Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology & Social Change (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1962).

Author. (1907 - 1987)
Professor of medieval history at Stanford, Princeton and UCLA; president Mills College 1943-58
Conjectured that the Christian Middle Ages were the root of ecological crisis in the 20th century

Context.One of the first historical reviews of medieval technological revolutions

Scope.This book has a triple intention. … three studies of technology and social change in the European Middle Ages: one on the origins of the secular aristocracy; one dealing with the dynamism of the early medieval peasantry; one with the technological context of early capitalism.


- Addresses specific equestrian (stirrup), agricultural (plow), and power technologies (water-driven mill) and explores the social changes that they created.

- The Stirrup—argues Charles Martel exploited the stirrup and the military advantage it created for cavalry when he seized lands from the church and instituted feudalism

- The heavy plow, horses instead of oxen, 3 field rotation system—agricultural advances allowed more and better food production (protein in beans) while helping/preserving the soil

- Genesis of power technologies—water, wind, steam, rockets, crank and flywheelàthis pursuit set the stage for impressive advances down range

- Implicit argument: Christianity allows for the manipulation of the environment in ways that other religions may not (exploration and eventual reliance versus reluctance). Technology flows between East and West creating a new culture within that interaction

“As our understanding of the history of technology increases, it becomes clear that a new device merely opens a door; it does not compel one to enter. The acceptance or rejection of an invention, or the extent to which its implications are realized if accepted, depends quite as much upon the condition of a society, and upon the imagination of its leaders, as upon the nature of the technological item itself.” Grasp the inherent possibilities.

Central Proposition. 129 – mechanical power has no meaning apart from mechanisms to harness it…. the eleventh and twelfth centuries had applied the cam to a great variety of operations. The thirteenth century discovered spring and treadle; the fourteenth century developed gearing to levels of incredible complexity; the fifteenth century, by elaborating crank, connecting-rod, and governor, vastly facilitated the conversion of reciprocating into continuous rotary motion. … The symptom of the emergence of a conscious and generalized lust for natural energy and its application to human purposes, is the enthusiastic adoption by thirteenth century Europe of an idea which had originated in twelfth century India—perpetual motion.

Other Major Propositions. 28 – The acceptance or rejection of an invention, or the extent to which its implications are realized if it is accepted, depends quite as much upon the condition of a society, and upon the imagination of its leaders, as upon the nature of the technological item itself. (see Kuhn and McDougall)
31 – The feudal sense that the enjoyment of wealth is inseparable from public responsibility chiefly distinguishes medieval ideas of ownership from both classical and modern.
39 – From the Neolithic Age until about two centuries ago, agriculture was fundamental to most other human concerns…. Under such circumstances any lasting change in climate, soil fertility, technology, or other conditions affecting agriculture would necessarily modify the whole of society: population, wealth, political relationships, leisure, and cultural expression. (read Jared Diamond: Guns Germs and Steel or Collapse for more on this)
56 – Although most peasants paid rent, usually in produce and services, the assumption was subsistence farming. Then in northern Europe, and there alone, the heavy plough changed the basis of allotment: peasants now held strips of land at least theoretically in proportion to their contribution to the plough-team…. No more fundamental change in the idea of man’s relation to the soil can be imagined: once man had been part of nature; now he became her exploiter.
69 – The three-field system of crop rotation has been called ‘the greatest agricultural novelty of the Middle Ages in Western Europe’ … in the late eighth century

Chapter 1 – Stirrup, Mounted Shock Combat, Feudalism, and Chivalry 2 – The stirrup … made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle
3 – According to (Heinrich) Brunner, feudalism was essentially military, a type of social organization designed to produce and support cavalry.
13 – the Muslim peril did not provoke Charles Martel’s (Charlemagne) military reform and thus establish feudalism in Europe
16 – by the fifth century of our era the idea of the stirrup had spread from India through the Khyber Pass to China
27 – It is archaeology, then, and not art history, which is decisive for the dating of the arrival of the stirrup in western Europe. And that date may be placed in the first part of the eighth century
31 – self-respect was based primarily on two ideal virtues: loyalty to his liege … and prowess in combat.… The duty of knight’s service is the key to feudal institutions.

Chapter 2 – The Agricultural Revolution of the Early Middle Ages 43 – Unlike the scratch-plough, the share of which simply burrows through the turf, flinging it to either side, the heavy plough has three functioning parts…. A coulter … cutting vertically … a flat ploughshare … cutting the earth horizontally … a mouldboard designed to turn the slice of turf either to the right or the left … no need for cross ploughing … without such a plough it was difficult to exploit the dense, rich alluvial bottom lands
44 – Few peasants owned eight oxen. If they wished to use the new and more profitable plough, they would therefore pool their teams.… The result was the growth of a powerful village council of peasants to settle disputes and to decide how the total lands of the community should be managed. These arrangements were the essence of the manorial economy in northern Europe.
62 – Modern experiments show that while horse and ox exert roughly the same pull, the horse moves so much more rapidly that he produces 50 percent more foot-pounds per second. Moreover, a horse has more endurance than an ox, and can work one or two hours longer each day.
71 – as the Carolingians marched their armies into barbarian Germany … Teuton and Latin began to fuse their talents in the building of a new European culture, at that same moment the Baltic-North Sea spring planting was married to the Mediterranean autumn planting to create a new agricultural system far more productive than either of its progenitors.
73 – It may be that the 300-year delay between the arrival of the modern harness and the widespread use of the horse for non-military purposes can be explained by the practical difficulties of switching a village from the biennial to the triennial rotation…. Arrangements of this sort are much more easily effected when new land is being settled, or when devastated areas are being repopulated after a time of chaos. (Thank God for the Black Plague and Mongols!)
75 – Malthus was no dietician … Food is not food unless it forms a balanced ration, the chief element in which is a relation between carbohydrates and proteins.… Anything affecting the quantity of proteins available will quickly be felt in terms of population. (invest in algae fields!)

Chapter 3 – The Medieval Exploration of Mechanical Power and Devices 92 – the brazen head remained the normal form of boiler, and directly inspired the earliest steam-turbines…. Its boiler is a sufflator in the shape of a human head from the mouth of which issues a jet of steam turning a turbine
93 – the screw-propeller for ships, and thus eventually the aeroplane propeller, seems to have been inspired by the form of the metal hot-air turbines in chimneys (to turn spits) rather than by the wooden, and often spoon-bladed, water-turbines
98 – While gunpowder and rockets were apparently an international development, guns are Occidental in origin, springing from the Byzantine technique of shooting Greek fire from copper tubes.
100 – The cannon is not only important in itself as a power-machine applied to warfare: it is a one-cylinder internal combustion engine, and all of our more modern motors of this type are descended from it…. Indeed, the conscious development of such devices from the cannon continued to handicap their development until the nineteenth century, when liquid fuels were substituted for powdered.
107 – Unfortunately, most scholars, save for art historians and archaeologists, have been taught to look carefully at words rather than at things or pictures.
131 – about AD1200 Islam served as intermediary in transmitting the Indian concept of perpetual motion to Europe, just as it was transmitting Hindu numerals and positional reckoning … a windmill on a hill with constant breezes, a water-mill in a stream which never runs dry, were, to the Middle Ages, perpetual motion machines.

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