Friday, August 03, 2007

Lynn White on Horse Stuff

Previously on my blog (Experimental History) I joked a bit about Lynn White's historical revisionism, which I noted in later comments appears "in several publications beginning as early as 1945 but most famously in Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962)." My old friend Bede got annoyed and wrote a reply (Stirrups, Horse Harnesses and Richard Carrier). As I often find among my critics, (almost) half of what he says is wrong, and the other half is irrelevant to what I actually said. But all this does afford a cool opportunity to talk about ancient history. So here goes.

First things first: My bad. Bede is right that Lynn White left all his causal theories out of his 1962 book. That part of his case he tucked elsewhere. For example, his contribution to A.C. Crombie's Scientific Change (1963) entitled "What Accelerated Technological Progress in the Western Middle Ages" (pp. 272-91). There White presents the other half of his argument, that is, what he thinks "caused" the things he attempts to document in his 1962 book. A major part of his causal thesis is that Christianity fixed everything that was wrong about the ideology of the Roman world, making all his listed advances possible, or perhaps even inevitable (cf. esp. pp. 282-91). Hence my joke about the Horse Collar of Christ and the Stirrup of Jesus.

However, and again to be completely fair, though White did in effect make that argument, he was nowhere near as egregious or boneheaded in this endeavor as those who make it even more forcefully than he ever did. Most recently, Rodney Stark (in several recent books, some of which oddly repeating material verbatim from each other, I suppose a clever way to make tons of cash on less work). But most infamously, Stanley Jaki, and most directly, Reijer Hooykas. Admittedly I was conflating these men a bit. I think Lynn White sucks as a historian, but he's not half as bad as they are.

Okay. With that out the way, let's move on to the substance of the matter.


The Medieval Pennypinching Defense

Bede repeats one of Lynn White's favorite "excuses" for why the middle ages was, overall, technologically inferior to the Roman empire: better stuff is more expensive. My favorite example is White's infamous claim that Roman roads were an inefficient waste of money, so in effect the lack of them in the middle ages was actually an improvement. This is ridiculous on several counts, which anyone who actually had practical experience with wagons or the military would spot right away. But he's right about one thing: roads are expensive. Still are. Bede now says the Roman saddle was expensive, too.

Of course, that has nothing to do with what I was originally talking about. Yes, medieval society was so economically dysfunctional it could not afford all the nice things the superior Roman economy easily funded, like a permanent cavalry, trained legions, roads, aqueducts, harbors, lighthouses, baths. That hardly relates to my point. Indeed, I already said the stirrup still afforded some advantages, and I'll add now that I have no doubt the Romans would have adopted it had they seen one, as the Christians later would (the pagan Chinese having invented stirrups already by the 4th century A.D., Eurasian barbarians taking it West). But the "Stirrup of Jesus Changed the World" thesis (whether you credit it all to White or not) is simply bunk.

But more importantly, the pennypinching excuse won't work in this case. Because, ahem, I guarantee you, a Roman four-horned saddle cost waaaaay less than the armor medieval knights wore (even the early mail & shield), or even the cost of buying and feeding a horse all year long. In fact, that's the basis of White's entire feudalism argument. Stirrup-based shock combat also requires a saddle tree just as expensive to construct as a Roman saddle. You just shape it differently. Which costs exactly zero more. Which should be obvious. Thus, to suggest that the Roman saddle was too expensive for a medieval knight is more than nonsense on stilts. It's nonsense on twirling rockets to the moon.


Dude, It's Just Sticks

Bede gives a tight but elaborate discourse on why breaking formation spells doom on the battlefield. Correct, but irrelevant. Still, he tries to bootstrap this into an argument that a palisade defense (which I noted, and he agrees, is decisive against heavy cavalry) requires a dug-in position, and thus, he says, heavy cavalry instead were fielded against marching units. Sorry, reality check. You don't need to be dug in to deploy an effective palisade defense. As is shown, again, in the movie Braveheart. They just pick the sticks up. A trained monkey could do it. It takes all of two seconds. Maybe not even that.

