Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies

Why I Read It: I took a medieval history class in college and was inspired. I've never been able to shake it.

Summary: Subtitle: "Technology and Invention in the Middles Ages." We tend to think of the Middle Ages in Europe as dark, dim, unproductive. Were they?

My Thoughts: I've said it before, and I'm sure I will say it again in the future when I get to the next book on the list. I love the Gies and their contribution to medieval history research. Their books are so readable, even after, in this case, 80 years, that it makes you feel like they are across the table from you happily sharing a conversation on the topic.

As a quick aside, my own love for medieval history was solidified when I was a student at UMASS Amherst, studying under Professor R. Dean Ware. I'll never forget another student challenging him, haughtily commenting about how he wouldn't deign to study medieval history, that it was American history all the way. Professor Ware quickly shot back. "What's that, 400 years of one language?"

And that's the opposite of what we are faced with in this book - 1000 years, in many languages, and sometimes no language at all. For much of the historical period referenced here, there was no written information (its own form of darkness). Historical inferences were drawn from images, tapestries, portraits drawings and more. It's certainly an interesting way to do business.

So, what is their ultimate answer to the question posed above? Well, what do you think? Would they spend 300 pages disparaging the Middle Ages, as medievalists? Of course not! And they make quite a case - several dozen, actually - that describes the ways in which technology, in huge sweeping terms, advanced during the period from 500 to 1500 C.E. Not all successes were European. As trade routes opened, the flow of goods from the Middle East brought new technologies that could either be adopted or modified as needed.

Not everything worked, of course, but advances in road building, shipbuilding, navigation, milling and so many other disciplines took place, helping forge the modern world by incrementally moving us forward so that those technologies could be improved upon, as we are doing for generations to come. The Gies argue that it was sometimes reckless, often without thought for the future, but it was in the true spirit of invention, trial and error, much like at any other period in history.