Medieval Europe: Technological Development in a Society Dominated by Religiosity

Ben Staplin


Today, scientists presuppose that any phenomena they seek to explain occurs within an empirical, rational system. In an inductive process, innumerable observations and critical trials coalesce into a general theory which becomes the point of departure for deduction. Thus, the scientific method cannot completely escape the paradox that generalizing particular observations by no means guarantees truth, yet the only other option, analyzing observations using a presupposed theory, requires one to a have an inductively established yet valid theory to begin with. As a result of the incompleteness and imperfection of both induction and deduction, the scientific method has evolved into a constant cycling of these two processes; scientists are constantly challenging the inductively generated theories with deductive experimentation in a process of constant overcoming. Thus contemporary science and what is undeniably its practical manifestation, engineering, are disciplined, critical, and above all else cumulative.

In contrast to this self-critical and inherently skeptical system of inquiry, Christian Theology and the Scholastic method, which dominated Europe for most of the medieval period, made technological development an almost entirely unscientific process. Before the invent of the scientific method, cultural perspectives such as these viewed tools as solutions to practical problems, not practical applications of scientific principles. The lack of connectivity between technology and theory forced each inventor to approach his task without any directly applicable knowledge, thus his only recourse was to rely on intuition and informal logic. I believe this, above all else, accounts for the relatively (as compared to modern society) slow rate at which technology evolved until the Enlightenment of the 17th century.

Though no formal scientific method existed during the medieval period, it strikes me as an oversimplification to assume that reason and empiricism were non-existent. In fact, in the first half of the 13th century, as Benedictinemonks translated the work of Aristotle and Latin-speaking academics saw the classical texts for the first time in almost a millennium, popular support for the legitimacy of human reason and the senses began to swell. With the dogmatic order of the Catholic church in question, the future of a divinely determined natural world was in serious jeopardy. To its aid came Thomas Aquinas, an integrator without compare, who insisted that the truths of faith and those of sense experience are fully compatible and complementary. His works effectively safeguarded church doctrine against empirical inconsistencies and perpetuated medieval theological logic an additional two centuries until Francis Bacon could lay the empirical foundations for the scientific method as we know it today.

The process of invention may have been very informal, but the medieval church institutionalized a number of values and practices that encouraged technological development in very real ways. The same dogmatic world-view that monopolized what could have been the realm of Reason with God, effectively preventing the development of the scientific method and its inevitable link to technological innovation, also encouraged an anthropocentric perspective that encouraged the Christian man to be the master of his environment and global proselyte of his faith. This paper will illustrate the cumulative effects of the logical limitations and dogmatic perspectiveof medieval Christianity had on innovation in the Middle Ages.

Medieval Christianity encouraged technological innovation by stressing man’s role as an agent of God’s will on earth and imbuing labor with an air of nobility (Williams 112). The medieval concept of a worldly paradise was very Swarthmorean; nature unspoiled by man was seen as a mythological realm populated by dangerous beasts and demons, it only became beautiful when shaped by man according to God’s plan. (Williams 113) Clearing forests was thus doubly divine, it employed man in productive labor and appropriated the unknown into God’s kingdom. The question is not whether deforestation occurred or even what motivated it, but rather, how did this social force affect the evolution of technology? Peasants and monks carried out most of the labor with just a simple axe in hand, so the act clearing, it seems, did not catalyze the improvement of existing technologies. The newly cleared land was then made productive by plowing and planting, and here the first signs of technological progress are evident. The heavy plow and three-field crop rotation were medieval innovations that greatly increased the productivity of agricultural land by improving the quality of the soil. The former device added wheels to the basic mouldboard device allowing it to move greater quantities (weight) of soil, tapping deeper reservoirs of nutrients and making farmland out of tougher soils previously impossible to use efficiently. Changing from the two to three-year crop rotation similarly increased yields by allowing fields more time to regenerate nutrients between uses.