Roman caltrops were likewise portable and easily deployed. But their standard pila (a rather deadly spear) were already effective enough to annihilate any cavalry charge. A single horn blast and an entire legion would palisade itself in any needed direction, and if necessary, all four directions at once. But even if they had to deal with a lot of brazenly suicidal knight brigades that, say, tried to do their damage by hurling their doomed corpses over their speared-dead horse carcases, onto the legions, perhaps wearing pointy armor to maximize the effect, the Romans could simply re-deploy Alexander's pike phalanx, which would be just as invincible marching as stationary, and wouldn't even let that body-hurling work.
Oh, yeah, the pike. Bede seems to think it was a medieval invention. Sorry. This is another technology not invented in the middle ages. It was invented by Alexander the Great (or his father, or his engineers, or his father's engineers), and is in fact the weapon that conquered the entire Persian empire and made it Greek (until the Muslims made it Arab). The Romans were still writing tactical treatises on the pike phalanx, and certainly would have had no trouble deploying it if circumstances ever required them to. The medievals just forgot all this, and had to get their asses beat for several centuries before they got around to reiventing old hat. Or old pike.

Of course, again, it is true that this Roman effectiveness requires training. Which requires money. Which requires an economy that actually works. But "medieval times just sucked that way" is not any sort of revolutionary conclusion.


Three Is Only One More Than Two

Bede repeats the old White thesis that "the horse-collar...coupled with horse shoes, three field rotation and heavy ploughs, allowed agriculture to increase yields well beyond what the Romans managed." That's another boner by White. I can't blame Bede. He's just a trusting guy. I won't repeat what I already said about the horse collar, except to note again that it did afford some advantages, but nothing earth shattering. White greatly exaggerated its impact both on transportation and agriculture. But what about that other stuff?

Field rotation is a Roman invention. They had several systems in use. Three field rotation is simply a combination of two Roman systems. We actually don't know this hadn't already been done (global arguments from silence in the history of ancient technology are very problematic). But more importantly, its gain in efficiency is small compared with the gains afforded by the Roman's highly advanced irrigation system, which the medievals lacked. The Romans also enjoyed an
advanced use of concentrated fertilizers, though I'm not up to speed on the history of medieval fertilizers, so I can't say whether they had an edge there. But either way, fertilizers reduce the need for field rotation.
In actual fact, most scholars agree the Roman agricultural system out-produced anything before the 18th century (see Dominic Rathbone's comments in the entry for "agriculture, Roman" in the most recent edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary). That it was organized differently is irrelevant to that point. The converse claim that medieval yields exceeded Roman is not supported by any relevant evidence. Instead, the evidence confirms vastly greater populations under the Romans (and larger cities) than would ever be supportable again until modern times. Read anything on ancient economics written since 1990, and especially anything after 2000.

To be fair again, Lynn White died twenty years ago, so he can't be blamed for not knowing what we know now. But even in his own time his claims were dubious. I often find the same problems with White's scholarship: like the bits above about the sticks and the roads, his practical knowledge of how things actually work is next to nil (he is a classic example of an armchair historian), and his knowledge of ancient technology is not much better. And as Bede even admits, White doesn't fare a whole lot better at getting medieval history right, goofing even things as rudimentary as chronology (and I've seen reviews that tore into him on other points a lot worse than I ever have).


Whose Plow?

Bede repeats White's claim that the medievals invented the heavy plow. Sorry. The Romans invented it. They had large, wheeled plows that turned the soil, pulled by teams of four to six oxen, already in use by the 1st century A.D. (as described in Pliny the Elder, Natural History 18.48.172-173). The Romans actually had a fairly (and correctly) sophisticated understanding of plow technologies, and kept many different kinds in use, specialized to soil and climate. The heavy plow cannot be deployed on most farmlands, but was deployed where it would be effective, while in other areas the most effective known plow for each terrain was employed instead. K.D. White (oh no, another White!...no relation) has written extensively on this, though as even he admits in his more recent works, he was still underestimating the Romans in his earlier works. Yet even in those he effectively refutes various assumptions held by Lynn White (although K.D. White's actual target has long been an even worse armchair historian, Moses Finley).


Who Loves Horsefeet!?

And, yet again. Sorry. Horseshoes were invented in the Roman empire. In Gall, or perhaps Britain or West Germany. This rates among several other Roman technologies (e.g. the barrel, the scythe, advanced wagons) that the Celts contributed, almost advancing Roman industry as much as the Greeks did. But let's back up a bit...

