This book is one of the few books that really summarize medieval technology in comparison with social change without unneccessary details. There isn't a single useless paragraph, and although it is a rather dificult book to follow, it demonstrates how and why things took place where they took place (I won't give spoilers). I bought this book as reference material for a project and I am more than satisfied. It is rather difficult to encounter the subject matter outside of huge encyclopedias with so much detail and so substantiated. In the course of my research I've come up with few books that provide so much condensed knowledge, properly backed by historical evidence. I absolutely recommend it.
White certainly refutes the idea of the Middle Ages being all darkness, ignorance and brutality. The technological developments during that period were stunning, but we normally do not appreciate them because they are the foundation of our world and we take them for granted.
She explains the evidence for e.g. stirrups, horseshoes, the crank etc in its historical context e.g. early findings in China, which is helpful but more helpful (for me) is the aspect of social change. For example, the heavy plough was better than the scratch plough for most soil types north of the Alps, but it needed more power (oxen) which then necessitated more cooperation in a village but the result was a better harvest. Later, horses had their advantages (faster workers) and disadvantages (oat consumers).
With this kind of explanation a lot of history makes eminent sense.
Weaknesses: The footnotes take up far too much space - up to 1/3 of a page. White assumes that all her readers understand latin and doesn't translate any of the quotes which are presumably relevant. She also assumes that her readers already understand the construction of cranks, treadles etc. There is not a single drawing anywhere and the pictures showing engravings etc are tucked away at the back ... after the index.
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.
Lynn White's seminal work is now regarded as one of the most widely read and influential works of historical scholarship in the twentieth century. Well written, lucid, and to the point, the book is highly accessible. In three short sections, White propounds his theory of profound technological change in Europe during the medieval period...and the effect this had on Europe's social and cultural fabric. His first thesis is perhaps the best known: the argument that the formation of feudalism was made possible by the introdution of the stirrup into medieval Europe. White's second section goes on to to show the importance of various agrarian innovations to the 'agricultural revolution' in medieval Europe. His last section discusses the the growth in the use of 'power machinery' in the Middle Ages. Readers should take note however: times have moved on since White, and our understanding of the history of technology in the medieval ages has advanced immeasurably (thanks, in no small part, to White). White's arguments on the Stirrup and the agricultural revolution have been widely critisized and to a large extent discredited. The book, however, remains a classic in its field.