Officially my new favourite history book: I’m in love with Frances and Joseph Gies showing off the technology and technological development of the Middle Ages. The book is dense and doesn’t coddle the reader, and, as many of their works, is often on recommended reading lists for history courses. In good medievalist tradition, they oppose Gibbon’s view of medieval society as “the triumph of barbarism and religion”, and they bring tons of evidence to the table, combing through one thousand years of the Middle Ages. It’s fascinating and well-written. I finished this book and immediately wanted to read more of the same (and was very disappointed when I couldn’t find anything like it)!
And while they go into a lot of detail (look at the length of the scroll bar?), they also provide a broader picture: The fact that the technological revolutions during the medieval millennium were largely responsible for the disappearance of mass slavery (not something I had considered before!), and how international and interconnected all progress was, including technological transfer and diffusion from China, India and especially by way of Islamic scholars, or the consequences of technological progress for everybody involved. I found all of this intensely fascinating, as my extensive notes will attest.
I’ve included those notes below. Left out: Anything nautical, details on developments in Asia (especially regarding their technological leadership and eventual stagnation), and the extremely interesting considerations of how inventions either made their way from Asia to Europe, or how ambient pressure led to re-invention without explicit technological transfer. All of these topics are very interesting and I’ll see if I can dig up books on them in the future, even though I have little hopes of finding a book this good any time soon.
What about Christianity?
Gies & Gies do not follow the view shared by Gibbon and the Protestant Churches that the Middle Ages were a dark period of science-opposing Catholic crusades against human reason and progress. And while they start by citing the standard list of medieval inventions and radical improvements (in agriculture, architecture, water power, mathematics, bookkeeping, astronomy, metalworking, navigation, and various smaller adjacent discoveries), they also make more interesting points: For example, that the disappearance of mass slavery arose together with technological progress (hard to say which of the two drove the other), and this connection has shaped Europe ever since. Or: that Christianity stood in absolute contrast to paganism and Asian religions in stressing in doctrine that it’s divine intention for humanity to exploit nature for our own ends. Did you know that medieval iconography likes to show God as a master mason with various technical instruments?
As a consequence, monasteries were a bastion of technical developments and improvements. Monasteries, from the beginning, had resident craftsmen in large numbers: tailors, metalworkers, carpenters, fullers, weavers, shoemakers, and so on. Of course, this was a strong contributing factor to the economic success that was also their downfall (by way of greed and sloth and the frequent, ever-present minor reformations resulting in the multitude of monastic orders, each starting out humble and focused on poverty).
These craftsmen were, after the first couple of hundred years, formalised as the lay brothers, the conversi – and if that sounds negative, well: disdain for utilitarian arts has a long tradition going back to Cicero and Aristotle. But in spite of that tradition, even monks (not “just” lay brothers) spent time developing mechanical arts, and not just outliers like Roger Bacon, who praised practical arts above theoretical studies. In early medieval times, Benedictines were already famous for draining swamps for development and developing strains of fruit suited for colder northern climates (wearing a symbolic pruning hook on their belts), a very scientific pursuit – and in hindsight obvious foreshadowing of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar with his early insights into genetics.
What about the Romans?
We have the Renaissance to thank for the idea that Greek and Roman antiquity contained the height of human knowledge, followed by a thousand years of primitive idiocy. The Roman Empire was impressive in many ways, but technological progress was not one of them: most of Roman technology was inherited from the Stone, Bronze and early Iron Age, and there was very little inventing and improving going on (see The Economy of Cities for a plausible reason). They travelled only as widely as people had preceded them – for example, the Phoenicians had already sailed as far as Britain (motivated by the tin they found there). Most other technology was passed down from the Greek: The use of metal structures in architecture (ceiling beams reinforced with iron, Acropolis, 440 B.C.), the final improvement of parchment (slaking in lime for several days, 2nd century B.C.), mining technology including operating mines as government monopoly, pottery traditions, tunneling, and so on. Despite their impressive military history, the Romans also did not innovate much in the ways of arms and equipment.