Long before this the Romans had been using (and long after continued using) the hipposandal, an approximation to the modern horse boot, fitted to horses, mules and oxen. In fact, the hipposandal was in pervasive use from at least the 1st century B.C. Roman hipposandals had several advantages over shoes. (1) They can be fitted without damaging the hoof and thus shortening the effective work life of the animal (a serious defect of shoeing, as any modern horse care expert will explain to you...see for example
healthehoof.com and thenakedhoof.com.au). And (2) they can be replaced on the fly, which had two separate benefits: (I) it helped maintain hoof care (as again any horse expert will tell you, horses need to walk unshod on stone or pebbled ground a few hours a day to trim and harden their hooves--shoeing prevents this, so when you shoe, the hooves have to be trimmed and treated laboriously, and painfully, by hand) and (II) it allowed rapid conversion of boots for changes in terrain (one set had cleats for turf and snow, another was flat for road wear), a useful trick you can't pull off with horseshoes.

Industrially and agriculturally, the boot is superior to the shoe. However, militarily, the boot won't do. It can be thrown at a fast pace, so it won't suit cavalry or messengers. For them, as Xenophon explains in his treatise on horse care, one needs to ensure good hoof care at home and in the field. Hardened hooves will work fine. Only if a horse is pushed beyond its practical abilities will hoof problems arise (such as excess wear on hard, dry surfaces, or excess softening on wet, soft surfaces). Such forcing can already lame a horse in other ways, shoes or not, so it's never wise, but military units often have to do unwise things.

Enter nailed shoes. These provide a way to prevent wearing and protect the hoof (somewhat imperfectly) from the softening that results from traversing mushy terrain. Hence horseshoes definitely produce a military advantage in cold, wet climates (like England and Germany). And this is where nailed shoes were in use during the Roman period, though very sparingly as best we can tell. They appear in the archaeological record by the 2nd century A.D., although it is typically the case in the history of technology that the first one we find is not necessarily from the first generation of a technology's use. Ann Hyland discusses this, as have several archaeologists throughought the 20th century.


Celebrity Death Match!
Roman Phallus vs. Medieval Member

Bede concludes with a triumphal reiteration of White's allegedly innovative discovery, that the middle ages were a period of technological advance after all. There is nothing really innovative about that other than the fact that historians before the 1950's were all too often committing themselves to silly ideas (like that Columbus had to persuade people the earth was round, or that nothing was ever invented in the middle ages), and Lynn White was right to bitch slap them for that. But let's get back to reality now.
All eras in history (literally all) have been "periods of technological advance." Claiming this of the middle ages is not a revelation. People are always inventing things, everywhere. Give any culture a few centuries, and you will not fail to find some new things (provided you actually get to look at what they did). If one were to compare, however, rate, scope, quality, and overall economic and military impact of technological advancement, the Greco-Roman era would not be matched by any culture or era until (at best) early Renaissance Europe, by which I mean 1250 A.D. on (I follow the original dating of the Renaissance, taking the word at what it means: a rebirth of ancient texts, technologies, and ideals, which all did indeed begin around then, give or take).

That's a bold statement, I know. I won't be proving it here. You'll just have to read my next book. But Lynn White certainly doesn't present anything contradicting it, and Bede seems to allow that much as true.

14 comments:

Jon said...

I'm finding these history related posts to be quite interesting. I hope the lack of reader interaction don't deter you from these subjects.

Agnostics_R_Us said...

I am reading these...and I read Bede's version. Trying to follow along but am way too uniformed to give any meaningful feedback.

DFB said...

Celebrity Death Match!
Roman Phallus vs. Medieval Member

That's funny.

Yeah, ditto to what they said above. We're reading; we're just a little out of our elements. I enjoyed the Bede piece as well, in case he's reading.

I was a little surprised that he interpreted your little jabs about Jesus as Christian-bashing, but I guess he may be right. I read them as simple good-natured barbs directed at a particular person, not at Christianity.

Tom said...

"In actual fact, most scholars agree the Roman agricultural system out-produced anything before the 18th century...the evidence confirms vastly greater populations under the Romans (and larger cities) than would ever be supportable again until modern times."

