Dark Europe? || Technological Journey #3

Middle age… Dark age? That is what we have been led to believe, that during this period of history, there was a cultural, scientific and technological backwardness. Although the contrary has been said in recent years, this age was a time of some progress, a key time for Europe in later centuries.

What is the truth? Well, it is true that there was no setback, rather slow progress in the nations of this continent by various political-cultural factors that hindered development with respect to the rest of the world.

Today, we will analyze the reasons for this slow progress and discover the legacy of these people. We are going to divide this stage based on three important facts: the beginning of the Middle Ages, the small renaissance of the 12th century and the invention of the printing press.


The beginning

These are the hardest years for the development of the continent since it was a disorderly time, the empire was looted, there were barbarians and bandits everywhere, the only ones who put order were some noblemen. This led to the birth of a system that was useful for its time, but harmful in the long term: feudalism.

This system protected the incessant assaults of bandits and barbarians, later, of Vikings and Muslims, but discouraged the creation of cities and innovations, caused stagnation, there was no incentive to change the status quo. There were less trade and cultural exchange than in previous times.

The vast majority of the “innovations” of this era are actually adaptations or improvements of existing technologies, such as flat glass, heavy plow, different types of windmills, soap, horseshoe or stirrup. Although several authors say that these are their own inventions, all can be traced back to the past.

There were those who were willing to give birth to culture again, as Alcuin of York, who with the help of Charlemagne, tried to make an educational reform, which revived Latin as a common language –it seems that the scribes of that time had a terrible calligraphy–. Although its effect was not very broad until later centuries, it served as the basis for the universities that were later born there.

Among which stand out: Salernitana Medical School, University of Parma, University of Bologna and the University of Oxford. Where they taught, among other things: medicine, laws and the seven liberal arts: the trívium –literary teaching (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics)– and the quadrivium –scientific teaching (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music)–.


Renaissance of the XII century

All this stagnation ends around the twelfth century, in which there is a small renaissance, due to different political changes, begins to be born a new social class: the bourgeoisie. This makes an alliance with the monarchy and, society begins to acquire some dynamism.

Thanks to the Crusades, the Mediterranean trade is again activated and begins in the Baltic, with the Hanseatic league, also increases the exchange with Arab culture, which nourishes innovations to European nations and allows scholars to travel to study protected works in Islamic universities.

In this context, it begins to use more intensively the wind and hydraulic energy, through rivers and with the power of the wind, which moved to the primitive machines of this time. This was something that, along with the small global warming that happened at the time, increased agricultural production a little.


From left to right: 1. Tidal mill at l’île de Bréhat. 2. Medieval agriculture. 3. Hydraulic hammer. 4. Burgo, medieval city.


With the cultural exchange, technologies were introduced such as winepress, paper, spinning wheel, and liquor. However, new advances were also created such as the hourglass, blast furnace, eyeglasses for visual problems, button, foundations, compound crank, mechanical watches and different types of cranes.


From left to right: 1. Prague Astronomical Clock. 2. Trebuchet. 3. Distillation of liquor. 4. Winepress. 5. St. Elizabeth of Hungary using the spinning wheel. 6. Temperance carries an hourglass, by Lorenzetti. 7. St. Peter reading with glasses.


Demonstration of the great inventiveness of the time, is its architectural advances, which even today we get to impress, although there is not much detail of how they came to build these works.


From left to right: 1. Alcázar of Segovia. 2. Cologne Cathedral. 3. Bellver Castle. 4. Milan Cathedral.


Among the scientists and philosophers who stand out at this time: Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon –precursors of the scientific method– Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) –introduced the Arabic numerals–, Jean Buridan and Nicolás Oresme –they studied mechanical physics–, the Calculators of Merton College and Thomas Aquinas –an important philosopher–.


From left to right: 1. Diagram of the classical planets. 2. God creating the world with geometry. 3. Dental extraction of Omne Bonum. 4. Plant of the Simple Medicines Book by Matthaeus Platearius. 5. Liber abaci by Leonardo of Pisa. 6. Woman teaching geometry.



At this time, the big fairs organized by merchants and artisans, such as those of Champagne and Medina, were born, as well as countless smaller events throughout the continent. These activities favored the commercial and cultural exchange at that time, promoting the dissemination of knowledge.

However, Europe did not grow much because of agricultural constraints. When the small global warming ended, the famines attacked with force, at the same time that the plague arrived, this ended with an important part of the population; a situation that greatly damaged the progress that was taking place in previous centuries, which did not fully recover until the beginning of the modern age.

We can conclude that, medieval Europe was neither dark nor backward, in the abbeys and monasteries classical culture was safeguarded, educated people did not think that the earth was flat and, there was a certain spirit of development, the problem was the great lack of communication, cities, and food, so that only a few could acquire knowledge.

Printing press, knowledge disseminator

With the invention of the printing press, the fall of Constantinople and the discovery of America, the golden age began for the continent, allowing it to overcome all the problems it had in the past, making discoveries such as the telescope, the microscope and the calculus.

In this time there are many, varied and important discoveries, besides laying the foundations of the illustration and its scientific revolution, however, it is a very broad topic for a single article. Of course, despite having a lot of power and splendor, it is not until the next technological revolution that real growth occurs in all sectors, but we will leave that for another day.


Join me on this trip:

Ancient Revolutions || Technological Journey #1

Arabic technology || Technological Journey #2

Dark Europe? || Technological Journey #3

Industrial Revolutions || Technological Journey #4

Current Technological Revolution || Technological Journey #5

Arquitectura Gótica.
Ciencia medieval.
El mito de la tierra plana atribuido al Cristianismo medieval.
Historia de la ciencia.
Iglesia Católica y Ciencia.
La tecnología en la edad media europea.
Renacimiento del siglo XII.
Tecnología medieval.
Universidades más antiguas.


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