Medieval European inventions that improved productivity

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The Middle Ages are often described as a Dark Age between the advanced ancient civilisations like the Romans and the Greeks and the European Renaissance. Yet few people seem to realise that technology continued to progress about as fast as during Roman times throughout the Middle Ages. In fact it could even be argued that life got better during the Middle Ages for ordinary people than it had been in the slave-run Roman society.

For example, one major medieval improvement was the harnessing of animal power to replace slaves for hard labour like ploughing fields. The heavy plough itself is an early medieval invention that first appeared in the 5th century in Slavic lands before spreading to Italy and Germany. The ow-drawn plough greatly increased agricultural productivity. As Matt Ridley explains in The Rational Optimist (p.214-5):

"The period that followed the Roman empire, especially in Europe, saw the widespread replacement of that human muscle power by animal muscle power. The European early Middle Ages were the age of the ox. The invention of dried-grass hay enabled northern Europeans to feed oxen through the winter. Slaves were replaced by beasts, more out of practicality than compassion one suspects. Oxen eat simpler food, complain less and are stronger than salves. Oxen need to graze, so this civilisation had to be based on villages rather than cities. With the invention of the horse collar, oxen then gave way to horses, which can plough at nearly twice the speed of an ox, thus doubling the productivity of a man a enabling each farmer either to feed more people or to spend more time consuming other's work. In England, horses were 20 per cent of draught animals in 1086n and 60 per cent by 1574."

Then came mechanical inventions like the watermill for milling grain and the trip hammer to pounding grain, crushing ore, forging iron or tanning leather. They were precursors of the industrial revolution.

Although the Greeks and Romans knew the waterwheel, the use of watermills was not nearly as widespread as during the second half of the Middle Ages. Watermills first appear in 5th century Ireland, then quickly spread to Britain and the Frankish world. The Doomsday survey in the 11th century reports 6,500 watermills in England alone.

Here is a list of other notable medieval inventions that were widely used and considerably improved the productivity and/or quality of life. Note that some of them made have existed in China during the Antiquity but did not influence European development unless otherwise mentioned.

- Iron horseshoes (5th century, Belgium)

- Breast strap harness (6th century, invented in China c. 3rd century BCE, brought by the Huns or Avars from Central Asia)

- Stirrup (6th century, invented in China c. 4th century, brought by the Huns or Avars from Central Asia)

- Soap (6th century, Italy)

- Tide mills (7th century, Ireland)

- Horse collar (9th century, imported from China)

- Artesian well (1126, France)

- Blast furnace (1150, Switzerland, German and Sweden)

- Spurs (11th century, France/England)

- Wheelbarrow (1170s, England and France)

- Vertical windmills (1180s, England)

- Compass (arrived in Europe c. 1187, invented in China c. 1042)

- Clothing buttons with button holes (c. 1200, Germany)

- Chimney (12th century)

- Spinning wheel (c. 1280, probably imported from India)

- Spectacles (1280s, Italy)

- Mechanical clocks (13th to 14th centuries)

- Movable type mechanical printing press (c. 1450, Germany)
 
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Looking at the invention list one can notice that almost all the inventions (excluding related to horse which came with envisions from Asia) happened in late middle ages. Almost nothing coming from Dark Ages period. More inventions actually agree with warm medieval period which brought higher population density in Europe. We can assume that more people, equal more brains, more brain/computing power and more inventions. More people also mean that whatever gets invented has higher chance being remembered and spread through population. Also in prosperity times there are more money and resources to invent and be creative.

When I look at European progress, especially Western Europe of 12 and 13 century I can see start of Renaissance, ...and then the Black Death comes and kills half of Europe. Renaissance gets delayed 150-200 years till population and economy recovers. As we can see there is a 200 year gap between 1280 and 1450 when nothing substantial is invented.

