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In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White considers the effects of technological innovation on the societies of medieval Europe: the slow collapse of feudalism with the development of machines and tools that introduced factories in place of cottage industries, and the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White considers the effects of technological innovation on the societies of medieval Europe: the slow collapse of feudalism with the development of machines and tools that introduced factories in place of cottage industries, and the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods of crop rotation. One invention of particular import, writes White, was the stirrup, which in turn introduced heavy, long-range cavalry to the medieval battlefield. The development thus escalated small-scale conflict to "shock combat." Cannons and flamethrowers followed, as did more peaceful inventions, such as watermills and reapers.


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In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White considers the effects of technological innovation on the societies of medieval Europe: the slow collapse of feudalism with the development of machines and tools that introduced factories in place of cottage industries, and the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods In Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White considers the effects of technological innovation on the societies of medieval Europe: the slow collapse of feudalism with the development of machines and tools that introduced factories in place of cottage industries, and the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods of crop rotation. One invention of particular import, writes White, was the stirrup, which in turn introduced heavy, long-range cavalry to the medieval battlefield. The development thus escalated small-scale conflict to "shock combat." Cannons and flamethrowers followed, as did more peaceful inventions, such as watermills and reapers.

30 review for Medieval Technology and Social Change

  1. 4 out of 5

    Feliks

    This is one of the best books you will discover on the medieval world. It is a scholarly book; written by a scholar--likely, the reason why most people have never heard of it; never seek it out or pounce on it when it comes their way; nor are unable to 'see it through' after picking it up. This is a thinking man's book; not a book to be read for entertainment. The content is filled with not just the 'easy', or 'certain' answers. Instead, the author does exactly what the diligence of his chair dem This is one of the best books you will discover on the medieval world. It is a scholarly book; written by a scholar--likely, the reason why most people have never heard of it; never seek it out or pounce on it when it comes their way; nor are unable to 'see it through' after picking it up. This is a thinking man's book; not a book to be read for entertainment. The content is filled with not just the 'easy', or 'certain' answers. Instead, the author does exactly what the diligence of his chair demands--he presents not just his own arguments, but also the views of his peers and considers them in turn before submitting the one he stands behind. That is the way it is done in university, folks. No spoon-feeding. The text is rife with tiny-font footnotes which sometimes dwarf the page itself. Nevertheless, Lynn White presents an array of erudite, fine-grain evidence for some really intricate relationships between medieval man and technology. Perhaps you have to be a certain variety of more 'imaginative reader' to relish a point-by-point narrative of the evolution of the horse-stirrup. Perhaps you have to love history simply for itself. On the other hand, perhaps there is pleasure simply in seeing someone display utter mastery of their topic. White can be enjoyed by all these types of readers; but probably not by anyone seeking a brisk or lively book for a long airplane flight or a beach blanket. This is a book you have to "work at" (a little). I said above that this is not a 'fun' read; but I should rather say that this book is a great treat if you admire a well-articulated and cogently asserted argument. The rich pleasure in savoring a tome like this is following the nimble interplay of a scholarly mind over a difficult topic; and enjoying the way he re-arranges a mass of info for lucid presentation. White also has a beautiful command of the English language. For that alone it belongs on the shelves of educated men.

