Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages

The Medieval Machine, by Jean Gimpel


With this post, I return to the history of the Middle Ages.  I have previously reviewed kingship and law, the advancement of traditionally liberal causes, and what can be legitimately called a period of functional anarchical living – all from this time period.

As I have previously written, the Middle Ages were anything but dark.  Politically, there was decentralization and multiple sources for appeal.  Law was defined by custom, individualized: one could say by contract, but not quite – more by sacred oath.  The king’s role was to uphold the law, not to declare it.

In such an environment, as one might expect, creative and productive life flourished.  There were advances in artistic and literary life; slavery was significantly reduced when compared to Roman times before (and European life thereafter); women achieved rights and status not seen again until very recent history; and there was a high level of religious tolerance and tolerance for new ideas.  Such is what one would expect in a decentralized society where law and property was held in respect, and this was found to be true during the Middle Ages.

One would also expect to find technological advancements.  This is the subject I will explore in this post.  Through Gimpel’s book, I will present the remarkable advances in industrial development during this time period.  Page references are from the 2003 edition.

Let’s begin with the author, Jean Gimpel:

Jean Gimpel (1918–1996) was a French historian and medievalist…. In 1987 he was a founding vice-president of the Society for the History of Mediaeval Technology and Science, the British affiliate of AVISTA and the Association de Villard de Honnecourt.

Gimpel introduces his work:

The Middle Ages was one of the great inventive eras of mankind.  It should be known as the first industrial revolution of Europe…. Capitalist companies were formed and their shares bought and sold. (Page viii)

Industry and inventiveness did not take a 1000 year pause, but continued from the collapse of Rome until the Renaissance.  For example, Leonardo da Vinci did not invent from whole cloth:

Leonardo had borrowed a great many of his inventions from technological treatises by engineers of previous generations. (Page x)

Energy and Mechanization

The medieval period witnessed one of the more rapid advances in the introduction of machinery in European history.  This could not be accomplished without the effective taming of energy.  The most common method was the mill – primarily water but also wind. These mills would grind corn, crush olives, tan leather, make paper, etc.  While the Romans utilized the mill, it was not nearly to the extent utilized in these later periods.  The relationship is inverse to the use of slaves in the economy – the increasing use of the mill corresponded with the drastic reduction of slavery during the Middle Ages.

Cistercian monasteries offered one such example:

Monasteries built in countries separated by thousands of miles – Portugal, Sweden, Scotland, Hungary – all had very similar waterpowered systems within almost universally similar plans for the monasteries themselves…. In certain ways the discipline imposed by Saint Bernard on his monks – the rigid timetable, the impossibility of deviating from the Rule without facing punishment – brings to mind the work regulations that Henry Ford imposed on his assembly lines. (Page 5)

Despite this near-uniformity in design, the mills were capable of processing various commodities – depending on the region: olives in one region, grapes in another, beer in a third.  An example of the complexity to be found in one location is offered in Clairvaux, where waterpower was used for…

…crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, and tanning.  It is possible that waterpower also activated bellows for the flames that heated the vats in which beer for the monks was produced. (Page 5)

Running water was used extensively for many purposes:

It was carried in lead or wooden pipes to the kitchen for cooking and washing and to the gardens for watering.  It was also used to clean out the drains…and to carry away the waste so as to “leave everywhere spotless.” (Page 5)

The utilization of water mills, and the rate of expansion, increased dramatically beginning in the ninth century.  For example, in the department of l’Aube, fourteen mills are mentioned in the eleventh century, 60 in the twelfth, and over 200 in the thirteenth. (Page 10)  When William the Conqueror set out on his survey in 1086, he recorded 9,250 manors, with one-third of these having one mill or more.  Many of these mills were still in use in the eighteenth century.

Many of these mills were owned via shares – by as many as five parties.  The share price was subject to fluctuation, and shares could be regularly bought and sold.  The shareholders were not always millers – the division of capital and labor was in evidence from the thirteenth century, if not earlier.   Eventually, multiple dams, useful in improving the efficiency of the mills, were combined into one limited company – with the shareholders spreading the risk of profits and losses across multiple properties.  Such companies would hold annual general meetings of the shareholders, with a review of the accounts from the prior year and the election of managers for the upcoming year.

The Société du Bazacle may well be the oldest capitalistic company in the world.  It survived into the middle of the twentieth century when it was nationalized by the Électricité de France.

