Friday, 2 January 2009

The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel

What is your view of the medieval world? A quaint world of tradition and custom? A low tech stable society where everyone knew their place? I don't know about you but I for a long time wasn't all that interested in the Middle Ages. It just seemed like a sort of hiatus between the civilisation of the Classical world and the exciting progress of the Renaissance. Indeed I think part of the reason for this was spin on the part of Renaissance scholars keen to show how much more brilliant they were than previous generations. Even the name, Middle Ages, suggests simply a filler between more interesting and significant periods. I don't think that this view of the Middle Ages is particularly unusual. It is a period that tends to be ignored or romanticised.

But then I read the Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel, and suddenly I realised just how little I knew and how wrong what little I knew was. Far from being a sort of backwater between more brilliant times, the period between the fall of Rome and the Fall of Constantinople technological progress and social change.

In particular there was a technological revolution based around extracting energy from rivers, the winds and the tide. This in turn allowed the development of architecture, and science and later a large and sophisticated financial services industry. The combination of an early version of the credit crunch, the black death and environmental problems brought this era to an end ushering in a clampdown on free thought and innovation that wasn't overcome until the better known Renaissance that started in the Fourteenth Century.

The book is packed with interesting stories. Medieval France and England were full of water mills. These were substantial investments of time and resources and were funded by raising capital by issuing shares. A few of the French companies founded in this era survived until the twentieth century in France. The resource being exploited here was basically gravity and upstream dams could rob ones downstream by raising their dams. This led to lawsuits and sometimes violence. Being a medieval miller was not a quiet life. But despite this more and more energy was becoming available to Europeans.

We know about the design of water mills of the period from the records kept by the Cistercians. What does a monastery suggest to you? Peace, tranquility, stability? Think again. The Cistercians were ruthless in their exploitation of resources. There were 742 Cistercian monasteries in the twelfth century. They were laid out according to a precise formula so that a monk from one would be able to find his way around any other one. These were effectively huge factories, harvesting and processing wool in England or making wine in France or Olive Oil in the south of Europe. This was to all intents and purpose a multinational corporation producing goods for sale into a money based economy on a huge scale. Some individual bits of engineering were also on a collosal scale. The Bazacle dam near Toulouse was 1300 feet long.

Many of the technological innovations of the 12th Century were on a level with those of the Renaissance a few hundred years later.  Books of drawings of devices circulated widely among engineers and masons.  When we look at Leonardo di Vinci's notebooks today we are amazed at how advanced they are.  Villard de Honnecourt, leading architect of the early thirteenth century might well have considered them to all be rather commonplace.  Villard had none of di Vinci's artistic talent but he did have diagrams of a great many useful machines, such as water powered saws and devices to keep mariners compasses level. 

The most ominous part of the book completely escaped me when I first read it in the nineteen seventies. The technological renaissance he describes came to an end when the leading banks of the era, the Bardis and the Peruzzi's went bust.  The latter went bust in 1345 and instigated a credit crunch from which northern Italy didn't really recover until the twentieth century.  Nowadays I think we have realised that all banks go bust in the end.  The cause of the collapse of the House of Peruzzi was a major default by the crown of England.  It seems that this must have rankled for some time because one of Mussolini's war aims was to claim compensation with interest for this outstanding owed money.  The value with interest after all those centuries was about half the value of the British Empire at the time. 

All in all a fascinating look at a world which on examination turns out to be not so different to the one we live in.