  2. 5 out of 5

    John David

    At the heart of some of the best works on medieval history rests the claim that the middle ages were not the dark, backward theocracies of popular lore, but dynamic societies full of art, culture, music, and science. And with the advent of Lynn White’s 1962 book “Medieval Technology and Social Change,” we can add technology to the list of subjects that have been sadly left off the list of subjects usually associated with this time period. White looks at the advent of what he considers to be thre At the heart of some of the best works on medieval history rests the claim that the middle ages were not the dark, backward theocracies of popular lore, but dynamic societies full of art, culture, music, and science. And with the advent of Lynn White’s 1962 book “Medieval Technology and Social Change,” we can add technology to the list of subjects that have been sadly left off the list of subjects usually associated with this time period. White looks at the advent of what he considers to be three seminal technological innovations: the stirrup, the agricultural revolution of the early middle ages, and the rise of mechanical power in the late middle ages. Furthermore, White claims that he has two other intentions, to “show the kinds of sources and the means which must be used if the unlettered portions of the past (which involve far more than technological history) are to be explored” and to demonstrate “long before Vasco de Gama, the cultures of the eastern hemisphere were far more osmotic than most of us have believed. To understand the sources and ramifications of developments in medieval Europe one must search Benin, Ethiopia and Timor, Japan and the Altai” (v). At least according to the title, he also wants to outline the kinds of social impacts this had on the people who were dealing with the technologies in question. For a book of a mere 134 pages, this is a really ambitious project. I always try to rate and comment on a book for what it claims to be and for what it is instead of what I want it to be, but there is much more of a focus on the “medieval technology” here than there is on the “social change,” by a large margin. The first essay provided a seamless integration of many of the areas listed above, including how the stirrup was related to the rise of a professional cavalry in the Frankish military, and how in turn that was related to the development of feudalism. The second and third case studies, however, rather quickly veer into the minutiae of agriculture and mechanical design, respectively. The transition from two-field to three-field crop rotation and a somewhat detailed account of the contents of Konrad Kyeser’s “Bellifortis” are details I could have lived without. And even though White explicitly mentions that he wants to trace the historical origins of these innovations, many essay subsections feel overly listy and superficial instead of honing in on the European focus that he seems to be most interested in here. A thorough history of these developments would have been interesting – for someone else, not for me – but it would have needed a much, much longer book. I didn’t come to this because of interest, but because it was cross-referenced in another book I’m currently reading about the ideas of Ernest Gellner, and specifically his “Plough, Sword, and Book.” I thought I recognized White’s name, and after looking on my bookshelf found that I owned it and decided to read it. There are, I am sure, people who will find this endlessly fascinating. Bless their souls. It may even still even be highly relevant in its field; I now know about as much about medieval technology as I did before I read it, i.e., next to nothing, though that wasn’t the book’s fault. For what it’s worth, you can still find this book on many graduate-level course syllabi covering the middle ages, the history of science, and even politics. But unless you are interested in the arcana of the technology in question, and especially tracking said technology from continent to continent, and from one medieval treatise to the next, I recommend another book on the subject.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Adam Marischuk

    Short and dense but yet somehow readable Professor White manages to pack an incredible amount of information into a very short and concise history of technology in the Middle Ages. At only 134 pages long (including footnotes on each page), the three chapters flow along quickly and everything is documented. It would seem that Professor White anticipated controversy so backed up each claim repeatedly. Thankfully, the footnotes are not obstrusive and the fourty pages of endnotes provide extra detail Short and dense but yet somehow readable Professor White manages to pack an incredible amount of information into a very short and concise history of technology in the Middle Ages. At only 134 pages long (including footnotes on each page), the three chapters flow along quickly and everything is documented. It would seem that Professor White anticipated controversy so backed up each claim repeatedly. Thankfully, the footnotes are not obstrusive and the fourty pages of endnotes provide extra detail for those really interested in the topic. I came across this book in a reference in Jean Gimpel's Medieval Machine which I enjoyed very much as it detailed the Medieval use of technology to transform their society. I found Gimpel's conclusions convincing and his evidence sound and valid. White's book is significantly more prudent and cautious with the conclusions. At times it seems White is unable to see the forest through the trees and gets bogged down in minute detail. Perhaps this can be expected from a book which anticipated a strong reaction, but it does mean that the book reads heavy and academic. That said, it is a wonderful book. The three chapters are: I: Stirrup, Mounted Shock Combat, Feudalism and Chivalry I.I The Classic Theory of the Origins of Feudalism and Its Critics I.II The Origin and Diffusion of the Stirrup I.III Mounted Shock Combat and the Temper of Feudal Life (my inner child was disappointed in how White made Feudal knights boring) II: The Agricultural Revolution of the Early Middle Ages II.I The Plough and the Manorial System II.II The Discovery of Horse-Power II.III The Three Field-Rotation and Improved Nutrition II.IV The Northward Shift of Europe's Focus (here there is an interesting discussion of the Pirenne Thesis which has experienced something of a revival since White wrote this) III: The Medieval Exploration of Mechanical Power and devices III.I The Sources of Power III.II The Development of Machine Design III.III The Concept of a Power Technology The balance of the book weighs heavy to Medieval technology and less to the conclusions regarding social change.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ian Hodge

    This is a fascinating introduction to what has been called the First Industrial Revolution. He lists changes in technology that effected social change: the horse stirrup he attributes to helping stop the advance of Islam; the horse collar improved productivity on the land since the horse was faster than an ox; the change from two-field to three-field farming increased crops and growing acreage; and without the crank invented in this period, we would be without steam trains and motor vehicles.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kent Beck

