Friday, November 5, 2010

The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (1)

There is surely no period of European history that is loaded down with more misconceptions than the medieval period. It is regularly dismissed as centuries of social stagnation, fearful of change, an intellectual desert.

The history of philosophy, for example, has for many decades been typically taught as modern philosophy starts with Descartes, there are the Classical philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics etc) but nothing of continuing intellectual significance occurred in the intervening over thousand years between Plotinus (or maybe Boethius) and Descartes (though Aquinas—and perhaps Maimonedes—might be conceded to be great philosophers).

In reality, the medieval period was one of considerable intellectual activity, particularly after the Aristotelian revival from the C12th onwards. One of the besetting problems of modern philosophy is that modern philosophers (from Descartes, Locke, Hume onwards) are having an argument with Aristotle and Aristotelian thought but either do not admit it or, worse, do not know it. Even when they are allegedly engaging with Aristotle and Aristotelian thought—as with the First Cause/Unmoved Mover argument for the existence of God—they often do not actually engage with the argument, from failing to understand it. The First Cause/Unmoved Mover argument is not, as it is usually characterised, an argument about some chain of causes within time (a misconstruing that generates the “what caused the first cause”? response) but an argument about the ground of causation across (indeed outside) time.

But a much worse myth is that of the medieval period as one of social stagnation, fearful of change. On the contrary, the medieval period was one of institutional innovation and technological dynamism. Yes, the collapse of literacy (and population) after the fall of the Western Roman Empire meant much loss of knowledge and skills. But that also led to casting around for new ways to do things to deal with the new circumstances (notably a shortage of people in general, a shortage of literacy skills in particular and serious public order issues).

Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages is an excellent corrective to misconceptions about medieval stagnation. For example:
from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries more stone was quarried in France than had been mined in the whole history of Ancient Egypt (where the Great Pyramid alone was built to a volume of 40,500,000 cubit feet) (p.59).
The population of medieval Europe peaked much higher than that of Roman and Germanic Europe, for example.

Not that is was notably a period of inventiveness as such. Much of this technological dynamism was adaptation of ideas they got from elsewhere, but a feature of medieval Europe was precisely its willingness to adapt ideas from anywhere. A very useful trait for a civilisation to develop: particularly when it later broke out (after Columbus and Vasco da Gama) and became the first civilisation to be in contact with all parts of the globe, and so the full range of available human ideas and techniques.

The Medieval Machine begins with a chronology of the Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, starting with:
536 or 537 floating mils (on the Tiber)
and concluding with:
c.1445 movable type
Six pages and nine centuries of technological innovation which begin 60 years after the official fall of Western Roman Empire with the deposition of the last Western Emperor in 476 and conclude about 45 years before Columbus crosses the Atlantic.

The book proper starts with “The Energy Resources of Europe and Their Development”, moves on to “The Agricultural Revolution”, then “Mining the Mineral Wealth of Europe”, “Environment and Pollution”, “Labour Conditions in Three Medieval Industries”, examines the life and work of “Villard de Honnecourt: Architect and Engineer”, then “The Mechanical Clock: The Key Machine”, “Reason, Mathematics and Experimental Science” before concluding with a final chapter and an epilogue.

A machine society
Gimpel begins boldly:
The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilisation had previously known. This was to be one of the main factors that led to the dominance of the Western hemisphere over the rest of the world (p.1).
The cogs and gears that had been in toys and curiosities in Classical antiquity became working, productive machinery in the medieval period. In other words, the medieval period was one where what economists would call ‘capital substitution’ occurred, substituting capital (machines) for labour.

