Medieval Technology and Social Change

Medieval Technology and Social Change



The Pequod Review:

Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change explores the ways in which technological advancements such as the stirrup, the heavy plow, and the compound crank led to significant changes in medieval society. White is an engaging, witty and endlessly curious historian, as becomes immediately apparent in the book's preface:

Voltaire to the contrary, history is a bag of tricks which the dead have played upon historians. The most remarkable of these illusions is the belief that the surviving written records provide us with a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity. "Prehistory" is defined as the period for which such records are not available. But until very recently the vast majority of mankind was living in a subhistory which was a continuation of prehistory. Nor was this condition characteristic simply of the lower strata of society. In medieval Europe until the end of the eleventh century we learn of the feudal aristocracy largely from clerical sources which naturally reflect ecclesiastical attitudes: the knights do not speak for themselves. Only later do merchants, manufacturers, and technicians begin to share their thoughts with us. The peasant was the last to find his voice.

If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records, ask new questions of them, and use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.

White's historical analysis does exactly that, as he pulls together an astonishing amount of detailed and rigorous research on these specific technologies in order to show how they impacted economic development, military strategy, and human migration patterns. Here he articulates just how transformative the stirrup was to battlefield techniques:

Before the introduction of the stirrup, the seat of the rider was precarious. Bit and spur might help him to control his mount; the simple saddle might confirm his seat; nevertheless, he was still much restricted in his methods of fighting. He was primarily a rapidly mobile bowman and hurler of javelins. Swordplay was limited because "without stirrups your slashing horseman, taking a good broadhanded swipe at his foe, had only to miss to find himself on the ground." As for the spear, before the invention of the stirrup it was wielded at the end of the arm and the blow was delivered with the strength of shoulder and biceps. The stirrup made possible -- although it did not demand -- a vastly more effective mode of attack: now the rider could lay his lance at rest, held between the upper arm and the body, and make at his foe, delivering the blow not with his muscles but with the combined weight of himself and his charging stallion. 

The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of a violence without precedent. The fighter's hand no longer delivered the blow; it merely guided it. The stirrup thus replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior's ability to damage his enemy. Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle.

White continues with other examples, a dazzling work of history that brings to life the importance of innovation and technology even in eras that are commonly assumed to be stagnant and lacking in new ideas. This is an enormously important but yet underappreciated part of history — how seemingly small technological developments can have enormous social impacts.