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Technology in the Middle Ages

Technology in the Middle Ages

While it is often believed that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance and that nothing significant happened in the thousand years between 500AD-1500AD, the Middle Ages were actually a time of settling, expansion, and technological advancements. I want to tell you about several significant technological advances in the Middle Ages that make it an exciting and vital time in the history of Europe.

The middle ages were filled with technological inventions. Some of these were new agriculture and plowing techniques, the movable metal type printing press, ship’s sail and rudder designs, blast furnaces, iron smelting, and new building technologies that allowed taller and brighter buildings.

The Middle Ages was the period where a European cultural identity really emerged. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe’s cultural, social, political, and economic structures were reorganized as Germanic peoples established kingdoms in former Roman territories. 

Technology And The Middle Ages

It is believed that the rise of kingdoms in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire meant large amounts of slave labor were no longer available on the continent. This meant European peoples had to invent more efficient ways of producing food and other resources, leading to a rise in technological developments in the Middle Ages.

Although many technological advancements have their origin in the middle ages, I’d like to tell you about a few major technological shifts that happened in the middle ages that affected the centuries to come after them: agricultural advancements, the printing press, technological advances in sea transport, iron smelting, and new technologies in building and construction practices.

Agricultural Advancements In The Middle Ages

Medieval peasants working the land.
Medieval peasants working the land.
Gilles de Rome, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most significant area of technological advancement in the middle ages was in the area of agriculture. Populations across Europe grew in the middle ages. 

On the one hand, as populations grew, they needed new ways to maximize agricultural output with new techniques and technologies. On the other hand, new techniques and technologies meant more food could be produced, and a cycle of invention and improving technology began. 

Turning the earth to sow and reap had been the primary way farmers produced crops for thousands of years. In the Roman Empire, this was often achieved through manual labor with slave labor to produce enough food. After the fall of the Roman Empire, simple plows needed to be improved from their ancient designs to new designs. Plows developed rapidly in the middle ages and as the designs improved, so did their effectiveness.

Lands, particularly in Nothern Europe, that were difficult to plow became arable because of improved plow technology. When a plow was pulled by people or a team of oxen, fields could be dug, planted, and harvested in much less time, or greater areas could be plowed in the same amount of time.

Improved plow technology meant that previously difficult areas to inhabit became areas that could be farmed, so people began to move into these areas. Forested areas could be cleared of trees, and rocks could be removed more easily. 

The carruca, heavy plow, was common by the end of the middle ages. A carruca plow had a blade and wheel system that turned the soil and eliminated the need for cross-plowing. Seeds could be placed at regular intervals, and the field was more uniform.

Horseshoes gained popularity in the middle ages after being discontinued at the end of the Roman Empire. There was no need to shoe horses in areas where the soil was soft. 

Still, in the northern rocky regions of Europe, shoeing horses increased a horse’s ability to work for longer and carry heavier loads. When cobbled streets were introduced, the need for horseshoes grew.

With improved plow technology came the need to improve how fields were used to produce the maximum crop. The middle ages saw the move from two-field to three-field rotations in one year. 

In two field rotations, two fields would be used during the year. One would lie fallow while the other was planted and harvested. The following year they would be swapped, allowing the unplanted field to recover nutrients into the soil. 

A three-field rotation meant that areas were divided into three fields: one would grow a spring crop, the second would grow a winter crop, and the third would be left fallow for livestock grazing. 

This meant that nutrients were returned to the fields on rotation, and instead of half the land laying fallow each year, only one-third of the land lay fallow. Some calculations suggest this increased the productivity of the land by up to 50%.

The Printing Press

The First Printing-Press.
The First Printing-Press
Image courtesy: flickr.com (CC0 1.0)

The middle ages was a time of awakening and a hunger for knowledge and improvement. New mechanical devices needed to be drawn, and information on how to use them was shared. The printing press with movable metal type was the most significant technology developed in the middle ages. 

Before the movable metal type press, the block printing press had been used for a long time. The new invention rested heavily on other technologies that had been recently developed, such as improved inks and screw mechanisms used in middle ages wine presses. With the convergence of these technologies, the Gutenberg printing press that has become famous was made possible.

By 1455 the Gutenberg movable metal type printing press was producing enough accurate type to print complete copies of the Vulgate Bible, and demand for printed materials to communicate other information grew. By the year 1500, a recorded amount of nearly 40,000 editions of books were known to be in print!

The printed word became one of the main ways political, social, religious, and scientific communication and information spread throughout Europe and further.

The paper industry began to develop its own technologies to keep up with the demand for paper that the printing press created.

Technological Advancements In Sea Transport

A replica of the Santa María, the famous carrack of Christopher Columbus.
A replica of the Santa María, the famous carrack of Christopher Columbus.
Moai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were several critical technological achievements in sea transport in the middle ages. Improvements in shipbuilding and design meant that ships no longer had to rely on a combination of wind and muscle power to reach a destination. 

