Oxford University Press first published Medieval Technology and Social Change in 1962. It discusses the technological advances during the medieval times and how these changes affected society. The book’s author, Lynn White, Jr., was born in San Francisco in 1907. Educated at Stanford, Union Theological, and Princeton, White taught at Princeton and the University of California at Los Angeles. He was also president of Mills College in Oakland from the 1940s to the 1960s. His other works include Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays, published in 1978 and Life & Work in Medieval Europe, the Evolution of Medieval Economy from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Century, published in 1982. White’s work has been influential both in medieval history and the history of science.
In Medieval Technology and Social Change, White examines the role of technological innovation during the rise of social groups in the Middle Ages. White begins with the invention of the stirrup. He shows how this innovation, in turn, introduced heavy, long-range cavalry to the medieval battlefield. The development thus escalated small-scale conflict to “shock combat.” Cannons and flame-throwers followed, as did more peaceful inventions, such as watermills and reapers. White also reviews the development of the manorial system with the introduction of new kinds of plows and new methods of crop rotation. He reviews the evolution of the scratch plow into the heavy plow and explains the use of each type in different areas of Europe. White next discusses the social effects of feudalism and how it spread from the Franks to Spain and later to England. He shows that military service became a matter of class, with lands and titles being exchanged for the commitment to serve as mounted warriors. The concept of the knight’s duty to his lord translated into chivalry and noble obligation. White then ventures into the slow collapse of feudalism, coming about with the development of machines and tools. This caused the introduction of factories, which took the place of cottage industries. Although White’s work falls short in a few areas, it is valuable for the attention that it pays to aspects of medieval history that too often go ignored
White’s work is important because he advocates the importance of science and technology to medieval history. Before White, few scholars thought that any significant science or engineering was done in Europe during the Middle. Because of this they assumed that any advances in technology could safely be ignored when discussing the history of agriculture, politics, theology, or warfare. White, on the other hand, believed that new technologies played crucial roles in the rise of feudalism and agricultural and manufacturing productivity in the late Middle Ages. His work, Medieval Technology and Social Change, was so influential that it has had an impact beyond scholarly circles. His descriptions of these technologies and their affects on medieval life appear regularly in European History textbooks, for example, William McNeill’s The Rise of the West.1
One of White’s strengths is that he does not merely support his own theories with facts, but rather he expands on the views of others, incorporating his ideas of technology. For instance, when reviewing the origin of feudalism, he first presents the theory of Heinrich Brunner who believed that feudalism was a military outfit designed to support the development of a large cavalry force. Brunner tied together evidence about the growth of cavalry forces and the confiscation of Church lands, to show that, between the battle of Poitiers in 733 and the battle of the Dyle in 891, the Franks changed their military forces. Originally consisting of primarily foot soldiers, the Franks changed to a heavy emphasis on cavalry. While White agrees with Brunner’s theory for the most part, he has his own twist on it.
Rather than Brunner’s theory that Charles Martel developed a large cavalry force as a shield against the Muslims, White suggests that the real cause is the invention of the stirrup. The introduction of the stirrup to the existing cavalry technology resulted in a great increase in effectiveness and a revolution in military strategy. White dismisses the Saracen threat by pointing out that Brunner mistakenly thought the battle of Poitiers took place in 732. It is now know that the actual date of this battle is 733. White also points out that the seizure of Church lands began in 732 (before Poitiers) and that Martel did not turn his attention to the Saracens until after gaining sufficient lands. White strengthens his argument on the subject by pointing out Brunner’s error. However, he brings into question all other dates used to support his own theories, as they may be in error much as the date of the battle of Poitiers was.2 By using the accepted ideas of others, White subjects his theories to the errors made in the previous arguments he employs.
Another item that weakens White’s book is his lack of translation; various times he uses quotations that are in a foreign language. This in itself would not be an infirmity had the quotations been translated. For instance, on page 30 of Medieval Technology and Social Change, White writes, “One separates ‘liberi’ from ‘mediocres quippe liberi qui non possunt per se hostem facere’?.” White then continues as if these words were a part of the English language, or as if the common person can read Latin. This line is footnoted, however, but no translation can be found there either. There is also no reference to this line in the endnotes. This occurrence can be found several times throughout the book. Perhaps White was only writing to scholars, who are capable of understanding Latin, French, or the other languages used, but the lack of translation is quite frustrating to the common man. If he does not own a Latin to English dictionary, he is at a loss to comprehend what White was attempting to explain.
Like most works of literature, Medieval Technology and Social Change has both strengths and weaknesses. White is very clear on his theories and uses several examples to support them. His theme of the effect technology is laid out through his discussion of the stirrup, the plow, and factories. He pays close attention to aspects of medieval life that many other scholars had previously disregarded. However, basing his theories strongly on a constructed timeline of dates weakens White’s argument. Many of the dates can be put into question, shaking the stability of White’s ideas. Medieval Technology and Social Change also discourages the common man from enjoying the wonderful work of White by choosing not to translate numerous quotations.
Although the weaknesses in the book can not be ignored, they do not hinder the fascinating descriptions of the medieval times. White is careful to present his ideas in a format that is easy to follow and, more the most part, enjoyable to read. Aside from the lack of translation, Medieval Technology and Social Change is a book for anyone interested in this time period. Not only is White’s work innovative in the scholarly realm, it allows for a broad rage of readers, making this knowledge available to all.