Part 1 -- Medieval European history

Before beginning to analyze technology that developed during the Middle Ages, it is helpful to understand the time period. Therefore, we will start this section with a series of web tutorials on the history of the Middle Ages.

This web site is designed to assist those students who do not have a background in medieval European history. The "tutorial is presented in a series of chapters that summarize the economic, political, religious and intellectual environment of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The main objective of the tutorial is to furnish a baseline against which the vast changes of the following centuries may be measured."

This introduction, although not comprehensive, is designed to assist students without a background or appreciation of Medieval history. After reading these tutorials, you should have a understanding of the economic, political, religious and intellectual environment of the Middle Ages in Europe.

You should read the following five web sites before you begin the section on Medieval Technology. 

*       This web site is designed to assist those students who do not have a background in medieval European history. The "tutorial is presented in a series of chapters that summarize the economic, political, religious and intellectual environment of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The main objective of the tutorial is to furnish a baseline against which the vast changes of the following centuries may be measured." To complete the tutorial on medieval European history, please click on this link

*       The next web site describes the role of the guilds in the economic life of the Middle Ages. Please click on this link

*       Last, I hope that you will consider the significance of the growth of trade in the Medieval Age. By the 13th century, trade dominated the Western economy and eventually led to the development of world-wide trade in the Renaissance.  This last source discusses the life of one such trader-merchant, Goderic, who in time became a saint. Reginald of Durham: Life of St. Goderic [12th Cent],


Part 2 - Medieval Technology

In this section, we will explore various technologies that were developed during the Middle Ages in Europe. Although this information is drawn from different web sites, a reading of all of these sources should help you appreciate the amount of technological development that occurred in the Middle Ages. This section focuses on technologies that appear to be natively "European." Other technologies (such as paper, gunpowder, the compass, stirrups, among others) were based on older developments in other regions, particularly China. In the section on Chinese technology, we will discuss those technologies that were transferred from China to the West. An overall timeline of Medieval technology by Paul J. Gans is available at this web site

To simplify your reading, I have divided this study of medieval technology into six sections: Agricultural Tools, The Harnessing of Time, The Use of Iron on the Middle Ages, Weaving and the Textile Industry, and  Building Construction.


Agricultural Tools

The plow is considered to be one of the most important (and oldest) technologies developed. In fact, the history of the plow stretches back to the Neolithic (New Stone) Age that began about 8000 BC in Mesopotamia. In the Middle Ages, however, the plow was radically improved and was used with multiple-oxen teams. This innovation facilitated the clearing of the forests of fertile northwest Europe (Gies & Gies, 1994). Before this time because of the nature of the soil, it was difficult to plow these fields. And, obviously, this inability to cultivate these fields reduced the population of northwest Europe. After the redesign of the plow, allowing the plow to plow the heavier and wetter soil of northwest Europe, there was a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity, and subsequently, the population of these areas. The working day of a farmer was still very difficult, even with the technological improvements of the Medieval Age. Click on this link to read an account of an average day's work for a plowman, shepherd, and fisherman in 1000 AD, The Dialogue Between Master & Disciple: On Laborers, c. 1000m,

Click on the picture on the right to see an enlarged view of a Ming era wheelbarrow. The Ming Dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644.

In addition to the redesign of the plow, the way the crops were grown changed in Medieval Europe when farmers changed from a two-field crop rotation to a three-field crop rotation beginning in the 8th century. According to White (1962), Charlemagne himself thought of this agricultural innovation. Why, we may ask, is it so significant? How did the three-field rotation work, as compared with the older two-field rotation? Under a two-field rotation, half the land was planted in a year while the other half lay fallow. Then, in the next year, the two fields were reversed. Under three-field rotation, the land was divided into three parts. One section was planted in the Fall with winter wheat or rye. The next Spring, the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans and the third field was left fallow. The three fields were rotated in this manner so that every three years, a field would rest and be unplanted. Under the two filed system, if one has a total of 600 fertile acres of land, one would only plant 300 acres. Under the new three-field rotation system, one would plant (and thereby harvest) 400 acres. But, the additional crops had a more significant effect than mere productivity. Since the Spring crops were mostly legumes, they increased the overall nutrition of the people of Northern Europe. 


