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Review of Medieval Technology and Social Change

By Shawn Nelsen

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

White, Lynn C.  Medieval Technology and Social Change. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.


            Often Middle Ages are thought of as a time in which humanity has digressed, moving away from the glory days of antiquity and the splendor of the Roman Empire.  It is thought of as a time of kings and queens, disease, and filth.  Could the Middle Ages simply be a dark age between glorious Rome and the awakening of the Renaissance, or could there be more to this time than is commonly give credit?  According to Lynn White, Jr. in his book Medieval Technology and Social Change the Middle Ages are a time worth much historical review.  His book can be broken up into three basic sections: the stirrup and the origins of feudalism, the agricultural revolution, and Medieval exploration of mechanical power.  Using these three main ideas White seems to construct the idea that the Medieval age is a time of new inventions, innovations, and mass cultural changes that helped to set the world up for the transition into the modern era.

            The first important concept that White brings up is the importance of the stirrup to Medieval Europe.  Evidently it was the stirrup that set Europe down the path of becoming a feudalistic society.  The stirrup, White writes, let a rider more securely fasten himself to his horse and therefore “replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior’s ability to damage his enemy.” (2)  One problem with this much more deadly use of power, though, is that it takes a lot of recourses to take care of a horse, especially one that was specially bread for battle.  To cope with this problem people needed to pool their recourses so that many peasants would be supporting one warrior.  Another problem (for the king) was that it was important to make sure that the one warrior remained loyal.  To solve these problems a king would divide up his land among the many knights so long as the knights swore their allegiance.  This solved both problems because the knight had enough land to have peasants work it and support his horse and the king had his loyal warrior.  As an example of this, White discusses Charles Martel who actually took land from the church and divided up amongst his knights.  (4)  This in itself is a strong statement as to the importance of the mounted warrior, after all why would on risk upsetting the all powerful church if it were not of the utmost importance. 

            After White’s extended explanation of the stirrup and the origins of Feudalism White’s book goes into detail about the agricultural revolution that took place during the Medieval Age.  White claims that, until very recently, “agriculture was fundamental to most other human concerns.” (39)  This being the case, it would be agricultural developments that would most affect the daily lively hood of the average European peasant.   To seemingly prove this point, White goes into extensive detail on three specific parts of the agricultural revolution, these three being the use of the heavy plow, the discovery of horse power, and the use of the three field rotational system.

            The plow, being “the first application of non-human power to agriculture”, (41) undoubtedly affected Medieval lives. White says that the first plow was probably a big digging stick that would have been dragged by a couple of oxen. (41)  This kind of plow was useful in the Mediterranean areas, but proved to be a problem in the northern, moister, areas of Europe.  (42) The invention of the Heavy Plow, which was made of medal, helped to solve the problem created by the dense northern European soil.  With the heavy plow farmers were able to produce more crops because they were able to cultivate more fertile soil. (43)  The use of the Heavy plow also brought peasants together to take part in communal farming because many times no one farmer could solely afford all that was needed in order to take advantage of the heavy plow. (53)

            Along with the use of the plow came the important discovery of horse power.  This discovery was made possible by the use of nailed horse shoes and the invention of the horse harness.  Sense a horse’s hooves are not as strong as those of an ox, horses were not often used for heavy farm work.  With the development of the nailed horse shoe, though, people were able to strengthen the other wise frail horse hoof. (57) The harness was important because when trying to use the yolk harness that was used for oxen, a horse’s throat would be squeezed, essentially choking the horse.  (59)  White says that both the horse and the ox have about the same pulling power, but the horse can produce about fifty percent more foot pounds per second. (62) In other words, the horse could do a lot more work than could the ox.  This let the farmer get more work done in less time.

            Sticking with the theme of less work and more yields, White also writes about the discovery and use of the three-field rotation system which came into use around the time of Charlemagne. (69)  He writes that under the original two-field system only half of ones land would be in use at any given time.  Under the three-field system, though, the farmer was able to plant two thirds of his land at any given time (71) This new system used in conjunction with the heavy plow and horse power let the Medieval farmers produce food much more efficiently than had been done prior and most likely helped lead to the Medieval exploration of mechanical power and devices.

            White finishes his book with an explanation of the Medieval exploration of mechanical power and devices.  He explains that there was a spread of the use of mechanical that came from many sources.  One popular source was the water wheel (83), although not everyone lived by water so there was eventually the development of wind power (86), steam power (90), and even gunpowder (93).  White also explains that the development of the crank was very important to Medieval society.  White writes that “Continuous rotary motion [as produced by mills] is typically of inorganic matter, whereas reciprocating motion is the sole form of movement found in living things.  The crank connects these two kinds of motion…” (115) so it is easy to see haw the development of the crank positively effected Medieval society.

