The Middle Ages: More Hidden History

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

By Frances and Joseph Gies

Harper Collins (1994)

Book Review

This book debunks the prevailing misconception that the Middle Ages was a Dark Ages and that all knowledge and technology was lost when “barbarian tribes” caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. The authors do this very convincingly by identifying a number of key medieval technologies (most from the Far East) without which the 15th century Renaissance would have been impossible.

These include

  • the heavy plow
  • open field agriculture, water powered machinery
  • Hindu-Arab numerals
  • double entry bookkeeping
  • the compass and navigational charts
  • clockwork
  • firearms
  • moveable type
  • stirrups
  • the horse collar harness
  • paper
  • canal locks
  • underground mining

The barbarians themselves (ie Germanic tribes) also provided European civilization with several key inventions:

  • soap (the Greeks and Romans never used it)
  • socks
  • laced boots
  • clothing made from multiple pieces of cloth sewn together
  • wooden barrels (replacing fragile clay jars and animal skins previously used for food storage).

The book maintains that China was far more important than Rome as a source of medieval technologies. In most cases, technological innovations filtered into Europe along Arab trade routes. It devotes specific attention to the horizontal loom (the Romans used a vertical loom), moveable type (adopted by Gutenberg for his printing press), the water wheel, the wheelbarrow, the odometer, mechanical clocks, gunpowder and the crossbow.

Europeans gained access to Hindu-Arab numbers, the cotton gin and the windmill via India and Persia.

Given the extremely Eurocentric education I received in school, I was extremely surprised to learn about all the inventions Europeans take credit for which originated elsewhere.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Middle Ages: More Hidden History

  1. A factoid probably in your possession: knowledge of stirrups did not make its way across the English Channel. That was most unfortunate for King Harald at Hastings in 1066. Amazing how the massive loss of life often advanced civilization a generation or two after the creation of a vast empire.

    Like

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