For example, one major medieval improvement was the harnessing of animal power to replace slaves for hard labour like ploughing fields. The heavy plough itself is an early medieval invention that first appeared in the 5th century in Slavic lands before spreading to Italy and Germany.
I didn't know that. The heavy plough and perhaps horse harness might be behind fast population growth and "coming from nowhere" of Slavic expansion.
 
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Looking at the invention list one can notice that almost all the inventions (excluding related to horse which came with envisions from Asia) happened in late middle ages. Almost nothing coming from Dark Ages period. More inventions actually agree with warm medical period which brought higher population density in Europe. We can assume that more people, equal more brains, more brain/computing power and more inventions. More people also mean that whatever gets invented has higher chance being remembered and spread through population. Also in prosperity times there are more money and resources to invent and be creative.

When I look at European progress, especially Western Europe of 12 and 13 century I can see start of Renaissance, ...and then the Black Death comes and kills half of Europe. Renaissance gets delayed 150-200 years till population and economy recovers. As we can see there is a 200 year gap between 1280 and 1450 when nothing substantial is invented.


I didn't know that. The heavy plough and perhaps horse harness might be behind fast population growth and "coming from nowhere" of Slavic expansion.

You took the words right out of my mouth. From the fall of the Empire to the late 11th early 12th century there's virtually nothing.

Climate change and increased population because of innovations in agriculture led the way. I used to have a book called something like "The Revolution in the Fields" which dealt with all of this, but it doesn't turn up on a google search.

Anyway, this is the way that I learned it.
http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/west/10/FC63
 
We know from excavations that in the 5th millennium BC wheeled cars were used to construct megalithic tombs in Northern Germany.
http://www.eupedia.com/forum/threads/29574-When-did-humans-first?p=432577&viewfull=1#post432577
These cars were either wheelbarrows (then those should be removed from the list above), or ox carts. We also know that the Germanic migrations took place using ox carts, so the systematic use of animal power dates back at least to Roman times. It, however, required the Germanic migrations for the concept to spread to the Mediterranean, that's why widespread application only became visible during the middle age.

A key early middle age invention is the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-field_system
The three-field system is a regime of crop rotation in use in medieval and early-modern Europe from around the time of Charlemagne. Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar/different types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons. Under this system, the arable land of an estate or village was divided into three large fields: one was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye; the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans; and the third was left fallow, in order to allow the soil of that field to regain its nutrients. With each rotation, the field would be used differently, so that a field would be planted for two out of the three years used, whilst one year it "rested". (..) The introduction of the three-field system and the adoption of the moldboard plow were parallel developments which worked hand in hand to increase the productivity of the land
Compared to the previous system of two-field rotation (one year cultivation, one year fallow), the three-field system increased the area under plough by 30%, while the intermediate planting of pulses enriched the soils with nitrogen, thereby improving grain yield. Alternatively to pulses, the summer planting could also include oats, which enabled for the use of horses as traction animals. The fallow land was used as cattle graze.

The earliest written record of the three-field system is from St. Gall monastery in Switzerland (763), which had been established by Irish monks.
 
- Soap (6th century, Italy)

Soap was already known in ancient times.

The list left out one of the most groundbreaking (no pun intended) inventions ever, which also came out of the unjustly maligned "Middle Ages": Gunpowder (the first clear record of it in Europe is in a 13th century work attributed to a Greek or Byzantine, "Marcus Graecus", but based on earlier Byzantine & Arabic sources.) Totally unknown to the ancients, the discovery that a quick-burning mixture of several substances could do a lot of mechanical work when ignited in a confined space revolutionized not only the way wars were fought (rockets, cannons, mortars, hand-guns, explosive charges), but also eventually mining (breaking/removing rocks with explosions instead of only with hand tools), and even created a whole new "art" for people's entertainment: pyrotechnics.
 
Not all historians use the term "the Dark Ages" in the same way, and some do include the Medieval Period in that, but I think most historians would say that the Dark Ages began in the year 410 with the fall of Rome and ended in 1095 with the launch of the first Crusades, which is generally considered to be the start of the Medieval Period. And I'd agree that there doesn't seem to have been a lot of inventions in Europe during the Dark Ages as compared to the Medieval Period. But it's difficult to be certain, since less was documented during the Dark Ages than the periods before or after.
 
