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Medieval Technology and Social Change…
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Medieval Technology and Social Change (Galaxy Books) (Original 1966; 1968. Auflage)

von Lynn White

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This study examines the role of technological innovation during the rise of social groups in the Middle Ages.
Titel:Medieval Technology and Social Change (Galaxy Books)
Autoren:Lynn White
Info:OUP USA (1968), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 224 pages
Sammlungen:Deine Bibliothek
Tags:Technology, Medieval Technology


Medieval Technology and Social Change von Jr. Lynn White (1966)

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One of the major disadvantages of being an amateur historian is having to work with stuff that may be out of date. If I were really serious about medieval history, I’d have to subscribe to half a dozen very expensive academic journals or spend a considerable amount of time every month in a serious research library. Since I can’t afford to do either of those things, I have to take my chances with books. This particular one is pretty old – 1962. Therefore, I’ve no real idea if the stuff here is seriously out of date or not.

With that caveat, it’s pretty interesting. There are two foci – what you might call “horse technology”, and the development of other sources of power (windmill, water wheel, gravity escapement). Since I’ve read some books on horse history, I was interested in what author Lynn White had to say about horses.

The horse (or a similar equid) was domesticated about 3000 BCE; there’s some horse skeletons in Central Asia that show characteristic jaw wear from having a bit in their mouths. The first reliable illustration of a horse (well, onager) drawn vehicle comes from the so-called “Royal Standard of Ur”, which dates to about 2600 BCE. The saddle (as opposed to a simple pad on the horse’s back) shows up about 400 BCE. The tandem harness appears in the first century AD (and catches on very quickly; Pliny is already talking about six-ox teams); the stirrup appears in Europe about 750 CE (evidence is surprisingly slight, but Charles Martel defeated stirrup-less Arab cavalry at Tours with an infantry shield wall in 732 CE while the entire Frankish army appears to have been mounted knights by 755 CE); the horse collar about 800 CE and the nailed horseshoe shows up about 900 CE. The synergy between these technologies and medieval social life is not obvious but interesting when explained:

* It didn’t make sense to use horses to pull anything until the invention of the horse collar. A collared horse can pull five times as much weight as one with a simple neck strap.

* It didn’t make sense to breed large horses until the introduction of the stirrup. The warhorse therefore came before the plow horse.

* It didn’t make sense to use horses for plowing in damp climates until the introduction of the nailed horseshoe. Unshod horse’s hooves get soft in damp soil, then crack and get infected when back on a harder surface.

Once all this was in place, however, farming started to change. A horse team and an ox team can pull about the same maximum weight; however, the horse team can pull it considerably faster. Even though horses eat more than oxen, the extra work done by horses more than makes up for it, and the introduction of horse plowing seems to have increased medieval agricultural production by about 30%. One thing I didn’t consider is not only do horses plow faster; they get to the field faster. Thus peasants could live farther from their fields, leading to the expansion of towns and villages.

White’s linkage of this improved technology to social change is necessarily tentative. You can’t actually prove that the tremendous increase in cavalry efficiency made possible by the stirrup lead directly to feudalism, or that the ability to get horses to the field faster than oxen led to the growth of urbanism, but the suggestions aren’t unreasonable.

The later chapters on alternate power sources can get a little speculative. White argues that rotary motion seems unnatural to humans, or at least unintuitive, and that the idea of converting linear motion to rotary motion was particularly difficult to grasp, leading to what seems to be a long delay in inventing the crank. I wonder if strength of materials and joining technology are a better explanation? A crank is a relatively high stress thing and joining three pieces of wood together to make a crank must have been a difficult challenge to carpenters used to working with foot-thick beams. The kick-turned potter’s wheel was known since Egyptian and Sumerian time, so the concept of converting linear to rotary motion couldn’t have been that hard.

An interesting read. As discussed above, I can’t say for sure that everything here is state-of-the-art technological history. There are extensive footnotes and endnotes, and a few illustrations. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
Essentially this is a book made up of threes essays on different technologies. There is very little to add to Kant's excellent review of this book in Librarything. Except perhaps to say that at least the publishers suggest that it would be a good introduction (rather than the 'last word') on the subject. Personally I found the assertions in relation to the Chinese lack of priority in the development and deployment of the windmill and gunpowder technologies unconvincing, and will go to my Needham's to check the details. Which proves the point that White has written what at least could be called an intriguing and stimulating book. But the degree to which White claims and asserts comes across a bit strong and I would have read his essays with less 'discomfort' if they had been in a larger collection containing some contrary views. Certainly recommended as an introduction or counterpoint, perhaps alongside something like a summary of Needhams 'Science and Civilization in China'. ( )
1 abstimmen nandadevi | Nov 25, 2012 |
At the heart of some of the best works on medieval history rests the claim that the middle ages were not the dark, backward theocracies of popular lore, but dynamic societies full of art, culture, music, and science. And with the advent of Lynn White’s 1962 book “Medieval Technology and Social Change,” we can add technology to the list of subjects that have been sadly left off the list of subjects usually associated with this time period.

White looks at the advent of what he considers to be three seminal technological innovations: the stirrup, the agricultural revolution of the early middle ages, and the rise of mechanical power in the late middle ages. Furthermore, White claims that he has two other intentions, to “show the kinds of sources and the means which must be used if the unlettered portions of the past (which involve far more than technological history) are to be explored” and to demonstrate “long before Vasco de Gama, the cultures of the eastern hemisphere were far more osmotic than most of us have believed. To understand the sources and ramifications of developments in medieval Europe one must search Benin, Ethiopia and Timor, Japan and the Altai” (v). At least according to the title, he also wants to outline the kinds of social impacts this had on the people who were dealing with the technologies in question. For a book of a mere 134 pages, this is a really ambitious project.

I always try to rate and comment on a book for what it claims to be and for what it is instead of what I want it to be, but there is much more of a focus on the “medieval technology” here than there is on the “social change,” by a large margin. The first essay provided a seamless integration of many of the areas listed above, including how the stirrup was related to the rise of a professional cavalry in the Frankish military, and how in turn that was related to the development of feudalism. The second and third case studies, however, rather quickly veer into the minutiae of agriculture and mechanical design, respectively. The transition from two-field to three-field crop rotation and a somewhat detailed account of the contents of Konrad Kyeser’s “Bellifortis” are details I could have lived without. And even though White explicitly mentions that he wants to trace the historical origins of these innovations, many essay subsections feel overly listy and superficial instead of honing in on the European focus that he seems to be most interested in here. A thorough history of these developments would have been interesting – for someone else, not for me – but it would have needed a much, much longer book.

I didn’t come to this because of interest, but because it was cross-referenced in another book I’m currently reading about the ideas of Ernest Gellner, and specifically his “Plough, Sword, and Book.” I thought I recognized White’s name, and after looking on my bookshelf found that I owned it and decided to read it. There are, I am sure, people who will find this endlessly fascinating. Bless their souls. It may even still even be highly relevant in its field; I now know about as much about medieval technology as I did before I read it, i.e., next to nothing, though that wasn’t the book’s fault. For what it’s worth, you can still find this book on many graduate-level course syllabi covering the middle ages, the history of science, and even politics. But unless you are interested in the arcana of the technology in question, and especially tracking said technology from continent to continent, and from one medieval treatise to the next, I recommend another book on the subject. ( )
1 abstimmen kant1066 | May 14, 2012 |
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This study examines the role of technological innovation during the rise of social groups in the Middle Ages.

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