By Adam Robert Lucas
Technology and Culture, Vol. 46: 1 (2005)
Abstract: For reasons of space and clarity of focus, this article will not examine claims that an industrial revolution occurred during the Middle Ages that are based on rapid growth in the number of waterpowered and wind-powered grain mills. Nor does it examine such claims based on technologies other than those related to waterpowered machinery. Its aim is, in fact, quite limited. It is, first, to examine whether the evidence for waterpowered industry cited by advocates of the thesis of a medieval industrial revolution is sufficiently robust to support the claims that have been made for it. Second, it is to determine whether this same evidence can be better understood in the light of more recent empirical research and in what areas further research may be required. In developing its case, the article sets some basic conditions for the acceptance of evidentiary claims, then works through that evidence to convey a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the various sets of data, including the trends and patterns that may reasonably be inferred from them.
Introduction: In 1934 and 1935, Lewis Mumford and Marc Bloch published two very different pioneering works in the history of technology, Technics and Civilization and “Avènement et conquêtes du moulin à eau,” the first an ambitious attempt to trace the development oftechnology in human civilizations over several thousand years, the second a historical overview of the development of milling technology from Greco-Roman times to the end of the Middle Ages. What was to prove an extraordinarily influential thesis about the development ofmedieval technology appeared in both publications, namely, that the second half of the European Middle Ages witnessed a rapid increase not only in the number of mills powered by water and wind but also in the range of industrial processes to which waterpower and windpower were applied. These phenomena were, according to Mumford and Bloch, emblematic of a medieval revolution in the use of power technology that laid the foundations for what happened in the Industrial Revolution several hundred years later and helped to explain how European society was subsequently able to transform itselfin the way it did.