A square frame that leaned against the wall, the warper was armed with rows of pegs, around which the warp, drawn from a dozen or more large bobbins turning on an iron rod, was wound in a zigzag pattern. The instrument made it possible to use long warp threads, producing long pieces of cloth, the lengths standardized in each city so that a buyer knew the dimensions of a bolt of cloth simply by its city of origin.32


A toothed warper for preparing bundles of warp threads to be placed on the loom. Threads are drawn from bobbins at lower right and wound around rows of pegs on frame that leans against the wall. [Drawing adapted from the fourteenth-century Kuerboek of Ypres.]

The horizontal loom of the twelfth century could produce cloth only as wide as the weaver could reach on either side to pass the shuttle through; in the thirteenth century a wide horizontal loom appeared, operated by two weavers, who passed the shuttle back and forth between them. The vertical warp-weighted loom at last withdrew to Scandinavia, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, where it remained in use into modern times. The vertical two-beam loom became a specialized device for the weaving of tapestry, an ancient art that gained sudden popularity in the fourteenth century and flourished all over Europe in the luxury workshops that produced artifacts for princes. In tapestry weaving, the weft was not carried all the way across but worked by hand back and forth in each color over limited areas in a process similar to darning.33

More surprising to historians than its slow adoption of the spinning wheel and the metal card is the textile industry’s failure to apply waterpower. In eighteenth-century England and America, power was applied to cloth manufacture by waterwheels in no way different from those available in medieval Europe. Robert Lopez, noting that silk throwing in Lucca was waterpowered, gives this explanation: “Wool yarn…was coarser and cheaper; there was no incentive to invest in a costly machine while it was possible to put out the wool to underpaid spinstresses.” Fullers were better paid and consequently were provided with waterpower to increase their productivity.34 However, it should be noted that the long, continuous filaments of silk present a different problem from the short fibers of wool, cotton, and linen, and that the silk process that was waterpowered was not spinning—consolidating short fibers into a single strand—but throwing, that is, twisting two or more of the long natural filaments together to make a stronger, heavier thread. The waterpowered silk-twisting mill could not be used with other types of yarn, which had to await a number of eighteenth-century inventions.

As the market for wool cloth grew steadily through the thirteenth century, England ceased to be merely a giant sheep ranch for Flanders and began its long history as a cloth-making center, while Florence expanded its industry from dyeing and finishing to total manufacture. At the same time that luxury wool cloth was being made for long-distance commerce, however, garments worn by ordinary people were still spun and woven locally, in town and country, by old-fashioned methods.

Other branches of the textile industry besides wool manufacture flourished in the high Middle Ages. The technique of knitting may have been brought from the Near East by pilgrims or Crusaders. Similarly, the notorious Fourth Crusade that stormed Constantinople in 1204 may have captured for Venice the secrets of silk culture and processing. Lucca and Palermo had already acquired the technology; now the Italian silk industry expanded rapidly. Sometime in the thirteenth century it acquired the Chinese silk loom and shortly after made the leap to waterpower, at almost the same time as China.35 In the fourteenth century, Lucca had a silk mill employing 480 spindles driven by an undershot waterwheel.36 Silk weaving spread to northern Europe, using raw silk imported from Italy. In Paris and London, women workers dominated the industry.

In linen manufacture, a simple device invented in the Netherlands in the fourteenth century speeded the preparatory process: the flax breaker, or hackling board, consisting of two parallel boards on edge, hinged to a third board that slammed down on a bundle of stalks laid across them.37 At the same time, the spinning wheel had a more immediate impact in the linen industry than in the woolen. The combination of the two inventions brought on a large increase in the production of linen shirts, bed sheets, undergarments, towels, and coifs.38

Meanwhile, in the thirteenth century the cotton industry of northern Italy had grown to a position rivaling that of wool in number of workers and size of capital investment. Cotton was the only major export industry manufacturing low-priced goods for popular consumption, with profits dependent upon a large volume of turnover. As a result, it developed a unique system of organization, with regional subdivision of labor and standardization of products and implements.39

The earliest centers of cotton production in northern Italy were Milan, Piacenza, Pavia, and Cremona. In the thirteenth century the industry spread to other cities via organized migrations of skilled workers, who brought their techniques in return for tools, rent-free shops, interest-free loans, and rights of citizenship. The cities monopolized the most advanced processes, such as beating, weaving, stretching, dyeing, and finishing, which required full-time labor of professional craftsmen, leaving to part-time rural workers the less demanding procedures of spinning, warping, bleaching, and fulling.40

The spinning wheel met none of the resistance in cotton manufacture that it faced in the wool industry, since its use did not affect the evenness and fineness of the thread but rather contributed to its uniformity. Increasing the speed of yarn-making threefold, the spinning wheel made it possible to turn out large quantities of cotton thread of standardized weight, and, as an end product, cloth based on warp and weft threads of prescribed weight and quality.

Cotton looms were of standard dimensions, as were loom reeds or beaters—combs used to form the weft threads into a straight line and keep the warp threads evenly spaced. The vertical warper used in the wool industry also aided in the standardization of cotton, permitting the production of warp threads of fixed length, number, and weight, which were sold in skeins or sacks in the cities of northern Italy and could be mounted on any of the standard looms.41

The bulk of cotton cloth production was of light- to medium-weight cloth for undergarments, bedding, and summer clothing, competing with coarse linen. Linen was more durable but harder to care for and lacked some of cotton’s visual and tactile qualities. For clothing and blankets, flannelettes and quilted cottons competed with cheap woolens. The Italian industry never produced the luxury cotton cloths of Islam—printed designs, tapestry weaves, brocades—but concentrated on production for the mass market.42

Some cotton cloth was simply bleached, but much was dyed, using special techniques developed in northern Italy. In the late Middle Ages a fashion change brought a demand for darker tones. Where white had long been the traditional color for mourning in the Mediterranean countries, in the fourteenth century black supplanted it in Spain and Portugal, at first for the court and the nobility but soon for all classes. The fashion spread to other countries, and later dark colors became popular for all kinds of clothing.43

Until the late thirteenth century, blue dyes were produced entirely from woad, native to Europe. Indigo, made from an Indian plant, produced a more brilliant and concentrated color, but the insoluble form in which the Indians exported it baffled European dyers, although painters successfully used it as a pigment. The problem was solved by the dyers of Venice with the help of Marco Polo, whose book contained a description of the method of preparing indigo that he had observed firsthand in India.44

A new style stimulated by the production of cotton cloth was the short, quilted, tight-fitting jacket or doublet introduced in Italy in the twelfth century as a garment for both sexes and spreading throughout the Continent and to England in the thirteenth. At first worn under a loose-fitting tunic, in the fourteenth century it became an outer garment, censured by the clergy for its briefness and tight fit. Cotton was also used for accessories, such as coifs, veils, wimples, handkerchiefs, purses, and linings, and, to meet another fashion dictate, stomachers, pads used to emphasize the female abdomen.45

The shipping of raw cotton, lightweight and bulky, presented a special problem. In the early fourteenth century, a method was invented for packing it more tightly—“cotton screwing,” using a press or screw jack to cram as many sacks as possible into the ship’s hold. The danger of weakening the ship’s timbers led to regulations by the Venetian government limiting the proportion of cotton that could be packed into a vessel. Cotton shippers were able to offer lower freight rates to heavy accompanying cargoes, such as wood ash, salt, lead, and alum, and a system of differential rates was developed to balance loads, with lightweight commodities such as cotton paying double the rate of spices and four times that of heavy goods needed for ballast.46

One fashion change had repercussions in an entirely different industry. The popularization of the linen shirt and undergarments provided a bonanza of raw material for paper manufacture. The West acquired the complete papermaking process from China but, lacking the bark of the paper mulberry tree, used rags, especially linen. As linen’s production and uses widened, more discarded rags became available, and as paper production rose, price declined and market expanded.

Manufacture was a two-stage process. In the first, rags were torn up by a rag cutter, soaked in a “rotting room,” shredded, and beaten in troughs with spiked mallets.47 In the second, the pulp was transferred to a vat of warm water, stirred, and immersed in a rectangular mold with a wire latticework bottom. Lifted out with a shaking motion, the layers of pulp were arranged in a pile, with felt separating the sheets, and the water was squeezed out. The sheets were hung to dry, then rubbed smooth with a stone, and finally plunged into a vat of sizing composed of gelatin and alum.48

Paper had been sized in China as early as the third century A.D., with the addition of gum or glue and later starch to prevent the ink from running. Writing with pen instead of brush demanded a stiffer sizing, introduced by paper manufacturers in Baghdad as the product migrated westward. Waterpower, also first applied in Baghdad, migrated west to Damascus by 1000 and by 1151 was used in mills in Moorish Spain.49 The first paper mills in Christian Europe to apply it were in Fabriano, Italy, in 1276, where the watermark was pioneered six years later.50 From Italy the process spread to France and Germany and, by the fifteenth century, to the Netherlands and England.

While in China paper found a variety of applications, in Europe its primary role from the first was as writing material. Book production had moved out of the monasteries in the twelfth century as commercial stationers began serving the university faculties and the mendicant orders, employing copyists (often former clergy) on a putting-out basis.51 As the price of paper fell, the scribe became the largest cost factor in the production of books. Thus the advent of a mass-production writing material, in the context of an information-hungry world, supplied a powerful stimulus to the invention of a mass-production copying technique.

The expansion of the textile industry had yet another far-reaching effect as new forms of mercantile enterprise evolved among the Italian firms engaged in it. Temporary partnerships and joint stock companies had long been used in Italy to spread the risks of overseas trading. Instead of entrusting all his venture capital to a single ship, a merchant could put it into a joint company that divided the risks among several ships. The new compagnia (company) that came into prominence in the thirteenth century, however, was more than a temporary arrangement. At first a family partnership of father and sons, or brothers, people who lived in the same house and broke bread together (whence the term cum pane, with bread), all the partners contributed capital and all participated in management. Each accepted responsibility to third parties for debts contracted by the others, and all shared in the profits. In time the company came to include outsiders, but control remained with the family.52

The arrangement made it possible for merchants to stay at home while maintaining permanent branches, manned by “factors,” in the great commercial centers: Bruges, Paris, London, Avignon (location of the papal court through most of the fourteenth century), in other Italian cities, and in Constantinople: A courier service between company headquarters and branch offices developed in the second half of the fourteenth century into the scarsella, a postal combine with regular weekly departures from Florence to Avignon by way of Genoa. The scarsella delivered the letters of its own members first, then several hours later letters of the general public, in other words, those of business competitors.53

Primarily dealers in wool cloth, the great companies also sold silks from Persia and China, pearls from the Persian Gulf and Ceylon, tin from Cornwall, Polish and Scandinavian copper (imported via Bruges), lead from Sardinia, and armor from Milan and Germany.