Dense forests were not the only areas to be reshaped according to man’s needs and God’s will. Unproductive lakes and wetlands were drained so that the soil beneath could be farmed to support a burgeoning local population. This was especially important in the Low Countries, “where almost 27 percent of the land lies below sea level and close to 50 percent is flood prone” (Simons 2). In 1284 the first recorded use of windmills to drain flooded land occurred at Harlem in what today is the Netherlands, but after its inception the evolution of windmill water-pumping technology becomes a bit confused. In a book on the subject, R. J. Hoeksema writes that the mill used in 1284 was a tower mill, and it was not until the 15th century that the post mill was adapted to water pumping uses (Hoeksema 38). The distinguishing characteristic between these two types of mills is that on the tower mill only the cap at the top rotates as the blades turn into the wind, whereas in post mills the entire body has to be manually rotated to properly orient the blades. Not only did it take two hundred years for this “advance”, but it is possible that this was in fact actually a regression. Post mills were in use since 1191 for grinding grain, and in fact were the first mills to appear in Europe; so why three-hundred years later were they adapted to pump water? Though my technical knowledge of windmills is limited, all the information seems to point to the absence of a logical reason. Windmill technology was brought back to medieval Europe by crusaders who saw them at work in the Middle East, making it seem all the more likely that knowledge of their workings was for a long time much more observational than abstract or theoretical. This former kind of knowledge usually does not orient one towards maximum efficiency or allow for easy comparison of similar technologies. Though this may be overly reductionist, I believe the apparent regression in windmill technology may have occured because it was not perceived as a regression at all. By the 17th century, windmills, like so many other technologies, were radically and rapidly improved as the Enlightenment began the unification of theoretical and practical knowledge.

Clearly the view of man as a laborer of God created needs for technology to address, but the extremely slow pace at which those technologies improved indicates that in this respect medieval culture did no more than encourage behavior that required tools. It took almost three-hundred years (from the 8th to 11th century) for medieval farmers to make the switch from the two to three-year crop rotation, and the heavy plow was invented in the 8th or 9th century and was not improved upon until the Enlightenment. From a modern perspective, this is an almost unthinkably slow rate of change. The combination of inductive and deductive reasoning embodied by the scientific method, a cornerstone of modern culture, seems to lead to rapid rates of technological progress that far surpass what was possible for medieval technologists. Technologies that develop to address material needs in a society dominated by faith rather than reason are missing a force that drives them to be self-overcoming.

Though it is indisputable that the church was the predominant social, political, and cultural force in medieval Europe, within this superstructure the feudal system would have also affected the development of technology. One theory is that “the appropriation of material and labor inputs convinced landlords that wealth accumulation could be obtained through political oppression, as opposed to improving their technological infrastructure”(Kitsikopoulos 398). This author is clearly asserting that increased agricultural and productive efficiency was a less favorable means of generating wealth for land owning nobility than the brutal exploitation peasants, who were kept at subsistence level by the nobility appropriating any surplus. The nobility, who had the capital to invest in improved technologies found it easier to simply exploit the peasants more completely, and the peasant, who would have benefited most from increased productivity, had neither than knowledge or resources to do so.

The pursuit of scientific truth drives man to venture into the darkness of the unknown, to seek out ignorance and bathe it in the light of knowledge. In medieval Europe, the Christian church drove man to seek out those areas of darkness not in knowledge, but in the material world, and to civilize them in the name of the ultimate truth: God’s will. In this way science and religion were equally capable of spurring man forth into the unknown, but, once there, the former equipped him to bring nature under his control much more effectively than the latter. Armed with confidence in established natural laws, the scientist can apply his general knowledge to particular problems, so that when confronted with a problem no technological fix starts at square one. Furthermore, thanks to a skeptical and self-overcoming tradition, technology is able to evolve at a rapid pace while minimizing the technical deficiencies. Medieval Christian philosophy encouraged men to place themselves in positions where the need for technological innovation was indispensable, but by subsuming everything within its theological (rather than scientific) paradigm, it detached practical from theoretical knowledge and slowed the rate of technological progress.

Works Cited:

Kitsikopoulos, Harry. "Technological Change in Medieval England: a Critique of the Neo-Malthusian Argument." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144.4 (2000): 397-449. JSTOR. Swarthmore College. 8 Mar. 2008.

Simons, Marlise. "Flooding in the Netherlands is a Severe Blow to Business." New York Times 04 Feb. 1995. 07 Mar. 2008 <>.

Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 102-142. ISBN 0-226-89926-8, Cornell SD 131 .W53 2002

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