Two other technologies played an important role in the development of medieval agriculture. And, the consequence of these improvements was a major increase in agricultural productivity (White, 1962). Each of these three technologies will be discussed separately. To read about each technology and how it affected the agricultural practices of the Middle Ages, please click on the links below.

*       Horse Harness

*       Heavy Plow

*   What is the Heavy Plow?

*   The effect of the heavy plow on the society of the Middle Ages

*       The Whippletree

This picture shows armor for horse & soldier, Russian, c. 1500-1699

Russian Imperial Moscow. State Armory Museum. © Kathleen Cohen


The Harnessing of Time

Clocks are a fairly recent invention; that is, the first clocks were created about 5000 to 6000 years ago  by the great civilizations in the Middle East and North Africa.

As with many technologies, the development of the clock was driven by societal needs. In these centralized civilizations (such as the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations), there was a societal need to organize time more efficiently. The first clocks were shadow clocks or sundials where the time of day could be determined by following the shadows cast by the sun.

Mechanical clocks were first used in China, more for astronomical and astrological purposes rather then for telling the time. About 725 AD, a Chinese engineer, Liang Ling-Tsan invented the mechanical escapement, which is a key device in all mechanical clocks. One of the most elaborate clock towers was built by Su Sung and his associates in 1088 A.D. It is also interested to note that the developments in Chinese clock building were influenced by Muslims. During the period beginning with the Mongol conquest of China by Kublai Khan, the Chinese Mongol rulers employed Muslim astronomers. These Muslim astronomers developed improved astronomical instruments (McClellan & Dorn, 1999).



Mumford (1986) identified the clock as the "key" machine of the modern industrial age.  He emphasizes the clock because of its uniqueness among other machines of its day.  It was a new type of power machine, "in which the source of power and the transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy throughout the works and to make possible regular production and a standardized product" (p. 326). He also notes that the clock served as a model for many other types of mechanical products.   

Astronomical Clock, 1383, redone 1598, Lyon Cathedral, France, tec02015, © Kathleen Cohen

However, the most significant difference between the clock and other machines was in its effect on society.  Large mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of several large Italian cities beginning in the 14th century. With the clock, time became divided into regulated units instead of remaining dependent on events or the day.  Before the clock, people worked, ate, and slept according to the patterns of the sun and moon.  After the clock, the day was presided over by a monitor from the time of rising to the hour of rest.  Through the clock, "time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments" (Mumford, p. 328).


As the clock became more widely used, abstract time became the new medium of existence.  It brought with it a mechanical efficiency through coordination.  This efficiency was seen as a desirable trait in society and its effect on our society is still evident today.

You can read about the development of the clock during the Middle Ages at the NIST web site (


The Use of Iron and Mining in the Middle Ages

Tapestry of Metalsmith, Gothic Anonymous, 
c.1500, Paris. Musée National des Thermes 
et de l'Hôtel de Cluny, frm08032, 
© Kathleen Cohen

One of the most important developments in the Middle Ages was the experimentation and developments in iron production. As noted by Bert Hall in his essay, "Iron is one of the most useful metals ever discovered, but it is also one of the more difficult metals to understand in history, especially in medieval history. Iron comes in several forms, and the complications involved in producing each of them fosters further confusion."

In Europe by 900, there were significant changes in the production of iron. The above ground reduction furnace had been developed; this furnace allowed for the easier creation of iron. This iron could then be forged by local smiths into "parts for plows, spades, pitchforks, and shoes for horses beginning to pull with the aid of the new horse collar" (Gies & Gies, 1994, pp. 80-81).


*       Before you begin thinking about iron production, read this short history of metals,

*       For a brief description on iron in the Middle Ages, click on this link to read Gan's essay on iron working,

In addition to the mining of iron ore to make agricultural and manufacturing products, the Medieval Age saw an increase in the mining of other metals including silver, lead, copper, gold, and anthracite. During the early to middle Medieval Age, the work of mining followed the pattern of manor-based agriculture. A family of miners would work on a seam of ore and they would get a percent of the ore that was mined. Those who mined precious ore (silver or gold) were usually paid in ore; the miners could then sell their ore directly to a goldsmith or silversmith. As in other craft areas, the mining industry underwent a transition during the the late Medieval period. Because of the demand for more ore, particularly precious metals for coins, there was a transition from a family, craft-based production to a "capital intensive industry subject to central management in which the miner was an employee of the Crown or its lessees" (Claughton, 1997). As ore became more difficult to mine from the ground, the mines became deeper. This led to the use of new technologies in the mining industry. One of the most important 15th century applications for the waterwheel was to pump out mine shafts. A classic mining book, De re metallica (published 1556), showed a variety of pumps, bucket chains, and treadmill devices. In any case, by the year 1500, iron production for Europe was 60,000 tons (Gies & Gies, 1994). This increase in iron reduced its cost and, at the same time, increased the number of tools available, particularly in agriculture. 