The complexity of their operations demanded new methods of record keeping. Special records were kept for foreign customers, for dyeing and finishing establishments, for associates, petty cash, and inventories of stocks and equipment. Daily receipts and expenses were entered in a rough copybook, eventually to be transferred to a more systematic “great book.” The company also kept a “secret book,” containing the private accounts of partners and staff, their deeds of partnership, and the details of each partner’s share.54

In the earliest surviving Italian account book, dating from 1211, memoranda were arranged in chronological order, with no separation of debit and credit. A little later, debits were entered in one part of the book and credits in another. Still later, the debits and credits of each account were presented on facing pages, a system known as “Venetian style.” The evolution culminated in either Florence or Genoa sometime before 1340 in double-entry bookkeeping, in which each transaction was analyzed in terms of its effect on the assets on the one hand and the liabilities and owner’s equity on the other. Every purchase and sale was entered twice. A purchase of cloth might be entered on the left-hand (debit) side of the ledger as an acquired asset and on the right-hand (credit) side as an expenditure of cash, a liability. The two sides of the ledger were always in balance (equal). At any point, subtracting liabilities from assets determined the owner’s equity, allowing a company to keep day-to-day track of its fortunes.55

The evolution of bookkeeping can be traced in the extensive surviving records of the great Prato merchant Francesco Datini, from his early business dealings in Avignon in the 1350s to his death in 1410. Inscribed on the first page with a formula such as “In the name of God and of profit,” or “In the name of the Holy Trinity and of all the Saints and Angels of Paradise,” the Datini books at first were divided into sections for debits and for credits, containing in addition the novelty of the “impersonal account,” representing such elements as office or administrative expenses. Losses and profits were recorded in some detail: “Here will be entered, God forbid, losses incurred on merchandise: 2 loads of wax, which Francesco di Boncorso bought for us at Genoa as shown on page 342. 2 florins, 7s. 6d.” “Profits on merchandise will be entered here, God grant us health and profits. Amen. For profits on leather and sugar sold…the account is on page 174. 12 florins, 12 s.” Later the accounts were drawn up Venetian style, and finally, from 1386 on, Datini’s company began to use double-entry bookkeeping. By 1400 all the Datini companies were using the system, which in the course of the following century spread through Italy and Flanders, though elsewhere in Europe it remained unknown.56

The international character of the great companies’ affairs led them inevitably into banking. The “bill of exchange,” developed in the fourteenth century, was at once a way of supplying money to someone in another country and another currency and, like the old cambium contract, a form of loan in which the interest was concealed in the rate of exchange, thus evading the Church’s condemnation of usury. In addition to issuing and accepting bills of exchange, for which they exacted a commission, the Datini company offered banking services that included letters of credit, loans to merchants, and many services to businessmen. Primitive examples of checks have been found in the Datini archives, although this instrument did not come into general use until the sixteenth century, money being usually withdrawn or transferred by verbal order in the presence of the parties involved. Bankers and money changers often had accounts with each other in a kind of forerunner of the modern clearinghouse, making it possible to transfer credit from one person to another even when accounts were in different banks.57

In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, some of the Italian banking companies became involved in public finance in England, with disastrous results. Backing Edward I in his conquest of Wales, the Riccardi company of Lucca was driven into bankruptcy. Several Florentine companies, financing Edward II’s expenses, Edward III’s wars with Scotland, and the first battles of the Hundred Years War, found themselves facing a similar fate. When their problems were aggravated by heavy loans exacted by the Florentine government to pay for its own wars, the companies were provoked to conspire in a coup d’état, whose failure was followed by a series of resounding bankruptcies. The lesson was taken to heart. In the following century, when bankers provided credit to governments, they made sure to attach adequate safeguards and were rewarded with suitable profits.

The Medieval City

In the prosperous thirteenth century, European cities began for the first time to rival in size and importance those of the classical world and contemporary Asia. Paris, London, Ghent, Bruges, Cologne, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, and others now sheltered behind their battlemented walls large and growing populations of craftsmen and merchants living lives free from feudal subjection, if not from modern tax oppression. It has been calculated that in 1380 half the population of Flanders and neighboring Brabant dwelt in cities.

In contrast with that of a late Roman or early medieval administrative center, the life of a thirteenth-century commercial and industrial city was full of activity: craftsmen working, merchants trafficking, wagons creaking, all the noise, bustle, and vitality of urban life. Its consumption was satisfied by a busy transport system, its exports and imports were underwritten by sophisticated credit arrangements, its many needs so successfully satisfied that one modern historian asserts that “few significant refinements were added” until recent times.58

That is not to say that no further “refinements” were needed. The high population density was met in part by houses sharing party walls and subdivided into small apartments.59 Inevitably, problems of waste disposal and pollution arose. Tanners and butchers discarded entrails, blood, and hair in the streets; animals dropped manure; pigs, dogs, and rats raided garbage; open ditches served as sewers for storm water and wastewater; privies and cesspits occupied backyards. Traffic—horse, cart, pedestrian, and animal—crowded the streets, piling up at the gates where tolls were collected. Collisions provoked a stream of lawsuits.60 Heating and cooking, as well as industry, added smoke to the atmosphere. The smoke was almost entirely from wood and charcoal, whose fires had two other drawbacks: in combination with timber framing and thatched roofs, they created a citywide fire hazard, and they depleted the neighboring forest. Charcoal was especially wasteful of medieval man’s best resource; while it gave more heat, essential in most industrial processes, its preparation burned up several times its weight in wood. Yet even where superior heating capacity was not needed, charcoal was often used because its lightness made it more transportable. Home heating was in any case extremely inefficient owing to the lack of window glass or insulation.61

Coal was known in Europe at least by the thirteenth century but was sparingly used out of fear of the toxic nature of its fumes. In England it was first gathered from outcroppings washed ashore on the northeast coast and was known as “sea coal,” a name that stuck even later when it was mined inland.62


Paving, from the fifteenth-century Chroniques de Hainaut. [Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. 9242, f. 48v.]

By the late Middle Ages, strenuous efforts to alleviate some of the problems were being made by city authorities, rich and influential men who unlike their modern descendants lived in the city themselves and had a direct interest in the environmental quality. Two keys to urban sanitation were street paving and storm sewers, both of which were known to Rome and a few other ancient cities. Moorish Cordova paved its principal streets in the ninth century, but Paris and the largest Italian cities followed only in the late twelfth and thirteenth. Paving was indispensable for street cleaning, but besides being expensive to install, it needed endless upkeep. Cobblestone or brick surfaces had to be repaired and replaced under the pounding of heavy cart wheels that were either iron shod or, worse, wooden but studded with nails. Street repair was often done directly over the old broken surface, causing a rise in street level.63

Paris dug the first storm sewer in the fifteenth century and was copied by a few other cities, but at the end of the Middle Ages most towns still depended on open ditches that flooded in heavy storms. Systems designed to handle domestic sewage and industrial waste awaited the nineteenth century, when London pioneered a combined system. Meanwhile cities were still pocked with private cesspits, periodically emptied at “an understandably high cost” (Christopher Dyer).64 Archaeologists found one medieval London latrine to contain a thousand gallons of ordure. Bylaws and building regulations sought to control maintenance and cleaning of the pits.

City water supply nearly always depended on local sources: wells, springs, and rivers. Professional water carriers assisted distribution from the fountain in the town square or the public well, served by bucket and windlass or bucket and counter-weight. Better-off households had their own wells or cisterns, for which the proximity of cesspools and latrines posed chronic pollution problems and contributed to epidemics.65


Water system at Canterbury. Water was carried by underground pipes from the piscina, or pool (upper left), to the infirmary just below it, the bathhouse (below the infirmary), the kitchen and refectory (right center), and the mill (bottom), before serving thenecessarium, or latrine (center). [Trinity College, Cambridge, Canterbury Psalter, Ms. R 17, 1, f. 258.]

Running water and domestic plumbing were not unknown in the Middle Ages but were limited mainly to monastic precincts, such as the cathedral priory at Canterbury, where water was carried by underground pipes to the infirmary, the refectory, the kitchen, the bathhouse, and the prior’s chambers. After use, the wastewater ran off by a drain that flushed the “necessarium” (latrine). At Clairvaux, similarly, as described by St. Bernard’s biographer, water was first channeled into a series of industrial applications—grinding the grain and shaking the flour sifter, filling the boiler for the monks’ beer, and operating the fulling and tanning machinery; then divided into several branches for cooking, washing, watering, rotating, or grinding, “always offering its help and never refusing,” finally, “to earn full thanks and to leave nothing undone, it carries away the refuse and leaves all clean.”66

In some cities, garbage disposal was handled by public street-cleaning services, usually on Saturdays.67 Elsewhere, ordinances made householders responsible for their own rubbish, probably an ineffective solution. More successful was the regulating of certain occupations. Butchers were assigned waste-dumping sites or ordered to dump outside town. Tanners and dyers were usually restricted to the city’s outer limits. Results of all these measures were imperfect, but, according to Christopher Dyer, towns of the later Middle Ages were “less filthy” than they had been a few centuries earlier.68

Some cities delegated inspectors to tour the streets periodically, not to check on their cleanliness but to detect encroachments. Riding down a narrow street, an inspector carried a pole across his saddle; where he could not pass freely, the offending shop owner was fined and forced to retract his shop front.69

Public baths in the Roman style were common in thirteenth-century cities, with the wall fireplace finding a new function in heating water for bathing. When many baths were shut down in the fourteenth century, because of scandals arising from unisex bathing, the private bathtub took their place.70 Made of wood, it was susceptible to splintering, leading to the subsidiary invention of the bath mat, placed in, rather than next to, the tub.

