Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

Among many the Middle Ages, between the Classical period and the Renaissance, is still thought of as the Dark Ages.  In their book Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, Frances and Joseph Gies summarize scholarship that shows that the Medieval period was one of commercial and technological advancement that welcomed invention and the dispersion of knowledge.

The authors present a history of technology beginning with the contributions of Greek and Roman civilization and culminating with European developments on the cusp of the Age of Discovery.  The period in between is sometimes called the Dark Ages because of the lack of documentary history, the loss of the centralizing influence of Roman Empire, and the loss of Greek texts and knowledge in much of Europe.  The Gieses attempt to debunk the notion that this time was “dark” in the sense of being backward, especially superstitious, and lacking in advancement in knowledge, commerce, science, and especially technology.

From a technological point of view, the Middle Ages didn’t inherit from the Greeks or Romans much more than they might have learned for more ancient civilizations.  The Greeks little esteemed the useful arts.  The Romans were very practical adopters of technology, and they certainly did things on a large scale, but their main contribution was size and organization.  Medieval Europe more fruitfully borrowed and built upon technology from China.  Ancient China had very advance technology in comparison to contemporary civilizations, and the spice trade aided the transmission of technology, in the form of both devices and ideas, from East to West.

I think some of the greatest advances in this period occurred in architecture and materials.  In architecture, builders began to move away from Roman circular arches to something more like true arches.  This, along with the flying buttress, another Medieval development, made a new architecture of more open and brighter spaces possible.

Materials greatly improved, too, especially iron.  Either directly or as an idea, iron-making technology moved from China to Europe.  The blast furnace gave Europeans the ability to make cast iron.  Though casting iron parts was in their grasp, the more significant issue was that a lot more iron could be made.  Iron tools and parts made a host of other technology practicable.

Technological changes led to cultural changes, too.  Improved applications of animal and water power to agriculture and food production led to a transition away from slavery to a serf-tenant system in which the people who worked the field had a right to portion of their production.  Agricultural surpluses led to the development of cities along with a decline of bound serfs rise of free tradesmen.  The development of manufacturing led to all kinds of trade and improvements in commercial practices including double-entry bookkeeping.

I think this book may be a good introduction to the history of technology for people seeking an entry point to the field.  It is neither too technical nor too academic in its style.  It covers a period of history that is not as well covered by other popular books.  It also acknowledges and summarizes the technology of the immediately preceding and succeeding ages, so it covers a very wide timeframe.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Gies, Frances, & Joseph Gies. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages.  New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Links related to Medieval science and technology

Grotesque mummy head reveals advanced medieval science

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