The Romans did innovate in some regards, of course, but much less than you would expect from an empire of their size and age. Notable inventions were glassblowing and interior stairwells. But even in their famous long-lasting bridges (Pont du Gard has survived for two thousand years without the aid of mortar), they never advanced beyond the semicircular vault, which places tremendous weights on supporting walls, requiring them to be massive.
When there was innovation, it often came from outside the Empire, or at least its outer provinces: The Gauls invented the first mechanical harvester (“Gallic Reaper”, vallus), soap (from fats boiled with natural soda), clothing that was sewn together from separate pieces, laced boots, and the wooden barrel, which soon replaced clay amphorae and animal skins for transporting oil, wine and beer.
Romans seem to never have been very interested in increasing power output or leverage, which unites the big innovations of the early medieval period. The Roman disinterest in technological improvements had far-reaching consequences: since they never translated Greek geniuses like Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes and so on, medieval Western Europe (with its lack of Greek knowledge and scriptures) remained ignorant of these classics and their contents for a long time.
An interesting note towards the end of the book concerns the notion of progress. It claims that the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome – did not and could not see the world through the lens of progress, because the concept requires a sense of history, which was not a part of their worldview and culture. Technological progress was not something that occurred outside myths and legends in the collective perception, illustrated maybe by freely backported technology in Homer’s epics, and the constant references to past golden ages. In contrast, the Christian Church not only supplied its pioneering monastic orders, it also assumed a noncyclical, straight-line view of history that allowed for the idea of progress. I’m not sure I buy this argument, as it feels vaguely Chestertonian to me, but … maybe Chesterton was not always wrong?
I’m alway happy to see resistance to “Fall of Rome” narratives, and this book delivered: apparently there was no or very little discontinuity in technological knowledge and development following the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Instead, we soon get innovation – just not in Rome, because the center of gravity slowly shifted up to northern Europe and reached there by the time of Charlemagne. (And this, children, is why we don’t refer to this historical period as “Fall of Rome”, because it narrows the scope and pretends there is nothing outside Rome worth talking about. See also this.)
Technology of the Early Middle Ages
Two related technology-driven developments changed the face of Europe during the early medieval period: Impressive agricultural improvements, and a new military caste, armored on horseback, who formed the new ruling elite and was made possible by improvements to horseback riding (we’ll be side-stepping the stirrup debate).
Agricultural innovation started out with an improved harness for draught animals, allowing them to be harnessed in tandem, one behind the other. Coupled with a better plow, this allowed the clearing and use of the wide stretches of forests in northwest Europe, and changed the equation on how much effort had to be put into maintaining fields. Additionally, new tools arose and rarely-used tools spread everywhere: the harrow, the scythe (needed to cut hay to feed the numerous oxen) and the pitchfork (to handle the hay).
Of similar and complementary importance was an improvement towards the end of the early medieval period: the padded horse collar. Instead of pressing on the trachea, the new rigid padded collar focused on the sternum, allowing horses to breathe freely while under load, and tripling the weight a horse could pull. Coupled with the improved plow, this made horses extremely useful and suddenly they were in use everywhere, and much more important than they had been in Roman times. One economic consequence was the replacement of the old Roman latifundium, slave-manned and market-oriented, with the estate, equally large but working by exploiting not slave labour, but farm labour performed by tenants who divided their time between the owner’s land and their own small holdings.
The second big development of the time, the ruling elite cavalry class, owed its existence to developments like curb bits, spurs, and most importantly, the stirrup. While the magnitude of importance of the stirrup is discussed among historians, nobody is doubting that it was revolutionary and influential. Down the road, fighting from horseback encouraged the adoption of heavy armor, in turn forcing more proficiency in ironwork and further offensive military developments. As the cost of equipment rose in step with these developments (heavy armor is expensive, maintaining at least three horses and helpers even more so), those soldiers rose in status to the elevated, elite knights.
Politically as well as technologically, turning a martial class into a ruling elite also led to the transition from professional public garrisons in forts to private motte-and-bailey fortresses, which started out as command posts for Carolingian imperial officers (“castellans”), but soon turned into hereditary possessions of local lords. Not much more of note happened with these castles during the early medieval period, but we’ll see them again in the next parts.