A public service with a larger future that appeared in many cities by the fourteenth century was the municipal grammar school, which taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and even a little Latin to the sons and occasionally the daughters of merchants and artisans. The increasing literacy of the public widened the demand for books, now copied by professional scribes and marketed by professional booksellers.71

Crafts clustered in streets that were commonly named for them, though without benefit of street signs: Goldsmiths Street, Tanners Street, Shoemakers Street. Ground floors were devoted to shops, upper floors to living quarters. In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, four stout posts sufficed to frame the house, with horizontal members tenoned into mortises in the posts, to which the walls were secured by wooden pegs;72 in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such houses were gradually replaced by timber-framed buildings with stone foundations. The poorer the neighborhood the narrower the house: a street excavated in Winchester revealed a row of houses measuring fifteen by fifteen feet.73 Shops were essentially stalls, with fronts that opened for business by letting down a hinged section on which merchandise could be displayed. Windows were covered with oiled paper or parchment, or cloth coated with a compound of white wax and resin.74 The extent to which craftsmen (and craftswomen, wives typically assisting husbands) dominated the life of the city is indicated by data of the late thirteenth century showing that out of 50,000 inhabitants of Bologna no fewer than 36,000 were members of guilds or relatives of members.75

Cities were expensive to live in because of the need to import everything from outside, often including water to supplement fountain, well, or cistern, with a profit to the middleman added to the cost of transport. The larger the city the higher the cost of living. When the bishop of Bath and Wells moved to London in 1338, his household accounts showed prices rising by 33 to 100 percent. A pig that cost the bishop two shillings in Somerset cost him three in London, and the prices of candles, oats, and ale nearly doubled. Besides being more expensive, cities were less healthful than the countryside. Archaeologists report large numbers of intestinal parasites in the cesspits, while by the fifteenth century the endemic Black Death had come to be known as primarily an urban malady.76

Of all the medieval cities, those most clearly foreshadowing the future were the great cloth towns of Flanders and Italy, where in place of the many specialized crafts of the smaller cities the dominant textile industry created harsh class differences. The houses of the rich drapers like Jehan Boinebroke clustered in Europe’s first beau quartier residential districts, while the warrens of tenements that housed the families of the weavers formed the first proletarian slums.

The Gothic Engineer: Villard de Honnecourt

Dominating the skylines of cities across medieval Europe now rose what W. H. Auden calls the “Plainly Visible Churches: / Men camped like tourists under their tremendous shadows.”77 Nothing like the Christian cathedrals had ever been seen in cities before, yet they became at once familiar and even convenient additions, often used for secular purposes and even serving as cradle for the medieval mystery plays that grew into the modern Western theater.

The master mason who directed construction of these majestic and useful monuments came to be regarded with an esteem that belied his typically common origins. The most telling sign of his standing in the Christian community is the striking image in medieval art that depicted God as a master mason, holding scales, carpenter’s square, and compasses, the tools of his trade. Master masons themselves were typically represented wearing cap and gown, like university masters.78 The men who inspired such respect also inspired envy. Gervase, the monk who described the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral, admired William of Sens for his competence but could not forbear expressing some question about the hubris of such men. In the accident that disabled William, he noted that “no other person than himself was in the least injured. Against the master only was this vengeance of God or spite of the devil directed.” Jacques de Vitry, Paris preacher known for his biting social criticism, described the master mason on the job: “He orders his men about but rarely or never lends his own hand. Pointing his walking stick, he directs, ‘Cut here,’ or ‘Cut there’ [and is promptly obeyed].”79 Others echoed the stricture. Nicolas de Biard complained, “Masters of masons…do no labor, and yet they receive a higher fee” than the ordinary stonemasons.80


King confers with master mason. [From Matthew Paris, Life of Offa, British Library, Ms. Cotton Nero, D I, f. 23v.]

Such men did not limit their activities to cathedral building but directed construction of all types—cloth halls, warehouses, hospitals, markets, town walls, and castles. In their military roles they were commonly called engineers, or enginers, as in Hamlet’s reference to “the enginer hoist with his own petard [explosive device].”81

The names of hundreds of masters are known, along with those of many other cathedral workers—sculptors, carpenters, painters, lead workers, glaziers, draftsmen. Their signatures often remain inscribed on their work. Some, such as Pierre Montreuil, builder of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, were buried in their churches. But although we know their names, we know less than we could wish of their methods. They were not deficient in general education—not only could they read and write but they had some command of geometry and arithmetic. What they lacked was engineering theory, in place of which they employed their own experience, that of colleagues, and rule of thumb.82 Instead of the modern engineer’s blueprints, computer models, and other planning tools, they had the “tracing floor,” a smoothed area on which details of arches, piers, and windows could be drawn full size. They used sketches as well as written and oral communication, and guided their stonemasons at the quarry with molds—models in wood or plaster fashioned by a carpenter.83 A cord attached to a fixed point was used to mark out large arcs.84 To achieve precision in floor plans, they employed compasses and the L-shaped carpenter’s square, the latter often made from the thoroughly seasoned wood of used wine barrels.85 If the resulting cathedrals were intensely spiritual, they were also “intensely geometrical” (Arnold Pacey).86


Building the Tower of Babel, c. 1250: a treadwheel used to lift stone supplements hod carriers and stretcher bearers. [The Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 638, f. 3.]

While the stone was being prepared at the quarry, the timber falsework to support arches and vaults during construction was erected. Then began the heavy and exacting work of lifting the stones one by one into place by windlass-power hoist and the “Great Wheel,” powered by treadmill, mounted on the roof beams above the vault, where it sometimes remained permanently.87 As the structure rose skyward, scaffolding was built against it, usually in the shape of an inclined ramp supported on poles. Passageways (vices) and stairways were built into the fabric of many cathedrals, as at Chartres, providing stable enclosed access to construction points.


Building the Tower of Babel, c. 1430: crank-style windlass with flywheel is used to lift stone. In the foreground, masons work with compass, T-square, hammer, and chisel. [British Library, Bedford Hours, Ms. Add. 18850, f. 17v.]

In the earlier cathedrals nearly every detail of construction was personally supervised by the master mason. In the thirteenth century, as Jacques de Vitry’s description indicates, the master took on more of the character of general of an army, with subordinate officers and a labor force comparable in size to most real medieval armies. Master James of St. George, building Beaumaris Castle in the closing years of the thirteenth century, had under his orders a force of 400 masons, 2,000 laborers, 200 quarrymen, 30 smiths and carpenters, and operating equipment that included 100 carts; 60 wagons, and 30 boats to carry material to the building site.88 Sometimes tasks were subcontracted; at Windsor Castle in 1362–1368, John Martyn, John Welot, and Hugh Kympton all contracted to build vaults and the corresponding wall sections while the overall project remained under the direction of two masters, John de Sponlee and William Synford. Some famous masters engaged in more than one project at a time, requiring the employment of assistant masters at the sites.89


Masons use a windlass with radiating spokes, plumb lines, levels, axes, and adzes. [From Matthew Paris, Life of Offa, Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ms. 177, f. 60v.]

The master mason’s army was divided into two cohorts, one cutting stone at the quarry, the other erecting it at the site. Stone was cut with saw and bush hammer and given final shaping with mallet and chisel, to reduce to a minimum the weight to be transported. Volunteer labor, paid with indulgences, was sometimes enlisted for the transport, but horses with the collar harness were the main reliance. All the important labor, skilled and unskilled, was hired, the unskilled recruited locally, the skilled—masons, glaziers, lead workers—nearly all itinerant, in latter-day terminology “boomers,” who took their well-paid expertise from construction site to construction site, often crossing national boundaries.90


A page from Villard de Honnecourt’s sketchbook. The caption reads, “Here begins the method of representation as taught by the art of geometry, to facilitate work.” [From The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. by Theodore Bowie, Indiana University Press.]

Masters exchanged information, enriching each other’s practical backgrounds. At least one master composed a manual designed to supply such material to others. The large-format notebook of Villard de Honnecourt has survived (at least in great part) to provide data on Gothic engineering, including plans, elevations, sketches of building machinery, and other details. Villard was a mason from Picardy who composed his book while working and traveling to sites in Rheims, Chartres, Laon, Meaux, Lausanne, and even Hungary. The text is in French, but internal evidence shows that its author was also literate in Latin.91


Mechanical saw, top left; middle left, device that may have been a primitive escapement; right, screw jack. [From The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. by Theodore Bowie, Indiana University Press.]

The book’s purpose, as Villard explained it, was to teach his successors not only how to use wood and stone in construction but how to apply rules of geometry to portraiture and design. He used squares, triangles, and other figures to aid in drawing human beings and animals, in taking the elevation of a structure from the plan, in positioning a building optimally in a given space, and in calculating the height of a construction, the width of a stream, and the exact center of a site. Writing of what “the art of geometry commands and teaches,” Villard expressed “a philosophic conviction suggestive of Platonism” (Arnold Pacey).92 Many of the tricks Villard taught for transferring drawings from parchment to stone block, wall, or glassmaker’s table later became, under the influence of the masons’ guilds, trade secrets that guildsmen were forbidden to divulge to outsiders.93

Among sketches of hoisting machinery, treadmills, windlasses, and other devices available to the thirteenth-century master mason, Villard pictured a waterpowered saw, whose downstroke was effected by the turn of the waterwheel and which was returned to its original position by a spring in the form of a sapling bent back by the downstroke, the first representation of two motions applied automatically to a mechanism.94

Similar sapling springs were used to reverse the motion of a lathe, to which a refinement was added in the form of a foot treadle. A Chartres window shows a double-treadle lathe in which the strap passes through a pulley fastened to the ceiling.95Villard also depicted a screw jack, expressing astonishment at the power of this simple lifting device, with the implication that it was of recent provenance.


Pole lathe, fourteenth century.

The master mason’s rule-of-thumb methods led to many mistakes (as was still true of his nineteenth-century successors). Late in the construction of Chartres Cathedral, additional flying buttresses, copied from those at Notre Dame de Paris, were added. The highly sloped buttresses of Bourges Cathedral, built at the same time, probably also reflect the experience gained at Notre Dame with the effect of wind on tall structures.96 Competition in height akin to that in twentieth-century American skyscraper construction led to a record spire at Strasbourg of 468 feet, equivalent to the height of a modern forty-six-story building, but also to the collapse of the nave at Beauvais in 1284, which put a damper on the competition.

