Introduction: 700–1449

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Introduction: 700–1449


The centuries between 700 and 1449 encompassed the bulk of the Middle Ages, the first glimmerings of the Renaissance, dramatic technical and cultural advances in Asia, the expansion and contraction of the Muslim Empire, and the pinnacle of the Mayan and Incan civilizations in the New World.

It was a time of ferment and chaos, but also a period of stasis. This was particularly true in Europe, where the collapse of the Roman Empire left a centuries-long void that no single nation or unifying body was able to fill. Lacking a central presence to focus culture, and without the economic resources generated by large, well-organized alliances, much of Europe descended into purely local governance, often centered around lords who ruled their immediate vicinities without the means to pursue any larger ambitions.

The often-desperate poverty that covered Europe was matched by a deepening ignorance. Intellectual pursuits like education, philosophy, and the study of science were luxuries that held little appeal when starvation and disease were rampant. In addition, local rulers were far more concerned with maintaining their own fragile power than with becoming patrons of the arts and sciences. Instead, monasteries became centers of learning and played an enormous role in keeping the spark of scholarship glowing through the darkest of these centuries, known as the Dark Ages. This loss of knowledge was perhaps the greatest risk Europe faced.

In the Islamic nations, however, learning was not only alive, but flourishing. Mathematics and chemistry benefited particularly from the Arabic preservation of ancient Greek manuscripts and treatises. Islam, the Muslim religion and the heart of Arabic culture, placed great importance on the works of scholars and artists. Islamic rulers endowed schools, and in doing so underwrote a body of knowledge that would flow readily westward as Europe, early in the next millennium, began to regain its strength and rebuild its culture. When European Crusaders ventured into Arab lands beginning in 1096, they returned with many of the Greek classics preserved by the Arabs. In addition, early Arabic explorers and traders were vital conduits for the transit of both preserved classical knowledge and imported Asian knowledge.

Asian cultures and civilizations grew greatly during this period, producing many technological and scientific accomplishments that would be copied by Western nations or discovered independently hundreds of years later. The Chinese discovered the magnetic compass, invented gunpowder, and invented printing. Indian mathematicians developed numeral system we use today, and gave the world the mathematical gift of the zero.

In the Americas, great civilizations including the Maya, the Pueblo, the Inca, and the Aztec flourished. Some, such as the Maya, would not last much past the 1440s. Others would not survive their encounters with Europeans, which came in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Protecting and Transmitting Knowledge

By 700 the great civilizations of Rome and Greece were receding farther and farther into the past, leaving a chaotic tangle of European nations, states, and dominions with little interest in learning. The intellectual curiosity of the Arab world, though, salvaged much of classical culture, preserving it and, indeed, celebrating its accomplishments and building upon them. Perhaps most dramatically, the Baghdad Academy of Science, begun in 800 and sponsored by Harun al-Raschid, became one of the world's great centers of learning, and the source for much of the mathematical innovation that would flow outward over the next two centuries.

In China and Japan, the preservation of knowledge remained an innate aspect of culture—hardly surprising given that their civilizations had not collapsed into chaos as had Europe's. Written language was especially important to the large Asian civilizations, and its dissemination led to the development of three key technologies: ink, paper, and printing.

Paper and ink were both developed by the Chinese, although ink was also known to ancient Egyptians. Ink was in use by about 2500 b.c., and paper around a.d. 105. Block printing was developed in China around the sixth century. By carving an entire page of a document into a single block, multiple copies of the document could be duplicated rapidly and efficiently.

Adapted by the Chinese in the following century, block printing became the centerpiece of an entire cultural industry, with millions of books being printed and distributed. The collection and preservation of knowledge was further enhanced by the sheer portability of printed material. Chinese books traveled westward and with them many of the insights and findings of classical Chinese culture. During subsequent centuries the Chinese and Koreans also introduced early versions of movable type.

Worlds of Numbers

Mathematics lies at the heart of most scientific disciplines and technologies, and while the mathematical innovations introduced between 700 and 1449 do not equal in volume those that came in the century immediately afterward, they remain among the most important and indispensable of all mathematical tools.

By far the most important of these tools is the zero. First postulated in India as early as a.d. 500, the zero traveled with traders to the Arab lands, where it took root, as had other Indian mathematical innovations. ("Arabic" numerals themselves are an Indian invention.) In 810 Muhammad ibn al-Khwarizmi (780-850) wrote a book that gave the zero and its properties, which simultaneously simplified mathematics and increased their power, to the world. This book also contained the first use of the word al-jabr, which we know today as algebra.

Arabic numerals completed their journey from India to Europe through the work Leonardo Fibonacci (c. 1170-c. 1240), who wrote of the efficiency of the numerical system and of al-Khwarizmi's mathematical insights. Despite the clear advantages offered by Fibonacci, the unwieldy system of Roman numerals would persist throughout Europe for another 300 years.

China's commitment to the preservation and distribution of printed knowledge also made a tremendous contribution to the survival and growth of mathematics. The thirteenth-century volumes Discussion of the Old Sources and Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections were essentially encyclopedias of the mathematical universe; their translation and ongoing publication ensured China's role in mathematical development even after Chinese mathematical innovation entered decline early in the fourteenth century.

Gunpowder and Weaponry

Much technological innovation is driven by military ends, but the most central of all military innovations—gunpowder—seems to have come into existence for lighter purposes. Gunpowder was developed by the Chinese during the 700s, and for several centuries its primary purpose seems to have been to brighten the night sky in the form of fireworks, although by the thirteenth century it was being used as weapon, albeit ineffectively, against Mongol invaders.

While gunpowder would not come into its own as a weapon until the arrival of high-quality cast iron in the mid-1400s, advances in metalworking brought other weapons to prominence during the Middle Ages. In 732 Charles Martel (c. 688-741) led a Frankish army to victory over invading Muslims largely by virtue of the heavy armor with which his cavalry was equipped. For three centuries afterward armor played an important and often decisive role in military conflict. In 1050, however, improved crossbow designs emerghed, using advances in mechanics (cranks that amplified muscle power, enabling greater potential energy to be stored in the bowstring) and metalworking (steel-shafted arrows) to build a weapon able to penetrate chain mail and other armors.

Two and a half centuries later the crossbow met its match in the Welsh long-bow. Loaded and fired by hand, the longbow could dispatch more arrows—and thus more enemies—in less time than crossbows. More importantly, skilled longbowmen could fire accurately as far as 300 yards, much farther than crossbows. This tactical advantage was exploited with particular ferocity by the English.

But crossbows and longbows were powered by men, their effectiveness was limited by the strength of their archers. In the mid-1300s, gunpowder became the most devastating of military technologies in Europe. Cannons were used as early as 1346 by Edward III of England in the opening battles of the Hundred Years' War against France. Those cannons, however, proved less effective than longbows, primarily because their barrels were poorly made.

This disadvantage did not last long. Advances in ironworking, especially the ability by the early 1400s to cast molten iron into hard, seamless objects rather than hammering it into a more brittle shape, were immediately applied to cannon manufacture. (The Chinese had possessed such metallurgical skills, notably the blast furnace, a full millennia before Europe, but seem not to have applied the skill to cannon making.) In 1439 Charles VII of France commissioned the casting of large numbers of cannons that allowed the walls of castles, once impervious to longbows and crossbows alike, to be breached with ease. With the development of the Spanish harquebus (an early matchlock gun) in 1450, the cannon itself was reduced to a size that could be operated, albeit with some difficulty, by a single person. Another century would elapse before individual guns would become common and effective, but the arrival of the harquebus can be seen as the starting point for the development of the modern rifle—and all of the consequences of gunpowder-driven military technology that have shaped the years since.

Practical Innovation

Another great driver of technological advance is practical necessity. In medieval Europe, that necessity often centered around food, and large advances in agricultural technology helped Europe climb out of chaos and into the light of the Renaissance.

