Believers in progress
Gimpel argues that a crucial difference between medievals and classicals is that the medievals believed in progress. As the medieval scholar and friar Gilbert de Tournai wrote:
Never will we find truth if we content ourselves with what is already known … Those things that have been written before us are not laws but guides. The truth is open to all, for it is not yet totally possessed (p.147).While it was another medieval, Bernard, master of the Episcopal school at Chartres from 1114-9, who produced the much quoted:
We are as dwarfs mounted on the shoulders of giants, so that although we perceive many more things than they, it is not because our vision is more piercing or our stature higher, but because we are carried and elevated higher thanks to their gigantic size (Pp147-8).Medieval writers noted and marvelled at the invention, the creation of new things, they saw around them. The surgeon Theodoric, in a 1267 treatise, said of the extraction of arrows:
every day a new instrument and a new method is invented (Pp148-9).While the Dominican Fra Giordano of Pisa held that:
Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end of finding them. Every day we could discover a new art … It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles which help one to see well, an art which is one of the best and most necessary in the world. And that is such a short time ago that a new art which never before existed was invented … I myself saw the man who discovered and practised it and I talked with him (p.149).The good Fra, one suspects, personally experienced the benefits of this new marvel.
According to my general rule about invention—if something was invented before 500BC, it was first invented in the Fertile Crescent: if it was invented after 1500, it was first invented in the West but if it was invented between 500BC and 1500, it was first invented in China; unless it had something to do with horses, in which case it was invented in Central Eurasian steppes—the most complex mechanical clock was that developed by Su Sung in the Sung capital in the C11th. But prediction of astronomical events was a closely guarded secret of the Chinese imperial court, as it was used to buttress imperial power. When, in 1126, the Sung fled their former capital to a new Southern capital, they were unable to replicate the clock due to lack of required specialists. The conquering Jin, and their later supplanters Yuan Mongols, kept the clock going. When the Ming overthrew the Yuan in 1368, they had no interest in the clock and no more is heard of it. By 1600, Jesuits were introducing European mechanical clocks to a China that showed no sign of ever having created such a thing (Pp150ff).
Back in Europe, interest in creating a mechanical clock (primarily for astronomical purposes) had developed in the C13th, partly spurred by Hindu astronomer and mathematician Bhaskara’s perpetual-motion machine of about 1150, known through Arabic treatises. Indeed, Giovanni di Dondi’s C14th treatise treats a “common” or time-telling clock as presumed knowledge before reading his manuscript. It is likely that the weight-driven clock with mechanical escapement was invented in the late C13th. Gimpel traces the development of an effective mechanical clock through various treatises (including a reference in Dante’s Paradiso Canto X) peaking in Giovanni di Dondi’s complex and much-celebrated astronomical clock (Pp152ff).
Keeping di Dondi’s clock going was also a trial for medieval Europe. But, in the meantime, “ordinary” mechanical clocks spread throughout Latin Christendom in the C14th. The Latin Church accepted the “mechanical” time of evenly spaced hours rather than the “eternal” time of 12 divisions of daylight: unlike the Orthodox Church, which banned installation of any mechanical clocks in Orthodox churches until the C20th. To Gimpel, the difference flowed from the power of the mercantile interest in Western Europe, who knew that “time is money” (Pp168ff).
Gimpel explores how the C12th Renaissance differed notably from The Renaissance:
There was, however, one fundamental difference between this earlier renaissance and the later, more famous, one. While the latter was primarily concerned with literature and art, the twelfth-century renaissance was primarily taken up with philosophy and science (p.174).Of his representative figures:
Giovanni di Dondi, the horologist; Villard de Honnecourt, the architect-engineer; Walter of Henley, the agronomist—all had one thing in common: a rational outlook on life (p.171).This did not mean they were not men of faith, but that they applied a reasoned, empirical practicality to the problems they confronted.
From the first quarter of the twelfth century to the last quarter of the thirteenth century—until the year 1277 to be precise—there was a sustained effort to marry reason and faith (p.171).An upsurge that started as early as Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) “the first to set Europe on the path of science”, reviving the use of the abacus, developing Boethius’s treatises on arithmetic and music, writing a treatise on astronomy (p.172).
Figures such as Lanfranc and St Anselm—both C11th Archbishops of Canterbury—led the application of reason to faith. In Anselm’s words:
It seems to me negligent, if after we have been confirmed in the faith, we do not strive to understand what we believe (p.172).But it is the career of Peter Abelard who Gimpel most warms to, quoting him at considerable length and celebrating his intellectual acumen and combativeness (Pp172ff).
It was a period where philosophical treatises (including those of natural philosophy, the study of the world—what became science) were sought out and translated. Gimpel tabulates some of the authors translated in the C12th and early C13th:
It was the work of these translators that made possible the rise of modern science, for it was they who made accessible this vast body of knowledge to the humanists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the schools and universities of Europe. They deserve our respect—quite as much as the over-praised humanists of the fifteenth century (p.175-8).Take that Petrarch!