Metallurgy: The Waterpowered Blast Furnace

If the cathedral was the aesthetic marvel of the Middle Ages, a less prepossessing structure was, in the opinion of R. J. Forbes, “the greatest technical achievement” of the period.97 In the medieval invention of the blast furnace, the waterwheel once more played a central role.

The spread of waterpower from tributaries and small rivers to the larger rivers was made possible by the construction of dams and millraces, and was signaled in the documentary record by the marked increase after 1300 in laws and lawsuits involving navigation rights versus power rights.98 The vertical waterwheel acquired new accessories, such as the mechanical governor that helped grind the grain and sift the flour at Clairvaux and elsewhere: a square segment of the millstone axle acted as a cam, catching against a projection on the hopper, causing it to shake and discharge its flour. The faster the waterwheel turned, the faster the hopper shook.99

A number of new applications of waterpower appeared, including the important metallurgical function of wire drawing and the important mining function of water pumping, but the most momentous came in smelting iron ore in the new blast furnace. Time and place of origin of the furnace are obscure. The Chinese waterpowered blast furnace evidently migrated as far west as Persia, but how early is unknown, and further transmission is undocumented. The earliest known blast furnace in Europe has been excavated at Lapphytten, Sweden, and is believed to have operated before 1350.100

The old process of reducing iron ore to a spongy bloom and hammering it into wrought iron had been an obvious candidate for mechanization via the waterwheel and trip-hammer, a combination in wide use by the fourteenth century. The waterwheel was now enlisted to pump pairs of bellows several feet in diameter, mounted in tandem and blowing alternately through a common tuyere, increasing the draft and decisively raising the temperature in the furnace. The draft was also increased by the furnace’s new form. What had once been little more than a pit and a stubby chimney had gradually risen into a novel shape: a tall masonry structure square in plan, mounted over a crucible (firebox) built on a flat stone hearth. The chimney was made up of two vertical pieces, a short lower one shaped like an inverted truncated pyramid (resembling a grain mill hopper in profile), topped by a tall right-side-up truncated pyramid.101 The whole structure rose eighteen or twenty feet above ground, though the hearth within was no more than a foot square. By 1400 blast furnaces were operating (in addition to Sweden) in Styria (Austria), the Rhine valley, and the neighborhood of Liège (Belgium).102

The stronger blast of air in the new furnaces heated the ore to a point where carbon uptake became very rapid, producing an alloy of about 4 percent carbon and 96 percent iron. This metal had a much lower melting point than pure iron (about 1,100° C as against about 1,530° C), making possible the casting of molten iron. Almost at a stroke the blast furnace carried the ancient handicraft of iron making into the industrial age. Cast iron became the sought-after intermediate product of an entirely new two-stage process.

A waterpowered blast furnace could run continuously, for weeks or months at a time. The sand and clay containing the iron ore were mixed with a limestone flux to form the furnace’s charge, which was layered alternately with charcoal. As the mass heated, the sand, clay, and limestone formed a slag that floated on top of the heavier molten iron. The slag was removed periodically from an opening near the top of the furnace, the iron run off through another at the bottom.103 In early blast furnaces, the iron ran into a bed of sand to cool in successive batches, but the quantities that could be produced brought about an expansion of the sand bed into a system given a picturesque medieval nomenclature. Starting in a canal called the “runner,” the molten metal flowed into several large, shallow depressions. The image of the depressions reminded smiths of a sow with suckling pigs, and the term “pig iron” was born.

The cooled pig, weighing a couple of hundred pounds, was transported to a secondary furnace called a “finery,” a charcoal-fired hearth equipped with two air blasts, one to supply draft for the fire and another to play on the iron as it heated, its oxygen combining with the carbon in the metal and blowing off in smoke, leaving pure (wrought) iron. These air blasts were also soon powered by waterwheel and continued to be on into the nineteenth century, when no one could remember why the iron chunks were called pigs.104

The new system produced much more iron with much less labor, reducing cost and multiplying applications. It did not bring an immediate shift to the casting of iron implements. The smith continued to work at his forge, with either pig or bloomery iron, first shearing a piece of roughly the proper size with chisel and hammer, then reheating and hammering into shape as blade for sickle, scythe, ax, adze, or mattock, as fire tong, hinge, tip for spade, wool comb, axle part, or the universal cauldron, used for cooking, brewing, and bathing the baby.105


A product of the smith: the universal cauldron, used for cooking, brewing, and bathing the baby. [British Library, Ms. Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 28.)]

The fourteenth-century smith still commanded respect, but he had become less of a mysterious specialist in aristocratic arms and armor and more of a homely and familiar figure in the community, valued as a craftsman, but not always welcome as a neighbor. A contemporary poem entitled “A Complaint Against the Blacksmiths” gives a picture of the forge in the alliterative style of Piers Plowman:

The crooked codgers cry after: Coal! Coal!

And blow their bellows till their brains are all bursting.

Huff! Puff! says the one, Haff! Paff! says the other.

They spit and they sprawl and they tell many tales.

They gnaw and they gnash and they groan all together

And hold themselves hot with their hard hammers.

Of a bull’s hide are built their bellies’ aprons,

Their shanks are sheathed against flickering flames.

Heavy hammers they have that are hard to handle.

Stark strokes they strike on a stock of steel.106

In 1397 in London, smiths were being invited to leave neighborhoods because of “the great nuisance, noise, and alarm experienced in divers ways by neighbors around their dwellings.” A spin-off branch of the trade was found even more objectionable. The spurriers (spur makers) were reputed to “wander about all day without working,” getting drunk and “blow[ing] up their fires so vigorously” at night that they blazed, “to the great peril of themselves and the whole neighborhood.” In 1377 the neighbors of a London armorer named Stephen atte Fryth lodged a formal complaint against him, alleging that “the blows of the sledge-hammer when the great pieces of iron…are being wrought into…armor, shake the stone and earthen party walls of the plaintiffs’ house so that they are in danger of collapsing, and disturb the rest of the plaintiffs and their servants, day and night, and spoil the wine and ale in their cellar, and the stench of the smoke from the sea-coal used in the forge penetrates their hall and chambers.”107

“The Most Pernicious Arts”: Firearms from China

The blast furnace arrived in the West just as a new use for metal appeared, quite suddenly but with little fanfare: firearms. In China, gunpowder weapons had matured over some four centuries, from alchemists’ experiments with explosive mixtures to primitive guns embodying three basic features: a metal barrel, a dependable explosive, and a projectile efficiently fitted to the bore.

While the firearms evolution proceeded in China, Europe continued to tinker with the crossbow. The English longbow, actually Welsh in origin, played so conspicuous a role in the English victories of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) that debate over the rival merits of the two bows has continued into the twentieth century. Despite the longbow’s more rapid rate of fire, the decisive evidence in favor of the crossbow seems to be the failure of the longbow to diffuse on the Continent and the fact that, despite Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt (1415), the French won the Hundred Years War. In any case, it was the crossbow that was susceptible of technical improvement, which it received in two directions. The old wood, bone, and composition materials were replaced, from about 1370, by steel. The resulting bow had an extreme range of 400 to 450 yards and required a more powerful cocking mechanism, three different forms of which were invented. The “goat’s foot” was a long lever atop the stock, the cranequin a ratchet device moved by a horizontal crank, and the windlass a winch powered by a small double crank.108

More effective bows and greater availability of iron brought on a defensive reaction: a steady increase in the use of plate armor. The mature coat of mail, or hauberk, fashioned of interlinked iron rings, remained through the first half of the fourteenth century the fundamental protection of the torso, with plates added to cover arms and legs. The articulation needed to permit freedom of movement was achieved mainly through “lames,” overlapping leaves pinned by rivets fixed to one piece and sliding along a slot in its neighbor. By the fifteenth century the knight “in full armor” was a familiar battlefield sight.109

Other innovations were in the air. In 1335 Guido da Vigevano, royal physician and astrologer at the French court, proposed what amounted to history’s first tank, an armored wagon powered by a windmill mounted on top. In a more practical vein, Guido also suggested pontoon bridges and assault towers fabricated in small interchangeable sections that could be transported by pack animal and assembled in the field (his patron, Philip VI of France, was contemplating a Crusade). Guido’s treatise has been called (by Bertrand Gille) a milestone between the notebook of Villard de Honnecourt and the great engineering sketchbooks of the fifteenth century.110


Crossbow confronts longbow at the Battle of Crécy, 1346. From the Chroniques of Froissart. [Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms. 5187, f. 135v.]

Guido made no mention of firearms, which, however, had by this time made their unobtrusive entry on the stage. The first European mention of gunpowder occurs in 1268 in the writings of the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, in a passage that Joseph Needham believes to be a description of Chinese firecrackers:

We have an example of these things…in that children’s toy which is made in many parts of the world: i.e., a device no bigger than one’s thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpeter together with sulfur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder, so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment containing it, that we find the ear assaulted by a noise exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning. Especially if one is taken unawares, this terrible flash is very alarming. If an instrument of large size were used, no one could withstand the noise and blinding light, and if the instrument were made of solid material, the violence of the explosion would be much greater.111

How did Roger Bacon learn about Chinese fireworks? A possible explanation lies in the eastward journey of William of Rubruck a few years earlier. One of a number of European missionaries to visit China in the mid-thirteenth century, William was a fellow Franciscan and personal acquaintance of Roger. Needham speculates that William described Chinese firecrackers to his friend, or even brought some back with him as a curiosity.112

The employment of volatile mixtures in war had been familiar to both Europeans and Arabs ever since Greek fire was first used in the seventh century. By the same token, so was their discharge from a metal tube. But the use of such a mixture as a missile propellant was something new. Suddenly in the fourteenth century, niter, the sodium or potassium salt of nitric acid, also known as saltpeter, became the object of systematic collection from European barns, stables, and pigsties, to be mixed with sulfur and charcoal and ignited in metal tubes to propel missiles.