Around 900 in northern Europe, a major step forward came with the invention of the horse collar. Previous harnessing systems had fastened around the horse's neck and throat—these allowed the horse to pull only so hard before it began to choke. The collar, placed against the horse's shoulders, permitted the horse to pull with full force. This almost unimaginable increase in animal power, when joined with the moldboard plow invented 300 years earlier, and the iron horseshoe, which dated from about 770, marked the beginning of an agricultural revolution.

Animals were not the only source of power. Waterwheels had been in use for centuries, and around 700 Persian inventors turned the same principle to harnessing of the wind. By 1180 the idea, with some improvements, most notably a vertical orientation, had found its way to France, where windmills began to spring up like giant flowers. They soon came to be the most common method of powering grain mills and water pumps.

Heat is as central a pragmatic concern as nourishment, particularly in cool northern climates. By the early 1200s, faced with the difficulty of transporting firewood over increasingly long (and increasingly deforested) distances, the English began to burn more coal, which had been used throughout Europe and China as a minor fuel for millennia. More portable than wood, coal also could be used to create hotter fires, vital to the emerging and advancing science of metallurgy.

Even when they're fed and warmed, people must be clothed, and by 1290 another Indian innovation had made the journey to Europe. The spinning wheel removed the endless drudgery of hand-spinning fiber into thread, replacing it with a mechanism powered by a foot-pedal. In addition to being an advance in fiber-spinning, the first wheels were also the first known examples of belt-driven machines: transmitting energy across axles to produce a spinning reaction.

Shelter, too, benefited from technological innovation, as better glass admitted more light into buildings and homes—and revealed more dirt. A slow increase in hygiene was an unexpected consequence of windows.

Perhaps the greatest of European architectural innovations came in 1137 with the introduction of the flying buttress, which enabled walls to support far greater weight and height than ever before. Buttresses concentrated support for heavier roofs, which made it possible not only to build less massive walls, but also to punctuate them with windows. The advance made possible many of the great European cathedrals that stand to this day.

Even vaster architecture of a completely different type appeared throughout the Americas. In 1050 the Mexican city of Casas Grandes, for example, began the excavation of an immense underground water supply system. A century earlier the Maya ended construction of a religious edifice in Uxmal, Mexico, the greatest of their architectural accomplishments.

In what would become Illinois, Mississippian Indians spent two centuries (900-1100) building a terraced mound burial site over 14 acres. The mound rose as high as 100 feet (30.48 meters), and was topped by an earthen building another 50 feet (15.24 meters) tall. It is estimated that more than 50 million cubic feet (15 million cubic meters) of earth were moved by hand to accomplish this, one of the greatest of earth-engineering accomplishments.

Exploration and Trade

The exchange of ideas is an important, if often unplanned, consequence of exploration and foreign trade. During the centuries between 700 and 1450, hundreds of ideas—papermaking, gunpowder, mathematical concepts, early printing techniques, and countless others—traveled with explorers and merchants. The technology of travel itself, particularly the arts of navigation and shipbuilding, also improved markedly during this period, due especially to the development of two key naval technologies: magnetic compasses and rudders.

The property of magnetism had been recognized as far back as the sixth century b.c. (it was named for the qualities of a mineral found near the city of Magnesia in Asia Minor) and had been described by Greeks including Thales. Around a.d. 200 the Chinese first recorded the north–south orientation of magnetic materials. It was in England, however, in 1180 that magnetic materials were first used as direction-finding tools, with improvements following rapidly, primarily from French experimenters, who gave the name compass to devices that identified magnetic north and south. In 1269 Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt, a French scholar, recorded much of his research into the scientific nature of magnetic poles. It was the practical application of the compass, though, that had the greatest effect. Free of visible landmarks, sailors were able to determine their direction and fare ever farther afield. The compass opened the widest expanses of the seas and distant lands to expeditions confident of the directions in which they traveled, if not of the destinations they would discover.

Simple steering devices—generally oars held out behind ships and boats—had of course been used since the earliest days of seafaring, but by 1241 shipbuilders in northern Europe were simplifying these devices and incorporating them into the fixed design and construction of ships. The advantages in maneuverability were obvious and immediate, and the rudder became a universal element in ship design—and an important tactical tool for military ships. More maneuverable ships held a decided advantage over less agile ones.

While the compass and the rudder would combine to give European sailors the tools needed to sail the world's uncharted oceans, it should be noted that the impulse to explore was not completely fettered without them. Between 870 and 1000 the Vikings, aboard well built but relatively unsophisticated sailing craft, discovered the Arctic Circle, Greenland, Iceland, and Vinland (Labrador and Newfoundland), feats of European exploration that wouldn't be equaled until the circumnavigations of the world that lay nearly five centuries in the future. In the Americas, by 1250 the Maya had expanded their knowledge of navigation routes, sailing as far south as what is now Nicaragua.

New Ways of Seeing

While the golden age of physics awaited the arrival of the Renaissance and the birth of higher mathematics, important discoveries were made during the Middle Ages, many of them focusing on the way people view the world.

Al-Haytham, an Arab physicist known in the West as Alhazen (965-1039), speculated in 1025 that vision was enabled by rays of light reaching the eyes; previous theorists had proposed that the eyes themselves transmitted the beams that comprised vision. After making this discovery, al-Haytham devoted much of the rest of his life to studying the properties of lenses of various dimensions and curvatures, determining clearly that their effect on light was determined by the lenses' shape, not in the rays of light reaching them. He is considered the father of the science of optics.

By 1249 in England, Roger Bacon (c.1220-1292) applied optical principles to the development of lenses to overcome defective vision. Eyeglasses made a contemporaneous appearance in China; it is not known whether the idea arose independently in the two cultures, or was transmitted between them. Bacon was able to produce only convex lenses, most useful for the farsighted. An equally spectacular discovery was made in 1451, with the introduction of concave lenses, which improved the vision of the nearsighted.

Forty years later, in 1291, improvements in glass production, primarily in Venice, resulted in more nearly transparent glass. This greater transparency made it possible for a pane of glass to be placed over a piece of polished metal, producing a superior reflecting device. The mirror had been invented.

Looking Skyward

Advances in optics would ultimately lead to the telescope (1608), but even without its assistance the skies exerted a large attraction on the curious—and the superstitious. The great comet of 1066 (probably Halley's Comet) was viewed by many as an ominous portent of the Battle of Hastings (1066). It is also an important astronomical phenomenon preserved in artwork of the time. An even more dramatic event had been observed (and recorded by the Chinese) a dozen years earlier when a new star blazed brightly for three weeks in the constellation Taurus.

Less periodic heavenly occurrences were studied as well. In 1252 under the guidance of Alfonso X of Castile, an astronomer as well as a ruler, the first wholly new catalog of the planets since the time of Ptolemy 100 years earlier was undertaken. Although hampered by the lack of telescopic devices and in need of mathematical tools yet to be invented, the Alfonsine tables, as they came to be known, were a large contribution to the advance of astronomy.

The Darkness Brightens

By 1449 the major elements of the Renaissance and its spectacular flowering of art, science, culture, and technology were in place. Many of those elements had, of course, existed in civilizations such as China for centuries, but it was the European nations that most aggressively exploited and exported them. Ironically, in the centuries following 1449, both China and Japan would basically withdraw from commerce and correspondence with the West, remaining insular until well after the Industrial Revolution.

The long period of European intellectual dormancy would prove fertile soil for science and technology: The period between 1450 and the present is far shorter than the period covered in this essay, yet it has seen us travel from tentative exploration of the oceans to a permanent presence in outer space, from the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial Revolution to the Information Age.

Even as 1449 drew to a close, the key to the future was taking shape in the hands of Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1390-1468), who began experiments with movable type in 1435. By 1454 his printing press would prove its worth. It was this technology, more than any other, which ensured that human culture would never again face the risk that whole bodies of knowledge would be lost to darkness.


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Introduction: 700–1449

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Introduction: 700–1449