It was a period of both praise and appreciation of the value of classical antiquity and belief in the growth of knowledge. In the words of William of Conches, in opposition to the opponents of natural philosophy:
since they themselves are unacquainted with the forces of nature, in order that they may have all men as companions in their ignorance, wish them to investigate nothing but to believe like rustics. We, on the contrary, think that a reason should be sought in every case, if one can be found (p.179).Shades of C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”. William was avid in his support of natural philosophy, saying on the question of whether God could find a way of reconciling the element of fire and earth:
We do not place a limit on divine power, but we do say of existing things none can do it, nor in the nature of things can there be anything that would suffice.Or, similarly:
God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so (p.179).William of Conches was a doughty manifestation of the ultimate triumph of Aristotelian philosophy in Latin Christendom, at a time when it was being routed in Islam by al-Ghazali and his followers, despite the efforts of Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Abū 'l-Walīd Muḥammad bin Aḥmad bin Rushd (Averroes), who were very influential in Latin Christendom but whose tradition was to prove stillborn in Islam.
Gimpel sees some of the effects of Christianity as feeding into this triumph, as the works and efforts of these medieval natural philosophers:
furthered the demythologising of nature that Christianity had begun (p.180).Gimpel quotes historian Lynn White who noted that:
In 1956 Robert Forbes of Leyden and Samuel Sambursky of Jerusalem simultaneously pointed out thatChristianity, by destroying classical animism, brought about a basic change in the attitude towards natural objects and opened the way for their rational and unabashed use for human ends. Saints, angels and demons were very real for the Christian, but the genius loci, the spirit inherent in a place or object, was no longer present to be placated if disturbed (p.180).(The connection between the Judaeo-Christian world view and the rise of science is further discussed here.) The Cathedral school of Chartres put representative statues to represent (the mostly pagan) masters of each of seven arts: Priscian for Grammar, Aristotle for dialectic, Cicero for rhetoric, Boethius for arithmetic, Ptolemy for Astronomy, Euclid for Geometry while Music is apparently accompanied by Pythagoras. Gimpel quotes period scholars to convey the sense of intellectual excitement, particularly centred on the Paris and its University (Pp180ff).
Not that this intellectual ferment went without challenge. As Gimpel notes:
The teaching of Aristotle was prohibited in Paris in 1210 and 1215 and in Toulouse in 1245. In 1263, Urban reiterated condemnations directed at the Averroists. The Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, in 1270 condemned 13 propositions taught at the Faculty of Arts (p.182).All this leading up to his 1277 condemnation of “219 execrable errors which certain students of the Faculty of Arts have the temerity to study and discuss in the schools” (Pp182-3). While Aristotelian thought—in the form of the Thomist synthesis—was to be embraced by the Church in ensuing decades, the condemnations did put a crimp on natural philosophy at Paris.
Gimpel places Roger Bacon in his time, particularly by looking at the work of his master Robert Grosseteste (c.1175-1253), a translator of Aristotle, a prolific writer who wrote on optics and held that:
the mathematical laws of geometrical optics were the foundation of physical reality, essential to the understanding of nature (p.186).Bacon admired and continued the work of Grosseteste (who he probably never met). He also advocated reform of the calendar, though his work did not bear full fruit for some centuries. Gimpel describes him as:
the first man really to have undertaken planned experimental research (p.193).Gimpel shows us a Bacon who was a man of his time, rather than some weird burst of light in medieval darkness. A time which included such people as Peter of Maricourt, whose work on magnets was not to be surpassed until William Gilbert published his De Magnete in 1600, acknowledging and incorporating the work of his C13th predecessor. Thanks to Peter, European compasses came to surpass in quality the Chinese originals (Pp183ff).
The peak of C13th exploratory confidence was the efforts of the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa who set out with two ships to find the Indies in 1291. After sailing down the coast of Africa to beyond Cape Non, all trace of them is lost (p.196). But one of Bacon’s works, according to Columbus’s own testimony in 1498, helped inspire the later Genoese adventurer on his own voyage two centuries later. Curiously, the two Franciscan brothers who sailed with the Vivaldis probably did not know about the work of Bacon, their fellow Franciscan, because the head of the order (the future Pope Nicholas IV) had placed restraints placed on some of his writings (p.197). Whatever the reason for the constraints, and the form of house arrest he suffered, Gimpel sees it as bringing to an end the surge in natural philosophy, and the effort of the Church to marry reason and faith, leading to the surge in mysticism in the C14th and C15th (p.198).
The C14th was a hard, even calamitous, century. The Great Famine of 1315-1317, the start of the Hundred Years War in 1337 and of the great trading house bankruptcies, the Black Death 1347-50, the revolutionary upheavals of 1378-82 (most famously, the Revolt of the Ciompi and the Peasant's Revolt).
