Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel - Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages Francis & Joseph Gies

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel

Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

Copyright 1994

Soft bound, 358 pages, B&W illustrations, size 5 x 8 inches
REVIEW  by Jock Dempsey with added comments from Thomas Powers

This is an exceptionally well researched book drawing from 161 foot noted resources and includes a 14 page bibliography on top of the notes. It covers technological changes in Europe and the reasons for it in the period from 500AD to 1500AD known as the Middle Ages. For those interested in the technology more than the history of the period this is the book for you. There is just enough history to support the information given and it does not get into the boring details that turn many away from the study of history. After reading it (and I read slow for comprehension) I realized I could read it a couple more times before absorbing all the pertinent details.

As well researched as it is, it still leaves many questions which shows how little we really know about the history of technology. Even changes in today's technology is poorly recorded for the historical record. Should we expect more from one thousand years ago?

The gaps include the working differences between East and West such as sitting on the ground while doing many tasks. This is a major difference between East and West and may have had something to do with the West's rapid technological development. Greece and much of the Middle East followed the practice of working on the ground and they still do in parts of the Middle East and Asia. But the late Romans and Middle Age Europe worked standing or sitting at benches. The illustration and caption below point out that fact but nothing is said in the text.

Waist-level hearth with bellow. [British Library, Sloan Ms. 3983 f.5.] - Click for enlargement
Waist-level hearth with bellow. [British Library, Sloan Ms. 3983 f.5.]

The introduction of another tool associated with standing to work that is missing in Eastern shops is the Leg or Post vise. When it became common it had to have revolutionized the shop. It is much more than a "third hand". It can be used to hold work much more steadily than any other tool and can be used on hot metal as well as cold. Smiths use the leg vise for hot work including bending, upsetting, chiseling, riveting. In fact the vise is almost more important in the blacksmith shop than the anvil, much more time spent using the vise. The power screw had been around for a long time and used in various presses. By the 15th Century it was being used in printing presses.

At the point where Europe starts using cast iron the author's get confused about the applications of cast iron and wrought iron and the difference between smith and founder. They actually state that a smith would shape cast iron in the forge. This is incorrect because cast iron is not malleable and cannot be bent, forged or shaped hot or cold. It is CAST and that is it other than shaping by making chips (filing, drilling, machining).

After cast iron became available the next stage in processing was the reveratory furnace used for puddling. In this process the carbon is burned out of the cast iron leaving a film of pure iron on the pool (puddle) of cast iron. The pure iron is raked off into a ball and then when enough is collected it is processed into bar by forging. Puddling iron slowly replaced bloomery operations but both were used side by side until the modern era of steel making.

These are minor technical errors in book that covers over a thousand years of technological development. This is a major achievement since so little was written about the technical arts and much must be taken from comments not intended to describe technology but are mere background.
The authors give the Chinese the credit they deserve for a huge number of things. The padded horse collar, magnetic compass, paper, gunpowder, cast iron, movable type, horizontal loom. . . But the Europeans took those ideas as well as ideas from others and ran with them where the Chinese had been sitting on their invention for many for centuries not putting them to use. In fact, many Chinese ideas were often improved by the Europeans, made into products and sold back to the Chinese.

The authors point out many inventions while simple did not exist until the late Middle Ages. Things like the differential pulley systems or the block and tackle.

Adoption of the new ideas of technology was not always immediate or consistent. There was always a social context that determined if an invention was ahead of its time. Some inventions were lost only to be rediscovered, others forgotten in their entirety.
Gies & Gies are well known as generalists in the medieval field writing on a wide range of subjects, example, "Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages". As such they are not the place to go for in depth analyses but rather as a starting place. They are good in that they cite their sources; but as pointed out in this review they don't know the underlying basis of the subject in many areas and so it's hard for them to winnow out confusing data. I often point "new" people to them as they are readable, pretty good on their facts and easily found. To get down and dirty you start needing to spend a lot of effort or money to go to the journals or scholarly works.

Thomas Powers
The many ideas found in Leanardo DaVinci's sketchbooks some of which were his own and many those of others, almost all ahead of their time. They had to wait until the social, economic and technical needs of the next couple centuries. The Middle Ages primed technology for the industrial revolution to come. Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel shows how all the necessary parts were brought together, mathematics, printing, mechanics and materials production.

I'm looking forward to when I have time for the next read of Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel.

A few of the schollarly metallurgical works covering the historical developement of technology suggested by Thomas Powers:

Sources for the History of the Science of Steel 1532-1786 Cyril Stanly Smith

On Divers Arts by Ronald Ted Smith, Theophilus of Antioch, Cyril S. Smith (Translator) 12th Century.

The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio: published in 1540. Cyril Stanley (Translator), Martha Teach Gnudi (Translator)

Published by:
New York, NY

Price $15.95 US
ISBN 0-06-016590-1
Copyright © 2006 by Jock Dempsey, DEMPSEY'S FORGE
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