    I love the way this book connects seemingly disconnected topics like the emergence of the stirrup and the confiscation of church lands by Charles Martel. This is a catalog of unintended consequences.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I honestly do not know how to rate this. at first I couldn't tell whether it was a methodological/disciplinary difference that made some of White's conclusions seem absurd. It's not common for me to read strictly historical work (though this is fairly interdisciplinary, it feels like the archaeologists, literary critics, economists, and other scholars White draws on are all subsumed in his own historicist maneuverings), so I was really unprepared for the emphasis on extrinsic teleological causal I honestly do not know how to rate this. at first I couldn't tell whether it was a methodological/disciplinary difference that made some of White's conclusions seem absurd. It's not common for me to read strictly historical work (though this is fairly interdisciplinary, it feels like the archaeologists, literary critics, economists, and other scholars White draws on are all subsumed in his own historicist maneuverings), so I was really unprepared for the emphasis on extrinsic teleological causality that drives the book. It's a quick, easy read (and honestly his section on steam bellows made the entire thing worth it for me), but I felt skeptical and bemused for most of it. I should note that if I sound dismissive, I'm coming from a perspective that the book itself enabled. White's broadest claim is that rather than a backwater "dark ages," the medieval period was defined by real technological advancement, and his book was one of the first that really argued for that field as one with scholarly potential. If his underlying argument seems obvious to us now, it's only because he and other scholars (incl. Marc Bloch) did the work in opening up that field to begin with.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Micah

    Wow—a fascinating read! For years, scholars have debated whether or not technology existed in the Medieval Ages and whether or not society changed. In this book, Lynn White Jr. gives a resounding rebuttal to the scholarly consensus that holds that society and technology were basically exactly the same from 476 AD until Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517. Finally, we can say with confidence regarding technology and society of the Medieval period that yes, those things did exist! Not giv Wow—a fascinating read! For years, scholars have debated whether or not technology existed in the Medieval Ages and whether or not society changed. In this book, Lynn White Jr. gives a resounding rebuttal to the scholarly consensus that holds that society and technology were basically exactly the same from 476 AD until Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in 1517. Finally, we can say with confidence regarding technology and society of the Medieval period that yes, those things did exist! Not giving 5 stars because the writing was too dense

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nate Huston

    White uses three examples to illustrate the potential for technology to have a substantial impact on society. His first, feudalism as a function of the incorporation of stirrups by the Franks (and subsequently spread by them), is the most intriguing and, as a result, the most fantastical. His reasoning seems concrete, though, and is followed up with a similarly interesting (and perhaps more mundane and therefore easier to swallow whole) chapter about the impact of the heavy plough, horses, and t White uses three examples to illustrate the potential for technology to have a substantial impact on society. His first, feudalism as a function of the incorporation of stirrups by the Franks (and subsequently spread by them), is the most intriguing and, as a result, the most fantastical. His reasoning seems concrete, though, and is followed up with a similarly interesting (and perhaps more mundane and therefore easier to swallow whole) chapter about the impact of the heavy plough, horses, and three-field rotation on the movement to cities and acceleration of democratic capitalism. The book is extensively footnoted and concludes with a large notes section of its own. Without delving deeply into either, it is easy to follow White's logical progression from innovation to eventual societal change. Whether the causal relationship is as clear as he makes it out to be would require more time and effort than I have at the moment. Be that as it may, the point is well made: technology can have a significant impact on society. He also points out, though, that it takes a society able to incorporate the technology and visionary leaders for it to actually take off (well illustrated in the case of the stirrups, which had been around for hundreds of years before the Franks incorporated them fully). The book also offers a good survey of source material for the study of technology in history (not everyone writing in a given period had access to or was enamored of technology, so the author resorts to archaeology and other sources) as well as a lesson in the impact of the eastern hemisphere on societal changes in medieval times.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    An interesting look at technology developing through the middle ages and what impact it had. A very academic look and can be exceedingly dry. It's clearly written for the guy's contemporaries who would understand offhand references and entire sentences in French or Latin. I am not the intended audience in other words. Still, it gave me something to think about so in that it's accomplished. An interesting look at technology developing through the middle ages and what impact it had. A very academic look and can be exceedingly dry. It's clearly written for the guy's contemporaries who would understand offhand references and entire sentences in French or Latin. I am not the intended audience in other words. Still, it gave me something to think about so in that it's accomplished.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Randy Carlson

    Incredibly important book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sefi Keller

    Interesting data points, but not easy to read due to: - Quotes in Latin and other languages are not translated - Technical concepts are not described well enough