What Gimpel wishes to convey to the modern reader is how pervasive machinery became in the medieval world. Particularly mills, which were used in:
grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper, and so on. They were the factories of the Middle Ages (Pp1-2).
Major assets and products of investment, meeting places, social centres, mills were a medieval archetype. Some of Richard Posner’s original work on economic analysis of the common law had to do with the law regarding mills, for example.
Mills had been developed in Roman times: but they were at least as often powered by slaves as by water power. Serfs were not slaves, however, and Dark Age Europe just did not have the available bonded labour for such purposes. So waterpower took over. Thus Belisarius’s engineers put mills on barges, to get around opponent’s attempts to cut off their water supply – hence the floating mills on the Tiber (Pp 6ff)

Monasteries, particularly Cistercian monasteries, were great spreaders of technology (Pp3ff). Which took off as slavery declined and disappeared, particularly from the middle of C9th (which is when the knightly order of labour-for-protection is getting underway and rapidly becoming a hereditary, thus long-term, deal). The number of water mills expanded spectacularly: one part of France had 14 mills mentioned in the C11th, 60 in the C12th and over 200 in the C14th. The Domesday Book records 5,624 water mills in England for a population estimated at about 1.4m: each water mill supplying an average of 50 households (Pp10ff).

Mills were a good investment, returning excellent rents from assets whose ownership and income were both generally well protected, hence the explosion in construction. The camshaft being the key invention that allowed this mechanisation of so many functions: a process that spread from grinding flour to many other functions from the end of the C10th onwards. Gimpel making the point that Chinese inventiveness did not result in social transformation in the same way that occurred in medieval Europe (Pp12ff). (Medieval Japan was a somewhat different matter: while Gimpel uses China as a comparison point, Japan does not figure in his text.)

The illustrative story of the mills and dams of La Bazacle, on the outskirts of Toulouse, traces the technological and institutional ingenuity of the medievals, the dams and mills being incorporated in a limited-liability company. By the time it was nationalised after 1945, the company had been operating for 8 centuries: likely the longest-running limited liability company in the world (Pp17ff).

In the C11th, medieval engineers began to harness wind power, apparently inventing the sail-using “post mill”—which turns in the wind—independently of the:
horizontal windmill (mounted on a vertical axis), which had been known to have existed from the seventh century onwards in the plateaus of Iran and Afghanistan (where the wind always blows from the one direction) (p.24).
The European version being designed to cope with variable wind direction: at the time of the Third Crusade, German engineers brought it to the Middle East. Mills were so lucrative, that there were many disputes over their construction (Pp25ff).

Innovating farming
The explosion in mill construction, interacting with the medieval warm period that Gimpel documents at some length (Gimpel published the first edition in 1976, before it became awkward to note the warmer weather of the medieval period), and much greater use of horsepower, kicked off something of an agricultural revolution. The horse collar was introduced into Europe from the steppes sometime in the C8th, allowing, for the first time, extensive use of horses in agriculture. The introduction of nailed horseshoes, also from the steppes, followed around the C10th. People then learnt how to hitch one horse behind the other, and European agriculture harnessing of horsepower really took off; Gimpel providing some very revealing statistics on the superiority of horses over oxen, mules, donkeys and men (Pp29ff).

Arguments over horses (which were more expensive to keep) against oxen were fought in various agricultural treatises that were published from the C13th onwards—such as the work of Walter of Henley, who thought the cost of horses outweighed their extra productivity. (The only thing the knightly class was apparently as interested in as reading about as tournament, war and related romances was estate management.) These treatises:
reveal a very modern approach to agricultural methods and economics. In general, they encouraged the adoption of experimental techniques and advised that a systematic effort be made to run the estates on a rational basis (p.38).
Moderns really should not be surprised by the pervasive practicality of the medieval period: if you made too many wrong decisions you, or people you were responsible for, starved. Yet, this harnessed practicality also generated enough security and surpluses for cautious experimentation to take place, while the competitive jurisdictions provided enough pressure for proven ideas and techniques to spread.

The slow spread of the three-field system from the C8th onwards, coupled with the introduction of the heavy-wheeled plough, greatly expanded the productive possibilities, with crop yields increasingly dramatically from the C11th to C13th (Pp39ff).

Manure was a prized product, being used assiduously to increase farm productivity. Sheep were prized for both manure and, especially, wool. In their attempt to flee the worldly life of cities and manor, the Cistercians cleared new lands and created a highly productive (and economically innovative) network of monasteries. Including vineyards and the production of wine (Pp44ff).