And I'd agree that there doesn't seem to have been a lot of inventions in Europe during the Dark Ages as compared to the Medieval Period. But it's difficult to be certain, since less was documented during the Dark Ages than the periods before or after.
When something was invented in Dark Ages and after the plaque, there was not enough people and money to carry it into wide spread development. It took time to rebuild population, educate elite again, build up capital for grand projects and act as sponsors of art and any creative mind. Makes me wonder where we would have been with our civilization if not the collapse of Rome (lost knowledge), Dark Ages (nothing much happened progress wise), and the Plague which stole at least 150 years of development. Me might be 1,000 years behind thanks to all of this.
 
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We need to note that the article deals with NW Europe. The Mediterranean was different. Especially Arab Spain flourished culturally and economically during the "dark ages", as attested, a.o., by the Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba. Here, it was land terracing and irrigation that increased agricultural productivity.

There is actually a "hen or egg" element to the 8-10th century central European economic recovery. The article mentions increased stability due to a decrease in mass migrations as a key factor. In fact, we know from archaeology that a main driver of iron and Roman age migrations, whether Germanic or Celtic, was the habit to relocate settlements after 3-5 generations, presumably as the soil had become exhausted. The early medieval innovations, three-field system and heavy plough, allowed the rural population to permanently settle in a certain location, thus significantly reducing migration pressure.
 
The gothic arc, allowing for more open areas in buildings.


EDIT: O, improvement of productivity might not be a result of this. Improvement of the sheer beauty of buildings certainly was.
 
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In fact, we know from archaeology that a main driver of iron and Roman age migrations, whether Germanic or Celtic, was the habit to relocate settlements after 3-5 generations, presumably as the soil had become exhausted.

Excavations in the Netherlands on poor sand grounds as well as rich clay grounds show continuous habitation for 3 to 5 centuries during the Roman empire. (Brandenvoort and Zennewijnen)
 
I think the year 1450 would qualify as Renaissance, not Middle Ages.

Historians don't all agree on when the Renaissance started, or even whether it should be considered a separate historical age, but the most common view is that the Renaissance began in Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 sent many of the more educated residents of Constantinople fleeing to Italy, and that the spread of knowledge that typified the Renaissance gradually reached other parts of Europe over the next 100 years or so, triggering a lot of economic, political and social change. So, by that standard, German in 1450 would still have been medieval. But the development of the printing press is generally considered to be one of the major drivers of the Renaissance, just as important as the fall of Constantinople.
 
We need to note that the article deals with NW Europe.
It applies to at least Central and North Europe.

The Mediterranean was different. Especially Arab Spain flourished culturally and economically during the "dark ages", as attested, a.o., by the Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba. Here, it was land terracing and irrigation that increased agricultural productivity.
If Near East and North Africa was thriving at this time, it more points to climatic shift. Europe being dryer and colder, therefore low food production and declining population, and Middle East and North Africa wetter and more food production. It allowed for increased population and wealth of Arabs and their conquest of lands farther North.
 
The gothic arc, allowing for more open areas in buildings.


EDIT: O, improvement of productivity might not be a result of this. Improvement of the sheer beauty of buildings certainly was.
The gothic arc was most likely developed in the Near East. The first example I am aware of is the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia, built sometime between 1002 and 1014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bagrati_Cathedral
Georgien-2.jpg


The technology was probably transferred by Georgian and Armenian masons, who worked quite frequently on medieval French church construction sites.
 
Soap was already known in ancient times.

