The Slow but Steady Medieval March to an Enduring Legacy



Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere / New World Encyclopedia

By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

“We owe to the Middle Ages,” wrote French biographer and novelist Andre Maurois, “the two worst inventions of humanity – romantic love and gunpowder.”  Whether or not one agrees with the sentiment Maurois expressed, the truth in it cannot be denied and perhaps so briefly and succinctly summarizes the vast contributions of the medieval world to the humankind’s exit from pre-modern society and entrance into the modern world.  Western Europe had emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire and found itself all but abandoned by the Empire’s stronger remnants in the Byzantine world to the east.  The West was cut off from resources that had for so long been taken for granted and found itself in the position of not only having to defend itself from outside threats but also of needing to replace the provider of those resources that it would have to acquire without the benefit of security and stability.  Challenges lay ahead that may have seemed insurmountable, but out of the rubble rose a period that would be a testament to human ingenuity and stubborn determination.  Medieval life grew within the confines of a religious environment in which educational and scientific pursuits were at least initially bound to Aristotelian philosophy.  But as superstition and blind acceptance gradually gave way to reason and rationality, a metamorphosis allowed those shackles to be loosened as the modern western world began to bloom during the Enlightenment.

The Middle Ages encompassed a time of technological and agricultural as well as socio-political and commercial revolutions, all of which were framed within and equally revolutionary cultural explosion.  The theological environment affected the types of scientific innovations that could be pursued, scientific research combined with invention born of either necessity or pure curiosity affected the rise of new technologies, new technologies affected the towering rise of grand cathedrals and even the methodology of peasant farmers, which in turn affected commercial growth, and finally all of which affected the birth of new social and cultural forms.  It is within this interdependent context that the medieval renaissance can be best understood for the massively transforming time that it was.


Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy / Tango7174 Creative Commons

The church was indisputably the head of the medieval Western European body.  Muslims were well-entrenched in Andalusia, having ended their march into Western Europe after being turned back by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in October 732.  But unlike Muslims who had a vast empire behind them, the Jewish people did not yet have a homeland and were left to carve out settlements where they could.  Though the Early Middle Ages saw a harmonious existence between Jews and Christians, the Catholic Church gradually gained unquestioned authority and became the dominant religion of Western Europe.  During that process, Jews found themselves initially marginalized and eventually alienated.[1]  After having acquired uncontested political and social authority, all aspects of the Middle Ages would for some time have to be viewed within the confines set by the church.

As the Western Roman Empire dissolved into its component parts, the resulting splintered political regions in the Latin West split from what became a more solidly organized Orthodox East.  This “Great Schism” in 1054 was born of opposing views between the two as to, among other things, the nature of Christ.  The Western Filoque, inspired especially by St. Augustine of Hippo as well as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, was at odds with Eastern theoria in that Latin Christianity viewed the Trinity as the Holy Spirit issuing from the Son while Eastern Orthodoxy believed it as being through the Son.[2]  Latin Christianity would lose the benefit of Byzantine state protection, but the papacy would not be left without defense.

Church and state actually grew intertwined in Western Europe, but whereas the Byzantine emperor would be a co-ruler with Orthodox patriarchs the papacy would claim first and foremost authority.  There would develop contests between the pope and Western heads of state that would result in the Avignon Papacy, and after the return of the papacy to Rome, the church would in the end lose this battle.  Ironically, as the pope had played medieval rulers one against the other to secure the interests of the church, the church would as the Middle Ages progressed become a political pawn broker of state rulers.  In spite of the power struggles that occurred between the two, political rule would insure its own interests and the fervently held religious beliefs of the people would insure the continued importance of the church and the role it would play.  Church and state would for the practical purpose of governance remain united, being important to both temporal and eternal concerns that would be familiar to anyone playing a medieval game of chess.[3]  It was this environment in which the medieval revolutions would occur and by which they would initially be governed.  But even the church would yield to the natural progress of humanity.


