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).
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
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.