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Medieval Engineering Marvels

Flying Buttress

Flying Buttress (View larger version)

By Patrick J. Kiger


If you’re not a student of the Middle Ages, it’s tempting to think of the period in European history between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 1300s as a time when civilization and technology pretty much treaded water.  We tend to imagine people from that age as hindered by a lack of libraries and knowledge and as saddled with superstitions, so that they muddled along and used backward, primitive technology without a thought of innovation. 

But that’s not a very accurate picture. In reality, despite the obstacles that they faced, medieval engineers, architects and inventors often showed plenty of ingenuity and imagination.

Consider, for example, these medieval innovations:

  • The flying buttress a masonry structure that arches to the upper part of a wall to support a roof or vault—an innovation that made possible the towering, majestic high-ceilings of Gothic cathedrals.
  • The intricate 12th Century mill discovered in Greenwich, England in 2009, which featured a wooden water wheel over 16 feet in diameter, which medieval craftsmen somehow fashioned without the benefit of modern power tools, in order to harness the power of river tides.
  • The elaborate system of flue pipes found in a 9th Century Swiss monastery, which drew away the smoke generated by multiple fireplaces in different rooms and fed it into smokestacks, which enabled the monks to warm themselves indoors without being suffocated.
  • The world’s first artesian well, drilled in 1126 by monks in Artois (hence the name “artesian”), which tapped an aquifer of water under pressure, thus enabling users to draw water without pumping.
  • The vertical windmill, which first began to appear in Europe in the 1100s.
  • Bridges supported by tall elliptical arches, an advance on the classical Roman semicircular arches, developed by an order of French monks who called themselves the Frères Pontifes,(“brothers of the bridge”). Their masterpiece was the Pont d’Avignon, whose 20 aches spanned the Rhône River and the island of Barthelasse. Not only did the new design require less support during construction, but it enabled bridge builders to provide more room for rising flood waters and reduced the scouring effect that traditionally threatened the stability of stone bridges.

One reason that we don’t associate the Middle Ages with innovation is that unlike modern inventors, the innovators of that era labored in anonymity, and their names are lost to history. “The innovative technology of the Middle Ages appears as the silent contribution of many hands and minds working together,” as historians Francis and Joseph Gies write in their 2010 book, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. “The most momentous changes are now understood not as single, explicit inventions but as gradual, imperceptible revolutions— in agriculture, in water and wind power, in building construction, in textile manufacture, in communications, in metallurgy, in weaponry— taking place through incremental improvements.”

And contrary to the stereotype of the Middle Ages as a time when Europeans blundered along in isolation, medieval inventors often learned through traders of technological advances in the Islamic world and China, and built upon those ideas to create even more sophisticated designs. One example is the camshaft, a small projection on the horizontal shaft of a vertical waterwheel, and idea that the Gies say probably came originally from China. The camshaft enabled Europeans in the 1000s to build mills that lifted and dropped hammers.

Medieval inventions are all the more remarkable because their creators often made do with primitive materials. Because iron objects were costly to make, for example, medieval waterwheels often utilized carved wooden gears, shafts and other parts. But that was partly offset by the availability of cheap skilled labor. As the Gies note, “A broken wooden piece was easily replaced by a peasant craftsman.”

Some medieval innovations, amazingly, are still in use. One example is the drawbridge operated by a counterweight, which was devised to enable castles to close their entrances to attackers. After the Middle Ages, the invention was forgotten for several centuries, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century by engineers who used it to allow ships to pass under bridges.