Medieval Heavy Plow / Wikimedia Commons

First among the priorities of medieval life was the same as any other – the need to provide sustenance to the population.  Technological innovation, therefore, would of necessity begin with agriculture.  This was accomplished by changes in both typology and methodology – the tools used to till the fields and the manner in which it was done.  The soil of Northern Europe was a heavier, clay-like soil, much different from the sandy soils of the Mediterranean coast.  The scratch plows that could easily be used along that coast would not suffice.  Whether from the Vikings or from further east, a new implement was introduced for agriculture – the heavy plow.  Prior to its entry into medieval agriculture, farmers had to cross-plow fields, first turning the topsoil and then tilling deeper once again so that fertile soil could be accessed.  The heavy plow provided the ability to till in single rows instead of square cross-plowed patches, saving laborious time while increasing not only the amount of land that could be used but gaining access to much richer soil than the Mediterranean scratch plow in topsoils.[4]  But the heavy plow, as the first word would imply, would create extreme difficulty to be operated by human power alone.  At the time, animals were considered tools as any other, and here another change provided an advantage.

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Three-Field Rotation / Wikimedia Commons

Mediterranean agrarians had used oxen, as Western Europeans did as well.  However, oxen presented two primary problems:  They could work only so many hours until they needed rest, and they were not agile creatures.  Enormous time and energy was spent on simply turning the oxen around to plow another row.  Horses, on the other hand, were far more agile and could also work longer.  But the harnesses used for oxen were insufficient for horses, and it wasn’t until the eighth or ninth century that the padded horse collar was introduced to medieval Europe that allowed them to be used to increase again the amount of land that could be worked.[5]  This new type of harness allowing the use of horse power revolutionized agriculture, and thus was born the three-field system of rotation.

Limited power had earlier demanded storage of grains during times that certain fields could not be used, but now farmers could gain more productivity by plowing two fields and letting one lie fallow in rotation to one another.  Seasons certainly remained important as to what could be grown and when, but the types of foods that could be grown in any one season drastically increased.  There is evidence that donkeys and heavy plows had been used in the Roman Empire, which was likely an influence of Raetian Gaul with what Pliny called the plaumoratum.[6]  There is evidence that the use of the heavy plow had roots in the region.  The never-ending search for more power to provide more productivity to yield more results had thus begun in medieval Europe, providing two more important innovations that forever changed the landscape and even set the stage for the later industrial revolution.


Roman Hierapolis sawmill from the 3rd century AD, the earliest known machine to combine a crank with a connecting rod. / Wikimedia Commons

The necessity arises to again look to ancient technology that laid the groundwork – the use of the crank mechanism.  Most classrooms not long ago had pencil sharpeners mounted on the wall or a counter into which a student could insert a pencil and rotate the handle to perform work, which in this case meant removing wood to expose pencil lead.  Evidence of the invention of such a mechanism powered by water was discovered in ancient Rome.  The excavation of a sarcophagus in Hierapolis revealed a relief depiction of a stone mill used for sawing purposes that was powered by water.[7]  The idea of a crank was not unique to the Middle Ages.  However, early Roman cranks still depended on human power.  A person would walk the wheel, and the wheel would churn the water to provide power for the task needing to be accomplished by the crank.  Romans had no need for further development because they had a plethora of slaves that could be used to provide power to the wheel.[8]  Medieval Europe, not having access to slave labor, would not have sufficient manpower to justify such operations.

Cranks were used sparsely in the Early Middle Ages, the first known rotary grindstone being depicted in the Utrecht Psalter in the Rheims region sometime between 816 and 834.[9]  If they could manage to provide power to crank systems in some automatic fashion, tasks that had to be performed with the grain after it was harvested could be accelerated.  Arabian waterwheel technology – the noria – most likely originated in Persia and found its way to Europe via Spain sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries.[10]  The windmill followed soon after and dotted the landscape.  The use of the horse with the heavy plow set agriculture on a course to surplus and thus commercial possibility, and with new and improved technologies such as the waterwheel and windmill the developers of the Middle Ages would be encouraged in their search for the prized perpetual motion machine.[11]


The Monastic Complex of Santa María del Parral of the Hieronymites monks in Segovia, Spain / Wikimedia Commons