This doesn't explain the peak population of Han Dynasty China, which numbered over 60 million people, nor the enormous 100 million figure from the medieval Song Dynasty.

Cultivation in rows, cast iron wing-shaped moldboard plows, proto-seed drills, intensive hoeing, square pallet chain pumps, waterwheel-powered trip hammers, rotary winnowing fans, the wheel barrow, extensive canal networks and dams etc. were known during the Han Dynasty, and in many ways outshine what the Romans had accomplished. Let's not forget blast furnaces, crossbows and their finely casted firing mechanisms, traction trebuchets, the first experimentation with saltpeter explosives and paper were all known during this period as well. The stirrup, whatever it's historical importance, made it's first appearance in the Jin Dynasty, which should be no surprise considering the edge China had over the world in metallurgy at the time.

I greatly admire the work of Judith Miller et al, but the Romans still didn't have the modern breast strap harness layout, which was present in China from the 4th century BC, aka the Warring States Period, as periodic artwork shows.

While I agree the ancient Greeks were the most inventive people in the ancient world, I don't think it's wise to use the term 'Greco-Roman period', because it assumes the Romans continued the scientific tradition laid down by their Hellenistic fore bearers, which I don't agree with.

I'm not Chinese or anything, but the Romans weren't the all encompassing pinnacle of premodern civilization as is claimed. I acknowledge how important Rome was because of it being the prominent ancestor of modern Western Civilization, but from this alone one can't say it was more advanced than any other civilization in its time.

Bede said...

I've replied to Richard's reply to me:

http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2007/08/in-reply-to-richard-carrier.html

The eternal conflict between science and religion may be a myth, but the one between medieval and ancient historians is all too real. ;)

Best wishes

James Hannam

Agnostics_R_Us said...

Ah...the religious myth that the conflict between science and religion is only a myth.

Richard Carrier said...

Tom: That's a good point about China. I do not know enough about their agricultural system to judge (though they did have an impressive hydrological infrastructure) and though I know a lot about their technology I know too little about the extent of its exploitation. So you are right, my remarks should be regarded as pertaining only to the West.

I'm not sure what you mean by "modern breast strap harness layout" (the Romans had breast straps in layouts more sophisticated than just a bare breast strap, and it is the horse collar that made the most significant impact as an innovation in the late middle ages, so are you referring to the latter, or something else?).

As for Roman science (and technological and economic achievement), you will evidently need to read my next book.

Richard Carrier said...

P.S. For everyone: please note that you can hyperlink URL's in comments here. Just use [A HREF="{URL}"] in front and [/A] after, both in angle brackets instead of block brackets, like ordinary HTML. This can make formatting easier (you can hyperlink a shorter phrase instead of trying to fit a whole URL as plain text), and jumping to a link easier. Just FYI.

Richard Carrier said...

Bede: Your reply is sound enough in its assessment of our differences, but still gets at least one fact completely wrong, and states another I find dubious in light of the recent scholarship I have been reading.

On labeling periods: this is something historians should do in my opinion, provided it has a meaningful and relevant basis, because it allows one to capture and track (and forces one to explain and understand) substantial differences between periods. A clear example are the series of labels Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman, covering history in clearly distinct (though overlapping) periods of development from c. 800 B.C. to c. 300 A.D. in the West. As for the terms Bede mentions, I see no problem with avoiding them, apart from the fact that it can mislead you into thinking differences between periods don't exist or don't need to be explained.

I discuss the meaning and significance of the term "Scientific Revolution" in my next book, and I accept it as a label for the period roughly from 1450 to 1650 for reasons I will explain there. I agree "Enlightenment" is a bit hard to interpret as a period label--though it has its uses insofar as most historians know what timespan it refers to, I also tend to avoid it as I am not entirely clear what it is supposed to mean.

As for "Renaissance" I have said and will say again: I find the term perfectly clear in its meaning, "Rebirth," and in such a sense it clearly applies, in my mind, to the period when classical texts and philosophical and artistic ideals were reborn after lying largely fallow or underemployed for centuries. Aristotelian texts and ideas are certainly "reborn" as a powerful focus of interest in the 13th century, followed very closely and continuously by a flood of ever more texts to which greater attention is paid, stimulating new thought and debate and interest, which all trends back toward values and ideas that had once been commonplace as of the 2nd century A.D. In effect, the 13th-15th centuries restored Europe almost to where it was, in terms of ideological capital and context, in the 2nd century, after a thousand year hiatus in between.