Many examples of taming water for energy are offered: cams, driven by water power, were developed to mimic the motion of the smith.  Paper, despite being invented more than one thousand years earlier by the Chinese, was still manufactured by hand and foot.  Once paper was introduced to Europe, the manufacture was almost immediately mechanized. (Page 14)

Mills were introduced under the arches that spanned the rivers.  By doing so, the efficiency of the mills was increased due to the increased flow of the water through the narrower passages. (Page 17)

Dams were built to add height to the water level prior to the flow through the mill – again to increase mill efficiency.  Of course, the height of the downstream dam also was important, and sometime the cause of dispute – as the owner of the downstream dam, by raising his dam, would lower the fall of the upstream dam. 

Where geography and climate was favorable, tidal mills and wind mills were also developed.  Tidal mills were unknown in classical times – an example of the medieval urge to discover new sources of energy.


Mining was an important aspect of the medieval economy.  The most important subset was stone quarrying, which the author suggests was more important possibly than all other forms of mining combined.

There was significant mining for building stone in France:

…during her age of expansion from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries more stone was quarried in France than had been mined throughout the whole history of ancient Egypt. (Page 59)

Initially this struck me as a tremendous claim – given the stone in pyramids of Egypt.  However, when considering the significant building of cathedrals throughout Europe in this time, the statement certainly seems reasonable.  Additionally, France exported significant amounts of stone.  William the Conqueror imported stone from France when building the Battle Abbey. 

Mining was also important to the development and use of iron.  The use of iron was increased greatly during the medieval period, replacing bronze which was more heavily used during Roman times.  Every medieval village had its iron smith – it was common practice for every horse and plough animal to be shod.

The adaption of water power contributed to the high standard of metallurgy in this time:

…the most significant hydraulic invention was waterpowered bellows, which could produce a draft powerful enough to raise the temperature of the furnaces to some 1500 degrees C, hot enough to liquefy iron ore. (Page 66-67)

Finally, the mining of silver contributed to the progress of mining techniques.  Certainly silver, and also gold, played a driving force in the development of mining, however there was interest in other minerals as well – lead, copper, tin, and zinc.  German miners played a leading role in the expansion of these techniques throughout Europe. 

In the German movement into eastern and southeastern Europe, miners emigrated with other emigrants into regions held by the Slavs and the Magyars.  Colonizing and mining went hand in hand…. They moved into Iglau and then into the Hungarian mines of Zips, Schemnitz, and Kremnitz…. German miners in the twelfth century were called in by the rulers of Transylvania, and in the thirteenth century by the rulers of Serbia.

In this lies, perhaps, one source of the German minority communities of central and eastern Europe – communities that continued to thrive for centuries until their final forced relocation and decimation by the victors after the Second World War.

The Pre-Renaissance Renaissance Man

One of the more highly valued professions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was that of the architect-engineers, so-called, as there was no real distinction at the time between what are today multiple professions. 

An individual in this field would have the skills of the architect, structural engineer, various specialties of mechanical engineering, and the general contractor.  He was considered the master of all phases of the construction project.

Gimpel offers brief glimpses into several examples of this and other types of highly skilled individuals.  Most notable of these examples is Roger Bacon.  Among many other accomplishments, Bacon wrote of great ships and flying machines – not unlike the letter from Leonardo to the Duke of Milan.  Bacon is referred to specifically in one of Leonardo’s notebooks.

Gimpel spends a considerable amount of time regarding the work of Villard de Honnecourt.  He is relatively well known because a sketch book of his has survived through the centuries – a sketchbook composed of thirty-three parchment leaves.

Villard sketched buildings, for example modernizing the appearance of a window at Reims and the Tower of Laon.  He had drawings of a perpetual motion machine – of course, not possible; however, it is remarkable that men of the time explored the possibilities for further energy development.

His design for this machine involved a wheel with seven evenly-spaced mallets or bags around the circumference – attached to swing freely as the wheel turned.  In this way, he anticipated that there would always be four on the downward side of the turning wheel.

The idea, like many in medieval Europe, had previously been explored in India and the Arab world.  However, it is one example to demonstrate that the medieval world was not in the dark during this time.

On one parchment, he demonstrated five mechanisms, four of which have technological interest.  In one corner he drew a water-powered saw.  Beneath this is what is thought to be the earliest representation of clockwork, used to “make an angel” placed on a church roof “keep pointing his finger toward the sun.”  In a third corner is an eagle stuffed with ropes and pulleys – and a caption: “How to make the eagle face the Deacon while the Gospel is read.”

The eagle was a gadget – Villard appeared fond of gadgets; for example, on another parchment he sketched a hand warmer: a ball with various pivots inside, designed to keep the lump of warm coal from falling out.  This system was later adapted to keep mariners’ compasses level and barometers vertical.

He also sketched a military catapult, with detailed instructions; a complex mechanism for sawing timber under water – useful for cutting “off the tops of piles under water so as to set a pier on them”; various hoisting machines and water driven apparatus. 

