Technology and Invention

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Technology and Invention


Mastering the Technology. In many respects, the European Middle Ages was a period of technological change and mastery, inasmuch as many of the techniques for improving agriculture, large-scale textile manufacturing and shipping, controlling water flow in order to flood moats, and fortifying towns were developed well before the Renaissance. The medieval world was a world of specialists, whose tools and techniques were brought to a high level of accomplishment and guarded by guilds and secrecy. However, in many cases, medieval innovations were not fully deployed until the Renaissance, when they were stimulated by the expansion of European markets, discovery of New World crops, nascent capitalism, and new methods for extracting, refining, and working metals and industrial chemicals.

Military Innovations. The Renaissance deployment of medieval innovations is evident in military technology. Gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, and the cannon and arquebus eventually displaced the trebuchet and crossbow. Early cannon were large siege weapons and were cumbersome to transport and of little tactical value. Firearms were still a novelty on the battlefield at the beginning of the fourteenth century, but by 1500 they were decisive in winning the field. Smaller and more portable artillery pieces came into use during the sixteenth century and were used collectively to break down the walls of medieval strongholds, which had played a significant part in determining the geography of feudal society and the defense of towns. In response, military forces became more mobile and relied on mercenaries and on innovations in fortification design, both of which favored larger national political units that could more readily raise greater funding through taxation. Carefully designed and mathematically engineered, star-shaped fortresses, with polygon-shaped bastions to deflect cannon balls and provide overlapping fields of defensive fire, along with elaborate earthworks to soften the impact of artillery, were pioneered in Italy in the sixteenth century and quickly spread northward. One can still see a seventeenth-century star fort on the island of Vardø, guarding the Arctic Sea passage to the White Sea via Norway’s north cape.

Naval Power. Cannon were also mounted on naval vessels, requiring larger, more powerful ships that were capable of blockading ports and bombarding towns from the water. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, maritime nations such as England, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden rose in prominence as control of the seas became more strategic to commercial development. At stake was not only trade and colonization of New World and Old World colonies, but also domination of trade with Russia, Poland, and Scandinavia, which supplied much of the grain and herring to Europe.

Farming. Agriculture offers further examples of the Renaissance implementation of medieval innovations. Medieval economic historians have long argued that decisive agricultural changes occurred in the early and high Middle Ages, when oxen were abandoned in favor of horses as a source of draft power and when annual crop rotations changed from a two-stage to a three-stage rotation. These medieval technologies enabled faster plowing and the cultivation of heavier soils and a reduction in the time that fields were left fallow between cropping, resulting in higher annual yields of grain. However, historians are coming to realize that this process was slow and may not have extended throughout Europe until the early sixteenth century, by which time new innovations were being put into practice.

Forage Crops. Probably the most significant change in agriculture during the Renaissance and early modern period was the introduction of forage crops. This situation permitted a changeover from depletive grain farming to a sustainable agriculture based on manuring and increased animal husbandry. Production of forage crops required relatively flat, well-plowed fields, a sufficient supply of water, and suitable crop varieties, such as clover and alfalfa. Field preparation was enhanced by the enclosure of the rotational strips of medieval open-field grain farming, which was fostered by economic changes in the wake of the Black Death, but the introduction of cross-plowing and irrigation were also important factors.

Plowing a second time across the ridges produced by the first plowing yielded a flatter field, which was suitable for broadcast seeding and mowing. Irrigation by damming and diverting rivers spread in Italy, southern France, and Spain in the sixteenth century, and in England and northern Europe the practice of seasonally flooding forage fields was introduced. Irrigation in the Mediterranean regions also allowed the cultivation of rice and mulberry trees for the production of silkworms, which reduced Europe’s dependency on Asian imports.

Agricultural Base. Alfalfa, one of the important modern forage crops, was cultivated in the Roman Empire and described in classic agricultural treatises, but knowledge of its use disappeared during the Middle Ages. It was reintroduced to Spain by the Moors, but it was not cultivated in Italy and France until renewed attention to agricultural methods and the fifteenth-century printing of humanist editions of Roman agricultural treatises by Varro and Cato encouraged innovation. Books produced in the sixteenth century combined descriptions of Roman practices with Islamic methods of controlling water. Also in the sixteenth century, botanical gardens were established in northern Italy and later at all major universities. These gardens facilitated the testing of seeds and the acclimation of new crops. New World crops such as maize, which was widely cultivated in Spain within a decade of Columbus’s discovery of Hispaniola, and sweet potatoes began to alter the traditional agricultural base, although the large-scale production of the white potato did not appear until the seventeenth century.

Dutch. The invention and application of the wind-driven water pump in Holland in the early fifteenth century, coupled with large-scale dyking and pouldering, enabled the Dutch to reclaim large tracts of fertile land from lakes, swamps, and the North Sea and carefully manage their irrigation. The resulting increase in agricultural production enabled the Low Countries to rise to international prominence and extend their mercantile, industrial, and military might around the globe in the early modern period.

