The Medieval Industrial Revolution
In this lesson I shall tell you about some developments that happened between the years of 1000 AD to 1300 AD that literally changed the face of Europe. If one were to look out upon the landscape of a European countryside, say in northern Germany or France during the early centuries before that time, one’s eye would meet dense tangled and impassable forests, marshy and swampy lands and hundreds of thousands of inhospitable acres of wide plains where no one could cross or pass through without great difficulty. The thick forests and woodland were dangerous places to venture: they were the haunts of wild bears, boars, roving packs of ferocious wolves, and violent men who lived outside the law and society. A rider on horseback might make his way across this terrain by keeping to the ridges and highlands, or following the natural passages across the lands cut by the rivers and streams. The great Roman roads, passing all the way across Europe from Italy to England, which were built so well as to endure into our present times, had become entangled with overgrowth and fallen into disrepair. Life for most people of this time became entirely provincial. There were few world travelers; most people never ventured far from where they were born. The village or castle of one’s birth was usually the place where one lived out the entirety of his life. Information traveled from one village to the next by way of the monasteries. Friars traveled from one monastery to the next—sometimes as far as 150 miles away. In this way a chain of information made its way across Europe from monastery to monastery from as far away as Rome. In our contemporary world, we are bombarded with news by the hour, but in those times, one might not hear of any news from outside one’s own village for months, sometimes years, at a time.
Something happened however that forever changed this landscape toward the direction of its modern appearance. America is a land where there is much wilderness untouched by human habitation. Europe was once like that in the early Middle Ages, but today there is hardly anywhere that one can travel where you will find true wilderness. Every place on the landscape, even the mountainous slopes, shows the marks of human transformation. A remarkable phenomenon that happened was that the population of Europe completely doubled between the years of 1000 and 1300. The total numbers achieved at that time would not reach such a level again in Europe until the 19th century.
Of course we live in a modern time where the rate of population growth in our world is rapidly accelerating, and we can see the effect this has upon the environment and human living conditions. But imagine for a moment that you lived in the time of the Early Middle Ages in a small village. For each century that passed, the number of people who lived in the village would remain about the same. No new houses needed to be built, unless the old one was falling down, the next generation would occupy the same dwelling as the last; no increase in livestock or farmlands would occur, the small plots were all that a farming family could manage—all remained the same from one generation to the next. There are hardly any towns that we can name today, where that is so. But for some unknown reason, the Bubonic plague that had first come to Europe in the 6th century died out until it resurfaced at the end of the Middle Ages. (We will learn about that later in this study.) Of course, you have already studied how the Roman Empire had come to an end in Europe. You might recall that it was slave labor that was responsible for production of goods during the height of the empire. But with the disappearance of Rome came the end of slavery for a time in Europe that was replaced with serfs and peasants. These folks enjoyed a kind of freedom not known to the Roman slaves, most importantly, they bore children and raised families—something slaves were not allowed to do.
Certainly the farming population grew because they were allowed to bear children, but something else was greatly responsible for this rapid increase. It was the introduction of new farming tools. Farming the land in Europe during the early Middle Ages was a great hardship. One must imagine the harsh winters when all was frozen and covered with ice and snow for many months. Food reserves dwindled then; a farming family could hardly grow enough grain to last through the winter. Why was this so? The yield of grain at that time was in a ratio of 2:1. That means that for every two bushels of grain that one could harvest, one could be made into bread, and the other would be ploughed into the soil—half of every harvest needed to be reinvested. One harsh fact of existence often kept the populations from expanding: starvation during a severe winter! One must also imagine the thick clayish soil filled with tangles of roots and undergrowth, often swampy and marshy for lack of drainage. A simple shovel and axe were usually all that one had to clear away such land for growth, and then it was a constant battle to continually reclaim it from the intruding forests, mud and water. Consequently, each family tilled a rather small piece of land compared with the farms that you see today. You could compare the size of a large lot or backyard to the amount of land that could be farmed in those times.
Part of the problem was that the ox was a slow creature for tilling the soil, but the biggest problem was the antiquated plow that was used. The Romans had brought this to Europe, but its design had not changed since its inception during the time of the earliest civilizations. This two-handled Y-shaped device pulled by an ox, navigated a sharpened piece of wood through the soil and simply scratched the surface. The small furrows did not allow for drainage or aeration of the thick wet European soil, most of one’s seed would rot or not take root. Hence, the 2:1 yield. The solution was twofold: horse and heavy plow. The horse was as strong as the ox for pulling the plow, but due to its nature would work twice as fast. Up until that time, the horse had not been used for plowing because the strap used for the oxen cut into the horse’s neck when it pulled, so that the poor creature was always in danger of choking to death when used for this heavy task. Someone had the idea of placing a padded collar around the horse’s neck that shifted the point of contact down to the horse’s shoulders. Now the horse could use all of the great strength of its powerful legs when it pulled the plow.
