An Introduction to the Mechanical Arts in the Middle Ages

Medieval Mechanical Arts

Medieval Mechanical Arts

Steven Walton

Paper given at the 28th International Congress on Medieval Studies (1993) – revised 2014


This introduction is meant to be neither ground-breaking nor earth-shattering; rather I plan to present the mechanical arts as they stood in medieval intellectual thought. The following papers in this session and the next will deal with “how things move and work,” but here I want to give a brief overview of where these “mechanical arts” fit into the scholastic world. The thesis of the “Dark Ages” often suggests that there was a discontinuity in knowledge between Antiquity and the Renaissance, and perhaps nowhere so obviously as in the mechanical arts. This is certainly false; the mechanical arts thrived throughout the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, they didn’t enter philosophy as an object of analysis until the twelfth century, coincident with the birth of the scholastic movement. It might be too ambitious to say that the emergence of the mechanical arts into philosophy was caused by scholasticism, or conversely, to say that it was independent of scholasticism. The evidence shows that they were coincident, and that some of the same forces drove both endeavors. It is fair to say, however, that scholastic thought helped justify the mechanical arts, though was not necessary for their justification. Here we will look at Hugh of St. Victor, Dominicus Gundissalinus, and Robert Kilwardby as characteristic of the scholastics who accepted the mechanical arts, but first, let’s consider what they had to work with.

The first use of the term “mechanical arts” is in the commentary of the Carolingian thinker, John the Scot, on Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury. Here he refers to the seven artes mechanicae that Mercury gave to his bride, Philology, after he had given her the seven artes liberales.” The seven liberal arts are the classical trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). John never specifically enumerates the seven mechanical arts here but he makes the distinction clear by saying that the liberal arts are “naturally in the soul”, while the mechanical arts arise from “some imitation or human devising.” The later medieval tradition arrayed the mechanical arts in a range from technological to economic subjects: shoemaking, armaments, commerce, tailoring, metalwork, and alchemy, and occasionally agriculture, navigation, and music, among others.

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