As the food supply grew, so too did the population.  Monastic complexes that provided services to villages grew, and with them some of these villages grew into larger towns and still larger urban centers where commerce and trade developed.  Agricultural technology and surplus production paved the way for medieval Western Europe to begin to establish itself as an economic participant in the known international marketplace.[12]  The agricultural advances had not come into conflict with the church, nor had the technologies that had to that point been developed largely due to the demands of better methods of production, storage and dissemination.  Monastic complexes actually depended on the same technologies to provide power for their own purposes.  Hugh of St. Victor was a teacher at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris who, in his work the Didascalion, spoke to the divine harmony that such pursuits could create.  He divided the study of philosophy into three primary components – theoretical, practical, and finally what he termed “mechanical” or “illiberal” philosophy (this included skills that were driven by technology such as carpentry, medicine, and most importantly, agriculture).[13]

 Urban growth in the Middle Ages was directly connected in terms of location to those areas where ecclesiastical buildings and monastic complexes had been constructed.  These were locations which provided a larger sense of safety and security to its migrants with the profound number of services that were offered such as education, medical care, and more.[14]  These areas became burgeoning centers of economic activity and trade.  Commerce is inextricably bound to political and social structure, and growing as well as new markets would create in medieval Europe entirely new institutions and social organizations as well as new manners of governance.  It was in this context that secular and religious powers would struggle for authority.


The Coronation of Charlemagne, Raphael / Wikimedia Commons

Even into the High Middle Ages, goods and labor were mediums of exchange rather than actual currency.  Tacit contractual arrangements between manor lords and peasants – each party owing certain obligations to the other – had evolved as the primary system of trade as well as structure.  A person’s station in life could instantly be known even by strangers simply by the manner of dress, and laws even arose that in some places forbade commoners to wear clothing associated with nobility as well as apprentice craftsmen from wearing attire that would wrongfully depict them as masters of their trade.[15]  The growth of crafts guilds in urban areas contributed to, but was by no means the sole cause of, the gradual dissolution of the feudal system.[16]  With the expansion of agriculture and the growth of urban centers that accompanied the increase in population, trade rapidly expanded not only within Western Europe but with external markets as well.[17]

Emphasis should be placed on the fact that feudalism only very slowly faded away with remnants of it lingering past the Middle Ages.  Any social system of both governance and stratification that was as entrenched as feudalism had become would not loosen its grip on society quickly or easily.  Its dissolution was also not in the interest of the church.  Ecclesiastical control of society had been maintained in no small part because the feudal system was locally and regionally based, preventing for a time the rise of a unified and strong nation-state that would pose a secular challenge to that control as the church used its contributions and influence to play nobles and other leaders off against one another with the intention of preventing the rise of such a challenge.[18  The church had begun this process very early.  Even when a stronger Carolingian Empire had risen under Charlemagne, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 CE by Pope Leo III in a symbolic gesture of the state being subordinate to and even controlled by the church.

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Magna Carta (left) and Statute of Merton (right) / Wikimedia Commons

As localities combined into larger regions and these regions into even larger systems, power coalesced into stronger monarchies that continued to abandon feudal arrangements of nobles swearing homage and fealty to them.    Instead, legal codes began to develop as newer systems of land ownership and conducting commerce arose.  Largely considered to be among the first of such codes in England following the Magna Carta[19] was an agreement between Henry III and barons in 1235 with the Statute of Merton, which established the system of enclosure that allowed landowners to end current arrangements with peasant tenants and claim more land for their own use as they shifted from agriculture to herding primarily sheep for a more lucrative textile market.[20]  Feudal arrangements similarly gave way in France with the increased exploitation of the peasantry as well as the rise of serfdom in Germany.

The tenuous hold that the church had over Western Europe following Charlemagne and only by good fortune surviving the contest with the imperial papacy as well as the temporary relocation to Avignon, as well as events such as the Investiture Controversy even further weakening its authority, had all but disappeared as church and state became two separate entities.  After the declaration of the first crusade in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, the church would gradually split its attention to affairs at home and abroad, and the later spread of the Black Death and famine would open the door for even more secular control.[21]  The tables had turned.  The church had grown accustomed to positioning weak regional nobles against one another, and now stronger nations under secular rule used the church for their own political ends.  But even monarchs themselves were under threat as more representative forms of government arose.  These new statutes in England, for example, along with the Magna Carta, previously eroded the singular rule of royalty as barons wrested it away through force of law.

