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Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages Paperback – January 6, 1995

37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060925819 ISBN-10: 0060925817 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews Review

Historians, write Frances and Joseph Gies, have long tended to view the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual and scientific stagnation, a long era of backwardness, ignorance, and inertia. Many scholars of the Renaissance era, however, thought otherwise; the mathematician Jerome Cardan, for one, held that three medieval inventions--the magnetic compass, the printing press, and gunpowder--were of such significance that "the whole of antiquity has nothing equal to show."

In their lively history of medieval technology, the Gies team writes of such advances as the heavy plow, the Gothic flying buttress, linen undergarments, water pumps, and the lateen sail. During the medieval millennium, they suggest, a great technological and social revolution occurred "with the disappearance of mass slavery, the shift to water- and wind-power, the introduction of the open-field system of agriculture, and the importation, adaptation, or invention of an array of devices, from the wheelbarrow to double-entry bookkeeping." Many of those inventions or adaptations, brought into Europe from China and the Middle East, have scarcely been improved on today.

The medieval technological revolution, the authors conclude, came at a cost: much of Europe was deforested to make room for cropland and to fire kilns and furnaces, and mechanization made obsolete many handicraft skills. Yet, they add, the workers and inventors of the Middle Ages "all transformed the world, on balance very much to the world's advantage." --Gregory McNamee

From Library Journal

Moving chronologically through a millennium (500-1500 A.D.), the authors (who have written numerous books on medieval life, including Life in a Medieval City , LJ 2/1/70) show that the term "Dark Ages" is a misnomer by deftly tracing the period's "main technological elements, . . . their known or probable sources, and their principal impacts." In addition to the technological developments highlighted in the book's title, the authors cover such topics as the textile industry and shipbuilding/rigging, plus obligatory topics like printing, engineering, and gunpowder. Throughout, they nimbly weave medieval cultural history into the discussion. Informative, readable, enjoyable, and well written, this work is directed to general readers. Highly recommended for all collections.
- Michael D. Cramer, Virginia Polytechnic & State Univ. Libs . , Blacksburg
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 357 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 6, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060925817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060925819
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #244,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Fred W. Hallberg on March 26, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Frances Gies is a labor of love, and it shows. It provides an overview of the history of technology from pre-classical times to the Renaissance. It is a secondary source textbook, which guides the reader to whatever primary source material may interest him. I can keep this text on my shelf at home, and if I wish to seek out some more detailed account of a contentious point by historians such as Edward Gibbon, Henri Pirenne, Lynn White, or Joseph Needham, the Gies' book will direct me to these more extensive works at my public library.

I was led to this book by the argument over whether there ever was a "fall of Rome" of the sort described by Gibbon. Rodney Stark, for example, denies it in his "The Victory of Reason." Bryan Ward-Perkins, on the other hand, insists there really was a catastrophic collapse in the levels of population, literacy, and economic activity in the 5th Century Western Roman Empire. I am convinced by Ward-Perkin's evidence, yet I must agree with Stark that the Frankish "dark ages" were far more productive of inventions than was the entire world of classical civilization from 500BC to 500AD. The Franks invented (or at least perfected) the horse collar, the wheeled moldboard plow, three-field crop rotation, the stirrup, and the water wheel. The only original thing the Romans invented was concrete.

The Gies' provided me with a way of putting these seemingly paradoxical facts into a consistent whole. The structures of high culture which would support populous urban centers and a literate Senatorial Roman class disappeared after the 5th Century.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By S. Pactor VINE VOICE on November 23, 2004
Format: Paperback
Correction to the Amazon listing: this book is authored by Frances and Joseph Gies, not just Joseph. It says so on the cover of the book.

Husband and wife team of (amateur?) scholars, synthesize recent scholarship (from mid 60's on) on the middle ages for your reading pleasure.

As the title hints at and the subtitle: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, spells out, the focus is the manner in which technology and invention transformed society in the area soon to be known as "the West".

The broadest service this book provides is to cue the reader in to the massive scholarship on the subject that exists outside the English speaking world of academia. The French in particular have made many developments in this field of study, but their work seems to be only occasionally translated.

The Gies' are careful footnoters and their method is fairly rigorous. Because they rely on the scholarship that is anywhere from 10 to 200 years old, there are bound to be statements that are inaccurate. This does not effect the merit of the book.

This book provides and excellent introduction to the scholarship on the history of the middle ages, specficically as it relates to technology. However, the bibliography points the interested reader to a fuller picture of the available scholarship, and therfore Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel, is useful in that sense as well.

Probably not for strictly "general" readers, nor for scholars/academics, this book is best for the motivated lay reader.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Chris Schaefer on November 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
Conventional wisdom once told us that there wasn't any technology in the Middle Ages. But Frances and Joseph Gies make a strong argument, with many examples, that technological developments from 500 to 1500 AD transformed Europe, and enabled both the Renaissance and the European conquest of the rest of the world.

At the fall of the Roman Empire, about 500 AD, Europe was little more than an illiterate, rural backwater. Except for a few items left behind by the Romans, virtually all of mankind's significant technology was in the hands and minds of the Chinese, Indians and Arabs. European towns north of Rome were small and dirty, and produced little except subsistence level farming.

However by 1500, the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans had thrown back a major Muslim invasion, lived in large cities and fortified castles, carried on an active trade with China, India and Arabia, had developed full-rigged ships and navigation instruments capable of crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and developed weapons that would soon enable them to conquer almost every other civilization on Earth. Admittedly much of the new technology originated in China and Arabia, but the Europeans refined it, improved upon it, and put it to practical uses such that by 1100 AD Europe surpassed its eastern neighbors in sea faring, agriculture, armaments and day-to-day business practices. Even mundane skills like bookkeeping, credit, and insurance proved important in that they created the means to finance undertakings far beyond the capabilities of any one merchant family or sea captain.

That said, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel is a book that will appeal mostly to those who have an interest in the subject.
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