Three technologies converged to make sea travel far more successful than it had been previously: 

  • the combination of a traditional square sail with a triangular ‘lateen’ sail to be able to sail close to the wind
  • the introduction of a stern-mounted rudder in the 1180s allowed greater maneuverability to make use of the sails 
  • and the introduction of directional compasses in the 12th century and the Mediterranean dry compass in the 1300s.

These three converging technologies allowed the ‘Age of Exploration’ to blossom in the late middle ages. They led directly to the ‘voyages of discovery in the late 1400s.

The Effect Of Gunpowder And Iron On Industry And Military

One of the biggest changes in the middle ages was the development of new techniques to cast metals, particularly iron. On its own, this would not have been a significant development in the middle ages, but the result of this discovery changed the course of human history. 

When the middle ages began, fortified strongholds were timber towers encircled by a timber and earth wall. By the time the middle ages came to a close 1000 years later, complete masonry castles had replaced timber strongholds. The invention of gunpowder meant timber strongholds became less and less effective as artillery developed. 

Together with gunpowder, new weapons were invented and created from the iron. One of these was the cannon. The first cannons were made using wrought iron bars strapped together. Later, cannons were cast in bronze, similarly to casting bells. There was most likely a sharing of information between smiths who cast bells and smiths casting cannons. 

Bronze casting had been around for millennia before the middle ages. Still, these cannons’ size and required strength meant casting made bronze sometimes unreliable. Because of this, new techniques in casting iron were needed. 

The biggest problem was the inability to heat iron so that it would become molten and could be poured into a mold. Different techniques and furnace building were attempted until the blast furnace was invented. 

This furnace produces a constant stream of air from a water wheel or bellows until the furnace produces enough heat to make molten iron. This iron could then be cast into cannons.

A greater number of cannons in warfare meant fortified strongholds needed to be upgraded as cannons and other war machines became more powerful, necessitating stone buildings and, eventually, full masonry castles.

Many other applications of cast iron and blast furnaces became common towards the end of the middle ages.

Improved Building And Construction Practices

Reconstruction of a Roman treadwheel crane, the Polyspaston, at Bonn, Germany.
Reconstruction of a Roman treadwheel crane, the Polyspaston, at Bonn, Germany.
See page for author, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the improvements of masonry castles, there were many significant improvements to building techniques and structures.

The middle ages was a time of building. Architect-engineers used techniques learned from classical building techniques and improved on them to produce buildings that gained as much height as possible while allowing in as much light as possible. 

Inventing and perfecting techniques in the middle ages were the cross-rib vault, the flying buttress, and bigger window panels than had been seen before. An additional technology that came from these larger windows was colored glass to fill these new windows.

Not only did building techniques improve, but many other inventions and new machinery needed to accompany these techniques to help build these new buildings. I mention a few of them here, but there are many others. 

Chimneys were invented in 820 but didn’t become widespread until the 1200s when they were improved upon. Fireplaces in houses only became popular at about the same time.

One invention that helped the building revolution was the wheelbarrow in the 1170s. These allowed heavier loads to be moved by people in the building, mining, and agriculture sectors. 

The invention of the treadwheel crane (1220) and other powered cranes, such as windlasses and cranks, were used in construction. Pivoting harbor cranes using two treadwheels were in use as early as 1244.

Segmental arch bridges were introduced to Europe in 1345 to improve road travel.

Pendentive architecture (500s) which allowed extra support in the upper corners of domes, opened new building shapes to be built. Rib vaults were invented in the 12th century. This building technology allowed vaults to be built over rectangles of unequal lengths, making new kinds of scaffolding possible. 

Many Other Technological Improvements In The Middle Ages

As an age of learning and curiosity, the middle ages also produced many inventions that are taken for granted throughout the rest of history. 

Glass mirrors were invented in the 1180s with lead as the backing.

Magnets were first referenced in the late 1100s, and the technology was developed and experimented with in the 1200s.

The thirteenth century saw the following inventions or improvements in known technologies: Buttons were first invented and used in Germany and spread across the rest of Europe.

University began to be founded between the 11th and 13th centuries, and Arabic numerals became widespread for their simplified use over roman numerals or other counting systems.

The invention of the mechanical clock was a precursor to a change in the view of time, away from being dictated by the sun’s rising and setting. This allowed the day to be split into hours and used accordingly.

Conclusion

Many inventions, improvements, and discoveries were made in the middle ages. Far from being the ‘dark ages’ referred to by so many, the period between 500-1500 AD was a time of great discovery and improvement with many technological advancements that we take for granted today have their origin.

Resources:

  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-Europe/The-Middle-Ages
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_technology
  • https://www.sjsu.edu/people/patricia.backer/history/middle.htm
  • https://www.britannica.com/technology/history-of-technology/Military-technology
  • https://interestingengineering.com/innovation/18-inventions-of-the-middle-ages-that-changed-the-world

Header image courtesy: Marie Reed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons