Today I begin a series on the amazing technology of the Middle Ages. Why? Because I am sick and tired of hearing about how “dark” the “Dark Ages” were. Folks, I’m here to set the record straight on the amazing technological advances made in the Middle Ages and to try to convince you all that the people of the Medieval world were, in fact, brilliant, industrious minds constantly working to improve the world they lived in.
But before I tell you about the gadgets, theories, and processes that improved the quality of life, trade, and warfare in the years between roughly 500 and 1500, we need to take a look at what that bastion of culture and advancement, the Roman Empire, did and didn’t know. Because my guess is that you’re assuming they were far more advanced than they actually were.
And so we start with Rome to form a basis for comparison on everything that came later in the Middle Ages.
Guess what? The Romans invented very few things. Yep, you heard me. They may have had aqueducts and roads, massive buildings and fearsome armies, but they didn’t actually invent most of that stuff themselves. The Romans were borrowers and innovators. They were not creators.
To find the origin of a lot of Roman era technology you need to look back to even older civilizations. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet that morphed into the Roman letters we still use today. They also invented ship construction as we know it. The Egyptians invented papyrus and a lot of the building techniques that the Romans later improved on. They were also one of the early cultures that invented sails and used them to propel ships. The Babylonians invented bricks and the kiln. And Greece? Well Greece invented and developed a heck of a lot of stuff. Pottery, parchment, iron, building techniques, farming and food preservation, if they didn’t invent it themselves they figured out a way to make it work better.
One Greek in particular deserves no small amount of praise for discovering, advancing, and distributing the best of ancient thought. That would be Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered a vast area of the ancient world, including parts of the much more advanced at the time society of India. He encouraged the dissemination of thought and ideas.
But the greatest strength of the Greeks was also its shortcoming. They were interested in thought, but not so much in doing anything with it. The Romans were the exact opposite. They were very interested in doing things, but they didn’t care so much about thinking about it, before or after. This is one of the reasons they created such amazing structures and memorials without bringing too much that was new to the table.
Not that that wasn’t important, mind you. The fact that the Romans were able to build 44,000 miles of roads and, well, the city of Rome itself is an amazing testament to their strength. The greatest contribution of Rome was not in the new tools and technology they brought to the world but in the organizational methods they used to come up with what they had. The Roman model of a city and of an army were considered the standard for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages. Medieval kings, like Charlemagne, wanted to model themselves on the Roman model of power. So in that respect Rome still was the benchmark in that millennium between 500 and 1500.
Here’s what the Romans didn’t do well. They ignored what they didn’t like or didn’t understand instead of attempting to understand it and use it. This was nowhere more noticeable than on a grass-roots, agricultural level.
The horse had been domesticated somewhere around the eleventh century B.C., but its usefulness was limited by the fact that harness technology at the time of the Roman Empire was poor. The yoke that was used for cattle choked horses and the harness used by the Romans pressed against a horse’s breastbone, allowing it to pull nothing heavier than a chariot. Did better technology exist? Yep, sure did. In China. Did the Romans adopt it? Nope. Europe had to wait to discover and adopt this new harness technology until, you guessed it, the Middle Ages. So Rome kind of had no idea how to use horses effectively.
The other technology that had, in fact, been invented at the time but was largely ignored by Rome was water technology. Two forms of waterwheels had been invented by this time, horizontal waterwheels and their much more effective – and recognizable to modern people – brothers, vertical waterwheels. The concept of both kinds of waterwheels was known at the time of the Roman Empire, but it wouldn’t be until the Middle Ages that it would catch on. And mills powered by waterwheels can produce massive amounts of flour and other grain products, feeding more people, allowing for more trade, and increasing the population. Rome missed out once again.
But perhaps the biggest facepalm of Rome’s technological shortcomings are the various Greek advances and knowledge that they completely ignored. Roman scholars copied many of the works of the Greek masters into Latin. But not all of it. Some things, like the works of Aristotle, Euclid, and Archimedes, they left in their original Greek. Since, as we discussed in our exploration of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance, Latin was adopted as the language of learning in the powerful Frankish kingdom of the Early Middle Ages, and since these works were never translated into Latin, it would take several more centuries for them to return to Europe through the Arab kingdoms that preserved them.
The other common Roman practice that undermined the development of technology had a far more human element. Rome didn’t have peasants, it had slaves. The social order was sharply polarized. Because of this there was no incentive for common, rural people to make improvements to the methods they used to accomplish the simplest tasks. Slaves weren’t supposed to think. But once the horrible institution of Roman slavery disappeared with the rest of the empire the newly independent (if not free, exactly) rural people had a reason to put their mental powers into their work and daily lives. Many of the revolutionary technical advances of the Middle Ages occurred in the activities of daily living and have shady origins because they were most likely developed on a rural level and spread household to household.
So there you have it. Rome wasn’t so awesome after all. But it did set up the conditions under which some of the most amazing developments of the first two millennia A.D. could happen. Next week we’ll start talking specifics.