Technology in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Many historians mention the medieval period of Europe as ‘Dark ages,’ a period when reason and logic was sidelined with belief and religion. However, the late medieval period offered a great advancement in technology. While many of these technological advancements weren’t inventions of medieval Europeans, they successfully refined these technologies and benefitted immensely by using them politically and economically.
Some of the highly impressive technological advancements of the medieval period which defined the Middle Ages technology are
1) The Heavy Plough
The heavy plough was first used in the fifth century. It was a modification of already existing mouldboard plough. In the mouldboard plough, the depth of cut was used to be adjusted by lifting the runner in furrow. Because of this, the weight of the plough was used to be limited. As a result, these ploughs were fairly fragile and couldn’t be used to till and break the heavier soils of northern Europe.
In order to modify it, the runner was replaced by a wheel because of which, the weight of the plough was increased. As a result, the heavy plough led to greater food production. This heavy plough is still considered as one of the main reason of significant population growth of Europe around 600 A.D.
2) Tidal Mills
The Tidal mills were first used during the seventh century in the medieval Europe and they are considered as one of the great examples of improving Middle Ages technology. A tidal mill is a special type of water mill which is driven by the rise and fall of tides. In order to use them, a dam with a sluice was used to be created across a proper tidal inlet.
They could also be used at a section of a river estuary made into a reservoir. With the upcoming tides, the water used to enter the mill pond through a one-way-gate. This gate was used to get automatically closed as the tidal began to fall. With the lowering tide, the stored water could be released to turn a water wheel.
The earliest excavated tidal mill was dated from 787 A.D., and it was found in the Nendrum Monastery on an island in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. The millstones of this tidal mill were 830 mm in diameter and the horizontal wheel was estimated to be able to develop 7-8 HP at its peak. Remains of a tidal mill dated at 619 were also found.
3) Blast Furnace
The blast furnaces came in use during the twelfth century in the Medieval Europe. Traces of blast furnaces have been found dated around 1100 at Noraskog in the Swedish county of Jarnboas. Technological advancements in blast furnaces were transmitted through the General Chapter of the Cistercian monks. Cistercians were used to be skilled metallurgists. According to historian Jean Gimpel, “Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feet away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its floor.”
The Cistercians proved to be leading iron producers during the mid-13th century and they maintained the lead till 17th century. They also used phosphate-rich slag, the residual of their furnaces, as an agricultural fertilizer.
4) The Mechanical Clock
Another important achievement of the Middle Ages technology was the mechanical clock which was developed during the 13th century. While the origin of mechanical clock is unknown, the first such device might have been invented in monasteries, which was used to toll a bell to call all monks to prayers.
The first mechanical clocks with proper references were large, weight-driven machines which were used to be fitted into towers. These clocks are now termed as the turret clocks. These early clocks didn’t have any dial or hands; rather they used to strike the hours and produce sound. The oldest mechanical clock situated in England which is still working is at Salisbury Cathedral and it dated from 1386.
5) Spinning Wheel
The origins of spinning wheel are obscure. However, it is believed that the spinning wheel was invented in India. During the European Middle Ages, the Indian spinning wheel reached to Europe. It was improved and advanced by Europeans as it replaced the older methods of hand spinning. The first step for mechanizing the process of spindling was to horizontally mound the spindle in bearings. As a result, the mount could be rotated by a cord encircling a hand-driven large wheel. The spinning wheel significantly reduced the time consumed in the process.
6) Gunpowder Weapons
Gunpowder had long been known to Chinese. However, it became a serious battle material during the fourteenth century as the people of European medieval period succeeded in developing and advancing it as corned gunpowder and they also produced canons. According to recorded history, canons were first used in Europe in 1324 during the seize of Metz.
Corned gunpowder was first practiced in Western Europe. It significantly increased the power of canons, making them more lethal. During the fourteenth century, Europeans also invented the superguns and volley guns.
7) Long Bow
Long bow was a significant war technology which was used by English against the French during the 13th century. The longbow had significantly higher rate of fire and penetration power. The use of longbow by English ensured an easy victory against French cavalry during the Hundred Years’ War.
8) The Printing Press
Both the movable type and the paper printing machines were first used in China. However, the printing press was actually advanced and mechanized by the Europeans during the Middle Ages. The earliest mention of printing press was done in a lawsuit in 1439, in Strasburg. This lawsuit revealed the history of construction of press for Johannes Gutenberg and his associated. The printing press changed the society. Printing press at that time was similarly great technological advancement as the internet is in current times.
Apart from all these significant and important examples of middle ages technology and advancements, there were many more other technological success stories of medieval period. For example, the hourglass was first used in 9th century in Europe and in 1268 A.D.; Roger Bacon mentioned the earliest recorded use of lenses for optical benefits.