Medieval Science And Technology
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Medieval Science And Technology

The Medieval Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known. This was to be one of the main factors that led to the dominance of the Western hemisphere over the rest of the world. Machines were known in the classical world, of course, but their use in industry was limited. Cogs and gears were employed only for creating toys, clocks or automata. In Medieval society however, machinery was made to do what previously had been done only by manual, and often hard, labor.

It is an astonishing concept to the modern mind that Medieval man was surrounded by machines. The fact is, machines were not something foreign or remote to the townsman or to the peasant in the fields. The most common machine was the mill, converting the power of water or wind into work; grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper, and so on. These were the factories of the Medieval Ages. In the towns and villages, the citizens could stand on a bridge over a river or canal and observe the different types of water mill: mills built along the banks, others floating midstream or moored to the banks, and, if he cared to look under the bridge, he might find the same machines built between the arches. If he walked upstream he would find the river dammed to provide a sufficient fall of water to drive the mills' machinery.

These groups of machines were often more than mere factories; they were often local meeting places, in particular the corn mills where town or country folk lined up, waiting their turn to have their grain ground. At times there were such gatherings outside the buildings that prostitutes would come to tout for clients up and down the line. St. Bernard, the leader of the Cistercian order in the 12th Century, was scandalized to hear of prostitutes' activities and wanted to have the mills closed. If such a thing had occurred - if the mills had been closed down, not only those in the cities and countryside, but those powering hundreds of Cistercian factories - the European economy would have grown at a far slower rate. The effect would have been in some way comparable to that produced by the decision in 1973 of the oil-producing countries in the Middle East to raise the price of oil and put an embargo on supplies to certain countries of the Western world. The economy of the West had been affected by these measures, and oil in the 20th Century plays much the same role as did waterpower in the Medieval Ages.

A 12th Cenutry report on the use of waterpower in a Cistercian monastery (that of Clairvaux in France) shows how far mechanization had become a major factor in European economy. The importance of this report, this great hymn to technology, is that it could have been written 742 times over; for that was the number of Cistercian monasteries in the 12th Century, and the report would have held true for practically every one of them.

The capacities of a Cistercian factory could vary in that the raw materials available in some regions of Europe were not available in others and the machinery had to be adapted to different processes. For example, olives were found in Provence and crushed to produce olive oil by specially built grinding stones, but olives were not found in the north of France. Where iron was available, hammer forges were built. If a wine crop failed, as described in the Clairvaux report, beer was produced in its place.

In the Clairvaux report, four distinct industrial operations are mentioned that required waterpower: crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth and tanning. It is possible that waterpower also activated the bellows for the flames that heated the vats in which beer for the monks was produced. Running water was used for domestic purposes as well as for industrial ones. It was carried in lead or wood pipes to the kitchen for cooking and washing and into the gardens for watering.

To demonstrate the effective productivity of such a mill, consider these figures. East of Monte Casino at Venafro on the Volturno, a Roman water mill was unearthed with a wheel 7 feet in diameter. If the millstones made 46 revolutions per minute, they could grind 150 kilograms of corn per hour or, 1500 kilograms (roughly 1 1/2 tons) in 10 hours. To see the extraordinary economy in manpower achieved by such a mill, it is only necessary to compare these figures with the quantity of corn ground by two Roman slaves with a rotary hand-mill in one hour: 7 kilograms, or 70 kilograms in 10 hours. So, over 40 slaves would have had to work 10 hours to grind the same 1500 kilograms.

The ultimate in Roman waterpower was reached at Barbegal, near Arles in Provence, where engineers constructed the largest known industrial complex of the Roman Empire, a factory to produce flour sufficient enough for 80,000 people. It was built on a hillside; the water flowing from an aqueduct down the steep hill at an angle of 30 degrees, in a double millrace, fell 19 meters (62 feet). 16 waterwheels - 8 on each millrace - were driven by the tail flow from the wheel above and coupled to a pair of millstones with a grinding capacity of 150 to 200 kilograms, bringing the total hourly capacity of the factory to 2400 to 3200 kilograms or approximately 28 tons in a 10 hour day.

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