Gimpel identifies two long-term effects from the 1277 condemnations:
by separating philosophy from theology it served to establish the intellectual climate in which science developed almost independently of liberal humanism; and, on the other, it caused Christianity to revert to mysticism (p.200).Which he defines as:
Mysticism is the attempt to penetrate the riddle of the universe not by logic, but by sympathetic intuition (p.200).Mystical monastic orders saw a major surge, as did interest in
superstitious arts and occult sciences – geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, augury, and necromancy; for alchemy, for astrology, and for witchcraft (p.202).We enter into Europe of the witch burnings. The Crusading impulse lost power, particularly after St Louis's disaster in Egypt. Islam was once again resurgent, with the Turks steadily advancing, while the climate turned colder and Europe experienced the re-appearance of regular famines. Gimpel takes us through the horrors of famine and plague, noting that Europe did not recover its medieval peak population until around 1600 (Pp202ff). (Edward I ruled over more subjects as monarch of England than did Elizabeth I.)
For the survivors, the great dying meant higher wages, while prices generally declined. Struggles over these shifts led to the uprisings of 1378-82, whose rhetoric prefigured that of socialists of later centuries (Pp213ff).
It was also a period of monetary upheaval. Philip the Fair devalued the coinage in 1294-5, 1306 and 1313, to considerable social angst and upheaval (p.221). The relative price of gold and silver shifted: early in the medieval period, in the Islamic Empire it was 14:1, in Europe 12 or 10:1. Predictably, gold moved eastward and silver westward. In the C13th, the relative values shifted and the flows went the other way. Financial crisis followed, with most of the major Florentine banking houses collapsing in the 1340s while overall economic activity declined (though generally not as sharply at population) (Pp222ff).
European inventiveness applied itself to war, inventing cannon in the early C14th, there being no record of Chinese cannon until three decades later (p.228). Gimpel chronicles various indicators of the late medieval period being one of decline from its C13th peak; with non-military technology basically reaching a plateau, though the improved navigational techniques and printing were the basis from which the Renaissance blossomed (Pp229ff).
In his Epilogue, Gimpel considers why the dynamism of the medieval period has been so ignored or forgotten. Dissing the medieval is a long, even venerable, historical tradition:
While the Renaissance viewed medieval society as scholastic and static, the Reformation saw it as hierarchical and corrupt, and the Age of Enlightenment considered it to be irrational and superstitious (p.238).That is a lot of received hostile lenses to view the past through.
And neo-medievalist enthusiasts—such as those of the Romantic era—often just added in new myths (including horns on Viking helmets). Conservatives saw the medieval period as one of “natural” social order and stability, radicals as a period of a blessedly non-technological age of artisans and craftsmen (Pp238-9). In the mid-C20th, interest in the technological history began to grow and slowly rescued medieval achievement (Pp239-40).
The fatal urge to predict
Having done such a splendid effort in rescuing the past, Gimpel moves into giving a fine example of Why Historians Should Not Predict, proceeding to analyse the current era as one of technological stagnation, where the impetus of the Industrial Revolution was running out of puff (Pp240ff). He was, of course, writing his first edition as the information technology revolution was just beginning.
To be fair, from 1973 onwards there was a dramatic slowing in productivity growth in developed economies that economists are still trying to determine the reasons for. Still, anyone living in the age of the personal computer, mobile phones, multimedia and the internet is going to read the last few pages of The Medieval Machine in some puzzlement. Particularly as Gimpel updated and extended this section for the 1988 second edition.
Gimpel had caught the Grand Theory of History bug, developing a theory of technological dynamism as a pattern of rise, peak and ageing where psychological drive leads technological evolution. Since he compares France (the peak country of the medieval period) with the US, a lot of this seems typical European “our decline will happen to you!”. Paul Kennedy's infamous late 1980s prediction that the US was suffering worse “imperial overstretch” than the Soviet Union is an (even more unfortunate in timing) example of the same genre.
I have a lot of sympathy for Gimpel’s concern that regulation (for example, of pharmaceuticals) is choking off innovation. Not least because there is some truth to it—which is why biotech and related fields are now dominated by the US. But his fiscal and trade alarmism seems overdone (particularly as the US moved into fiscal surplus in the next decade). His final sentence is:
China is at the beginning of a cycle that could last a millennium, while Western civilisation stands at the end of a cycle that is already one thousand years old (p.271).Maybe. And maybe China, for all its current economic vigour, will get old before it gets rich. I very much believe in learning about the past to get a sense of the present: but not in predicting the grand future. That is what history teaches me NOT to do: I will stick to those rather more specific “robust predictions of general tendency” that the better bits of social science can reveal to us.
But if I disagree with the last 30 pages of grand historical theorising (based, to be fair, on a range of empirical indicators), the rest of The Medieval Machine is a splendid corrective to much of the conventional un-wisdom on the medieval period.