We know little and guess much about many technological aspects of this time. Our knowledge about metallurgy, for example, relies on few archaeological sites like a 24-furnace array in the Czech Želechovice. Some things survive rather well, though, so we know that new reduction furnaces spread by the tenth century, and that many previously known-but-rare tools were for the first time widely distributed, most of all the lathe (crucial to improved woodworking and carpentry), and the crank. We also got better ink: made with oak gall and iron sulfate, it replaced the more common carbon/gum solutions.
Some technology remained unchanged, like linen and wool still being the primary textiles, with cotton production only starting up in the twelfth century. And some technology actually regressed or was lost: Masonry became much less elegant, relying on plenty of mortar (where Romans used none or little), and the knowledge of Roman cement and concrete, hardening even in water, was lost entirely until the nineteenth century. But in the balance, by the beginning of the tenth century, Europe’s technology surpassed the ancient Roman world by quite a bit.
Of course, they only surpassed the Romans with the help of other cultures – for most of medieval times, most technical innovations came from the advanced East. Examples from China include the ever-cited gunpowder, the compass including knowledge of deviation from true north, paper (including toilet paper), and much more. As an aside, while paper reached Europe in the 10th century, its only advantage was a cheaper price, at the disadvantage of being more fragile and perishable than papyrus and parchment, so its height of use had to wait for the rise of the printing press.
Europe also learned from Persia and India (though more during prehistory and antiquity). Medieval India provided large advances in mathematics, which got carried to Europe by the Arabs. The Islamic world, of course, was far more sophisticated and cultured than Europe, especially between the 8th and 12th century. Not only did they translate and preserve Greek and Indian sources that were lost to the rest of Europe, they also developed the theories they found and achieved remarkable technological progress. Their progress was not limited to the obvious features of mathematics and architecture: When the Normans conquered Sicily in the 11th century, they employed Muslims to handle all their finances due to their advances in bookkeeping and commerce. Other Muslim contributions include advancements in distillation, bowed instruments, irrigation works, cultivation of cotton, rice, sugarcane and citrus fruits, cotton clothing, and much more.
Interestingly enough, technology was much more transferable than the underlying science, because science was too caught up in religious and philosophical matters, whereas technology, seen as less noble and less crucial, and thus could propagate more freely.
Technology of the High Middle Ages
The High Middle Ages continued and improved the trend: Manufacture was up (textiles, pottery, leather goods etc), and production quality increased a lot. Commerce increased everywhere, motivating people to look for credit systems that were not in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church. Most of the transfer of Arabic learning to European culture occurred in this period, particularly driven by the Reconquista: Toledo was taken by the Spanish in 1105 with very little destruction and proved extremely influential. Later in this period, communication between Europe and Asia benefited from the conquest of the Mongols (huh!).
Agriculture saw a lot of improvement. Existing systems, especially crop rotation and fallow fields, were being organised and regulated. The plow increased the need for cooperation, since not everybody could afford one (or the necessary animals), giving rise to collective structures. The combination of the new plow and the improved harness also stimulated cultivation of oats (which are a spring crop and easily worked into open-field rotation), and increased use of manure (because horses are fed in the stable, so access is much easier). This, as all innovation particularly in the thirteenth century was helped along by an era of mild climate and resulting good harvests.
The arguably biggest agriculture related innovation was the waterwheel, which was the world’s prime mover until the steam engine came around. Both Rome and China knew and used the waterwheel, but without realizing its potential, because they (at least the Romans) didn’t use overshot wheels. Overshot wheels have a high initial cost, needing dams, millraces, sluice gates and tailraces plus complicated gearing (because they need to be vertical, whereas Roman waterwheels often were horizontal). Waterwheels spread like wildfire: in French districts, we see growth like from 40 mills in 1080 to 245 in 1175. For a region that held fewer than 100 mills, we see the Domesday book record at least5624 one hundred years later. The biographer or St Bernard (influential leader of the Cistercians) described the construction of the central abbey of Clairvaux, and spent a ton of time on describing water-powered machines, to the point of ignoring the new church building. It was a huge craze.
For context: A Roman quern, powered by slaves or donkeys, produced about one half horsepower. The horizontal water wheel only got the Romans slightly more power (explaining why it was not in widespread use), while the undershot vertical wheel gets you three horsepower and the medieval overshot wheel as much as forty to sixty!