This is most starkly evident in the aesthetic Renaissance, which is so closely tied to other fields of intellectual history one can literally see the decline of the Classical style correspond exactly with the decline of science and philosophy going into the 4th century A.D., so when the Classical style returns in the 13th century exactly when ancient philosophy and philosophical interests and ideals also start getting kicked up into gear again, I do not perceive this as a coincidence. There is something fundamentally different, in all domains (including technological and economic), between the period 400-1200 A.D. and the period 1200-1400 A.D. (though there are also major differences between the periods 400-900 and 900-1200, they are more alike to each other than this last period resembles the one that follows).

What I label the "Renaissance" period is marked by a definite increase in intellectual, economic, artistic, and technological capital, all built on the recovery (hence "rebirth") of Greek, Roman, and Arabic texts and ideals. There is thus a very real sense in which 400-1200 is a middle period in history, hence middle ages, hence medieval, while 1200-1400 is very much a revival of what came before it, which in turn lead into a phase that would go beyond what had ever been achieved before.

Bede, I think you find these labels uncomfortable because you do not like the values they entail. I think you need to examine why that is. The problem seems to lie with you rather than the labels. As I see it, the labels match objective realities of history. The values that go with them should therefore not be ignored, but addressed.

On technology: You are dead wrong on the claim that Romans underexploited technologies that supposedly only came into wide use in the middle ages. This is one of the Lynn White myths that has been soundly refuted by abundant work of the last ten to twenty years. Watermills, for example, were extensively exploited in the Roman empire (claims to the contrary are now soundly refuted), and sometimes on a scale that would not be seen again until the 15th century (the Barbegal grain factory, for example, has been redated to the 2nd century A.D.). In fact, it appears the middle ages saw less use of this technology, not more, until after 900. Also, it is astonishing that you think the most popular alternative to the watermill was the hand quern. That's absurd. The most common alternative was the hourglass ox mill, which was literally ubiquitous in the Roman period. Besides those examples, the Romans actually adopted hundreds of technologies, quite rapidly for the time, as I demonstrate in my upcoming book.

As for comparative agricultural productivity, I also do not believe Bede is right (nothing I am reading says what he claims but largely the contrary), but for now I simply direct everyone to the modern scholarship, as assessed by Rathbone, whom I quoted originally. More sources are discussed in my next book, so I guess we can postpone the matter until then.

S.M. Stirling said...

The high Roman empire tended to be better at _organization_ than the early to middlish-medieval periods. Hence aquaducts, roads, etc; these were technologies which required a strong centralized government.

Also, of course, it was simply bigger. A single state running from Scotland to Mesopotamia just operated on a different scale from the hundreds of sovereignties which existed in roughly the same area afterwards.

Many Roman technologies were also, understandably enough, specifically adapted to a Mediterranean environment.

The shores of the Middle Sea were always the core of the Roman world, with its northerly possessions as an afterthought. The north was never as densely populated, never as urbanized, and never as productive as the south. It was an afterthought, tacked on to a state based on the winter-rainfall, olive-and-vine climate zone.

The Western civilization which was its successor encompassed much territory that had never been incorporated in the Empire, and was centered much further north and west. The north and west were relatively much more populous and important.

Note, that the Roman world was 'devolving' organizationally and technologically well before the 'fall' of the West Roman state. The Roman Empire of say 375 AD was quite different from that of Marcus Aurelius, and was already displaying "medieval" features, particularly west of the Adriatic.

That being said, by the high middle ages Europe was drawing ahead of the Roman climax in some technologies. Still lagging in others, but on balance it had capabilities Rome had not enjoyed.

Shipbuilding and metallurgy come to mind, plus things like the spinning wheel, and (despite what's said above) the application of inanimate power sources.

The Romans knew about the waterwheel and used it; but by Domesday Book England alone had something like six thousand mills. And then there's the windmill.

By the 15th century Europe was already well ahead of the Roman level (and of China) except in some "large-scale organization" techniques like roadbuilding.

The Romans could no more have built a Gothic cathedral than they could have flown by flapping their arms.

