Medieval Technology and Social Change Lynn White Jr.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962 Steve
Flaig-History 5040 Spring 2002

	Like the ripples in a pond generated by a single stone,
the ramifications of technological development can be
far reaching. As illustrated by White, the development
of tools and technologies that enabled their users to
better harness the inherent capabilities provided to
them by nature had profound effects on the entire social
stratum of Medieval European society. Although his
analysis is structured around three technological
developments, he does provide evidence that although the
scientific revolution may trace its genesis to the
mid-16th century, one could argue that the four
centuries comprising the “Medieval Era” could also be
described as comprising a similar “Technological
Revolution”. The socio-political impact of the practical
application of technology in this area in many ways may
be viewed as the necessary precursor to its “Scientific”
counterpart as its end results delivered to Europe a
much more urbanized population whose lessened reliance
on purely subsistence level labor provided a fertile
ground for scholastic inquiry and discourse. 

	In constructing his chronology of technological
achievements and their societal impact White portrays
these events as “bottom up” phenomena. In the majority
of cases the initial impact of a quantum leap in
technological application is focused upon the lower
levels (laborers and peasants for example) of society.
The corresponding class or political/economic
ramifications are therefore the end result of this
initial level of sociological fission. Although often
the primary benefactor or employer of new technological
enhancements, White points out that the occupants of
these lower social ladders were the least likely to have
access to the capabilities (education, paper, and time)
required to document the resulting changes that
manifested themselves over time. As a result, he argues,
the burden of the historian is to go beyond what is
written and use the resources available to him in areas
such as archaeology, iconography and etymology to
cultivate an accurate portrayal of these
technological/societal metamorphisms. 

	As presented by White all societies or cultures at a
given point in time are not equal in their ability to
capitalize on technological innovation. As illustrated
by the innovation and adoption of the stirrup by the
Franks and Normans in the ninth century the myopia of
one culture or state in technological application may
lead to its eclipse by others possessing broader vision
for the potential delivered by an advancement. In the
Medieval world technological innovation did not exist in
a vacuum. White postulates that the abilities,
motivations and predispositions of European societies in
this era provided the necessary elements that could be
catalyzed by the offspring of their continued efforts to
successfully harness the capabilities they found
inherent in nature. In contrast to this level of
receptiveness found within Western Europe White is
careful to note that many of these innovations, the
stirrup for example, actually had their origins in
central and eastern Asia literally centuries in advance
of their arrival in the west. For reasons that he
chooses not to delve into in any great depth he presents
a consistent pattern of less than optimal capitalization
on new technological capabilities by these eastern
cultures. As we have seen in Cohen’s extensive review of
the stunted growth of science in both the Islamic and
Chinese cultures the reasons for these “deficiencies”
are the foundation for more in-depth study than White
could properly cover in a volume that he himself admits
was developed as more of a primer than exhaustive

	Through his examination of the effect of the stirrup on
the Franks and their leader, Charles Martel, White
provides evidence of not only the ability of
technological innovation to set in motion large scale
shifts in the structure of a society but also of the
need for a leader or people to truly understand the
ramifications and benefits that a new methodology or
tool may deliver. Based on the evidence presented by
White it would not be an overstatement to say that
origins of the feudal system had as their genesis in the
development of the stirrup. Although seemingly trivial
in that the stirrup at its most basic level simply does
a better job of helping the rider stay on his horse, the
possibilities it offered were embraced by Martel to
establish not only a more potent method of military
combat but also a new social structure to support it as

	The “ripple” effect of technological innovation as
exemplified by the Franks use of the stirrup transcends
the military value that it was initially seen to provide
by enabling horsemen to move rapidly across the
battlefield to deliver, as offered by White, “…violence
without precedence”. The realization by Martel that this
harnessing of animal power geometrically enhanced the
fighting capability of his forces set in motion a series
of actions that irrevocably changed the face of Europe.
Cascading from Martel’s initial advocacy of the mounted
warrior as a revolutionary mode of combat we see in
short order the recognition of the expense of building
and maintaining such an army manifesting itself in the
seizure of church lands for use as compensation for
military service, the establishment of a “professional”
warrior class (knights) and ultimately a reorganization
of the social structure to support the entire