The new plow, perhaps invented in the regions of the far north, was constructed of heavy timbers, rolled on two wheels, and had a thick sharpened bar of iron that dug deep into the soil and cut through roots as well. It also had a board attached to it known as a moldboard. This board, set at a slight angle right behind the iron plow share, would follow in the cut furrow and overturn the soil. This allowed for drainage and aeration as well as the ability to introduce nutrients from the top layer into the depths of the soil thereby enriching it. The cutting ability of the plow as well as the new-gained swiftness of the horse also allowed the family to clear far greater tracts of land than was before possible and with greater yield per acre. The result was that by 1300, the grain yield had climbed to a ratio of 4:1. Now, for every four bushels of wheat grown, only one had to be reinvested into the soil.
Farming communities raising children along with enough food to feed them are the two simple facts of existence that created a boom in the population. Grain surpluses also meant more livestock could be bred and contributed to the growth of towns by freeing people to do other trades and tasks beside farming, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, cloth making, millers, etc. There was another occurrence during this time that also contributed to the time of prosperity: the weather grew warmer. Between the time of 800-1200 AD, a warming period called “the little optimum” by climatologists, created milder and shorter winters throughout Europe. How might that affect crop production? Yes, the warmer weather probably helped the plants to grow bigger and stronger. But also consider that the growing season lasted a few weeks longer, and also that one could grow crops farther north where the winter would usually set in sooner than in the south.
Such a force can easily turn a gigantic wheel twelve to twenty feet tall. This turning wheel would have a long extended axle that would enter into an adjoining building, and with gears and conversion of rotary motions to back and forth movements, this torque could be converted into all kinds of devices for work . But a very clever innovation occurred also at this time, the invention of the cam. The cam is nothing more than a wheel with a bump on it. Do you see how one part of the circle has an eccentricity (or bump) in the illustration? Every time this wheel revolves, the bump can push a rod up. This is one way that a rotary motion is converted into an up and down motion. Now look at the illustration of the water wheel. See how the shaft is connected to a smaller wheel with a protrusion. When the axle revolves, this protrusion will push down on the beam below it, raising a heavy iron hammer. As it continues to turn, the protrusion from the cam will slip off of the beam, and the heavy hammer will fall on the anvil below. This cam wheel has only one bump on it to lift the hammer, but one could easily make a cam wheel with four bumps. Thus for every quarter turn of the rotation, the hammer would rise and fall. This would make for a steady pounding rhythm.
This device, coupled to the power of water, shaped a time of prosperity known as the Medieval Industrial Revolution. Water power tripping a hammer could be used by blacksmiths to pound and shape heated metals or by fullers to crush fibers to make felt or linen. This trip hammer was used to crush ore from mining or to pump water from underground, pound malt for beer, crush sugar cane, press grapes and sources of oil, pound leather in tanneries, and operate bellows in forges. When the rotary motion was converted to a back and forth movement, the great wheel powered the saws in lumber mills, while pure rotary motion was used to turn the lathes. One of the primary uses of water power was to turn a grinding mill stone. During Roman days, slave labor was used to turn the grinding stone, but water flowed continuously and tirelessly turning the miller’s wheel and grinding the grain into flour day and night.
In conjunction with this potent source for powering mills, tanneries, forges, lumberyards and other industries, another invention (or discovery) greatly impacted the prosperity of Europe. This was a new loom that allowed for far more rapid production of cloth than was before possible. What this loom possessed that was a vast improvement on those used previously, was foot pedals that lifted the warp threads. There were two pedals: one to lift the odd-numbered threads, and the other to lift the even-numbered threads. The weaver could step on one pedal and quickly pass the weft spindle through the gap made , then step upon the other pedal and pass the weft threads back again. A beater was held permanently in place and could easily be pulled down to pull the weft thread down tight. The machine made for a far more uniform cloth and large swaths of cloth could be made rapidly. This device in tandem with the spinning wheel which replaced the drop spindle, led to a ten-fold increase in cloth production. The excess goods were then used for trade.
Draw depictions of the heavy plow and also of the water wheel in the main lesson book. Write descriptions of the impact of both inventions.
Research the development of the clock and why this was important to the monasteries. Write a description or show by illustration the workings of the water-clock. Compare the function of the clock in those times to the functions in modern times.