TECHNOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Tim Lambert
It is sometimes said that after the fall of the Roman Empire there was a dark age in Europe. However a number of inventions were made in Europe at that time or reached the continent from other cultures.
One big improvement was the 3-field system. In the Ancient World land was divided into 2 fields, one of which was sown while the other was left fallow. In Germany in the 8th century the 3-field system was invented. One field was sown in Spring, one in Autumn and one was left fallow. This system allowed farmers to grow more food.
Another useful invention, the crank was first recorded in France in the 9th century.
An Arab named al-Hazen (c. 965-1040) invented a device called the camera obscura. The Arab scientist Jabir Ibn Hayyan (c. 721-815) perfected the process of distillation. The Arabs also perfected the astrolabe, a device to measure the altitude of heavenly bodies in order to navigate.
Gunpowder was probably invented in China around the year 900 AD. At first it was used for rockets, grenades and bombs that were placed against the wooden gates of enemy cities. Printing with wooden blocks was also invented during the Tang dynasty (618-907). The earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra, printed in 868 AD.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD sophisticated plumbing disappeared from Europe for centuries. For centuries toilets for ordinary people were simply pits in the ground with wooden seats over them.
However in the Middle Ages monks built stone or wooden lavatories over rivers. At Portchester Castle in the 12th century monks built stone chutes leading to the sea. When the tide went in and out it would flush away the sewage.
Toilets at Portchester Castle
At sea a number of useful inventions were made. The Chinese invented the compass centuries before it was used in Europe. Nevertheless by the 12th century Europeans had learned to use it. Also in the 12th century Europeans invented the rudder. (The Chinese independently invented it centuries before). Rudders made ships much easier to steer. Furthermore shipbuilding became far more advanced and by the 15th century ships were made with 3 masts.
Iron working was improved when a primitive blast furnace called a Catalan forge was invented in Spain in the 8th century AD. It was gradually improved and by the 14th century Europeans had efficient blast furnaces.
Horses were also used more efficiently in the Middle Ages. The horse collar was invented in China long before it was known in Europe. However the horse collar was known in Europe by the 9th century. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would constrict its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.
Stirrups, which literally held the knight in his saddle, were invented in China about 300 AD. By the 8th century they had reached Europe.
The wheelbarrow was also invented in Ancient China. It was probably independently invented in Europe in the 12th century.
Another useful invention was the spinning wheel. It was invented in Asia (exactly where is not known) and by the 13th century it had reached Europe.
In the Middle Ages 'Arab' numerals (they were actually invented in India) reached Europe and gradually replaced Roman numerals. They were a great boon to mathematicians.
The windmill was invented in Iran early in the 7th century AD. However its vanes turned a vertical post. In the 12th century a windmill that turned a horizontal post was invented in Europe.
Watermills were also common in Europe. From the 11th century they were used not just to grind grain but for a variety of tasks.
A great deal of ingenuity went into making weapons. In 678 the Byzantine Empire used a new weapon called Greek fire (naphtha), a highly inflammable liquid. Earth, dust or cloth was soaked in Greek fire and fired from a catapult at enemy ships. Greek fire could also be held in a container of stone or metal, which exploded when it hit its target. It proved to be a deadly weapon.
Greek fire was invented about 650 BC by Callinicus of Heliopolis.
However in the 9th century the Arabs and other enemies of the Byzantines learned to make it.
The Romans used a version of the crossbow called a hand ballista. However it died out in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The crossbow reappeared in the 10th century. Some crossbows were so powerful they had to be loaded by a mechanical device called a cranequin.
When attacking a castle people could use a kind of crane called a tenelon to get over the wall. On the end of a long wooden arm was a basket containing soldiers. The basket could be swung over the castle walls.
The attackers could also hurl missiles using siege engines. A medieval catapult called a mangonel was powered by twisted rope. (It was similar to those used by the Romans). The rope was twisted tighter and tighter then released, firing a stone.
Another Medieval siege weapon was called a trebuchet, which worked by counterweight. A trebuchet had an arm set on a pivot so it had a long and a short end. The long end held the missile and a heavy weight was attached to the short end. The long end was winched down and when it was released the weight at the short end swung down. The long end swung up firing the missile.
To read a history of weapons click here.
Between the mid-13th century and the mid-14th century four very important inventions were made in Europe. The glass mirror was invented in the late 13th century. Eyeglasses were first made in Italy in the late 13th century. Mechanical clocks powered by weights were invented c.1300. Then in the early 14th century guns were invented. Early guns were unwieldy, slow to reload and dangerous but they gradually improved over the decades and eventually became a decisive factor in warfare.
Perhaps the most important invention of the Middle Ages was the printing press. It was invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1445 and it made books much cheaper.
Life in the Middle Ages
A history of technology