One reason we have so many Roman ruins is that they grossly overbuilt on the "more concrete is better" principle. Notre Dame is delicate as a snowflake by comparison.

And Roman roads -are- overbuilt. A McAdam crushed-rock surface requires no technology not available in antiquity, is more efficient, provides a better rolling surface, and is vastly less costly to build and maintain.

The Roman roadbed is a brute-force, rule-of-thumb solution to a problem which can be solved much more elegantly if you start with first principles.

You don't need to lay a fortress wall on its side to provide a good road surface for foot-traffic and animal-drawn vehicles. Well-drained dirt topped by 6 inches of suitably sized crushed rock will do just as well.

Likewise, Roman fortifications are primitive by comparison to the mature medieval castle; medieval armor was much better, and so forth and so on.

S.M. Stirling said...

There's a good deal of misunderstanding about the value of stirrups.

The main advantage is -not- the greater fore-and-aft stability.

The Celtic four-horn saddle will also prevent you from being booted over the horse's rump by an impact from the front, albeit not as well.

The war saddle of a medieval man-at-arms had a high padded cantle which cradled the hips and supported the lower back, and it was that (not the feet) which took most of the impact of a blow with the couched lance. The characteristic injury of a medieval lancer involved being broken at the point at which the cantle stopped.

Ouch!

What the stirrups give you is -lateral- and -all 'round- stability.

In military terms, they allow you to use your legs and torso for things other than holding on to the horse, and to twist suddenly and violently without unseating yourself.

With stirrups you can use a lance, sword or other impact weapon, or a compound bow from the back of a horse in roughly the same way you do when you're on foot.

That is, with the muscles of the abdomen and legs fully involved and using the foot as a bracing point to add leverage. And you can use your legs to help move your torso.

Aside from the Western lance, note how the Central Asian compound bow evolved from the much smaller and weaker Scythian weapon to its peak in the Turko-Mongol period.

They got larger and the draw-weight got heavier, precisely as saddle and stirrup technology advanced -- a classic feedback cycle.

Richard Carrier said...

S.M. Stirling said... The high Roman empire tended to be better at _organization_ than the early to middlish-medieval periods. Hence aquaducts, roads, etc; these were technologies which required a strong centralized government.

That's not strictly true. The Barbegal grain factory, for example, complete with feed aqueduct, was a private enterprise funded by local magnates.

Of course, it just happened that governments (both Roman as well as pre-Roman, i.e. Hellenistic kingdoms, federations, and city-states) reaped in most of the money (and prestige projects could get you in trouble if you outshined the king or emperor, so industrialists had to be cautious), and therefore were both the biggest investors and the biggest customers in the economy of the time. But this was not necessary. It was just the way things were. This is in some cases still true (e.g. modern roads and freeways are built and maintained by the government, just as they were under Rome, and the "military-industrial complex" is more than mere fantasy).

But the one sense in which a strong centralized government was necessary was in the same sense as now: to have economic growth and development, you need a sufficient balance of peace, law, and order, which is something only strong centralized governments can provide (though several such governments can conceivably live beside each other peacefully, this is not always a stable arrangement--e.g. aqueducts of a very impressive sort began under independent Hellenistic city states, but they were constantly fighting each other to their own eventual demise).

Hence the ability to keep the entire Mediterranean free of piracy, and police the entire road system, and keep the barbarians at bay, while ensuring that contracts are honored even across entire regions, and that entrepreneurs can count on a reasonable measure of fair business practices, and so on (much else could be mentioned, such as the fact that the Roman Empire established a system of ports and lighthouses, etc.), are all essential to having an economy capable of growing, and of building and maintaining a beneficial infrastructure.

S.M. Stirling said... The Western civilization which was its successor encompassed much territory that had never been incorporated in the Empire, and was centered much further north and west.

This was already happening under Roman tenure (where the northern areas were not so neglected as you think and were growing in all measures), but development there was stalled by the Fall. It was taken up again later when northern governments were more successful at recovering than southern regions were (why is still debated), and thus the center of gravity moved there. I don't think there was anything fateful about that, though. It's just the sort of thing that happens throughout history. It wasn't essential to anything that followed.