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    It was really difficult for me to figure out quite how to rate this book. In terms of how enjoyable it is to read, it's pretty awesome: it's clear, it's fun, and it's very engaging. I learned quite a bit reading it. It even worked in one of my all time favorite subjects, perpetual motion machines! However, I also pretty solidly disagree with a lot of White's conclusions, so I can't quite bring myself to give it five stars. The first two sections are loads of fun to read. White structures his arg It was really difficult for me to figure out quite how to rate this book. In terms of how enjoyable it is to read, it's pretty awesome: it's clear, it's fun, and it's very engaging. I learned quite a bit reading it. It even worked in one of my all time favorite subjects, perpetual motion machines! However, I also pretty solidly disagree with a lot of White's conclusions, so I can't quite bring myself to give it five stars. The first two sections are loads of fun to read. White structures his argument by taking two older and seminal theories about the development of medieval civilization and tweaking them. In his first chapter, White presents Heinrich Brunner's theory that feudalism derived from Charles Martel's response to the 732 Battle of Poitiers (he decided that he needed mounted warriors and provided them with land in exchange for service). White accepts that, but says that it wasn't caused by the Battle of Poitiers, but the introduction of the stirrup into western Europe. The stirrup then enabled knights to utilize lances and longswords without falling off their horses, allowing for mounted warfare to become preeminent. Similarly, in chapter 2, White presents Henri Pirenne's thesis that the shift of focus from Mediterranean to northern Europe could be attributed to the spread of Islam cutting off trade in the Mediterranean. White takes the first part as valid, but says it wasn't caused by Islam, but the agricultural innovations in response to the northern climate that led to agricultural surplus and proto-urbanization. Basically, lots of the big political/economic/social changes of the Middle Ages get their impetus not from political/economic/social factors, but key technological innovations. It's a really clear and daring thesis, but I kept getting the feeling that White was a little too eager to attribute clear, simple strings of causality when the historical reality would have been quite a bit more complicated. I really like that White wants to bring technology into the discussion for all of these developments (it absolutely deserves to be there), but it almost feels like he's over-correcting: much more attention should have been paid to cultural and social institutions at the time in order to give a more balanced picture. The stirrup probably allowed feudalism to be created, but that doesn't mean it created it all by itself. Similarly, if open fields and crop rotation hadn't been implemented when they were, urbanization probably wouldn't have occurred when it did. That doesn't mean that crop rotation created urbanization. Also, the third chapter unfortunately looses the focus of the first two, and occasionally just feels like White talking about a bunch of cool technological innovations that he likes (understandable, they are pretty fun). Regardless of those caveats though, it's a really great book. Even if these innovations weren't quite as seminal as White sometimes suggests, they were still undoubtedly important and White makes them very accessible.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tom Kenis

    I'm going to miss the best bed-time reader I've ever had. Wow. This thing put me to sleep like nothing else. What else to think of gems like "The flywheel first appears as an element in machinery in the late eleventh-century treatise on technology of the monk Theophilus, who speaks of a 'rotula sive lignea sive plumbea tornatilis' on the axle of a little pigment-grinding mill equipped with a rotary pestle, and also of a 'rotula plumbi parvula' on the spindle of a boring apparatus"? Droning techni I'm going to miss the best bed-time reader I've ever had. Wow. This thing put me to sleep like nothing else. What else to think of gems like "The flywheel first appears as an element in machinery in the late eleventh-century treatise on technology of the monk Theophilus, who speaks of a 'rotula sive lignea sive plumbea tornatilis' on the axle of a little pigment-grinding mill equipped with a rotary pestle, and also of a 'rotula plumbi parvula' on the spindle of a boring apparatus"? Droning technicalities aside the book does provide invaluable insights into the origins and adhoc trial-and-error prelude to our industrialized modern world. Then there is the non-Western provenance of the greater part of basic inventions that enabled later technological revolutions. We owe a lot to the Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. Especially the latter seemed to have been dabbling in a lot more than just fireworks for thousands of years without really waking up to the global-dominance-enabling bit of inventing cool stuff. The core of the book centers around the author's assertion that the lynchpin of the spectacular technological take-off of the past five hundred years hinged on mastering the transferral of reciprocating motion (sole form of movement found in living things) to continuous rotary motion (typical of inorganic matter). I would like modestly to muddle the picture. What the author describes actually took place around the 4th millennium BC with the invention of the wheel. Things don't get a lot more rotary than that. Crucially, I venture, the critical step-up seems to be the casual linking of rotary-to-continuous motion AND back by means of crank and connecting rod. Many machines, like the waterwheel-driven saw, automated bellows, and much later weaving machines and the stamping press are examples of rotary-to-reciprocal motion. Something for yours and Lynn to have a wee coffee over. Perhaps the very last phrase of the book alone is worth the slog. Apparently c. 1260 a Roger Bacon wrote: "Machines may be made by which the largest ships, with only one man steering them, will be moved faster than if they were filled with rowers; wagons may be built which will move with incredible speed and without the aid of beasts; flying machines can be constructed in which man... may beat the air with wings like a bird... machines which will make it possible to go to the bottom of the seas and rivers." Not sure what the man was smoking but I wouldn't be surprised if they burned him at the stake for writing that. And rightly so.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    This is a good read, even though it's a tad dated. White sees the Middle Ages as a period of uncommon levels of invention and innovation, focusing on changes in horseback riding, agriculture, and power generation. White's writing is about as good as it gets, for history, certainly. The technologies he identifies are clearly important; the causality piece is less certain. A worthwhile companion piece is Bert Hall's "Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change after thirty years," which is s This is a good read, even though it's a tad dated. White sees the Middle Ages as a period of uncommon levels of invention and innovation, focusing on changes in horseback riding, agriculture, and power generation. White's writing is about as good as it gets, for history, certainly. The technologies he identifies are clearly important; the causality piece is less certain. A worthwhile companion piece is Bert Hall's "Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change after thirty years," which is something of a review essay that provides some interesting perspective on where the field has gone. There should always be a place in history for books like this: it is provocative, readable, and stimulating. Problematizing, refuting, and refining some of its broader claims has provided work to many historians, and the field cannot advance without some scholars going out on limbs.