	The continuum of medieval social change is next
exemplified by White via the symbiotic linkage of the
development of the heavy plow, refinements in the horse
harness and the advent of triennial crop rotation.
Through the development of the heavy plow the labor
force (peasants) of Northern Europe came into possession
of a mechanism that was better able to prepare the
heavier, moist soils indigenous to the geography for
planting. As a result, fields that were not usable to
that point in time were now added to those already under
cultivation. In concert with this superior mode of field
cultivation came the development of a horse harness that
did not adversely impact the animal’s breathing or
circulation. As postulated by White the enhancements
delivered by this new harness type soon made the horse
not only the preferred draft animal of the time (versus
the ox) but also the primary mode of transportation
within the region as an offshoot of the need to increase
horse breeding to meet this new demand.  With the
discovery of the advantages in terms of increased yields
that resulted from the implementation of the triennial
method of crop rotation these three factors reduced the
chances for starvation in Europe and in so doing
provided the alchemy for further social change in the

	As with the stirrup, White once again observes that the
initial impact of the technological innovations (heavy
plow, improved harness, and three crop rotation system)
that in this case lead to an agricultural revolution 6
to 10 centuries in advance of those that that allowed
workers to leave the fields for the factories of the
Industrial Revolution was focused on the lowest levels
of European society. The inverse relationship between
human labor expended and foodstuffs produced both
improved the standard of living of the peasant classes
as well as lessened their ties to the land itself. By
freeing up large segments of society that would have
previously lived their lives in servitude to the land
that provided them with a hand to mouth existence, the
advances of agricultural technology during the period
contributed to both a growing urbanism and the
associated trade and merchant classes that were required
to support this shift in population centers. Perhaps
more succinctly, these improvements in agriculture
provided new opportunities to large segments of northern
European society that would not have been available to
them without the surpluses in food production that they

Although not mentioned by White, it is important to note
that while the improvement of agricultural yields
delivered by the three advancements he describes as the
root cause of the resultant socio-economic shifts can be
considered catalysts of this “revolution” we leave
ourselves open to charges of over simplifying the
factors for these changes.  This is not to say that
White’s assertions are incorrect. From a purely
technological perspective the three advancements he
advocates undoubtedly were major factors in the earlier
movement from a purely rural agrarian society to an
urban-centric counterpart. However, he offers no
assessments of other factors (the climatology or
political issues of the time period for example) that
may have also contributed to these phenomena. Thus,
while his theories are compelling they must be
considered from the perspective that they are not
unbiased in their origin as his focus in this work is
only on the contributions of technology to the social
changes of the period.  

In the final section of the book White chronicles the
philosophical change that characterized the end of the
medieval period. In his discussion of the improvements
made in harnessing the sources of power (water, wind)
during the 10th through 13th centuries he notes that the
organic view of nature with its origins reaching back to
the Greeks gave way to a mechanistic perspective.  In
his somewhat metaphoric discussions regarding the
evolution of the operation and purposes of the water
mill through to the idea of perpetual motion machines,
White presents a compelling case that in moving along
this continuum nature is the bearer of “forces” that can
be tapped to address the needs and intentions of
society. In support of this assertion he postulates that
by the middle of the 13th century a large segment of the
scientific (and I will add technological community) had
come to view the universe as a “reservoir of energies to
be tapped and used according to human intentions.” This
then is the logical end point of the period as our
efforts to harness what had been present and delivered
by nature (animals and the riches of the soil) to those
“forces” that are in fact internal to her. Thus it may
be said that the linkage between science (learning and
understanding the elements of nature and natural
phenomena) and technology (the practical application of
this knowledge to address a desired human need) grew
ever closer during this period and sowed the seeds for
the Scientific Revolution that was to follow.

In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White
does provide a good introductory discussion of a
relationship that is as contemporary as it is ancient--
that of technology and its power to effect social
change. Although his focus is on the medieval period
White could write this same text about any proscribed
historical period. The railroads of the 19th century,
the automobile in the 20th amongst others each
contributed a spark to dramatic changes in the social
and economic structures of their times. While I have no
quibble with the examples he uses to fashion his
arguments he does not probe what appears to be the key
definitional question that would seem to face the
historian of science and technology—What criteria do we
use to identify and proclaim a discovery or
technological development as the catalytic event of the
era? For example, if White were to be assessing the
impact of the computer on society would his fulcrum be
the PC or the microchip? While the lack of standards for
answering this question are the fuel for on-going
scholarly debate a better illustration of the elements
that lead White to his conclusions in this volume would
have been most illuminating.