S.M. Stirling said... Note, that the Roman world was 'devolving' organizationally and technologically well before the 'fall' of the West Roman state. The Roman Empire of say 375 AD was quite different from that of Marcus Aurelius, and was already displaying "medieval" features, particularly west of the Adriatic.

Indeed. I've discussed this at length elsewhere: the Roman Empire really "fell" during the 3rd century A.D. Everything after that was just failed CPR. In fact, IMO the medieval era begins when Constantine created the serfs (by binding free men to the land and forcing them to work for their landlords). It was all downhill from there.

S.M. Stirling said... That being said, by the high middle ages Europe was drawing ahead of the Roman climax in some technologies. Still lagging in others, but on balance it had capabilities Rome had not enjoyed.

In some areas (e.g. windmill), certainly. But overall, the Romans could actually do better (almost) everything even with the tech they had (e.g. their aqueduct-fed watermill system was superior to the windmill in productive output, and produced useful byproducts such as a pressurized fresh water supply for local urban or town applications--it was simply much more expensive to capitalize and required more stable governance over larger areas), while in yet other areas (e.g. bridge technology) the West would not catch up again until the 16th or 17th century.

And even then, most (though not all) of the new stuff developed in what I call the Renaissance (13th century on), not the middle ages (the windmill being one of the exceptions, though it notably only combined two Roman technologies: the windpump and the watermill).

S.M. Stirling said... Shipbuilding and metallurgy come to mind, plus things like the spinning wheel, and (despite what's said above) the application of inanimate power sources.

Roman capabilities in these respects have been greatly understated. Most people are still reading outdated assessments and thus don't know the Roman capabilities in rolled steel plate, precision die cast machine parts, trip hammers, water-powered stonesaws and oremills, bilge pumps, hull plating, scientific hull design, etc.

The spinning wheel is an Indian import that made it to the West during the Renaissance, but it counts as one of the "new" technologies referenced above. On the other hand, developments in metallurgy and shipbuilding were often not advances so much as adaptations to new demands, until, again, the Renaissance (though things don't start "roaring" ahead until the 15th century or so).

S.M. Stirling said... The Romans knew about the waterwheel and used it; but by Domesday Book England alone had something like six thousand mills.

There is a problem with this statistic: almost none of those references actually identify the type of mill. Thus it is only conjectured that they were waterpowered because of their proximity to streams (which as any demographic economist and geologist of England knows is a non sequitur), and sometimes because they paid their taxes in eels (and it's assumed millraces supplied the eels, but since eels were also paid by districts without mills, this is again a non sequitur). Indeed, one should be initially suspicious of any claim that every fifty people in the year 1100 owned a complete watermill.

This is all the more so since a natural assumption should be that animal mills were more common, no matter how common watermills were, and yet the assumptions that get "thousands" of watermills out of Domesday result in nearly zero animal mills in 11th century England. I think there is something awry with the thinking here. But in any case this is something that requires new study. Conversely, since we don't have such a record for 2nd century Rome, we can't say watermills were any less common then. If 11th century peasants could afford thousands of watermills, then so could 2nd century farmers, collectives, and landlords. The argument that they didn't because they weren't interested only becomes circular.

S.M. Stirling said... The Romans could no more have built a Gothic cathedral than they could have flown by flapping their arms.

They built the Colosseum, the Pont du Gard, the Pantheon, the Baths of Caracalla, and (using the same technology later on) the Hagia Sofia. I fail to see the difference in achievement. Whatever the Romans wanted they figured out how to build.

S.M. Stirling said... One reason we have so many Roman ruins is that they grossly overbuilt on the "more concrete is better" principle. Notre Dame is delicate as a snowflake by comparison.

Actually this is a double myth: more concrete is better (imagine what Notre Dame would look like two thousand years from now without constant human maintenance at exorbitant expense), and the success of Roman concrete was not solely a result of quantity, but also quality: microstudies have shown many Roman concretes superior in fact to most common concretes used in modern structures today (though not because we can't duplicate their quality, as we have comparable and superior concretes, but rather because moderns are cheapskates), and Romans had a very sophisticated understanding of where and when to use many different mixes and varieties of concrete, knowledge that was lost and had to be completely rediscovered after the Renaissance.

S.M. Stirling said... And Roman roads -are- overbuilt. A McAdam crushed-rock surface requires no technology not available in antiquity, is more efficient, provides a better rolling surface, and is vastly less costly to build and maintain.