Artist Name:

Gothic Anonymous

Artist Dates:

(active c. 1150 - c. 1500)


Miners sending gold up.

Creation Date:

14 c






Stained glass

Original Site:



Freiburg. Museum fur Volkerkunde.

Copyright Holder:

© Kathleen Cohen

Accession #:


These three essays describe mining during the Medieval Age in England.

*       Agreement on the Exploitation of a Silver Mine, 1180. This is a primary source from the Medieval Sourcebook that discusses the profit division in the silver mines in Toulon,

*       Silver mining in England and Wales, 1066-1500,

*       The medieval silver mines at Bere Ferrers, Devon,


Weaving and the Textile Industry

By far, working in agriculture was the most common job in the Middle Ages. The mechanization, fertilization, and other modern techniques that we take for granted were almost nonexistent. It took a large number of people to produce food for a society.

St. Pierre. Eve spinning by Gothic Anonymous, 14 c, Lille. 
Museum of Religious Art. Copyright Kathleen Cohen, SJSU, sci02092.


Of the crafts, the largest one was in cloth making. And, it is in cloth making that the first industrialization occurred during the Middle Ages. By the Middle Ages, the location of textile production was usually a household where the man was the weaver and the women prepared and spun yarn for the loom. All cloth was woven by hand on a loom and the most common materials of this time period were wool, cotton, silk, and linen. Each of these materials had its own production and most of them required the contributions of more than one individual. Manufacturing techniques remained unchanged over a long period of time. To produce wool, the fleece needed to be washed and then combed to remove tangles. Next, the yarn needed to be spun with a spindle. Here is a description of this process (taken from Gies & Gies, 1994)

"Holding in her left hand the distaff, a short forked stick around which a mass of the prepared raw fibers was wound, the spinster took some of the fibers between the finger and thumb of her right hand, twisting them together as she drew them gently downward. When the thread thus produced was long enough, she tucked the distaff under her arm or in her belt and tied the thread with a slipknot to the top of the spindle, a toplike rod with a disk-shaped weight attached to the bottom to increase rotation, and gave it a turn. The suspended weight pulled the fibers slowly through the spinster's fingers, while the rotation twisted them together into yarn. The process depended on the practiced skill of spinster in controlling the release of the fibers. Drawing out more fibers from the distaff, she repeated the operation until the spindle reached the floor, when she picked it up and wound the spun thread around it. When the spindle was full, she wound the thread into  ball." (p. 51)

Because of the time involved, it took many hand spinners to supply a single weaver. And, initially, weaving was difficult to do because the first looms used were vertical. By the 12th century, horizontal looms were used that allowed the weaver to sit while he worked (Gies & Gies, 1994). These looms most likely were adaptations of earlier silk looms developed by the Chinese and transferred through traders. Click on this link to learn more about the horizontal loom,

During the Medieval Age, wool was the dominant textile with linen as the next important manufactured textile produced. Linen is a particular difficult finished product to manufacture. Linen is derived from flax, a plant that has been cultivated for material since 3000 BC. A short history and a description of the modern manufacture of linen can be found at This site notes how difficult the manufacture of linen is today; imagine how much more labor- and time-intensive this process was during the non-mechanized Medieval Age.

