After the fall of Rome in the West during the 5th Century AD, the power vacuum it created forced its former conquests into centuries of bitter warfare, famine, disease, and conflict.
Yet despite the constant fear of death, there was enough calm during the Middle Ages for great leaps forward in science and invention in Europe.
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What are some of the most important inventions from the Middle Age?
Far from being a period of little to no technological progress, the Middle Ages had its fair share of new inventions, like any other period of history.
These 18 medieval inventions and how they made it to Europe are prime examples. Some of them were so important that they would ultimately pave the way to certain aspects of the world we live in.
The following list is far from exhaustive and in no particular order.
1. The Printing press was revolutionary
The printing press may well be the most important invention of the medieval era. It would eventually wrench control of information distribution from the State and the Church and lay the groundwork for Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Although Johannes Guttenberg’s famous press was developed in the 15th century, the movable type system can be traced in history back to around 1040, in China. Without it, the modern world would be a very different place indeed.
2. The Coffee House was ahead of its time
Coffee is thought to have been first introduced to the Ottoman Empire sometime in the 15th century and it quickly took the Ottoman world by storm.
Coffee was first introduced to Europe in the 16th century, and by the 17th century, it had become popular all across the continent.
But the real importance of coffee in Europe was not the bitter brew, but the coffee houses that sprang up to serve it. These quickly became centers of social activity and communication, and were some of the only places where different classes of people could mix freely. In England, they were often called “penny universities,” because for the price of a penny anyone could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.
3. The heavy plow led to the Agricultural Revolution
The widespread introduction of the heavy plow around the 9th century revolutionized farming in Europe.
Earlier plows, commonly called the ard or scratch-plow, was suited for the sandy soils and climate of the Mediterranean but was unsuitable for the heavy soils found in most of northern Europe. As a result, north European settlement before the middle ages was limited areas with lighter soils.
Heavy plows, in contrast, introduced an asymmetric plowshare, to cut the soil horizontally, a colter, to cut the soil vertically, and a mouldboard, to turn the cut sods aside to create a deep furrow.
The invention of the heavy plow made it possible to plow areas with clay soil, which was more fertile than the lighter soil types. This increased crop yields tremendously and led to economic growth and the rapid growth of cities and trade — especially in Northern Europe.
4. Verge escapement/mechanical clocks replaced hourglasses
The development of the verge escapement would lead to the creation of the first mechanical clocks in around 1300 AD. By the 15th century, they had become widespread around Europe.
They would become the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656.
5. Paper ‘money’ is older than you think
Although paper “promissory notes” had been in existence for centuries, the first recorded use of government-issued paper money was in 9th Century China. These notes were a promise by the ruler to redeem them later for some other object of value, usually coin. These early credit notes were usually for a limited duration. They were intended primarily for merchants, to replace the need to carry around quantities of metals that were very heavy, and could easily be lost or stolen.
By the 1120s, the Chinese government had started to produce its own state-issued paper money using woodblock printing, and these were in widespread circulation.
Travelers brought news of the government-issued Chinese paper currency back to Europe in the 13th century, but the notes wouldn’t become common in Europe until the late-1600s.
6. The hourglass was a great way of keeping time
The hourglass first appeared in Europe in the 8th century AD, however, there is little evidence of its use there until the early 14th century, when it first began appearing in European ship inventories. It was likely first used on ships because the bobbing waves didn’t affect its accuracy.
By the 15th Century, they were common sights on ships, in churches, and in industries. They were the first dependable, reusable, and fairly accurate means of measuring time and would only be superseded with the invention of the mechanical clock.
7. Gunpowder changed the world
Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal. Chinese monks first discovered the mixture in the 9th century CE, possibly while devising medicines. The technology reached the Middle East around the 13th century and was brought to Europe by traders and crusaders soon afterward.
Sir Roger Bacon conducted experiments to find the best ratio of ingredients and is generally credited with arriving at the modern formula and with describing in detail the process for making gunpowder.
8. The blast furnace first appeared in Switzerland and Germany
Blast furnaces may have their origins as early as the 1st Century AD in China, but they make their first appearance in Europe in the 1200s. These early blast furnaces were very inefficient by modern standards.
The oldest European examples were built in Durstel and Lapphyttan in Switzerland and Sauerland in Germany. There is also some tentative evidence of earlier ones in Järnboås, Sweden that date to around 1100 AD.
9. Liquor was a Medieval thing
Distillation may well have been known in ancient times — in the fourth century B.C., Aristotle wrote about applying distillation to wine and other liquids, and there is evidence that the process was used as far back as 1800 BC to produce perfumes. The Chinese may have used distillation to produce alcohol from rice in around 800 BC, and the production of distilled spirits was reported in Britain before the Roman conquest.
In around the 10th century, the alembic came into use. This was a distillery, consisting of two vessels connected by a tube. The first distilled spirits were made from sugar-based materials, primarily grapes and honey to make grape brandy and distilled mead. In the 11th century, Avicenna invented a coiled pipe which allowed the vapor to cool down more effectively than in previous stills.
Most historians believe that true alcohol-producing stills appear to have first appeared in Europe around the 13th Century.