I'll need your sources on that. I don't believe it. Especially because the Romans had the kind of road you mean, and yet they still chose to use it only for townways and small thoroughfares. I suspect they knew something you don't.

S.M. Stirling said... Roman fortifications are primitive by comparison to the mature medieval castle; medieval armor was much better, and so forth and so on.

I'll need your sources again. For none of these claims are true to my knowledge. Unless by "medieval castle" you mean "post-Renaissance," Roman fortress technology was hardly primitive, and I am not aware of any significant advances on it prior to the 13th century. Likewise, Roman articulated plate and chain mail are as good as any you'll find in the middle ages (unless, again, by "middle ages" you mean post-Renaissance).

S.M. Stirling said... There's a good deal of misunderstanding about the value of stirrups.

I don't recognize the claim you rightly critique.

All sources I know claim the advantage is for the attacker, not the defender, and only for their peculiar form of lance combat. That's true. It's just that such a form of combat is not the cleverest and there is no sane reason Romans would have adopted it. Stirrups also aid in delivering blows with other weapons, and aid the use of missile weapons, so there is still an offensive advantage I think the Romans would have seen had they thought of it or encountered it.

Though stirrups can also aid defensively in keeping a horseman seated despite being struck by swords, hammers, or arrows (etc., not everything is a high-speed forward lance attack), they can just as often kill you if you fall and remain in them. The horned saddle was better in that respect, providing much the same advantage without the risks. Still, I would also assume that stirrups improve the mounting (and thus encourage breeding) of larger horses.

Nevertheless, though they must provide some offensive advantages (including the points of maneuverability you note), Romans deployed swords, bows, and crossbows from horseback (and even threw lances from horseback--Pliny wrote a manual on it) with devastating effect, so there is evidently an exaggeration in the advantages stirrups provide in these respects, since history attests ancient cavalry was lethal and effective with all these weapons. They would have been even deadlier with stirrups, I'm sure, but the difference can't have been great enough to "change society" in any notable respect.

This is well argued by Peter Burkholder in "Popular [Mis]conceptions of Medieval Warfare," History Compass 5.2 (2007): 507–524.

Niki said...

I randomly came across your blog, and thought I would add my two cents about a comment you make about Lynn White Jr. In "Medieval Technology and Social Change" he does not credit the medievals with the invention of the heavy plough. He acknowledges that it was first used by the ancients, and sites the Pliny text to which you refer. What he does suggest is that the technology was later developed, not invented, and introduced to Northern Europe. This happened independently of what was happening around the Mediterranean centuries earlier. There is no contradiction here, since he does not deny its invention by the ancients prior to the development of the technology to suit the medievals' needs.

Niki

Richard Carrier said...

Niki: Lynn White Jr. ...does not credit the medievals with the invention of the heavy plough

"We therefore cannot safely date the heavy plough earlier than the sixth century" (p. 53, pbk.)

Those are his words. Sounds like he's crediting the medievals with the invention of the heavy plough to me.

True, it is those who make the claim based on White (often through yet more intermediaries) who end up ignoring or dropping the little detail of the Roman's inventing one, not White himself, but White's treatment of the development of the plough is so confusing it is nearly impossible to tell what he is arguing was ever new (the mouldboard perhaps, but his case against its use in antiquity is hardly strong). Hence he has a rambling, disorganized discussion of Pliny and other (now obsolete) Roman evidence, yet ends up making claims like that quoted above.

Still, I'm certain there were gradual improvements in plough design over all centuries as new climates and terrains were exploited, but White's characterization of the Romans is simply disingenuous. Like his backhanded remark that "Despite a certain ferment of new ideas, the Romans made little progress in solving the distinctive agricultural problems of the north" (p. 49, pbk.). Which is it, a "fervent" of innovations, or "little" progress?

It's already a silly claim, since there is no coherently geographical "north" that White could be talking about. Romans didn't control Germany or Scandinavia (or even Scotland or Ireland), so we shouldn't expect them even to have been trying to "solve problems" in those regions. Otherwise, it looks very much like they were making progress everywhere else, which if anything appears to have slowed to a crawl after the 3rd century, not sped up (though not stopped, either).