How this development came about remains a tantalizing mystery. Needham proposes three separate channels of communication from China: First, knowledge of gunpowder chemistry via missionaries like William of Rubruck or other European travelers. Second, knowledge arriving via the Arabs (a Spanish Muslim scientist referred to saltpeter as “Chinese snow”) of bombs, rockets, and a weapon called the fire-lance, a bamboo, wood, or metal tube that spouted a mixture of pellets, pottery shards, and toxic chemicals in a stream that lasted some minutes. Third, by about 1300, knowledge of metal-barreled guns, possibly conveyed overland through Russia. That the Chinese were making gun barrels as early as 1300 is known from archaeological finds.113


Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. [Bodleian Library, Ms. Bodl. 211, p. 5.]

Little that is conclusive can be adduced from the evidence. Except for the passage in Roger Bacon, no trace appears in either European or Islamic records of the kind of fumbling experimental steps by which China progressed to gunpowder weapons. Instead, a Florentine document of 1326 describes the city authorities’ acquisition of metal cannon and iron shot in language indicating that the items were by then commonplace.114 In light of the Florentine document, Carlo Cipolla believes the “invention” of cannon to go back to the late thirteenth century.115 The earliest documented use of cannon in Europe was by two German knights at the siege of Cividale in northern Italy in 1331. Edward III brought at least twenty guns and large quantities of sulfur and saltpeter to the siege of Calais in 1346.116 Noteworthy is the fact that whatever the history of diffusion from China, Europeans had at this point not only overtaken the Chinese in firearms but surpassed them, since guns large enough to call cannon had not yet been manufactured in China, where cannon first appeared in the anti-Mongol revolution of 1356–1368.117

In short, the priority of the invention of firearms is incontestably Chinese, and a high degree of probability exists, that most or all of the necessary knowledge was received by Europe from China. Yet some independent European contribution was involved, and Europe displayed an enthusiasm for the new weaponry that contrasts with Chinese indifference. Writing in the 1350s, Petrarch noted, “These instruments were a few years ago very rare…but now they are become as common and familiar as any other kind of arms. So quick and ingenious are the minds of men in learning the most pernicious arts.”118

Early European cannon were made of copper, brass, or bronze, but a technique was soon devised for using the cheaper iron produced by the blast furnace as a practical gun material: the smith welded a cylinder of iron rods around a clay core to form a barrel, which he strengthened by shrinking iron bands around it. The core was then dug out. Cannonballs were first made of lead or iron, then of cheaper stone, which the stonecutters fashioned with the aid of a “patron” or template of wood, parchment, or paper. But when it became possible to cast cannonballs of iron, stone lost its advantage in price. Iron balls may also have provided a better fit to gun bores. By 1418 the city of Ghent was ordering 7,200 cast-iron cannonballs.119 Gunpowder was mixed in the field by the cannoneers, who were usually the same smiths who fabricated the cannon. Opinion varied on the proportions of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon (charcoal), but medieval saltpeter content generally ran close to the 75 percent used for modern black powder.120Premature explosions were common.

The first European handguns, which appeared at the end of the fourteenth century, suffered from other deficiencies. The gunner heated a wire red-hot, then had to aim his weapon while inserting the hot wire into a touchhole on the top of the barrel. A two-man version was easier to use—one man balancing the gun on his shoulder like a World War II bazooka while his mate applied the wire—but accidents were frequent.


Cannon on shipboard, with gun ports, 1482. [Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 38, f. 157v.]

At the point when the first half of the Hundred Years War was terminated by a truce (1396), the new weapon had yet to prove its value. Despite greater range and accuracy and a more rapid rate of fire, it only slowly displaced the trebuchet (which threw a heavier missile). Unlike a trebuchet, a cannon could not be assembled in the field, nor was hauling it long distances easy. Two wagons in line provided a form of articulation, but the contraption often overturned. Arrived in the field, the gun had to be set up on a frame or trestle for firing, generally with mediocre effect.121 At the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, the Castilians employed sixteen “great bombards,” but the Portuguese, who had no cannon at all, won the battle.122

Early employment of gunpowder weapons at sea brought equally unimpressive results and turned up some fresh problems. Galleys, with their low freeboard, proved poor platforms for artillery, and on the decks and castles of deeper-hulled vessels cannon created top heaviness and instability in foul weather. The solution, a gun deck with gun ports pierced in the hull, was not found until the following century, when it introduced a whole new mode of naval warfare.

“A Wonderful Clock”

In the advance of Europe to the forefront of world technology, the emergence of the mechanical weight-driven clock in the second quarter of the fourteenth century has been widely regarded as a decisive moment. Donald Hill calls it “one of the main foundations for the development of machine technology in subsequent centuries,”123 and D. S. L. Cardwell describes it as “perhaps the greatest single human invention since the wheel.”124

At one time it was believed that the Western mechanical clock came into being in response to the monasteries’ need for better timekeeping devices to govern their system of canonical hours. But the clepsydra adequately satisfied monastic needs, and in the early evolution of the clock, timekeeping was actually a secondary consideration. In Europe, as previously in Asia, clockwork developed out of the demand for precision instruments to aid in tracking stars and planets. The demand came from the astrologers, whose science was by now an established part of medical practice. Two of the clock’s ancestors were the astrolabe, in its improved Islamic form, and the equatorium, another Muslim instrument, used to calculate positions of the planets on the basis of Ptolemy’s system. The earliest Western “clocks,” such as a famous one built by Richard of Wallingford in about 1320, have been described as “powered astronomical models,” “artificial universes,” and “pre-clocks.”125

Weights as driving mechanisms had long been known, and gearing was by now thoroughly familiar to Europe’s metal craftsmen. What was necessary to translate the gravitational pull into controlled motion was a means of governing the descent of the weight, whose natural tendency was to fall at an accelerating pace.126 The complex escapement of Su Sung, designed for a water-driven wheel, was never known in Europe. Villard de Honnecourt’s notebook contains a sketch in which the statue of an angel is made to point continuously toward the sun by a wheel whose spokes strike a taut rope stretched by two weights: an escapement, but one so crude (and crudely represented) that it has only slowly been recognized as such and probably had no influence on the invention of the true clockwork escapement.127

The fact that Latin and the western European languages had no special terms to distinguish mechanical from water clocks has helped to obscure the story for modern historians. Abbott Payson Usher collected twenty references to clocks dating from between 1284 and 1335, all of which upon investigation turned out to be water clocks.128 Both Dante’s Inferno (1308–1321) and the late-thirteenth-century Roman de la rose contain literary references over which debate remains inconclusive. The origin of the European escapement is almost surely lost forever, but consensus today places it in the second half of the thirteenth century,129 and its emergence in the historical record signals its provenance as northern Italy. Joseph Needham believes in the possibility of stimulus diffusion of the idea of an escapement in the form of travelers’ tales from China, but this hypothesis seems farfetched. As Carlo Cipolla says, “The Chinese escapement…had nothing in common with the European verge-and-foliot device.”130 What is certain is that the verge-and-foliot (or crown wheel and foliot) escapement is one of the most elegant solutions ever devised to a problem in mechanical engineering.


Verge-and-foliot escapement.

The essential parts of a verge-and-foliot escapement were the crown wheel, with triangular teeth set perpendicularly around its edge (like the points on a crown); the verge or rod, standing close to it, with two projections (pallets) perpendicular to each other, so placed as to engage with the crown wheel at its top and bottom; and the foliot, a crossbar balanced at the top of the verge, with weights at each end. As the weight-driven crown wheel turned, one of its teeth caught the upper pallet of the verge, which held it momentarily and then released it, giving a swing to the foliot with its weights. This caused the other pallet to engage the wheel, swinging the foliot in the opposite direction. Thus the wheel’s motion was alternately arrested by the two pallets of the verge, and as the foliot swung back and forth, the wheel turned a click at a time. To regulate the clock, the speed of the mechanism could be increased or decreased by moving the weights on the arms of the foliot. One of the insights of the unknown inventor was the fact that the top and bottom of a revolving wheel are moving in opposite directions.131

The first mechanical clocks were huge iron-framed mechanisms, fabricated by blacksmiths and installed in towers; St. Eustorgio in Milan had one as early as 1309. They had no face or hands and did not strike the hours, but merely sounded an alarm which alerted the ringer to pull the bell rope. In 1335 the first clock that struck automatically, to the astonished admiration of the citizens, was also erected in Milan, in the tower of the Visconti palace chapel. “There is a wonderful clock with a very large clapper,” wrote a contemporary, “which strikes a bell twenty-four times according to the twenty-four hours of the day and night, and thus at the first hour of the night gives one sound, at the second two strokes…and so distinguishes one hour from another which is of the greatest use to men of every degree.”132


L’Horloge de Sapience (The Clock of Wisdom), c. 1450. At left, a clock with an hour hand and twenty-four-hour face; an astrolabe hangs below it. The table on the right bears a clock that may be the first evidence of a spring-driven timekeeper. [Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, Ms. IV, III, f. 13v.]

The earliest known makers of real (timekeeping) mechanical clocks are Jacopo di Dondi and his son Giovanni. In 1344 Jacopo created a clock for the entrance tower of the Carrara palace at Padua, which besides automatically indicating “the intervals of four-and-twenty hours by day and night” showed the phases of the moon and other astronomical features. A clock built by Giovanni di Dondi for the castle of Pavia, installed in 1364, has been described as “a true mechanical clock,” equipped with weight drive, verge-and-foliot escapement, seven dials with gear wheels and linkages to show astronomical motions, a fully automated calendar showing the holy days, and, almost as an afterthought, a small dial for telling time.133

Once the verge-and-foliot escapement became known, blacksmiths in cities all over Europe began turning out clocks. By 1370 at least thirty had been installed, all with timekeeping an inconspicuous and only moderately successful function.134 The astronomical garnishment, on the other hand, quickly came to serve an aesthetic as well as a scientific function. The city clock became a source of civic pride, “a marvel, an ornament, a plaything…a part of the municipal adornment, more a prestige item than a utilitarian device” (Jacques Le Goff).135 The enormous clock built at Strasbourg in 1354 included a moving calendar; an astrolabe whose pointers indicated the movements of the sun, moon, and planets; a statue of the Virgin before whom every noontime the Magi bowed while the carillon played a tune; and, atop the whole, a large cock that opened its beak, crowed, and flapped its wings.136

The attention given by the clockmaking smiths to such ornate details may have detracted from that given to precision instrumentation. Most medieval clocks gained or lost many minutes in twenty-four hours. At first nobody cared very much. Contemporary requirements for accuracy were liberal. Though astronomers had by now subdivided the day’s hours into sixty-second minutes, a system borrowed from ancient Babylon, medieval people had long been accustomed to variable winter and summer hours, to fit the daylight available for work.