Of course, technological change came with social change: Moving from per-household hand querns to mill buildings operated by the local authorities (clerical or worldly) led to increased control and oppression. In the famous rebellion at St Albans, the townspeople defiantly used their own hand querns, which were then collected, smashed, and displayed at the monastery as a show of oppressive force.
Water power of course included more than just mills: Dam building reached Europe from the Arabic world in the 12th century, and engineers started to figure out the use of tides for power gain. At the same time, the windmill appeared in Northern Europe as yet another new form of energy. Smithies experienced a sudden boom similar to the waterwheel: there were no village smiths in Picardy before 1125, and 30 by 1180. Generally, the 12th century seems to have experienced several tech booms concurrently.
More innovations included changes in soap production (using olive oil rather than animal fats, leading to the industry migrating south from Scandinavia to Marseilles), the introduction of hops in brewing – which was a female-dominated domestic industry, by the way, and the only craft that was not male-dominated. This domination was never entirely exclusive, as wives shared work with their husbands and often succeeded them as widows; we also see the occasional married or single women working crafts and trades of their own and having a status of recognized equality.
In architecture, we see the Romanesque vaults widening and rising as architects and builders improve their understanding of statics and execution. A surprising source of pressure for this was an interest of the Church to have illiterate people learn Biblical stories – but wall paintings, especially in higher rooms, require light to be seen, favouring floor plans that allowed for more windows and more light (and, of course, more complex statics). The crucial elements of these churches were the pointed arch, the resulting rib vaults, and of course the flying buttresses for external support – whose capacity to be beautiful and not just functional was quickly recognised, as French cathedrals testify. This development converted churches from being bulky and resting primarily on their outer walls to being lighter and putting the weight of the new rib vaults on a skeletal structure of columns – and so, the outer walls had to carry less weight and could be punctured by windows. Competitions in building height similar to skyscraper races led to a record spire in Strasbourg of 142 meters, equivalent to a modern forty-six-story building.
The new large windows in churches also drove improvements and divergence in glassmaking: in Northern Europe, potash from hardwood trees replaced the traditional sodium ash as main ingredient. Colourful glass windows united a set of established tools and refined it to a level of mastery that remains hard to match even today. Clear glass also slowly became more feasible and spread (though usually still lightly tinted), with the main sources of progress located in and around Venice.
Castles arose from timber motte-and-bailey constructions, stimulated by advancements in building tech and not due to increased peril from outside. In the living quarters, another innovation spread widely: the wall fireplace, an improvement over the central hearth, adding warmth by radiation from its stones and the wall. Also related to castles was the development of the crossbow, which high price point and slow reload times were minimized in castle defense.
Bridges did not reflect the masonry advancements yet, though: Until the fourteenth century, bridges continued to favour the old semicircular arch – London Bridge had nineteen of them, no two quite alike, built over years whenever funding became available, leading to a new innovation of removable masts for squeezing under the bridge.
Architecture and masonry also switched to a more professional structure of organisation. While earlier cathedrals execution of every detail was supervised by the master mason, this was no longer feasible, and construction enterprises involved large amounts of coordination and organisation of different crafts and masters with their respective workshops.
For example, carpenters advanced by using the new water-powered saw (moved down by a waterwheel, then helped back into starting position by a sapling), which was the first widespread mechanism with two automatic alternating motions. Water power naturally also came to metalwork. Water-powered blast furnaces could run continuously for weeks or months at a time. This led to a multi-step processes of melting metal into standard-sized pieces, which then went to secondary furnaces (fineries) for further processing. Of course, the greater availability of iron led to cyclical improvements in weapons and armor, leading to full-plate armor, and, of course, the use of gunpowder, first mentioned by Roger Bacon in 1268.
In other infrastructure news, the old Roman road network just didn’t cut it anymore: Roman roads ran in extremely straight lines, mostly ignoring terrain, because they were primarily meant as military infrastructure for foot soldiers. They weren’t great for wheels and horses in the first place, and even less so after centuries of sub-par maintenance. New roads along trade routes led to a sharp increase in the ratio of wheeled vehicles on the road, especially with the new horse collar making horse carts the preferred mode of transport.
