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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.

Source:

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

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