After Christmas reading

I’ve been reading The Medieval Machine (The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages) by Jean Gimpel published by Penguin in 1975. I found it on my bookshelves during Christmas cleaning, a leftover from my Catholic scientists project. Dante lived in the middle of the period that Gimpel is describing, maybe 1100 to 1400.

Gimpel basically discussed how the medievalists used water power in many new and innovative ways to improve their daily life. He called this a medieval industrial revolution. Water power automated saws to cut wood or stone. It pounded pulp for paper and iron for weapons. It washed monasteries clean.

Gimpel also discussed changes in agriculture, that brought about one hundred years with no famine, as new techniques were introduced into a warming climate. Since around 900 A.D. the temperatures in Western Europe had been increasing gently. By the 1200’s this had the effect of producing more food. He pointed out that someone invented a better plow and someone else figured out how to harness horses so that they weren’t being choked to death. They are actually more efficient than oxen when properly harnessed. That surprised me! But people ate better for a while and that has effects on the culture.

He discussed clocks and clockmakers as well as navigation. He mentioned that eyeglasses were invented during Dante’s lifetime! He quotes Dante in Heaven discussing the heavenly motion as being perfect.

Lift, therefore, Reader, to the heavenly wheels

thine eyes with me, directly to the region,

where one of their two motions strikes the other;

and there begin to contemplate with love

that Master’s art, who in Himself so loves it,

that never doth His eye abandon it. Paradiso Canto 10 CL

Gimpel discussed the vital importance of energy in a civilization and there he got a bit odd. He felt, in 1975, that the Western world was in a depression (and remembering the oil shocks of 1973 he was right) from which it would never recover. He felt that we had reached the end of our technical innovation. He felt there would be no fundamental innovations, and, though he doesn’t say it directly, no new sources of energy. I don’t think that’s quite what has happened in the last 45 years.

Gimpel fought in WW2 in the French resistance. He definitely writes about the ‘proletariat,’ and at the end of this book about medieval machines he praises the path China had been taking since 1949.

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