The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below

Book Reviews

The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution Of The Middle Ages. By Jean Gimpel.


A great book on the Industrial Revolution of the medieval period, concentrating on the 12th - 14th centuries. An era unfairly labelled the 'dark ages', when in fact it was a period of technological advance to rival the Industrial Revolution of the 18th & 19th centuries.

This assumption of the middle ages being backward, environmentally unaware, anti technology, unprogressive, and devoutly religious was an exaggeration of Renaissance humanists (whose faith in Christianity was often more sincere than that of the medieval era) and the Enlightenment. There is this idea that the medieval era was ignorant of the Greek and Roman scholars and culture that existed prior, but as the various ideas and innovations in agriculture and other areas of medieval society will show, they were well aware of, and influenced by, the likes of Vitruvius.

The book highlights many ideas and inventions found in manuscripts and notebooks of medieval architect-engineers such as Villard de Honnecourt and Konrad Kyeser, whose innovative ideas include armoured vehicles, assault towers and the first known representations of portable firearms. Anonymous engineers contributed to freely circulating notebooks, particularly the manuscript of the Hussite Wars, which documents in detail military innovations and ideas far more advanced than what Leonardo Da Vinci has been made famous for.

These anonymous innovations include the first known drawing of a cannon on a wheeled carriage, as well as the first of a cannon on board a warship. There is also ideas for a deep sea diving suit (a much more advanced and detailed version than the one Da Vinci had in mind). Other medieval innovations include: the horse replacing the oxen, improved harnessing, and the introduction of the horse shoe on a mass scale which innovated not just farming, but trade and transport (the author does acknowledge, however, that the Yenesei tribe of the 9th century were supposedly the first to nail iron shoes to horses' hooves). The astronomical clock was arguably one of the most revolutionary creations of this era, (acknowledging Su Sung of China whose clock predates Europe's by a couple of centuries). The time-telling clock as we have come to know it, was a by-product of this astronomical clock.

Wood was the main source of fuel for most, if not all, industries and used for building houses, bridges, ships, watermills, windmills, creating an environmental impact, which medieval society was conscious of at the time. Becoming more scarce, the price of wood rapidly increased, and with this environmental impact, scarcity and the implementation of the the Forest Act (arguably a predecessor to the later Enclosure Acts, and really more for protection of the hunting grounds of the wealthy), a substitute was found in coal. This was mostly used as domestic fuel, primarily by the poor who could not afford the rising price of wood. Over time, however, coal produced another ecological issue in atmospheric pollution.

Alongside this rapid deforestation and air pollution, contaminated water became an issue due to the tanning industries and their various procedures as well as animal slaughter, which brought on conflict and disputes with other industries using the same rivers (notably brewers). Anti pollution acts were put in place across Europe without much impact. With regards to water access, most medieval people preferred to rely on wells, and sometimes repaired the half-ruined Roman aquaducts as well as building new ones.

Workers of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, particularly builders and masons, could negotiate their wage as free tradesmen, They were considerably better off, had a better standard of living than workers of later 17th & 18th centuries (Of course the Black Death was an important factor in the middle of the 14th century), and received on average more days off than workers in 1970s (the time this book was published) due to the many religious holidays and feast days.