Research and science as we understand them did not exist yet, but the foundations about to come into being: First, medical schools were founded in Italy in the eleventh century, when cultural contacts with Islam were established. Simultaneously, cathedral schools were being founded in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Canterbury, and so on, giving then rise, in the twelfth century, to the first universities in Paris and Bologna. The initial curriculum rested on Muslim-assisted translations of Greek authorities like Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy, and first and foremost Aristotle. But the general attitude was not one of looking back – it was all about rediscovery and continuing with new discoveries. University scholars were constantly trying to find rational and logical explanations for all things natural.
This was also the time of the Commercial Revolution, following a set of disasters (several bankruptcies of great Italian banking houses, the Hundred Years war, and a succession of famine years around 1315 followed by the Black Death). Starting in Italy, we see the formation of large trading companies dealing in credit transactions. It also led to the development of accounting and double-entry bookkeeping (spreading rapidly), which was rapidly adopted on most estates in Europe, and the following affluence gave rise to economic theories and analytics. In particular, people started recognising limits to growth (One of the most eminent trading points for those goods, Venice, was the first medieval port to have to deal with local forest depletion). Other consequences include courier services between company branch offices expanding into postal services, and credit notes not only within one banking house, but spanning connected houses and currencies. Currency exchange in particular was used to conceal interest rates, evading the Church’s edicts against usury.
The Commercial Revolution saw some cut-throat business practices start, particularly the putting-out system in the textile industry. This involved the main merchant buying the initial product (e.g. wool), then selling it to the manufacturers (for carding, spinning, weaving, dying), then buying it back, and selling it again for the next step. Of course, as with current-day Uber, pseudo self-employment is treacherous, since the merchant could just decide to buy back less or nothing if the market interest dropped. This led to the first strikes and even whole dependent villages suing their unofficial overlord.
But the textile industry not only changed in organisation, it also changed in technology. As slavery waned, textile production was converted from a women-only job to something produced in the family unit, with the head of household as the weaver, and women preparing and spinning the yarn for the loom. Wool continued to dominate the industry, with linen as a secondary fabric source (though relegated from towns to outskirts or the countryside). It also got increasingly mechanised, which seems like a natural fit for the industry that gave rise to punch-card programming. It started with the spinning wheel. The earliest known mention is actually from the statutes of the drapers’ guilds in 1280 banning its use – the spinning wheel halved the numbers of spinners needed to supply one weaver, but at the cost (especially in the beginning) of a less regular thread than the ones spun on the distaff and the spindle. The pragmatic solution at the time was to use wheel-spun thread of the shorter leftover fragments for the weft, and hand-spun thread of the longer fibers left after combing for the warp (which, if you had the skill, paid better). Warp and weft were usually spun in opposite directions (clockwise/Z for warp, counterclockwise/S for weft) to help weavers and merchants sort out the threads.
Slightly later, metal carders came into wider use, also first for the weft, later for the warp. Around the same time, the toothed warper appeared, which was used with bundles of threads of equal length (legibility increasing whereever you look), allowing longer threads than before to be placed on the loom, increasing the resulting cloth lengths. Warp thread lengths were standardised in each city, so that buyers needed only to know the city of origin of a bolt of cloth to know its exact size. This worked well in tandem with the new wide horizontal loom – taking its double width from the fact that it was operated by two weavers passing the shuttle back and forth.
Technology also changed the relative popularity of different fabrics. Silk weaving started to spread to northern Europe, using raw silk imported from Italy (who in turn, of course, had imported first materials and later technology from the East). The flax breaker and the spinning wheel made linen production far more feasible, leading to larger linen and cotton production. Cotton in particular saw a lot of standardisation of thread weight and loom sizes. A predecessor of basically jeans jackets spread through Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth century, starting as something worn under robes, but then becoming an outer garment heavily criticised for briefness and tight fit. 😳 We see something here that The Economy of Cities states over and over: the cities monopolised the most advanced processes, for example in the cotton trade the beating, weaving, stretching, dyeing, and finishing. Another peculiarity of cotton is that it’s hard to ship in its raw state – it’s more lightweight and bulky, so that regulations sprang up to make sure ships did not load up on cotton exclusively.
