Power for Technology: Fire
Power for Technology: Fire
Creating Heat. Though historians often think of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century as hinging on the invention of the steam engine and the adoption of coal as the fuel to power it, Europeans of the Middle Ages also used coal—along with prodigious amounts of wood, mainly in the form of charcoal—to power smelters, furnaces, and forges; to cook food and brew beer; and, of course, to heat dwellings.
The Demand for Wood. As the demand for wood by an exploding population grew and grew in the Middle Ages, large sections of Europe were effectively deforested. Kings and the officials of some towns enacted silvaculture (or woodland farming) laws to protect the remaining forests and to compel more efficient use of resources. To increase the amount of available wood, woodsmen developed the methods of coppicing, felling a tree in such a way as to force the growth of many new saplings from the stump, and pollarding, cutting branches back to the trunk to promote dense branch growth on live trees. Trees were sometimes purposefully deformed over their life spans to take on the shapes of needed wooden parts, such as roof beams or hull ribs for ships.
The Use of Coal. Although coal was used in vastly smaller amounts than wood during the Middle Ages, it was an important fuel. As early as the twelfth century, English and French authors wrote about the mining and shipment to London and Paris of “sea-coal” from coal deposits that had been eroded by waves. The impurities in sea-coal made it unsuitable for making iron or glass, but it was commonly used for burning limestone to make quicklime, which was used in cloth finishing and in making mortar or plaster for building construction. By the early fourteenth century, smoke from coal fires had become such a problem in London that attempts were made to ban its use there. By the end of the Middle Ages, as wood and charcoal became scarce, the demand for coal resulted in ever-deeper coal mines and the need for improved pumps to keep these mines from flooding. The end result of these demands was the development of the steam engine at the end of the seventeenth century; by then coal was the dominant industrial fuel.
Grenville Astill, The Countryside of Medieval England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).
William Newman, “Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages,” Isis, 80 (1989): 423–445.
Oliver Rackman, Trees and Woodland in the British landscape (London: Dent, 1990).
Charles R. Young, “Conservation Policies in the Royal Forests of Medieval England,” Albion, 10 (1978): 95–103.
Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979).