It was the new clocks, with their noisy officiousness, that gradually imposed the system of equal hours, causing people to begin timing activities that no one had thought of timing before. In the cloth-making towns of Flanders, the clocks struck the working hours of the textile workers. Forthwith, “the communal clock [became] an instrument of economic, social, and political domination wielded by the merchants who ran the commune” (Le Goff).137 In Paris in 1370, Charles V ordered all the bells of the city to keep time with the clock in the Palais-Royal as it rang the hours and quarter hours, regimenting the city into a uniform time frame. Uniform, but not notably reliable, as a Parisian verse observed:

L’horloge du palais

Elle vas comme il lui plait.138

(The palace clock/It goes as it pleases.) The uniformity was local rather than national. Each city set its own zero hour—sometimes noon, sometimes midnight, but more often sunrise or sunset, creating a confusion that continued to baffle travelers into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The first household clocks appeared shortly before 1400. In contrast to the big tower clocks made by blacksmiths, the smaller versions had faces, hour hands, and later minute hands, and were the work of goldsmiths and silversmiths.139

One of the most significant things about medieval clockwork is simply that these were the very first machines made entirely of metal; all preceding machinery had been mainly wooden. The metal smiths’ tradition of precision work, here established, lasted all the way into the eighteenth century, when it gave them a key role in fabricating and operating the textile machinery of the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, the mechanical clock, invented as an almost incidental component of a mechanism designed to serve the needs of the pseudoscience of astrology, rapidly acquired its own significance. Once people could time their activities, they subordinated them to time, working and living by the hour, in a new rhythm that continues to this day.

Wheels of Travel, Wheels of Commerce

As the Commercial Revolution increased the strain on road surfaces, it also heightened the influence of the merchants who paid the tolls and taxes. For the first time serious effort went into road maintenance. Old roads were repaired and new ones built, employing the established technique of cobbles or broken stone on a foundation of loose sand. Not as strong and rigid as the Roman road, the medieval road was easier to maintain and on the whole better suited to vehicular traffic. In some locations, mainly within cities, mortared paving blocks were used.140 All over northwest Europe the road paver became a familiar sight, in France and Flanders sitting on a four-legged stool and moving forward as he worked, in Germany sitting on a one-legged stool and moving backward.141

Where grades were excessive for wagons, as so often in Switzerland, standby draft animals were stationed to be added to teams as needed. In 1237 a new road and “daring bridges” (Robert Lopez) opened the St. Gothard Pass to pack animals. One narrow stone arch over the rapids of the Reuss was called the Pont Ecumant (Foaming Bridge) because of the spray that perpetually drenched drivers and animals. In the following century the Swiss opened the first Alpine road capable of accommodating wheeled traffic, over Monte Settimo.142

Elsewhere, the bridge-building boom of the eleventh and twelfth centuries peaked in the thirteenth.143 In the Ile-de-France, eight new bridges were built in the eleventh century, seventeen in the twelfth, and thirty-four in the thirteenth.144 As commerce furnished an ever larger element in the traffic, the towns increasingly assumed responsibility for bridge construction and maintenance. The old Roman concept of bridges as public works revived, together with the idea of financing them by taxation. St. Bénézet’s Pont d’Avignon passed from the aegis of the Bridge Brothers to that of the communal government. The tradition of private support did not die out, however. In the fifteenth century, donations were still being received, such as that following a disastrous flood of the Loire from “a person who had great love and affection for the bridge [at Orléans] and its rebuilding.”145

Some new construction techniques appeared. One of Villard de Honnecourt’s sketches shows a machine for sawing off the tops of bridge piles.146 The Roman cofferdam came back into use; saplings were driven into the riverbed to form an enclosure which was pumped out, and the piles driven for the pier foundation, with a core of rubble or stamped-down clay and masonry blocks laid on top. By this rough-and-ready method, several bridges of record-breaking length were built: the 54-meter (175-foot) single arch over the Allier at Vieille-Brioude, in southern France, built in the 1340s (and lasting until 1822)147 and in the 1370s the even longer arch over the Adda at Trezzo in northern Italy, at 72 meters (236 feet) the world’s longest single-arch span until the eighteenth century. The Karlsbrücke at Prague, begun by the Emperor Karl IV to bridge the broad Moldau, took forever to finish, owing to the Hussite wars and other interruptions, but when finally completed in 1503 it was, at nearly 600 meters (1,970 feet), the world’s longest stone-arch bridge.148


The caption reads: “By this means, one can cut off the tops of piles under water so as to set a pier on them.” [From The Notebook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. by Theodore Bowie, Indiana University Press.]

Regular contracts were now awarded to masons and to the carpenters who built the falsework to support the arches during construction. For some bridges, especially those near cities, periodic inspections were carried out by teams of masons, carpenters, and communal officials. Innovations in design were few, though a fine model of the segmental arch bridge appeared in Florence in 1345, in what came to be known as the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). Whether Taddeo Gaddi, its architect, was acquainted with the Pont-St.-Esprit in France is unknown; his segmental arch was a novelty in Italy. The reduction in scour effected by the narrower piers of the segmental form helped the bridge, crowded with shops, houses, and tourists, to survive Arno floods to the present day.

Far more numerous than the stone bridges were those built of timber, but few traces of these remain. Two survivors are the famous Kapellbrücke and Spreuerbrücke of Lucerne, Switzerland, known chiefly for their mural galleries but of technical importance for their partial truss construction. The truss design, based on the structural strength of the triangle, had a long history as a roof support but was only tardily exploited as a bridge form. The function of the picturesque roof and siding was to protect the structural members of the truss from alternations of wet and dry weather. The inclusion of a kind of truss in Villard de Honnecourt’s notebook, and of several variations in Andrea Palladio’s Treatise on Architecture of 1570, suggests that the form was widely used for short crossings. Villard also depicts a cantilever, a balanced structure usually employed in pairs to form a bridge. Long produced in stone in China and India, the cantilever was not adopted in Europe until the nineteenth century.149

While the total number of vehicles of all types multiplied on the roads, shifts took place in the proportions of the categories. Four-wheeled wagons, long outnumbered by two-wheeled carts, became much more common, while at the upper end of the social scale the first carriages offering a degree of comfort were introduced. Chariots branlants, or “rocking carriages,” were used by great nobles and ladies from at least the 1370s. Until then, in the words of Marjorie Boyer, “the chassis of a lady’s personal char was essentially no different from the chariot in which her baggage was transported,” the carriage body resting directly on the axles and transmitting every bump in the road to its occupants. The “rocking carriage,” employing chains hung from posts run transversely under the body, somewhat ameliorated the jolting. An illustration from a Zurich manuscript of the mid-fourteenth century shows what seems to be the longitudinal suspension of a carriage body from leather straps, but such carriages did not arrive in numbers in western Europe until the following century. Their origin was Hungary, where the town of Kocs (hence “coach,” coche, Kutsche) became famous for its lightweight, one-horse, leather-suspended passenger vehicles.150

Eventually wagons were also improved by suspension, although the change came only slowly, and to the end of the Middle Ages merchandise was damaged and the wagons themselves were jarred to pieces by the unrelieved shocks of ruts and potholes. Protection of merchandise from the weather, however, was effected by the longa caretta, twelfth-century ancestor of the Conestoga wagon.151

The advance to four-wheeled wagons was assisted by the movable forecarriage, which appeared before the end of the fourteenth century, greatly reducing the turning radius, but once more general adoption was slow.152 Wheels were provided with iron tires in the form of a number of small plates, clumsily nailed on. The technique of shrinking heated bands onto wheels was not invented until the sixteenth century.

Despite shortcomings, wagons were stronger and more durable, and animal harness more efficient than in previous centuries. For carriages, the breast harness was favored, in the shape of a long leather strap passing completely around the animal horizontally, forming a strap across the chest to pull against and a strap across the rump to hold back the weight when descending a hill.153

By the high Middle Ages, land transport was significantly cheaper. Wagons could carry goods twenty-two to thirty-five kilometers (fourteen to twenty-two miles) a day in level country, adding a transportation cost per eighty kilometers (fifty miles) traveled that for wool amounted to only about 1.5 percent, for grain about 15 percent.154 Pack animals, which still carried most of the freight, achieved even better speed.155 In the summer of 1375, William de Percelay carried sacks of silver pennies representing the arrears of the ransom of David, king of Scotland, from York to London at an average speed of fifty-five kilometers (thirty-eight miles) a day. Riding home empty-handed, William made better than sixty kilometers (forty-five miles) a day.156

William was traveling alone; noblemen, kings, and prelates, who might be expected to travel fastest, were handicapped by their retinues, for whom accommodations had to be found, and rarely did better than about thirty miles a day.157 More important for the Commercial Revolution was the improved speed of messengers carrying commodity and price information from the Champagne Fairs and other markets to home offices in Italy and, in the opposite direction, instructions to local agents.158

The slowest component of traffic was droves of animals. In May 1323 John the Barber set out from Long Sutton, near King’s Lynn, with 19 cows and a bull, 313 ewes, 192 hogs, 172 lambs, and a bellwether, on the 130-mile journey to Tadcaster, in Yorkshire, evidently to stock the royal manors there. He had to hire a shepherd and eight boys to assist him, as well as twelve local boys “to chase the said animals through the town of Boston,” a cavalcade that must have disturbed the townspeople no matter how well controlled. John covered twelve miles in the first two days, and a second twelve in one day, evidently more level going; the next eighteen miles took two days, and at the end of a week he had traveled fifty-six miles. At this point he picked up several hundred additional animals plus more boys and another shepherd. Six more days over a more direct road often used by drovers took him the remaining seventy-four miles, making his average for the whole arduous trip ten miles a day.159

In inland water transportation, conflicts between waterpower and navigation rights multiplied with the increasing traffic. One technological solution was the navigation weir, a small dam only partially blocking the waterway while maintaining stream depth. Its drawback, the obstacle to upstream traffic created by the strong constricted current, was dealt with by installing an animal-powered windlass to haul vessels past the dam. The Low Countries, where almost 85 percent of traffic moved on inland waterways, pioneered canal locks at Damme and elsewhere in the late fourteenth century, but early lock gates—double doors or vertical portcullis—had problems that awaited solution in the following century.160

Navigation: The Compass Matures

While better roads, bridges, and vehicles gradually speeded land transportation, Mediterranean shipping underwent a revolution in both technology and function beginning in the thirteenth century, doubling the number of voyages per year to Egypt and the Levant, and assuming the main burden of the trade between Italy and Flanders, heretofore carried overland via the Champagne Fairs.

Two important new types of ship contributed. The “Great Galley” introduced by the Venetian Arsenal was not a galley at all but a sailing ship that used oars for entering and leaving port.161 Its two, later three, masts were lateen rigged, with the large mainsail supplying most of the wind power. Its hold accommodated 150 tons, silks and spices on the northern trip, wool cloth or raw wool on the return.162

An even more useful north-to-south carrier was a new model of the northern cog, introduced into the Mediterranean about 1300.163 Earlier square-sailed northern ships had encountered a peculiar difficulty in the Mediterranean. The westerly wind that prevailed in the Strait of Gibraltar carried them in easily enough but virtually blocked their passage out again. Better rigging overcame that problem, and in the fourteenth century the sailing ability of the cog was given a basic improvement with the addition of a second (mizzen) mast equipped with a lateen sail.164 The new cog found special favor with the Genoese, who used it to carry alum, a color fixative, from the islands of Phocaea and Chios in the Aegean Sea direct to Flanders and England. While adhering to traditional carvel-skeletal construction, Genoese shipyards progressively increased the size of their hulls, by 1400 reaching cargo capacities of 600 tons, three times the size of the Hanseatic bulk carriers.165

The “castles,” fore- and stern-, that the northern cog had added in the eleventh century were gradually absorbed in Mediterranean shipbuilding into the lines of the hull and proved as effective against the pirates of the Mediterranean as against those of the Baltic. Used as a shelter for crew and for spare rigging, the forecastle became a permanent feature of sailing ships.

The old-fashioned galley and lateen-rigged sailing ship were not completely eclipsed, despite their higher costs owing to larger crews and smaller cargo capacity. The lateen sailer was especially valuable for cabotage (coastal tramping), where maneuverability was at a premium, while the galley continued to be favored by pilgrims, for whom, in the post-Crusading world, Venice was the leading port of embarkation. The galleys’ operating procedure of putting into port every night suited this class of medieval travelers, who in addition to improving their spiritual condition liked to make the most of the trip, dining and sleeping onshore and seeing the sights. On the round ships’ express voyage to Syria, passengers had to carry food for the whole trip and glimpsed famous cities only from afar. Fares were lower, but conditions were steerage as opposed to first class.166

The maturing of the compass as a navigation instrument took place in the Mediterranean, partly because this narrow but deep sea did not permit navigation by sounding and partly because its seafarers were the most sophisticated navigators and thus were able to supply important complementary devices. The first of these was the compass card, contributed by the sailors of Amalfi and based on the ancient Rosa Ventorum or “Rose of the Winds.” A circular card furnished with the thirty-two points of the compass and positioned directly beneath the free-swinging magnetized needle fixed on a dry pivot, it allowed the helmsman to read the ship’s course—in points, not degrees, since the thirty-two-point scale was incompatible with the 360 degrees of the astronomer’s circle.


Model of fourteenth-century Mediterranean sailing ship has new-style castles but old-fashioned steering oar. [Science Museum, London.]

The second auxiliary device was the “portolan” (port-finding) chart, the world’s first navigational chart. Experienced Italian sailors felt their way on repeat voyages by sailing from one island or headland to the next, setting their course by compass and estimating the distance traveled on each bearing. A natural advance was to compile sailing directions that described coastlines and specified bearings and distances between points so that skippers unfamiliar with a given shipping route could benefit. In the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, someone had an insight: such information could be represented geometrically with two large circles superimposed on the whole Mediterranean, one with a center just west of Sardinia, the other with a center on the Ionian coast north of Rhodes.167

Besides compass and charts, Mediterranean ships took to carrying hourglasses to aid in calculating ship speed and distance traveled. The astrolabe also made its appearance on board ship, again in the vanguard Mediterranean, where its value—determining latitude—was marginal.

Whether the new ship types or the new navigating techniques had more to do with the revolution in Mediterranean shipping operations that followed is a matter of scholarly controversy.168 Both contributed to a startling change: after millennia of sailing back and forth once a year, Italy to Egypt or Asia Minor, Italian fleets took to making two such voyages. Venetian ships departed in February and returned in May, left again about the first of August and returned before Christmas. The Genoese also ceased wintering in the East and came home in time to launch a second voyage. After 1280 Pisan records too show ships sailing in all seasons, including the dead of winter.169

With the difficulties of winter navigation overcome, its advantage became apparent: better prevailing winds. Ships departing from Egypt in the months from May to October faced almost steady northerly and northwesterly winds, forcing them to detour around Cyprus or Rhodes, whereas in late fall the wind shifted to easterly, favoring the return to Italy. The new large ships also encouraged the Italian venture into the North Sea. The first recorded commercial penetration there was made by Genoese galleys in 1277–78; sailing ships quickly followed, and by 1314 Venetian voyages to Flanders were safe and regular.170

In northern waters, the value of the compass was reduced by the shallowness of the Baltic and North Seas, which permitted navigation by lead and line. But for voyages into the broad and deep Atlantic, it was invaluable, and such voyages were becoming more common for adventurous fishermen. About 1330 William Beukelszoon pioneered the practice of gutting herring at sea, improving preservation and making possible much longer fishing expeditions.171

By the mid-fourteenth century, the new navigation and the new ship rigging were in general use in the northern and southern seas and in the Atlantic. In 1354 Pedro IV of Aragon ordered all his ships to carry charts. By this time too, trigonometry, developed in the universities, was being applied to navigation.172 The possibility now arose of global voyages, the unlimited exploration of all the fabled seven seas.

“The Investigation of Causes”: The Scientific Attitude

Around the year 1180, a Pisan merchant was appointed to the post of customs official, or consul, of the Pisan community in Bougia, Muslim North Africa. After settling there, he sent for his son Leonardo Fibonacci,* who was still “in his boyhood” (pueritas), to complete his education “with a view to future usefulness,” a commentary on the new attitude toward Islam developing among the European business class. In his new home, Leonardo made the discovery of Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Adelard of Bath’s translation of al-Khwarizmi had expounded the Hindu notation but only to a very limited circle even among the mathematically literate. Leonardo perceived its enormous potential value and in 1202 undertook its wider diffusion by writing what proved to be a seminal book in the history of mathematics and science, the Liber abaci (Book of the abacus). The book began: “The nine Indian figures are 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures and the sign 0, any number may be written, as is demonstrated below.”173

Many of the problems presented by Leonardo in the Liber abaci dealt with practical business matters, such as calculation of interest, margins of profit, percentages of alloys in coinage, and prices; others were recreational. Methods of solution were borrowed from the Hindus and the Arabs, with some refinements of Leonardo’s own. His main contribution to mathematics, beyond the introduction of the Hindu numerals, was in number theory. He is recognized today chiefly as the originator of the “Fibonacci sequence,” the first recursive number sequence (sequence in which the relation between two or more successive terms can be expressed by a formula) known in Europe.174

Leonardo’s greatest achievement in number theory, however, was in Diophantine algebra, a discipline named for a fourth-century Alexandrian mathematician. Leonardo’s algebra, like that of the Hindus, was rhetorical—expressed in words rather than symbols, with res (thing) for an unknown, quadratus numerus (square number) for x2, and cubus numerus (cube number) for x3. His problems, however, were accompanied by diagrams with letter labels representing the unknowns, usually a (alpha), b (beta), andg(gamma), prefiguring the modern x, y, and z. Signs to indicate operations did not appear until centuries after Leonardo’s death—the plus and minus signs in the fifteenth century, equals in the sixteenth, division in the seventeenth.175

For a time businessmen were wary of the new numerals, partly out of general conservatism, partly because it was felt that they could be more easily altered by the unscrupulous, and finally because they necessitated memorizing tables of multiplication and division. But by the late fourteenth century, Hindu numerals were displacing both Roman numerals and the calculating board in European commerce. They also found their way into the literature of everyday life, although Roman numerals lingered in many places. In advanced Italy, the Datini correspondence employs the Hindu numerals and only occasionally lapses into Roman, but in more backward England a century later the letters of the Paston family still use Roman, even in dates: “Wretyn…on the Frydaye next Seynt Symonds and Jude, anno E. iiii xix” (Written…on the Friday after St. Simon and Jude’s Day in the 19th year of Edward IV).176 Eventually the Roman figures were relegated to secondary status, in uses such as outlines and cornerstone inscriptions.

Most significant was the impact of the Hindu notation on science and mathematics. Charles Singer calls it “a major factor in the rise of science” in the Western world.177 The beginnings of Western trigonometry trace to the imposition of the methods of Euclid by Richard of Wallingford (c. 1292–1335) of Merton College, Oxford, on the “Toledan Tables” of the Arabic mathematician al-Zarqali.178 Mathematics was essential to the pursuit of the study of optics, one of the favored sciences of the universities, whose clerical intellectuals were inspired or justified by Biblical citations. “In God’s Scriptures,” wrote Roger Bacon, “nothing is so much enlarged upon as those things that pertain to the eye and vision.”179 The Oxford master most noted for his interest in “the metaphysics of light” was Roger Bacon’s mentor and one of the outstanding intellectuals of the thirteenth century, Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253), in his later years bishop of Lincoln. Grosseteste perceived light as the cause of motion and the principle of intelligibility in the universe and strove to answer questions such as how the sun produces heat and how the moon influences the tides.180 On the practical level, the invention of eyeglasses occurred in Italy sometime before 1292, facilitated by the glassmakers’ mastery of the art of making clear glass. The first glasses had convex lenses, improving vision for the farsighted. Concave lenses, for the nearsighted, did not arrive until the sixteenth century.

