The Medieval Machinist

As I continue to work on Genius Loci, I thought I would share some of my notes. Below is something of a summary I wrote after reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine (Henry Holt, 1975), but I am also thinking it might be useful as the beginning of a section of the book later on:

In The Medieval Machine, Jean Gimpel chronicles the brief flowering of technological and scientific expertise that occurred in what is now known as the High Middle Ages, a period that most historians frame as occurring from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. It was a period during which the great works of antiquity first achieved wide-spread interest, but, instead of the later focus by the Renaissance on the arts, the focus during this period was on philosophy and technology. It would be the interest in philosophy that would, in part, herald their downfall.

The high Middle Ages were the period when iron really came into its own as a technological system, producing cannon by its end but also cladding first the feet of horses and then the edges of plows, bolstering the agricultural revolution taking place thanks, in part, to the medieval climate optimum. Bartholomeus Anglicus in his nineteen volume De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) noted that:

Use of iron is more needful to men in many things than use of gold. Though covetous men have more gold than iron, without iron the commonality be not sure against enemies, without dread of iron the common right is not governed; with iron innocent men are defended; and foolhardiness of wicked men is chastened with dread of iron. And well nigh no handiwork is wrought without iron, neither tilling craft used nor building builded without iron. (quoted in Gimpel 63)

Increased agricultural output, a result not only of newly-improved tools but also of new practices like three-field crop rotation, meant a larger population and one enjoying a higher standard of living. The economic rising tide helped create not only demands for individual goods but also for communal goods, like cathedrals, and the masons building them were now carrying iron chisels strengthened with steel edges.

Better agricultural tools meant more land could be cleared, but much of the land was already clear thanks to the aggressive deforestation of many areas in an effort to feed the iron mills that were cropping up everywhere there was ore to supply them. As forests dwindled, alternative energy sources became more important, which led to the exploitation of coal resources, something England possessed in abundance, and which would later give it an advantage in the second industrial revolution. (Coal was so popular, and its quality so varied, that it even makes an appearance in Shakespeare.) More importantly, as productivity rose, so did the kind of ornate hierarchies and the omnipresent march of machines to replace human labor that we find to be the focus of our own reflections over the past two hundred years.

This wide-spread application of technology encouraged a kind of faith in the things of the world that also led to a rise in what we might call experimental science. It may not look much like institutionalized science as we know it now, but leafing through the pages of illustrations of imagined machines and their descriptions found in the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt or Richard of Wallingford, one cannot be reminded of some fanciful devices of our own time, e.g. the Segway. Many of their drawings would be copied again and again, much as Leonardo da Vinci did in his own time and his own notebook was copied in turn, until the moment when either the world they imagined could be realized, had passed, or had never come to be. Villard, for example, drew a water-powered saw, perhaps the first ever to be imagined. In the drawing, a stream turns a water wheel. The wheel does two things simultaneously: by means of widely-spaced teeth on its edge it operates an escapement that moves a saw blade up and down and by means of a gear attached to its axle it moves a piece of lumber past the blade. It’s a simple device by our standards, really, but it is one of one hundreds, including a machine that would keep an angel pointing its finger towards the sun, all of which poured out of Villard’s imagination.

In his time, Villard could be comfortable with his status as a man of the mechanical arts, in a way a few hundred years later, Leonardo could not. Da Vinci was stung by his repudiation at the hands of Renaissance humanists, who considered him a manual laborer, a technician. Da Vince noted: “They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with the fruits not of their own labors but those of others, And they will not allow me my own.”*

The split between intellectuals and technologists has, it seems, been with us for a very long time. C. P. Snow imagined the divide as being between two cultures.

Jean Gimpel noted that “the men of the Middle Ages were so mechanically minded they could believe that angels were in charge of the mechanisms of the universe” and used as proof a fourteenth-century Provencal manuscript that shows “two winged angels operating the revolving machine of the sky” (147). In addition to a mechanistic understanding of the relationship between physical and metaphysical realms, the medieval imagination of the high period also believed in progress, a belief buoyed up by the significant strides that had been achieved in production of cloth, of iron, and of agricultural goods.

In this moment, then, natural philosophers cum scientists were expected to possess manual skill. In August of 1269, Peter of Maricourt wrote Epistolae de Magnete (Letters on the Magnet), and in it noted:

You must realize, dearest friend, that while the investigator in this subject must understand nature and not be ignorant of celestial motions, he must also be very diligent in the use of his own hands, so that through the operation of this stone he may show wonderful effects. For by his industry he will then in a short time be able to correct an error which he would never do in eternity by his knowledge of natural philosophy and mathematics alone if he lacked carefulness with his hands. (Gimpel 194-5)

Thanks to a notion of progress, thinkers, and workers, like Peter of Maricourt produced magnetic compasses with a high degree of precision, which led the way for the great explorations in the centuries to come.