Linen meanwhile was more durable, but also harder to care for and less comfortable, though increased linen production in tandem with a rising paper market led to more discarded rags and declining prices. Paper mills sprang up first in Italy, then France and Germany. The falling paper price led to the scribes becoming the largest cost factor in the production of books, which, of course, encouraged the advent of mass-produced writing material.
Generally, people moved to the cities where possible. In 1380, half of the population of Flanders and Brabant lived in cities. This, in turn, led to social and civil engineering developments: street repair and the resulting rising street levels, running water and domestic plumbing (but mainly in monastic precincts), public baths developing into private bathtubs (both due to easier heating with the new wall fireplace and changed attitudes towards unisex bathing in the fourteenth century), and much more. City life was dominated by guilds, and guilds had also changed. The older merchant guilds were joined by the new, but hugely influential guilds of craftsmen, who gave rise and institutionalised a whole bunch of innovations, like the draw plate for drawing wires. It’s hard to overstate the importance of guilds in the cities. In late thirteenth century Bologna, 72% of inhabitants were members of guilds or relatives of guild members!
Technology of the Late Middle Ages
The political changes of the late medieval period are pretty well-known and need little explanation: The emergence of several large national states, among them those that removed the previously incredibly influential Hanseatic League from power. Then the Ottoman Turks capturing Constantinople in 1453, and European exploration of the African coast and the Americas. Technologically, we see Europe move to the forefront of the world stage in several areas, to the point that by the end, it rivaled Asia as center of civilisation, and had turned into something we can recognise as related to our current world.
One indicator for this is the development of the weight-driven mechanical clock. While mechanical clocks (though not for time-keeping so much as for astronomical purposes) had existed in Asia much earlier, European improvements and the move to primarily time-keeping purposes involved several large jumps, especially the development of the verge (crown wheel) and foliot escapement, and toward the end of the fifteenth century the mainspring, which made timepieces both cheap and portable (though unreliable). Clocks (the ones not primarily used for astronomy) started out without watch faces, just alarm mechanisms, and spread rapidly starting in 1309. Blacksmiths became busy churning out clocks all over Europe.
This also facilitated a move to the equal hours system (whereas before, 12 hours had been in any day between sunrise and sunset, which some extremely impressive clocks were also able to display!). Fun fact: For a while, nobody agreed what the “zero” hour was: midnight, noon, sunrise or sunset! On a more serious note, we once more see legibility used as much for oppressive purposes as for technological advancement, as equal-hour timekeeping and the spread of clocks (household clocks appearing around 1400) led to the concept of official working hours, imposed by merchants on their workers. The putting-out system was replaced in the West with early versions of a real factory system (the East stuck with the putting-out system for much longer). This move to factory systems included explicit/enforced distribution of tasks, fixed working hours, and actual work inspectors, making sure these new advancements were obeyed. We even see the first form of the assembly line: in Venice, the arming and equipping of war galleys happened in highly specialised tasks along a canal way, which could arm ten galleys in six hours.
Metalwork improved further with the invention of the slitting mill (for nail production) and the rolling mill (producing flat sheets of iron). Improved agricultural tools meant that life quality rose for even the lower classes.
Military technology included both on new discoveries and on refinements: Gunpowder was made consistent with the discovery of corning, in which the powder was dampened by vinegar and passed through a sieve to form granules. Firing mechanisms were continuously improved, until the mechanism was finally enclosed and given a spring trigger. Artillery reinforced the trend toward professional armies, just like the cavalry in the Early Middle Ages, both due to the required skill level and high cost of entry. Armored knights disappeared, not really because armor didn’t stand up to bullets, but mostly because it was hideously expensive and less flexible to deploy. As a further response, the high curtain walled castle was superseded by squat fortresses with thick ramparts that could absorb heavy cannonballs and could be used as platform for defensive artillery.
