Narratives of Technological Revolution in the Middle Ages
By Adam Lucas
Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms, Methods, Trends, Vol. 2, edited by Albrecht Classen (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2010)
Introduction: Narratives of technological revolution in the Middle Ages are a distinctively 20th-century phenomenon. First articulated by a handful of influential French, British and American historians between the 1930s and 1950s, they can be genealogically linked to narratives of progress across a number of arts and social science disciplines which have invoked the language of revolutionary rupture to characterize a number of notable transformations in human cultures and societies between the Neolithic and modern periods.
Two kinds of technological revolution have been claimed for the European Middle Ages by 20th-century scholars: an ‘agricultural revolution’ of the 6th to 9th centuries, and an ‘industrial revolution’ of the 11th to 14th centuries. Scholarly claims for both an industrial revolution and an agricultural revolution in the Middle Ages can be traced back to the 1930s, although they did not become full-blown narratives until the 1950s. Such claims have a relatively complex lineage, but are perhaps best understood as part of a western intellectual tradition going back to the Enlightenment which has sought to account for the radical social and political changes that have occurred throughout the world since industrialization with reference to the marriage of practical and theoretical knowledge characteristic of the modern period.