By Randall Storey
PhD Dissertation, University of Reading, 2003
Introduction: ‘Now artillery of all kinds is as common as any other weapons because our minds are quick to learn the very worst.’ Petrarch, De remediis utriusque fortune, c. 1360
Few historical topics are as contentious as technology and warfare, especially when combined; any study which attempts to synthesize and contextualize their interaction over a long durèe treads lightly. Yet there is pressing need both for detailed studies of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of technological development in pre-modern Europe and for a methodology which places these developments within a larger context of European formation. At present the macro-history of Europe and North America, the so-called ‘rise of the West’ over the past millenium, is the subject of a vast debate centred on two questions. The first asks whether Europe’s development was especially unique in world history. The second asks what, if anything, determines a society’s growth, and is usually framed as ‘Why do some nations grow rich and others poor?’.
Pride-of-place for explaining this remarkable expansion has almost invariably been assigned to one or another of four of its prominent features: war, capitalism, states and science-cum-technology. Recent accounts, however, tend to emphasize the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationships of these factors, and tries to acknowledge a range of trends said to characterize Europe’s formation. While the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are still widely considered Europe’s coming of age in this regard, in varying degrees historians have drawn attention to a similarly intense phase between c. 1250 and 1350 which also marks a turning point in the balance of East-West relations. A conspicuous feature of this scholarship is the almost overwhelming tendency to conceptualize events as a ‘revolution’. A ‘military revolution’ debate has entered the canon of military history and even if the term is overloaded, a late medieval military revolution or ‘renaissance’ is gaining credibility. Likewise, the early modern Scientific Revolution is now juxtaposed with the originality of a paradigmatic shift in medieval thought and praxis that brought a more optimistic investigation of nature. As much, if not more, attention has been paid to an elusive transition from ‘feudalism’ to ‘capitalism’ which has at least helped to clarify medieval socio-economic conditions. Not surprisingly given the circumstances, the sophistication, vitality and continuity displayed by some medieval governments and their political institutions have led many to view them as the pre-cursor of the modern state. A truly complex event, this macro-revolution of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries possibly comprised lesser ‘revolutions’ in agriculture, commerce and mainstream industries such as textiles and ironworking. Furthermore, many extend this timeframe to the eleventh and twelfth centuries to include a social ‘revolution’ that stabilized society and paved the way for such growth.