Civil engineering also continued to improve. The roads, less strong and rigid, were easier to maintain and in increasingly frequent use, which led to more and more complex and inspired routes being developed. The St Gotthard Pass was opened to pack animals with a new road and impressive bridges in 1237. Carriages gained increasingly improved suspensions, starting from chains running transversely under the main carriage body. The development of the movable forecarriage led to an advance to four-wheeled wagons, which had not been in widespread use before, and which could carry goods 22-35km in a single day in level country, changing food supply lines. Despite this, the technique of shrinking heated bands onto wheels was not invented until the sixteenth century. Another result of increased traffic and water power were conflicts between those two, leading to the invention of canal locks at Damme (almost 85% of traffic moved on waterways in the Low Countries, after all). They also pioneered maintenance technology, such es harbor dredges.
I’d like to continue ignoring nautical advancements, but while shipbuilding improvements continue to be something of no interest to me, navigation tech is cool: Trigonometry developed in the universities was applied to navigation, and by 1350 most ships carried sea charts of some kind. They also carried hourglasses to calculate speed and distance travelled, and of course the astrolabe to determine a ship’s latitude.
We also see the rise of Hindu numerals, and centuries later, signs to indicate operations (plus and minus in the fifteenth century, equals in the sixteenth, division in the seventeenth). Businessmen were initially wary of the new numerals, feeling it was easier to alter them and reluctant to memorise tables of multiplication and division – but by the late fourteenth century, Hindu-Arabic numerals had replaced Roman numerals and the abacus in commercial contexts. (We know this with a lot of precision thanks to the rise of double-entry bookkeeping, which leaves us with plenty of sources.)
Unlike popular imagination would have you believe, the Church’s general attitude towards science and pseudo-science remind mild. There was opposition to the casting of horoscopes (since they seemed to conflict with the doctrine of free will), but apart from that, pretty much everything technological was tolerated or furthered. The only people in occasional trouble with the Church were philosophers and theologians. The universities developed theories of concepts such as relative motion (Jean Buridan, Paris), the rotation of the Earth on its axis (Oresme, Paris, also resolving the paradox of an arrow shot straight up returning to the same spot despite the planet’s lateral movement). In Italy, we see the first dissections at universities, starting to put medicine on the path to become an actual science.
Eyeglasses were also invented in Italy around 1300 (which first required a proficiency at making clear glass), though glasses for the nearsighted did not arrive until the sixteenth century. I sometimes wonder how much just the ability to work longer due to support for waning eyesight has accelerated general progress.
Art, of course, saw incredible improvements, some of which were technological: improved lineseed refinement allowed for better pigment dispersion, allowing for vastly improved oil paintings. Casting procedures matured and led to a lot of bronze statues, especially equestarian ones (starting around 1450).
And, last but not least, the most prominent invention of the late medieval period: the printing press. A lot has been written about how it came to be, and what I keep finding the most fascinating is the amount of economic and technological incentives that aligned in preparation. The wood-block printing technique used mostly for playing cards was professionalised gave rise to engraving (especially in south Germany and Italy), and subsequently wood type, first used to stamp titles onto bindings (and Gutenberg then figured out the best metal to mass-produce movable types). Then, improvements in the screw presses used in wine and oil production made these presses much more powerful by using steeply pitched screws that needed only a quarter turn of the lever for full pressure. The list goes on and on; most interesting among the improvements are probably Gutenberg’s sliding bed that allowed the printer to move the paper into place, and his new printing ink: Made from a mix of soot (aka lampblack), turpentine, and linseed or walnut oil, heated and reduced, this ink did not blur when printed onto slightly dampened paper.
Just like the waterwheel and double-entry bookkeeping, the printing press spread with astonishing speed. Many of the new presses (by 1480, nearly every city in Europe had at least one) were operated by former priests, many editors and proofreaders were former abbots. The resulting shift in the availability of books and new formats of printed materials increased the size of the literate class, formerly restricted to the clergy and some members of the nobility at universities, to most of the nobility and a growing number of commoners, members of the middle class created by the Commercial Revolution.
The love child of the increased level of technical expertise and the printing press were the new technical treatises that went into detail regarding all kinds of technological advancements and practices, such as mining, military matters, civil engineering, and so on. These treatises, seeing as they were respectably printed!, turned the previously neglected technological arts into something discussed by the elite, and also led to general advances through exchanges between inventors similar to how in the previous centuries monks exchanged ideas through their monastic networks.