Writers for Conservatives, 71: Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White
Over the years I have led my readers into some odd corners of the world of books, but this may be the oddest. It is a scholarly book on what would seem to be obscure subjects — the origin of the stirrup and its relation to feudalism; the plow and agriculture in the early Middle Ages — The Medieval Exploration of Mechanical Power and Devices. Furthermore, while I enjoy footnotes, you may not, especially when they take up half the page and are in German, Latin, French, and sometimes Italian, and sometimes, when the author is pressing the material evidence hard, you get sentences like this:
“Linden Schmidt, who published the Budenheim stirrup, was reluctant to date it more exactly than ‘Frankish,’ and there is no adequate reason for altering his judgment.”
But that’s when he is on a hunt for the origins of things, like the stirrup; his ideas and conclusions are written in strong, concise prose. This could be, in fact, the model of a scholarly book suitable for intellectually curious readers — as I hope can be said of my audience.
The preface should not be neglected, because it succinctly explains the book’s purpose. He begins by pointing out the illusion that written records give us “a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity.” He goes on:
“If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments . . . which have had the habit of scribbling, they must . . . use all the resources of archaeology, iconography, and etymology to find answers when no answers can be discovered in contemporary writings.”
In the first chapter he explains the classic theory of feudalism: “a type of social organization designed to produce and support cavalry,” and he lays out the evidence. As late as 733 Charles Martel’s army that defeated the Saracens at Poitiers were composed of infantry, but in 758 Pepin the Short changed the Saxon tribute from cattle to horses, and in 755 the Marchfield, the traditional muster of the Frankish army, was moved to May so there would be enough forage for a large number of horses. Charles Martel’s vast confiscations of Church lands, begun in the 730s, were used to support an “. . . enlarged body of followers on condition that they serve him on horseback . . . the ancient custom of swearing allegiance (vassalage) was fused with the granting of an estate (benefice) and the result was feudalism.” But why did they suddenly create this mounted force?
The answer lies in the use of stirrups. White then discusses what we know of the stirrup’s origins, a complicated, ambiguous, and confusing story. Finally the author decides that the stirrup first appeared in Western Europe in the early 8th century. When Frankish weapons changed; infantry weapons are replaced by a heavy lance with “spurs below the blade to prevent too deep penetration . . . which might result in difficulty in withdrawing the weapon,” something which makes sense only if we are contemplating mounted shock combat, made possible by the stirrup, which keeps the warrior firmly in the saddle as he charges with his lance under his arm. He is no longer a man on a horse, swinging a sword, but a unit, horse and man together, directing their combined mass and force against the target. White then goes on to show how the spread of the Frankish innovation feudalized Europe, with special attention to the Norman conquest of England. He concludes:
“Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history . . . antiquity imagined the centaur; the early Middle Ages made him
master of Europe.”
The author begins the next chapter on the agricultural revolution of the early Middle Ages by pointing out that scholars have largely ignored illiterate peasants despite the centrality of agriculture to all societies until about two centuries ago, thus preparing us for revelations from archaeology and iconography. He begins with the plow, distinguishing between what was essentially a large digging stick, a scratch plow, used in the light Mediterranean soil, and the moldboard plow used in the heavier, moister, northern soils that yielded far better returns. This heavier plow, with its colter, share, and moldboard:
“. . . offered much greater resistance to the soil so it required not just one yoke of oxen but four (eight animals), which meant that the peasants would have to pool their resources — all the lands of a village had to be reorganized into vast, fenceless open fields.”
As a consequence, peasants had to join together to decide how the “total lands of the community should be managed” — “the essence of the manorial economy in northern Europe.” There follows a discussion of variations in field types (which we can see today with aerial photography) and plows, because this was a phenomenon that occurred from the Slavic lands in the 5th century all the way to Britain in the 9th century.
The next step in the revolution was the development of efficient harness and the nailed horseshoe, which would make the horse “an economic as well as military asset.” The ubiquity of horseshoes is evident by the 11th century, useful harness somewhat earlier. The advantage of the horse over the ox is that while they both exert the same pull, the horse moves much faster and has more endurance. This led to another significant change, the abandonment of small settlements for larger villages, because peasants could now, with horses, go to and from their field work at a greater distance.
The next section is about the development of a more productive farming regime, the three-field rotation and its accompanying improvement in nutrition. The first thing to understand is that the Mediterranean system (which prevailed also in Europe in lighter soils) was a two-field rotation: half the fields were planted and half fallowed to restore fertility. The cultivated fields were planted with grains in the fall and in the spring with relatively trivial crops. The next year the two fields exchanged functions. The three-field system, developed in the 8th century (especially in Charlemagne’s imperial manors) worked like this:
“. . . the arable soil was divided into thirds. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The following spring the second field was planted with oats, barely, peas, chickpeas, lentil, or broad beans (summer crops). The third field was left fallow. The next year the first field was planted with summer crops; the second field was left
fallow; the third field was put into winter grains.”
I won’t go into more detail, but White shows that the system was more productive because more crops were grown with less plowing and more efficiency; the spring planting, the essence of the new rotation, greatly increased production of certain crops: oats, prime food for horses, and legumes with enriched the soil, maintaining its fertility under more intensive use. The autumn planting was mainly carbohydrates while the spring planting was rich in vegetable proteins, peas and beans. It was not just the quantity of food produced by the three-field system, but also its quality that led to the great leap in population, the growth in cities and commerce — indeed the foundation for the modern world.
The book is very satisfying because of its great explanatory power. The ideas it advances about the origin and nature of feudalism, about the significance of material changes in technology and about their widespread effects on society are fascinating in themselves and in their implications for the way we think about social change at any time and place. The chapter about agriculture is especially interesting to me, a farmer always faced with the problem of how to squeeze more production from grudging land.
There is much more to the book than I have told here, for instance the last chapter about “the Medieval exploration of mechanical power and devices,” as well as many details about the three-field system and the evolution of the use of horse power.
Finally I should mention a flaw that was to have large consequences in White’s later career. He argues that because of the shift from subsistence farming to farming for more and wider production, man was no longer part of nature: “. . . now he became her exploiter. . . . Man and nature are now two things, and man is master.” Not only is this absurd in itself — men have always exploited nature and they have never been its master — but it led him, a few years later (this book was published in 1962), to write a book indicting Christianity as the driving force behind our so-called destruction of the environment: Charlemagne, after all, was the Holy Roman Emperor.
But I shall always be grateful for this book for the intelligent way it was conceived and written. And it confirms my conviction that the hand feeds the mind, or as Karl Marx put it, conditions create consciousness. *