The list left out one of the most groundbreaking (no pun intended) inventions ever, which also came out of the unjustly maligned "Middle Ages": Gunpowder (the first clear record of it in Europe is in a 13th century work attributed to a Greek or Byzantine, "Marcus Graecus", but based on earlier Byzantine & Arabic sources.) Totally unknown to the ancients, the discovery that a quick-burning mixture of several substances could do a lot of mechanical work when ignited in a confined space revolutionized not only the way wars were fought (rockets, cannons, mortars, hand-guns, explosive charges), but also eventually mining (breaking/removing rocks with explosions instead of only with hand tools), and even created a whole new "art" for people's entertainment: pyrotechnics.

I think it is agreed that Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century in China also used as fireworks, it then was imported to India and Middle east and then to Europe.
 
The gothic arc was most likely developed in the Near East. The first example I am aware of is the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi, Georgia, built sometime between 1002 and 1014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bagrati_Cathedral
Georgien-2.jpg


The technology was probably transferred by Georgian and Armenian masons, who worked quite frequently on medieval French church construction sites.

You might find this interesting too
Chapelle_Palatine.jpg


work commissioned by Roger the Norman in Palermo Sicily in the 1140's. A fusion of three architectural styles reflecting the society of the day in Palermo, Byzantine, Arab and Norman. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappella_Palatina
 
I think it is agreed that Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century in China also used as fireworks, it then was imported to India and Middle east and then to Europe.

That's the general hypothesis, but still falls under the scope of this thread:

Here is a list of other notable medieval inventions that were widely used and considerably improved the productivity and/or quality of life. Note that some of them may have existed in China during the Antiquity but did not influence European development unless otherwise mentioned.

No other civilizations applied and developed this invention like Europe did. It is after it becomes known in Europe that it had a huge impact in history.
 
The Middle Ages are often described as a Dark Age between the advanced ancient civilisations like the Romans and the Greeks and the European Renaissance. Yet few people seem to realise that technology continued to progress about as fast as during Roman times throughout the Middle Ages. In fact it could even be argued that life got better during the Middle Ages for ordinary people than it had been in the slave-run Roman society.

Here is a list of other notable medieval inventions that were widely used and considerably improved the productivity and/or quality of life. Note that some of them made have existed in China during the Antiquity but did not influence European development unless otherwise mentioned.

- Iron horseshoes (5th century, Belgium)

- Breast strap harness (6th century, invented in China c. 3rd century BCE, brought by the Huns or Avars from Central Asia)

- Stirrup (6th century, invented in China c. 4th century, brought by the Huns or Avars from Central Asia)

- Soap (6th century, Italy)

- Tide mills (7th century, Ireland)

- Horse collar (9th century, imported from China)

- Artesian well (1126, France)

- Blast furnace (1150, Switzerland, German and Sweden)

- Spurs (11th century, France/England)

- Wheelbarrow (1170s, England and France)

- Vertical windmills (1180s, England)

- Compass (arrived in Europe c. 1187, invented in China c. 1042)

- Clothing buttons with button holes (c. 1200, Germany)

- Chimney (12th century)

- Spinning wheel (c. 1280, probably imported from India)

- Spectacles (1280s, Italy)

- Mechanical clocks (13th to 14th centuries)

- Movable type mechanical printing press (c. 1450, Germany)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_timekeeping_devices
The religious necessities and technical skill of the medieval monks were crucial factors in the development of clocks, as the historian Thomas Woods writes:
The monks also counted skillful clock-makers among them. The first recorded clock was built by the future Pope Sylvester II for the German town of Magdeburg, around the year 996. Much more sophisticated clocks were built by later monks. Peter Lightfoot, a 14th-century monk of Glastonbury, built one of the oldest clocks still in existence, which now sits in excellent condition in London's Science Museum.[103]

The appearance of clocks in writings of the 11th century implies that they were well known in Europe in that period. In the early 14th century, the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri referred to a clock in his Paradiso;[105] considered to be the first literary reference to a clock that struck the hours.[104] The earliest detailed description of clockwork was presented by Giovanni da Dondi, Professor of Astronomy at Padua, in his 1364 treatise Il Tractatus Astrarii.
 

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