Medieval diets were often quite good, including from increased use of legumes—Gimpel quotes one historian famously describing the Middle Ages from the C10th onwards as “full of beans”: the three-field system encouraging more planting of vegetables. Gimpel goes into some detail into the available data on medieval diets (Pp51ff).

After the disappearance of the plague from Europe in the C7th, the decline of Norse and other excursions, and the settling in of the knightly system, the population of Europe shot up—even Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade alluded to Latin Christendom being too small an area for the expanding population. The increase was particularly marked in England and France, with the Kingdom of France having perhaps a third of the population of all of Europe (Pp56ff).

The medievals were avid and extensive quarriers of stone and miners of metals. Water-powered stamping mills increased throughput of ore while water-powered bellows permitted much higher temperatures in furnaces. England and Central Europe were the main sources of metal (Pp59ff).

Factories, particularly water-powered factories, created pollution issues, while burgeoning populations cleared forests for both farming land and heating. Coal began to be burnt, with London first reporting atmospheric pollution problems in the 1280s. Regulation attempted to abate some of the worst nuisance, to limited effect (Pp75ff).

Dirt and prosperity encouraged the growth of public baths—Paris had no less than 32. Concern about sexual permissiveness put the public baths under increasing pressure, until they died out, with adverse effects on hygiene, which did not recover for many centuries (Pp91-2). That C13th Europe was more hygiene-conscious than C18th Europe is not exactly a modern expectation: but neither is that women in C9th England had greater social possibilities—and better property and other legal rights—than in C18th England.

Skills in demand
Gimpel then examines labour conditions in mining, textile and construction industries. Miners did well—being treated as free workers with status and privileges—urban textile workers, not so much—they were controlled urban proletariat with little say or rights. Construction workers—particularly masons—were much more like the miners. The Black Death killed people but not land, capital etc, so increased wages, particularly skilled wages, as labour became scarcer compared to capital. Comparing wages with food prices, Gimpel estimates that masons in the C14th—prior to the wage rises after the Black Death—had real incomes about twice that of masons in the C17th (Pp93ff).

At the peak of the construction industry were the architect-engineers, whose skills were eagerly sought after and well rewarded. They built castles, bridges, palaces and, especially, cathedrals. The heights reached by the medieval cathedrals were extraordinary—the record was reached by Strasbourg cathedral at 466 feet, the height of a forty-story building—being beaten only by iron and steel construction in the late C19th and C20th. There was a certain amount of trial and error involved—the collapse of the 156 feet high (the equivalent of 14 stories) vault of Beauvois cathedral in 1284 put a bit of a damper on the ever-upward enthusiasm (Pp114ff).

Gimpel uses the relatively well-documented life of Villard de Honnecourt (born around 1200, professionally active from about 1225-1250) to take us through the social milieu and activists of these much-admired architect-engineers. He conveys the restless energy, the interest in what works, of folk such as Villard very well:
It is probably through the Islamic world that western Europe got involved in perpetual motion, but with the difference that Europe, given its interest in mechanization, would try to use perpetual motion as a practical source of energy (p.129).
Villard’s writings are full of proposed machines, geometrical techniques and application of geometry to the study of nature and natural forms. Gimpel notes the similarity between the interests and education of Villard with Leonardo da Vinci. It was, in fact, very medieval to portray God the Creator as architect-engineer, measuring the universe (Pp130ff). (In contradiction to yet another misconception about medieval ignorance, the flat-earth myth.)

But it is the mechanical clock that Gimpel uses to zero in on the distinctive-machine mindedness of the medieval Europeans:
The men of the Middle Ages were so mechanically-minded they could believe that angels were in charge of the mechanisms of the universe: a fourteenth-century Provencal manuscript depicts two winged angels operating the revolving machine of the sky (p.147).

This review will be concluded in my next post.


  1. After this, can a put in a request? A write-up/review of something detailed about Anglo-Saxon England. I'm familiar with the language (typical me, I did languages, not history), but would love to know more about the Anglo-Saxons generally, and I'm quite shameless about using other people who know more than me to go foraging on my behalf!