Further, he was an observer of nature and animals.  In his sketchbook were drawings of various insects, a snail, birds, different wild animals, and domestic animals.  He wrote of various medicinal techniques – including a treatment for wounds that included hempseed.

There are sketches of geometrical shapes superimposed on drawings of men and animals.  He wrote of geometry, explaining various calculations: how to measure the diameter of a column, only part of which was visible; how to find themed-point of a drawn circle; how to measure the width of a distant window; and many others.

All of this was 250 years before Leonardo’s famous notebooks.  And Villard was not unique; the author suggests more than 150 manuscripts of this type were produced before the sixteenth century – men like Konrad Kyeser, Roberto Valturio, and Francesco di Giorgio.

Time Waits for the Medieval Man

The medieval mind was inventive and mechanically minded, as has been demonstrated by various examples throughout this book.  Gimpel attributes this to the medieval belief in progress, “a concept unknown to the classical world.”  He quotes Bernard of Chartres:

“We are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants, so that although we perceive many more things than they, it is not because our vision is more piercing or our stature higher, but because we are carried and elevated higher thanks to their gigantic size.” (Page 147-148)

Such attitudes led men to accept inventions as normal, and to assume that new inventions would continue to come forth.  Priests would sing the praises of inventions in church.

One invention stands out above the rest, that of the mechanical clock.  The Near East and Far East previously knew of sun dials and water-driven clocks.  While it is often considered a fool’s errand to identify in history the first inventor of something, there is much that points to the (non-water-driven) mechanical clock having been invented in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. 

Gimpel cites Lewis Mumford, who sees in the mechanical clock the key invention of the entire industrial revolution:

“The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age…. In its relationship to determinable quantities of energy, to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics….” (Page 149)

The astronomical water-driven clock built by Su Sung in China (an even earlier renaissance man) in the eleventh century (and based on a mechanism invented by a Buddhist Monk more than 300 years before this) was considered, in its time and for centuries to come, the most advanced machine known.  The same can be said of Giovanni di Dondi’s mechanical clock, built in Italy in the fourteenth century.  These machines were so complex that later generations found them difficult to keep in repair.

As an example of the complexity, Dondi’s clock was able to maintain the calendar of the moving feasts.  Such a feat was not again duplicated until the nineteenth century (although the change in the interim from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar made this more complicated).  Dondi’s drawings were so detailed and precise that an exact duplicate of his clock was manufactured six hundred years later by Alan Lloyd.

Whereas in China, the art of the clock was kept as an imperial secret with only a handful of scientists and engineers privy to the details, in Europe the technology spread relatively quickly – as one might expect without the state intervening in the enforcement of intellectual property. 

Europe did not offer state protection for intellectual property until much later in its development.  Such flourishing of technologies, as demonstrated in this book, occurred without patent or copyright laws.  Patent law gained its first significant foothold in Europe in the Republic of Venice in 1474, with some evidence for the issuance of patents in England during the fourteenth century. (There are also instances in ancient Greece, 2000 years prior.)  Copyright law has an even later start, in 1710 with the British Statute of Anne.

By the fourteenth century, the weight-driven mechanical clock was quite common in Europe – the technology spread fairly rapidly.  There is evidence to suggest that the mechanical clock was invented in the late thirteenth century – Robert the Englishman’s text of 1271 shows clockmakers at that time making great efforts to solve the various mechanical problems involved.

Of course, along with the blessings of the clock came some curses – as all technological leaps tend to offer.  Life became more regimented; every hour the bells would ring.  Time did not follow cycles of sunrise and sunset, but of hours and minutes.

There were further developments, in magnets and compasses for example – in some cases, developments not surpassed for centuries.  Gimpel credits the perfection of the compass for Europe’s conquest of the seas.  While Gimpel does not mention this, there was, of course, the development of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in around 1439.

The “Dark” in the Dark Ages

There is a stereotype of the Middle Ages, encompassed in the term “Dark Ages.”  While the term has fallen out of favor with scholars, “Dark Ages” still paints a picture within the mainstream community: war, famine, plague, and religious intolerance including witch hunts.

This stereotype finds its roots in the fourteenth century – toward the end of the period of the Middle Ages.  Gimpel describes the Condemnation of 1277 as the beginning of the end for technological advancement and intellectual questioning that marked the Middle Ages.  Bishop Tempier condemned “219 execrable errors which certain students of the Faculty of the Arts have the temerity to study and discuss in the schools.” (Page 182-183)

In so doing he slowed the progress of science and reason in Paris – the Athens of the thirteenth century. (Page 183)

With the condemnation, Gimpel describes the beginning of witch hunts and burnings – something unknown to Europe for much of the preceding centuries.  Obviously, the exploration of new ideas would be relatively subdued in such an environment.

