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Medieval European Technical Change

Abbaye de Fontenay

Not so long ago, power was as famous a Burgundian export as its wine, borne from a nobility that rivalled the King of France, and a cluster of monasteries that threatened the supremacy of the Pope.

The Abbaye de Fontenay was one of these monasteries, a mammoth stone complex sitting just outside the town of Montbard and founded by the Cistercian order almost a thousand years ago. Perfectly preserved through an unlikely combination of patronage, abandonment and good luck, its clipped gardens and cloisters milling with quiet tourists give the place a sense of tranquillity now.

But at the height of its power a millennium ago, it was more like a devout factory, controlling dozens of farms, forests and trout pounds, making tiles and mining the rough hills nearby for iron. Perhaps the earliest proper metal-working factory in Europe is in the abbey, and astonishingly, the hydraulic hammer was invented in a stone room next to the river (a replica still clacks away, driven by a water wheel).

The Cistercians weren’t just dedicating themselves to piety through manual labour, they were also making themselves rich and powerful, doing the slow work of dragging Europe out of the Dark Ages.

The Cistercians believed in the sanctity of work and they developed and here practiced a useful trade in metal working. The forge building is almost as long as the church. It stands to the South of the monastic complex next to a channeled water-run, from a diverted stream, that circles the compound and at other points provides water for the several fountains (from which the abbey name may derive). The forge building is also vaulted but is not as polished an affair. There are no mouldings on the thick ribs which connect to a central line of five thick cylindrical piers. The flooring consists of large rectanguar stone slabs. Near one end is a high wooden platform accessed by ladder. This was the upper level of the water-powered drop-hammer which produced thin sheets of steel and other metals. Also on exhibit are a few ancient tools: a giant bellows, a large whetstone and various supports and smaller tools. The forge was functional until the monks were dispersed by the Revolution.

Medieval Technology and Social Change

Lynn White Jr. (Author)

Editorial Reviews

In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White considers the effects of technological innovation on the societies of medieval Europe: the slow collapse of feudalism with the development of machines and tools that introduced factories in place of cottage industries, and the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods of crop rotation. One invention of particular import, writes White, was the stirrup, which in turn introduced heavy, long-range cavalry to the medieval battlefield. The development thus escalated small-scale conflict to “shock combat.” Cannons and flamethrowers followed, as did more peaceful inventions, such as watermills and reapers.


“Excellent.”–Louis P. Towles, Central Wesleyan College
“The most stimulating book of the century on the history of technology…a positive delight.”–Isis
“At once an advance in the study of medieval technology and also the best introduction to the subject for the serious general reader.”–The Economist
“Still essential reading for students of Medieval studies. A must for those interested in Medieval technology and its impact on the development of western society.”–Cecile-Marie Sastre, Flagler College

Product Details:

· Paperback: 224 pages

· Publisher: Oxford University Press

· December 31 1966

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0195002660

· ISBN-13: 978-0195002669

Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages

Editorial Reviews

The Middle Ages, writes French scholar Jean Gimpel, saw an extraordinary flourishing of technological development throughout Europe. With the era came waterwheels and clock towers, nearly uniform machine parts and improvements in public hygiene, vaulting cathedrals and towering city walls, and a notion of spiritual and earthly progress that promised better things to come. In analyzing the growth of precision in measurement and of the experimental sciences, and in considering the careers of medieval geniuses such as the architect-inventor Villard de Honnecourt, Gimpel clearly conveys the intellectual excitement of the time. Sadly, it was undone by religious intolerance, brutal warfare, and the arrival of the plague as quickly as it rose.

Product Details:

· Paperback: 288 pages

· Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)

· November 17 1977

· Language: English

· ISBN-10: 0140045147

· ISBN-13: 978-0140045147

Medieval European Technical Change


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