Cotton manufacture was also the result of technology transfer, this time from the Muslims. After the Muslim conquest of Spain and Sicily, the new Muslim government developed widespread cotton manufacturing. In the 12th century, when Sicily was reconquered by the Normans, the cotton weaving knowledge was spread to northern Italy (Gies & Gies, 1984) and afterwards to the rest of Europe.  Silk, another important textile used during the Medieval Age, was not manufactured in any significant quantity in Europe until much later (16th century). A small amount was produced in Italy (click on this link to read a primary source that describes how the technology of making silk was transferred to Italy, Procopius: The Roman Silk Industry,  But, until the late Medieval period, most silk was imported from either China or the Moslems. For more information on the transfer of silk manufacturing, click on this link


During the early to mid Medieval Age, the textile industry was dominated by guilds, as were the other crafts. A guild was a workers' association. The main role of a guild was the regulation of its trade or craft. "No one not a member could sell at retail in the town. A foreign merchant had to sell to a guildsman, who would then re-sell to the citizens. In some cases foreigners were allowed to sell directly, but they had to pay a very heavy tax for the privilege. Foreign merchants were usually limited to one year's stay in the town or less - they could not set up shop permanently" (Knox, 1999) 

Often, the goods (whether cloth or metal goods) would be sold through markets or fairs. This link will take you to a primary source catalogued by the Medieval Sourcebook. Click on the link to read this description of markets and fairs (from the 13th century). Humbert de Romans: On Markets & Fairs, c. 1270,

Stained Glass Window in Notre Dame. Cloth-making guild. Gothic Anonymous, 14 c, France. Samur-aux-Auxois, © Kathleen Cohen, frm08033

The first guilds were merchant guilds in the late 11th and 12th centuries. These guilds were composed of all artisans, merchants, and traders within the town. As crafts began to develop and grow, the merchant guilds usually split up into craft guilds. According to Knox (1999), in Augsburg, "there were 17 guilds in 1350, 38 guilds by 1450, and over 60 guilds by 1550." In the textile industry, there usually were different guilds for the different steps in the textile manufacturing process: spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and wool merchants.

By the  13th century, the textile industry underwent an organizational change. Cloth making began to be organized as a "putting out" system. These changes were first seen in the Flemish wool industry when wool production was moved from the villages into the towns of the Scheldt valley. The system is called a "putting out" system because the cloth merchant functioned as the manager of the entire process. Previously, the cloth merchant functioned as a middleman between weavers and the market. Now, the cloth merchant also acted as a middleman between the weavers and the wool suppliers (the English sheep farmers). The cloth merchant acted as the "factory" foreman and, more to the point, he was able to economically dominate the cloth industry. 

Wool trade, multiple spinning bobbins, 
Isaac Claes Swanenburgh, 1614-1638, London History Museum, tec01011, copyright Kathleen Cohen.

Another key innovation in the 13th century was the introduction into Europe of the spinning wheel.  "The Great or Jersey wheel, introduced around 1350, was the first improvement made in the process of cotton spinning. Thread could be spun faster on the wheel than with the traditional distaff" (Hills, 1973, p. 15). The final Medieval technical improvement to the spinning wheel was the addition of a foot treadle that powered the wheel.

By 1400, more changes had begun for the textile industry. These changes were aided by the dramatic social changes that occurred in the previous one hundred years. Because of the peace and general prosperity during the 13th century, Europe was overpopulated during the first part of the 14th century. And, with a rash of poor weather in the early 13th century, poorer harvest led to mass starvation in some parts of Europe. Added to this was an increase in warfare (for example, the Hundred Years' War), and death by warfare. To compound the problem further, the Black Death (the plague) struck Europe in 1347 through 1349. Historians estimate that between one-fourth to one-half of Europe's population died in the 14th century

These societal events affected the economic life. For example, when Henry III of England was fighting against Louis IX of France in Aquitaine, "trade between England and France was greatly hampered. The Cistercians refused contributions to the royal revenue, and therefore Henry prohibited their profitable woolen trade with the continent. The Florentine and Flemish merchants were at this time those most interested in buying wool from England." To read this primary account about the effect of war on the woolen trade, click on this link, Accounts of State Interference With Trade, 1242-1244,

How did this decrease in population help the textile industry, one may ask? First, because of the decrease in population, land became cheaper. And cheaper land caused a shift to more sheep farming, especially in England. (Remember that the English dominated the market for wool during the Medieval Age.) This led to the development of a new form of textile production in England where "the sheep-owning landowner established production on his own manor, outside the jurisdiction of both city and guild regulations" (Gies & Gies, 1994, p. 269). In Western Europe, the "putting out" system was ending and was being replaced by a factory-like production of textiles. At first, the workers usually worked out of their own houses while being visited by inspectors. Later, the workers were moved to a centralized "factory" or workshop where the length of the day and the amount of work was regulated. In any case, by the end of the Medieval Age, the stage was set for the total industrialization of the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution.