Metalworking. The mining and working of metals enjoyed a boom that began in the second half of the fifteenth century. This boom was brought about both by the increasing demand for advanced military weaponry and armament and by the transformation of the European economy from the manorial accumulation of goods in kind to a cash economy, which required quantities of precious metals. Depletion of mines and the infusion of New World bullion into the European market created inflation and effectively ended this boom in the middle of the sixteenth century, but improvements in chemical extraction of metals and assaying techniques indicated the continued importance of mining into the seventeenth century, particularly in northern Europe.

Mining Operations. The growth of the mining industry in the boom period (1450-1550) involved both an extensification, as new areas were opened up, and an intensification, as mines were sunk deeper into the earth and production and processing were mechanized. Well-illustrated books on mining and metallurgy, the best known of which are Vannoccio Biringuccio’s Pirotechnia (1540), Georg Agricola’s De re metallica (1556), and Agostino Ramelli’s Le diverse et artificiose machine (1588), reveal the elaborate water, human, and horse-powered devices that were contrived to pump and ventilate deep shafts, break up and sieve ore, and fan the fires of roasters and smelters that were used to refine the ore into ductile metal. The availability of capital and the need to capitalize nonagricultural forms of production were incited by the sudden and persistent rent depression and labor inflation in the wake of the Black Death, as landholders sought new ways to generate new wealth, and these factors hastened the large scale mechanization of the industry. The technology of these machines was not radically different from medieval designs, but during the Renaissance it was systematized and made more central to commercial metal production.

Glass Production. Biringuccio and Agricola also described the technology for glass production, which like metal extraction required complex furnaces and handling methods, including blowing and casting in molds. Glass had been produced in the Mediterranean basin during the Roman Empire and persisted in the Byzantine Levant and Egypt after the collapse of the Western empire. When revived in Italy during the Middle Ages, glassmaking produced mainly utilitarian products and was concentrated in towns with access to Egyptian natron, which was a necessary raw material. As Venice grew to dominate Mediterranean trade, it also developed a practical monopoly on certain kinds of glass production, which the government fostered and regulated on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon.

Venetian Influence. Glassmaking declined in the fourteenth century in both Islam and the West, possibly because of the economic disruptions caused by warfare and the Black Death. When it was revived in the fifteenth century, Venice emerged as the center of a new focus on fine wine glasses and other luxury products that were coming into vogue in Europe’s courts and wealthy houses. By the mid sixteenth century northern European demand for Venetian glass encouraged a transfer of technology, and furnaces were set and manned by expatriate Venetians, particularly in England, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. By the late seventeenth century these nations began to surpass Venice in quality and quantity of glassware.

Earthenware. Ceramics was another important Renaissance industrial product, sharing some common technology and raw materials with glassmaking, but using clay rather than vitrified silica sand as a base. The well-known majolica (Italian) and faience (French) types of ceramic required an earthenware object to be fired with a tin glaze, which yielded an opaque white background on which intricate patterns could be painted, and then a second glazing, or lustering. This technology was brought to Christian Spain from Muslim Grenada in the fifteenth century and spread to Italy in the sixteenth, where newly discovered classical Roman murals encouraged the creation of elaborate Renaissance patterns of decoration.

Clocks. Improvements in precision instrumentation went hand in hand with the growth of science and technology generally. The increasing sophistication of clockworks is a case in point. Large, weight-driven clocks began to appear in thirteenth-century Europe, rapidly becoming sources of civic pride and emblems of orderly government. Springs began to replace weights in the fifteenth century, enabling clocks to be made smaller, which allowed their use in navigation and as scientific instruments. Such clocks were used by Tycho Brahe in the last quarter of the sixteenth century for making accurate measurements of the stars and planets as they passed through the meridian (due north or south), which needed to be meticulously timed. Brahe himself was a technological innovator and serves to illustrate the productive interaction between craftsmen and theorists in the period. His earliest instruments for measuring the angular separations of celestial bodies were fabricated entirely of wood and ordered from instrument makers in Germany. These instruments were easy for skilled craftsmen to produce using traditional, medieval tools and techniques, but were not stable with respect to changes in humidity and temperature, and therefore not entirely suitable to Brahe’s needs. Therefore, he brought craftsmen to him and established workshops near his observatories. Working with them, he experimented with various new instrument designs, using combinations of wood, brass, iron, and steel to maximize strength and stability. Brahe also built a water-powered paper mill, a printing house, and a glass factory on his island research facility, bringing technology and science into close cooperation.

Market Demands. Although there were specific technological innovations during the Renaissance and into the sixteenth century, as illustrated by the instruments developed and used by Brahe, the period is better characterized as a time when medieval technologies were put into practice on a large scale in response to changing market demands that accompanied economic and military expansion in the Renaissance and the age of discovery. Advances in design and construction enabled higher temperature furnaces and greater precision in instrumentation, for example, but the actual mechanization of industrial processes owed more to the increased cost of human labor and the greater demand for industrial products than to breakthroughs in basic design.


Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, second edition (Aldershot, U.K.: Wildwood House, 1988).

W. Patrick McCray, Glassmaking in Renaissance Venice: The Fragile Craft (Aldershot, U.K. & Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999).

Charles Singer, ed., A History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954-1958).

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Technology and Invention

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Technology and Invention