  15. 4 out of 5

    ECH

    This text spent most of its time detailing arguments between archaeologists about the dating of different things that might indicate people had certain types of plows, cranks etc. If I was getting ready to make an academic argument in the archaeology of stuff I never knew was this important, I would find this book ridiculously valuable. However, I was kind of trying to read this for fun, and I wish the argument had been more centered on the ways technology and social change were connected, rathe This text spent most of its time detailing arguments between archaeologists about the dating of different things that might indicate people had certain types of plows, cranks etc. If I was getting ready to make an academic argument in the archaeology of stuff I never knew was this important, I would find this book ridiculously valuable. However, I was kind of trying to read this for fun, and I wish the argument had been more centered on the ways technology and social change were connected, rather than retroactively trying to assign winners to an arms race about stirrups. Also this book has convinced me that if my advisor lived in the middle ages, she would have built automatons... and been even more miserable than she is now.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jaron Roux

    Good short book to get back in the swing of things with SAASS and the new year. The main theme for me in this book is the Middle Ages were a time of new inventions, innovations and cultural change that set the stage for major advancements in the modern era. Folks in the Middle Ages had more innovative swag than they are given credit for. An interesting question that I walk away with is what innovations are going on today that we are taking for granted. With the rapid rate of innovation today can Good short book to get back in the swing of things with SAASS and the new year. The main theme for me in this book is the Middle Ages were a time of new inventions, innovations and cultural change that set the stage for major advancements in the modern era. Folks in the Middle Ages had more innovative swag than they are given credit for. An interesting question that I walk away with is what innovations are going on today that we are taking for granted. With the rapid rate of innovation today can we be overlooking something? Either way good book by White.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Allen

    Neat learning about the technology, but this book uses antiquated terminology does not translate latin and french text. Note: you can't fault the author for this, but we actually have discovered an insect that uses geared motion since publication of the book. Kinda neat though that that is the only living thing that uses them. Neat learning about the technology, but this book uses antiquated terminology does not translate latin and french text. Note: you can't fault the author for this, but we actually have discovered an insect that uses geared motion since publication of the book. Kinda neat though that that is the only living thing that uses them.

  18. 4 out of 5

    P.

    An excellent read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

    Excellent work. It is rare these days to see such perception, thoroughness, and composition on the interplay between society and technology. A worthy read for the STEM with a history weakness.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tessa

    Informative, his argument is easy to understand, and fun to read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    A very accessible survey.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Katharine Holden

    Fascinating. I had no idea the crank was such a late-developing device, or that the motion doesn't come naturally to humans. Also, the progression of development in the horse harness was new to me. Fascinating. I had no idea the crank was such a late-developing device, or that the motion doesn't come naturally to humans. Also, the progression of development in the horse harness was new to me.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Hooman Attar

    Effect of religion on Technology

  24. 4 out of 5

    John

    A good history book, but somewhat superseded by Kelly DeVries' Medieval Military Technology. A good history book, but somewhat superseded by Kelly DeVries' Medieval Military Technology.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Carlowen

  26. 4 out of 5

    John

  27. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jude Molloy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Emily

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