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 analysis. 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 well. 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 enterprise. 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 region. 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 generated. 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.