Posts Tagged ‘Jean Gimpel’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.


Leonardo’s Rivals

September 22, 2013

One of the most interesting series on television was a documentary the BBC screened a little while ago about Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions. It mixed drama and explanation and opinion from a variety of historians and scholars to trace the life and scientific exploration and discoveries of one of the very greatest geniuses of the Renaissance. It was fascinating viewing, particularly when they tried out da Vinci’s design for a diving suit in the canals of Venice. Da Vinci was truly a polymath, responsible for a number of amazing inventions well before his time, such as the caterpillar track and helicopter. I don’t believe, however, that Leonardo was quite the isolated figure as is the common impression of him. There were other engineers at the time working on some of the same problems.

Jean Gimpel, in his The Medieval Machine, traces some of da Vinci’s ideas back to the thirteenth century French engineer and inventor, Villard de Honnecourt. This has been challenged, and other historians have science have rejected the suggestion that he influenced da Vinci. Nevertheless, it appears that de Honnecourt and da Vinci did work on some of the same problems, even if de Honnecourt never developed his ideas to the same extent that da Vinci did his. In the 14th century another, unknown engineer, began to consider an alternative method of propulsion for ships. There’s an illustration from a manuscript of 1436 of a paddle-ship, whose wheels are turned by the oxen on board.

Madieval Paddle Ship

During the fifteenth century a number of Italian engineers attempted to design something like the modern car. Around 1410, Giovanni da Fontana produced the design below for a ‘self-driving’ carriage, operated by hand.

Medieval Car

The car designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini was powered by four capstans, each serving one of the vehicle’s wheels. It even had a steering wheel. Di Giorgio Martini called his vehicle an automobile, which is probably the earliest use of the term to describe something like the modern car.

Medieval Automobile

Roberto Valturio, who died in 1484, designed a carriage that would be driven by the wind. Mounted on each side of the car’s frame were two windmills, each with four incline sails. These turned another, large will, which communicated the power to the two wheels underneath it.

Renaissance Sail Car

In Germany, Konrad Kyeser invented a double crane, while di Giorgio Martini created a device for lifting columns. De Kyeser also invented a diving suit. Two types of these suits are shown in one of his illustrations dating to 1400. One of the suits is from a design of the fourth century Roman scholar, Vegecius. This is simply a helmet and a leather tube, through which the diver breathed, leading to a floating bladder on the surface. This type of diving suit may have already been in use long before. In 1240 Roger Bacon stated that there were ‘instruments which men could use to walk on the bed of the sea or of rivers without endangering themselves’. The other diving suit drawn by Kyeser showed a helmet with two glass holes for the eyes, fixed to a tabard belted on the wearer. This is the first known representation of a body suit. In 1582 another German engineer, Peter Morice, or Moritz, installed a tide mill near London. This operated a force pump with enough power to supply the city of London.

Unfortunately, you rarely hear about these other, fascinating medieval and Renaissance inventions. Perhaps this may change with the increasing influence in Cyberpunk science fiction, which fantastically explores the scientific possibilities of the Victorian period. Possibly this type of SF may encourage others to look even further back in time, to the forgotten inventions and inventors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The role-playing game, Ars Magica is already set in the Middle Ages, and is based both on the world of medieval magic and their scientific worldview. Many of its players are historians of medieval science at universities. Perhaps in time knowledge of these inventions and achievements won’t be limited to the relatively small number of people, who play RPGs, and these engineers and inventors will at last receive the recognition they deserve from the wider public.


Great Inventions through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991.

Sigvard Strandh, Machines: An Illustrated History (Nordbok 1979).

Before the Industrial Revolution: The Mechanisation of Industry in the Middle Ages

May 26, 2013

One of the most astonishing features of medieval industry is just how mechanised it was. This aspect of medieval society is little appreciated. The most common view is that the mechanisation of industry began with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries with the introduction of steam power and the factories. Historians such as Jean Gimpel and Lynn White, on the other hand, view the Middle Ages as a period of scientific and technological change and development. The scientific and technological transformation in the Middle Ages was so pronounced that it also forms an Industrial Revolution. It’s a controversial view. Many historians and archaeologists reject it, viewing the medieval changes as not comparable in extent with those produced by steam power in the 19th century. Medieval society was overwhelmingly agricultural. The industries were craft industries, characterised by workshops owned and managed by a master craftsman under whom were apprentices. These in turn looked forward to running their own workshops and employing apprentices after they had completed their training. The various trades and industries were organised into guilds, which regulated standards, working conditions and conditions of employment, and provided welfare services for their members. This all broke down with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The guild system declined as the old craft workshops were replaced with factory system, whose members could no longer look forward to becoming master craftsmen in their turn.

Despite the lower level of industrial development in the Middle Ages, industry was mechanised and sources of power used to drive the machines. These were not steam, but wind and water mills. These were not only used to grind grain, but also to drive trip hammers to forge iron and full cloth. The first fulling mill was built on the banks of the Serchio in Tuscany in 983. In the following decades the new industrial technology spread outwards to rest of Europe. The Schmidmuelen – ‘Forge Mills’ – first appears as a place in the Oberpfalz in Germany in 1010. Its name indicates that it was a site where a watermill drove a system of trip hammers in the forge. In 1086 two mills in England were paying rent in iron bloom, indicating that mill-driven forges had spread to this country. There were iron mills in Bayonne in Gascony too before the end of the eleventh century. Mills were widespread. According to the Domesday Book, there were 5,624 mills in England serving 3,000 towns and villages. According to the great historian of science, Lynn White, by the eleventh century the whole population of Europe was living constantly in the presence of one major form of power technology. Windmills became the typical feature of the northern European plains during the following century. Some towns possessed hundreds of them. There were 120 in the area around Ypres during the thirteenth century, for example.

By the early fourteenth century wind- and watermills was widely used to supplement or replace human labour in the basic industries. In thirteenth century England the centre of the cloth industry moved from the south-east to the north-west. This was due to the introduction of mill power to full cloth. Water power was more easily available in that part of the country, and so the industry moved there to take advantage of it. The guild regulations for Speyer in 1298 show that by that time mill power had completely replaced the fulling of cloth by hand. There were mills for tanning and laundering cloth, sawing wood, crushing mineral ores or agricultural products, like olives, operating the bellows or trip hammers for blast furnaces and forges, driving grindstones for polishing armour and weapons. There were mills to produce paint pigments, pulping wood for paper and mash for beer. The process culminated in the establishment of a mill along the Seine at Parish by Mateo dal Massaro to produce jewels in 1534. Eighteen years later it was taken over by the French royal mint to produce the first milled coins.

Not everywhere adopted the new technology as quickly. There were small areas in southern Europe, such as La Mancha in Spain, where wind and water power was not used. In La Mancha in Spain, windmills were only introduced in Cervantes time, hence Don Quixote’s mistaking them for giants. When they were introduced, these machines could be remarkably efficient and competitive. From the sixteenth century onwards they were used to pump out mines. They were still used in some areas into the nineteenth century, as they were more efficient than contemporary steam engines.
Even if the Middle Ages did not have an Industrial Revolution like that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was nevertheless a period of technological change, improvement and innovation to an astonishing extent, which has not received its proper recognition by the wider interest public outside the field of specialist historians.


Lynn White jnr, ‘Medieval Technology and Social Change’, in Colin Chant, ed., The Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology Reader (London: Routledge 1999) 99-103.