In the universities some of the new eyeglasses were focused on rediscovered Aristotle, of whose works two thousand manuscript copies survive from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.181 The other Greek “authorities” were likewise copied and recopied. The attraction of Greek knowledge lay in both quantity and form. “Arranged in neat compartments, it was presented in elegant, rational, and sophisticated fashion, and it contained an enormous amount of factual information about the natural world as well as highly developed methods of investigating that world” (Richard Dales).182 Investigating the world was a project with immense appeal. Much as they loved Aristotle, the university scholars did not hesitate to criticize him on the basis of what they learned from their own experience. “Natural science,” said Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), one of the luminaries of the University of Paris, “is not simply receiving what one is told, but the investigation of causes of natural phenomena.”183 In line with this attitude was the thirteenth-century introduction of dissection at Salerno, Bologna, and other medical schools.


Hugh of St. Cher wearing pince-nez spectacles. Detail of fresco by Tommaso da Modena, Chapter House of St. Niccola, Treviso. [Alinari.]


Albertus Magnus. Detail from fresco by Tommaso da Modena, Chapter House of St. Niccola, Treviso. [Alinari.]

In 1277 Albertus, his colleague Thomas Aquinas, and the rest of the Paris faculty received a shock in the condemnation by the bishop of Paris of a number of their teachings, including the daring one that God had no power to move the world with a rectilinear motion, the universe’s motion being invariably curved. But the masters soon found a way around the objection. God could do anything, granted, but under the agreement of “ordained power,” he produced the world and cosmos as they actually exist, in conditions that preclude straight-line motion.184

Despite this contretemps, the Church’s attitude toward scientific inquiry remained benign. Its opposition to the two great “false sciences” of alchemy and astrology was mild. In alchemy, it condemned the charlatanism often practiced on the gullible, such as that perpetrated on the priest in Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” victimized by a trickster who pretends to turn base metal into silver. The Church approved the study of “the transmutation of the metals, that is to say, the imperfect ones, in a true manner and not fraudulently.”185

In astrology—“applied astronomy,” in the apt phrase of Forbes and Dijksterhuis—the Church did not officially tolerate the casting of horoscopes, which seemed to conflict with the doctrine of free will, but the Paris intellectuals lent a cover of sanction to the popular pseudoscience by arguing (exactly as had Ptolemy a thousand years earlier) that the individual could evade his star-predicted fate by the proper conduct of his life.186 At Oxford, Robert Grosseteste first accepted planetary influences on human life—if the moon could affect the tides, why could not the planets influence human beings?—but later rejected it, first on the ground that current astronomical instruments were not precise enough to permit reliable judgments, and second because “the free choice of a rational mind is subject to nothing in nature, save only God—in short…it was bad science, and it was bad morality” (John F. Benton).187 Nevertheless, horoscopes continued to be cast based on the positions of the heavenly bodies at the hour of the subject’s birth.

As from early times, astrology played a role in medicine. The ancient Chinese emperors’ “pernoctation rota”—the sequence in which each month they slept with their different categories of spouses and concubines—had demanded accurate astronomical observations, in the interest of the imperial succession; similarly, in 1235 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II consulted his astrologer as to the optimum time for consummating his marriage to Isabella, sister of English king Henry III. Besides aidingrulers to produce suitable heirs, astrology had an everyday function for the physician. Chaucer describes his “Doctor of Physic”:

No one alive could talk as well as he did

On points of medicine and of surgery,

For being grounded in astronomy,

He watched his patient’s favorable star

And by his Natural Magic knew what are

The lucky hours and planetary degrees

For making charms and magic effigies.188

Astrological influences were sought to explain the Black Death and attempts made to predict future plagues on the basis of planetary conjunctions, credited with causing corruption of the air.189

The instruments of astrology, however, were used effectively for genuine astronomy. With the astrolabe, armillary sphere, and a few other simple tools, Guillaume de St. Cloud, a follower of Roger Bacon, founded the school of astronomy of the University of Paris, where one of his first accomplishments was the correct determination of the latitude of Paris (48° 50$$$), a demonstration that showed the potential of such instruments in navigation.190

Unlike his Greek and Roman forebears, the thirteenth-century intellectual included the “banausic arts” in his wide-ranging field of interest, as indicated by Roger Bacon’s description of his friend Pierre de Maricourt: “He knows by experience the laws of Nature, Medicine, and Alchemy…He has delved into the trade of the metal founders. He has learned everything concerning warfare, weaponry, and hunting [as well as] agriculture, surveying, and the work of the peasants…[and also] the procedures of the old witches, their spells…everything concerning magic, and also the tricks of the jugglers.”191 Maricourt (also known as Petrus Peregrinus—Peter the Pilgrim) was one of the most tireless pursuers of perpetual motion, a chimera imported from India that drew the efforts of many, including Villard de Honnecourt, who sketched a perpetual-motion device in his notebook. The still-unlocked mysteries of wind, tides, and rivers lent a plausibility to the will-o’-the-wisp that was pursued long after the Middle Ages. More usefully, Pierre de Maricourt studied magnetism intensively and wrote an important treatise on it.


Perpetual-motion machine sketched by Villard de Honnecourt. “Often have experts striven to make a wheel turn of its own accord,” reads the caption. “Here is a way to do it with an uneven number of mallets and with quicksilver.” [From The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ed. by Theodore Bowie, Indiana University Press.]

Roger Bacon’s own principal work was an ardent advocacy of the reform of the educational system to emphasize experimental science and mathematics. Even St. Francis of Assisi, the illustrious founder of the Franciscan Order, to which Bacon and Grosseteste belonged, was a contributor to the new scientific spirit. “It may be said…that St. Francis first taught Europe that nature is interesting and important in and of itself” (Lynn White).192

By the thirteenth century, speculative thought was no longer confined to the clerical intellectuals. Outstanding among a handful of prominent lay figures were two sovereigns, Alfonso the Learned of Castile (ruled 1252–1284) and Frederick II (ruled 1220–1250). Alfonso caused scientific complications to be drawn up and foundations laid for almanac and calendric calculations. Frederick’s scientific curiosity about the natural world and pursuit of its mysteries won him the nickname “Stupor Mundi,” or Wonder of the World. He studied chicken embryos, maintained a menagerie of exotic animals, caused Arabic scientific works to be translated, corresponded with Muslim potentates about mathematics and philosophy, and wrote a book on falconry, noting that “Aristotle has rarely or ever had experience in falconry, which we have loved and practiced all our lives.”193 In the 1220s he paid a visit to Leonardo Fibonacci in Pisa, setting the mathematician difficult problems whose solutions Leonardo included in two of his subsequent books. A prominent layman of the fourteenth century with a scientific bent was Geoffrey Chaucer, who in 1391 wrote a treatise, The Astrolabe, for his young son bound for Oxford.194

At the end of the thirteenth century, its most extraordinary literary and scientific project appeared, Marco Polo’s Description of the World, depicting to a wondering Europe the vast size and wealth of China. Unfortunately both for contemporary Europe and for scholars today, Marco skimped on descriptions of Chinese technological accomplishments, omitting mention, among other things, of the Great Wall. But the enormously popular book (over eighty fourteenth-and fifteenth-century manuscript copies, in several languages, survive) contributed to the growing dream of reaching Asia by a direct sea route. An attempt had already been made. In 1292 a pair of Genoese galleys rounded the Strait of Gibraltar southward and were never heard from again. Other Genoese mariners, in the service of Portugal and Spain, kept the idea alive; an interim reward was gathered in 1336 when the Canary Islands, the “Fortunate Isles” of the ancients, were rediscovered by a Portuguese expedition commanded by the Genoese captain Lancelotto Malocello.

But the location and shape of the southern tip of Africa remained speculative, and an alternative strategy for reaching the East—sailing west—was equally so. Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and their colleagues brought a renewed emphasis to the sphericity of the earth, never questioned but somewhat lost sight of in the Crusading age, which had popularized a kind of stylized map showing Jerusalem as the center of the world. Roger Bacon joined Marco Polo in exaggerating the breadth of Asia and underestimating the westward distance from Europe to China. His views were cited by Pierre d’Ailly (1350–1420), whose Imago mundi (Image of the world) was a principal source for Columbus’s calculations.195

With the earth’s sphericity taken for granted, fourteenth-century scholars began focusing on the question of motion. Jean Buridan (1300–1358) of the University of Paris showed that appearance of motion is relative and that whichever moved, the earth or the universe around it, appearances would be the same. Two ships, alone within sight of each other, with no other visible point of reference, could not tell which was moving. Buridan’s colleague Nicolas Oresme (c. 1325–1382) argued for the rotation of the earth on its axis to explain the diurnal motion of the heavens and resolved a paradox that argued against the theory: an arrow shot straight up in the air comes down in the same spot despite the earth’s movement beneath it. The arrow, Oresme explained, was moving laterally at the same speed as the earth before it left the bow and continued to do so while appending its perpendicular flight.

Once intellectuals began asking such questions and seeking answers, they were embarked on a path of speculation and experimentation down which lay much sharper collisions of science and faith, and also vistas of knowledge that the fourteenth century could hardly envision.

The tonsured, Latin-speaking clerical intellectuals of the Middle Ages bequeathed to the universities of the future the function of scientific research. Yet teaching was always their priority and, furthermore, teaching with a material value. Charles Haskins quotes a letter from a father to a son that sounds the note of a later day. Remarking that his proposed course of study for the priesthood would cost “a great deal of money,” the father tells the son that he would be “better advised” to take up physics or medicine or “another lucrative science.”196


The fourteenth century ended on a somber note, the Black Death paying one of its return visits to a Europe that had not yet recovered from its earlier devastations. Population, urban and rural, was still below its preplague level, the Hundred Years War smoldered in a precarious truce, and the Church was riven by the Great Schism, which enthroned rival popes in Rome and Avignon. Yet under the surface, and despite calamities both substantive and superficial, Europe had advanced to a point where it at last rivaled Asia as a center of civilization. In power sources, industrial organization, architecture, shipbuilding, and weaponry, it had absorbed its many borrowings and synthesized them with its own inventions to create a technical apparatus far beyond that of the ancient civilizations that gave it birth.

For better and for worse, modern nations and modern society were taking shape. European workers were laboring by the clock; European intellectuals were prying into the secrets of the universe. Technology had won a position of esteem altogether new. Personified by the master mason in the construction yard of the rising cathedral, the skills that Aristotle had disdained as too commonplace to be worthy of study were turning out to possess mysteries and promises to intrigue the most inquiring intellects.

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