Customer Review

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars thought-provoking, vivid, recondite, necessary, 9 Nov. 2013
This review is from: Medieval Technology and Social Change (Galaxy Books) (Paperback)
This is an excellent, brief history on how technological change impacted medieval society.

The historical backdrop to the technological revolution takes place around the beginning of the Gothic era, when the Dark Ages had given way to a period of rapid change. This is when stable cities began to flourish in relatively greater safety, vast ranges of forest were cleared in a kind of internal colonization for purposes of farming, and, allied to the castle fortresses that were springing up, a knightly culture was born with new norms and modes of warfare.

White argues that three fundamental inventions spread at this time. First, there was the stirrup. This simple device enabled riders to better balance themselves, completely changing what they could do while mounted. As such, they were able to use heavier weapons, like sabers and battering rams for striking without fearing they would lose their balance or get knocked off by the force of the blow. Because the technology was very expensive, it offered further advantage to the rich, reinforcing their mastery over peasants. In addition to the unifying force of a rejuvenated and more uniform Christian ideology, this formed the basis of knightly culture.

Second, there was a revolution in agricultural techniques, the necessary adjunct to the man-driven deforestation that was taking place at the time. This is very technical stuff about how plows were altered so that they turned over the earth in new ways, enhancing fertilization and hence productivity, fuelling the urban boom underway. I will need to review the details many more times to remember them.

Finally, White examines the sudden fascination with mechanical devices, in particular the crank. This section was, in my opinion, the least developed and its results the most ambiguous. There were new, more complex devices made, much of it related to the search for a perpetual motion machine. This led to experimentation and the creation later of more sophisticated locomotive devices. It is like the mechanical equivalent to alchemy and its relation to chemistry.

While I am not competent to evaluate White's conclusions, this is a valuable addition to medieval studies and technological history. I found it thoroughly enriching, an excellent overview of a period I knew from a different angle, and a quick read.
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