Many inventions from the Middle Ages have had lasting importance, even to the present day. Some are physical objects, while others are more of a place – our list looks at ten inventions that made a big impact on our daily lives.
1. Mechanical Clock
Timekeeping devices have emerged since the ancient world, but it was not until the 13th century that technology was invented that allowed mechanical clocks to accurately keep track of time. In monasteries and towns one can see continuous improvement in these mechanisms that made use of falling weights to power their delicate instruments.
The knowledge of not only what hour it was, but even what minute and second it was, would change the way people scheduled their days and work patterns, especially in urban areas. Today, we take for granted the importance of time and knowing what time it is when comes to managing our day-to-day affairs. It was only in the Later Middle Ages that this concept began to emerge.
2. Printing Press
Printing technology in China dates back to the 6ht century AD, with the invention of moveable type coming in the 11th century. With a vast number of uses for printing, it is not a surprise that the technology spread throughout East Asia, and then westward into the Middle East and Europe.
One of the biggest developments in printing came from the 15th-century German craftsman Johannes Gutenberg, whose version of moveable type and the printing press made the whole process much easier and more efficient. Gutenberg’s printing press started a new era of the mass production of books. Until the rise of computers in the 20th century, books and the printed word would remain the dominant form of media for the world’s knowledge.
Gunpowder was invented in China sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries, and it did not take long to be used in weapons. As the Mongols spread the invention’s knowledge throughout Eurasia in the 13th century, we see more experimentation with gunpowder and with creating weapons that could harness its power.
By the end of the Middle Ages, those running armies and fighting wars understood that weapons using gunpowder, whether they be cannons or handheld guns, would make knights and castles obsolete. Gunpowder changed not only warfare but also how governments operated so they could run the new military systems.
See also: The Origins of the Gunpowder Age
4. Water and Wind Mills
While mills were in use from antiquity, it would be in the Early Middle Ages that they became very popular. For example, in England alone records show that by the second half of the 11th century there were 5,624 watermills operating in the country.
Throughout the medieval period, new and ingenious forms of mills were invented, which allowed people to harness the energy from natural forces like rivers and wind, a process that continues to the present day.
5. Coffee House
During the early Middle Ages, farmers in Ethiopia were growing coffee beans and making them into a drink. It was in the 15th century that a Sufis scholars in Yemen began to enjoy the drink and it’s ability to keep them awake late into the night.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the drink was spreading into other Arabic and Ottoman lands. With it came the creation of establishments to serve the drink – coffee houses – which ushered in a new way of social interaction. Coffee and coffee houses would make their way in Europe during the early modern era.
Although we are not sure who can be credited with the invention of eyeglasses, this device could be found in Western Europe in the latter years of the 13th century. Its ability to correct vision problems makes it one of the most useful medieval inventions and a great benefit to hundreds of millions of people today.
7. Public Library
Libraries existed throughout the Middle Ages, with some having vast collections – for example, the Umayyad rulers in Cordoba had a library with 600,000 volumes in the 10th century. For most of this period, libraries and their knowledge were often controlled by the rich and powerful.
The Library of Malatesta Novello in Cesena, Italy is considered to be the first-ever public library in the world. Opened in 1452, the building was owned by the city commune and allowed readers to freely make use of its collection. Today, public libraries are common throughout much of the world and are considered a cornerstone of information technology.
8. Flying Buttress
One of the architectural innovations associated with Gothic churches from the 12th century, the flying buttress allowed buildings to have much higher ceilings, thinner walls and larger windows. The ideas behind these innovations would influence architectural design into modern times and allow for the construction of larger and more spacious buildings.
9. Paper money
The first known version of paper money dates back to seventh-century China. It has a very important advantage over coins made from precious metals – they were much easier to transport around, which proved to be a great benefit to merchants. However, the concept of placing value on a marked piece of paper was slow to catch on. In the 13th century the Mongols tried to introduce paper money into the Middle East, but it became an immediate failure. It would take until the 17th century before regular banknotes would be circulating in Europe, but it is now the common way currency is issued.
10. Quadrant and Astrolabe
While these devices were known in ancient times, it was during the Middle Ages that Arabic astronomers refined and improved upon them. Being able to measure the distance between two objects, they proved to be useful instruments in astronomy, navigation and surveying. They were tools with many uses but also helped propel our understanding of science and technology.
Seb Falk, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science (W.W. Norton, 2020)
Frances and Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Inventions in the Middle Ages (HarperCollins, 1994)
al-Hassani, Salim T.S., 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization (National Geographic, 2012)