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Monday, March 25, 2013

“Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel: Technology & Invention in the Middle Ages”, by Joseph Gies & Frances Gies

368 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0060925819

Conventional wisdom once told us that there the Middle Ages was a time of stagnation rather than of innovation, but Frances and Joseph Gies make a strong argument, with many examples, in their book, Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel: Technology & Invention in the Middle Ages, that technological developments from 500 to 1500 AD transformed Europe and enabled both the Renaissance and the European conquest of the rest of the world.

At the fall of the Roman Empire around 500 AD, Europe was little more than an illiterate, rural backwater. Except for a few items left behind by the Romans, virtually all of mankind's significant technology was in the hands and minds of the Chinese, Indians and Arabs. European towns north of Rome were small and dirty, and produced little except subsistence level farming. However by 1500, the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans had thrown back a major Muslim invasion, lived in large cities and fortified castles, carried on an active trade with China, India and Arabia, had developed full-rigged ships and navigation instruments capable of crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and developed weapons that would soon enable them to conquer almost every other civilization on Earth. Admittedly much of the new technology originated in China and Arabia, but the Europeans refined it, improved upon it, and put it to practical uses such that by 1100 AD Europe surpassed its eastern neighbors in sea faring, agriculture, armaments and day-to-day business practices. Even mundane skills like bookkeeping, credit, and insurance proved important in that they created the means to finance undertakings far beyond the capabilities of any one merchant family or sea captain.

That said, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel is a book that will appeal mostly to those who have an interest in the subject. It largely ignores the wars and plagues of the Middle Ages and concentrates instead on technological development and the lives of common people. The first two chapters (there are only seven chapters in 300 pages of text) are mostly background information on the beginning of the Middle Ages and the migration of technology from Arabia and China into Europe, and can be a little tedious to read. The text picks up in the third chapter when the authors begin to describe peasant life in the medieval villages, and these descriptions are at least as interesting as the technology improvements. Each chapter builds on its predecessor and we learn why women carried the ubiquitous spinster around all day; of the prestige of being the village blacksmith or master mason; of the impact of the first printed books; and how the appeal of a trading economy spurred changes that improved everyone's life. Well, almost everyone’s.

Because the text addresses both people and technology, it is not necessarily riveting for every reader. You have to wade through descriptions of technology and engineering to get to the good stuff about the people – or read through stuff about medieval villagers to get to the good parts about technology, depending on your point of view. But Frances and Joseph Gies know their stuff and this is a great description of the impact of developing technology. Between them they have authored or co-authored more than twenty books on European and American history, and are among our foremost scholars on Europe in the Middle Ages.

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