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