Agricultural necessity had initially motivated technological innovation, and that environment of invention led to the eruption of urban centers in which new forms of commercial activity began to rise.  Social structure had drastically changed as authority gradually shifted from religious to secular control of not only the populace but even of the church itself.  Within this hectic medieval setting, a cultural renaissance blossomed as well.  The growth of human artistic ingenuity is not the sole purview of the later Italian renaissance, the Enlightenment, or any other more commonly recognized social movement.


Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle from Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330 / Wikimedia Commons

The Middle Ages was a time in which a philosophy arose that placed value upon the individual for the sake of the individual, recognizing the value of humanity.  By 1050, the ties that bound the individual to other social institutions and arrangements had begun to loosen and people began to break free of the shackles that had long prevented them from any serious engagement in learning and opportunity.[22]  The church again played a role in this regard, perhaps unwittingly very early in the process.  Recall that the schism that separated West from East in doctrinal disagreements had largely centered around the view of the nature of Christ.  Eastern Orthodoxy maintained a more mystical view and was the setting in which the iconoclasm had taken place.  Images of spiritual figures were seen to present the danger of the viewer directing worship toward the image itself and not the figure it represented.  But in the West, with the rise of humanism, imagery had the opposite effect.

As this philosophy grew, the willingness to recognize the human aspects of divine figures (including Christ) contributed to a change in how humanity itself was viewed.  Human pursuits – indeed the very essence of humanity – gradually gained the favorable connotation such representation provided as the growth of literature and music among other artistic forms encouraged the individual to first know his own value.[23]  The traveling troubadour and wandering minstrel, the poet and author, and the introduction of their artistic forms into even official ceremonies and celebrations was a testament to medieval cultural growth.

The Middle Ages represented a time in history when humanity was at a crossroads.  Civilization had grown in the Mesopotamian river valleys and spread East and West.  Graeco-Roman culture had served as a springboard upon which Western civilization would rise and fall and rise again.  Medieval life was not a period of “darkness” as some would have believed.  Medievals held within their hands the power to either create an environment in which stagnation would indeed take hold or one that encouraged new pursuits and opportunities.  The latter, not as a widely conscious effort but as the byproduct of events, proved to be the case.  Technological innovation, agricultural growth, the rise of urban Europe, commercial expansion, and the direction provided by a humanistic philosophy that encouraged artistic expression and recognition all combined to leave to future generations reminders of that which they produced, including romantic love and gunpowder.


  1. Michael Frassetto, Christian Attitudes Toward Jews in the Middle Ages (New York:  Routledge, 2007), xii-xv.
  2. Avery Dulles, “The Filoque:  What is at Stake?”  Concordia Theological Quarterly 59 (1995):  32.
  3. Jenny Adams, Power Play:  The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 45.
  4. Thomas Glick, Steven J. Livesey, and Faith Wallis, eds., Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine (New York:  Routledge, 2005), 7.
  5. John Langdon, Horses, Oxen, and Technological Innovation:  The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming from 1066 to 1500 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1986), 19.
  6. Grenville Astille and John Langdon, eds., Medieval Farming and Technology:  The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe (New York:  Leiden, 1997), 43.
  7. Tullia Ritti, Klaus Grewe, and Paul Kessener, “A Relief of a Water-Powered Stone Saw Mill on a Sarcophagus at Hierapolis and its Implications,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 20 (2007):  161.
  8. R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (New York:  Brill, 1997), 80.
  9. Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (London:  Oxford University Press, 1962), 110.
  10. Thomas Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1970), 178.
  11. Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, 130-131.  They believed these technologies had actually accomplished perpetual motion.
  12. Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1976), 59.
  13. Hugh of St. Victor, “The Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor,” in The Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor:  A Medieval Guide to the Arts, ed. Jerome Taylor (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1961), 71-74.
  14. Albrecht Classen, ed., Urban Space in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age (Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter GmbH & CO., 2009), 18.
  15. Ellen Rodger, ed., Clothing in the Middle Ages (New York:  Crabtree, 2004), 5.
  16. Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1976), 125.
  17. John W. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 (Long Grove:  Waveland Press, 1971), 18-19.
  18. F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (London:  Routledge, 2002), 4-5.
  19. Joseph H. Beale, “The Early English Statutes,” Harvard Law Review 35 (1922), 519-520.
  20. Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1976), 130.
  21. A.C. Krey, The First Crusade:  The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1921), 261-262.
  22. Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1972), 36.
  23. Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200 (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1972), 158-159.