10. The wheelbarrow was invented in the Middle Ages
The earliest-known wheelbarrows that there is archaeological evidence for, were one-wheeled carts that date to second-century China. These placed the wheel in the center of the barrow. There may have been earlier instances of wheelbarrows in use earlier in China and ancient Greece, but the evidence is not conclusive.
The first wheelbarrows in medieval Europe appeared sometime around 1170 – 1220. These featured a wheel at or near the front, as in modern wheelbarrows.
By the 15th Century, they became commonplace for everything from mining to construction.
11. The flying buttress is an iconic Middle Age development
Flying buttresses are an iconic architectural feature of Gothic architecture and are often found in medieval cathedrals. They first appeared in the 12th Century and remain awe-inspiring today.
Flying buttresses consist of an inclined beam carried on a half arch that projects from the walls to a pier which supports the weight and horizontal thrust of a roof, dome, or vault. The weight of these structures are carried by the flying buttress away from the building and down the pier to the ground.
The addition of flying buttresses enabled buildings to become much taller and more elaborate in design, allowing for higher ceilings, thinner walls, and much bigger windows.
12. The spinning wheel was invented in India
Spinning wheels may have their origin in India sometime between the 5th and 10th Century AD. There is evidence they were in use in China at about 1000 AD. They reached Europe via the Middle East, by around 1400. The spinning wheel replaced the earlier method of hand spinning, in which the individual fibers were drawn out of a mass of wool held on a stick, or distaff, twisted together to form a continuous strand, and then wound on a second stick.
A series of inventions and improvements to the spinning wheel over the next several centuries converted the spinning wheel into a powered, mechanized machine that would help drive the Industrial Revolution.
13. The tidal mill first appeared in Ireland
Water and windmills have been known to have been employed since antiquity, and early examples in Europe include evidence of tidal mills from 6th century Ireland, and an ancient Roman mill in London on the River Fleet. However, they did not come into common use in Europe until the 11th century, when a number were built along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
14. Pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudders shrank the world
Pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudders were a major innovation during the Middle Ages. Prior to their existence, boats and large ships were maneuvered using oars or quarter-rudders. Unlike modern rudders, which are mounted on the stern, quarter-rudders were mounted on the sides of ships. Their use limited the size of ships.
The pintle-and-gudgeon was a hinge device that allowed the rudder to be mounted on the stern, however, it took a change in hull design, and the appearance of the full-rigged ship, before the pintle-and-gudgeon rudder could finally supplant the quarter-rudder in around the 14th century.
Without the stern-mounted rudder, and the larger, full-rigged ships, the European Age of Discovery could not have happened.
15. Eyeglasses made everything clear
The ancient Romans may have used some type of magnifying glass for reading, but the first wearable glasses known to history appeared in Italy during the 13th century.
English monk Sir Roger Bacon made the first definitive reference to eyeglasses in the 13th century, when he outlined the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses in his Opus Majus (c.1266).
In a sermon given by a Dominican Friar called Giordana da Pisa in 1305, he wrote: “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision…”
This invention would significantly improve the quality of life for the visually impaired to this day — as the writer will attest.
16. Treadmill cranes made building easier
Treadmill cranes were simple wooden, man-powered, hoisting and lowering devices developed and widely used throughout the Middle Ages.
They can often be seen depicted in images and paintings of the period during the assembly of monolithic buildings like castles and cathedrals.
There is evidence that similar treadmill cranes were used during Roman times, but the technology fell into disuse with the end of the Roman Empire. They were reintroduced into Europe around the 13th century, and the first definitive reference to a treadwheel — referred to as a magna rota — was in a French manuscript dating to around 1225 AD.
In the Middle Ages, they would become commonplace at harbors, mines, and, obviously, on building sites.
17. Cannon changed warfare forever
The earliest cannons may date to 12th century China, where there is a depiction of what appears to be a cannon in the Dazu Rock Carvings in Sichuan, dated around 1128 AD.
The oldest existing cannons originate from 13th century China, and include the famous Wuwei Bronze Cannon (1227 AD), the Heilongjiang hand cannon (1288 AD), and the Xanadu Gun (1298 AD). According to some Arab historians, the Mamluks used a cannon against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, although it is not clear how “cannon” is being defined. In Europe, the French may have used a version of the cannon against England’s Edward III at Cambrai, in 1339.
However, one of the first recorded uses of canon in warfare was by the `English forces of Edward III, who used them to help defeat the French in the Battle of Crecy in 1346.
Within a few decades, most major combatants were using cannons. There are reliable reports that the French used them during a siege in 1375, Balkan gunners fired on Venetian ships in 1378, and the Ottomans reportedly used them in 1389 at the First Battle of Kosovo.
18. The astrolabe was an early computer
Astrolabes were elaborate, multi-use tools that could, in some ways, be considered early computers. They were invaluable for astronomers and navigators in working out the altitude of a given celestial body at different latitudes.
It is not known who invented the astrolabe, or exactly when it was developed. Claudius Ptolemy, a famous Greek astronomer who lived during the 2nd century AD left records suggesting he used a three-dimensional instrument similar to the astrolabe to make calculations.
Early astrolabes may also have been in use in the 5th Century AD, but the devices reached their peak in sophistication during the Middle Ages, and may have inspired the later development of mechanical clocks.
And that’s your lot for today.
Have we missed any other key medieval inventions? If so, feel free to mention them in the comments below.