Additional major shocks occurred: a devastating famine in 1315 – 1317; the Hundred Years’ War began in 1337 (a war between the by now centralized kingdoms of England and France – and not involving the still relatively decentralized central and eastern European lands); and the Black Death, from 1347 – 1350.

Most interesting is Gimpel’s description of currency devaluation by Philip the Fair of France, beginning in 1294.  Philip was instrumental in turning France from a feudal society to a centralized state (apparently he felt that William’s descendants needed a proper enemy).

After first devaluing in 1294-95, Philip announced a thirty-nine percent devaluation in 1306.  This did not go over well with the people, first going after Etienne Barbette, thought to be the instigator of the devaluation.  The demonstrators then went after the king, who – ultimately successful in putting down the protest – beheaded one leading representative from each of 28 trades!

Devaluations continued, and more blood was spilled.  Pop culture was on the side of the people, with a song written after the devaluation of 1313:

It seems the king enchants us,
For at first sixty made twenty for us
Then twenty made four and thirty made ten

Gold and silver all is lost
None of it ever to be returned. (Page 221)


Gimpel offers a wide-spanning view of technological development during the Middle Ages.  As opposed to commonly-held fallacies, it was a time of significant industrialization and scientific development.  Advancements in energy, mechanization, mining, and development of precision instruments all were evident during this period.

Consistent with my previous work regarding this era, I continue to be fascinated by the light afforded to us by those who lived during the Dark Ages.


  1. Thanks so much for reviewing this book! I happened to read it at the start of my "conversion", and I don't think any other work single-handedly destroyed as many preconceptions for me as this one did.

    My favorite part of the book is a reproduction of a painting. Some of the things I was actually taught in public school: in the middle ages everyone was dirty and prude, and the concept of perspective in art didn't exist until the renaissance. Yet in this book is a 12th century painting of naked men and women together in a co-ed bath house that clearly employs one-point perspective!

    The only shame of this work is that Gimpel suffered from a preconception or two of his own, and inexplicably takes up print to tirade against oil and the coming ice age (ha!). But perhaps the silver lining is that someone might read that and realize that they too have other preconceptions to reevaluate.

    In all this was a fantastic read, particularly for amateur medievalists, and I too highly recommend it.

    1. fisharmor, thank you for the kind comments and additional feedback.

      Gimpel apparently was a lifelong communist, and this bent could explain some of his views expressed in this book.

      However I, like you, looked past this to find the value in his research on this subject. His political statements were not of interest to me. Within the context of the other reading I have done on this subject, his work on exploring the history of industry in this time period rings true.

    2. I'm a big fan of your medieval posts. I'm henceforth refraining from calling the period the dark ages. Keep them comin', please.

      On another note, I'm perusing the Pillars of the Earth; any comments about its portrayal of the time period?

    3. Thank you for the comment. I have come to use the term "Dark Ages" in the manner of poking a stick at the label.

      I have not read the book, so cannot comment.

  2. bionic , thanks for the excellent material. in case you haven't already seen it, here is a stunning classic along the same lines:

  3. The Wikipedia article on the Condemnations of 1277 quotes scholars who have a different view of its effects on science and philosophy than the author you quoted. The gist is that it helped to create a skeptical attitude toward the received dogmatism of the Aristotelian system and opened the way toward more empiricism in science. Science needs to be freed from excessive philosophical constraints and investigate the world as it actually is.

    The errors which were condemned do seem to be heretical as well as seemingly useless for the progress of science anyway. Another point made is that the Catholic conception of the omnipotence of God allows for restrictive philosophical preconceptions on how nature ought to be to then be discarded. Science requires the discipline of logic, but not a straight jacket of oughts from a received philosophical system. I don't see how it can be denied that it would not have been ideal for science to be dominated by Aristotelian preconceptions.

    As to philosophy, the article also says that skepticism towards Aristotle led scholasticism in a different direction as well. Ockham's razor is cited as a development of this trend away from the old system.

    I think that its easy for moderns to react too emotionally to what they perceive as restrictions on academic freedom, but since the University of Paris was a Catholic institution, it should be fairly non-controversial that both heretical and nonsensical propositions from ancient philosophy be censored on theological grounds. Aristotle made some claims regarding the nature of God which are at odds with Christian theology. And while St. Thomas Aquinas made liberal use of Aristotle's philosophy, he would not consider him as the last word in theology. That would be ridiculous. Likewise, it does not seem a big deal that the Aristotelian school should not be considered the last word on science such that it should dictate in advance the possibilities of how nature works, which is what seems to have been going on there.

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