Building Construction

Chartres. West facade, Gothic, 1134-1220, Photo copyright © Kathleen Cohen, frm03008.

Before beginning our discussion of the techniques used in Medieval construction, it is best to understand the social structure of the times. Although the Middle Ages stretch from approximately 500 to 1500 AD, there were changes in the distribution of people in Europe. A particularly important social phenomena during this time period was the growth of towns, and later cities. A short description of daily life in medieval towns can be read at the following web site,

The growth of towns meant the development of a new type of worker and here the craftsmen become very important. After 1000, there was a revival of commerce in Western Europe and the towns were well positioned as the location for these traders. Also, since the spread of the heavy plow (see section on Agricultural Tools above), agricultural productivity increased. This meant that there were excess agricultural workers who now could move to a town and work in either trade or manufacturing.

Since most of the construction during this time was done with wood, carpentry was a lucrative trade. The carpenters generally formed their own guilds. For a guild to be recognized, it usually had to have a chapter from a town, church, or noble. This link, Commune of Richirzegcheide:Grant of a Gild to the Carpenters, is a translation of one such grant from 1180.

There are several distinct categories of buildings during this time. In this section, we will discuss the range of construction from peasant housing to cathedral building. In all areas of building, there were dramatic changes throughout the Middle Ages. A few examples of these changes are discussed under the categories below.

*       Peasant Houses,

*       The Construction and History of Medieval Timber-Framed Houses in England and Wales,

*       Wichamstow, a Saxon Village,

*       Windmills,

*       The Stave Church,

*       Gothic Cathedrals,




As we can see from the stories of the various technologies, the development and diffusion of a technology depends not only on its invention but also on the social and cultural climate in which it was invented. For example, as discussed above, the rapid population declines of the 13th century, for example, led to an increase in sheep farms, which led to an increase in textile production. Not all technological change is as readily traced. James Burke, in his well-known book on technology and society, focused on the connections. As he says in his introduction, "Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don't happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts" (Burke, 1978, p. vii).

The impact of a technology on society is always unexpected because technologies are rarely "the end of the story." They lead to new technologies--or new uses--or new social modes. It is this interplay of technology and society throughout the Medieval Age that it so interesting. By now, you should see why the older term "Dark Ages" is inappropriate. All the foundations for our modern society were laid in the Medieval Age including universities, the Industrial Revolution, and the Capitalist system.

But, technology did not develop solely in Europe. Many technologies, instead, were the result of inventions that were transferred from the East (China, India, and the Muslim world). In the next two sections, we will discuss the contributions of China and the Muslim world to the growth of technology in the West. 

*       Islam Spain and the History of Technology

*       Chinese Contributions to Technology

*       Main Menu




Burke, J. (1978). Connections. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

Claughton, P. (1997). Silver mining in England and Wales, 1066-1500.

Gies, F., & Gies, J. (1994). Cathedral, forge, and waterwheel. New York: HarperCollins.

Hills, R. L. (1973). Richard Arkwright and Cotton Spinning. Pioneers of Science and Discovery. London: Priory Press Ltd.

Knox, E. L. (1999). Medieval Society.

Langdon, J. (1986). Horses, Oxen, and Technical Innovation. Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-26772 2

McClellan, J. E., & Dorn, H. (1999). Science and technology in World History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mumford, L. (1986). The Lewis Mumford reader.  New York: Pantheon Books.

Ross, F. (1982). Oracle Bones, Stars and Wheelbarrows : Ancient Chinese Science and Technology. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

White, L., Jr., (1962). Medieval technology and social change. New York: Oxford University Press.


Other Web Resources

The Medieval Sourcebook, located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies, includes thousands of sources including full text articles, law texts, saint's lives, maps and other sources related to the Medieval Age.

Feudal Life, What was it really like to live in the Middle Ages, an exhibit posted by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,

A series of lectures on Medieval Europe by Lynn White, University of Kansas. The following lectures are of particular relevance to this tutorial.

*       Five Contributions of the Middle Ages,

*       The Rise of Commerce and Towns,

*       The Rise of Feudalism,

*       THE PEASANTS, Advances in Agricultural Technology,


*       The Rise of Capitalism,

A series of lectures by Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College for his class, Western Civilization I.

*       Charlemagne,

*       Feudalism,


*       Medieval Universities,


*       The Black Death (Plague),