    There is a real loss of rights for women when the Christians take over Roman law (Bukowski is excellent on this), but how was the same thing done to the Saxons? Was it the Norman Conquest? The Saxons were Christians too...

    And just on this review, high wages for technical skills (your masons) is strongly linked to industrialisation. What stopped the most advanced of the medievals from industrialising? With the Romans we know it was slavery. Was it hostility to debt financing?

  2. On the Anglo-Saxons and women, I do not have a suitable high-brow text, but I will do a review of an excellent middle-brown text (Danziger and Lacy's The Year 1000). The short answer, though, is it was the Normans, because (as I understand it) they brought the origins of coverture marriage to England.

    Regarding industrialising, it certainly was not a hostility to debt financing: the medievals became quite sophisticated about it. (The Serene Republic invented deficit financing, for example.) Venice in 1330 had more sophisticated capital markets than Qing China in 1830.

    I suspect there was just not quite enough pressure to take the next step with not quite enough depth of skills. It was having mining of coal, plus extensive craftmanship and metallurgy, plus the need to go deeper in mines that led to Watt doing--and being able to do--his steam engine.

  3. Fascinating stuff Lorenzo.

    People are still largely kept in "the Dark" (boom! boom!) about this period in western Europe. As you say, it was far more dynamic than we are led to believe. One thing that shocked me was that the Iberian peninsular had been reconquered from the Muslims 300 years before the date the Muslims bemoan the "fall of al-Andalus" in 1492.

    Long before 1492, Toledo was recaptured in 1085. When Cordoba and Seville fell in 1240(?), it was all over for the Muslims.

    And SL, what a sensational exam question for undergrad history class!

    What stopped the most advanced of the medievals from industrialising? With the Romans we know it was slavery. Was it hostility to debt financing?

    Or even the first question alone. While there a tonne of possible answers, one I like in particular is what I call "environmental serendipity". Basically, the transmission of plauge from Mongolia. As you know it ultimately wiped out an entire ONE THIRD of Europe's population. Now, that is momentous. And the landowning classes - particularly urban-based land rentiers - were affected much more than the serfs. The resulting vast spaces of ownerless land (they were dead) were seized by the former landless serfs. A large increase in the proportion of people owning land -> political muscle -> agitation for stronger property protections and political power vis-a-vis the King...........

  4. Thank you for this most insightful blog! I guess historians would rather not have us know too much, how the Church and the Romans and the Greeks did not approve of engineers with lofty ideas.....unlike Atlantis. Since ancient times science was repressed; the wise men of old knew where it would lead.
    Jules Verne tried to warn people about the evils of technology in a few of his stories which he was unable to publish till after his publisher died. It wasn't that he could simply see into the future; he could see the perils that lay ahead. For years his publisher edited his work, scolding him for anything anti-machine, insisting it would ruin his career. But Vern was psychic; he knew; he could see.
    Machines do more than wreck the environment; they deprive people of honest jobs. And I don't mean steam or gas engines necessarily. Hand-driven wine presses for example were frowned upon. One man turning a crank could power a number of presses at the same time thus deleting the need for a vast array of workers. Traditionally farm wives were hired to stomp on grapes. The argument is obvious, but benevolent nobles did not wish to hear it.
    The gap between rich and poor widened partly because of the peculiar language barrier: Latin. It was the language of not just the religious but the rich, the influential and the universities. All texts, including scientific texts were written in Latin, the mysterious, magical language of the Catholic Mass. The first mad scientists were teaching priests and monks with their command of Latin who became so obsessed that by the 1200s they started allowing secular science to be taught in the universities. Formal science before then was a guarded subject, a Pandoras box. Science and engineering became most popular subjects, a little too popular. Putting profit before sense made the universities more prosperous but gradually it only led to the Church losing control of the Universities and people loosing respect for the Church. Their job as stewards was meant to include not just the spirit and soul but the Earth and nature. And as Jules Verne pointed out unbridled technology was most dangerous.

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