            White, through writing this book, seems to be trying to accomplish more than simply stating facts.  He seems to be trying to prove that the Middle Ages are not the step back for humanity that seems to be the common perception.  Instead he seems to be claiming that they were indeed a slow step forward and he uses the technology and social change to prove this point.  In addition he also seems to want to prove that the life of the ordinary peasant was just as important as the life of the king.

            White appears to spend the bulk of the book try to cleverly point out that the people of Middle Ages were much more innovative than commonalty given credit.  There are many points in the book, for example, that White clearly points out that the Medieval innovators went beyond those of the Romans, such as with the Medieval use of the spring.  (117)  Being that the Romans are quite commonly given credit for being very innovative when it comes to practicality they seem to be a great tool for White to prove his point.  Furthermore, just the sheer number of innovation that White points out can also be used to prove that the Medieval people were innovative.  He writes about the crank, the heavy plow, the stirrup, gun powder, and many other inventions as well.  Even if one was simply going off the number of new ideas that the Medieval people came up with, it would be hard for him or her to walk away from Medieval Technology and Social Change not wanting to give Medieval people credit for, at least, being clever.

            Aside from just pointing out how clever Medieval people were, White also appears to be trying to make it a point that common peasants as a whole were just as important to Middle Ages and social times as were the well known kings and aristocrats.   White does bring up the importance of the social elite, such as his discussion of “Charles Martel’s secularization of Church land” (10) during the discussion of feudalism,  but it seems that the discussion of kings and queens was kept to a minimal.  Instead White seems to focus his attention on the creation of inventions and ideas that drastically effected the common man more than anyone else.  The heavy plow, for example, was not used  by the social elite, but was instead used by the common farmer.  Being that the social elite would eat despite how much food the farmer brought in, it was the farmers life that was drastically improved by the larger yield produced by the heavy plow.  This can also be seen in the development of mechanical power.  Being that it, most likely, was not common for a king , for instance, to be doing back breaking labour, it is easy to see how labour saving devices such as the wind mill would benefit the common peasant more than anybody else.

            The Medieval innovations that helped better the life of the common peasant, White appears to be claiming, were an important part of pushing human society into modernity.   White writes about military inventions such as the cannon (129), navigational inventions such as the compass (132), and agricultural inventions such as the heavy plow.  All of these played an important role in the development of the modern world.  White, in reference to the Medieval lust for power, writes that “They were power-conscious to the point of fantasy.  But without such fantasy, such souring imagination, the power technology of the western world would not have been developed.” (134)   It seems here that White is making a direct reference to the importance of Medieval innovation to modern success.   All of this appears to head back to the main point that White seems to make; that the Middle Ages were actually a step forward in the development of human culture and society.

            In this point, White certainly seems believable in his presentation.  He uses almost countless sources both primary and secondary.  He even quotes primary sources in their original language, unfortunately without a translation.   Furthermore, White uses archeological evidence such as wooden disks (106) to support his claims as apposed to strictly sticking to written sources which may often be misleading.  The archeological evidence seems to be extra important to White as he seems to view history in a very linear style.  One invention, he would point out, leads to another, although important inventions and ideas seem to pop up in several places then spread threw out the world.

             One of the only drawbacks to Medieval Technology and Social Change is that White seems to focus only on the evidence that would support the claim that during Medieval time society took a big step forward.   White seems to ignore (or at least work around) the point that if during Middle Ages European cultural advancement took a  big step forward, after the collapse of the Roman empire society certainly took a gigantic step backward.  Even after the crowning of Charlemagne, one might argue, European society was not quite as organized as it was during the peak of the Roman Empire.  There is, after all, a reason that the Medieval ages are also known as the Dark Ages.  This aside, White appears to be an intelligent author who is writing to intelligent readers who might spend the time to reference the half of Medieval Technology and Social Change that is dedicated to listing White’s sources.

            Threw his look at the Middle Ages, White brings to light the important social and cultural advantages that moved Europe forward.  Even if White is writing to an elite audience, his book is still useful to those who would like to learn something interesting about Medieval Europe.  He bring up a lot of fascinating facts and has the evidences to back up his claims.  So all in all one would have to say that Medieval Technology and Social Change is at least worth the read if one has the slightest bit of interest in the Dark Ages.




© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.