Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages
© 1994 Frances and Joseph Gies
291 pages, plus notes, an extended bibliography, and an index

The Gies' various books on life in the middle ages have continued to delight and entertainment, and so I looked forward to this particular book. My anticipation was only heightened by the fact that I am interested in pre-industrial technology, particularly concerning architecture and craft. The Gies did not disapoint, and this book has become my second-favorite Gies book -- the first being Life in a Medieval City. The book consists of seven chapters.

The first, "Nimrod's Tower, Noah's Ark", examines popular conceptions about technology in the middle ages. The Gies are forever forcing me to broaden my perceptions about the middle ages, and they do so again -- and again and again -- in this book. In "Triumphs and Failures of Ancient Technology", the Gies track the growth of technology up until the decline of the Roman Empire. They cover water wheels, road-building, weapons, smelting technology, astronomical tools, horse equipment, handicraft, and the like. In the chapters to follow, they move chronologically through the middle ages, ending with a chapter titled "Leonardo and Columbus". Another chapter, "The Asian Connection", is tucked in between the end of the early middle ages (500-900) and the beginning of the economic revival of the early 11- and 1200s. This particular chapter focuses on how technology and learning drifted west fro the Arab world, India, and China.

This is definitely one of the most interesting books I've ever read. The Gies cover a nearly unbeliable about of material in only three hundred pages, and I'm at a loss as to how to properly summarize it. They write about bridges, cathedrals, ship-building, glass-blowing, road-laying, pottery-making, iron-forging, masonry, the growth of universities, the development of art, water wheels, proto-industrial looms, the spice trade, crossbows, the Columbian exchange, mail armor, the Greek disdain for manual labor, trebuchets, cannons, the Roman preference for tehnology over natural philosophy, sanitation programs in cities, Leonardo's technical drawings, the birth of paper -- I could go on and on. All of this is informed by primary-source materials, from which the Gies quote liberally. They also use medieval depictions of water wheels and clock towers and so forth to illustrate what they are writing about. Joseph Gies once edited the technology articles for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and his knowledge comes through in technical explanations. I didn't understand all of his explantations -- especially in regard to complicated mechanisms like printing presses and clock towers -- but many were.

The Gies also fit all of this into a general narrtive about the development of the medieval world, and I could appreciate this all the more, having read their other books. This book was enormously interesting: I really can't say that too many times. I reccommend it eagerly to anyone who is interested in the medieval era or the history of technology. I only wish the Gies had an official website.

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